Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Shield of Achilles

Let's ease into things with the obvious. Call it a crash course.

Since this blagadingalong will feature Ekphrasis in a variety of forms, let's begin with the single most famous example of it. If you don't know what Ekphrasis is, that's okay. That's not important just yet.

Look at the following image of the shield of Achilles.

It's pretty, isn't it? But this shield is an interpretation of another work, and a reference to it. I'm not so postmodern as to call this shield a text. Nevertheless, it shares a similarity with postmodern texts in that it exists not as a thing in itself but as a comment on another text.

That text, of course, is The Iliad.

More specifically, the text is:

[Hephaestus] wrought also two cities, fair to see and busy with the hum of men. In the one were weddings and wedding-feasts, and they were going about the city with brides whom they were escorting by torchlight from their chambers. Loud rose the cry of Hymen, and the youths danced to the music of flute and lyre, while the women stood each at her house door to see them. Meanwhile the people were gathered in assembly, for there was a quarrel, and two men were wrangling about the blood-money for a man who had been killed, the one saying before the people that he had paid damages in full, and the other that he had not been paid.

Each was trying to make his own case good, and the people took sides, each man backing the side that he had taken; but the heralds kept them back, and the elders sate on their seats of stone in a solemn circle, holding the staves which the heralds had put into their hands. Then they rose and each in his turn gave judgement, and there were two talents laid down, to be given to him whose judgement should be deemed the fairest.

About the other city there lay encamped two hosts in gleaming armour, and they were divided whether to sack it, or to spare it and accept the half of what it contained. But the men of the city would not yet consent, and armed themselves for a surprise; their wives and little children kept guard upon the walls, and with them were the men who were past fighting through age; but the others sallied forth with Mars and Pallas Minerva at their head- both of them wrought in gold and clad in golden raiment, great and fair with their armour as befitting gods, while they that followed were smaller. - Iliad, Book XVIII

I grabbed this version straight from Wikipedia. You can see it in the original Greek, or in English, on Perseus Project. I was going to paste you the excerpt from there but it was much longer and I am dreadfully worried about being too verbose.

famous passage takes place after (spoiler alert!) the death of Patroclus, who wore Achilles' armor. Thus, Achilles needed new armor, and Hephaestus made a new shield just for him even though it wasn't even Christmas! (Not for another 1100 years, no less!)

Notice how the text describes the shield in such vivid detail that you could duplicate it yourself. That's exactly what the shield above is. It is not a shield, but an ekphrasis. That is, it is a work of art that describes another work of art.

Technically, it is an ekphrasis of an ekphrasis! A work of art--this piece of ceremonial/decorative armor--describes another work of art in a different medium, that famous passage from The Iliad, which itself describes another work of art--the real Shield of Achilles! But I suppose that makes the shield an ekphrasis of an ekphrasis on a work of art that does not exist. How very twisty-turny! I love it!

Anyway, I'd like to provide you with another ekphrasis on the text describing the Shield of Achilles. That is, I will present a work of art--in this case a photo--that embodies in a different form another work of art--a poem.

Here's my interpretation of the Shield of Achilles:
Before you get all huffy about how clever I must think I am... don't! I am hardly the only one to interpret the Shield of Achilles in this fashion. Many 4th-century Athenians whose names you know subscribed to this same interpretation, so we're in good company!

That's all for now. We will revisit the potent image of the Shield of Achilles again in the near future but from a different angle. Let me know what you think about the Shield of Achilles, the most famous example of ekphrasis in literature... and a potent passage of wonder which describes the System of the World (foreshadowing...)!


  1. Ekpharasis, ekphrasis, ekphrasis! I prefer to call it fan fiction; and like the latter, it usually better left to the imagination. All these recreations show the shield as a circle when it was almost certainly a tower shield!

    The Shield of Achilles section pretty much ruins the end of the Illiad. Instead of action, we have to sit through some B.S. description of a shield with the earth, the sky, the ocean and all the animals and people doing all the garbage that people and animals do.

    The we gloss over the helmet and other armor and head back to the plot-waste of time

  2. All ekphrasis is fanfiction.

    But, unlike that rather dominant subset of fanfiction which is not ekphrastic, I think this particular technique has merit. At the least it is an interesting exercise to transmute one form of art into another--even though the latter is by nature derivative.

    I do tend to agree that the Shield of Achilles section is slow as hell [N.B. Hell is very slow], but nevertheless the Greeks picked up on it, wouldn't leave it alone, and did interesting things with it.

    Discussion: if you lived on Achilles' shield and didn't know it, and everyone not on it was watching you, would you be named Truman?

  3. I think I might pick a more contemporaneous name like Achilles. The Illiad could have been written anywhere between the 6th, 7th or 8th century B.C. {an inscription from Ischia in the Bay of Naples, ca. 740 BCE, *appears* to refer to a text of the Iliad;} and I am not certain when the Shield of Achilles made its first appearence.

    The shield does not seem to be thematically appropriate for Achilles' character, so my guess is that it was probably another poem that was jammed in there -I can't back this up, but the official modern text wasn't created until the 2nd century B.C. and I am too lazy to see if hat passage appeared in it.

    I envisioned the shield as a giant tower shield with a an outer borded of ocean and then a top to bottom scene of the heavens and the earth with two cities toward the middle ating out the rule of law and merriment vs a period of war.

    Why Achilles, who seems to kill things for no political gain but merely fulfilling his own fate, should receive a shield demonstrating the patterns of normal life is beyond me. The man who refuses compensation for the slaying of Patroclus kills Hector out of revenge while bearing a shield that details how to lawfully settle such disputes without bloodshed.

    If Hector bore the shield with this design it would make considerably more sense: he is a more complex character with connections to civic society and war; a healthy relationship with the gods and the land, a wife and child -a kingdom; he is the character who most fully represents life in the ancient world, why not give him a shield that speaks to this overarching smbolism.

    Agamemnon's shield is a giant gorgon head (if I remember correctly); it seems like Achilles should have something equally terrifying on his armor; Hector is the chill dude for whom some sissy piece of art decorating his shield is more fitting.