Turning around Achilles' Shield in Bryn Mawr

An invitation to the Bryn Mawr Classical Colloquium is a perfect occasion to discuss work in progress with a highly stimulating audience. Last week, I had the chance to share my reading of Achilles’ Shield with undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty from classics and classical archaeology departments.

I argued that both the “window” and the “mirror” readings (both were discussed in my previous post) conceive a static mode of relation, a sort of univocal correspondence between the shield and whatever these interpretations propose as a referent to it – be that the main narrative of the Iliad, or the world that existed in the rhapsode’s own day. I proposed instead a more dynamic kind of interpretation. I believe that the shield encloses a complex network of thematic metonymies and semantic allusions (something like a poetic code within the Iliad) relating the narrative of the Iliad with the world that is supposed to lie beyond the Age of Heroes.

The hypothesis that I’m currently working on is that the shield reflects on the possibility of a passage from the world of warrior exploits to the world of durable existence, of work and feast, of justice and political organization. This passage from one world to another is nevertheless problematic both from an ideological and a poetical point of view. The Iliad is devoted to the devastating effects of Achilles’ wrath within a war that will lead to the extinction of the Age of Heroes. How does a poem dealing with these exceptional events integrate a social universe of peaceful and anonymous existence? How can this form of existence be satisfactorily formulated in a heroic mode? To put it in literary terms: how does the epic form deal with the lyric form, which celebrates an antithetical world-view (with both singing and dancing: humenaios, 18. 493; linos, 18. 570; khoros, 18.590)? I believe that the Iliad doesn’t deal directly with its aftermath. Neither the nostos, which is the theme of the Odyssey, nor the everyday life of the good eris found in Hesiod’s Works and Days, are part of the Iliad’s object. Nevertheless, for the epic to be a poetic form encompassing the whole meaning of a heroic action (that of the fall of Troy), the poet of the Iliad creates within it an artifact conceived to reflect on the possibility of a passage from the world of warrior exploit to the world of durable existence. In a way, the shield dialectically embraces both the world depicted in Helen’s web (3. 125-28), representing the ordeals of the war, and the images of Andromache’s web (22. 440-441), depicting flowers that suggest the season of new life and rebirth. The Iliad integrates these antithetical world-views within Achilles’ shield, which at the same time, metaphorically figures the poet’s view of his own artistry.

I first examined the juxtaposition of the city at peace and the city at war. Both are left in an unresolved dispute over death. Furthermore, both cities are dealing, in one way or another, with major ethical decisions that may lead to transcending death through means of compensation. It is certainly not a coincidence if these ethical dilemmas have a correlate in the main narrative. Significantly, the impossibility of compensation (poinê) is the negative event that provokes in the Iliad the collapse the normative system ruling the relations between members of the Achaean society. By representing two types of compensation, one dealing with the death of a man, the other with the eventual destruction of a city, the shield provides the audience with the means of reflecting on the institution of a universal rule to govern, precisely, those human conflicts that led the Age of Heroes to its extinction.

The next step of the demonstration was devoted to the agricultural scenes. These introduce a radical change in the way the shield relates to the Iliad. While the cities’ scenes in the shield relate to the main narrative in a metonymical way, I suggested that the rural scenes relate to the main plot in the way of an inverted simile. That is: the everyday agricultural and pastoral activities depicted in it create a parallel narrative that indirectly refers back to the heroic actions in the Iliad. Compare: the plowing scene (18. 541-9) to the plowing motif used in a combat simile (13. 703-8); the reaping scene (18. 550-60) to the reaping motif employed in a war simile (11. 67-71); and last but not least, the vintage scene in which a boy singing a linos (18. 561-72), to the scene where Achilles is singing the klea andrôn in his tent (9. 186-9). All these scenes in the shield constitute a unity that operates a reversal of the meaning of images used in the main narrative as vehicles for heroic actions. The same verbal matter used to compose vivid images of death in the main narrative, is used in the shield to evoke a world of durable existence, which is the very subject matter of lyric poetry. The inclusion of three lyric moments within the shield (humenaios, 18. 493; linos, 18. 570; khoros, 18.590), testifies to the formal self-consciousness of the epos in terms of its thematic limits. At another level, however, this delimitation also testifies to the epic’s capacity to foreshadow its own poetical aftermath.