The Divine Shield of Achilles Disappears

Detail view of an Attic Black-Figure Oinochoe, ca. 520 BCE Depicting Odysseus and Ajax quarreling over Achilles' armor. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Attic Black-Figure Hydria depicting Aias carrying the body of Achilles out of battle. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Attic Black-Figure Hydria depicting Aias carrying the body of Achilles out of battle.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Odysseus stands fighting over the slain body of Achilles when the hero goes down, providing cover and protection against any dishonor the Trojans might attempt.22 Under Odysseus’ careful defense, Telamonian Aias heaves the body of Achilles over his shoulder and makes his way off the battlefield.

With a cohort of soldiers providing cover, the loudly grieving men escort Achilles’ body back down to the ships. Soon, the entire army prepares for Achilles a funeral of the highest honor.

Achilles’ mother and her sister sea nymphs join the funeral, and all nine of the Olympian muses attend, as well. For seventeen days and nights, they mourn Achilles, paying him respect with funeral parades. On the eighteenth day, the men burn Achilles’ body on the pyre.

Next, Achilles’ bones are placed gently into the golden urn which Thetis had earlier given her grieving son for the bones of Patroklos. Obeying the order which Achilles gave during the funeral of Patroklos, the bones of the two beloved best friends are now joined in death and the urn is placed into the burial mound.23

Aias and Odysseus Compete for Achilles’ Armor

Attic black-figure oinochoe, ca. 520 BCE, depicting Odysseus and Aias quarreling over Achilles' armor.

Attic Black-Figure Oinochoe depicting Odysseus and Aias quarreling over Achilles’ armor.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thetis announces great funeral games in honor of Achilles, offering prizes of eye-popping value. The highest prize is Achilles’ armor, created by Hephaistos. This prize is offered to the winner of the title, Bravest of the Greeks, and the competition narrows down to Telemonian Aias and Odysseus.

Holding a vote to decide the matter, the Greek captains award the title to Odysseus, but Aias can not swallow his anguish over losing the spectacular armor of Achilles.

The competition over Achilles’ armor is recorded by Homer, and also expounded upon by Sophocles in his ever-popular tragedy, Ajax.

Aias is so certain of victory, that when it goes to Odysseus his sanity escapes him completely. Sophocles tells us that in the night he sneaks out to the captain’s tents, determining to kill them all.

Diverting Aias, Athena sends confusion to his senses and he kills the army’s herds of livestock, slaughtering the animals in his wild rage. Awakening the next day, his senses returning, Aias understands his terrible mistake and knows his ludicrous action will make himself a laughingstock for many generations.

The Suicide of Telamonian Aias

Attic Black-Figure Amphora depicting the suicide of Telamonian Aias (Ajax). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Attic Black-Figure Amphora depicting the suicide of Telamonian Aias (Ajax).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Losing the award of Achilles’ armor is bad enough to bring Aias temporary insanity, but following up with ridiculous behavior on his part is the final atrocity. With no possible way to recover his honor, Aias tries to decide what to do. Finding he can not go home and face his father, Telamon, with this shameful tale of his deeds, he prefers instead to die. Burying the handle of his sword in the dirt, then swearing he will speak no longer to the living, he falls upon his sword, promising he will from here on out speak only to the shades in Hades.

But even in Hades, Aias has little to say. His anguish accompanies him to the grave, though he thought to relieve himself of it by ending his life. Homer tells us of Odysseus’ visit to Hades, where he attempts to talk with Aias, but Aias refuses to speak.24 Calling softly to Aias, he asks him if he has not yet gotten over his anger at Odysseus over the ill-fated armor of Achilles. He speaks gently, telling Aias all the Greeks mourn his loss as deeply as they mourn Achilles. But Aias gives no reply, turning slowing and walking away.

Odysseus does not die in order to visit Hades, it is one of the many fantastic places he comes to on his journey. But does he still possess the shield of Achilles at this point? Now that we know he wins the armor in the funeral games for Achilles, can we find what happens next? Perhaps we can. Prior to addressing Aias in Hades, Odysseus and Achilles exchange greetings.

Odysseus Visits Achilles in Hades

Achilles asks Odysseus for news of his son, Neoptolemos. He tells Achilles that he himself brought Neoptolemos from the Island of Skyros to the battle at Troy and that in battle Achilles’ son excelled.

7th Century BCE vase depicting the Trojan Horse. Source: Wikimedia Commons

7th Century BCE vase depicting the Trojan Horse. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Joining Odysseus and the other captains in the belly of the horse wheeled up into Troy, Odysseus informs Achilles that it was only Neoptolemos who held his nerve until the perfect moment to attack. At the victorious end of the Trojan war, Neoptolemos loads a ship with all of his valuable plunder, embarking without having received a single wound from the enemy.25

Odysseus never once mentions the divine armor of Achilles being promised or given to Neoptolemos. Despite the existence of alternative legends that have persisted in the writings of ancient Greeks following the time of Homer, yet Homer himself clearly never indicates this, even at the most perfect moment when Odysseus speaks to Achilles in Hades.

Homer only states that Neoptolemos leaves Troy with lots of plunder and a “noble war prize,” considered by Sophocles, Euripides, Hyginus, and others to mean Andromache, the wife of slain Prince Hektor.

News of Nestor, Agamemnon, & Neoptolemos

To follow Odysseus from this point forward, we must join Telemakos on his journey in search of his father. Like Achilles’ son, Neoptolemos, Odysseus’ son also comes to age in his father’s absence. Telemakos’ mother is running out of patience and time, waiting for Odysseus’ return. Suitors are eating her out of house and home, pressing her to choose a new husband.

When news arrives that some soldiers have returned home from Troy, Penelope sends Telemakos in a ship to find out the fate of his father.

Coming in time to the kingdom of Pylos, the wise old King Nestor receives him, recognizing the face of Odysseus in the boy. Telling Telemakos of arguments which blew up between Menelaus and Agamemnon after the victory, Nestor explains that half of the ships left the next morning and half stayed behind with Agamemnon.

Black-figure pottery depicting Ancient Greek ships. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Black-figure pottery depicting Ancient Greek ships.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nestor’s ship was with the first half and Odysseus’ ship was also among them. But turning back after another argument split him from Nestor’s group, Odysseus preferred sailing back to Agamemnon.

After sailing for four days, Nestor and the first group arrived back home safely and, since then, many others had returned.

Nestor relates that Neoptolemos has arrived home, leading the Myrmidons, Achilles’ fearless soldiers. Notably, there is no mention here of Achilles’ armor transferring to his son–Nestor states only that Neoptolemos is now in command of his father’s army.

The wise old king of Pylos also informs Odysseus’ son that High King Agamemnon has returned home to his unfaithful wife’s evil plotting, only to meet his cruel fate at the hand of a vile assassin.

Nestor remarks to Telemakos what a good thing it is for a man to leave a brave, strong son behind him. He then relates how Orestes avenged the murder of his father, Agamemnon, by killing his mother and her lover, his scheming uncle Aegisthos.26

A Visit With Helen and Menelaus

Apulian Red-Figured Volute-Krater, depicting the arrival of a warrior. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Apulian Red-Figured Volute-Krater, depicting the arrival of a warrior. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Telemakos travels next to the kingdom of Sparta, received by Menelaus and Helen. Sharing stories of the war with Telemakos, Menelaus next relates his latest news of Odysseus.

Marooned at sea, Odysseus sits crying on the island of the nymph Kalypso. With no ship and no soldiers, and not even an oar, Odysseus has no means of leaving.

Menelaus admits that his news is only secondhand, not having any witness. But his source is Proteus, the Ancient of the Sea, trapped into giving Menelaus information while he and Helen were on their way home from Troy. 27

Leaving Telemakos at this juncture, we must backtrack to Odysseus’ ships, as they are deciding to return to Agamemnon, still at Troy. Because, if Menelaus is correct, and Odysseus, presently marooned on Kalypso’s Island, has lost his ship, perhaps he has lost Achilles’ shield, too.

We must trace Odysseus’ travel, to learn if the shield is still with him, or if something has happened to it along the way.

Odysseus Begins His Long Journey Home

Proto-Attic Amphora depicting Odysseus and his men blinding the Cyclops. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Proto-Attic Amphora depicting Odysseus and his men blinding the Cyclops.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Turning back toward Troy, to Agamemnon, Odysseus’s twelve ships are instead blown off course by a westerly wind to the far coast of Ismaros. Landing and killing many natives who come out to fight them, Odysseus and his soldiers then disagree on the next plan of action. He orders them all back out to sea, and quickly, but the soldiers defy their captain. Instead, they slaughter cattle and sheep for a feast and spend their time drinking wine and arguing with Odysseus.

Meanwhile, a few men of Ismaros survive the attack, sneak home, and alert their army. Early next morning, the Greeks face a terrible battle, taking casualties until the tide turns and finally escape to their ships, grieving over this new loss of men.28

Running low on water, Odysseus picks a landing party and sends them ashore on the coast of the Lotus-eaters. When the three men fail to report back to the ships, Odysseus finds them already addicted to the lotus flower, uninterested in family, friends, or home. They scream at him as he kicks them all the way back to the ships, where he ties each one to his oar-bench.29

Attic Black-Figure Column Krater depicting Odysseus escaping underneath a ram. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Attic Black-Figure Column Krater depicting Odysseus escaping underneath a ram.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Odysseus’ crew row strongly and they put back out to sea, sailing next to the land of the one-eyed Cyclops. Across from the Cyclops’ mainland, the crew goes ashore on a deserted island where they find good water, hunt wild goats, and enjoy a long day of feasting.

The next day, Odysseus and twelve of his men go ashore on the Cyclops’ mainland, entering the unattended cave of a giant Cyclops named Polyphemos. Returning home with his sheep, the brutal cannibal Cyclops traps the men inside with the sheep. Two by two, the giant cannibal picks off Odysseus’ men, gruesomely thrashing them to death and eating them. Within 24 hours, Odysseus and only four men are left alive, desperately scheming to avoid being Polyphemos’ next meal.

Offering brandy to the Cyclops until he passes out, Odysseus and his men poke the Cyclop’s eye out with a burning, pointed tree trunk. He opens the cave in blind rage and pain, trying to catch the men escaping. But they tie three sheep together for each man, and fashion slings under the bellies of each middle ram, within which each man hides until they are free. At the shore, they quickly load the sheep onto their ship and return to the desert island where the rest of Odysseus’ fleet is waiting.30

Jumping Out of the Frying Pan Straight Into the Fire

Jumping out of the frying pan straight into the fire, Odysseus and his men sail their twelve ships from terrible trouble to death and disaster.

Visiting Aiolia island next, Odysseus points his ships in the direction of home after King Aiolos generously provides Odysseus with a bull’s hide bag full of wind for his sails.

This is our first glimmer of hope in our search for Achilles’ shield: Jealous of all the treasure their captain is carrying home from Troy, Odysseus’ crew want to open this new bag, because they are sure it is filled with gold and silver from King Aiolos. They are nearly home when they open the bull’s hide bag. Suddenly, the sky becomes a horrific hurricane and gale winds blow them all the way back to Aiolia.

Disgusted with Odysseus and his men, Aiolos banishes the Greeks from his island. They sail next to a land where the day is so long it becomes morning soon after dusk. This land is filled with a tribe of bloodthirsty cannibals who slingshot the ships with huge boulders, sinking all of Odysseus’ ships except his own.31

Odysseus is Now Down to Only One Ship

 White-Ground Lekythos depicting Odysseus' men turned into pigs by Circe. Source: Wikimedia Commons

White-Ground Lekythos depicting Odysseus’ men turned into pigs by Circe. Source

Now with only one ship left, Odysseus’ crew lands next on Aiaia, the island where Circe lives. Dividing themselves into two parties, Eurylokos takes twenty-two men, and Odysseus takes the remaining. Eurylokos barely escapes the fate of his men, racing back to choke out a report that his men are all turned into pigs by Circe’s magic.

Luckily, Hermes appears and teaches Odysseus how to foil Circe’s magic. Hermes’ secret succeeds and Odysseus beaches his ship after seeing his men regain their human shape. In return, he promises to stay with Circe for as long as he can do so willingly, and she swears to use no more magic on him or his men.

After one year Odysseus begs to leave, and Circe informs him that his way home leads next through Hades. She instructs him on what to do, and how to survive in the land of the dead.

Upon his arrival, Circe had recommended to Odysseus that he unload his ship before beaching it, hiding his possessions in hidden holes in the rocks.

It is not recorded that Odysseus obeyed, and neither does he retrieve any hidden goods now, as Odysseus and his men set sail for Hades. So we have no reason to think the divine shield of Achilles is anywhere else but still among his treasure, still safely stowed away in his ship, at least up until this point in Odysseus’ journey.32

Odysseus Travels to Hades

 Lucanian Red-Figure Calyx-Krater, ca. 380 BCE depicting Odysseus consulting Tiresias in Hades. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lucanian Red-Figure Calyx-Krater, ca. 380 BCE depicting Odysseus consulting the seer Tiresias in Hades.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following Odysseus’ footsteps into Hades, we recall again his visits with Agamemnon, Achilles, and Aias. He learns here, as well, from the seer Tiresias, how to continue his journey home. Tiresias warns him, also, to not touch the herds of Helios’ cattle or sheep, or else Odysseus will find himself the lone survivor of a shipwreck at sea.

While in Hades, Odysseus visits with his mother and sees the shades of many others. But fearing the hand of death may catch him, Odysseus turns back and runs for his ship, embarking, and quickly the crew rows away.33

Returning to Circe, she explains to Odysseus all the strange things Tiresias has told him, clarifying the Seer’s instructions. Soon Odysseus and his crew return to the sea, successfully navigate past the Sirens, Skylla, and Charybdis, enduring a terrifying nightmare of wailing voices, bellowing waves against life-threatening rocks, sucking whirlpools, sky-high spouting, gushing water and finally, a flying man-eating monster with the face of a woman and six blood-thirsty dog’s heads frothing from beneath her breasts.34

Despite the wise advice of Tiresias and the sworn oaths of all the crew, the cattle and sheep do not survive the knives of Odysseus’ hungry men. His hardheaded crewmen make their last mistake, feasting for six days and one final morning on the forbidden herds of Helios.

Suffering the Terrible Punishment of Zeus

Then, after Odysseus’ ship sails out into open sea, with no land to be seen in any direction, Zeus blasts them with a monstrous thunderstorm. Skies darken, the mast breaks under hurricane winds, sails and rigging and mast hit the deck, and the ocean bucks beneath them as the black skies roar above. When Zeus’ signature bolt of lightning strikes, the ship explodes and everyone is blasted into the sea. Alone in the dark, Odysseus clings to a raft which he fashions from the mast and keel board, lashing them together with a rope once used for the sail.35

Ogygia Island is in the middle of this particular ocean. It is the home of Kalypso, daughter of Atlas. It is to this island, and to her care that Odysseus drifts on his keel board. With no ship, no crew, and not even an oar, we finally catch up with Telemakos’ father. Marooned on her island, as Menelaus was told, Odysseus lives seven years with Kalypso, sitting on the shore, crying homesick tears.

Attic red-figured amphora depicting Odysseus hiding his nakedness with branches while seeking help from Princess Nausicaa of Skheria. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Attic Red-Figure Amphora depicting Odysseus hiding his nakedness with branches while seeking help from Princess Nausicaa of Skheria.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, Kalypso gives him tools and allows Odysseus to build a raft from trees he cuts down. During his eighth year on Ogygia, Odysseus sails away. If we, in our wildest dreams, imagine Odysseus saves something from the sea and carries it with him on his keelboard to Kalypso, we have no record to prove it.

And if we chase this dream, anyway, and ask Odysseus to carry it on this new raft, we will still arrive at the same sad end. Poseidon transforms smooth sailing and blue skies into mountainous waves and a hurricane. Odysseus clings to his pitiful raft until it disintegrates, and then swims nearly drowning until he lands literally naked and exhausted on the shore of Skheria.36

From Skheria, Odysseus finally makes it home, but we will not follow him there. Our search for the divine shield of Achilles is exhausted, submerged by a shipwreck at sea. To search any further we much search the sea, but who imagines we will succeed?

Logic insists that a sea nymph long ago found the divine shield of Achilles somewhere in the “wine-dark deep” and returned it at once to Thetis.

Perhaps she returned it back to Olympos, from whence it first came. Just as I am certain that one day I will meet my Maker, the shield of Achilles has surely done the same.
 
 
Continue to Beyond Homer: Other Legends of Achilles’ Shield

 
 
FOOTNOTES:

 
22. Homer’s Odyssey, Book 5, line 307.

 
23. Odyssey, Book 24, lines 36-76.

 
24. Odyssey, Book 11, lines 550-567.

 
25. Odyssey, Book 11, lines 530-550. see also Book 8, lines 498-520.

 
26. Odyssey, Book 3, lines 95-200.

 
27. Odyssey, Book 4, lines 375-501.

 
28. Odyssey, Book 9, lines 30-75.

 
29. Odyssey, Book 9, lines 80-96.

 
30. Odyssey, Book 9, lines 168-485.

 
31. Odyssey, Book 10, lines 1-145.

 
32. Odyssey, Book 11, lines 1-3.

 
33. Odyssey, Book 11, lines .

 
34. Odyssey, Book 12, lines 271-453.

 
35. Odyssey, Book 7, lines 235-299.

 
36. Odyssey, Book 7, lines 235-299.
 

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