The Iliad is Not a Legend About War
(Author’s Note: This content is significantly updated and expanded in my new book, Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles, now available on Amazon.com!)
The great and classic legend of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans is in fact not a legend about a war. It doesn’t start at the beginning of the war, and the war doesn’t end, but the story does. So the war is not significant, and therefore neither are the weapons of war. Thus the shield of Achilles, and the war it is created for, serve as an exciting backdrop, a legendary literary vehicle to carry what is truly significant.
Strip the story of what is not significant to find out what is. It isn’t significant who wrote the Iliad. It isn’t significant who was Homer, when he lived, when he died, if he was blind, or if he ever actually saw a shield such as he describes for the hero, Achilles. What is the point of the story, why is it being told? What ideas are being shared and what lessons are to be learned?
The Iliad is a treasure chest of character lessons, of a thousand different characters. All of life’s lessons are contained within it, and a variety of responses to many, both positive and negative, are explored. It is a story of the quest for glory, to learn what is glory and how is it attained.
Rings Within Rings, Lessons Within LessonsFocusing on Achilles’ shield, we find it contains rings within rings, lessons within lessons. It contains a great moral about peace and war, encapsulated in small symbolic scenes and encompassing every aspect of life in broad symbolic categories. City life, farm life, social responsibilities, religious duties, hard work, hunger, strife, war, peace, fairness, sharing. Here are scenes where the lessons to be learned are put to the test. Here are the cycles that are destined to repeat, until the lessons are learned.
How convenient it is to ascribe such glorious handiwork to the hands of a god. But if archaeology has not, or has not yet, found any physical evidence to support Homer’s literal description of a shield such as Achilles’, who are we to deny it?
Of course, if Homer was truly blind, as some believe, our paradox grows more paradoxical. We are searching earnestly for a shield, the message of which is perhaps more significant than its physical existence. A shield described in intimate detail by a reportedly blind poet – a shield no one has ever seen, possibly not even the one describing it, and he says it is the handiwork of a god, whom we comprehend as a sophisticated, imaginary creation of deified, personified allegory.
Maybe we are crazy, but if we are, we are in good company.
Evaluating Homer’s VeracityFor many centuries the locations of Troy and Mycenae, and all of the events of the Trojan War, were considered mythical. Born in 1822, Heinrich Schliemann did not agree, but he was an amateur and his opinions were not significant to the scholars of his day. Fortunately for all of us, by 1870 Schliemann had enough resources and confidence in himself and in Homer to go have a look, and do a little digging in the dirt. Today we can visit the physical sites of Troy and Mycenae, thanks to Heinrich Schliemann, considered by many to be the Father of Modern Archaeology.
So, if Homer was right about the physical existences of Troy and Mycenae, he may also be right about Achilles’ physical shield.
Gardner tells us about an archaeological find called the silver siege vase —
“…a fragment of a silver vase with repousse reliefs found at Mycenae. Here there is a battle going on between both light and heavy-armed troops outside the wall of a city; ‘and on the wall there stood to guard it their dear wives and infant children, and with these the old men.’ The artist who made this cup might well have designed such a work as the shield of Achilles.”(1)
Webster discusses the physical construction of Achilles’ shield as described in the Iliad, saying:
“Homer thought of a boss, three zones, and a rim; and this corresponds nearly enough to the five layers of metal which he gives the shield in a later book.”(2)
The later book Webster refers to is Book 20, line 270. Homer tells us that Hephaistos constructs Achilles’ shield of five layers, or plates, two from bronze, two inner plates of tin, and an intermediate plate of gold. In Book 18, starting at line 475, Homer also tells us that Hephaistos prepares molten bronze, gold, and tin for the armor. The shield, when created, is strong, wide and shining. The rim is three layers thick, or triple-ply, and the shoulder strap is silver.
Mycenaean Findings Support Homer’s WordsNow in the National Museum of Athens, swords and daggers of bronze, decoratively inlaid with gold and silver characters have been recovered from the fourth and fifth royal tombs of Mycenae.(3) The fifth tomb also contained the famous gold funeral mask of “Agamemnon.”(4) There is no way to know the name of the king for whom this mask was made, but the visage remarkably matches our imagination’s image of the High King of Mycenae. The title, “Mask of Agamemnon” has stuck since it was first discovered and named by Heinrich Schliemann.
Continuing in Schliemann’s footsteps, Carl Blegen uncovered another Mycenaean stronghold, the undisputed Palace of Nestor at Pylos. Here, two more daggers of identical construction as the ones at Mycenae have been uncovered.(5) Also found here is a metal vase with ten images of men’s bearded heads(6) inlaid on the vase in gold and black niello, a chemical compound containing sulfur. This is similar to a silver cup found at Mycenae, inlaid also with gold and black niello images of men’s bearded heads.(7)
Bronze swords were found on the right side of a king, buried in the tholos tomb at Dendra, in the Argolid, a major center of Mycenaean society(8). More swords and daggers were laid at his feet, and on the breast of a princess lay another silver cup inlaid with gold and niello.(9) Two more swords inlaid with gold and niello on both sides of the blades were found in another area of the Peloponnese, Prosymna.(10) And, surprisingly far to the north, on the island of Skopelos, the largest sword found from the Mycenaean period was uncovered. Its beautiful handle is extremely valuable, covered by gold with repousse reliefs decorating the entire handle, including a huge, pointed pommel.(11)
The absence of much armor beyond swords and daggers among the many beautiful objects found in the excavations of Mycenaean dating is conspicuous but understandable. Certainly, shields are more useful for the living than for the dead.
For example, following the death of Achilles, his mother holds funeral games in his honor, placing Achilles’ glorious armor as the highest prize. It is unthinkable that such armor should be buried. Instead, it becomes an inheritance, a coveted prize for the winner of competitions determining who is “the Bravest of the Greeks.”
Lost, But Not Forgotten
The earth is the best keeper of secrets, and so archaeologists hunt more successfully in the more conspicuous places. However, this Ancient Greek system of inheritance does not guarantee a conspicuous final resting place for any inherited object, no matter how famously glorious it may be.
Because such a shield as Achilles’ has not been found does not mean it never physically existed. In fact, the physical existence of such similarly inlaid cups, swords, and daggers provide a very real witness of Homer’s knowledge. Of course, we must be forgiving if he ascribes to a god the creation of these artifacts, especially Achilles’ exceptional armor. The days of Homeric heroes were over by the time Homer was born. The artisans once working for Agamemnon were gone.
Homer created character lessons from the famous heroic characters, using them as vehicles for his classic story. In so doing, he recreated in words many significant facets of ancient Greek culture, illuminating things that were lost but not forgotten. The shield of Achilles, similarly lost but not forgotten, informs us of the truly significant facets of life, enduring throughout the ages of human relationships, so that we might recognize them, too, before they are lost.
“Two cities he pictured, of eloquent men, each in well-rendered scenes;
With weddings in one, and feasts awaiting as torchmen led brides from their homes.
In front and behind the procession was growing, with townsmen singing in choir,
And others played lyres or piped on their flutes, dancing ’round to the tune.
Women stood still as the brides passed by and gazed in awe at the sight.”
[From Homer’s Iliad, Book XVIII, lines 490-495]
Continue to Regarding the Metaphorical Motifs on Achilles’ Shield
1. Gardner, Ernest A. Poet and Artist in Greece. London: Duckworth, 1933 pg. 28.
2. Webster, T. B. L. From Mycenae to Homer. London: Methuen and Company, Ltd., 1977 pg. 214.
3. Karouzou, Dr. Semni. National Museum – Illustrated Guide to the Museum. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A., 1985. Item No.’s 394, 765 and 294, pg. 26, and item no.’s 744 and 764, pg. 28.
4. Karouzou, S. Item No. 624, pg. 28.
5. Karouzou, S. Item No.’s 8339 and 8340, pg. 34.
6. Karouzou, S. Item No. 7842, pg. 34.
7. Karouzou, S. Item No. 2489, pg. 22.
8. Karouzou, S. Item No. 7325 and 7326, pg. 39.
9. Karouzou, S. Item No. 7336, pg. 39.
10. Karouzou, S. Item No.’s 8446 and 6416, pg. 40.
11. Karouzou, S. Item No. 6444, pg. 41.