115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Mythic Doubles in the Iliad: Hera and Thetis

Seemee Ali, Carthage College

In the Iliad’s closing book, Hera, queen of Olympos, reveals that she nurtured and raised the outcast goddess, Thetis. The revelation is surprising: until this moment, the goddesses have appeared as polar opposites of each other. This paper considers the goddesses’ uncanny identity as mythic “doubles.”

Proposal: 

     The mythic bifurcation of a single self into a “double,” or twin, figure is a recurring motif in folklore and literature. In ancient Greek mythology, a rarely considered example of the phenomenon occurs in the figures of Hera and Thetis. Both are feminine deities crucial to the action of Homer’s Iliad. Considering Hera and Thetis as “doubles” of one another can therefore shed new light on the story the Iliad tells.
     For the most part, however, the two goddesses do not and structurally cannot appear on the stage of the Iliad together. Rather, Homer methodically casts the goddesses as opposites: Thetis is a water-goddess, fluid; Hera, who dwells on Mount Olympos, is stolid. Thetis represents herself as the most dishonored of the gods; Hera understands herself as a powerful leader among them. Thetis defines herself primarily as a mother; Hera seems to disregard her motherhood. Thetis’ son, Achilles, is the most beautiful and charismatic of mortals; Hera’s sons are deformed (Hephaistos), reviled (Ares) and monstrous (Typhon) deities. Thetis is alienated from her mortal husband, Peleus; Hera is a vital force in immortal Zeus’ imagination (and vice versa). Thetis offers a haven to outcast gods, Hera’s son Hephaistos among them; Hera champions heroes among mortals, Thetis’ son Achilles among them. Thetis is the paragon of tragic gravity; Hera is almost comically shrewish.
     Moreover, in Book I of the epic, Hera and Thetis seem directly to compete with each other for the attention of Zeus, with Hera showing anger that Zeus has met with her apparent rival, Thetis, in secret, without consulting her.
      Yet despite the sustained structural opposition of these two feminine deities, Hera declares (in the epic’s final book) that she herself nurtured and raised Thetis (24.59-60). In light of Hera’s late acknowledgement, it begins to seem that both goddesses together present the full range of a whole reality or mode of imagination. Certain essential similarities – in their ambivalent relations with the sovereign god Zeus; their common love of the mortal hero, Achilles; and their mutual mastery of metis (cunning intelligence) – begin to suggest the identity of these otherwise polarized deities.
     My paper further proposes that the division that Hera and Thetis individually represent is mirrored in the thorough-going division of the fractious Homeric pantheon as a whole. The goddesses’ reconciliation at the conclusion of the epic suggests a new possibility of integration and cooperation among the Homeric gods, a newly harmonious polytheism.