Guest Post: Achilles’ Shield Portrays an Ancient Greek View of Reality, by James R. Harrington

Achilles Receiving New Armor From Thetis, Wall Mural by Carl Adolf Henning, ca. 1838-1856. Source: CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Does Homer’s legendary Shield of Achilles depict reality in Ancient Greece? In this guest post by James R. Harrington, the question is turned on its head. Are we questioning Homer’s veracity, or are we asking something deeper? Harrington perceives the subtle complexity of the question and cleverly answers, Yes – Not only do Homer’s words illustrate ancient Greek reality, but his Shield of Achilles also depicts a view of reality that was widely shared by the Ancient Greeks.

This interesting perspective of ancient Greek reality portrayed on Achilles’ shield caught my attention when it was originally published on Eidos with John Mark Reynolds over at Patheos.com. John kindly passed along my request to contact Mr. Harrington and I am very happy to share this guest post here on The Shield of Achilles with James’ gracious permission.

James R. Harrington received his M.A. in Ancient History at California State University at Fullerton and is a member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James has been a classical educator for over 13 years and he and his family currently live in Houston, Texas.

(Please note – I have taken the liberty of illustrating James’ article below with images of my reconstruction of Achilles’ Shield)

Achilles Receiving New Armor From Thetis, Wall Mural by Carl Adolf Henning, ca. 1838-1856. Source: CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Achilles Receiving New Armor From Thetis, Wall Mural by Carl Adolf Henning, ca. 1838-1856. Source: CC0 via Wikimedia Commons


Achilles’ Shield Portrays an Ancient Greek View of Reality

by James R Harrington
(originally published on Eidos with John Mark Reynolds)

“Ancient Greece” covers hundreds of years and miles so that talking about a “Greek world view” or “what the Ancient Greeks thought” poses a problem. Nonetheless, scholars have discerned some essential similarities that united Ancient Greeks culturally across time and space in spite of local variations and inevitable dissenters.

At rock bottom, the Ancient Greeks viewed reality as an agon, or contest. The strong properly ruled over the weak in a hierarchy of dominator and dominated: victor over vanquished, gods over men, men over women, adults over children, free over slave, human over animal and plant.

Following this logic, the Greeks structured their society in a series of contests that proved who was the superior. The most important of these was warfare, but religious games, poetry competitions, dancing competitions, dramatic competitions, and rhetorical debates were also of key importance. To the Greeks, a boxing match or dance contest were not merely entertainments but expressions of Reality.

An excellent literary example comes right at the beginning of Greek literature in Homer’s Iliad. The famous Shield of Achilles (Book XVIII) gives us the Greek world-picture in microcosm.

The shield is an image of the cosmos with its round plate symbolizing the earth bounded by the ocean (the waters below) and the stars (the waters above). Upon this miniature cosmos, the drama of human life plays out in a series of ordered and unordered conflicts: man against man, and man against nature.

Epicenter: CREATION. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

Epicenter: CREATION. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail
© All Rights Reserved

In the scene with the law court, we see ordered conflict of man against man. Due process restrains an argument that might otherwise turn murderous. The struggle is not just between the two bringing the suit, but also between the judges who strive to win the prize for the “straightest” judgment.

Inner Ring: JUDGEMENT OF THE ELDERS. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

Inner Ring: JUDGEMENT OF THE ELDERS. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail
© All Rights Reserved

The final image of the dancers is also a competition as only the most beautiful are allowed to participate in the dance.

Outer Ring: CIRCLE-DANCING. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

Outer Ring: CIRCLE-DANCING. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail
© All Rights Reserved

The companion image is of men in unordered conflict as shown by the image of the city at war. Even the attackers are in conflict with each other as they try to decide whether to take the city by storm or to exact protection money.

Middle Ring: CITY UNDER SIEGE. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

Middle Ring: CITY UNDER SIEGE. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail
© All Rights Reserved

In the world of nature, we see the king presiding over the conquest of the earth in the form of plowing. There is good order and man reaps the fruit of the earth with which to make feast and offer sacrifice to the gods.

Outer Ring: HARVESTING THE GRAIN. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

Outer Ring: HARVESTING THE GRAIN. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail
© All Rights Reserved

In the companion scene, a lion devastates a herd of cattle, throwing the herders into disorder and reasserting the power of nature in the conflict between man and his surroundings.

Outer Ring: LION ATTACK. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

Outer Ring: LION ATTACK. From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail
© All Rights Reserved

All these struggles play out upon a shield, itself a fundamental article of human conflict. This shield, Achilles bears upon his shoulders Atlas-like in image of a world held and borne up by conflict.

Here is the core of the Greek world-picture: that the cosmos is upheld by strife and competition and men make the best of it for the short time that they live and breathe upon the earth.

 


The Pre-Socratic Philosophy of Strife is Portrayed (Ironically) on Achilles’ Shield

Pre-Socratic philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus depicted by Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629). Source: CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Following up on this ancient Greek view of reality, James R. Harrington continues in a second post on Patheos:

A friend of mine in Classics responded to my article on the Shield of Achilles by saying that it reminded her of the Pre-Socratic philosophers Heraclitus and Empedocles. I followed her lead and found it to be an excellent illustration of the persistence of the Greek world-picture.

The Pre-Socratics were a group of thinkers spread across the Mediterranean that rejected the gods of Homer’s poetry in favor of the quest for the “Arche” or basic unit of existence. Their movement culminated in the great triad of Athenian philosophers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Nevertheless, the Pre-Socratics share some fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality with Homer, and their models of the cosmos have peculiar similarities with Achilles’ shield.

Heraclitus attacked Homer as “deceived”: Men have been deceived, he says, as to their knowledge of what is apparent in the same way that Homer was – and he was the wisest of all the Greeks. [B 54].* Yet Heraclitus captures the essence of the Shield of Achilles in his famous assertion that

War is father of all, king of all: some it shows as gods, some as men; some it makes slaves, some free. [B 53].**

The famous Christian philosopher, Origen, cites Heraclitus as saying even more emphatically:

One should know that war is common, that justice is strife, that all things come about in accordance with strife and with what must be. [B 80].***

Empedocles, for his part, puts himself in competition with Homer by choosing to write his philosophy in verse. He repeatedly imagines the cosmos as a circle of cycles, like the Shield of Achilles, where the opposing forces of Love and Strife create an endless series of competitions, frozen like the embossed figures on the shield:

In turn they come to power as the circle revolves, and they decline into one another and increase in their allotted turn. For these themselves exist, and passing through one another they become men and the other kinds of animals, now by Love coming together into one arrangement, now again each carried apart by the hatred of Strife, until, having grown together as one, they are completely subdued. Thus, insofar as they have learned to become one from many and again become many as the one grows apart, to that extent they come into being and have no lasting life; but insofar as they never cease their continual change, to that extent they exist forever, unmoving in a circle. [B 26].****

Reconstruction of the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

Reconstruction of the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

This Homeric world-picture, of a cosmos born in and upheld by strife, passed on from the Pre-Socratics to find a place even in those arch-critics of Homer, Socrates and Plato. Socrates pioneered, and Plato recorded and developed, a means of finding truth called the “elenchus.”

As Plato pictures his old teacher, Socrates is a wrestler who pits argument against argument in a competition that will expose which is strongest and, therefore, worthy to be accepted (at least provisionally) as true. Thus, even the philosophers find themselves circumscribed by the limits of Achilles’ shield.

* Early Greek Philosophy, Jonathan Barnes Trans., New York, Penguin Books, 1987. p 103.
**    Ibid., p 102.
***  Ibid., p 114.
****Ibid., p 171.

6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Achilles’ Shield Portrays an Ancient Greek View of Reality, by James R. Harrington

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