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34. An Urgent Plea; A Vow Secured, Second Essay, I. 393-427
‘Oh, my son,’ Thetis sadly replied,
‘is it for this I bore you, unlucky in my labour?
Since your life is doomed to be brief, filling so short a span,
if only it were your fate to stay by the ships, free of pain and sorrow;
but you, more wretched than other men, must meet an early death;
such is the painful destiny for which I brought you into this world.
Yet I’ll go myself to snowy Olympus, and tell the
Thunder-bearer Zeus what you have said, hoping that he will hear me.
Sit by your swift sea-going boats, meanwhile,
nurse your anger against the Achaeans, hold back from the fight;
for Zeus has left for Ocean’s stream, to banquet with the
peerless Ethiopians, and all the gods go with him;
but twelve days hence he returns to Olympus,
and then I’ll cross the bronze threshold of his palace,
kneel at his feet, and I think persuade him.’
Thetis’ Answer (413-427)
Thetis’ reply (we first learn her name in line 413) is both passionate and informative. She tearfully consoles her son for his woes, and she advises him to withdraw from the battle. She will do his bidding but it will have to wait a while, for Zeus and the rest of the Olympians are living it up on an multi-day feast in Ethiopia. When he returns, she will grab his knees and ask. That is the gist of her reply, but a closer analysis rewards us. It is not insignificant that Homer mentions Thetis’ tears by
using the same phrase he used to describe Achilles’ grief (dakru cheo, "pour out tears," 413; 360). Mother and son are linked now in grief, and she feels the unendurable pain of her son. That she, too, is at the end of her endurance,is indicated in the rhetorical question she asks (414):
“Why, indeed, having birthed you for such troubles, did I even bring you up, my child?”
Job, in the Bible, when entering a similar pit of despair, wished for the peaceful time when he might reverse the way of nature, re-enter his mother’s womb, and enjoy the bliss of fellowship with departed worthies (Job 3). Images of birth and nurture, which are supposed to connote happiness and possibility, now aid in the expression of distress. But she has more words for her son. Just as Athena told him earlier to stop threatening Agamemnon, even though he should continue to reproach him (210-211), now Thetis adds her advice. But she does so using a verb of wishing or desire, and we really don’t know if she is telling him what to do, giving him “good advice,” or just expressing a sort of unrealizable wish (415):
“O that you would sit alongside the ships without tears and unharmed"
One wonders for a split second how Achilles’ wish and hers could both be granted. Hadn’t he just requested that she ask Zeus to let the Trojans pin the Achaians next to the ships and sea? How could that happen and, at the same time, Achilles dwell “without tears and unharmed” by those same ships? But we aren’t in the realm of military strategy here; we are dealing with the longing of hearts for escape, for wishes to be fulfilled, for some kind of peace and happiness when it has rudely been taken away from them.
She longs for that situation for her son since “now the fated time is short, and not in any way especially long,” line 416. It is arresting to me how long it takes her to say that his fate is to be short-lived. She then repeats, in 417-418, his story from 352-354 just as she requested him to recount the Achaian’s story toher. Why? This is the way to personalize it, make it your own, make someone else’s joy or, in this case, grief your own private possession. But she can’t repeat it quite as easily as he. Maybe as mom she finds it hard just to “spit it out,” especially because it relates to the early death of her son. She continues with that very idea for another line or so (417-418):
“Now you are at the same time both swift-fated and (most) miserable of all"
She has caught on. It might not be so bad to be “swift-fated,” since that was the agreement. But to be miserable to boot tears out her heart, and she just has to repeat her initial thought (418):
“I bore you for an evil fate in the heavenly halls"
Not only do we see the stark contrast between an “evil lot” and the “heavenly halls,” but we also see a ring composition from lines 414-418. It begins and ends on the same doleful note. Tragedy happens.
Thetis--Ready for Action (419-427)
Though expressing her sincere grief at her son’s condition, she is not one to wallow in the loss. So she says, with alacrity (419):
“I myself am going to snow-covered Olympus"
Agamemnon may have threatened to go in person to take Achilles’ prize; recall that Achilles said that Agamemnon himself took it, but here we have mom’s declaration she will go in person to a completely different environment on behalf of her son. Then, she closes line 420 with a phrase we have seen previously, in line 207: “if he might perchance be persuaded.” In that earlier passage
Athena said to Achilles that she had come down to still his rage, “if you might be persuaded.” The was able to persuade him to give up his “strife” (i.e., his plan to kill Agamemnon), though she
permitted him to abuse Agamemnon verbally. Now, when that phrase hits Achilles’ ears from another divine figure, he might think that this, too, will happen. His mother will persuade Zeus, even if it is expressed in a conditional way.
His mother now gives a command that was strikingly similar to that given by Athena 200 lines previously (421-422):
“Sit alongside the swift-sailing ships and continue to be angry at the Achaians, but cease completely from fighting"
Well, to be sure, Athena only told him to continue reproaching Agamemnon, but here that advice is taken one step further: withdraw from fighting. Achilles hadn’t considered this alternative earlier. But it doesn’t seem as if she is giving advice for the rest of the war, since she follows it with the explanation that Zeus is, currently, out of town. Just take a time-out. That is the gist of her words.
If Achilles’ request to her starting in line 393 began with a comic dimension (the near-binding of Zeus by three disgruntled Olympians), Thetis’ speech ends with another comedic feature:
Zeus and the gods on an eleven-day junket in Ethiopia. A war is raging, people are dying, a plague is ravishing the Achaians and what are the gods doing? Partying. They sure are setting good
examples for tormented humans, aren’t they? And, it looks as if the people who urgently worship them, trying to gain their favor in deepest need, will simply just have to wait until the party is
over. It happened that just yesterday (chthizos--424) Zeus and all the Olympians went to this feast, and he won’t come back until the twelfth day (424).
There doesn’t seem to be a movement here to make government leaner and meaner or more efficient. You just have to wait until the party is over. But then, Thetis assures her son, she will spring into action and go to his bronze-thresholded house and embrace his knees. She closes with words that should be ringing in our ears, so frequent are they in Book I (427):
“and I suppose (oio) I will persuade him"
Achilles first “supposed” (or proposed--oio) that he should return home when the plague struck (59); Calchas next “thought” or “supposed” that Agamemnon was controlled by anger and would retaliate against him (78); Achilles again took up the term to express the idea that he didn’t “propose” to hang around amassing riches for another while he was without honor (170); finally, Achilles used the term to express his near certainty that Agamemnon, by his impolitic action and pride was going to die (205). Though it is right to translate the verb oio as “think,” or "suppose" or
“propose,” it takes on an increasing tone of certitude or accomplishment as the book proceeds. So, even though Thetis will have to wait nearly a fortnight to approach Zeus, Achilles no doubt hears in her words that persuasion is all but accomplished. He may not have honor, but he can make sure that no one else has it either. That, then, is where we leave him.