BMCR 1992.03.16

The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad

, The power of Thetis: allusion and interpretation in the Iliad. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. xvii, 137 pages=. ISBN 9780520072510. $25.00.

In Eavan Boland’s poem “An Old Steel Engraving” we are asked to look at an engraving, but then to look again, “more closely now: / … at the spaces on the page,” where “nothing can move until we find the word, / nothing can stir until we say this is / what happened and is happening.” Boland asks us to look at what is not there, what is conspicuously absent, because that is what defines and shades and even creates what we do see.

That is the way of reading Slatkin encourages in this book. She listens for the conspicuous silences in the Iliad; she then helps us to understand the significance of these silences, in order to inform and refine our attention to what Slatkin sees as the central issue of the Iliad, which is mortality. Near the end of the book Slatkin gives us what could be a focusing statement for her project: “The price of Zeus’ hegemony is Achilles’ death. This is the definitive instance of the potency of myths in Homeric epic that exert their influence on the subject matter of the poem yet do not ‘surface.'” (p.101). The silences turn out to be central.

Slatkin’s study depends upon an exemplary trust in the Iliad : that it is complex and coherent enough to reward such detailed explication. In Slatkin’s Iliad gaps and silences and significant omissions are not to be treated as evidence for the analyst, nor as a reflex of oral composition, nor even as a sign of Derridean “differance.” Slatkin, rather, in a generous and appreciative fashion, listens closely for what is left unsaid but alluded to in the poem, then asks what that could possibly mean to Homer’s audiences. Her aim is hermeneutic: “to gain greater access to what Homer’s audience heard in the epics” (p.8). She sifts out the traditions of myth that would have been in play, traditions evoked but not included in the Iliad. The most conspicuously marked silence turns out to be, as Slatkin’s title suggests, the history of Thetis prior to the Trojan war and the birth of Achilles. The allusive treatment of Thetis’ past is Slatkin’s crux for understanding the innovative focus of the Iliad : “In defining Thetis … the poem defines itself” (p.7).

The first chapter (“The Helplessness of Thetis”) proposes two questions, one that sets the whole book in motion and one that is the focus of this particular chapter. The dominant question will be: Why does Thetis, an apparently minor character, have such power over Zeus that she can effectively initiate the entire plot of the Iliad ? Slatkin returns to this question in chapter two, but the immediate question is: Why does Thetis, who has such power, characterize herself only as a victim, a figure of lamentation and grief? Slatkin uses the parallel (suggested by the poem) of Aurora and her son Memnon. Aurora obtained immortality for Memnon, though he was born of a mortal father. Thetis, in contrast, is helpless to help her mortal son. The Iliad thus alludes to and revises the mythology of an immortal mother gaining immortality for a mortal child. Thetis laments because she is in the role of protectress, but cannot protect. Slatkin argues that Achilles’ mortality and the helplessness of Thetis to countermand it define the Iliad, and mark its innovation, its selection and adaptation of the traditions. The necessity of death becomes the center of the poem; Slatkin calls this a “growth in the idea of the hero,” which is played out in the Iliad.

Thetis can lament but never prevent Achilles’ death. But why? This is Slatkin’s next question, which leads to the superb second chapter (“The Power of Thetis”), which is the fulcrum of the book. Slatkin sets up the discussion as follows:

The most startling silence in the voluble divine community of the Iliad is the absence of any reproach made to Thetis for her drastic intervention in the war. What accounts for Thetis’s compelling influence over Zeus, and, equally puzzling, for her freedom from recrimination and retaliation by the other Olympians? (p.53)

Slatkin answers by turning to Thetis’ past, included by allusion alone. This past is marked by a remarkable ability to protect gods; as it happens, she not only protected Hephaestus and Dionysus from the other gods, but saved even Zeus himself when the Olympians had revolted and were about to bind him down. Thetis therein demonstrates “a level of divine invulnerability extraordinary by Olympian standards” (p.59).

Her traditional role, then, as protectress of the gods explains Thetis’ authority and power over Zeus. But it is thus all the more surprising that she cannot save her son. Slatkin draws in another aspect of Thetis’ past to explain this limitation of her otherwise extraordinary powers. Slatkin leads us from allusions in the text, through the tradition behind them (available to us in Aeschylus and Pindar), to the following tale. Zeus and Poseidon were competing for Thetis’ affections, but Themis told them that Thetis would bear a son greater than his father, and that a marriage between Thetis and any Olympian would lead to disaster. Themis advised not only that Thetis be wed to a mortal but that she also see her son die in war. Achilles’ death is necessary because Thetis’ reproductive power has the potential to cause a “catastrophic neikos on the scale of previous intergenerational struggles” on Olympus (p.73). Achilles’ death is the cost of maintaining the Olympian status quo. This is Slatkin’s most penetrating and convincing chapter; here her arguments are at their best in their ability to lead us to conclusions that seem both inevitable and surprising. A sign of her success is that her points seem obvious, but only after she has prepared us for them and drawn us to them.

With this mythological background now in play, Slatkin turns to a consequent question: What if Thetis, who has such power and feels that she has been wronged, is angered? In the third chapter (“The Wrath of Thetis”) Slatkin borrows a formulation from Nagy as a framework for her argument: grief (akhos) leads to wrath (menis) which leads in turn to grief and suffering for others. While the Iliad treats only the grief of Thetis, it alludes to a potentially fearsome wrath. Slatkin here uses the correspondence, implicit in the Iliad, between Thetis and Demeter, an exemplary figure of both grief and wrath over a child. In a paragraph that could serve as a precis of her method, Slatkin says:

It is more useful to ask, not why the Iliad omits specific mention of menis of Thetis, but why it gives us so much evidence for one; and why at crucial points in the narrative it reminds its audience, by allusion, of the theogonic mythology of Thetis as a cosmic force. Questions of this kind may be said to motivate an en quiry like the present one, whose goal is to reinforce our awareness of how and for what purposes Homeric epic integrates diverse mythological material into its narrative, and how such material serves a coherent thematic imperative. (p.100)

The Iliad hints that the death of Achilles might trigger the wrath of Thetis, whose extra-Olympian power cannot be incorporated into the Olympian order. Her wrath must be abated, and her power must be accomodated to prevent the consequences of that wrath. Slatkin argues that the plot of the Iliad acts out this accomodation, which entails that Thetis accept that “cosmic equilibrium is bought at the cost of human mortality” (p.103). This chapter, while just as exciting as the others, is a bit less convincing: the parallels are more tenuous, and I keep asking myself why Zeus could not forbid her from acting out her wrath, since he was able to prevent her from marrying an Olympian. In this chapter, however, Slatkin has continued to give us possibilities to consider as we read and live with the Iliad.

The final chapter (“Allusion and Interpretation”) draws back to treat the self-definition of the Iliad in relation to the mythology to which it alludes. The allusions signal “a constellation of themes that establish bearings for the poem as it unfolds” (p.108). In the case of Thetis the allusions to her past remind us of the “history of contention and struggle” behind the apparently secure Olympian order. We can now see that this insecurity of the Olympian order leads to the divine insistence on Achilles’ death, which Slatkin sees as the touchstone of the Iliad. She ends this chapter, and the book, on a general note: Thetis’ forced marriage to Peleus and her inability to save her son are the salient features of the innovative focus of the Iliad. Thetis in her relationship to Achilles serves as “a paradeigmatic explanation of why human beings, in order not to threaten to be greater than their divine parents, must die” (p.122).

This is an excellent book. I have learned much from reading it and have already made use of it in both my writing and my teaching. (All the Greek is translated, and hence the book is suitable—and recommended—for civ. classes.) In reading the silences, the aural equivalent of the “spaces on the page,” Slatkin is both careful and bold: she combs with care through the language of Homer, but is not afraid to make bold inferences and associations. This makes the book both authoritative in its use of evidence and refreshingly speculative in its arguments. Those bent on proof (whom I have recently heard called “proof-mongers”) will find fault with parts of the book, for there are other answers to some of the questions Slatkin poses. Nevertheless, the accumulation of suggestive evidence, the logical progression of her argument, and the consistency of her explanations coalesce into a book that has changed the way I read the Iliad. She brings me a bit closer to the range of associations that would have been swirling around and within and out of the Iliad in early Greece.

I should also mention Slatkin’s ability to write: some of the vigor of the book is due to the fine weave of phrase to phrase, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and chapter to chapter. Particularly striking is the deft and frequent and effective use of rhetorical questions to engage and orient the reader. Such stylish writing gives the book an exemplary liveliness and momentum. The Power of Thetis is not only useful and compelling, but also a pleasure to read.