Thetis in The Iliad

Instructor: Erica Schimmel

Erica has taught college English writing and literature courses and has a master's degree in children's literature.

No matter how old or how strong we get, sometimes in life we all just want our mother. In this lesson, we will learn more about Achilles' mother Thetis, and the role she plays in the events of ''The Iliad''.

Mommy, Dearest

Have you ever heard the phrase ''mama's boy''? What do you think of when you hear that phrase? Typically, we think of a boy who turns to his mother when he needs something, or relies on his mother to take care of him. This is exactly the case between Achilles and his immortal sea goddess mother, Thetis, two characters in Homer's The Iliad. Even though Achilles is a grown man and a strong warrior, when he feels wronged or in trouble, he turns to his mother for help - which she provides.

You see, Achilles is destined to have a short life. His mother may be an immortal sea goddess, but his father was mortal and so is Achilles. Thetis and Achilles both know he is ''doomed to live but for a little season.'' In what little time he has, Achilles wants to gain honor. And Thetis wants her son to be happy in the time he has on Earth.

Intervening with Jove

Thetis is more of a supporting character in Homer's epic poem, but her actions greatly influence the war and its outcome. We first meet Thetis after Achilles and Agamemnon argue in book 1 of The Iliad. After being forced to give up Chyrseis, a girl he took as a spoil of war, Agamemnon took Briseis, Achilles' own spoil of war, in her place. Thetis already knows what is going on, but asks Achilles to give her his side of the story anyway. He does so, and then asks her to intercede with Jove on his behalf. He does not want Briseis back, though. Instead, he wants to punish Agamemnon for insulting him. He wants Thetis to ask Jove to make sure the Achaean army struggles and loses while he does not fight with them in order to teach Agamemnon a lesson. He knows Jove owes Thetis for saving his life once, so he asks her to talk with the father of the gods.

Instead of encouraging her son to be the bigger man or get over it, Thetis takes her son's side. After all, he only has such a short time to live. Why should he spend that short time feeling disrespected by his peers? She encourages him to ''stay where you are with your ships, nurse your anger against the Achaeans, and hold aloof from fight.'' She will talk with Jove. After all, he owes her for the time she saved his life. She manages to convince Jove to grant Achilles' request, even though his wife is upset by this turn of events.

Acquiring Armor

Although Thetis' actions change much about the course of the war, we do not see the goddess herself again for a while. This time, Achilles is heartbroken because he allowed his dear friend Patroclus to fight while wearing Achilles' armor, which resulted in Patroclus's death. Achilles is so devastated by the news of his friend's death that he screams. His scream is so loud that Thetis hears him from where she sits - in the depths of the seas. She screams, too, and her sea goddess sisters join her ''while Thetis led them in their lament.''

Have you ever had a loved one feel so much pain that you wanted to do something, even though you knew nothing you did could help? This kind of feeling is also expected of a mother's love, and Thetis is a devoted mother. She knows that her son will feel ''heaviness'' in his short life. She decides to go to Achilles, even though she knows, ''though I go to him I cannot help him.''

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