Gateway to the Classics: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by Padraic Colum
The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by  Padraic Colum

Peleus and His Bride from the Sea


dropcap image RINCE PELEUS came on his ship to a bay on the coast of Thessaly. His painted ship lay between two great rocks, and from its poop he saw a sight that enchanted him. Out from the sea, riding on a dolphin, came a lovely maiden. And by the radiance of her face and limbs Peleus knew her for one of the immortal goddesses.

Now Peleus had borne himself so nobly in all things that he had won the favor of the gods themselves. Zeus, who is highest amongst the gods, had made this promise to Peleus: he would honor him as no one amongst the sons of men had been honored before, for he would give him an immortal goddess to be his bride.

She 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 the beasts of the sea. His heart was enchanted by the sight, and he knew that his life would be broken if he did not see this goddess day after day. So he went back to his ship and he prayed: "O Zeus, now I claim the promise that you once made to me. Let it be that this goddess come with me, or else plunge my ship and me beneath the waves of the sea."

And 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 had never before entered that peaceful resting place of hers. She dreamt that she was drawn away from the deep and the wide sea. She dreamt that she was brought to a place that was strange and unfree to her. And as she lay in the cave, sleeping, tears that might never come into the eyes of an immortal lay around her heart.

But Peleus, standing on his painted ship, saw a rainbow touch upon 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 it was, and the eyes were very old. Peleus knew that he who was there before him was Nereus, the ancient one of the sea.

Said old Nereus: "Thou hast prayed to Zeus, and I am here to speak an answer to thy prayer. She whom you have looked upon is Thetis, the goddess of the sea. Very loath will she be to take Zeus's command and wed with thee. It is her desire to remain in the sea, unwedded, and she has refused marriage even with one of the immortal gods."

Then said Peleus, "Zeus promised me an immortal bride. If Thetis may not be mine I cannot wed any other, goddess or mortal maiden."

"Then thou thyself wilt have to master Thetis," said Nereus, the wise one of the sea. "If she is mastered by thee, she cannot go back to the sea. She will strive with all her strength and all her wit to escape from thee; but thou must hold her no matter what she does, and no matter how she shows herself. When thou hast seen her again as thou didst see her at first, thou wilt know that thou hast mastered her." And when he had said this to Peleus, Nereus, the ancient one of the sea, went under the waves.


With his hero's heart beating more than ever it had beaten yet, Peleus went into the cave. Kneeling beside her he looked down upon 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 might cover her all over. 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 loose his hold upon 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 strove to bear itself away. Peleus held to its wings and struggled with the bird. She changed and became a tree. Around the trunk of the tree Peleus clung. She changed once more, and this time her form became terrible: a spotted leopard she was now, with burning eyes; but Peleus held to the neck of the fierce-appearing leopard and was not affrighted by the burning eyes. Then she changed and became as he had seen her first—a lovely maiden, with the brow of a goddess, and with long yellow hair.

But now there was no radiance in her face or in her limbs. 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 said the hero: "I am Peleus, and Zeus has given me the mastery over thee. Wilt thou come with me, Thetis? Thou art my bride, given me by him who is highest amongst the gods, and if thou wilt come with me, thou wilt always be loved and reverenced by me."

"Unwillingly I leave the sea," she cried, "unwillingly I go with thee, Peleus."

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. And 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 wondrous gifts. The three sisters who are called the Fates came also. 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 forlorn and estranged. Nothing that her husband did was pleasing to her. Prince Peleus was in fear that the wildness of the sea would break out in her, and that some great harm would be wrought in his house.

One night he wakened suddenly. He saw the fire upon 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. And while she stood there she was singing to herself a strange-sounding song.

And then he saw what Thetis held in her hands and what the fire was blazing around; it was the 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 upon the bed, and he took from her the child that she held by the heel. His heart was wild within him, for the thought that wildness had come over his wife, and that she was bent upon destroying their child. But Thetis looked on him from under those goddess brows of hers and she said to him: "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 endued by the fire and in that place some day he may be stricken. All that the fire covered is invulnerable, and no weapon that strikes there can destroy his life. His heel I cannot now make invulnerable, for now the divine power is gone out of me."

When she said this Thetis looked full upon 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 white-faced and bitter-thinking woman. And when Peleus saw that such a great bitterness faced him he fled from his house.

He traveled far from his own land, and first he went to the help of 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. And one voice said: "Why has Peleus striven so hard to raise a wall that his son shall fight hard to overthrow?" No voice replied. The wall was built, and Peleus departed. The city around which the wall was built was the great city of Troy.

In whatever place he went Peleus was followed by the hatred of the people of the sea, and above all by the hatred of the nymph who is called Psamathe. Far, far from his own country he went, and at last he came to a country of bright valleys that was ruled over by a kindly king—by Ceyx, who was called the Son of the Morning Star.

Bright of face and kindly and peaceable in all his ways was this king, and kindly and peaceable was the land that he ruled over. And when Prince Peleus went to him to beg for his protection, and to beg for unfurrowed fields where he might graze his cattle, Ceyx raised him up from where he knelt. "Peaceable and plentiful is the land," he said, "and all who come here may have peace and a chance to earn their food. Live where you will, O stranger, and take the unfurrowed 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 unfurrowed fields by the seashore and he left herdsmen there to tend them. And as he walked along these bright valleys he thought upon his wife and upon his son Achilles, and there were gentle feelings in his breast. But then he thought upon the enmity of Psamathe, the woman of the sea, and great trouble came over him again. He felt he could not stay in the palace of the kindly 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 whom once the gods themselves had honored.

One day as he was standing near the palace having speech with the king, a herdsman ran to him and cried out: "Peleus, Peleus, a dread thing has happened in the unfurrowed fields." And when he had got his breath the herdsman told of the thing that 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; like a wolf this beast was, but with mouth and jaws that were more terrible than a wolf's even. The beast seized upon the cattle. Yet it was not hunger that made it fierce, for the beasts that it killed it tore, but did not devour. It rushed on and on, killing and tearing more and more of the herd. "Soon," said the herdsman, "it will have destroyed all in the herd, and then it will not spare to 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 on his account. For 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 on the tower that stood near the king's palace. He was able to look out on the sea and able to look over all the land. And looking across the bright valleys he saw the dread beast. He saw it rush through his own mangled cattle and fall upon 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 harken to him. Then he made a prayer to Thetis, to his wife 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 forth with arms in his hands for the slaying of the terrible beast. Peleus felt fear for the life of the kindly king. Down from the tower he came, and taking 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 upon 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 draw away Psamathe's enmity. The beast rushed toward them; but suddenly it stopped. The bristles upon its body seemed to stiffen. The gaping jaws became fixed. The hounds that were with them dashed upon the beast, but then fell back with yelps of disappointment. And when Peleus and Ceyx came to where it stood they found that the monstrous beast had been turned into 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. And the heart of Peleus was uplifted to think that Thetis had harkened to his prayer and had prevailed upon Psamathe to forego her enmity. Not altogether unforgiving was his wife to him.

That day he went from the land of the bright valleys, from the land ruled over by the kindly Ceyx, and he came back to rugged Phthia, his own country. When he came near his hall he saw two at the doorway awaiting him. Thetis stood there, and the child Achilles was by her side. The radiance of the immortals was in her face no longer, but there was a glow there, a glow of welcome for the hero Peleus. And thus Peleus, long tormented by the enmity of the sea-born ones, came back to the wife he had won from the sea.

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