What Hephaestus Really Wanted from Thetis

Schol. to Pin. Nemian Odes, 4.81

“Phylarkhos claims that Thetis went to Hephaistos on Olympos so that he might create weapons for Achilles and that he did it. But, because Hephaistos was lusting after Thetis, he said he would not give them to her unless she had sex with him. She promised him that she would, but that she only wanted to try on the weapons first, so she could see if the gear he had made was fit for Achilles. She was actually the same size as him.

Once Hephaistos agreed on this, Thetis armed herself and fled. Because he was incapable of grabbing her, he took a hammer and hit Thetis in the ankle. Injured in this way, she went to Thessaly and healed in the city that is called Thetideion after her.”

Φύλαρχός φησι Θέτιν πρὸς ῞Ηφαιστον ἐλθεῖν εἰς τὸν ῎Ολυμπον, ὅπως ᾽Αχιλλεῖ ὅπλα κατασκευάσηι, τὸν δὲ ποιῆσαι. ἐρωτικῶς δὲ ἔχοντα τὸν ῞Ηφαιστον τῆς Θέτιδος, οὐ φάναι ἂν δώσειν αὐτῆι, εἰ μὴ αὐτῶι προσομιλήσαι. τὴν δὲ αὐτῶι ὑποσχέσθαι, θέλειν μέντοι ὁπλίζεσθαι, ὅπως ἴδηι εἰ ἁρμόζει ἃ ἐπεποιήκει ὅπλα τῶι ᾽Αχιλλεῖ· ἴσην γὰρ αὐτὴν ἐκείνωι εἶναι. τοῦ δὲ παραχωρήσαντος ὁπλισαμένην τὴν Θέτιν φυγεῖν, τὸν δὲ οὐ δυνάμενον καταλαβεῖν σφύραν λαβεῖν καὶ πατάξαι εἰς τὸ σφυρὸν τὴν Θέτιν· τὴν δὲ κακῶς διατεθεῖσαν ἐλθεῖν εἰς Θετταλίαν καὶ ἰαθῆναι ἐν τῆι πόλει ταύτηι τῆι ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς Θετιδείωι καλουμένηι.

Image result for Thetis Berlin F2294
Hephaistos Thetis Kylix by the Foundry Painter Antikensammlung Berlin F2294

Homer, Eustathius, and the Force of Alastos (“Unforgettable”)

When Thetis comes to Zeus in the 24th book of the Iliad, the father of gods and men seems to empathize with her.

“You have come to Olympus, divine Thetis, though in grief, carrying unforgettable sorrow in your heart. I know this myself.”

ἤλυθες Οὔλυμπον δὲ θεὰ Θέτι κηδομένη περ,
πένθος ἄλαστον ἔχουσα μετὰ φρεσίν· οἶδα καὶ αὐτός· Il. 24.104-105

Eustathius found the use of the adjective alaston here particularly interesting.

Eustathius, Comm ad Il. 4.875

“To have grief unceasing (which is from epalastein, to be troubled) should be translated as “grieving” [as in a funeral], since feeling the affliction of mourning is in these words, grieving. This grief is in fact for Achilles who is still living; Thetis has drawn the dark veil across her face as is appropriate for those mourning over corpses.”

(v. 105) Τὸ δὲ πένθος ἔχειν ἄλαστον, ἐξ οὗ τὸ ἐπαλαστεῖν, ἐφερμηνευτικόν ἐστι τοῦ κήδεσθαι, ἵνα ᾗ ἐν τοῖς ῥηθεῖσι κήδεσθαι τὸ πενθικῶς βλάπτεσθαι. (v. 93 s.) ῞Οτι διὰ πένθος τὸ ἐπὶ ᾿Αχιλλεῖ, καὶ ταῦτα ζῶντι ἔτι, κάλυμμα ἡ Θέτις ἕλε κυάνεον, ὡς εἰκὸς τοὺς ἐπὶ νεκροῖς παθαινομένους. «τοῦ δ’ οὔ τι μελάντερον ἔπλετο ἔσθος».

In an earlier passage, Eustathius acknowledges that this adjective may have a broader semantic field:

Eustath. Comm ad Il II 4.613

“Look how wise and fitting it is that Achilles calls Hecktor alastos, because he is grieving unceasingly. For as he hurries to this task he does not take pleasure in the insult. Not only does the word alastôr (“avenger; sinner”) derive from alastos, but it also provides alastein (ἀλαστεῖν; “to be angry”) and the compound epalastein (ἐπαλαστεῖν; “to be troubled”) which appears in the Odyssey.

῞Ορα δὲ, ὡς ἠρκέσθη νῦν σωφρόνως ὁ ᾿Αχιλλεὺς ἄλαστον εἰπεῖν τὸν ῞Εκτορα, ὡς ἀλάθητα λυπήσαντα. σπεύδων γὰρ εἰς ἔργον ὕβρεσιν οὐκ ἐνευκαιρεῖ. ἐκ δὲ τοῦ ἄλαστος οὐ μόνον ὁ ἀλάστωρ παράγεται, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ ἀλαστεῖν καὶ συνθέτως δὲ ἐπαλαστεῖν, ὅπερ ἐν ᾿Οδυσσείᾳ κεῖται.

The etymology of the adjective might look like this:

ἄλαστος: alastos, likely from the root *lath-, “escape memory”; cf. Gk.  λανθάνω (“escape notice”); ἀληθής (“true”); λήθη (“forgetfulness”).  It is also realted to ἀλάστωρ (alástôr, “avenger”) as “one who does not forget”.  Ancient folk etymologies also relate it falsely to alaomai (“to wander”) and some modern scholars have suggested a visual root (e.g. laô).  See Chaintraine s.v. ἀλάστωρ..

Post-epic, the adjective more often means “cursed” (cf. Soph. Oed. 1483: ἄλαστον ἄνδρ’) and the root is productive in verbs like alastein (ἀλαστεῖν; “to be angry”) and the compound epalastein (ἐπαλαστεῖν; “to be troubled”).