28. PELEUS AND HIS BRIDE FROM THE SEA
Prince Peleus came on his ship to a bay on the coast of Thessaly. His painted ship lay between two great rocks, and from its deck he saw a sight that enchanted him. Out from the sea, riding on a dolphin, came a lovely maiden. And by her radiance Peleus knew she was one of the immortal goddesses.
Now Peleus had behaved so nobly in everything that he had won the favor of the gods themselves. Zeus, who is highest amongst the gods, had promised Peleus that he would honor him as no one amongst the sons of men had been honored before. He would give him an immortal goddess to be his bride.
The maiden who came out of the sea went into a cave that was overgrown with vines and roses. Peleus looked into the cave and he saw her sleeping upon skins of sea creatures. His heart was enchanted by the sight, and he knew that his heart would be broken if he did not see this goddess every day. So he went back to his ship and he prayed: ” Zeus, now I claim the promise that you once made to me. Let this goddess come with me, or else plunge my ship and me beneath the waves of the sea.”
When Peleus said this he looked over the land and the water for a sign from Zeus.
Even then the goddess sleeping in the cave had dreams such as she had never had before. She dreamt that she was taken away from the deep and wide sea. She dreamt that she was brought to a place that was strange and a prison to her. As she lay in the cave, sleeping, tears that never come into the eyes of an immortal rolled down her cheeks.
But Peleus, standing on his painted ship, saw a rainbow on the sea. He knew by that sign that Iris, the messenger of Zeus, had come down through the air. Then a strange sight came before his eyes. Out of the sea rose the head of a man wrinkled and bearded and the eyes were very old. Peleus knew that before him was Nereus, the ancient one of the sea.
Said old Nereus, “You have prayed to Zeus, and I am here to give an answer to your prayer. The woman you saw is Thetis, the goddess of the sea. She will be very reluctant to obey Zeus’s command and marry you. It is her desire to remain in the sea, unmarried, and she has refused marriage even with one of the immortal gods.”
Then Peleus said, “Zeus promised me an immortal bride. If Thetis is not mine I cannot marry any other goddess or mortal maiden.”
“Then you yourself will have to master Thetis,” said Nereus, the wise one of the sea. “If she is mastered by you, she cannot go back to the sea. She will try with all her strength and all her wit to escape from you, but you must hold her no matter what she does, and no matter how she shows herself. When you have seen her again as you saw her at first, you will know that you have mastered her.” When he had said this to Peleus, Nereus, the ancient one of the sea, went under the waves.
With his hero’s heart beating hard, Peleus went into the cave. Kneeling beside her he looked down on the goddess. The dress she wore was like green and silver mail. Her face and limbs were pearly, but through them came the radiance that belongs to the immortals.
He touched the hair of the goddess of the sea, the yellow hair that was so long that it could cover her completely. As he touched her hair she started up, wakening suddenly out of her sleep. His hands touched her hands and held them. Now he knew that if he should release his hold on her she would escape from him into the depths of the sea, and that thereafter no command from the immortals would bring her to him.
She changed into a white bird that tried to fly away. Peleus held onto its wings and struggled with the bird. She changed and became a tree. Peleus clung around the trunk of the tree. She changed once more, and this time her form became terrible. She was now a spotted leopard, with burning eyes but Peleus held onto the neck of the fierce leopard and was not frightened by the burning eyes. Then she changed and became as he had seen her first—a lovely maiden, with the face of a goddess, and long yellow hair.
But now there was no radiance in her face. She looked past Peleus, who held her, and out to the wide sea. “Who is he,” she cried, “who has been given this mastery over me?”
Then the hero said, “I am Peleus, and Zeus has given me mastery over you. Will you come with me, Thetis? You are my bride, given to me by he who is highest amongst the gods, and if you come with me, you will always be loved and respected by me.”
“I leave the sea unwillingly,” she cried,” I go with you Peleus ,unwillingly.”
But life in the sea was not for her any more now that she was mastered. She went to Peleus’s ship and she went to Phthia, his country. When the hero and the sea goddess were wedded the immortal gods and goddesses came to their hall and brought the bride and the bridegroom marvelous gifts. The three sisters who are called the Fates also came. These wise and ancient women said that the son born of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis would be a man greater than Peleus himself.
Now although a son was born to her, and although this son had something of the radiance of the immortals about him, Thetis remained moody and depressed. Nothing that her husband did was pleasing to her. Prince Peleus was afraid that the wildness of the sea would break out in her and that some great harm would happen in his house.
One night he awakened suddenly. He saw the fire on his hearth and he saw a figure standing by the fire. It was Thetis, his wife. The fire was blazing around something that she held in her hands. While she stood there she was singing to herself a strange-sounding song.
Then he saw what Thetis held in her hands and what the fire was blazing around. It was their child, Achilles.
Prince Peleus sprang from the bed and caught Thetis around the waist and lifted her and the child away from the blazing fire. He put them both on the bed, and he took from her the child that she held by the heel. His heart was beating fast, for he thought that wildness had come over his wife, and that she was trying to destroy their child. But Thetis looked at him and said, “By the divine power that I still possess I would have made the child invulnerable but the heel by which I held him has not been touched by the fire and in that place some day he may be hurt. All that the fire covered is invulnerable, and no weapon that strikes there can harm him. I cannot now make his heel invulnerable, for now the divine power has gone out of me.”
When she said this Thetis looked directly at her husband, and never had she seemed so unforgiving as she was then. All the divine radiance that had remained with her was gone from her now, and she seemed a pale faced and bitter woman. When Peleus saw that bitterness he fled from his house.
He traveled far from his own land, and first he went to help Heracles, who was then in the midst of his mighty labors. Heracles was building a wall around a city. Peleus labored, helping him to raise the wall for King Laomedon. Then, one night, as he walked by the wall he had helped to build, he heard voices speaking out of the earth. One voice said, “Why has Peleus tried so hard to raise a wall that his son shall fight hard to demolish?” No voice replied. The wall was built, and Peleus departed. The city around which the wall was built was the great city of Troy.
Wherever he went Peleus was followed by the hatred of the people of the sea, and above all by the hatred of the nymph called Psamathe. He went far, far from his own country, and at last he came to a country of bright valleys that was ruled over by the kindly king Ceyx, who was called the Son of the Morning Star.
This king was kind and peaceful in every way, and so was the land that he ruled over. When Prince Peleus went to him to beg for his protection, and to beg for fields where he might graze his cattle, Ceyx raised him up from where he knelt. “The land is peaceful and plentiful,” he said, “and all who come here may have peace and a chance to earn their food. Live where you will, stranger, and take the fields by the seashore for pasture for your cattle.”
Peace came into Peleus’s heart as he looked into the untroubled face of Ceyx, and as he looked over the bright valleys of the land he had come into. He brought his cattle to the fields by the seashore and he left herdsmen there to tend them. As he walked through these bright valleys he thought about his wife and his son Achilles, and there were tender feelings in his heart. But then he thought upon the hate of Psamathe, the woman of the sea, and he felt troubled again. He felt he could not stay in the palace of the kind king. He went where his herdsmen camped and he lived with them. But the sea was very near and its sound tormented him, and as the days went by, Peleus, wild looking and shaggy, became more and more unlike the hero who the gods themselves had once honored.
One day as he was standing near the palace after having spoken with the king, a herdsman ran up to him and cried out: “Peleus, Peleus, a dreadful thing has happened in the fields.” When he had got his breath the herdsman told what had happened.
They had brought the herd down to the sea. Suddenly, from the marshes where the sea and land came together, a monstrous beast rushed out upon the herd. This beast was like a wolf, but with mouth and jaws that were more terrible than a wolf. The beast seized the cattle, killed them but did not devour them. It rushed on and on, killing and tearing more and more of the herd. “Soon,” said the herdsman, “it will have destroyed all the herd, and then it will destroy the other flocks and herds that are in the land.”
Peleus was stricken to hear that his herd was being destroyed, but more stricken to know that the land of a friendly king would be ravaged, and ravaged because of him. He knew that the terrible beast that had come from where the sea and the land joined had been sent by Psamathe. He went up the tower that stood near the king’s palace. He was able to look out on the sea and over all the land. Looking across the bright valleys he saw the dreaded beast. He saw it rush through his own mangled cattle and attack the herds of the kindly king. He looked toward the sea and he prayed to Psamathe to spare the land that he had come to. But, even as he prayed, he knew that Psamathe would not listen to him. Then he made a prayer to his wife Thetis, who had seemed so unforgiving. He prayed her to deal with Psamathe so that the land of Ceyx would not be altogether destroyed.
As he looked from the tower he saw the king come out armed to slay the terrible beast. Peleus felt fear for the life of the kind king. He came down from the tower, and picking up his spear he went with Ceyx.
Soon, in one of the brightest of the valleys, they came upon the beast. They came between it and a herd of silken-coated cattle. Seeing the men it rushed toward them with blood and foam on its jaws. Then Peleus knew that the spears they carried would be of little use against the raging beast. His only thought was to struggle with it so that the king might be able to save himself.
Again he lifted up his hands and prayed to Thetis to take away Psamathe’s hatred. The beast rushed toward them but suddenly it stopped. The bristles on its body seemed to stiffen. The gaping jaws became fixed. The hounds that were with them attacked the beast, but then fell back with yelps of disappointment. When Peleus and Ceyx came to where it stood they found that the monstrous beast had been turned to stone.
And a stone it remains in that bright valley, a wonder to all the men of Ceyx’s land. The country was spared the ravages of the beast. Peleus’s heart was uplifted to think that Thetis had listened to his prayer and had made Psamathe give up her hatred of him. His wife was not altogether unforgiving to him.
That day he went from the land of the bright valleys, from the land ruled over by the kind Ceyx, and he came back to rugged Phthia, his own country. When he came near his hall he saw two people at the doorway awaiting him. Thetis stood there, and the child Achilles was by her side. The radiance of the immortals was no longer in her face, but there was a glow there, a glow of welcome for the hero Peleus. Thus Peleus, long tormented by the hatred of those from the sea, came back to the wife he had won from the sea.