In response to:
Splash from the March 25, 2021 issue
To the Editors:
In her lively, wide-ranging, and learned review of Vaughn Scribner’s Merpeople: A Human History [NYR, March 25], Marina Warner states that “Proteus, whom Homer calls the Old Man of the Sea, savagely rapes Thetis, the sea goddess; the child of this union is Achilles.” She identifies her source for this unusual paternity accusation as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, leading one to wonder whether Ovid had the revisionist daring to nullify Homer’s oft-repeated epithet for Achilles—“son of Peleus”—in both the Iliad and the Odyssey.
It turns out he didn’t, though the relevant episode from the Metamorphoses (11.217–265) does subvert the protean aspects of Proteus in book 4 of the Odyssey by ascribing to a sea goddess—the Nereid Thetis—the shape-shifting transformations that had been the Homeric Proteus’s stock-in-trade whenever he didn’t want to prophesy to someone (such as Menelaus). According to Ovid, Proteus had urged the virgin Thetis to conceive a child because she was destined to bear a son mightier than his father. This was the only reason Jove had decided to leave Thetis unmolested and instead urged his mortal grandson Peleus to pursue the lovely Nereid.
Peleus attempts to do Jove’s bidding by stalking Thetis, who was in the habit of riding a bridled dolphin in the nude to a certain grotto where she would dismount and take a nap. But when he entwines his arms around the sleeping goddess’s neck, he’s startled to see her change into a bird, then a stout tree, and finally a tigress. That’s when he backs off. Stymied, Peleus prays and sacrifices to the gods of the sea. The obliging Proteus rises up through the waves and advises him to gently but firmly tie Thetis down the next time she sleeps in her grotto—and then let her go through all the changes she wants while holding on to her tightly. And so, after a number of unspecified metamorphoses, Thetis succumbs to the inevitable, reverts to her own form, and yields to Peleus, intuiting he must be the protégé of some god. Thus, according to Ovid, Peleus begets the great Achilles, as Homeric scripture had ordained, but the wizard Proteus insinuates his slippery self into the process, despite getting his thunder stolen by Thetis’s uncanonical transformations.
Ridgewood, New Jersey
To the Editors:
In an otherwise informative and learned review of Vaughn Scribner’s Merpeople: A Human History, Marina Warner errs in charging the sea god Proteus with the rape of Thetis, in the process missing an opportunity to strengthen her characterization of sea deities in classical tradition. In Metamorphoses 11, Ovid represents Thetis raped not by Proteus, but by the mortal Peleus. Ovid adapts the account of Pindar (Isthmian 8), in which the Titaness Themis warns Zeus and Poseidon that Thetis will bear a son mightier than his father, counseling them to bestow Thetis upon Peleus rather than seeking her for themselves, lest she bear a god who will overthrow Zeus and assume rule of the universe, just as Zeus did to Kronos. Instead, Thetis will suffer the grief of seeing her son, Achilles, die at Troy, although he will be the greatest of the heroes.
Warner is in a way correct to associate Proteus with the rape of Thetis: in Ovid’s account, Proteus, not Themis, prophesies the preeminence of Thetis’s son over his father. Ovid’s substitution is typically ingenious. In making Peleus explicitly a rapist, Ovid rebuts his Latin poetic predecessor Catullus’s suggestion that Thetis falls in love with Peleus when she sees him on the ship Argo. Instead, Ovid takes to its logical conclusion Pindar’s suggestion that Thetis, who shifts shape to escape Peleus, is an unwilling bride.
Thetis’s shape-shifting in Ovid and Pindar, of course, resembles that of Proteus, the “protean” sea god whom Homer calls the “Old Man of the Sea” and who possesses information that bridges epic and cult, information that he will only divulge if the inquirer maintains a firm grasp upon him as he changes shape. Homer’s Proteus in Odyssey 4 reveals to Menelaus the sacrifice he must offer to the gods to return home, as well as the fates of other Greeks returning from Troy. The Proteus of Virgil’s in Georgics 4 similarly reveals to Aristaeus the sacrifice he must make to propitiate the angry spirit of Orpheus, whose story he narrates, providing the earliest surviving version of the now canonical story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Homer’s and Virgil’s accounts of Proteus show him to be a counterpart and reversal of Warner’s sirens. Both the sirens and Proteus know much, if not all, that has happened upon the face of the earth, but whereas the sirens sing their song unbidden while taking the hearer’s life in return, Proteus under compulsion tells the hearer the proper animal sacrifice to offer to propitiate the gods. In effect, the sirens weaken, and Proteus strengthens, the sacrificial pact between gods and humans, in which proper sacrifice underpins both mortal life and immortal fame. And in both Homer and Virgil, a sea nymph instructs the male hero how to compel Proteus to speak: in Virgil, the nymph Cyrene, who dwells along the same coast as Homer’s Proteus; in Homer, Proteus’s own daughter Eidothea, the “goddess of shapes.” The play of gender entirely confirms Warner’s characterization of the gender politics of the ancient Greeks, and of all too many later tellers of tales.
Marina Warner replies:
I appreciate the generosity of these corrections and Peter D’Epiro’s and Robert Dulgarian’s enriching comments on my blatant mistake. In an original draft I hadn’t muddled the characters in the Ovidian story, partly because the oracular voice of Ted Hughes reciting his version, “Peleus and Thetis,” was rumbling unforgettably in my ear: “However she transforms herself, it is her,/Dodging from shape to shape, through a hundred shapes./Hang on/Till her counterfeit selves are all used up,” he tells us, channeling Proteus instructing Peleus how to overcome Thetis. But through the many shapes of my review in draft, I conflated the two male partners in crime—unfortunately, a shift too far.