Myths of the Moons: Thetis (Saturn)

As we’ve seen through Greco-Roman mythology, there are multiple variants for every myth and their respective actors, human or divine. So it is with Thetis, whose primary stories I will be taking from Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad.

So what you should know about her for starters?

  • Thetis plays a significant role in starting the Trojan War.
  • This was due to her wedding to Peleus, a mortal
  • The goddess Eris (Chaos) wasn’t invited, because, well, she’s chaotic
  • Eris’ retaliatory mischief resulted in the Trojan War

There was a premonition that stated that any child of the sea nymph Thetis would be more powerful than any of the gods. This bothered the king of the Olympians, Zeus. From the posts on the moons Jupiter (Zeus), you might recount that none of Zeus’ children with humans were immortal, though some, like Hercules, were very powerful. So, he concluded that if Thetis were to marry a mortal, he would have nothing to worry about from her offspring.

And so a marriage was arranged (how much she consented is in question – in one version, she was forcibly bound); a wedding between Thetis and the human prince Peleus. It was this wedding which Eris, goddess of Chaos, was not invited to. This led to her tossing the famous golden apple, with the words “for the fairest”, inscribed on it.

From here, chaos ensued. Three goddesses ran for the apple; the human Paris of Troy was asked to judge and was finally tempted by Aphrodite into declaring her the winner: in exchange, she gave him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen.

Yes, that Helen.

Paris proceeded to take Helen to Troy, which started the Trojan war (for one thing, Helen’s husband wasn’t too pleased with the situation).

That was only the beginning:

  • Thetis had a son named Achilles
  • Thetis desired Achilles to be immortal
  • She saved Zeus from a divine coup
  • She saved the smith of the gods, Hephaestus, from certain death

Determined to confer her infant son Achiles with immortality, she dipped him in the fire of life – some variants have Thetis immersing the child in water, but either way, he was fully submerged. Unfortunately, her husband came in, and in horror snatched the baby and tossed him to the floor. Enraged, Thetis fled back to her sisters, the sea nymphs (this is from a later telling, not from the Illiad).

She was holding Achilles by his heel; therefore, it remained his one, mortal weakness.

Long before this, she had saved Zeus from a divine uprising by raising a mighty sea beast, called Briarues. Hera, Poseidon and Athena had led this revolution, but on seeing the monster, relented.

You [Thetis] alone of all the gods saved Zeus the Darkener of the Skies from an inglorious fate, when some of the other Olympians—Hera, Poseidon, and Pallas Athene—had plotted to throw him into chains… You, goddess, went and saved him from that indignity. You quickly summoned to high Olympus the monster of the hundred arms whom the gods call Briareus, but mankind Aegaeon, a giant more powerful even than his father. He squatted by the Son of Cronos [the Son of Saturn, Zeus] with such a show of force that the blessed gods slunk off in terror, leaving Zeus free

—Homer, The Iliad, E.V. Rieu translation

This meant that Zeus owed her a favor.

Next, she saved Hephaestus, forger for the gods. For some reason, he was banished from Mt. Olympus (it might be because of his deformities, though there are other explanations). He was thrown to his death, but Thetis and another water nymph caught him, saving his life, and kept him safely in hiding.

This meant Hephaestus, like Zeus, also owed Thetis a favor.

Now, let’s move on to the battle. Achilles is a young man, a hero, a warrior of great renown.

Some final points to know about Thetis:

  • Achilles went into to the Trojan War
  • Thetis plead with him not to go
  • When that failed, she called in her favors from Zeus and Hephaestus
  • Thetis armed Achilles
  • Thetis took Achilles to the afterlife

After unsuccessfully pleading with Achilles not to enter the war (going so far as to disguise him as a girl, a plot that Odysseus cleverly foiled), Thetis finds out that her son’s best friend had been killed in battle. She went to console him, and finding him dressed in his friend’s armor, begged Achilles to wait to reenter the fight until she could consult Zeus.

After pleading, he relented, and gave his word: Achilles would not resume fighting until the providential time.

It’s worth noting that Hera attempted to counter intervene, but Achilles was smart enough to wait.

While Zeus was thinking, Thetis returned to Hephaestus. Like Zeus, Hephaestus owed her a favor: he used his skills to make Achilles armor fit for a god. These weapons are still artistically emblematic of Achilles: his shield, his breastplate, his helmet, and his shin guards.

When Hephaestus finished his work, and Zeus appropriated the time, Thetis armed her son, watched him return to the fray, and go on to victory.

Despite helping to win the siege of Troy, Achilles’ celebrations were short lived. He was struck in his heel with an arrow shot by Paris, looping the story back to its beginnings. In her grief, Thetis took Achilles to the White Island, Leuke, in the Black Sea, an alternate Elysium where Achilles enjoyed a pleasant afterlife.

So, that was a lot to take in; what should we remember about Thetis? Just two things, if nothing else: her marriage was at the epicenter of the start of the Trojan War, and her son, the hero Achilles, was a key figure in ending it.

There are other tales of Thetis, inside and outside the Iliad, including one with the god of wine, Dionysus, but that was enough for one post.

So, What Of The Moon?

It has ice, as do many of Saturn’s moons. Other than that, probably the most interesting feature is the crater, Odysseus (named aptly enough), which makes Thetis look like the Death Star:

Thetis, Cassini flyby, 2015

For an interesting mythic character, it’s really not that interesting of a moon. That’s show business for you. Good luck next time, Thetis!

Until next time, keep looking up!

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