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Shield of Achilles in The Iliad: Description & Analysis

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  • 0:04 Position of the Shield
  • 1:26 Description of the Shield
  • 3:09 Importance of the Shield
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

The Shield of Achilles is described in one of the most famous passages of Homer's 'The Iliad,' and is rich in symbolism and detailed imagery. This lesson will describe the appearance of the shield and discuss its importance within 'The Iliad.'

Position of the Shield

Three-fourths of the way through The Iliad, in Book 18, you'll find one of the most famous examples of ekphrastic verse in Western literature. Ekphrastic verse describes the visual appearance of a work of art. Lines 478-608 of Book 18 describe the battle shield of no less than the great, almost invincible, Greek hero Achilles.

Ever lost something you loved, only to have it replaced by something you loved even more? That's exactly the story of how Achilles came to get this shield. Earlier in The Iliad, in Books 16 and 17, Achilles had lent his original armor and shield to the warrior Patroclus, who was set to fight the Trojan hero Hector. Unfortunately, Patroclus was killed in the battle, and Achilles' armor and shield were stolen by Hector. Patroclus and Achilles were very close, and the loss of his friend supercharges the wrath this temperamental hero is known for. Achilles becomes determined to slay Hector to gain vengeance for Patroclus.

Achilles is a demigod, meaning he is half-man and half-god. He's almost invincible, due to his divine roots. Still, like any self-respecting warrior, he needs a shield and armor to battle Hector. His mother Thetis, a nymph, asks Hephaestus (the god of metalsmithing and related arts) to make Achilles a new shield. What Hephaestus returns with is the incredible object known as the Shield of Achilles.

Description of the Shield

As described in lines 478-608 of Book 18, the Shield of Achilles is huge, heavy, and round with several concentric circles, each depicting different scenes. In the very center, there's a picture of the universe: ''the earth upon it, and the sky, and the sea's water, / and the tireless sun, and the moon waxing into her fullness'' (583-594). Around this are depictions of major constellations, such as Orion and the Bear.

The next circle zooms inward, to show depictions of human life. The Iliad tells us that on the shield, Hephaestus ''wrought in all their beauty to cities of mortal men.'' One shows the scene of a wedding celebration, as well as a marketplace where people are arguing over the fine that should be paid for a murder. The other city is shown under siege by an invading army. Homer writes that outside the city and beyond the army laying siege, things are more peaceful: ''they could see the sheep and the sampling cattle, / who appeared presently, and two herdsmen went along with them / playing happily on pipes, and took no thought of the treachery'' (524-536). The shield then shows the attack and the bloody battle that ensues.

Outside of this, there are several more peaceful scenes. One depiction is of a field being plowed by happy farmers occasionally taking a swig of ''honey-sweet wine.'' This picture flows into one of a king watching as reapers harvest the fruitful field. There is also a picture of ''young girls and young men, in all their light-hearted innocence,'' picking grapes from a vineyard as music softly plays. One picture shifts back to a more violent image, showing a bull being attacked by lions as people and dogs try to rescue it. Happiness then returns yet again in an image of young men and women dancing. Finally, a depiction of the ocean lines the outside rim of the shield.

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