The Shield of Achilles

The Shield of Achilles

In Classical Lit today, we looked at Book 18 in The Iliad, specifically the shield of Achilles. A centerpiece of the story, the extended description of the piece of armor (called an ekphrasis) may seem at first glance out of place. Here we are, in the middle of a poem about rage, death, and war, and the bard gives us 130 lines of peace and prosperity.

And he forged a king’s estate where harvesters labored,
reaping the ripe grain, swinging their whetted scythes.
Some stalks fell in line with the reapers, row on row,
and others the sheaf-binders girded round with ropes,
three binders standing over the sheaves, behind them
boys gathering up the cut swaths, filling their arms,
supplying grain to the binders, endless bundles.
And there in the midst the king,
scepter in hand at the head of the reaping-rows,
stood tall in silence, rejoicing in his heart.
And off to the side, beneath a spreading oak,
the heralds were setting out the harvest feast,
they were dressing a great ox they had slaughtered,
while attendant women poured out barley, generous,
glistening handfuls strewn for the reapers’ midday meal.
— The Iliad of Homer, transl. Robert Fagles, Book 18

Before we discussed the possible meaning(s) of the shield, students were put in groups and had an opportunity to try their hand at drawing the shield itself. The only stipulation was that they had to work strictly from the text -- no Internet searches for "shield of Achilles image." 

They started the project in class today, and it will be extra credit to complete. They poured over the text, first sketching in pencil the basic outlines of the shield, and some groups had time to begin filling in the layers. We then took the last twenty minutes to discuss the meaning of the shield using three scholarly articles:

  1. An excerpt from A Companion to the Iliad, which has a handy diagram and describes and analyzes each part of the shield in turn.
  2. An article called "The Shield of Achilles in the Iliad" by Oliver Taplin, in which he discusses the state of the question (in 1980, at least!), and then offers several possible interpretations, defending one.
  3. An article called "Reading the Shield of Achilles: Terror, Anger, Delight" by Stephen Scully, responding in part to Taplin's article.

We approached our discussion via the articles above for several reasons. First, to model academic discussion at the highest level, seeing how two scholars have different interpretations and carry on their discussion in writing. And second, to demonstrate a strategy for finding sources in research -- find a good secondary source and look at the footnotes!

Drawing by a student, including Greek text from Book I.