Myths of Achilles in 18th Century Threads
In September, I saw a nice Rembrandt exhibition at the Jacquemart-André Museum in Paris. This is a wonderful museum, with an amazing collection. The restaurant is decorated with four tapestries. A fifth tapestry is in the hall. The tapestries represent some events from the myths about Achilles. They were woven around 1740 in the Ateliers Bruxellois of Jean-François and Pierre Van Der Boorcht.
For now, I turn to the tapestries themselves.
The first tapestry depicts Thetis, Achilles’ mother, dipping her son in the river Styx to make him immortal.
We do not find this story in the Iliad but in Statius’ Achilleid (126)
Long time has Thetis been scanning every corner with silent glance: then, impatient of delay, she cries: “Tell me, Chiron, where is my darling? Why spends the boy any time apart from thee? Is it not with reason that my sleep is troubled, and terrible portents from the gods and fearful panics – would they were false! – afflict his mother’s heart? For now I behold swords that threaten to pierce my womb, now my arms are bruised with lamentation, now savage beasts assail my breasts; often – ah, horror! – I seem to take my son down to the void of Tartarus, and dip him a second time in the springs of Styx. The Carpathian seer bids me banish these terrors by the ordinance of a magic rite, and purify the lad in secret waters beyond the bound of heaven’s vault, where is the farthest shore of Ocean and father Pontus is warmed by the ingliding stars. There awful sacrifices and gifts to gods unknown – but ‘tis long to recount all, and I am forbidden; give him to me rather.
(trans. J.H. Mosley)
The second tapestry shows the abduction of Briseis by Achilles.
With my ships I have taken twelve cities, and eleven round about Troy have I stormed with my men by land; I took great store of wealth from every one of them, but I gave all up to Agamemnon, son of Atreus. He stayed where he was by his ships, yet of what came to him he gave little, and kept much himself. Nevertheless he did distribute some prizes of honor among the chieftains and kings, and these have them still; from me alone of the Achaeans did he take the woman in whom I delighted—let him keep her and sleep with her. Why, pray, must the Argives fight the Trojans? What made the son of Atreus gather the army of warriors and bring them? Was it not for the sake of Helen? Are the only mortal men in the world who love their wives the sons of Atreus? I ask this question because any man who is noble and sensible loves [phileîn] and cherishes her who is his own, just as I, with regard to her [= Briseis] with my whole heart did I love [phileîn] her, though she was only the prize of my spear. Agamemnon has taken her from me; he has played me false; I know him; let him tempt me no further, for he shall not move me. Let him look to you, Odysseus, and to the other princes to save his ships from burning.
Iliad 9.329–346, Sourcebook
The third tapestry illustrates the return of Chryseis, who is taken back to her father by Odysseus.
Meanwhile Odysseus reached Khrysē with the hecatomb. When they had come inside the harbor they furled the sails and laid them in the ship’s hold; they slackened the forestays, lowered the mast into its place, and rowed the ship to the place where they would have her lie; there they cast out their mooring- stones and made fast the hawsers. They then got out upon the sea shore and landed the hecatomb for Apollo the Archer; Khrysēis also left the ship, and Odysseus led her to the altar to deliver her into the hands of her father. “Khrysēs,” said he, “King Agamemnon has sent me to bring you back your child, and to offer sacrifice to Apollo on behalf of the Danaans, that we may propitiate the god, who has now brought sorrow upon the Argives.
So saying he gave the girl over to her father, who received her gladly, and they orderly arranged the holy hecatomb around the altar of the god. They washed their hands and took up the barley-meal to sprinkle over the victims, while Khrysēs lifted up his hands and prayed aloud on their behalf. “Hear me,” he cried, “O god of the silver bow, that protects Khrysē and holy Killa, and rules Tenedos with your might. Even as you heard me before when I prayed, and you pressed hard upon the Achaeans, so hear me yet again, and stay this fearful pestilence from the Danaans.
Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. When they had done praying and sprinkling the barley-meal, they drew back the heads of the victims and killed and flayed them. They cut out the thigh-bones, wrapped them round in two layers of fat, set some pieces of raw meat on the top of them, and then Khrysēs laid them on the wood fire and poured wine over them, while the young men stood near him with five- pronged spits in their hands. When the thigh-pieces were burned and they had tasted the innards, they cut the rest up small, put the pieces upon the spits, roasted them till they were done, and drew them off: then, when they had finished their work [ponos] and the feast was ready, they ate it, and every man had his full share, so that all were satisfied. As soon as they had had enough to eat and drink, attendants filled the mixing-bowl with wine and water and handed it round, after giving every man his drink-offering.
Iliad 1.433–470, Sourcebook
The two last tapestries depict scenes of fighting.
One was identified on the Museum card as “Achilles fighting with Paris,” the other was not identified other than “a Fight.” Could the one identified as “Achilles fighting with Paris, who is saved by Aphrodite” be Menelaos and Paris fighting? Is this passage from the Iliad “good to think with” (as Professor Nagy would say), as we analyse the image on the tapestry?
Great Hector of the shining helmet now turned his head aside while he shook the helmet, and the lot of Paris flew out first. The others took their several stations, each by his horses and the place where his arms were lying, while radiant Alexandros, husband of lovely-haired Helen, put on his goodly armor. First he covered his legs with greaves of good make and fitted with ankle-clasps of silver; after this he donned the cuirass of his brother Lykaon, and fitted it to his own body; he hung his silver-studded sword of bronze about his shoulders, and then his mighty shield. On his comely head he set his helmet, well-wrought, with a crest of horse-hair that nodded menacingly above it, and he grasped a terrifying spear that suited his hands. In like fashion warlike Menelaos also put on his armor. When they had thus armed, each amid his own people, they strode fierce of aspect into the open space, and both Trojans, breakers of horses, and strong-greaved Achaeans were struck with awe as they beheld them. They stood near one another on the measured ground, brandishing their spears, and each furious against the other. Alexandros aimed first, and struck the round shield of the son of Atreus, but the spear did not pierce it, for the shield turned its point. Menelaos next took aim, praying to Father Zeus as he did so. “King Zeus,” he said, “grant me revenge on radiant Alexandros who has wronged me; subdue him under my hand that in ages yet to come a man may shrink from doing ill deeds in the house of his host. He poised his spear as he spoke, and hurled it at the shield of Alexandros. Through shield and cuirass it went, and tore the khiton by his flank, but Alexandros swerved aside, and thus saved his life. Then the son of Atreus drew his sword, and drove at the projecting part of his helmet, but the sword fell shivered in three or four pieces from his hand, and he cried, looking towards Heaven, “Father Zeus, of all gods you are the most despiteful; I was sure of my revenge, but the sword has broken in my hand, my spear has been hurled in vain, and I have not killed him. With this he flew at Alexandros, caught him by the horsehair plume of his helmet, and began dragging him towards the Achaeans. The strap of the helmet that went under his chin was choking him, and Menelaos would have dragged him off to his own great glory had not Zeus’ daughter Aphrodite been quick to mark and to break the strap of ox-hide, so that the empty helmet came away in his hand. This he flung to his comrades among the strong-greaved Achaeans, and was again springing upon Alexandros to run him through with a spear, but Aphrodite snatched him up in a moment (as a god can do), hid him under a cloud of darkness, and conveyed him to his own bedchamber.
Iliad 3. 324–381, Sourcebook
The last tapestry shows a battle, and I am not sure about the corresponding text. Please, join me in the Forum to share more pictures and texts about the life of Achilles.
 Statius. Thebaid, Achilleid. Translated by Mozley, J H. Loeb Classical Library Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press. London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1928.
Image credits: Hélène Emeriaud
Hélène Emeriaud is a retired teacher who lives in Montreal.