The Trojan War (Jean–Pierre Vernant)

The Trojan War (Jean–Pierre Vernant)

There is Mount Pelion, in Greece; there is Mount Ida, in Trojan territory; and there is Mount Taygetus at Sparta. These are very high peaks – that is, places where the distance between the gods and humans is less than it is elsewhere; where the frontiers between mortals and immortals, while not entirely absent, do become somewhat porous. Occasionally there is some slippage between what is divine and what is human. Sometimes and this is the case with the Trojan War – the gods make use of that proximity, of those encounters up on the peaks, to pass along to humans the misfortunes and catastrophes they want to shed, expelling them from the shining realm where they have set up headquarters and setting them down onto the earth’s surface.

So it all begins on Mount Pelion, with the wedding of King Peleus of Phthia to the nereid Thetis. Like her fifty sister sea nymphs, who populate the surface waters and the ocean deeps with their propitious and lovely presence. Thetis is the daughter of Nereus, known as the Old Man of the Sea. Nereus is himself a son of Pontus -Sea- whom Gaia produced at the same time she did Uranus, Sky, at the beginning of the universe. Through their mother, Doris, the nereids are descended from Oceanus, the primordial cosmic river, who girdles the universe and grips it within the circular network of his waters. Together with Amphitryon, Thetis is perhaps one of the most representative of the nereids. Like other sea goddesses, she has a spectacular gift for metamorphosis. She can take any form – she can turn into a lion, a flame, a palm tree or bird or fish. She has a vast repertory of transformations. Being a sea goddess, she is utter fluidity, as water is; no form hinds her. She can shift constantly from one look to another, escape her own appearance like water flowing away between the fingers, impossible to hold. That goddess -perhaps just because of that extreme suppleness, that ungraspable fluidity – represents for the Greeks a kind of power that only a few deities were granted when prerogatives were being doled out – for instance, the one whom Zeus married the first time around, the goddess Metis.

As we have seen, Zeus did not merely wed Metis as he did other goddesses; he also made her his first consort, because he knew that for the very reason of her extraordinary qualities of suppleness, subtlety, fluid style, a child that Metis should bear him would turn out to be cleverer and more powerful than he. That is why no sooner does he make the goddess pregnant than by trickery, lie swallows her down and absorbs her into himself. The forthcoming offspring will be Athena, and there will be no others. Metis’s subtle, undulating power is now entirely enclosed in Zeus’s body. And therefore there will never be a son to conquer his father when the time comes. This is opposite to the customary lot of humans: Howeever strong a man may, however powerful, intelligent, regal, and sovereign, the day comes when time does him in, when age weighs him down, and when consequently, the offspring is created, the little ryke he used to bounce on his knee and protect and nourish becomes a man who is stronger than his father and is destined to take his place. But in the world of the gods, once Zeus is enthroned and established, nothing and no one can set him aside and sit on his throne.

As to Thetis: With her gift, her magic for metamorphosis, she is a ravishing creature, deeply seductive. Two major gods are enamored of her: Zeus and Poseidon. They are vying for her, and each of them expects to marry her. In Zeus’s conflict with Prometheus within the world of the gods, one weapon Prometheus holds in reserve – a card he can play – is that he and he alone knows a dreadful secret about this Thetis business: that a child of Thetis is destined to overthrow his father. So if Zeus gets his wish, if he does succeed in mating with her, their child will one day inflict on him what Zeus himself inflicted on his father, Cronus; and Cronus on his father, Uranus. The war of the generations the rivalry that sets young against old, father against son – would enter the world of the gods for all time, and would endlessly call into question the system Zeus intended to be immutable, the way he established it in his position as sovereign of the universe.

How does Zeus manage to learn Prometheus’s secret? One story tells that the two come to some reconciliation, and that the king of the gods authorizes Heracles to free the Titan on condition that he reveal the secret. Zeus is thus forewarned of the danger, and so is Poseidon. Both gods renounce the idea of union with Thetis. So must she remain a virgin forever, and never know love? No, the gods are magnanimous; they will unload onto mankind the fateful truth that, when the time comes, one must step aside for the young. Thetis does later bear a mortal child who is in every regard extraordinary, and who dies surpass his father in every realm: a model hero who represents the very pinnacle of warrior virtues in the human world. He will be the best, matchless. Who is that child to be? Thetis’s son by Peleus, Achilles. He is one of the major figures of Trojan War, whose very outbreak is bound up in this whole affair.





The Universe, The Gods And Mortals

Vernant Jean Pierre



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