The Shield of Achilles

philip-rundell-for-rundell-bridge-rundell-london-1823

He began by making a large and heavy shield, which he decorated all over and round which he placed a bright triple rim of gleaming metal and fitted with a silver shoulder-strap. The shield consisted of five layers, and he made all sorts of decorations for it, executed with consummate skill.

He made earth, sky and sea, the tireless sun, the full moon and all the constellations with which the skies are crowned, the Pleiades, the Hyades, great Orion and the Bear, also called the waggon. This is the only constellation never to bathe in Ocean Stream, but always wheels round in the same place and looks across at Orion the Hunter with a wary eye.

Next he made two beautiful towns full of people. In one of them weddings and feasts were in progress. They were bringing the brides through the streets from their homes, accompanied by blazing torches, and the wedding-hymn could be heard loud and clear. Young men danced, whirling round to the sound of pipes and lyres, and women stood by the doors of their houses to admire the sight.

But the men had gathered in the meeting-place, where a dispute had arisen between two men who were in conflict about the compensation for a man who had been killed. One side claimed the right to solve the problem by meeting the demand, and was showing the people the full extent of his offer; but the other refused all compensation. Both parties insisted that the issue should be settled by an expert; and both sides were cheered by their supporters in the crowd, whom the heralds were attempting to control. The expert elders sat on smooth stone seats in a sacred circle; they received in their hands the speaker’s staff from the clear-voiced heralds; and the two sides rushed over to them as they each gave judgment in turn. Two talents of gold – one from each side – were displayed in the centre: they were the fee for the elder who delivered the soundest judgment.

The other town was under siege from two armies, which were shown in their glittering armour. The besiegers were unable to agree whether to sack the place outright, or to take half the goods that the lovely town contained in return for surrender. But the townspeople had not yet given up: they were secretly preparing an ambush. Leaving the walls defended by their wives and little children, together with the older men, they advanced under the leadership of Ares and Pallas Athene. These were gold, wore golden clothes and looked as big and beautiful in their armour as gods should, standing out above their troops who were on a smaller scale. When the townsmen had found a likely place for an ambush in a river-bed where all the cattle came to drink, they sat down there in their shining bronze armour and posted two scouts in the distance to watch for the arrival of the sheep and cattle with their crooked horns belonging to the besieging army. These soon appeared in the charge of two herdsmen, who were playing on their pipes and suspected no trap.

The men who had laid the ambush saw them, charged out and promptly rounded up the herds of oxen and the fine flocks of white sheep, killing the shepherds. But when the besiegers, who were sitting in debate, heard the commotion raised by this attack on their herds, they immediately mounted the chariots behind their high-stepping horses and made for the scene of action, which they quickly reached. A pitched battle ensued on the banks of the river, and volleys of bronze spears were exchanged. Strife and Panic were co-operating, and there was the dreadful Demon of Death, laying her hands on a freshly wounded man who was still alive and on another not yet wounded, and dragging a body by its foot through the crowd. The cloak on her shoulders was red with human blood; and the warriors met and fought and dragged away each other’s dead, just as real warriors do.

Next he placed on it a large field of soft, rich fallow, ploughed three times. A number of ploughmen were driving their teams of oxen across it, up and down. When they reached the ridge at the end of the field and had to turn, a man would come up and hand them a cup of delicious wine. Then they turned back down the furrows, keen to reach the other end through the deep fallow soil. The field, though it was made of gold, grew black behind them, as a field does when it is being ploughed. It was a miraculous piece of work.

He also placed on it a lord’s estate where hired reapers were at work with sharp sickles in their hands. Handfuls of corn were falling to the ground one after the other along the lines cut by the reapers, while others were being tied up with bindings by the sheaf-binders following behind. There were three sheaf-binders at work, and boys were at hand, promptly picking up the sheaves and carrying them off in their arms to be stored. And there among them was the lord himself, staff in hand, standing quietly by the point the reapers had reached, delighted. Under an oak-tree some way from the reaping, his attendants were preparing a feast. They were busy with a great ox they had slaughtered, and the women were sprinkling the meat with handfuls of white barley for the labourers’ supper.

Next he placed on it a vineyard laden with grapes. It was beautiful and made of gold, but the bunches of grapes were black, and the supporting poles showed up throughout in silver. All round it, Hephaestus ran a ditch of blue inlay and, outside that, a fence of tin. There was a single pathway by which the pickers approached the vineyard to gather the vintage; and young girls and light-hearted boys were carrying off the delicious fruit in baskets. In the middle of them a boy was playing delightfully on a tuneful lyre and singing the song of Linus, quite beautifully, in a high voice. They all kept time with him and followed, singing and shouting, with dancing feet.

He created a herd of straight-horned cattle, making the animals of gold and tin. They were mooing as they hurried from the byre to feed where the rushes swayed beside a murmuring stream. Four golden herdsmen marched with the cattle, and there were nine swift dogs accompanying them. But at the head of the herd a pair of fearsome lions had seized a bellowing bull that roared aloud as it was being dragged off. The young men and dogs were running up to the rescue. But the lions had torn open the great bull’s hide and were lapping up its dark blood and entrails. It was in vain that the shepherds were setting their swift dogs on them and urging them forward: when it came to sinking their teeth into the lions, the dogs were having none of it. They stood there at close range, barking, but were careful to avoid them.

The famous lame god created a big grazing ground for white-fleeced sheep, in a beautiful valley, with farm buildings, pens and well-roofed huts.

Next the famous lame god cleverly depicted a dancing-floor, like the one Daedalus designed in the spacious town of Cnossus for lovely-haired Ariadne. Youths and marriageable maidens were dancing there holding each other by the wrists, the girls in fine linen shawls, the men in closely woven tunics showing a faint gleam of oil, the girls with lovely garlands on their heads, the men with daggers of gold hanging from their silver belts. Here they circled lightly round on accomplished feet, like the wheel which fits neatly in a potter’s hands when he sits down and tests it to see if it will spin; and here they ran in lines to meet each other. A large crowd stood round enjoying the delightful dance. A godlike singer of tales sang with them to the lyre, while a couple of solo dancers led off and spun round among the people.

Then, round the very rim of the superbly constructed shield, he placed the mighty Stream of Ocean.

One of the most extraordinary passages of The Iliad appears at the end of the eighteenth canto. Readers will recall that it is in this canto that Achilles learns of the death of his dearest companion Patroclus at the hands of Hector. Driven almost insane with grief, Achilles resolves to return to battle against the Trojans and avenge his friend. There is a hitch however: Patroclus was wearing Achilles’ battle gear at the time of his death and this Hector has seized as a trophy. Much of the canto is then taken up with the journey of Achilles’ divine mother, the nymph Thetis, to Olympus in order to commission a new set of armour from Hephaestus. Only too glad to assist Achilles and the Greek cause in this way, Hephaestus outdoes himself in the embellishment of a great shield, as Homer does in the lavish description of it. This description begins plausibly enough but grows and expands in detail, extending even to the actions and sounds of the figures depicted on the shield, until it becomes almost a story in itself, a compact creation myth. Curiously, the passage is almost entirely without Homer’s characteristic use of elaborate simile. Only near the end does he employ his favourite trope, comparing a circular dance to a potter’s wheel, and this just before the poet invokes, for the only time, a figure that might be himself: the “godlike singer of tales” singing to the dancers. Thus in describing the shield does Homer display the sovereign power of the poet, superior to the artist and equal, perhaps, even to the very gods of creation. -DTH
Text: Homer, The Iliad, trans. E. V. Rieu. London: Penguin Books, 2003
Image: THE KING OF HANOVER’S SILVER-GILT SHIELD OF ACHILLES, Philip Rundell for Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, London, 1823, cast and chased after John Flaxman’s design. via

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