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The Hero Peleus in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 18, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Peleus was once a hero of high standing, and a famous figure in Greek mythology; today though, he is a hero who is often overlooked, primarily because he is overshadowed by the fame of his own son, Achilles.

Look into the surviving texts of Ancient Greece, and stories emerge which elevate Peleus to a standing equal to that of his son.

Peleus on Aegina

Peleus was born on the island of Aegina to King Aeacus (a son of Zeus and the water nymph Aegina) and his wife Endeis; making Peleus brother to Telamon.

King Aeacus is famous for being the king of an island with no population; a position that only changed when Zeus transformed ants into the local population of Myrmidons. Endeis is not as famous though, and some sources place her as a princess of Athens, others as a daughter the centaur Chiron, or possibly the bandit Sciron.

King Aeacus would become father to a third son, Phocus, when he had a relationship with the Nereid, Psamathe.

The relationship of Aeacus and Psamathe caused Endeis to become jealous, and so Peleus and Telamon plotted to do away with their half-brother; for in addition to the jealousy of their mother Peleus and Telamon were jealous of Phocus’ athletic ability.

Phocus’ was then killed by a quoit thrown by one of his half-brothers; although some writers would claim the death was an accident rather than murder. Whether it was murder or not did not matter, as King Aeacus would subsequently banish Peleus and Telamon from Aegina.

Peleus in Phthia

On leaving Aegina, Peleus and Telamon would go their separate ways, and Peleus would arrive in Phthia, were he took refuge in the court of King Eurytion. In Ancient Greece, kings had the authority to cleanse people of their crimes, and this is exactly what Eurytion did for Peleus.

Eurytion was so enamoured with his guest, that he married his daughter Antigone to Peleus, and gave his new son-in-law a third of his kingdom.

The Argo

Konstantinos Volanakis (1837–1907) PD-art-100
Konstantinos Volanakis (1837–1907) PD-art-100 | Source

Peleus Amongst the Argonauts

Shortly afterwards news arrived in Phthia of Jason’s attempts to gather a band of heroes together to obtain the Golden Fleece. On hearing the news both Peleus and Eurytion would make their way to Iolcus.

In Iolcus, Peleus is reunited with Telamon, and the Argo makes its way to Colchis. During the voyage their and back, Peleus is portrayed as a counsellor of Jason, whilst his brother is seen as a critic.

Notably, it is Peleus who rallies the Argonauts when the going gets exceedingly rough, and in Libya it is Peleus who tells the Argonauts of the need to carry the Argo across the desert.

Peleus and the Calydonian Hunt

Even after a successful return to Iolcus, the time was not right for Peleus to return to Phthia, as news of another assembly of heroes was heard. This time King Oeneus of Calydon was requesting help to rid his land of the Calydonian Boar.

A number of Argonauts, including Peleus, Telamon, Eurytion, Castor and Pollox departed Iolcus for Calydon; although in the end the successful completion of the boar hunt was down to Atalanta and Meleager.

Tragedy though also occurred during the Calydonian Hunt, for Peleus would accidentally kill his father-in-law with a thrown javelin.

Peleus was once again in needed of purification, and so the Greek hero returned once again to Iolcus. The new king of Iolcus was Acastus, a fellow Argonaut, and someone who would willingly absolve Peleus of his “crime”.

The Calydonian Hunt

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) PD-art-100
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) PD-art-100 | Source

Intrigue in Iolcus

Whilst in Iolcus, Peleus came to the attention of Astydamia, the wife of King Acastus. Astydamia would lust after Peleus, but the hero would spurn the queen’s advances.

In retribution, Astydamia would send word to Antigone in Phthia telling the wife of Peleus that her husband was to marry one of Acastus’ daughters. On receiving the news Antigone would kill herself.

Astydamia would also inform Acastus that Peleus had tried to rape her.

Acastus believed his wife, but he was unwilling to kill a guest, a guest whom he had so recently absolved; instead the King of Iolcus concocted a plan that would see his quest killed.

Acastus and Peleus would travel to Mount Pelion to hunt the wild creatures found there, but one night, as Peleus slept, Acastus got up, hid Peleus’ sword, and then departed home. Peleus would awake along and unarmed, and in real danger from the savage centaurs who lived upon Mount Pelion.

The centaurs though were not given a chance to kill Peleus, for at the time when this was most likely, the wise centaur Chiron turned up, and having found Peleus’ sword, restored it to the hero. Chiron would then make Peleus a welcome guest in his home.

Having rested in Chiron’s home, the centaur would then present Peleus with a spear, before escorting him off the mountain.

Peleus would have his revenge upon, as the hero gathered together an army and attacked Iolcus, killing and dismembering Astydamia, and possibly killing Acastus as well.

The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis

Abraham Bloemaert (1564–1651)  PD-art-100
Abraham Bloemaert (1564–1651) PD-art-100 | Source

Peleus and Thetis

The next famous event in the life of Peleus was his marriage to the Nereid Thetis.

Thetis was one of the most beautiful of all water nymphs, and was chased by both Zeus and Poseidon. A prophecy though was made, that the son of Thetis would become more powerful than his father, something that neither Zeus nor Poseidon wished for. Zeus therefore decided to marry Thetis off to a mortal, it would not then matter if her son was more powerful than his father; the son would still not be a threat to Zeus.

Zeus decided that Peleus would be the lucky man, although Thetis was opposed to the idea; and so Peleus sought the advice of the sea god Proteus, about how he could make the Nereid his wife. The plan basically entailed tying up Thetis so no matter what shape she transformed herself into, she would be unable to escape; and eventually Thetis agreed to marry Peleus.

The wedding of Peleus and Thetis is considered one of the starting points for the Trojan War, for although a happy occasion to which almost all of the gods and goddesses were invited, their was one omission from the guest list, Eirs, the goddess of Discord. When Eris found out about the slight, she attended the wedding anyway, and through amongst the guests the golden Apple of Discord.

Achilles and Chiron

James Barry (1741–1806) PD-art-100
James Barry (1741–1806) PD-art-100 | Source

Achilles Son of Peleus

Peleus and Thetis would become father to one son when the Nereid gave birth to Achilles. Achilles though was mortal, and so Thetis sought away to make it so that her son would never die. This, the Nereid tried to do by anointing Achilles in ambrosia, and then burning away the mortal part of her son.

Thetis though, had neglected to tell her husband of her plan; and so when Peleus caught is wife in the act of burning their son, he thought she was trying to kill Achilles. An enraged Peleus caused Thetis to flee from their home; but the Nereid had not completed her task for she had left part of Achilles’ heel exposed.

Peleus finding himself alone with a son to care for, decided that Achilles would be much better in the hands of Chiron and his wife; and so Chiron would train the son of Peleus to become a great hero, a hero greater than his father.

The Death of Peleus

The later years of Peleus did not go well. Peleus was expelled from Phthia by Acastus or the sons of Acastus; and then during the Trojan War, his son Achilles was killed.

All that Peleus had left was his grandson Neoptolemus, another hero of the Trojan War. Peleus would make one last heroic gesture, for he became protector of Andromache, Neoptolemus’ concubine, when Menelaus and Hermione (the wife of Neoptolemus) sought to do away with her.

Peleus though, would die shortly afterwards, for word arrived that Neoptolemus had been killed by Orestes; and when Peleus heard the news he simply lay down and died.

The exploits of Peleus during his life would have meant that the hero was destined to spend eternity in Elysium with the other dead heroes. Euripdes though would write another ending for the Greek hero, and poet told of how Thetis returned to her husband and Peleus was made immortal. Peleus and Thetis would then spend eternity in the palace of Nereus beneath the surface of the ocean.

Peleus should probably be more famous than he is today, for his actions certainly rate him higher than Jason, and as high as the likes of Theseus and Perseus. Questing for the Golden Fleece and the Calydonian Boar were deeds of the highest order.

The story of Peleus and Thetis read by Ted Hughes

Comments

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  • Colin Quartermain profile image
    Author

    Colin Quartermain 3 years ago

    Many thanks for reading and commenting - Peleus is certainly more heroic than Jason, and definitely deserves to be more famous than he is

    Colin

  • SarahLMaguire profile image

    SarahLMaguire 3 years ago from UK

    An interesting hub on an oft-neglected hero. Voted up!

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