Did the fabulous Shield of Achilles forged by Hephaestus ever exist? Commanding a presence for something like 3,000 years so far, the existential reality of Achilles’ armor in art throughout the ages leaves little wiggle room for those who discredit Homer’s account of Achilles’ Shield.
Powerfully firing imaginations since the very first telling, Homer’s ancient narrative of Hephaistos forging the ageless and invincible weapons of Achilles has leaped into visual existence in creative bursts throughout the course of recorded history.
Ekphrasis: The West’s Oldest Form of Writing About Art
Recognized as Western civilization’s oldest form of writing about art, Ekphrasis was invented by the ancient Greeks. In fact, Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in Book XVIII of the Iliad is considered the earliest and greatest example of ekphrasis.
Although the ekphrastic tradition carries the goal of creatively describing a beautiful work of art as if it were real, this literary tradition likewise hopes to make a reader envision a creation that, in fact, never existed.
Or do we only believe that any given figment of ekphrasis never existed because we didn’t really ‘see’ it?
Put simply, perhaps we just prefer believing that Homer didn’t really see the glorious shield he describes so wondrously?
Well, this may be the simpler explanation, after all, since not just the armor but Homer himself may have been only a figment of human imagination, and perhaps a blind figment, at that. Not to mention that such stunning armor is, from the start, attributed to the work of an Ancient Greek deity.
Rising up to aid Hephaistos, maids of gold moved like lively young girls;
Perfectly made, they had speech, wit, and motion, and other skills immortal.
Briskly surrounding their lord for support, he made his way to Thetis,
Gracefully waiting for him to join her upon a silver throne.
Taking her hand, he greeted her warmly, “Sweet Goddess, we are honored;
But are you in need, my dearest Thetis? Your visits are so seldom.
Please tell me if I may be of help, for I will if I am able –
If it is a thing allowed to be done, not known to be forbidden.”
“Hephaistos,” Thetis softly said, with tears on her lashes and cheek,
“Never has another Olympian goddess suffered such sorrow and pain.
No mortal before Peleus Aiakides, my husband chosen by Zeus,
Had ever been given a sea nymph to wed, nor gave her a cheerless bed.
“But there I accepted my wifely duty, endured without desire,
And though my man is constrained now by age, pain continues to mock me.
I nursed and raised the son gifted to me; he became a man above men.
Quickly he grew, and I nurtured him better than blossoming orchard trees.
“All this did I do just to see him off, in a ship bound for war with Trojans,
And I shall not see him in Peleus’ hall, his family home, again.
Yet even while sunlight still kisses his eyes, my son is destined to suffer
And I do not have the power to help him, though I stand nearby for comfort.
“The girl-prize given him by the Greeks, Agamemnon took back for his own.
Hot burned the heart of my son at this deed, and he yearned for the girl intensely.
Trojans in war beat them back to their ships, and the Greeks could not escape.
Agamemnon’s officers begged my son’s help and offered him incentives.
“He did not deem them worthy of aid, nor helped delay the disaster,
But armed Patroklos in his own gear, and sent him into battle.
Fiercely they fought at the Gate all day, and nearly took the city,
But Apollo spied Menoitios’ great son slaying many Trojans.
Killing him in battle, he then gave Hektor a hero’s reward for the deed.
“It is for this I have come to call: now my ill-fated son needs a shield.
A breastplate, too, and a crested helmet, and a pair of tight-clasping greaves.
Hektor stripped the armor from his slain foe, the courageous hero Patroklos,
And now my son lies numb on the ground, in his tent, overcome by grief.”
Enheartening her, the Great GameLegs said, “Have courage, my Lady! Please trust me!
Good gear I can make, but to hide him from death? Now, that is another matter…
I only wish I could help him with that, as I can with the making of arms,
For I am an expert – no eyes have beheld such gear as I shall provide him!”
Leaving her then, and going to his shop, he swiftly set about working.
Twenty smart bellows he aimed at the fire, stirring the coals up fiercely.
Huge bursts they could blow if the toil was tough, and delicate breaths as needed.
He spoke his commands and the bellows obeyed, fully used to the work required.
Molten gold and silver boiled in the blaze, and tin, and Olympian bronze.
With a powerful hammer in his right hand, and tongs in his dexterous left,
Hephaistos mounted the great iron block, knowing that all was in order.
His first task fulfilled was a well-fashioned shield; very strong, wide and shining.
Triple-ply was the sparkling rim around it, and the shoulder strap was silver.
The shield was skillfully crafted together, formed of five welded layers,
And Hephaistos surpassed himself with his art and his brilliant decoration…
[From Homer’s Iliad, Book 18, Lines 417 – 482, Vail’s translation]
Just the Stuff of Ancient Mythology and Nonsensical Fantasy?
For some readers, it may be enough to read Homer’s amazing words and simply consign such descriptions to the stuff of ancient mythology and nonsensical fantasy.
But for others, myself included, archaeologists offer convincing proof that such incredible weapons as Homer describes did, in fact, exist.
Thus it’s simply not acceptable to consign Homer’s glorious weapons forged by Hephaistos for Achilles merely to the dustbin of ekphrastic figments.
Furthermore, challenging our Western notion of nonexistence, Homer’s earliest ekphrasis of Achilles’ armor has powerfully navigated the passage of Time, carried aloft by an uncannily prophecied Kleos, and repeatedly celebrates a physical existence vividly and colorfully throughout History. (Google translates this concept into Latin as Ego picta ergo sum = I am painted therefore I am)
Reverse Engineering Homer’s Ekphrasis
By reverse engineering Homer’s description into artistic representations of Hephaistos forging Achilles’ glorious weapons, artists have charmed us with their interpretations practically since the very first narration.
Represented by some of the finest artists in History, the invincible armor of Achilles has enjoyed a very long and glorious career — especially for something that supposedly never existed.
The following is a broad survey of charming artistic representations of Hephaistos forging the armor of Achilles throughout history, from the 5th century BCE all the way to the 20th century. (Don’t mind the minor hiatus between the 5th-15th centuries CE due to the Dark Ages. Sadly, the entire media was on strike throughout the West.)
Please feel free to note your favorite ekphrastic image of Hephaistos forging Achilles’ armor, or list any others that I may have missed–your feedback and comments are always welcome!
Hephaestus Forging Achilles’ Shield in Art Through the Ages:
I. Hephaistos Presents Achilles’ New Armor to Thetis, Terracotta Kylix, ca. 490-480 BCE:
II. Hephaistos Polishing the Shield of Achilles, Terracotta Amphora, ca. 480 BCE:
III. Hephaistos, Thetis, and Achilles’ New Weapons, Terracotta Volute Krater, ca. 330-320 BCE:
IV. Hephaistos & Cyclops Forging Achilles’ Armor, Marble Tablet, ca. 15 BCE:
V. Hephaistos and Cyclops Forge Achilles’ Shield, Greco-Roman Marble Bas-Relief, Date Unknown:
VI. Thetis Receiving the Shield of Achilles, Restored Wall Fresco from the House of Vedius Siricus, Pompeii, ca. 68 CE:
B&W photo of same fresco, ca. 1900:
VII. Thetis at Hephaistos’ Forge Waiting to Receive Achilles’ New Weapons, Wall Fresco from Pompeii, ca. 75 – 100 CE.
VIII. Hephaistos Forging Achilles’ Helmet, Coin of Septimius Severus, ca. 193-211 CE:
IX. Hephaestos and Cyclops Forging Achilles’ Armor, Coin of Philip I of Ancyra, Phrygia, ca. 244-249 CE:
X. Hephaistos Forging Achilles’ Armor, Coin of Philip II of Perga, Pamphylia, ca. 247-249 CE:
XI: Hephaistos Forging Achilles’ Armor, Wall Painting by Giulio Romano, ca. 1492-1546:
XII. Vulcan Hands Thetis the Shield for Achilles, Painting by Maarten van Heemskerck, ca. 1536:
XIII. Thetis at Vulcan’s Forge, Illustration from Métamorphose Figurée, ca. 1557:
XIV. Vulcan Forging Weapons for Achilles, Illustration by Virgil Solis, ca. 1581, P. Ovidii Metamorphoses XIII, 286-295:
XV. Vulcan Creating Achilles’ Armor for Thetis, Etching by Antonio Tempesta, ca. 1606:
XVI. Thetis Receives the Weapons of Achilles from Hephaestus, Painting by Anthony van Dyck, ca. 1630-1632:
XVII. Thetis Receiving Achilles’ New Armor from Hephaestus, Painting by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1630-1635:
XVIII. Thetis Watching Vulcan Forge Achilles’ New Armor, Flemish Tapestry by Unknown Artist, ca. 1625-1650:
XIX. Vulcan Forging Achilles’ Armor, Overseen by Thetis, Engraving by Pierre Daret, ca. 1663-1678:
XX. Three Studies for Thetis in the Forge of Vulcan, Watching the Making of Achilles’ Armour, Drawings by Sir James Thornhill, ca. 1710:
XXI. Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan, Painting by Sir James Thornhill, ca. 1710:
XXII. Thetis at Vulcan’s Forge, Tapestry Designed by Jan van Orley, ca. 1700-1725:
XXIII. Thetis Visiting the Forge of Vulcan, Tapestry Designed by Jan van Orley, Woven by G., P., & F. van der Borcht, ca. 1740-1742:
XXIV. Vulcan Displaying Achilles’ New Armor to Thetis, Wall Painting by Felice Giani, ca. 1802:
XXV. Vulcan at Work on the Armour of Achilles, Painting by William Heath Robinson, ca. 1872-1944.
XXVI. Hephaistos and the Cyclops Forging Achilles’ Armor, Greek Postage Stamp, ca. 1969:
[Top image source and credits: Thetis Receiving Achilles’ New Armor from Hephaistos, oil painting modello for a tapestry in the Life of Achilles Series by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1630-1635. Source: Wikimedia Commons]