It All Comes Together When His Head Bursts Into Flames

Achilles' Head Bursts Into Flame. [Iliad 18.204-214] By K. Vail. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It all comes together when Achilles’ head bursts into flames. Life and death, revenge and hate, righteousness and evil, glory and fate. The voices of the Muses strain to the point of breaking as their song empowers Achilles with supernatural radiance.

 

“…Round about his mighty shoulders Athene flung her tasselled aegis,
and around his head the fair goddess set thick a golden cloud,
and forth from the man made blaze a gleaming fire.
And as when a smoke goeth up from a city and reacheth to heaven from afar,
from an island that foes beleaguer, and the men thereof contend the whole day through
in hateful war from their city’s walls, and then at set of sun
flame forth the beacon-fires one after another
and high aloft darteth the glare thereof for dwellers round about to behold,
if so be they may come in their ships to be warders off of bane;
even so from the head of Achilles went up the gleam toward heaven.”
[Homer’s Iliad, 18.204-214]

In unrestrainable grief, Achilles mourns for his beloved Patroklos, trusted chariot driver, brother in arms, his friend with whom he shares everything, especially his heart. Lost to the heat of battle, laid low at the hand of Hektor, slain of life and stripped of armor, his beloved is lost to the ravages of war.

Exploding With Uncontrolable Emotions

The quaking volcano within Achilles finally erupts. Fountainheads from within both angry eyes shoot forth beams fueled by the uncontainable energy of Achilles’ explosive wrath. Shining beams of sanctified light shoot forth from his head like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.

Exploding with uncontrolable emotions, the supernatural light streams unabated from Achilles’ head even as his goddess mother, Thetis enters with a full set of new armor fresh from the forge of Hephaistos.

Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles by Benjamin West, 1806. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles by Benjamin West, 1806. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“…the goddess set down the arms in front of Achilles,
and they all rang aloud in their splendour.
Then trembling seized all the Myrmidons,
neither dared any man to look thereon,
but they shrank in fear.
 
Howbeit, when Achilles saw the arms,
then came wrath upon him yet the more,
and his eyes blazed forth in terrible wise
from beneath their lids, as it had been flame;
and he was glad as he held in his arms the glorious gifts of the god.”
[Iliad.19.14-18]

“…when Athena had dropped nectar and ambrosia into Achilles
so that no cruel hunger should cause his limbs to fail him,
she went back to the house of her mighty father.
 
…he gnashed his teeth, his eyes gleamed like fire,
for his grief was greater than he could bear.
Thus, then, full of fury against the Trojans,
did he don the gift of the god,
the armor that Hephaistos had made him.
 
First he put on the goodly greaves fitted with ankle-clasps,
and next he did on the breastplate about his chest.
He slung the silver-studded sword of bronze about his shoulders,
and then took up the shield so great and strong
that shone afar with a splendor as of the moon.
 
As the light seen by sailors from out at sea,
when men have lit a fire in their homestead
high up among the mountains,
but the sailors are carried out to sea by wind and storm
far from the haven where they would be –
 
even so did the gleam of Achilles’ wondrous shield
strike up into the heavens.”
[Iliad, 19.354-355, 365-380]

Interpreting The Seafarers’ Beacon Fire

While comparing the flashing light shining from the radiant shield of Achilles with a blazing beacon fire seen by storm-tossed seafarers, there are several angles from which interesting views may be perceived. This beacon, situated on a high hill overlooking the sea, sends out a stream of light that Homer compares to the moon.

“This flash of light,” notes Nagy, “is aptly compared here to the moon, not to the sun, since it is nighttime, not daytime: the sailors who are lost at sea are literally in the dark, desperately looking for a light to orient them.”*

Achilles offers himself as the shining savior of the Achaeans in the ultimately defining moment in the war against Troy. Likewise, his blindingly radiant shield offers an ultimate resolution to the ravages of war. Exploring the significance of Achilles’ shield as a metaphor for Peace, it becomes evident that Homer offers Achilles’ shield as the quintessential weapon of defense, earnestly defending the shining principle of Peace.

Equally intriguing, the analogy of a beacon fire high on a promontory serving as a guide for windswept seafarers clearly parallels Homer’s description of the future tomb of Achilles. Chosen by Achilles himself as the final resting place he will share with Patroklos, the location of Achilles’ tomb is expressly described by Agamemnon at the end of Homer’s Odyssey:

“And over them [Patroklos’ and Achilles’ bones]
we heaped up a great and goodly tomb,
we the mighty host of Argive spearmen,
on a projecting headland by the broad Hellespont,
that it might be seen from far over the sea
both by men that now are and that shall be born hereafter.”
[Odyssey 24.80-84]

Colorized version of George Sandys' The Castles Commanding y Hellespont, 1615. Source: Wikimedia Commons

George Sandys’ The Castles Commanding y Hellespont, 1615. Restored and colorized by K. Vail.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Traveling forward in time while focusing on this exact same location, it is here at the tomb of Achilles where Homer reportedly loses his eyesight. According to Hesychius of Miletus’ Lives, or Vita 6, the famous blind bard visits Achilles’ tomb while he is still in possession of his sight. This myth, translated by Nagy, describes Homer’s extraordinary transformation:

“Visiting the tomb of Achilles, he [= Homer] prayed if he could only see the hero just the way the hero was like at the moment of entering the field of battle while wearing his second set of armor. The hero then appeared to him, and, as soon as Homer looked at the hero, he was blinded by the gleam [augē] of the armor.”
[Vita 6.46-50*]

“This heroic moment,” explains Nagy, “when Achilles finally returns to the field of battle, is what we have just read at I.19.014–017, where it is said that the gleam emanating from the new bronze armor of Achilles was so blindingly bright that none of his fellow warriors could even look directly at it.” Nagy continues, “It is this gleam that blinds Homer himself, who is imagined as the only poet in the whole world who could conjure such a blinding vision in his own poetry.”*

It All Comes Together In This One Climactic Moment

Only Achilles can look upon his new shield without fear. He is already blind, enraged, enwrapped in grief, and focusing fully inward on this final, fateful moment. Oblivious to everything around him, Achilles continues arming.

“And he lifted the mighty helm and set it upon his head;
and it shone as it were a star—the helm with crest of horse-hair,
and around it waved the plumes of gold,
that Hephaestus had set thick about the crest.
And goodly Achilles made proof of himself in his armour,
whether it fitted him, and his glorious limbs moved free;
and it became as it were wings to him,
and lifted up the shepherd of the people.”
[Iliad 19.380-386]

Analyzing comparable references in the Iliad regarding Homer’s word for the supernatural beams of light, or ‘selas‘ such as are radiating both from Achilles’ head and from his new shield, Nagy explains just how climactic this moment is for Achilles:

“And we see yet again this powerful word in the context of I.15.599–600: it is said there that Zeus has been waiting to see with his own divine eyes the selas ‘flash of light’, I.15.600, that will appear when the first of the beached Achaean ships is set on fire. Once this divine vision is visualized, the Will of Zeus will have been fulfilled. Thus this word selas ‘flash of light’ signals the driving force of the whole epic, which is the Will of Zeus.”
[Nagy, A Sampling of Comments on Iliad Rhapsody 19*]

It all comes together in this one climactic moment. Flames from the Achaean ships are glowing in the sky, Achilles’ eyes are shooting fountains of fire, his golden helmet is a beaming beacon, and shining reflections from the glorious new shield are blinding everyone present. This phenomenal display of supernatural fireworks lighting the night sky on the shores of Troy is signaling the culminating, epic will of Zeus.

This is the moment Achilles is born for. It is also the moment signaling his death. But does he really die? The powerful beams of metaphysical light emanating from Achilles is supercharging his kleos, radiating his existential glory.

Traveling immeasurable light years beyond his epic death, even today the kleos of Achilles is still shining, still expanding, still fueled by the uncontainable energy of a radiantly human hero.

Protected by Ares, Achilles Overwhelms Hektor. By Antonio Raffaele Calliano, 1815. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Protected by Ares, Achilles Overwhelms Hektor. By Antonio Raffaele Calliano, 1815.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Welcome To TheShieldofAchilles.Net

With this inaugural post, it all comes together for theshieldofachilles.net. Welcome!

The overarching vision is to see this site flourish as a forum for exploration, a symposium in honor of the unfading kleos of Achilles. The applications of Homer’s genius are gold mines for deep explorers, from archaeology to literature, art to technology, religion to science, ancient warfare to today’s wounded warriors, and so much more.

I hope you will join in; all relevant topics are open for discussion and all points of view are welcome. Comments, criticism, questions, links to relevant sites that you enjoy–all are welcome and happily encouraged, so please have your say in the comment section, below.

Also, please feel free to submit guest posts. This is an open invitation and is displayed prominently on the home page. All appropriate submissions will receive a fair review and may be lightly edited to meet site formatting and grammatical standards (great tips here). Unfortunately, payment for guest posts is not available at this time. However, author bios are published with articles, and all rights are retained by authors upon publication here.

Please submit proposals or complete articles of 2,000 words or less to: kv.achilles-at-gmail-dot-com.

 

 

*Gregory Nagy, Classical Inquiries, Harvard University Center for Hellenic Studies, A Sampling of Comments on Iliad Rhapsody 19, December 1, 2016.

[Top Image: Achilles’ Head Bursts Into Flame. [Iliad 18.204-214] By Kathleen Vail. cca4.0 Royalty-free image – Please click for more information]

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