This painting, by the French artist Jean Lemaire (c. 1598-1659), draws inspiration from ancient Greek mythology, re-creating a peculiar myth about Achilles’ recruitment into the Greek coalition army for the Trojan War. As this particular story goes, Achilles’ parents—the Nereid nymph, Thetis, and King Peleus of the Myrmidons at Phthia—received a prophecy that their son would die during the course of the Trojan War. Horrified by this oracle, the worried parents decided to hide their son from the Greek recruiters who were mobilizing the might of Greece for war. To achieve their objective, Peleus and Thetis smuggled Achilles to their friend, King Lycomedes, on the island of Scyros, where Achilles was disguised as a young woman and hidden among Lycomedes’ large household of daughters. This curious ploy worked well for a time, but to the detriment of the plot, it was cunning and observant Odysseus who was the recruiter that came searching for Achilles. A scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) summarized the ancient accounts of Achilles at Scyros:
“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).
Such is the tale that inspired Jean Lemaire’s painting. As the title of the artwork is “Achilles Discovered Among The Daughters Of Lycomedes,” Odysseus must have already blasted a trumpet and noticed that Achilles’ reaction was different than that of Lycomedes’ daughters. Now that he has been found out, Achilles takes up his sword and prepares to exchange his dress for armor.
While the tale of Achilles with the daughters of Lycomedes was a popular story, there were competing narratives. Most notably, Homer wrote a totally different story in The Iliad, in which an undisguised Achilles eagerly and excitedly accepted Odysseus’ invitation to join the Trojan War. Homer wrote a scene where the character, Nestor, reminisced about recruiting Achilles and his friend Patroclus, saying, “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). Jean Lemaire, however, obviously rejected this version of the story and instead opted for the more entertaining tale of Achilles being discovered 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.