The tragedy of Thetis

The first draft of the cover for Thetis

In 2022, my poetic narrative about Thetis, immortal sea nymph and mother to Achilles, will be published. Thetis is an immortal goddess who learns what it means to be human, and the narrative follows her life, before and after the Trojan war. Stories of gods and goddesses have always fascinated me, and it’s both exciting (and a bit scary) to think of Thetis finally becoming available in print.

Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, tells us about the final weeks of the Trojan war and Thetis plays an active part in all the major plot points. Yet she remains a peripheral figure, despite her power to intervene with the gods, which is evident throughout.

The story of Thetis is a tragic one. Raped and forced into marriage with the mortal King Peleus of Phthia, Thetis was initially a reluctant mother. In some versions outside of Homer, she killed her first six children, before Achilles was born. This son was different and Thetis adored him, doing all she could to prevent his dying young as foretold by the Fates. Efforts to save Achilles included dipping him in the River Styx to make him invulnerable, and sending him to Skyros, disguised as a maid for the Princess Deidamia, to avoid having to fight at Troy.

The attempt to hide Achilles failed when Odysseus tricked him into revealing his identity. At Troy, Achilles died from an arrow shot through his heel. This was the spot where Thetis held him in the river between her finger and thumb, when he was a baby, an action which inadvertently led to his death. Tragedy is defined as great suffering, destruction, and distress and the story of Thetis is tragic by anyone’s standards, yet Thetis has rarely been a central topic of attention.

Thetis and Peleus

My version of the life of Thetis is being published by Esplanade Press, an independent publisher based in Scarborough, and run by Scarborough poet Felix Hodcroft.  Part of the narrative was due to be performed at Rotunda Nights, a monthly poetry and music event run by Scarborough Museums Trust, but was cancelled during the first lockdown. We still hope to arrange a performance of some of the most vivid excerpts during a launch event or events. Throughout the preparation stages, a constant topic of discussion has been the extent to which we can assume – or not – the reader’s awareness and knowledge of ancient Greek myth.

Classical writers are themselves divided on how to read and interpret ancient stories. There are no original copies so our understanding relies on fragments and references, often made many centuries later. I’ve used the Iliad, alongside other classical works which refer to Thetis, as a foundation for the narrative.

5th century BC water jar depicting the sack of Troy

The Iliad was an oral poem, thought to have been first written in 800 BC, which tells of events alleged to have taken place around 1200 BC. The ruins of a great city, believed to be Troy, have been excavated at Hissarlik in northern Turkey, as have the remains of palaces at Sparta and Mycenae, thought to belong to the king brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon.

Findings suggest the war between the Greeks and Trojans has some historical basis, but Homer’s epic is inextricably entwined with myths about the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses. Thetis is set in a world where mortals and immortals live side by side and the gods think nothing of interfering in the lives of humans. This makes her story full of poetic potential while the gaps in our knowledge are a gift for the creative imagination.


Thetis and Hephaestus

The eldest of 50 sea nymph sisters known as the Nereids, Thetis’s parents were Nereus, often called the Old Man of the Sea, and Doris, goddess of freshwater rivers and springs. Thetis’s grandmother was Gaia, earth goddess and her grandfather was Uranos. Both were Titan gods, overthrown by the Olympians, led by Zeus and Poseidon.

Thetis has provenance and a long history. Responsible for saving Hephaestus when Hera threw him from Olympus, Thetis also supported Zeus when Olympus was in rebellion, gave sanctuary to Dionysius when he fled from Thrace, and helped Jason and his Argonauts to navigate through the Clashing Rocks.

Images of Dionysus, the God of wine, and Jason travelling through the Clashing Rocks

All this took place before the famous Judgement of Paris, where Paris, the youngest prince of Troy, was forced by Zeus to choose the most beautiful goddess. Aphrodite, Athena and Hera were in competition with each other but it was the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who bribed Paris with the promise that the most beautiful woman in the world, would fall in love with him. The affair between Paris and Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, caused Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon, to go to war against the Trojans. During the judgement, Paris gave Aphrodite a golden apple. Inscribed with the words to the fairest. This was bought by Eris, the goddess of strife, to the wedding of Thetis and Peleus.

There she is again!

Detail from the 5th century BC Francois Vase showing the wedding of Thetis and Peleus 

The Trojan War has fascinated many writers and the 21st century has seen a range of published books inspired by the wars alongside the pantheon of ancient greeks gods and goddesses.

I love them all.

They include The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madelaine Millar, The Silence of the girls by Pat Barker, A thousand ships by Natalie Haynes (who also presents the Radio 4 series Stands Up for the Classics), Achilles by Elizabeth Cook, The Peneliopad by Margaret Atwood, and Ransom by David Malouf. There are historical non-fiction books such as Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan Wars, Brittany Hughes‘s Helen of Troy and In Search of Homer by Adam Nicholson, plus films; the Hollywood version told in Troy and the BBC series Troy, Fall of a City. Poems inspired by the Trojan war include Christopher Logue’s War Music and Seamus Heany’s The Cure at Troy. All these provide evidence of a continuing fascination. The women of Troy have all recently been revisited but so far, Thetis has not yet played a central role.

From the BBC drama Troy Fall of a City

I’m curious as to why so little about Thetis has come down through history. She is sometimes mentioned in passing so maybe it’s because few writers seem to have joined up the dots.

Esplanade Press will be publishing Thetis in the summer of 2022 and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to raise her status and position her centre stage. In my mind, this is where Thetis has always deserved to be.


Thetis asking Hephaestus to make new amour for Achilles

Thetis poetry collection

Thetis changing into a lioness as she is attacked by Peleus, Attic red-figured kylix by Douris, c. 490 BC from Vulci, Etruria – Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

I’m not sure what to call Thetis. One the one hand it’s a collection of poems but on the other, it’s a poetic narrative which could also become a script. At the present time, it doesn’t seem to fit into any existing categories and I’m not sure if this is a strength or a weakness.

I wrote Thetis as a submission for the final portfolio of my Creative Writing degree in 2018. It’s a collection of 65 poems which tell the story of the Trojan War through the life of Thetis, mother to Achilles.

In Homer, the universal themes of love, loss, and war in the Iliad are presented through the eyes of men yet women play primary roles. The motif of the rage of Achilles stemmed from his refusal to fight because Agamemnon took away Briseis and the war itself was caused by the abduction of Helen by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy. The goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite have central roles and while Thetis appears at all the key moments, Homer doesn’t appear particularly interested in delving into her past or motivations for action.

Head of Thetis from an Attic red-figure pelike, c. 510–500 BC, Louvre

So far, Thetis has rarely appeared as a central character whereas my portfolio placed her centre stage. The poems begin with Zeus and Poseidon both being attracted to her but were dissuaded by the prophecy which warned her child would murder its father. They agreed to marry her to a mortal to break the curse and chose Peleus King of Pythia. When Peleus first encountered Thetis he was so overcome by lust for her beauty he raped her on the beach. At their wedding, Eris the Goddess of Strife, presented a golden apple to the goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite. Inscribed with the words To the Fairest, Zeus ordered Paris to choose between them. Aphrodite convinced Paris to choose her by promising the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, thereby setting in place the events of the Trojan War.

Immortal Thetis with the mortal Peleus in the foreground, Boeotian black-figure dish, c. 500–475 BC – Louvre.

Some stories claim Achilles was the result of the rape of Thetis, while others say she had six children by Peleus, drowning each one. Achilles was the magical seventh child. Determined to save him, she dipped the babe in the River Styx for protection but was interrupted by Peleus before being fully submerged. This gave rise to the legend of the Achilles Heel, his only physical vulnerability.

Thetis returned to the ocean leaving her son to be raised by Peleus, who also fostered Patroclus. In an attempt to avoid Achilles being taken to Troy, Thetis hid him on the Island of Skyros where he was disguised as a maid to Princess Deidamia.

Odysseus discovered the deception and took Achilles to Troy, an event I used this as a trigger for Thetis to hate Odysseus and continually seek revenge.

Thetis and Hephaestus, Attic Red Figure, Antikensammlung Berlin

Part Two introduces Helen as the catalyst for the ten year war. It covers the death of Patroclus, Hector and Achilles himself, while Part Three covers the consequences for Thetis and how she finally takes revenge on Odysseus when he attempts to sail home to Ithaka once the wars were over.

Selections from Thetis were due to be performed at a Rotunda Nights event in Scarborough in May 2020, but like so many events that year, it was cancelled. Plans to reschedule the performance began but with the current situation, these are fragile to say the least and at the time of writing, I’m not sure what the next step will be.

Thetis and the Nereids mourning Achilles, Corinthian black-figure hydria, 560–550 BC; note the Gorgon shield, Louvre

Sources

My research was based on translations of Homer’s Iliad for the underlying story but I also read everything I could find which made reference to the events and people, in particular, Trojan Women and other plays by Euripides.

I also read contemporary work such as Alice Oswald’s Memorial and Christopher Logue’s War Music, alongside adaptations in novel form, including both Song of Achilles and Circe by Madelaine Miller, The Firebrand by Marian Zimmer Bradley, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Achilles by Elizabeth Cook and Ransom by David Malouf. 


 

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