The hero Achilles and his vulnerable heel is one of the most iconic legends of the Greek world. He is remembered as one of the most powerful and noble warriors of the famous Trojan War.
Unlike most heroes of ancient Greece, however, he was not the son of either Zeus or Poseidon. In fact, both of those gods declined to marry his mother.
Instead, Thetis was married to a human king, a rarity among the Olympians. Even then, her wedding was one of the most infamous events of Mount Olympus because it set in motion the events that led to the Trojan War.
Thetis is known to most people only as Achilles’ mother, but some historians believe her role in Greek mythology may have once been much more prominent. While her story changed to revolve around her son, evidence suggests that she was once one of the most important goddesses of the Greek pantheon.
In Greek mythology, Achilles was the son of the sea nymph Thetis and her human husband, Peleus.
Zeus had once wanted to marry Thetis himself. According to one legend, he was already married to Hera and Thetis chastely rejected his advances.
The most popular story, however, was that Zeus had received a prophecy against marrying the sea nymph. He was told that his child with her would grow to challenge his rule just as he had once challenged his own father’s.
Instead, Zeus arranged for Thetis to marry a favored human king. Peleus was a great hero and king of a people called the Myrmidons.
According to a popular legend, Thetis was deeply worried that her son’s human nature would bring him harm. She attempted to rid him of his human weaknesses as a child.
In one story, she held her baby in the River Styx to wash away his human nature. In another, she anointed him with ambrosia, the food of the gods, and burned him on a pyre but was interrupted by her husband, who believed she was harming the child.
In both stories, Achilles’ mother held him by his heel. It was thus the only place on his body that remained entirely human and vulnerable.
Knowing that her son was still partially human, and thus vulnerable to injury, Thetis continued to try to protect him from any harm. As the Trojan War approached, Thetis tried to hide her young son.
The war had come about in part because of Thetis and Peleus’s wedding. The goddess of spite, Eris, had not been invited so she had sent an apple that Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite argued over.
The Trojan prince Paris had chosen Aphrodite and been given the love of Helen as his reward. Helen was already married to the Spartan king, however, so an alliance of Greek states sailed for Troy to reclaim her.
According to one story, Thetis tried to hide Achilles among the women of Skyros. Odysseus saw through the disguise, however, and Achilles was conscripted into the war.
Achilles proved himself in battle, however. Throughout the ten years of war he was never defeated in combat.
According to the Iliad, Achilles’ mother played a part in his success. She petitioned Zeus on his behalf to keep his honor intact and brought him armor forged by Hephaestus to keep him safe.
Her intervention, however, would ultimately not be enough. Achilles died in the final assault against Troy when Paris shot him with an arrow.
In many portrayals of Thetis, she was forever consumed with grief for the loss of her son. A few, however, believed that Achilles became immortal and his mother welcomed him into the company of the gods after his death.
Achilles’ mother is best remembered for her role in the Trojan War and her son’s life, but many scholars believe that she was once a far more important figure in Greek mythology.
In myths before the Trojan War, Zeus and Poseidon both wished to marry her. This was also the case with Demeter, who was one of the most prominent goddesses in Greek mythology.
One early story says that Thetis was responsible for keeping Zeus on his throne. When Hera, Poseidon, and Athena rebelled against him, it was Thetis who freed him from his chains so that he could regain power.
While Thetis ended up marrying a human king, the wedding took place on Mount Olympus. It was described as the most celebrated event that had ever taken place there and all the gods, save Eris, were in attendance.
These stories seem at odds with the later portrayal of Thetis as notable only for her famous son. It seems obvious that her role was greater than just that of Achilles’ mother.
The story of the gods’ rebellion against Zeus appears in the Iliad, but some scholars think it may not have been known before Homer’s time. The story was given as a reason that Thetis should be able to appeal to Zeus on her son’s behalf, so it may have been an invention of the writer to justify the request.
Others, however, think that the link between Zeus and Achilles’ mother is much older.
One theory is that Thetis was an alternate version of Tethys, a Titaness and goddess of the sea. This would make her a more prominent figure than a nereid and give her a stronger link to Zeus as one of his aunts.
Zeus’s first wife, Metis, was also a Titaness. Like Thetis, she was said to have helped him gain power once and her son would have been more powerful than his father.
Possible support for the idea that Thetis was once seen as more powerful comes from the writers of Pausanias, a 2nd century traveler.
He claimed that Thetis was revered in her own right only in Laconia, a traditionally conservative region of Greece. He went on to say that the temple of Thetis was one of the oldest in the area, but that the goddess had been worshiped there in the form of an archaic wooden statue even before its construction.
Some historians believe that this cult in Laconia is evidence of Thetis’s importance in archaic times. Before she was seen as Achilles’ mother, she was possibly a prominent goddess of the sea.
As the heroes of the Trojan War became more popular figures, however, Thetis’ role was diminished. The stories that were added to her mythology centered around her son rather than her own importance.
The famous story of Thetis burning away her son’s mortality, for example, did not appear until the 1st century BC. While it may have been known before then, earlier stories like the Iliad do not mention it or portray Achilles as particularly invulnerable.
The story of Thetis continued to evolve over time, but it became centered on her son and the Trojan War. While some historians theorize that Thetis once held a much larger role, she is remembered today as the concerned mother of Achilles.
In Greek mythology, Thetis was the mother of the famous hero Achilles.
Although Zeus had been linked to her, he would not marry Thetis because of a prophecy that said her son would be more powerful than his father. Instead, he arranged for her to marry a human king named Peleus.
One popular legend claims that Thetis tried to remove her son’s mortal vulnerabilities, either by burning them away or by dipping him in the River Styx, but his heel was left unaltered. While this weak spot is now famous, there is no record of it before the 1st century BC.
Instead, earlier stories claimed that Thetis helped her son throughout the war. She petitioned Zeus on his behalf and brought him armor made by Hephaestus in the forge of the gods.
After his death at the end of the war, Thetis was often depicted in mourning. Some believed, however, that Achilles went to the most honored realm of the afterlife and became an immortal, albeit not a true god.
While most stories that survive revolve around her role as Achilles’ mother, some historians believe Thetis may have once been a more prominent figure. Early stories, including one in which she freed Zeus from an attempted coup, seem to indicate that she was more important than most other nymphs and neireids.
Records of a temple in Laconia and similarities to the name of a Titaness have led some scholars to believe that Thetis once had importance far beyond the story of her son. While her role as Achilles’ mother is best remembered today, Thetis may have once been one of the most influential goddesses in early Greek culture.