In Greek mythology, Peleus (/, , , /; Greek: Πηλεύς, Pēleus) was a hero whose myth was already known to the hearers of Homer in the late 8th century BC. Peleus was the son of Aeacus, king of the island of Aegina, and Endeïs, the oread of Mount Pelion in Thessaly. He married the sea-nymph Thetis with whom he fathered Achilles.
Peleus and his brother Telamon were friends of Heracles, and served in Heracles' expedition against the Amazons, his war against King Laomedon, and his quest for the Golden Fleece. Though there were no further kings in Aegina, the kings of Epirus claimed descent from Peleus in the historic period.
Peleus and his brother Telamon killed their half-brother Phocus, perhaps in a hunting accident and certainly in an unthinking moment, and fled Aegina to escape punishment. In Phthia, Peleus was purified by Eurytion and married Antigone, Eurytion's daughter, by whom he had a daughter, Polydora. Eurytion received the barest mention among the Argonauts (Peleus and Telamon were Argonauts themselves) "yet not together, nor from one place, for they dwelt far apart and distant from Aigina;" but Peleus accidentally killed Eurytion during the hunt for the Calydonian Boar and fled from Phthia.
Peleus was purified of the murder of Eurytion in Iolcus by Acastus. Astydameia, Acastus' wife, fell in love with Peleus but he scorned her. Bitter, she sent a messenger to Antigone to tell her that Peleus was to marry Acastus' daughter. As a result, Antigone hanged herself.
Astydameia then told Acastus that Peleus had tried to rape her. Acastus took Peleus on a hunting trip and hid his sword then abandoned him right before a group of centaurs attacked. Chiron, the wise centaur, or, according to another source, Hermes, returned Peleus' sword with magical powers and Peleus managed to escape. He pillaged Iolcus and dismembered Astydameia, then marched his army between the rended limbs. Acastus and Astydamia were dead and the kingdom fell to Jason's son, Thessalus.
Marriage to Thetis
After Antigone's death, Peleus married the sea-nymph Thetis. He was able to win her with the aid of Proteus, who told Peleus how to overcome Thetis' ability to change her form. Their wedding feast was attended by many of the Olympian gods. As a wedding present, Poseidon gave Peleus two immortal horses: Balius and Xanthus. During the feast, Eris, in revenge for not being invited, produced the Apple of Discord, which started the quarrel that led to the Judgement of Paris and eventually to the Trojan War. The marriage of Peleus and Thetis produced seven sons, six of whom died in infancy. The only surviving son was Achilles.
Peleus' son Achilles
Thetis attempted to render her son Achilles invulnerable. In the well-known version, she dipped him in the River Styx, holding him by one heel, which remained vulnerable. In an early and less popular version of the story, Thetis anointed the boy in ambrosia and put him on top of a fire to burn away the mortal parts of his body. She was interrupted by Peleus and she abandoned both father and son in a rage, leaving his heel vulnerable. A nearly identical story is told by Plutarch, in his On Isis and Osiris, of the goddess Isis burning away the mortality of Prince Maneros of Byblos, son of Queen Astarte, and being likewise interrupted before completing the process. Later on in life, Achilles is killed by Paris when he is shot in his vulnerable spot, the heel. This is where the term "Achilles heel" is derived from.
In the Iliad, Achilles uses Peleus' immortal horses and also wields his father's spear.
Peleus in hero-cult
Though the tomb of Aeacus remained in a shrine enclosure in the most conspicuous part of the port city, a quadrangular enclosure of white marble sculpted with bas-reliefs, in the form in which Pausanias saw it, with the tumulus of Phocus nearby, there was no temenos of Peleus at Aegina. Two versions of Peleus' fate account for this; in Euripides' Troades, Acastus, son of Pelias, has exiled him from Phthia; and subsequently he dies in exile; in another, he is reunited with Thetis and made immortal.
In antiquity, according to a fragment of Callimachus' lost Aitia, there was a tomb of Peleus in Ikos (modern Alonissos), an island of the northern Sporades; there Peleus was venerated as "king of the Myrmidons" and the "return of the hero" was celebrated annually. And there was his tomb, according to a poem in the Greek Anthology.
The only other reference to veneration of Peleus comes from the Christian Clement of Alexandria, in his polemical Exhortation to the Greeks. Clement attributes his source to a "collection of marvels" by a certain "Monimos" of whom nothing is known, and claims, in pursuit of his thesis that daimon-worshipers become as cruel as their gods, that in "Pella of Thessaly human sacrifice is offered to Peleus and Cheiron, the victim being an Achaean". Of this, the continuing association of Peleus and Chiron is the most dependable detail.
Peleus in Athenian tragedy
- Peleus is mentioned in Homer's Odyssey during the conversation between Odysseus and the dead Achilles.
- The island lies in the Saronic Gulf opposite the coast of Epidaurus; it had once been called Oenone, Pausanias was informed.
- In poetry he and Telamon are sometimes the Endeides, the "sons of Endeis"; see, for example, Pausanias 2.29.10.
- Pausanias, 2.29.4.
- "A witless moment" (Apollonius, Argonautica, I. 93,
- Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica I.90-93, in Peter Green's translation (2007:45).
- Aristophanes, The Clouds, 1063-1067.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses, XI 219-74.
- Pausanias, 2.29.6-7
- Scholia on Euripides, Troades 1123-28 note that in some accounts the sons of Acastus have cast him out, and that he was received by Molon in his exile
- One of the fragmentary Oxyrhynchus papyri, noted by Lewis Richard Farnell, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality: the Gifford Lectures, "The Cults of Epic Heroes: Peleus" 1921:310f.
- Farnell 1921:310f; Farnell remarks on "some ethnic tradition that escapes us, but which led the inhabitants to attach the name of Peleus to some forgotten grave," so deep was the cultural discontinuity between Mycenaean Greece and the rise of hero-cults in the 8th century BC.
- Greek Anthology, 7.2.
- George William Butterworth, ed. and tr.Clement of Alexandria, "Exhortation to the Greeks" 1919:93.
- By way of apology for Clement, Farnell suggests "human sacrifice was occasionally an adjunct of hero-cults, and this at Pella may have been an exceptional rite prescribed at a crisis by some later oracle." (Farnell 1921:311). Dennis D. Hughes, Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece (Routledge, 1991) offers a skeptical view of the actuality of human sacrifices during historical times.
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