The shield of Achilles in the Illiad (1980)

Oliver Taplin, The shield of Achilles in the Illiad, Greece & Rome > 2nd Ser., Vol. 27, No. 1 (Apr, 1980), pp. 1-21

In Book XVIII of Homer’s Iliad Vulcan, the god of fire and smith of arms, hammers and embellishes the shield, breast plate, helmet and greaves of Achilles. The description of the shield and the location of the shield form a dramatic and decisive turning point in the epic. Achilles returns to battle knowing he will die but win eternal glory in return. The description of the shield foreshadows the will of the gods that guide the future events to unravel.

Although an extensive work like Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey is not a cohesive work, a realization of a single man’s epiphaneia, individual parts of it have a single intention. Over time, anynomous bards contributed their purposes and styles leaving us with the epic collection we know now under the epithet Homer. This work consists of many paradoxes and contradictions, but I will focus only on that part of Homer that deals with the shield of Achilles.

The shield is described as having five circles.

  1. The first inmost circle (483-9): the earth, heavens and the sea.
  2. The second circle: city life.
    • Marriage (491-6)
    • The law case (497-508)
    • The siege (509-19)
    • The ambush of the herd (520-34)
  3. The third circle: rural life
    • Spring (541-9)
    • Summer (550-6)
    • Autumn (561-7)
    • Winter (573-89)
  4. The fourth circle (590-606): the dance
  5. The fifth outmost circle (606-7): Ocean

Iliad 18.419-570
“First he shaped the shield so great and strong, adorning it all
over and binding it round with a gleaming circuit in three
layers; and the baldric was made of silver. He made the shield in
five thicknesses, and with many a wonder did his cunning hand
enrich it.

He wrought the earth, the heavens, and the sea; the moon also at
her full and the untiring sun, with all the signs that glorify
the face of heaven–the Pleiads, the Hyads, huge Orion, and the
Bear, which men also call the Wain and which turns round ever in
one place, facing. Orion, and alone never dips into the stream of

He 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. When they reached the place where they
would lay their ambush, it was on a riverbed to which live stock
of all kinds would come from far and near to water; here, then,
they lay concealed, clad in full armour. Some way off them there
were two scouts who were on the look-out for the coming of sheep
or cattle, which presently came, followed by two shepherds who
were playing on their pipes, and had not so much as a thought of
danger. When those who were in ambush saw this, they cut off the
flocks and herds and killed the shepherds. Meanwhile the
besiegers, when they heard much noise among the cattle as they
sat in council, sprang to their horses, and made with all speed
towards them; when they reached them they set battle in array by
the banks of the river, and the hosts aimed their bronze-shod
spears at one another. With them were Strife and Riot, and fell
Fate who was dragging three men after her, one with a fresh
wound, and the other unwounded, while the third was dead, and she
was dragging him along by his heel: and her robe was bedrabbled
in men’s blood. They went in and out with one another and fought
as though they were living people haling away one another’s dead.

He wrought also a fair fallow field, large and thrice ploughed
already. Many men were working at the plough within it, turning
their oxen to and fro, furrow after furrow. Each time that they
turned on reaching the headland a man would come up to them and
give them a cup of wine, and they would go back to their furrows
looking forward to the time when they should again reach the
headland. The part that they had ploughed was dark behind them,
so that the field, though it was of gold, still looked as if it
were being ploughed–very curious to behold.

He wrought also a field of harvest corn, and the reapers were
reaping with sharp sickles in their hands. Swathe after swathe
fell to the ground in a straight line behind them, and the
binders bound them in bands of twisted straw. There were three
binders, and behind them there were boys who gathered the cut
corn in armfuls and kept on bringing them to be bound: among them
all the owner of the land stood by in silence and was glad. The
servants were getting a meal ready under an oak, for they had
sacrificed a great ox, and were busy cutting him up, while the
women were making a porridge of much white barley for the
labourers’ dinner.

He wrought also a vineyard, golden and fair to see, and the vines
were loaded with grapes. The bunches overhead were black, but the
vines were trained on poles of silver. He ran a ditch of dark
metal all round it, and fenced it with a fence of tin; there was
only one path to it, and by this the vintagers went when they
would gather the vintage. Youths and maidens all blithe and full
of glee, carried the luscious fruit in plaited baskets; and with
them there went a boy who made sweet music with his lyre, and
sang the Linos-song with his clear boyish voice.

He wrought also a herd of horned cattle. He made the cows of gold
and tin, and they lowed as they came full speed out of the yards
to go and feed among the waving reeds that grow by the banks of
the river. Along with the cattle there went four shepherds, all
of them in gold, and their nine fleet dogs went with them. Two
terrible lions had fastened on a bellowing bull that was with the
foremost cows, and bellow as he might they haled him, while the
dogs and men gave chase: the lions tore through the bull’s thick
hide and were gorging on his blood and bowels, but the herdsmen
were afraid to do anything, and only hounded on their dogs; the
dogs dared not fasten on the lions but stood by barking and
keeping out of harm’s way.

The god wrought also a pasture in a fair mountain dell, and a
large flock of sheep, with a homestead and huts, and sheltered

Furthermore he wrought a green, like that which Daedalus once
made in Cnossus for lovely Ariadne. Hereon there danced youths
and maidens whom all would woo, with their hands on one another’s
wrists. The maidens wore robes of light linen, and the youths
well woven shirts that were slightly oiled. The girls were
crowned with garlands, while the young men had daggers of gold
that hung by silver baldrics; sometimes they would dance deftly
in a ring with merry twinkling feet, as it were a potter sitting
at his work and making trial of his wheel to see whether it will
run, and sometimes they would go all in line with one another,
and much people was gathered joyously about the green. There was
a bard also to sing to them and play his lyre, while two tumblers
went about performing in the midst of them when the man struck up
with his tune.

All round the outermost rim of the shield he set the mighty
stream of the river Oceanus.

Then when he had fashioned the shield so great and strong, he
made a breastplate also that shone brighter than fire. He made a
helmet, close fitting to the brow, and richly worked, with a
golden plume overhanging it; and he made greaves also of beaten

Lastly, when the famed lame god had made all the armour, he took
it and set it before the mother of Achilles; whereon she darted
like a falcon from the snowy summits of Olympus and bore away the
gleaming armour from the house of Vulcan.”

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