This curious painting, by the Dutch artist Jan de Braij (aka Jan de Bray, c. 1626/1627-1697), draws inspiration from mythological tales about the Greek hero, Achilles. In particular, this scene re-creates, albeit with fashion from the artist’s own times, an early tale about Achilles, set just before he joined the Greek forces for the Trojan War. According to one tradition of the story, Achilles’ parents—the Nereid nymph Thetis and King Peleus of the Myrmidons at Phthia—received a prophecy that their son would die in the Trojan War. In response, they decided to hide him from the Greek recruiters who were mobilizing the might of Greece for war. To this end, Peleus and Thetis disguised Achilles as a girl and sent him to live with their friend, King Lycomedes, on the island of Scyros. As Lycomedes had many daughters, Achilles’ parents hoped that their costumed son could hide out with the princesses at Scyros and avoid the war. Nevertheless, cunning and perceptive Odysseus was among the men tasked with finding Achilles, and it was his wit that undid the charade. An ancient scholar known as the Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) summarized this version of the story:
“When Achilles was nine years old, Calchas declared that Troy could not be taken without him, but Thetis—who knew in advance that he was fated to be killed if he joined the expedition—disguised him in women’s clothing and entrusted him to Lycomedes in the semblance of a young girl…Achilles’ whereabouts were betrayed, however, and Odysseus, searching for him at the court of Lycomedes, discovered him by causing a trumpet to be sounded. And so it came that Achilles went to Troy” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.13.8).
It is this myth that is playing out in the painting above. Jan de Braij seems to have painted the beginning of the myth instead of the end, for Achilles looks to be putting on his disguise and relinquishing his gear, as opposed to removing his costume and dressing for war. Whatever the case, the story of Achilles’ actions during his recruitment period was drastically different based on the source telling the story. For instance, this myth of Achilles’ unsuccessful concealment with Lycomedes’ family was not included in the pages of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey. In fact, Homer wrote a totally different story in which an undisguised Achilles eagerly and excitedly accepted Odysseus’ invitation to join the Trojan War. In a scene where the character, Nestor, reminisced about recruiting Achilles and his friend Patroclus, Homer wrote, “We had come to Phthia and the welcoming palace of Achilles’ father Peleus to recruit troops…At that moment, Odysseus and I appeared at the gate. Achilles was amazed and sprang to his feet, took us by the hand, brought us in…I began to speak, urging you [Patroclus] and Achilles to join us. You were more than willing, and your fathers both started giving you advice” (Homer, The Iliad, book 11, approximately lines 770-780). Jan de Braij, however, obviously rejected Homer’s version of Achilles’ recruitment, and instead opted for the alternative tale of Achilles being sent to unsuccessfully hide among the daughters of Lycomedes.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited/introduced by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.
Such an interesting picture as well as a very fine execution isn’t it? An unexpected angle on a story and, I suppose, a good example of how engrossing the historical story-painting could be. Thanks for presenting it and writing about it.