Thetis: Not Just a Greek Nymph

More Than Achilles's Mom

Thetis gets armor from Hephaestus for Achilles

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Thetis was the nymph and water goddess who was the mother to the Trojan War hero Achilles. But she was more than just some guy's mom.

Background

Thetis was the leader of the 50 Nereids, sea nymph daughters of Nereus, an aquatic shapeshifter famous for giving Hercules information about his labors, and Doris, the fertility of the ocean. Nereus was the son of Gaia, the earth, and Pontos, the ocean, and Doris was the daughter of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys, also watery deities. She would not have been the mother of Achilles if things had gone differently, though.

At one point, the king of the gods, Zeus, tried wooing Thetis. However, a prophecy saying that the son would be greater than the father made Zeus give up. After all, he didn't want a repeat of what happened with his own dad.

As Prometheus prophesied in Aeschylus's play, "Prometheus Bound," the god…

"…plans a marriage that shall hurl him into oblivion from his sovereignty and throne; and then immediately the curse his father Cronus invoked as he fell from his ancient throne, shall be fulfilled to the uttermost."

Zeus averted the prophecy by marrying Thetis off to another man.

Marriage

Thetis married a mortal king, Peleus, at the command of Zeus. It was at this wedding that Eris, goddess of discord, tossed an apple for the most beautiful goddess into the crowd, which kicked off the events precipitating the Trojan War. The bride and groom produced a son, Achilles. Thetis tried to make her infant son immortal by dipping him into the River Styx in the Underworld, holding him by the ankle, according to tradition. This made him invulnerable, for one weak spot, the achilles heel, where Thetis held him. Peleus disagreed with such risky treatment, and Thetis left him.

Iliad

Thetis shows up again in Homer's "Iliad," where she offers to get Achilles a new, better suit of armor and shield from the blacksmith of the gods, Hephaestus. Hephaestus was in her debt because Thetis and her sisters had cared for him when Hera threw him down from Olympus:

But silver-shod Thetis the daughter of Nereus took and cared for him with her sisters.

In the "Iliad," Homer says that Thetis also rescued Dionysus from folks pursuing him:

But Dionysus fled, and plunged beneath the wave of the sea, and Thetis received him in her bosom, filled with dread, for mighty terror gat hold of him at the man's threatenings.

During the war, Thetis gave her son good advice, but he still perished tragically.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. Translated by Herbert Weir Smyth, Harvard University, 1926, Perseus Digital Library.
  • Homer. Illiad. Translated by A. T. Murray, Heinemann, 1924, Perseus Digital Library.
  • The Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Heinemann, 1914, Perseus Digital Library.

-Edited by Carly Silver