Turning around Achilles' Shield

During these first three months of my fellowship, I have been working on an interpretation of the description of Achilles’ Shield in Iliad XVIII. My intention is to link this famous passage with other demiurgical motives found in mythological and philosophical texts, namely Hesiod’s Theogony, Parmenides’ poem, Empedocles’ cosmogony, and Plato’s Timaeus. I believe that the craftsmanship theme, which is conspicuous in all these texts, conveys a double reflection: one is poetical and concerns the act of composition itself, the other is cosmological and relates to the physical world. Thus, the craftsmanship theme within these texts can be at the same time self-referential and extra-referential. My reading of the Shield passage is an attempt to articulate both aspects.

Recent interpretations of the Shield can be fairly classified in two groups, which we may call the “window” and the “mirror” readings. The former, represented by the well-known works of W. Schadewaldt (1938), K. Reinhardt (1956), W. Marg (1957), and O. Taplin (1980), stresses the contrast between the world depicted in the Iliad and the mainly peaceful scenes represented in the Shield. From this point of view, the Shield is like a window through which we see those aspects of life that do not belong to the myth, as opposed to those aspects which belong to the heroic age and are the object of the epic. The latter reading, conveyed by the works of Ø. Andersen (1976), R. Rabel (1989), M. Alden (2000), or S. Scully (2003), tends to reject the idea of a contrast between the world of the Iliad and the world depicted within the Shield. On the contrary, the “mirror” reading stresses the allusions to the plot of the Iliad that are contained in the Shield. From this point of view, two of the main themes represented in the Shield, the trial for compensation (XVIII, 497-508) and the besieged city (XVIII, 509-40), bear a metonymical relation to the main plot.

The interpretation of the Shield I’m working on fits mainly into the “mirror” scheme, as I try to relate the world pictured in the Shield to the end of the Age of Heroes which I believe, following Kullmann (1955 and 1956), is what the poet refers to as Zeus’ Plot (Διὸς βουλή, I, 1-5). Thus, my hypothesis is that the Shield is a mirror in which the Iliad questions at the same time (1) its meaning and telos; and (2) those elements of the poetic tradition it will absorb within its monumental framework (the epic being an open integrative form):

(1) Thetis introduces her request to Hephaestos for the fabrication of the Shield with a selective résumé of the main narrative (XVIII, 429-67). This dialogue helps the audience to unravel the logic of the story, which has led to the disappearance of the Age of Heroes (the marriage of Thetis mentioned in XVIII, 432-34 relates to the traditional theme of eschatological warfare in Stasino’s Cypria F1). Through the Shield, the Iliad itself — represented by two of its most conspicuous motifs: compensation and siege warfare, precisely those that summarize the entire plot of the poem — becomes the problematic object of the poem’s reflection at a very specific moment of the recitation. The Shield does not simply evoke episodes of the Iliad in a few scattered allusions; on the contrary, I believe it summarizes the poem and reinterprets it in relation to the Διὸς βουλή.

(2) The variety of the scenes in the Shield mirrors the variety of the subject matter of the Iliad: both are indications of the “composite” character of the poem. From the point of view of the composition, the Shield (with reiterative discontinuity of the scenes designed by Hephaestos) is a device through which the audience can capture the kind of unity underlying the poem: not the “organic” unity envisaged by Unitarians and Analysts, but the constructed unity of an artifact. The bard’s audience was able to appreciate and decipher the complexity of that implicit reflection upon composition.


Works mentioned:

Alden, M., Homer Beside Himself. Para-Narratives in the Iliad, Oxford, 2000, p. 49-73.

Andersen, Ø., “Some thoughts on the shield of Achilles”, Symbolae Osloenses 51, 1976, p. 5-18.

Kullmann, W. “Ein vorhomerisches Motiv im Iliasproömium”, Philologus 99, 1955, p. 167-192.

— “Zur Διὸς βουλή des Iliasproömius”, Philologus 100, 1956, p. 132-33.

Marg, W., Homer über die Dichtung, Münster, 1957, p. 20-37.

Rabel, R., “The Shield of Achilles and the Death of Hector”, Eranos 87, 1989, p. 81-90.

Reinhardt, K., Die Ilias und ihr Dichter (1956), Göttingen, 1961, p. 401-411.

Schadewaldt, W., “Der Schild des Achileus”, in Von Homers Welt und Werk (1944), Stuttgart, 1959, p. 352-374.

Scully, S., « Reading the Shield of Achilles : Terror, Anger, Delight », Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 101, 2003, p. 29-47.

Taplin, O., “The Shield of Achilles within the Iliad”, Greece and Rome, Second Series 27, 1980, p. 1-21.