In the history of big fat Greek weddings, I’m pretty sure this is the mother of them all. There’s never been a more celebrated wedding than the union of Thetis and Peleus, the parents-to-be of Achilles. Not just capturing the imaginations of ancient Greeks, generations of humans all over the earth have been happily ever after enjoying this magical, Olympian star-studded feast of the gods in literature and art through the ages.
Some wars start off with a whimper and end with a bang. For example, the secretive, racist agenda that crept surreptitiously into Germany with the rise of Adolph Hitler grew into an unforgettable monstrosity of carnage that lasted six years and encompassed practically the whole human race. Climaxing horrifically, World War II came to an abrupt end in less than one month, after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan.
The Trojan War Started With a Royal, Bang-Up Bash
The Trojan War, on the other hand, started off with a colossal clash between Olympian Zeus and his brother, Poseidon. Fortunately, their strife soon morphed into a royal bang-up bash of a totally different variety. Granted, it was probably the greatest party ever given in the history of mankind, but it, too, led to an unforgettable monstrosity of carnage.
Will humans ever be free from war? Throughout the earth and through the ages, we’ve been applying experiences, talents, and skills to studying the lessons of war. As the earliest recorded military ops in Western literature, the Trojan War has likely been studied more than any other war since the advent of structured education.
Ideally, humans should be free from warfare after all these years of studying, but realistically we all come to class with incredibly diverse perspectives. The lessons learned from studying war are as diverse as the students doing the studying. Everyone’s takeaway will likely differ, but that’s no reason to cancel the class.
Among the upcoming posts, I’ll be sporadically surveying some famous episodes related to the Trojan War from artists’ perspectives throughout the ages. As I’ve already covered Hephaistos forging Achilles’ shield, and his mother, Thetis, delivering his new armor to Achilles, you probably can tell that researching artworks of the Trojan War is one of my favorite pastimes.
I think it’s fascinating that Homer’s Iliad has such unfading power to capture our imaginations and I enjoy seeing if/how an artist’s philosophy may have influenced the depiction of this ancient confrontation.
Depicting the Past as the Present
Writing for Getty’s The Iris, Mary Louise Hart apparently shares this same interest in researching Trojan War art. In her article, A Lasting War: Representing Troy in Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, Hart notes:
Because the Trojan War remained so potent as story and propaganda, both medieval illuminators and Greek vase-painters represented it as a contemporary conflict. In art, the past was depicted as the present.
…Both the ancient Greeks and the medieval Europeans who contemplated and discussed these images understood that their revered ancestors had lived in an earlier and different kind of age. But for them, the Trojan past lived vividly in the present.
As artworks throughout the ages reveal, the Trojan War continues to live vividly in the present, occupying our imaginations and fueling our favorite pastimes.
How Did the Trojan War Start?
Of course, the most popular explanation for how the Trojan War started is the abduction of Helen, wife of Menelaos and sister-in-law to Agamemnon, the High King of the ancient Greek Achaians. She was considered the most beautiful mortal woman alive at that time. And, certainly, the famously beautiful “face that launched a thousand ships” on an expedition to Troy to reclaim her was a powerfully motivating factor. However, the roots of the Trojan War stretch back a bit deeper into ancient Greek mythology.
In the early swirling mists of prehistoric Greece, the Titans had not yet relinquished full control over the fates of gods and mortals. Even Olympian Zeus bowed to the decrees of the Titaness Themis in matters of family relationships, moral, and social obligations. So it was that a decree of Themis set the Trojan War story in motion, beginning about a generation earlier than the abduction of Helen. This was the moment in time when Themis announced the fate of another legendary beauty, Thetis, the sea-nymph who would become the mother of Achilles.
According to Greek poet Hesiod (ca. 700 BCE), in Theogony (135), Themis was one of the six sons and daughters of the Titans Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky). Themis was the ancient Greek personification of divine law and social order; Zeus was her only recorded consort.
From Zeus, Themis gave birth to the four Horae (or Hours), representatives of the seasons and the natural portions of time, as well as other children, such as Natura, an ancient Greek goddess of the forest.
Themis Decrees the Fate of Thetis
The first spark of the Trojan War was lit with the decree of Thetis’ fate announced by Themis.
Rather than just tell you the story, let’s hear it from Pindar, instead. A beloved Greek lyric composer in the 5th century BCE, Pindar relates this legend in his Isthmian Ode 8 (27-53):
...All this was remembered even by the assembly of the blessed gods,
when Zeus and splendid Poseidon contended for marriage with Thetis,
each of them wanting her to be his lovely bride; for desire possessed them.
 But the immortal minds of the gods did not accomplish
that marriage for them, when they heard the divine prophecies.
Wise Themis spoke in their midst and said that it was fated
that the sea-goddess should bear a princely son,
stronger than his father, who would wield another weapon
in his hand more powerful than the thunderbolt
 or the irresistible trident,
if she lay with Zeus or one of his brothers.
“No, cease from this. Let her accept a mortal’s bed,
and see her son die in battle, a son who is like Ares in the strength
of his hands and like lightning in the swift prime of his feet.
My counsel is to bestow this god-granted honor of marriage
on Peleus son of Aeacus,  who is said to be the most pious man
living on the plain of Iolcus.
“Let the message be sent at once to Cheiron’s immortal cave,
right away, and let the daughter of Nereus never again
place the leaves of strife in our hands.
On the evening of the full moon  let her loosen
the lovely bridle of her virginity for that hero.”
So the goddess spoke, addressing the sons of Cronus,
and they nodded assent with their immortal brows.
The fruit of her words did not perish,
for they say that Zeus shared the common concern
even for the marriage of Thetis.
And the voices of poets made known the youthful excellence
of Achilles to those who had been unaware of it—
Achilles, who  stained the vine-covered plain of Mysia,
spattering it with the dark blood of Telephus,
and bridged a homecoming for the Atreids, and freed Helen,
cutting with his spear the sinews of Troy…
Alternatively, we can hear another account of who decided the fate of Thetis in Homer’s Iliad, Book 24 (59-61):
(Hera is speaking) “…Achilles is the child of a goddess that I mine own self
 fostered and reared, and gave to a warrior to be his wife,
even to Peleus, who was heartily dear to the immortals…”
“The author of the Cypria says that Thetis, to please Hera,
avoided union with Zeus, at which he was enraged
and swore that she should be the wife of a mortal.
Hesiod also has the like account.”
And even Pindar, that clever lyric poet and diplomat, covered two of these bases by alternatively relating in his Nemean Ode 5 (34-37):
…And from the sky Zeus who rouses the clouds noticed,
 Zeus the king of the immortals, and he promised that soon
he would make one of the Nereids of the golden distaff
the sea-dwelling wife of Peleus, after gaining
the consent of their brother-in-law Poseidon
Whomever you prefer to give the credit to, the result was the same: Zeus and Poseidon got over their Olympic-sized spat as well as their infatuation with Thetis, and the mortal Peleus was given the green light to marry her.
Thetis, on the other hand, was not particularly thrilled by the decision of her fellow gods and goddesses, and “on the evening of the full moon,” was not particularly compliant. In fact, it took two attempts before Peleus finally subdued his shape-shifting sea-nymph bride.
My favorite narration of the struggle of Thetis to evade Peleus is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (11:221-ff):
There is a curved bay of Haemonia, where like an arch,
two bending arms project out in the waves, as if to form a harbor;
but the water is not deep—although enough to hide a shoal of sand.
It has a firm shore which will not retain a foot’s impression,
nor delay the step—no seaweeds grow in that vicinity.
There is a grove of myrtle near that place
thick-hung with berries, blended of twin shades.
A cave within the middle of that grove is found,
and whether it was formed by art or nature is not known,
although it seems a work of art.
There Thetis often went, quite naked,
seated on her dolphin, which was harnessed.
Peleus seized her there when she was fast asleep:
and after he had tried to win her by entreaties,
while she long continued to resist him,
he resolved to conquer her by violence,
and seized her neck with both arms.
She resorted then to all her usual art,
and often changed her shape as it was known,
so that he failed in his attempt.
At first she was a bird,
but while she seemed a bird he held her fast;
and then she changed herself to a large tree,
and Peleus clung with ardor to the tree;
her third disguise was as a spotted tigress,
which frightened him so that he lost his hold.
Then, as he poured wine on the heaving sea,
he prayed unto the sea green gods and gave them sacrifice
of sheep entrails, and smoke of frankincense.
He ceased not, till at last the prophet of Carpathia,
as he rose up from a deep wave, said,
“Hark unto me, O son of Aeacus!
and you shall have the bride your heart desires:
when she at rest lies sleeping in the cool wave,
you must bind her while she is unwary,
with strong cords and complicated bonds,
And never let her arts deceive you
when she imitates a hundred varied forms,
but hold her fast, whatever she may seem,
until she shall at length assume the shape
she had at first.”
So Proteus cautioned him,
and hid his face beneath the waves
as his last words were said.
Now Titan was descending
and the pole of his bright chariot as it downward bent
illuminated the Hesperian main;
and at that time the lovely Nereid, Thetis,
departing from her ocean wave,
entered the cavern for desired repose.
Peleus was waiting there.
Immediately, just as he seized upon the virgin’s limbs,
she changed her shape and persevered
until convinced she could not overcome his hold—
for her two arms were forced apart—
she groaned and said, “You could not overcome me in this way,
but some divinity has given you the power.”
Then she appeared as Thetis:
and, when Peleus saw her now deprived of all deceptions,
he embraced her and was father of the great Achilles.
The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis in Art Through the Ages
Accepting her fate and embracing her new union with Peleus, Thetis finds herself blessed with the biggest, fattest Greek wedding the world would ever experience. As Pindar relates (without near as much excitement as Ovid) in his Nemean Ode 4 (64-69):
…And Peleus, having thwarted all-powerful fire,
and the sharp claws of bold-plotting lions,
and the edge of their terrible teeth, 
married one of the Nereids throned on high,
and saw the fine circle of seats in which
the lords of sky and sea were sitting,
as they gave him gifts and revealed
the future strength of his race.
Working our way chronologically (-ish) from the earliest dates to the most recent, the following is a survey of images depicting the wedding of Thetis and Peleus. I’ve also included passages from the ancient sources as they offer wonderful descriptions to accompany some of the images.
I think it’s wonderful to see the creative diversity, noticing if the events are portrayed as ancient or contemporary – from the earliest vase-paintings, all the way up to the latest pictures published in recent graphic novels and comic books.
You’ll notice that I’ve included images that depict Peleus capturing Thetis, too, together with images of the wedding. It seems impossible to separate the two events in the imaginations of artists (and mythology fans) throughout the ages.
And, although the “Judgement of Paris” is an integral part of the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, I’ve saved that episode for a later date because it’s so much fun that it deserves its own blog post.
I particularly love this painting by Joachim Wtewael, below, though. Not only for the portrayal of the Judgement of Paris, which is quite spectacular, but if you look carefully into the sky between the trees in the top-right quarter, you can see the arrival of the immortal horses, Xanthos and Balios, that Poseidon offers to Peleus as a wedding gift, and which will accompany Achilles to Troy.
Some of the images below include a reference to the golden apple incident, but this post is focusing more on the portrayal of Thetis’ big fat Greek wedding in art through the ages.
The Procession of Deities to the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. The François Vase, ca 570-565 BCE:
Unfortunately, In 1900 the François vase was smashed into 638 pieces by a museum guard, who hurled a wooden stool against the protective glass. It was later restored by Pietro Zei in 1902, followed by a second reconstruction in 1973 incorporating previously missing pieces.
Another vase of roughly the same period, known as the Sophilos Dinos, portrays the same procession of deities to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. It is still in excellent condition and may be viewed at the British Museum:
The Procession of Deities to the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. The Sophilos Dinos, ca. early 6th century BCE:
Peleus Capturing Thetis. Attic Amphora, ca. 510 BCE:
Peleus Capturing Thetis. Terracotta relief ca. 490–470 BCE:
Peleus Leads Thetis by the Hand to His Home on Pelion. Attic Pyxis, ca. 470–460 BCE:
(Hera addresses Thetis:)
“…But I gave thee the best of the sons of earth to be thy husband,
that thou mightest find a marriage dear to thy heart and bear children;
and I summoned to the feast the gods, one and all.
And with my own hand I raised the bridal torch,
in return for the kindly honour thou didst pay me.”
[Apollonius Rhodius, ca 3rd century BCE, Argonautica 4:805-810]
Peleus kidnapping Thetis. Red-figure volute krater, painted by Aurora Painter, 360-340 BCE. Copyright DEA/G. Nimatallah:
Peleus Capturing Thetis. The Portland Vase, Roman Cameo Glass, ca. 5-25 CE:
Thetis Sleeping. The Portland Vase, Roman Cameo Glass, ca. 5-25 CE:
Peleus Leading Thetis by the Hand, Encouraged by Hera, Drawing ca. 1588-1657 of a Roman Period Terracotta Relief:
The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis. 1767 Drawing by Winckelmann of a Roman sarcophagus in Villa Albani ca 3rd-century CE.
The following description of the above image comes from an English translation of Winckelmann’s Images from the Ancient World: Greek, Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian By Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Copyright 2010 by Dover Publications Inc.:
Plate 111: Sarcophagus in the Villa Albani: the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (they are at the far right); the gods bearing gifts are (right to left) Vulcan (sword and shield), Pallas, the four Horae, Hymenaeus, Hesperus, and Themis; in separate engravings, below, are Neptune and an amorino on a dolphin. [Translator’s note: The location and subject of the “very well-known” sarcophagus are confirmed; it is considered a late work (third century A.D.? even later?) and has been called “one last version” of the subject.] [my note: lol – “one last version” of the subject? Hardly!]
Peleus Waking Thetis. 1767 Drawing by Winckelmann from a Roman sarcophagus, ca 350 CE:
Beyond the 4th century CE Roman period, I wasn’t able to find any other images related to the marriage of Peleus and Thetis until the Middle Ages. The collapse of the Roman Empire really took a toll on artists’ creativity.
The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Miniature Illustration, ca. 1460 CE:
Deities Attending the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Miniature illustration, ca. 1460:
The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus. Bartolomeo de Giovanni, ca. 1490:
…The most beautiful chorus of Muses sang gladly
for the Aeacids on Mt. Pelion, and among them Apollo,
sweeping the seven-tongued lyre with a golden plectrum,
 led all types of strains.
And the Muses began with a prelude to Zeus,
then sang first of divine Thetis and of Peleus.
[Pindar, Nemean Ode 5 (23-25)]
The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis. Dirck de Quade van Ravesteyn, ca. 1565-1620:
The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis. Gillis van Valckenborch, ca. 1590-1622:
The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Cornelis van Haarlem, ca. 1593:
Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Joachim Wtewael, adapted from an engraving by Hendrik Goltzius, 1602:
The Nuptials of Thetis and Peleus. Hendrik de Clerck, ca. 1606-1609:
…Yet again he sang, singing of Peleus’ Bridal of Delight,
which all the blest Immortals brought to pass by Pelion’s crests;
sang of the ambrosial feast when the swift Hours
brought in immortal hands meats not of earth,
and heaped in golden maunds;
sang how the silver tables were set forth
in haste by Themis blithely laughing;
sang how breathed Hephaestus purest flame of fire;
sang how the Nymphs in golden chalices mingled ambrosia;
sang the ravishing dance twined by the Graces’ feet;
sang of the chant the Muses raised, and how its spell
enthralled all mountains, rivers, all the forest brood;
how raptured was the infinite firmament,
Cheiron’s fair caverns, yea, the very Gods.
[Quintus Smyrnaeus, ca. 4th-century CE, Fall of Troy 4 (142-168)]
The Wedding of Thetis and Peleus. Hendrick van Balen, ca. early 17th century:
When he [Zeus] came to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis,
he brought these wings as a gift for Thetis [i.e. the ankle-wings
of the Titaness Arke which Thetis would one day
attach to the feet of her son Achilles.]
Peleus, it is said, received on the occasion
of his marriage a sword from Hephaistos,
from Aphrodite a piece of jewelry on which was engraved an Eros,
from Poseidon some horses, Xanthos and Balios,
from Hera a chlamyde, from Athena a flute,
from Nereus a basket of the salt called ‘divine’
and which has an irresistible virtue for the appetite,
the taste of food and their digestion, whence the expression,
‘she poured the divine salt.’
[Ptolemy Hephaestion, 1st-2nd-century CE, New History Book 6
(summarized by Photius in Myriobiblon 190)]
The Wedding of Thetis and Peleus. Hendrick van Balen and Jan Brueghel the Elder, ca. 1630:
…And the gods shared their marriage feasts,
and seated upon golden thrones beside them
they saw the royal children of Kronos,
and received from them their wedding-gifts;
and by the grace of Zeus were from their former toils uplifted,
and peace was in their hearts established…
[Pindar, Pythian Ode 3 (93-96)]
The Feast of the gods. Frans Francken the Younger (II), ca. first half of the 17th century:
For at the marriage of Peleus and Thetis,
the gods gathered together on Pelion
to feast and brought Peleus gifts.
Kheiron gave him a stout ashen shaft
which he had cut for a spear,
and Athena, it is said, polished it,
and Hephaistos fitted it with a head.
The story is given by the author of the Cypria.
[Stasinus of Cyprus, via a scholiast on Homer’s Iliad 16 (140)]
The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. 17th Century Fresco by Agostino Carracci:
inviting all the blessed gods to the wedding, married,
taking her from the halls of Nereus to the home of Kheiron;
he loosened the pure maiden’s girdle, and
the love of Peleus and the best of Nereus’ daughters flourished;
and within the year she bore a son [Achilles],
the finest of demigods.
[Alcaeus, ca. 6th-century BCE, Fragment 42]
The Feast of the Gods at the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Abraham Bloëmart, 1638:
The Marriage Feast of Peleus and Thetis. Gerard de Lairesse, ca. 1668-1710:
Peleus Capturing Thetis. Majolica Ceramic Tile by Ferdinando Maria Campani, 1737:
Peleus Capturing Thetis. Replica of the Portland Vase by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, 1795:
Thetis Sleeping. Replica of the Portland Vase by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, 1795:
Peleus Abducts Thetis. Mural by August Theodor Kaselowsky, ca. mid-19th-century:
The Feast of Peleus. Edward Burne-Jones, ca. 1872-1881:
The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis. Chromolithograph of an antique fresco, 1890:
Peleus and Thetis, copyright 2009 by Erika Meriaux:
The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. © Miguel Sepulveda, 2009:
Distraction Distilled. A Study in Artistic Distillation of Wtewael’s 1610 The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis, Copyright by Josephine Devanbu, 2013:
Peleus and Thetis. © Leonard Porter, 2014:
The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. © Steve Simon, 2016:
Blackships Before Troy. Storyboard © alexander_martin, 2018:
Happily Ever After (Spoiler Alert!):
Without giving anything away from the events in between, let’s jump all the way to the end of the story of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis. I have to share this little tidbit because I discovered it along the way while researching all these great images of the biggest fattest Greek wedding in history and I just love this wonderful ending!
Peleus, because of the marriage-bed we once shared
I, Thetis, have left the house of Nereus and come here.
[…]As for yourself, in order that you may feel gratitude
for your marriage to me,  I shall set you free from mortal woe
and make you a god, deathless and exempt from decay.
[Euripides, Ancient Greek Tragedian, ca. 480-406 BCE. From Euripides’ Andromache,
with an English translation by David Kovacs. Cambridge. Harvard University Press]
This is truly a “Happily Ever After” ending, don’t you agree? ❤ ❤ ❤