This painting, by the Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann (c. 1741-1807), draws inspiration from ancient Greek mythology, re-creating a peculiar myth about Achilles’ recruitment into the Trojan War. As the story goes, 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. 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 King Lycomedes on the island of Scyros, where they hoped to disguise Achilles as a woman and hide him among Lycomedes’ large household of daughters. There, Achilles’ parents hoped that their costumed son could blend in with the princesses at Scyros and avoid the war. The ploy worked for a time, and it might have succeeded in the long run, too, had cunning and observant Odysseus not been the recruiter searching for Achilles. A scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) summarized the ancient accounts of the tale:
“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 scene that is unfolding in the painting. Odysseus (called by his Latin name, Ulysses, in the title) can be seen pointing out Achilles from the other figures in the room, presumably after sounding a trumpet, which caused Achilles to respond differently than the women he had been hiding among. While this 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). Nevertheless, Angelica Kauffmann obviously rejected Homer’s version of Achilles’ recruitment, and instead opted for the alternative tale of Achilles being discovered among Lycomedes’ daughters.
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.