There be dragons!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Shield of Achilles

Achilles shield is spoken of at length in book 18. Much ink has been spilled about what the shield means. Indeed it could be a terrifying force against the enemy in battle (see Chiasson's article), it could represent a new beginning of justice (as suggested by Nagy). As a literary device, though, the imagery represents something else.

Primarily of note is that the style of shield, the hopos, was circular - representing eternity and wholeness. The shield is surrounded by the river Tethys, ocean river, the primordial realm of the subconscious from which come all images. The celestial bodies are at the heart of the shield, sun, moon, stars & constellations. The two realms of mortal men, one of peace & one of war, are at the main body of the shield; the details revealing every major aspect of human existence - unchanging since Homer's day.

From a side view, the convex shield represents the dome of the heavens over the realm of earth surrounded by the waters; the entirety of the world. Further, the two cities suggest the superimposing of the interlocked triangles; representation of the alchemical exchange that takes place throughout the epic. Most of the time a shield's exterior would be either something valued to the bearer of the shield or terrifying to the enemy; images of dragons, the gorgon, or carnage or else images of stars, wheat, or chickens were popular on shields of the time.

Consequently, it is the image of the entire world born by Achilles that is designed to protect him. The shield represents the phantasmagoria of mythology that each person bears before them to protect the bearer from the exigencies of life. It is the face to greet the faces that we meet. It also exists to disconcert the enemy; Achilles carries what he values most, human life, and puts it out at risk toward the enemy - thus disconcerting them by reminding them of what they have at risk in war.

The whole of the human experience is designed to protect Achilles who has entered the wilderness of the mind with his questions about human purpose:
"The same fate waits for the coward and the brave - both go down to the house of death, the fellow who struggles and the one who shirks"
and intensified by the loss of Patroclus and his realization that he is not "The greatest of the Achaeans" but rather a "worthless dead weight on the good green earth." This is similar to what Plato describes in Phaedo when examining the reincarnation of souls:

τίς μηχανὴ μὴ οὐχὶ πάντα καταναλωθῆναι εἰς τὸ τεθνάναι;
"is there any escape from the final result that all things would be swallowed up in death?”
- Phaedo 72d

The same examination that appears in Ecclesiastes

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

This struggle is epidemic to the human race - terrifying and yet necessary if we are to mature. If we are to grow up, become autonomous, we have to face this "dragon" of our own worthlessness. The shield, the images and stories we hold most dear, help serve as a protection against those monsters that threaten to consume us, drown us, devour us, and overwhelm us.

Shield of Achilles (Ends of the Iliad and Beginnings of the Polis) by Nagy

The Shield of Achilles and the Negative Future Perfect by Chiasson

1 comment:

  1. From a colleague of mine:

    Good sir,

    Thanks for passing this along. I'll add your blog to my RSS feeds (which I've just now figured out how to use).

    Your brief essay on Achilles' shield brought me to fascination and to nostalgia -- the latter because Nagy's article was one of the first pieces of classical literary scholarship I encountered, so it's both fond and influential. On the former: Your insight that the shield simultaneously depicts life, and shields Achilles from life, is really gripping. But these are in tension, and you lean towards the shield-as-opposed-to-life, particularly by linking the shield via Patroclus to Plato and to Ecclesiastes. I wonder if a more pacific (even pacifist) reading can be rendered by reading the ecphrasis not as epilogue to the death of Patroclus, but as prelude to the death of Hector. In this reading, one would be struck by the universality of life represented on the shield: it is first of all the life of the polis, and the only polis in the Iliad is Troy! So the dancing maidens and the rest *have* to remind me first of all of the life of the city of Troy, and the life of Hector and his family; that Achilles does not "read" the shield as representing both his homeland and Hector's might be the great tragic turning point of the Iliad. Ultimately I'd want to read the shield not as an emblem of our quest for autonomy in the face of (individual) mortality, but of a celebration of communal life and a lamentation for its loss and disruption.

    Are you familiar with James Redfield's book on the Iliad? It's terrific -- right up there with Weil's essay.

    Respondeo ad eum:

    Now there's an interesting thought. what if it is both? what if the shield (mythology, i am convinced) is both celebration and lamentation, both offense and defense, both reminder to the bearer of what protects him and terror to the opponent of what he risks. In Chiasson's article he points out that Hector is the opponent and the images Achilles bears before him strike fear and despair into his heart. But perhaps this dual nature, both offense and defense, is itself the polis of peace (polisirenos) and the polis of war (polispolemos) - as peace it reminds and protects bearer - as war it frightens opponents. Such duality is not unprecedented in the work (Achilles & Patroclus, Hector & Paris, Agamemnon & Menelaus) and may even be related, however, circumlocuitously to the conception of the dual twins by Leda through Zeus. Things come in pairs. I wonder.