Essays on Homer’s Iliad

 

 

ESSAY FIVE 
ARMS AND THE MEN

 

[This essay, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), Canada, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without charge and without permission, provided the source is acknowledged; released August 2005. For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad. References to the text of the Iliad are to the online translation (by Ian Johnston) available here. The references in square brackets are to the Greek text. For comments and questions please contact Ian Johnston.]

 

 

THE EMPHASIS ON MATERIALS OF WAR

 

In depicting the world of the warriors in the Iliad, Homer pays special attention to the objects of war, the material possessions inextricably bound up with the demands of the warrior’s daily actions. And just as we derive significant insight into any culture by examining the artifacts that the people most value, so in the Iliad we are always discovering the ironies of war in the articles which the fighting men use and admire. Not surprisingly the cultural values of these prized objects evoke the same complex responses as the religious beliefs and the warrior code, according to which these men understand themselves and their world.

 

One notices from the start that the material world of the Iliad is remarkably narrow. Almost every object in the poem has a practical use in the war, and objects with no direct military function or with no bearing on the man’s status as a warrior count for little and do not merit extended attention. As we have observed already, a copper cauldron has a value three times that of a woman skilled in crafts, because the soldier needs a good cauldron in his hut and because possession of extra cauldrons is a sign of his status. He does not require domestic fine arts. Readers who come to the Iliad with some experience of the Odyssey often remark upon the considerable difference in texture between the two poems. Much of that sense comes from the ways in which the Odyssey constantly celebrates beautiful objects and environments for their aesthetic value, for their capacity to inspire delight and wonder. The Iliad has little room for such a rich variety. In the world of peaceful, hospitable human civilization central to the Odyssey, the artistic magnificence of homes and the objects in them, just like the paradisal qualities of nature, bring into people’s lives a vitally important aesthetic pleasure. So here we often find a wide variety of splendid articles that continually evoke from Odysseus or Telemachus a delight unconnected to any desire for status, and those responsible for producing such beauty deserve special praise. Hence the importance in the Odyssey of  women skilled in crafts, of musicians and dancers, and of all the artistically gifted. Women in this world occupy an honoured place, because to a large extent they create and sustain the life which enables human beings to enjoy beautifully created works in their splendid homes. And artists like Demodocus and Phemius, who would be quite useless on the battlefield, have a special prominence in the royal court. While the world of the Iliad also honours the creative skills of the artist, it has no room for art except as it serves to decorate the warrior’s equipment or create objects relevant to the war effort. 

 

In the Iliad, for example, we find no marked celebration of the aesthetic magnificence of Troy. We learn that it is a rich, powerful, well-built city and that Priam’s palace is “splendid,” with “fifty private bed rooms, all of polished rock” (6.308), but Homer spares us any further details. He concentrates instead on what matters most in this world: the battlefield exploits of the men who occupy the rooms and the weapons they and their enemies use to kill each other (1). Nestor’s humble field hut, a military installation, gets as much attention as Priam’s royal apartments. Similarly, the poem rarely offers us a glimpse of objects or activities which do not have a direct bearing on the war. When Hector visits the women in Paris’ house (in Book 6), the women are carrying out their “famous” handicrafts, but Homer’s description draws our attention more emphatically to the really beautiful artistic creations here, Hector’s huge spear and Paris’ splendid armour.

 

The non-military objects which do matter are those which play some part in the warrior’s status or which help to maintain the central fighting ethic of the group. Helen’s weaving in Book 2 is important enough to dwell on because she is creating “pictures of the many battle scenes/ between horse-taming Trojans and bronze-clad Achaeans,/ wars they suffered for her sake at the hands of Ares” (3.141). The fine materials in Hecuba’s wardrobe, some of the loot Paris brought home with him from Sparta, come to our attention because Hector needs a suitable war offering to Athena. Achilles has a wonderful lyre, which he plays to himself away from the battle (9.228). But the important point about the instrument is that it is a battle trophy and that it enables him to sing about “the celebrated deeds of men.” The beautiful object matters because it sustains the spirit of the warrior, by enabling him to remember and enjoy his own battle exploits. The description of Nestor’s cup (in Book 11) provides one possible exception to these observations, but even here the author draws our attention to how drinking from the magnificent vessel demonstrates Nestor’s prowess, so that the notion of warrior status is not entirely absent.

 

In the same way, the Iliad pays relatively little attention to the daily needs of food or sleep. The meals are important chiefly as a preparation for battle or as a ritual maintaining the solidarity of the group. The warriors do not take a special delight in the feast for its own sake, as a joyous, social communion with friends, a time to relax and enjoy the civilized pleasures associated with domestic banquets. There is none of that famous cozy human warmth of the Odyssey, the emphasis on beautiful manners, fine dishes, well-crafted chairs and footstools, wonderfully potent wine, musical entertainment, warm beds, and so on. When we do sense something like that emerging, as in the scene of Nestor’s entertaining his friends (in Book 11), the demands of war, this time in the form of Patroclus, quickly interrupt the social gathering. Perhaps the closest we get to such a feeling of disinterested pleasure occurs near the end of Book 10:

 

                                                 Then the two men waded
into the sea, washed off their legs and necks and thighs,
removing all the sweat. Once the surf had taken
layers of sweat from off their skin and their hearts
had been refreshed, they stepped in shining tubs and bathed.
They washed, rubbing lots of smooth oil on themselves,
then sat down to eat. From the brimming wine bowl
they drew off sweet wine and poured libations to Athena. (10.682) [10.572]

 

The picture celebrates the intense male comradeship which comes from their shared success in a dangerous enterprise. And we can sense the mutual joy in such a daring victory, for which sweet wine provides an appropriate libation. But here the stress remains firmly on the war. The two friends are, after all, washing off the blood and sweat of slaughter. And the final reference to Athena reminds us of a similar reference a few lines earlier, when Odysseus thanks the goddess for delivering them a helpless victim. The bathing and refreshment thus do not register as an unambiguous social celebration designed to bring repose after a long day. The impression is that Odysseus and Diomedes need a wash and some emotional relief in order to continue their fighting the next day.

 

WEAPONS AND STATUS

 

The objects that really matter in the Iliad, as one would expect, are the weapons of war. To own the most impressive armour, a spear no other man can throw, or a large number of captured arms marks a man as a warrior of special prominence. When Meriones, for example, asks Idomeneus to provide him with a spear, Idomeneus takes the opportunity to announce his own worth:

 

“Spears? As many as you want—in my hut  
twenty one stand against the sunny wall,
Trojans spears I take from warriors I kill.
I never think of fighting hostile troops
from far away—that’s why I’ve got there
brightly shining spears and embossed shields,
with helmets, too, and body armour.” (13.303) [13.260]

 

Idomeneus values the spears (significantly he knows the exact total) and displays them prominently in his quarters because they possess great value both as practical weapons and as marks of worth to his peers. And he does not hesitate to point out to Meriones that a warrior can win spears only from fighting the enemy at close quarters, in the fiercest fighting of all, the combat over the fallen corpse. Meriones senses the implied challenge in Idomeneus’ remarks and, for all the urgency of the situation, takes the time to point out that he has lots of captured weapons in his hut, too, but it’s far away and he’s in a hurry. None of the men displays the slightest false modesty about his war possessions. Nor do we see any envious attitudes that deceitfully deny the value of someone else’s equipment. The leaders may argue about who owns the finest armour or the fastest horses, but they agree about what makes these possessions important. The man who foolishly trades his excellent equipment for something inferior, as Glaucus does with Diomedes (in Book 6), must have lost his wits.

 

This attitude to material things is neither covetousness nor an excessive desire for displays of mere wealth. The valued objects matter because they announce the warrior’s status and are a public statement of his worth. The sometimes vicious attitudes towards comrades in the funeral games, the hot tempers and almost suicidal tactics in the chariot race, for example, seem incommensurate with the intrinsic value of the prizes. But there’s no point in talking about “intrinsic” value here. The objects matter because of what winning them or losing them will do to the victor’s reputation. In a sense, we might even say that the warriors in the Iliad attack each other primarily because they wish to acquire more fine objects which will enhance their status. Stripping an enemy for his weapons, even at great risk, is a cultural imperative, just as much an obligation as defending a fallen comrade from an enemy who wants to do the same. In the night foray of Diomedes and Odysseus, the Argive pair eagerly kill thirteen defenceless sleeping soldiers to obtain enemy horses. Nothing in Homer’s description of the event suggests that there is any glory in the slaughter, quite the reverse, and we get no sense that the horses will benefit the Achaeans materially in the war. Ownership of these fine horses, however, marks Odysseus as a heroic man, favoured of the gods and therefore even more important among his peers. Moved by the same spirit, Hector urges on his horses with an explanation of why the battle matters: it gives him an opportunity to win more prizes for himself:

 

“Come on then, go after them with speed,  
so we may capture Nestor’s shield, whose fame
extends right up to heaven—it’s all gold—
the shield itself, cross braces, too.
From horse-taming Diomedes’ shoulders 
we’ll strip the decorated body armour,
a work created by Hephaestus.
I think if we could capture these two things, 
Achaeans would climb aboard their ships tonight.” (8.220) [8.191]

 

Hector appears to want the spoils just as much as, if not more than, the victory. Nestor’s shield matters to him, not because Hector requires a superior weapon (the emphasis on gold, which symbolizes the social value of the shield, suggests that it might not be the easiest weapon to use) but rather because the shield is well known; it has a fame which Hector can appropriate if he can acquire the shield for his collection.

 

FORM, FUNCTION, AND EXCELLENCE

 

The details Homer provides about the weapons, especially the artistic skill on display, brings out the cultural worth of these objects and almost always evokes once again the ironic paradoxes at the heart of the warrior culture. The passage describing the bow of Pandarus is a good example:

 

Pandarus took up his bow of polished horn,
made from a nimble wild goat he himself once shot
under the chest, as it leapt down from a rock. 
He’d waited in an ambush and hit it in the front.                                           
The goat fell down onto the rocks, landing on its back.                     
Horns on its head were sixteen palm widths long.
A man skilled in shaping horn had worked on them,
so as to fit the horns together to create a bow.
He’d polished it all over, adding gold caps
snugly fitted on the tips. (4.124) [4.105]

 

Here, as in other descriptions, there’s an emphasis on the process of making the weapon. The bow is a product of human resourcefulness, patience, courage, and skill, qualities which have transformed nature into something functional and beautiful. The gold is not simply a decoration. It is an essential part of its artistic and practical excellence of the object and of the status of the person who owns it. However, this wonderful object has been made and is being used to kill human beings. Just before this description we are told what Pandarus is about to do with the bow (break the truce and thus restart the war), and immediately after the lines quoted above, we are reminded of the function of this bow—it is designed to shoot “an arrow, a fresh-winged courier/ bearing dark agony.” The gods have given Pandarus his skill, and nature has provided him with the materials. His admirable creative energies have fashioned a beautiful and valued object which carries out a deadly function.

 

To separate value and function in this manner is somewhat misleading, since the Iliad always associates value, beauty, and function in an inextricable combination. Weapons, like human beings, display their excellence, their unique value, only in action or in potential for action. This notion of excellence (arete) includes the sense that worth depends upon the proper fulfillment of the function for which the agent, man or material object, exists. For something to have full value, it must fulfill its arete. It must, that is, realize as completely as possible in action the specific virtues for which it exists. In the Iliad, a warrior’s arete manifests itself in the fighting or competitive games or in debates in the assembly of leaders. Similarly, an object’s arete depends upon its contributions to the war. And just as none of the warrior heroes is ugly, for the fighting which proves his excellence makes him beautiful (Thersites, who wants to abandon the fight, is the only physically ugly man mentioned in the poem), so the weapons of war are beautiful. Their deadly potential makes them so.

 

This idea that the excellence of the weapon, like the status of its owner, depends both on its appearance and its performance creates those curious moments in the poem when the weapons acquire a vital life of their own:

 

Some spears hurled by brave hands
flew swiftly forward, then stuck in his great shield,
and many stood upright in the space between them,
impaled in earth, still eager to devour his flesh. (11.644) [11.571]

Shrill war cries came from either side,
arrows flew from bowstrings, many spears were thrown.
Some impaled themselves in the flesh of quick young men.
Many fell halfway before they reached white skin,
skewered in the earth, still longing to taste flesh. (15.372) [15.314]

 

The spear robbed of its “white skin” has not fulfilled its function, which is to “taste flesh.” Its arete has been violated. The last quivering of the spear which has not found a human target, like the final death throes of the defeated warrior, call to our attention that grim paradox central to Homer’s vision: in this life, creative fulfillment, the proper realization of one’s excellence, can only come through the destruction of life, including, sooner or later, one’s own.
The ironic union of artistic beauty and destructive function runs throughout the Iliad. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the following remarkable simile describing the wound Menelaus receives on the battlefield:

 

                                                           The arrow pierced it,
going through that mail, and grazed the skin of Menelaus.
Dark blood at once came flowing from the wound.    
Just as when some woman of Meonia or Caria
stains white ivory with purple dye, making a cheek piece                    
for a horse, and leaves it in her room—an object
many riders covet for themselves, a king’s treasure
with double value—horse’s ornament and rider’s glory—    
that’s how, Menelaus, your strong thighs, your shins and ankles
were stained with your own blood below the wound. (4.163) [4.140]

 

The comparison here between the peaceful work of famous artists and the wound, one of the most remarkable similes in the poem, comes as something of a surprise. Wounds, too, like deadly bows and heavy shields, can bring a momentary beauty to the bloody work. This is not a strained rhetorical trope similar to the “blood is the god of war’s rich livery” style of Christopher Marlowe, but an impersonal fact of life, linking human creativity, the constant striving for beautiful objects which define a man’s status, and the destructive perils of war. A similarly surprising reminder of this paradoxical union of beauty and destruction comes in another memorable comparison when Ilioneus has his head chopped off:

 

Peneleus drew his sharp sword and struck his neck,        
chopping head and helmet, so they hit the ground, 
the spear still sticking from the socket of his eye.            
Holding it up high, like a flowering poppy. . . . (14.580) [14.499]

 

The most graphic image of the warrior armed depicts him in his chariot riding in heroic glory over the earth soaked in blood: 

 

Saying this, Cebriones urged on their horses
with the lovely manes, cracking his whip over them.
Obeying the lash, they took the fast chariot at top speed
in the direction of the Trojans and Achaeans,
trampling on shields and corpses as they galloped on.
The axle was completely spattered underneath,
as were the rails behind, with gobs of blood thrown up
from horses’ hooves and chariot wheels. (11.601) [11.531]

 

Hector, Cebriones, and the chariot, the most complex product of man’s unique creative skill, the union of animal force, artistically shaped material, and coordinated human control, here arise out of the earth and define the glory of the warrior in motion on the battlefield. This picture of the power of nature harnessed by human skill and yoked to a beautiful created object symbolizes the living warrior’s most heroic pose. As Hector moves briskly along, he presents to the world his glorious individuality, his full value as a human being, his arete. The warrior’s appearance, here and elsewhere, brings out how the creativity of man changes the human form. His physical nature he conceals behind shaped metal. He does not move over the earth with a natural human gait but rides in a beautiful and destructive chariot. The image of Hector in his glory, like the very similar picture of Achilles later in the poem, insists upon both the full manifestation of heroic individuality and the slaughter. The beautiful vision of man, animal, and machine grows out the bloodshed which nurtures it and which will transform this cultural icon into a thing of terror. The pursuit of glory takes place in the midst of a shower of gore, which the activity necessarily generates, turning the green earth into a murky swamp of mud, bodies, weapons, and blood which will soon enough swallow up Hector himself and each warrior when his turn comes. Sprung from the vital energies which arise spontaneously from the earth and returned in a mangled mess back to the earth, the Iliadic warrior lives for those moments when he can declare his individual glory in proud confidence, fully armed, a metallic work of art, still only a few feet from the ground, but moving superbly and reaching with his spear upward to the sky. The image stands out clearly, but its resonance reverberates as mysteriously as the eternal and violent rhythms of nature.

 

WEAPONS AS SYMBOLS OF CULTURAL TRADITIONS

 

The physical objects in the Iliad can also derive their significance from traditional cultural associations they embody. Since one of the important functions of art, especially in a society as conservative as the warrior group in the Iliad, is to enshrine and transmit the established values of the past, the warrior’s possessions, as well as contributing to his status among his peers, also link him to the famous leaders of the past, even to the gods themselves. The helmet Meriones provides for Odysseus (in Book 10) has come by a circuitous route from the military booty won by Autolycus, Odysseus’ maternal grandfather. Thus, the object is more than a useful protection for the coming raid. It has a cultural importance as well, for it informs us that Odysseus is now participating in a traditional activity which links him to his famous ancestor and to other warriors from distant lands.

 

 Sometimes the cultural association of an important material possession can remind us of the continuing ironies of the traditional code. A well-known example is the royal sceptre of Agamemnon. Originally a product of the divine skill of Hephaestus and a present to Zeus, it has passed down from the father of the gods and men to Hermes, then to Pelops, from him to Atreus, then to Thyestes, and finally to Agamemnon. As part of Agamemnon’s royal appearance in the assembly, the sceptre reminds everyone of the conservative values on which his authority rests. For the reader who recognizes in the names the famous family curse on the House of Atreus, the sceptre acquire also an ominous sense of doom for the possessor, in the same way the armour of Achilles does, which in the full story of the Trojan war destroys almost all those great heroes who wear it or seek to possess it: Patroclus, Hector, Achilles, and Ajax.

 

Our sense of the cultural importance of the beauty in the weapons emerges most clearly in the descriptions of the distinctive armour with which the heroes announce their individual human value and at the same time conceal their vulnerable bodies from the deadly perils of warfare. The passage in Book 11 picturing Agamemnon’s magnificent equipment announces the king’s importance, for the cuirass is a royal gift from lord Cinyras and the rest so splendid that the gods thunder their approval. Everything in the outfit forms an essential part of the warrior’s equipment, but each piece also has its own beauty. His “richly decorated” shield, a “beautiful work,” is a terrifying reminder of the reality of death in battle: “On that shield, as crowning symbol, stood the Gorgon,/ a ferocious face with a horrific stare./ Terror and Panic were placed on either side” (11.38). Agamemnon’s armour enables him to carry into battle, not just a useful military protection or a declaration of his royal pre-eminence, but also an artistic expression of the greatest cultural achievements of his society. As he moves forward, he declares to all in his person the full values of his civilization: personal courage, enormous individual authority, and images of terrifying ferocity and beauty produced by an artisan’s creative skill (2).

 

THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES

 

Given the obvious cultural importance of the weapons in the Iliad, we recognize clearly the particular significance of the lengthy description of Achilles’ divine armour (in Book 18). This section gives us a vision central to the entire epic in the description of the weapons of the mightiest warrior of all. The artisan god Hephaestus makes the shield for Achilles, who is about to push the heroic code to its limits, and beyond. Before we witness his aristeia, we are given in the design of the shield the most complete single metaphor for the world of the Iliad. Whatever our response to Achilles may be as he sets off on his bloody revenge, we recognize that his conduct grows out of the way of life his armour celebrates, for he carries the divinely crafted image of that life through all his remaining battles.

 

Hephaestus first emphasizes in the design that scenes on the shield take place within the context of the entire cosmos:

 

The shield had five layers. On the outer one,
with his great skill he fashioned many rich designs.
There he hammered out the earth, the heavens, the sea,
the untiring sun, the moon at the full, along with
every constellation which crowns the heavens—
the Pleiades, the Hyades, mighty Orion,
and the Bear, which some people call the Wain,
always circling in the same position, watching Orion,
the only stars that never bathe in Ocean stream. (18.598) [18.483]

 

These first figures on the shield, like the very last (“Hephaestus then depicted Ocean,/ the mighty river, flowing all around the outer edge”), indicate that the human life depicted exists within the framework of the whole world. What does not appear on the shield is not part of life, and what we do see on the shield represents all the possibilities of life, realized in the perfection of divine art.

 

Then follow two scenes of civilized life. In the first, human beings celebrate weddings, music, dancing, and a peaceful and reasonable arbitration for murder through competitive performances in the law courts. In the second scene, human life devotes itself to war, with Ares and Athena, as usual, prominent in the fray (significantly enough, the only Olympian deities on the shield). The latter image evokes the full irony of battle: the men, “covered in shining bronze,” kill and are killed under the power of Strife and Uproar and the unpredictable work of “cruel Death,” figures actively participating in the fight. One notices immediately the stark contrast between the two scenes, between, that is, pictures of a peaceful, creative, civilized life in the city and of the hazardous, destructive enterprise of war beyond the walls. In the first image, everyone plays an important role: women move freely to join in the festivities; the old men occupy important places as participants in the legal proceedings, young men have an important role in the dancing. In the second scene, the old men, women, and children can only stand on the wall keeping watch. The adult men, all the physically active mature male citizens, have gone to war.

 

The juxtaposition of these two scenes does not, however, suggest a simple logical connection between them. Hephaestus’ design does not hint, as it might have done, that the second scene represents an action occasionally necessary in defence of the first. Such a possibility would suggest a more comforting view of war than we have witnessed in the poem, namely that war does not have a permanent and pre-eminent place in man’s affairs except as an essential but temporary undertaking in defence of civilization’s more important values: marriage, civic justice, and peaceful celebrations. The war scene is, by contrast, a picture depicting a permanent feature of human life, an eternal part of the cosmic design. The contrasting images display two different worlds, each a divinely sanctioned aspect of man’s being. Nature may have two faces, and each scene belongs to the given pattern of the cosmos, but the design does not suggest that these are alternative people can choose, for warfare is just as much an inescapable fact of life as is the peaceful human community (3).

 

The pictures on the shield which follow these opening scenes give us again the different aspects of nature. The earth provides for human beings the chance to plough, harvest, and enjoy fine wines and rich communal feasts. But the earth is equally home to the lions, who live to gratify their carnivorous appetites. The divine artisan does not resolve any apparent contradictions. He offers no synthesis of peaceful fertility and civilized control with the passionate and brutal frenzy of destructive conflict, for there is no middle ground, other than in the astonishing beauty of the physical object depicting such ambiguities. So the final human scene celebrates the “dancing magic” which keeps the crowd’s attention riveted, an evocation of the creative powers we have to translate the incomprehensible ambiguities of life into beauty and joy in the coordinated rhythmic movement of the group. The reference to Daedalus invokes the spirit of the most famous human artist of all, who built the magical labyrinth around the destructive Minotaur, and thus reminds us of the paradoxical union of creativity and destruction. The shield here shows us a peaceful dance, but like the dance of war we have followed throughout the poem, it asks us to recognize that the highest achievement we can aim for in a hostile but vital world is a pattern for joyful physical movement, a rhythmic beauty that will last as long as people have the will to express themselves against the harsh irrationality of fate. As the artist-god gives shape to the metal, forming an object of eternal beauty, so men shape their lives, individually and collectively, to create a meaning where without their efforts chaos would rule supreme. And that effort produces, by the most natural means, the dance of battle (4).

 

Homer does not end his description of Achilles’ armour with the evocative final details of the dancers and the surrounding boundaries of the earth. Before the end of Book 18, he brings the reader suddenly and prosaically back to the reality of the situation by reminding us once again what this surpassingly beautiful work of art is, namely, a practical necessity for the greatest warrior about to set out on his destructive, glorious career. We thus recall that the creation of the finest artistic work also serves the war. Without the fighting, without Achilles’ urge to battle, there would be no shield. Ironically, the most eloquent celebration of peaceful life and artistic achievement occurs only on this war implement. And that’s as it should be, because the highest potential of the divine and human imagination is inextricably bound up with eternal conflict.

 

NOTES TO ESSAY FIVE

 

(1) Seth L. Schein disagrees on this point: “The beauty and sophistication of the architecture, combined with Homer’s emphasis on the sleeping arrangements of Priam’s children and their spouses, show Troy to be a center of civilized refinement and domestic decorum” (170). It strikes me that these qualities Schein sees are conspicuously absent from this description and that if Homer had wished to insist on them (as he does in the Odyssey) we would read much more about such details, especially about their effect on people who look at them. Schein’s comment, of course, is part of his attempt to insist that there an important cultural difference between the opponents, between, that is, “the masculine society of the Greek army” and the society in Troy, which honours “the distinct role and sphere of women” (173), in the service of his misleading but reassuring vision of the war as a moralized combat. [Back to Text]

 

(2) Most of us know enough about the history of weapons to recognize just how important the connection is between the warrior who destroys and the artist who creates. As Kant observed, the urge to warfare paradoxically stimulates the highest cultural achievements. The Japanese samurai, for example, fought with a sword that was simultaneously one of the most efficient implements of destruction every devised and an emblem of his culture, an object of surpassing beauty which carried on its blade in the engraved poetry the emotional certainties basic to his creed. The blood of the slaughtered enemy flowed over the delicately etched verses. Even today our own personal response to the machinery of modern combat (especially aircraft) often indicates that we continue to find important cultural values in weapons in the beautiful form and the deadly function wedded eternally in the lethal artifact. [Back to Text]

 

(3) Kenneth John Atchity sees in the symbolism of the shield a moral message preaching the evils of battle and the goodness of civil, peaceful strife. For him, the shield is remarkable for its “didactic distinction” (185). This view is yet another example of the persistent critical habit of forcing onto Homer’s fatalistic and irrational sense of war a moral scheme more consoling to modern sensibilities. [Back to Text]

 

(4) Cedric Whitman observes that the shield of Achilles functions as a metaphor and that we therefore waste our time trying draw an exact picture or to unearth an identical artifact (126). Nonetheless, there is at least one suggestive archeological parallel to this famous description. Some years ago, in April 1975, an exhibition of ancient Scythian art opened in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This warrior culture in the seventh and sixth centuries produced some magnificent objects recognizably similar to Iliadic art. Of one piece the reviewer Robert Hughes observed:

 

The centerpiece of the exhibition is, however, the 12-in wide gold pectoral dug from a kurgan or burial mound near the town of Ordzhonikidze in 1971. In the upper course we see domestic life: sheep, foals, calves, a pair of Scythians making a skin shirt. In the middle, vegetable nature: an exquisite frieze of curling tendrils and blossoms with tiny birds perching on them. And below, the goldsmith set forth the central myth of Scythian life: endless combat, unceasing subjugation of the weak by the strong—griffons attacking horses, feral cats killing deer. An entire world is summed up, with a sculptural intensity that Donatello could hardly have surpassed; and one cannot say whether ferocity or beauty prevails, or whether, for the Scythians, there was any difference between the two. (54)  [Back to Text]

 

 

 

[For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad.]