Appreciating the Spiritual Allegories on Achilles’ Shield

Peace is a Prize Shared Equally Among the Living and the Dead

(Author’s Note: This content is significantly updated and expanded in my new book, Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles, now available on!)

A body not properly laid to rest is a soul unable to find peace; unable to pass on to the hereafter. Any dead body prevented from being buried is still today considered an inhumane atrocity. Patroklos, unburied, complains to Achilles all night long in Achilles’ dreams. He must have his burial, he must find peace, and he cries to Achilles to take care of it quickly. And also in the case of Hektor’s funeral, peace is granted to the living. Achilles guarantees suspension of the war, promising King Priam eleven days of peace for the funeral of the Trojan hero.

A funeral provides opportunities unmatched in any other assembly, whether it is today, or in the earliest of ancient Greek days. It is an opportunity to pay respect and honor to the dead, allowing the soul to pass on in peace. It is a time of religious worship, marked by rituals of sacrifice recognizing the Immortal Power(s) controlling life and death. It is a time of fellowship with one another, a momentous social gathering.

Geometric Terracotta "Hirschfeld" Krater, ca. 750-735 BCE. Source: Wikimedia commons

Geometric Terracotta “Hirschfeld” Krater, ca. 750-735 BCE, Depicting a Funeral and Funeral Games. Source: Wikimedia commons

People having shared in the life of the one now passing on congregate and share with the others what part they played, and what they remember best. All that remains when we die are our deeds, witnesses of our fleeting lives. And, based on our faith in our beliefs, an attainment or withholding of kleos, the ancient Greek concept of Immortal Glory.

A funeral is also an opportunity for personal gain. We see an informal system of gift-giving, something akin to the concept of inheritance in the ancient Greek funeral games, in the sharing of wealth and personal effects as prizes to the winners of the competitions.

Zinon Papakonstantinou, in Prizes in Early Archaic Greek Sport1, analyzes this ancient practice of gift-exchange. “An inital examination of the prizes and their distribution during the funeral games of Patroclus,” notes Papakonstantinou, “suggests that the circulation of these valuable objects was an integral part of aristocratic gift-exchange and that therefore such prizes reaffirmed social hierarchies and consolidated networks of power relationships of Homeric elites.”

When Achilles dies, Thetis shares some of her son’s wealth with the soldiers who win competitions in his honor. For the highest prize, she promises her son’s glorious armor to the Bravest of the Greeks, the top contender of the funeral games for Achilles.

…”But thy mother asked of the gods beautiful prizes
and set them in the midst of the list for the chiefs of the Achaeans.
Ere now hadst thou been present at the funeral games
of many men that were warriors,
when at the death of a king the young men gird themselves
and make ready the contests,
but hadst thou seen that sight
thou wouldst most have marvelled at heart,
such beautiful prizes did the goddess, silver-footed Thetis,
set there in thy honor; for very dear wast thou to the gods.”

[From Homer’s Odyssey, Book 24:85-95 Butler’s Translation]

Funeral Games Lead to Fair Sharing

Funeral games provide a logical resolution, a fair sharing of the deceased’s property, especially if he has great wealth or has an extensive social network. And athletic prowess as a competitor is not the only means of winning a prize. The competition of poetic recital finds a voluntarily captive audience and among it many competitors glad to recite their best stories, perhaps even including the life story of the newly deceased. And if, by their sharing, the contenders are judged worthy of a prize from the deceased’s belonging, so much the better for everyone.

It is the format of funeral games which nationalize the ancient Greeks. Funeral competitions carry such honor, such potential for earning kleos, that to win is of ultimate personal value. Discipline, strength, sharing, and fairness as characteristics are epitomized by the contenders, naturally affecting them in all fields of life. By encouraging competition that is self-governed by fairness, the games nurture the seed of self-rule. Expanding beyond the boundaries of social networks, growing side by side with Government, the Games encourage and protect the value of fairness, ultimately uniting entire cities, regions, and nations.

Funeral Games Give Birth to the Olympics

With roots in early funeral games2, and growing as local worship events, the Panathenaic Games in Athens, Pythian Games in Delphi, Nemeian Games in Nemea, The Isthmian Games of Corinth, and of course, the Olympic Games at Elis all blossom and become mammoth competitions, inviting huge numbers of participants. One Olympics legend records that, in the 8th century BCE, the city-states of Elis and Pisa leave off fighting after the oracle of Delphi advises King Iphitos of Elis to save his people from war by organizing games in honor of the gods.

Ancient Greek Black-Figure Dinos signed by Sophilos, ca. 6th century BCE, depicting viewers in platform-style seating watching horse races during funeral games

Ancient Greek Black-Figure Dinos signed by Sophilos, ca. 6th century BCE, depicting viewers in platform-style seating watching horse races during funeral games. Source: Wikimedia commons

A truce is declared and all attend the games which hereafter are called the “Olympics” in honor of the Olympian gods. Forming boards of city-state members, the organizers of the Games request each city-state leave off fighting and send representatives instead to settle matters between them in friendly competitions.

In this case, the winners bring home prizes instead of war booty, and the city-states are rewarded by seeing their citizens honored, rather than killed or enslaved.

The cost of games, prizes, and publicly celebrated honor is an excellent price to pay for Peace. It is a simple, civilized solution to war, brilliantly executed. The value of fairness is maintained, and Peace is the ultimate prize shared by these fair contenders, uniting them all as a nation.

Homer’s Iliad is the ultimate prize-winning poem in the poetry recital competitions, loved and repeated since its first composition.3 It resurfaces and bobs on each successive ring of new generations, floating like a shining beacon of light on a beautiful river called Peace. Look at the blossoming of Literature, Drama, History, Philosophy, Art, and Science following the rise of the PanHellenic Games, especially the Quadrennial PanAthenaiac Games following the ascendancy of Athens as the Imperial Power in the region.

Mining Homer for Spiritual Gems

With the advent of writing, Homer’s Iliad becomes every Greek schoolboy’s primer, influencing students for innumerable generations. Like a Torah, Bible, or a Qur’an, the Iliad is pondered and probed, students religiously mining it for something more precious than gold. And as each new generation is inspired, they begin reaching deeper and higher, producing finer and finer works. Each fresh young student examines the ideals of the others, and fine tunes them with new ideas. By this process of development, all the arts and sciences are born and are today still growing.

The ancient Greek ideals are still present today, most tangibly evident in our recurring celebration of the international Olympic Games. Sadly, it seems that many today consider the Olympics almost as superfluous as a long, drawn out description of a shield in the midst of an explosive battle. Nevertheless, the beautifully simple ideals expressed in both Olympic Games and Achilles’ shield still remain – the lessons to be learned are simple and are aiming at identical targets:

“Come Together.” “Put an end to down-spiraling cycles of War.” “Win the prize of Peace.” “Appreciate the value of Fairness.”

Unfortunately, the intangible value of Fairness is often buried under Jealousy’s boots, for the sake of Personal Gain. Greed and Jealousy are selfish, knowing only how to lie, telling us what we want is worth more in our hands than in the hands of others. When this happens, there will always be War; it is the Immortal Protector of Fairness.

Only when enough casualties are dragged to Death by War will the fear of Death and respect for Life grow in value, exposing the miserliness of Greed. Soon, the scales tip in favor of Peace, and War subsides for a while.

Appreciating the Immortality of Allegories

The language of Allegory is easily understood, and the ancient Greeks are masters of this medium. Today we prefer to restrain our ideals from growing lives of their own. Associating partners with our God is unacceptable in many of our religions, so our allegories are capitalized to indicate the names of abstract concepts. But in the early Greek conceptualization, abstract concepts grow arms, legs, and faces. Then, as identities of abstracts that are uncontrollable by humans, they become recognized as Powerful Immortals. And, once Immortal, they become objects of worship, wrapped in the mantle of Religion.

Achilles is himself a kind of allegory of Justice. He is an Equalizer, a restorer of Fairness. It is not surprising that his shield is a gift created by an Immortal Being. It is an exceptional gift that his mother, Silver-Footed Thetis, bestows upon the heroic forefathers of Western Civilization. Achilles’ divine shield is an allegory of Peace, not easily attained, bestowed only by Immortal Power. And whether or not we believe in a world ruled by Immortal Power, Peace is still the ultimate Prize that can be shared – the gloriously authentic Golden Apple awarded “To The Most Fair.”


1. Zinon Papakonstantinou, Prizes in Early Archaic Greek Sport (Eugene, Oregon, Nikephoros 15, 2002, 51-67)

2. See Colin Renfrew’s analysis, The Minoan-Mycenaean Origins of the Panhellenic Games in Wendy J. Raschke’s The Archaeology of the Olympics: The Olympics and Other Festivals in Antiquity (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988)
Also see AGON The spirit of Competition in Ancient Greece – brochure supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation accompanying the AGON archaeological exhibition at the Capital Museum, Beijing; July 31-Oct 14, 2008.

3. Greg Nagy, Homer the Preclassic (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2010). For a fascinating discussion of Homer’s life of poetry composition and performance, esp. at PanHellenic Games, see: I 2ⓢ2. The making of Homeric verse in the Life of Homer traditions, Chapter 2, pg 31.