Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.05.03

Laura M. Slatkin, The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Hellenic studies 16.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, trustees for Harvard University, 2011.  Pp. ix, 238.  ISBN 9780674021433.  $18.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Yukiko Saito, Kyoto Seika University (

This book is a compilation of Slatkin’s research. It is divided into two parts: the first part is a revised short book, entitled The Power of Thetis, which was published in 1992, and the second part is a collection of seven essays that have also been published elsewhere. They all are independent, while related to each other, exploring Homeric allusions—how myths or mythic motifs are incorporated within poetic traditions and their resonances in the narrative.

The first part aims to clarify the role of Thetis, investigating the process by which the Iliad depicts mythological episodes in the development of her role and her relation to the poem’s central ideas. Her activities in the Iliad have important implications, which are intimately connected to its principal character, Achilles. As his mother and protector, Thetis represents the vulnerability of the greatest of the heroes. By defining Thetis, the poem defines itself.

In Chapter 1, Slatkin discusses “The Helplessness of Thetis,” expressed mainly through her impotent grief. Thetis’ interaction with Achilles and Zeus in book one suggests a redefinition of heroism. It is ironic that Thetis, who is supposed to help Achilles, is the manifestation of his mortality. Her paradoxical role is portrayed by reference to other female deities, particularly Eos and Aphrodite. Identified as descendants of the Indo-European Dawn goddess, they share the mythic motif of goddess-mortal relationships, though Thetis is reluctant to be married to Peleus, in contrast to the other goddesses’ ardor for mortal partners. Eos’ formula êrigeneia, is connected to Thetis’ activities with early morning that implicitly associate her power with time, the defining fact of human life. In contrast with the Aethiopis, in which the sons of Eos and Thetis have some access to divinity, the Iliad offers a conception of human limitation through Thetis. Further, Aphrodite’s snatching of Paris and Aeneas from the battlefield in books 3 and 5 presents a paradox; preserving a hero from death means denying him a heroic life. These rescues create a sharp contrast with Thetis’ activity. Thetis never spirits Achilles away from danger and “protects” Achilles only after asserting repeatedly the knowledge that Achilles must die. The Iliad’s rejection of Achilles’ salvation through Thetis emphasises her helpless status.

In contrast, Chapter 2 addresses “The Power of Thetis.” Somehow Thetis is free from recrimination from other Olympians, despite her intervention in the war for Achilles. Why? The answer emerges through an analysis of the character’s past as narrated through their reminiscences and reflections on her previous achievements. In Achilles’ appeal to Thetis in book 1, all the requisite features of the prayers seem to be missing. Further, a god or goddess who asks a favor of another god on behalf of a hero usually recalls the hero’s past services to the god, but Thetis asks Zeus on the basis on her own past (1. 503-4). The formula λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι, “ward off destruction,” expresses Thetis’ power (1. 398), because the formula is shared only by Achilles, Apollo, Zeus, and Thetis. Yet, only Thetis is able to ward off destruction from Zeus. Through an examination of the motif of binding from the Theogony, Isthmian 8, and Prometheus Bound, Thetis’ power is considered as a figure of cosmic capacity, despite her relentless anguish at her own helplessness. Thetis in the Iliad is thus “at once weak and powerful (p. 70).” She might be helpless, but she is able to accomplish what the greatest of the heroes and the greatest of the gods cannot.

Chapter 3, “The Wrath of Thetis,” focuses on wrath, μῆνις, and its link to grief, ἄχος. Μῆνις designates Achilles’ special association with Apollo and Zeus; their μῆνις is explicitly identified as controlling the events of the poem and they are able to generate and remove ἄχος as well. Reflecting the previous point about the capacity of λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι, Slatkin attempts to prove the connection between Achilles, Apollo, Zeus, and Thetis again, and to distinguish Thetis’ character. She connects the epithet, κυανόπεπλος, “dark-garbed,” with the gesture of Demeter covering herself with the dark garment in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a gesture which signifies her transformation from a passive state of grief to an active state of anger and links to the cult of Demeter Melania, a metonym of the wrathful goddess. In Homer, Thetis is only one who owns a dark cloak and in fact takes it up in grief (24. 93-96). Therefore, the image of the goddess wearing her κάλυμμα κυάνεον is recognised as alluding to the implicit threat of μῆνις, which represents the Iliad’s reworking on traditional resources.

In the last chapter, “Allusion and Interpretation,” Slatkin observes allusions within a multidimensional mythological realm. The more layers of allusion, the more expressive the reverberation or echo. For example, Iliad 12.10- 26 is compared with mythic episodes of destruction in the Cypria and the Hesiodic Ehoeae, and the “destruction” motif is revealed as prominent in Near Eastern traditions as well. This is how the Iliad handles traditions: reverberation, but transformation through components of the mythological complex and crossed episodes in Iliadic allusions. Slatkin concludes that Thetis’ role, or perhaps her power, is to demonstrate why human beings must die. That is the power of Thetis, which is intimately connected to the allusive conception of destruction that indicates mortality.

The first essay in the Second Part, “Theban Traces at Troy,” examines Diomedes’ role as a foil to Achilles. Some comparisons are drawn with Achilles. First, both are frequently given their patronymic reference. In Diomedes’ case, ‘son of Tydeus’ reiterates his inextricable identification with his father and recalls Tydeus’ accomplishments. Secondly, Achilles and Diomedes share a relationship with Athene. However, Diomedes’ prayer to Athene is anomalous (10. 278-282, 5. 121-126, etc). He appeals to the goddess on the basis of her previous affection and favor for Tydeus, not himself. Further, despite Athene’s assistance in returning Achilles’ spear to him in book 22, Athene herself shoves in the spear when she and Diomedes attack Ares together. Noticing Athene’s extraordinary affection for Diomedes, Slatkin distinguishes Diomedes’ closeness to immortality. However, although Diomedes may possess a special connection with divinity though Tydeus, the achievements of Diomedes and Tydeus are highlighted in the absence of Achilles. Once Achilles returns to the battle, Diomedes disappears.

The second essay, “Les Amis Mortels,” discusses warriors’ conversations on the battlefield, in order to discover the rhetorical function and value of these verbal exchanges. In the process, interesting points are provided on the identification of philoi. For instance, threats in battle, by addressing one’s comrades and enemy, constitute a form of encouragement to both parties, due to the double-edged quality of words as weapons. The heroes thus acknowledge a special impact of language. Examining the seven occurrences of “be men”, inextricable correlations between incitement, insult, promotion, or intimidation within philoi; comrades and enemies, are discussed. In battle, a soldier’s life is as much in the hands of his friends as of his enemies. Conversely, the one who knows you best is your enemy. You share the moment of truth with each other: strengths, weaknesses, courage, and fear. This intimate enemy seems paradoxical, but the blurring of boundaries and identities is fundamental: “What words can do on the battlefield, beyond any weapon, is indicated in the hortatory rebukes that, figuratively rendering the philoi as enemies, challenge them continually to reaffirm their status as philoi (p. 137).”

The third essay, “Composition by Theme and the Mêtis of the Odyssey,” addresses the complicated narrative structure of the Odyssey by foregrounding the poem’s relationship to oral tradition and audiences. Assuming that all narratives are relational, Slatkin traces multiforms, thematic variants and story-patterns in the Odyssey. The Agamemnon-Orestes episode offers one example of an ‘alternative narrative model’ (p. 144). Many characters narrate Odysseus’s story in their own ways, which makes audiences unable to figure out what a straight story is. Thus, the back-and-forth narrative structure invites audiences to think about stories, questioning, perpetually. The Kalypso episode, for instance, creates a puzzling disparity between the version that Odysseus tells and the outer epic narrative. To explain this disparity, Slatkin construes the association between human suffering, spinning and weaving, mêtis, and Odysseus himself. The meaning and values of mêtis connote implications of weaving, plaiting, or fitting together, as the mêtis-associated terminology is regularly related to those techniques. Odysseus appears repeatedly with his epithet polumêtis. Therefore, the narrative of the Odyssey embodies a mêtis of its own, in its many weavings, its reversals, and its twisting of time.

The next essay, “Genre and Generation in the Odyssey,” examines the interdependences between Hesiod and Homer, through the functioning of δíκη. Slatkin especially seeks to comprehend the distinctions or differentiations between them, which can be viewed as a relationship of interdependence. The author attempts to elucidate the complementarity between Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. In both poems, human morality is informed by δíκη. Without the existence of δíκη, we are unable to identify ourselves, the members of our society, or our relationships to them. Only when Odysseus returns is δíκη restored; a proper order or recognition comes back, allowing Telemachus and Penelope to know what they look like themselves. The Odyssey encompasses social order, which illustrates an interdependent and complementary relationship with Hesiod through the idea of δíκη. Homeric epic thus seeks to preempt other genres, to be the “genre of genres (p. 165).”

The fifth essay, “The Poetics of Exchange in the Iliad,” focuses on reciprocity, the gift-exchange system, which crucially affects social interactions. Slatkin seeks to understand the Iliad’s paradigm of exchange through investigating passages where equilibrium and disequilibrium are presented (15. 410-413, 16. 661-662, and 17. 400-401). Intriguingly, the war is drawn out into equilibrium, and it is actually intensified in its evenness. The language of gauging is crucial to determine value as a function of relative measurement. More significantly, one question to arise is, what is “equal”? Scrutinising some expressions, including δαίμονι ἶσος, Slatkin proposes that each occurrence strengthens differences between the human and the divine. The function of Zeus’ scales, in particular, which never remain in equipoise, is after all an economic activity, so the motif must evoke a process of following transactions. Warriors’ confrontations on the battlefield are also recognised as an economy of reciprocal exchanges. They care whether the death is worthwhile for the exchange: warrior’s deaths are figuratively measured to meet a standard of parity. They do not speak of inflicting harm or hurting people, but of making each other pay.

The sixth essay, “Measuring Authority, Authoritative Measures,” shifts attention to Hesiod’s Works and Days, exploring the relationship between nature and morality in early Greece. The poem basically instructs us on ethical behavior and justice in social order. The quarrel between Zeus and Prometheus, for instance, which eventually is related to Pandora’s story, establishes not only justice but also a new system between gods and men, i.e., men become more dependent on gods. After the reciprocal exchange, human existence depends on cosmic forces and natural phenomena. In short, human beings are compelled to work, i.e., cultivate. Measurement is required for everything. In this circumstance, a “share” or “portion,” must be carefully measured, so that the skill in conducting social and economic transactions is vital to survive. Moreover, neighbors are important for their survival through giving and receiving exchange. It is thus suggested that Works and Days describes adherence to due season and fair measure as key factors for mutual dependence and the ethical ordering of society.

The last essay, “Remembering Nicole Loraux Remembering Athens,” is Slatkin’s review of Loraux’s work on Athenian self-representations. Particularly focusing on The Invention of Athens, which Slatkin calls “the magical volume,” Slatkin analyses the style of Loraux’s argument, which steps forward and backward by posing questions, offering possible answers, taking detours, and providing suggestions we must (re)consider. Although Slatkin admits that it is impossible to describe Loraux’s research fully, she summarises what Loraux offers us: that in order to open up Greek thought, we do not need images of ourselves but rather the problems to think with and the figures to think through.

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