The epic voyage of Thetis delivering Achilles’ spectacular new armor spans nearly 2,600 years of art history, adorning works as diverse as ancient Greek vases, magnificent gold jewelry, bronze chariots and silver coins, Royal Vienna ceramic plates, epic oil paintings, and modern Greek banknotes.
Fresh from the forge of Hephaistos, the blazing weapons include Achilles’ shield, helmet, breastplate, and leg greaves, presented to Thetis as Homer describes in the legendary pages of the Iliad:
when he had wrought the shield, great and sturdy,
 then wrought he for him a corselet
brighter than the blaze of fire,
and he wrought for him a heavy helmet, fitted to his temples,
a fair helm, richly-dight, and set thereon a crest of gold;
and he wrought him greaves of pliant tin.
But when the glorious god of the two strong arms
had fashioned all the armour,
 he took and laid it before the mother of Achilles.
And like a falcon she sprang down from snowy Olympus,
bearing the flashing armour from Hephaestus.
[Homer’s Iliad, Book 18:609-617 translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D.]
By delivering this immortal armor to her son, Thetis will enable Achilles to charge into the front lines of the battle in search of his fate, in search of Patroklos’ killer, Hektor, the thief who stole Achilles’ beloved and stripped him of Achilles’ own armor.
Thetis knows the weapons will not save Achilles from death – his death will follow close on the heels of Hektor’s death, but with these glorious arms, Achilles will avenge the death of his beloved companion Patroklos, usher in the closing act of the Trojan War, and he will attain the immortal glory that only a hero’s death can achieve.
 Now Dawn the saffron-robed arose from the streams of Oceanus
to bring light to immortals and to mortal men,
and Thetis came to the ships bearing gifts from the god.
And she found her dear son as he lay, clasping Patroclus,
 and wailing aloud; and in throngs round about him
his comrades were weeping.
Then in the midst of them the bright goddess came to his side,
and she clasped his hand, and spake and addressed him:
“My child, this man must we let be, for all our sorrow, to lie as he is,
seeing he hath been slain once for all by the will of the gods.
 But receive thou from Hephaestus glorious armour, exceeding fair,
such as never yet a man bare upon his shoulders.”
So saying the goddess set down the arms in front of Achilles,
and they all rang aloud in their splendour.
Then trembling seized all the Myrmidons,
 neither dared any man to look thereon, but they shrank in fear.
Howbeit, when Achilles saw the arms,
then came wrath upon him yet the more, and his eyes blazed forth
in terrible wise from beneath their lids, as it had been flame;
and he was glad as he held in his arms the glorious gifts of the god.
But when in his soul he had taken delight in gazing on the glory of them,
 forthwith to his mother he spake winged words:
“My mother, the arms that the god hath given
are such as the works of immortals should fitly be,
such as no mortal man could fashion.
Now therefore will I array me for battle”
[Homer’s Iliad, Book 19:1-24 translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D.]
The Ageless Appeal of Thetis Delivering Achilles’ Shield
Following up the recent post, Hephaestus Forging the Shield of Achilles in Art Through the Ages, the gallery of images in this post highlight the ageless appeal of Thetis’ delivery of Achilles’ shield and the rest of his glorious armor to her heroic son.
As artists from all over the world have been inspired by this epic delivery, it’s amazing to see the variety of images and the interesting variety of media chosen for such legendary adornment.
While terracotta vases from Greece and Southern Italy represent the vast majority of early representations of Thetis delivering Achilles’ armor, this famous scene was also chosen by goldsmiths at least as early as the 4th century BCE, as you will see below on the beautiful pendants found near the Cossack Village of Vyshesteblievskaya, Russia. (I can’t pronounce that, either)
But Where Did the Hippocampus Come From?
What’s really fascinating to me is all the depictions of Thetis riding a half horse-half sea monster, better known as a hippocampus, skimming the ocean waves with armor in hand, often accompanied by her sister Nereids. This seagoing mode of delivery is clearly not in accordance with Homer’s narrative – he says she flies ‘like a falcon’ down from Olympos – and, try as I might, I’ve had no luck at all finding a literary source for this clearly popular portrayal of Thetis riding a hippocampus.
Although the Iliad refers to the immortal horses of Poseidon as crossing the ocean without getting his chariot wet, it seems clear that the animals Homer describes are not significantly different in appearance from ‘regular’ horses:
Thither came [Poseidon], and let harness beneath his car
his two bronze hooved horses, swift of flight,
with flowing manes of gold;
 and with gold he clad himself about his body,
and grasped the well-wrought whip of gold,
and stepped upon his car, and set out to drive over the waves.
Then gambolled the sea-beasts beneath him on every side
from out the deeps, for well they knew their lord,
and in gladness the sea parted before him;
 right swiftly sped they on,
and the axle of bronze was not wetted beneath;
and unto the ships of the Achaeans
did the prancing steeds bear their lord.
[Homer’s Iliad: Book 13:17-31, Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D.]
Homer clearly doesn’t describe a team of horses with fish tails, but, at least as early as the 6th Century BCE, vase paintings begin portraying Poseidon’s horses as sea monster/horse hybrids. From this point forward, I guess it’s not difficult to imagine Thetis and her sea-nymph sisters riding these legendary sea creatures, too.
Throughout history, the portrayals of Thetis delivering Achilles’ immortal armor are divided into two basic categories: Thetis presenting the armor to Achilles, and Thetis carrying armor while riding a hippocampus or some version of a sea-beast (even a merman, or Triton), en route to Achilles. In both cases, she may or may not be accompanied by her sister sea-nymphs.
By the way, if you know of any literary source(s) mentioning Thetis delivering the armor of Achilles on a hippocampus, please leave me a message in the comment section, below. I’d really like to know where this fantastic inspiration came from!
I’ve tried to find as many portrayals of Thetis delivering Achilles’ armor as possible, and I’ve provided the sources with links in the image captions. It’s been a fun treasure hunt – I’ve even found study drawings for the two paintings by Benjamin West.
The images are arranged chronologically from the oldest to the most recent, with the dates noted in the titles. Can you imagine any other subject spanning 2,600 years of art history?
All of the following depictions are awesome, but I’m especially excited to find several very recent artworks depicting Thetis carrying the shield of Achilles – I’ll think you’ll be impressed, too!
–Please note that some of the images are copyrighted and their use in this blog post is meant only to highlight their existence. I appreciate the honor of featuring these artworks, but if any copyright owner is troubled by this, please notify me and I will gladly take down the image immediately.
Thetis Delivering Achilles’ Shield in Art Through the Ages:
I. Thetis Delivering New Armor to Achilles, Detail from an Attic Black-figure Hydria, ca. 575-550 BCE:
II. Thetis Presenting Achilles’ New Armor, Attic Black-figure Column Krater attributed to the Painter of London B76, ca. 560 BCE:
III. Thetis Presenting Achilles’ New Armor, Drawing of an Attic Black-figure Column Krater attributed to the Painter of London B76 (see II, above), ca. 560 BCE :
IV. The Arming of Achilles, Archaic Greek Black-figure Neck Amphora by the Camtar Painter, ca. 550 BCE:
V. Thetis Presenting New Armor to Achilles, Detail View of the Etruscan Bronze “Monteleone” Chariot, ca. 530 BCE:
VI. Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles, Attic Black-figure Amphora by the Amasis Painter, ca. 520-515 BCE:
VII. Thetis Consoling Achilles as Her Sisters Present New Armor From Hephaistos, Greek Red-figure Pelike, ca. 470 BCE:
VIII. Achilles Receiving His New Armor From Thetis, Red-figure Calyx Krater by the Altamura Painter, ca. 470-460 BCE:
IX. Achilles Receiving His New Armor From Thetis, Red-figure Stamnos by the Deepdene Painter, ca. 470-460 BCE:
X. Thetis Brings Grieving Achilles His New Weapons, Attic Red-figure Volute Krater, ca. 460 BCE:
XI. Thetis and Nereids Delivering New Armor to Achilles, Attic Red-Figure Bell Krater in the Style of the Niobid Painter, ca. 450 BCE:
XII. Thetis Giving Achilles His New Armor Forged by Hephaistos, Attic Red-figure Amphora by Hermonax, ca. 450 BCE:
XIII. Achilles Sitting on Shore as Thetis and Nereids Arrive With His New Armor, Detail from Side A, Greek Apulian Red-figure Pelike in the Style of the Gravina Painter, ca. 425-400 BCE:
XIV. Thetis and Nereids Riding Sea Creatures, Delivering Achilles’ New Armor, Full view of Side B, Greek Apulian Red-Figure Pelike, ca. 425-400 BCE:
XV. Thetis Seated on a Hippocampus, Carrying Achilles’ Shield, Bronze Coin from Larissa Kremaste, Thessaly, Greece, ca. Mid 4th Century BCE:
XVI. Thetis Seated on a Hippocampus, Delivering the Spear and Shield of Achilles, Ancient Greek Mosaic from Eretria, ca. 400-350 BCE:
XVII. Nereids Riding Hippocampoi, Delivering Achilles’ New Armor, Gold Pendants found in Vyshesteblievskaya, Russia. ca. 4th Century BCE:
XVIII. Thetis Riding a Hippocampus, Delivering Achilles’ New Armor, Athenian Red-figure Kylix Tondo by the Q Painter, ca. 400-300 BCE:
XIX. Thetis and Nereid Riding Hippocamps, Delivering Achilles’ New Weapons, Bronze Basin Handle from Greece, ca. 4th Century BCE:
XX. Thetis and Nereids Conveying the Armour of Achilles, Attic Red-figure Bell Krater ca 350 BCE:
XXI. Thetis and a Nereid Riding Hippocamps, Carrying Achilles’ New Armor, Greek Apulian Red-figure Patera by the Baltimore Painter Group, ca. 330 BCE:
XXII. Thetis Delivering Achilles’ Armor, Greek Apulian Red-figure Krater by the Baltimore Painter, ca. 330 BCE:
XXIII. Thetis Seated on a Hippocampus, Carrying Achilles’ Shield, Terracotta Statue in the Louvre, ca. 300 BCE:
XXIV. Thetis Riding a Hippocampus, Delivering Achilles’ Shield, Silver Coin From Epirus, Greece, ca. 297-272 BCE:
XXV. Thetis Riding a Triton Carrying Achilles’ Shield, Roman Marble Lunette, ca. 2nd Century CE:
XXVI. Thetis Giving Achilles His Arms, Giulio Romano [1499-1546]:
XXVII. Thetis Delivering Achilles’ New Armor Made by Vulcan, Engraving by Crispin de Passe the Elder, ca. 1615:
XXVIII. Thetis Rearms Achilles, Engraving by Johann Balthasar Probst [1673 – 1748]:
XXIX. Thetis Ueberreicht dem Achilles die Waffen (Thetis gives Achilles the weapons), Royal Vienna Porcelain Scenic Plate, ca. 18th Century:
XXX. Thetis Delivers New Armor to Grieving Achilles, François Gérard, ca. 1782-1837:
XXXI. Thetis Delivers New Armor to Grieving Achilles, Copper Engraving by Tommaso Piroli after John Flaxman, ca. 1795:
XXXII. Achilles Mourning Patroklos as Thetis Arrives With New Weapons, Ceiling Mural by Francesco and Gian Battista Ballanti Graziani, in the Galleria d’Achille, Palazzo Milzetti, Faenza, Italy, ca. 1802-1805:
XXXIII. Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles I, Study Drawing, Benjamin West, ca. 1805:
XXXIV. Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles I, Benjamin West, 1806:
XXXV. Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles II, Study in Ink, Benjamin West, ca. 1805:
XXXVI. Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles II, Benjamin West, 1806:
XXXVII. Thetis Transporting Arms for Achilles, Bronze Figurine by William Theed the Elder, ca. 1804-1812:
XXXVIII. Thetis Portant l’Armure d’Achille (Thetis Carrying the Armor of Achilles), Engraving by Theodore Richomme after Baron Francois Gerard, 1827:
XXXIX. Achilles Receiving New Armor From Thetis, Wall Mural by Carl Adolf Henning, ca. 1838-1856:
XL. Achilles and the Body of Patroclus, Nikolai Ge, ca. 1855:
XLI. Thetis Delivers to Achilles the Arms Forged by Vulcan, Henri Regnault, 1866:
XLII. Thetis Riding a Hippocampus, Delivering Achilles’ Shield, Silver Drachma from Greece, 1910:
XLIII. Thetis Riding a Hippocampus, Delivering Achilles’ Shield, Greek 1-Drachma Banknote, 1918:
XLIV. Thetis Riding a Hippocampus, Carrying Achilles’ Armor, Greek 5000-Drachma Banknote, 1945:
XLV. Thetis Upon a Hippocampus With Achilles’ Shield, Stained Glass Medallion by Alice Johnson, 1999:
XLVI. Fresh From the Forge – Thetis With Achilles’ New Armor, Digital Painting by catandcrown, 2012:
XLVII. Thetis With Achilles’ Shield and Helmet, NeoPagan Prayer Card by Grace Palmer, 2017:
XLVIII. Thetis With Achilles’ Shield, Watercolor by Nenril-Tf, 2018:
Which is Your Favorite Image?
Since this is my favorite topic in basically the whole universe, it’s hard for me to choose which is my favorite image, although I’m really drawn to Thetis delivers to Achilles the arms forged by Vulcan by Henri Regnault (XLI). On the other hand, I treated myself to the 1910 silver drachma with Thetis carrying Achilles’ shield after finding one on eBay on my last birthday. It’s my favorite treasured possession!
Have you decided which is your favorite image? I’d love to know!