Sovereign of the Sea

The Staying Power of Thetis in the Greco-Roman World and Beyond


David J. Wright (Fordham University) []

Maciej Paprocki (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich) []

Gary Vos (University of Edinburgh) []

Astrid Khoo (King's College London) []

Of all of the female figures in Greek mythology whom Zeus desired, Thetis was one of the few who managed to evade his violent pursuits. Thetis, daughter of Nereus and Doris, was courted by both Zeus and Poseidon, until they learned she would bear a son more powerful than his father. The Nereid does, however, fall victim to his abusive, patriarchal system, as Zeus, to avert this, married her against her will to his mortal grandson, Peleus, to whom Thetis bore Achilles. In her seminal work (The Power of Thetis - 1991), Laura Slatkin demonstrated that the Iliad presents Thetis as a formerly powerful, yet ultimately marginalised deity. The mistress of cords and binding, Thetis could avert destruction (λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι) or bring it on (Slatkin 1991: 65-67; Homer, Iliad I, 398); once, she played an active role in divine affairs: she rescued Hephaistos and Dionysos and freed Zeus from bonds put on him by rebellious Olympians (Slatkin 1991: 56-61; Homer, Iliad I, 394-406, VI, 130-137, XVIII, 394-403).


Thetis continues to be a figure of interest to Roman writers. Her marriage to Peleus frames the epyllion of Catullus 64, a unique version in which she, unlike other presentations of the myth, seems to willingly marry Peleus. David Konstan argues that Thetis’ submission to Peleus is analogous to mankind’s conquest of the Ocean (1993:63). This idea continues in Vergil (E. 4.32), and perhaps Thetis retains her demiurgic principles in the Roman world. It is not surprising that her appearance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is laden with meaning as she is a goddess known for her metamorphic tendencies (Met. 11.221-265, Fantham 1993: 23-29). She also occupies a prominent position in Book 1 of Statius’ Achilleid to the point that some scholars have called it a Theteid (Koster 1979: 199). Thetis has even captured the modern imagination: she appears in the cult classic Clash of the Titans (1981) and in quasi-mortal form in the godless Troy (2004).


Nebulous networks of ideologically-biased narratives, myths on Thetis were constantly being refashioned by the creative retellings of Graeco-Roman poets and mythographers as well as modern artists, differing in several significant respects, yet holding one element in common: the Nereid remained a “figure of cosmic capacity” (Slatkin 1991: 12), holding sway over minds and imaginations. Alluding to and drawing from Slatkin’s observations, the proposed panel will comprehensively reexamine the perplexing figure of Thetis and her depictions in different textual and visual media in the antiquity and beyond.

Select Bibliography

Fantham, E. 1993. “Sunt quibus in plures ius est transire figuras: Ovid’s Self Transformation in the Metamorphoses,” CW 87.2: 21-36.

Heslin, P.J. 2005. Transvestite Achilles: Gender and Genre in Statius’ Achilleid. Cambridge.

Holway, R. 2011. Becoming Achilles: Child-sacrifice, War, and Misrule in the Iliad and Beyond. Lanham, MD.

Konstan, D. 1977. Catullus’ Indictment of Rome: the Meaning of Catullus 64. Amsterdam.

Koster, S. 1979. “Liebe und Krieg in der ‘Achilleis’ des Statius,” WJA 5: 189-208.

Most, G. 1987. “Alcman’s ‘Cosmogonic’ Fragment (Fr. 5 Page, 81 Calame),” CQ 1:1-19.

Slatkin, L. 1992.  The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Hellenic Studies 16. Washington DC.

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