Shield of Achilles

Shield of Achilles

:"This article is about the shield of Achilles. For the poems by W. H. Auden, see "The Shield of Achilles"."The Shield of Achilles is the shield that Achilles uses to fight Hector, famously described in a passage in Book 18, lines 478-608 of Homer's "Iliad".

In the poem, Achilles has lost his armour after lending it to his friend Patroclus. Patroclus has been killed in battle by Hector and his weapons taken as spoils. Achilles' mother Thetis asks the god Hephaestus to provide replacement armor for her son. Homer gives a detailed description of the imagery which decorates the new shield. Starting from the shield's center and moving outward, circle layer by circle layer, the shield is laid out as follows:

1. The Earth, sky and sea, the sun, the moon and the constellations (484-89)

2. "Two beautiful cities full of people": in one a wedding and a law case are taking place (490-508); the other city is besieged by one feuding army and the shield shows an ambush and a battle (509-540).

3. A field being ploughed for the third time (541-549).

4. A king's estate where the harvest is being reaped (550-560).

5. A vineyard with grape pickers (561-572).

6. A "herd of straight-horned cattle"; the lead bull has been attacked by a pair of savage lions which the herdsmen and their dogs are trying to beat off (573-586).

7. A picture of a sheep farm (587-589).

8. A dancing-floor where young men and women are dancing (590-606).

9. The great stream of Ocean (607-609). [Homer, "The Iliad" trans. E.V. Rieu (Penguin Classics, 1950) pp.349-53]

Full text translated into English

" [Hephaestus] wrought also two cities, fair to see and busy with the hum of men. In the one were weddings and wedding-feasts, and they were going about the city with brides whom they were escorting by torchlight from their chambers. Loud rose the cry of Hymen, and the youths danced to the music of flute and lyre, while the women stood each at her house door to see them. Meanwhile the people were gathered in assembly, for there was a quarrel, and two men were wrangling about the blood-money for a man who had been killed, the one saying before the people that he had paid damages in full, and the other that he had not been paid. Each was trying to make his own case good, and the people took sides, each man backing the side that he had taken; but the heralds kept them back, and the elders sate on their seats of stone in a solemn circle, holding the staves which the heralds had put into their hands. Then they rose and each in his turn gave judgement, and there were two talents laid down, to be given to him whose judgement should be deemed the fairest." "About the other city there lay encamped two hosts in gleaming armour, and they were divided whether to sack it, or to spare it and accept the half of what it contained. But the men of the city would not yet consent, and armed themselves for a surprise; their wives and little children kept guard upon the walls, and with them were the men who were past fighting through age; but the others sallied forth with Mars and Pallas Minerva at their head- both of them wrought in gold and clad in golden raiment, great and fair with their armour as befitting gods, while they that followed were smaller. - Iliad, Book XVIII"


The passage is an early example of ecphrasis (a literary description of a work of art) and influenced many later poems, including "The Shield of Heracles" once attributed to Hesiod. ["The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature" (1989 ed.) p.519] . Virgil's description of the shield of Aeneas in Book Eight of the "Aeneid" is clearly modelled on Homer. [] The poem "The Shield of Achilles" (1952) by W. H. Auden reimagines Homer's description in 20th century terms.

The Shield of Achilles can be read in a variety of different ways. One interpretation is that the shield is simply a physical encapsulation of the entire world. The shield’s layers are a series of contrasts – i.e. war and peace, work and festival, although the presence of a murder in the city at peace suggests that man is never fully free of conflict. Wolfgang Schadewaldt, a German writer, argues that these intersecting antitheses show the basic forms of a civilized, essentially orderly life [Wolfgang Schadewaldt, “Der Schild des Achilleus,” "Von Homers Welt und Werk" (Stuttgart 1959).] . This contrast is also seen as a way of making “us…see [war] in relation to peace [Oliver Taplin, “The Shield of Achilles within the "Iliad",” "G&R" 27 (1980) 15.] ." The shield’s description falls between the fight over Patroclus’ body and Achilles’ reentry into battle, the later being the impetus to one of the poem’s bloodiest parts. Consequently, the shield could be read as a “calm before an impending doom,” used to emphasize the brutality of violence during the Trojan War. It could also be read as a reminder to the reader of what will be lost once Troy ultimately falls [Stephen Scully, “Reading the Shield of Achilles: Terror, Anger, Delight,” "Harvard Studies in Classical Philology", Vol. 101. (2003), pp. 29-47.] .


External links

Iliad 18.490-508 []

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