"The Iliad" by Homer
A reflection on the Shield of Achilles
I heard somewhere once that teachers who are pressed for time will typically eliminate two sections of the Iliad from their syllabus: Book 2 - The Catalog of Ships and Book 18 - The Shield of Achilles. Even as a retired naval officer who normally geeks out on all things nautical, I can understand skipping the tedious stanzas naming all the captains and tribes of the vast Greek armada assembled under King Agamemnon on the shores of Troy. It was a big army, we get it! But I’ve always felt that something special is lost by sacrificing the poetic narrative about the shield forged by the god Hephaestus for the doomed warrior Achilles.
Let us begin, though, with a few words about Homer and his great epic of the Trojan War, which truly forms the literary soil of the west. We’ll leave to scholars the task of debating whether Homer was really the blind bard of legend or a collection of writers working from an oral tradition. (Anyone interested in this subject should check out Adam Nicholson’s wonderful study, Why Homer Matters.) As Occidental tourists, it’s enough to know that Homer has bequeathed us a sublime epic that reaches back into our furthest memories as a people and touches on every great theme of life: love, friendship, hatred, courage, envy, glory, death.
Oh, we should also point out that it’s not really about the Trojan War—at least, not all 10 years of it. In the poem’s opening invocation, we learn that this is a story about the rage of the great warrior Achilles after his commander, King Agamemnon, insults him by stealing his war prize, the beautiful Briseis. It’s the 9th year of this war which is being fought over another contested woman, Helen. The opposing forces are at a stalemate. Achilles’ wounded pride causes him to withdraw from the fighting with disastrous results for his fellow Greeks. Fighting in Achilles’ armor, his best friend Patroclus is killed by the Trojan prince Hector. Grieving and vengeful, Achilles resolves to re-enter the fray. He calls upon his goddess mother Thetis, who promises to acquire a new set of arms for him from “Hephaestus, god of fire”.
This brings us to Book 18 and Homer’s gorgeous scene that, to my mind, encompasses nearly all of life and art. Thetis finds “the famous crippled Smith” toiling in his workshop and begs him to forge a new shield and helmet for her son Achilles, who will soon meet his fate of an early but glorious death. What follows is a mounting metaphor merging artistic craft with divine creation. “At first Hephaestus makes a great and massive shield, blazoning well-wrought emblems all across its surface.”1 This shield then becomes the raw material of a miniature world, a microcosmos:
There he made the earth and there the sky and the sea
and the inexhaustible blazing sun and the moon rounding full
and there the constellations, all that crowns the heavens…
Hephaestus proceeds to populate this new world with “two noble cities” filled with a diverse assortment of people at work and at play. We find them busy with every type of civilized, athletic, or artistic pursuit: dancing, trading, judging, farming, marrying, racing, flute-playing, herding, and celebrating. We also witness the inhabitants engaged in the darker activities of human life: stealing, killing, and waging war. It’s not a stretch to say that Hephaestus, the divine craftsman, has created a complete panoply of life. Likewise, we can approach Achilles’ Shield as a fruitful meditation on the themes of Homer’s entire poem re-presented in microcosm, the creative product of a divinely inspired art.
Later in our OGB reading, we’ll encounter other creation stories, such as that given by Plato in Timaeus. We’ll also read many tragedies, both fictional and historical. In one way or other, these stories will draw on Homer’s seminal themes and images, as water from a deep well. Which is why Homer is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand western civilization.
Homer. Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. London: Penguin, 1991. p. 483