The Shield of Heracles

The Shield of Heracles

"The Shield of Heracles" (Ancient Greek: Ἀσπὶς Ἡρακλέους "Aspis Hêrakleous") is a fragment of Greek epic, of 481 lines of hexameters. The theme of the episode is the expedition of Heracles and Iolaus against Cycnus, the son of Ares, who challenged Heracles to combat as Heracles was passing near Itonus, told in a turgid and laboured diction; the section has apparently survived because of the pleasure taken in its meticulous description of the imagery and vignettes presented in extravagantly high relief on the shield made for Heracles by Hephaestus. The work was uncritically ascribed to Hesiod in Antiquity, but was probably written in the sixth century BCE, in conscious imitation of a Homeric style: "...even so he fell, and his armour adorned with bronze clashed about him."

To serve as an introduction, fifty-six lines have been taken from a continuation of Hesiod's "Eoiai" or "Catalogue of Women" book iv, in which each section begins, "e oiai", "or, like her who...". The late third-early second century BCE critic Aristophanes of Byzantium noted the borrowing, which was the basis for his conclusion that the Hesiodic poem was not in fact by Hesiod; in modern times two fragments of papyrus from Oxyrhyncus have confirmed what critics have understood all along: they give the preceding lines of the "Eoiai" continuing into the first lines of the poem itself, demonstrating its place as an interpolation embedded in the Hesiodic poem. [R. Janko. "The Shield of Heracles and the Legend of Cycnus". "The Classical Quarterly", New Series, 36.1 (1986:38-59), p. 39.] The poem takes its cue from the extended description of the shield of Achilles in "Iliad" xviii, from which it borrows directly:

:"Strife and Panic were shown at their work, and there was the dreadful Spirit of Death laying her hands on a freshly wounded man who was still alive and another not yet wounded, and dragging a corpse by its foot through the crowd. The cloak on her shoulders was red with human blood" ("Iliad" xviii.535ff, E.V. Rieu translation).

:"Strife also, and Uproar were hurrying about, and deadly Fate was there holding one man newly wounded, and another unwounded; and one, who was dead, she was dragging by the feet through the tumult. She had on her shoulders a garment red with the blood of men." ("Shield of Heracles", lines 156-9).

The "Iliad" gives enough detail for its hearers to marvel at Hephaestus' workmanship. The "Shield of Heracles" piles on repetitive description, without gaining added effect:

:"They were bringing the brides through the streets from their homes, to the loud music of the wedding-hymn and the light of blazing torches. Youths accompanied by flute and lyre were whirling in the dance, and the women had come to the doors of their houses to enjoy the show." ("Iliad").

:"The men were making merry with festivities and dances; some were bringing home a bride to her husband on a well-wheeled car, while the bridalsong swelled high, and the glow of blazing torches held by handmaidens rolled in waves afar. And these maidens went before, delighting in the festival; and after them came frolicsome choirs, the youths singing soft-mouthed to the sound of shrill pipes, while the echo was shivered around them, and the girls led on the lovely dance to the sound of lyres." ("Shield of Heracles").

The round shield's "whole orb shimmered with enamel and white ivory and electrum, and it glowed with shining gold; and there were zones of cyanus drawn upon it." "Cyanus" denotes a blue low-fired glass-paste or smalt. At the center was a mask of Fear ("Phobos") with the staring eyes and teeth of a gorgon. Though Achilles' shield has nothing about it that might mar its function, the shield of Heracles is a "tour de force" of high relief: the vineyard has "shivering leaves and stakes of silver" and the snake heads "would clash their teeth when Amphitryon's son was fighting" and in the ocean vignette the "fishes of bronze were trembling." As for "the horseman Perseus: his feet did not touch the shield and yet were not far from it—very marvellous to remark, since he was not supported anywhere; for so did the famous Lame One fashion him of gold with his hands."

The extravagant description seems to have encouraged rhapsodes to contribute their interpolations, which have been identified and teased apart by modern scholarship. [C.F. Russo, "Hesiodi Scutum", rev. ed. (Florence) 1965; Fr. Solmsen, "Hesiodi Theogonia, Opera et Dies, Scutum" (Oxford) 1970. "there can be absolutely no doubt that in places there are epic doublets incorporated into the text," R. Janko observes (Janko 1986:39).] Some similes may strike the careful listener as infelicitous, like the contrast of glowering with fierce action in "fiercely he stared, like a lion who has come upon a body and full eagerly rips the hide with his strong claws..."

The popularity of "The Shield of Heracles" in sixth-century Athens may be assessed from over instances where its presence has been detected in Attic vase-painting between "ca" 565 and "ca" 480 by H.A. Shapiro. [H. Shapiro, "Herakles and Kyknos", "American Journal of Archaeology" 88 (1984:523-39)] The likelihood of both oral and literary transmission during the same time is noted by R.Janko (1986:40).

The "Shield of Heracles" was first printed, included with the complete works of Hesiod, by Aldus Manutius, in Venice, 1495; the text was from Byzantine manuscripts. In modern times several papyri have offered sections of the text, notably a first-century papyrus in Berlin (Berlin Papyri, 9774), a second-century papyrus from Oxyrhynchus (Oxyrhynchus Papyri 689) and the fourth-century Rainer Papyrus (L.P. 21-29) at Vienna. There are numerous texts from the twelfth to the fifteenth century.

Compare Virgil’s ‘Shield of Aeneas’ ("Aeneid" viii.617-731) and the much briefer description of Crenaeus' shield in "Thebaid" ix.332-338. Marcus Mettius Epaphroditus wrote a commentary of the "Shield of Heracles" in the first century CE.



* [ "The Shield of Heracles":] e-text (English translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914)
*Lattimore, Richmond, "Hesiod: The Works and Days, Theogony, and the Shield of Heracles" (Ann Arbor) 1970.
*Athanassakis, Apostolos. "Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days and The Shield of Heracles" (1983) Translation, introduction and commentary.
*Janko, R. "The Shield of Heracles and the Legend of Cycnus" "The Classical Quarterly" New Series, 36.1 (1986), pp. 38-59. Bibliography of the genesis of "The Shield of Heracles" p 38 note 1.

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