Homer’s Iliad - The Shield of Achilles Essay

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Homer’s Iliad - The Shield of Achilles

Homer devotes the final passages of Book 18 of The Iliad to the description of the shield of Achilles. Only a quarter of the description concerns warfare, the essential grist of the epic. Instead, the bulk of the description presents a peaceful society and rural idylls, a curious choice for the most ferocious warrior of the Greeks, and an odd thing for both armies to fear. A narrative emerges from the scenes of the shield, and it is this that fits Achilles and repulses everyone else.

We expect Achilles’ shield to unsettle his adversaries—that is, after all, one of the objectives of a shield. Indeed, Achilles returns to battle "shining in all his armour, a man like the murderous war
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After all, Agamemnon’s shield has "the blank-eyed face of the Gorgon / with her stare of horror, and Fear [is] inscribed upon it, and Terror" (11.36-37). As a final touch, the strap is a three-headed snake. And from Athena’s aegis, "Terror hangs like a garland, / and Hatred is there, and Battle Strength, and heart-freezing Onslaught / and thereon is set the head of the grim gigantic Gorgon, / a thing of fear and horror, portent of Zeus and the aegis" (5.739-742). These shields intend to intimidate, for both mortal and immortal owners. The uniqueness of Achilles’ shield doesn’t originate simply from its divine handiwork. In the most conventional part of the shield, the war scene, Athena, Ares, Hate, Confusion, and Death are the only immortal figures. All others are men, and the armies of the Trojan War are certainly accustomed to divine intervention. Five immortals amidst a battle is nothing preternaturally unnerving. Achilles’ shield aggressively avoids the intimidation tactics we expect from shields.

A more productive way to look at the shield, then, is to think about where the war scene occurs in the description, since the war scene itself is not the source of the shield’s emotional power. Hephaistos constructs the entire universe on the shield, but all we need to focus on are the scenes featuring humanity. There are two cities, the first peaceful, the second at war. Around these, Homer takes us on an extended tour of the countryside, peopled

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