Book XVIII of the Iliad: Examining the Shield of Achilles

In Book XVIII of the Iliad, Achilles is distraught. Patroclus has been killed by Hector, and the armor of Achilles has been stripped and stolen by Hector. Thetis, Achilles’s goddess mother, travels to the house of Hephaestus to convince him to build a new shield for Achilles so he can return to the battle and exact vengeance on Hector.

Hephaestus, the crippled smith, constructs a massive shield with a silver shield strap and five layers of metal. He creates a “world of gorgeous immortal work” (564). This shield is curious for many reasons. Homer takes great length to describe its contents. It is also the only piece of armor forged by the gods, namely the lame smith, Hephaestus.

Hephaestus begins with the cosmos: the earth, the sky, and the sea -the ancient tripartite division of the known world. He also adds the sun and the moon, along with the constellations such as the Pleiades, the Hyades, Orion, the Great Bear (also called the Wagon, always watching the Hunter and alone is denied the plunge into the Ocean’s baths).

“Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan” by James Thornhill in 1710

Next, Hephaestus moves from the cosmic to the political. He constructs two “noble” cities filled with the mortal men. In one city, two men are feuding over a murder related to a wedding celebration. They press for legal action -a judge to cut the knot, as was customary in the ancient near east. The judge is to be awarded two bars of gold, to encourage the most just verdict.

In the second city, the men are deliberating about whether or not to plunder an enemy city or share the spoils among the people. They enter into conflict the opposing city as Strife and Havoc enter the fight.

Following the two cities, one of law, the other of war, however, both rife with conflict, Hephaestus creates a fallow field being tilled (the “wonder” of Hephaestus’ work), a king’s estate, a thriving vineyard with a young boy plucking his lyre, a collection of animals in herds, a meadow of sheep grazing, young boys and girls courting one another, and, finally, he forges the Ocean’s River. This concludes his forging of the shield, as he places it at the feet of Thetis.

Unlike the other shields or pieces of armor described throughout the poem, the shield of Achilles is sobering, and less ferocious. It’s subject matter is a world unto itself. It covers both the natural world as well as the political. It portrays a cosmos filled with conflict, strife, and envy, as is the nature of the Greeks.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

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