Regarding the Metaphorical Motifs on Achilles’ Shield

Achilles: A Warrior in Search of Peace

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

Achilles is the greatest warrior in history, and yet he hates war with a passion.

“Make Love, Not War” could be Achilles’ motto. Dressed in full armor and mounting his chariot for battle, Achilles vows he will not stop fighting on this day until all the Trojans hate war.1 War is Achilles’ worst enemy and, true to his promise, he kills every warrior whom heaven places in his path.2 By the end of the day no Trojan still living wants to be outside the walls of Troy.

But this is not how it all starts for Achilles.

briseis phoenix

Briseis, Achilles’ beloved war captive, serving Phoenix, Achilles’ lifelong mentor.
(Please click image for more)

When Thetis receives word of war brewing over the kidnapping of Helen, love of peace drives Achilles from his home. Thetis disguises him as a girl, sending him to hide among King Lykomedes’ daughters on the island of Skyros.

However, wars are not won, nor launched overnight, if we use Helen’s words and numbers. At the end of the tenth year of the Trojan War, Helen reports that she has been in Troy for twenty.3

So, for a good part of ten years, Achilles enjoys a peaceful life on Skyros, in love with the princess Deidameia. But finally, summoned by Odysseus to join the warriors, Achilles leaves his young son, Neoptolemos, in Deidameia’s arms.

Willingly leaving his peaceful life behind, Achilles now leaves for the war. Commanding his army of Myrmidons, he leads them in the service and love of fairness, avenging the abduction of King Menelaos’ lawfully wedded wife.

If Achilles can no longer have peace in his life, he will at least have love. For many of the next ten years, Briseis, a young woman awarded to Achilles as a war-prize keeps him company, bringing him comfort and love every night after long days of war. When Agamemnon offends Achilles by taking Briseis to his tent, Achilles’ love for Briseis drives his next action. He restores to himself a kind of personal peace by swearing abstention from battle.

Swinging Like the Shining Scales of a Balance

Achilles lives his life with disciplined passion, doing everything wholeheartedly, or wholeheartedly refusing to do it. He swings like the shining scales of a balance, adding his weight here, removing it there, maintaining his value of fairness.

Apulian Red-Figure Amphora ca. 430-410 BCE depicting Achilles and Briseis. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Apulian Red-Figure Amphora ca. 430-410 BCE depicting Achilles and Briseis.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Soon the scales swing again, with the death of his best friend, Patroklos, and Achilles springs back into action. With peace and love now both fully vanquished, he is driven instead to chase glory. Glory is another aspect of love, rendering the one glorified beloved. He is so skilled at the art of chase only his reputation can outrun him. And, now, shining in new armor fitting lightly as wings, Achilles flies to the fight as though on wings of passion.

More awesome than charisma, Achilles possesses command; no woman or man can resist him. Every Trojan he approaches sees a war god racing toward him, filled with righteous fury. Every Trojan Achilles sees is a destroyer of peace, protecting a guilty thief. Achilles wins no glory for slaughter, but rather for settling the score. He wins for righting the scales of fairness on the battlefield of war.

Achilles is the quintessential warrior, carrying the quintessential shield. In its purest essence, a shield is a protective device, and Achilles’ shield is a device so pure that its creation seems a work of pure genius. It is so beautiful that it has the power to stop an enemy in his tracks, and by this mistake, renders him an easy target.

Face to face with Achilles, any enemy might pause to gaze at his extraordinary shield. The entire shield is a symbol of life, so eloquently symbolic that the quickest gaze of the hardiest warrior finds something lovingly familiar. It takes his breath away, and in that instant, he falls at the feet of Achilles. We can only wonder if it is the shield or the sword that kills him, dying at the hands of Achilles.

The shield is Achilles’ quintessential defense, emblazoned with emblems of a happy life, and emblems of war’s horror for deterrence. It is an earnest prescription, a brilliant device, shining in defense of peace.

Webster: “Detailed Reconstruction of the Shield is Impossible”

“We can feel the whole life of the Homeric world stirring and moving and going on its way behind the events of the story,” is the way Owen looks at Achilles’ shield. He continues, “The countryside with its farms, vineyards and pasture lands, scenes of hunting and all the homely crafts, nature in its beauty and calm, and in its storms and terrors – we are thus enabled to see it all without straying from the battlefield.”4

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

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

“But obviously,” says Stobart, “an idealising poet in describing such objects permits his imagination to excel anything he has ever seen or heard of. Besides, it was wrought by the lame god Hephaistos, and the gods do not make armour such as you can buy at the shop.”5

Hogan widens the scope, insisting, “nothing so comprehensive and detailed as this could ever have been seen by Homer or his audience.”6

And, finally, “Detailed reconstruction of the shield is impossible,” states Webster,7 slamming the door shut in our faces.

For many scholars, Achilles’ shield is purely symbolic. Gardner says it is symbolic, but representing nothing more than an elaborate work of art. He believes, “though many scenes and figures in varied action are described, there is no attempt to represent or to illustrate a mythical story, or even an actual event. All the scenes are merely typical events of town and country life, in peace and war.”8

Ferruci: “A Compendium of the Cosmos”

Ferruci sees Achilles’ shield more broadly symbolic, “round in shape, encircled by a representation of the Ocean River, which is also the outer boundary of the earth, and with the sun, the moon, and all the constellations depicted in the center, it is a compendium of the cosmos.”9

Beautifully perceptive, Clarke expands our imagination further. “Hephaestus is its maker,” he explains, “just as fire produces all things; he makes the shield at night, just as all matter was created out of the chaos of a primal night; …he makes it out of gold, silver, bronze, and tin, which are the metal equivalents of the four elements, ether, air, water, and earth. …The shield itself is round like the world and has five zones, which correspond to the five zones of the earth.”10

Taking flight, Ferruci soars higher on wings of enlightened consciousness, exclaiming, “This is the significance of Achilleus’ shield. As an image of the hero’s consciousness, it reflects the cosmos while representing it, and is thus the first symbolic image of art’s capacity to function as a stereoscope. …As a similar situation recurs in every great book, the paradox of writing is continually magnified. The first model of reality has been created, the first work contains its own interpretation; art has already the power to formulate art. The cosmos contains the poem, in which resides the shield – the shield that reflects the universe. The poem becomes an image of the cosmos so complete as to discourage any attempt to compete with it.”11

Detailed Metaphorical Recreations of Life

Taking flight with Ferruci, we risk flying too close to the sun. Turn back at the first scent of burning feathers and return to the shield at hand. The scenes on Achilles’ shield are metaphorical recreations of life. The images used are ancient motifs, current with Homer’s culture. Like the stained glass windows of many Christian churches, the scenes tell a story; they hope to teach a lesson.

The first scene, at the epicenter of the shield, is undeniably a metaphor for the earth in its heavenly environment. To find the message, to learn the lesson, explore the next three rings:

The inner ring is a metaphor for city life, with associated motifs of social control. Here are people interested in respecting established limits of behavior in order to maintain the peace. Weddings signify legal relationships; one man accosting another man in the marketplace signifies legal accountability for illegal behavior, and a trial by judges unquestionably signifies legal justice for all.

A true “coalition of the willing,” this is a society willing to respect what is right and wrong, willing to abide by social and self-control. If I am not accountable for my behavior, nothing will stop me from robbing my neighbor if I see he has something I want. But if, as a thief, I will be thrown into jail, I may be more willing to be a peaceful neighbor, instead of a thief. The seed of government grows or dies according to the social will for peace.

Middle Ring: Battle! From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail (copyright-All Rights Reserved)

Middle Ring: BATTLE! From the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

The middle ring is metaphorical war, the result of man’s jealousy, passion, greed, etc., pushing him to exceed the limits of social control. The city of Troy, with its encircling wall and massive gates, could not protect her citizens from the inevitable punishment coming. When the son of a king steals another king’s wife, retribution follows closely behind.

The moral begins to clarify, studying the divine shield’s scenes of war. Even if Ares and Athena lead the battle, or in other words, no matter how high the technology, or how massive the weapons of destruction, the participants of war will still end up victims of Strife, Tumult, and Fate. Everyone suffers and most will die, trampled in the mud and the blood with their brothers.

The outer ring, a metaphorical cycle of peacetime, follows naturally after a cycle of war. Escaping tumult, life retreats to the country. When the war is over, what is the result? The city is sacked, and every good thing is broken, stolen, or burnt. Shops and homes are utterly ruined and there are no more markets. Every salesman-turned-soldier is missing or dead, along with his father and brothers.

After a war, it is time to pack up the donkey with whatever remains and head back to the village, to the ancestral home of Grandma. Time to return to tilling the fields, reaping the grain, and gathering the juicy sweet grapes. At least the lions do not carry swords, and there are fewer of them than the warriors who came to steal all the goods and destroy the entire city.

Soon enough Grandma’s home in the country will become crowded again when young sons bring home wives from the dances. Soon enough there will be a surplus of goods, a need for larger markets, and the young people will rebuild the cities.

Achilles’ Shield: A Quintessential Weapon of Defense

The repetitive waves on the shield’s rim are the generations of men destined to repeat these cycles. Look again from the beginning and see the full message of Achilles’ shield, clear now to those who can see.

The earth, moon, sun, and stars in the center are unable to change their cycles. But the cycles of war and peace, while predictably repetitive, are not really involuntary. This is a lesson about social control, about fairness, and about valuing peace.

Achilles’ shield is a quintessential weapon of defense, earnestly defending peace.
Continue to Appreciating the Spiritual Allegories on Achilles’ Shield

[Top Image Caption]

1. Homer’s Iliad Book 19, line 423.

2. Iliad Book 21, line 104.

3. Iliad Book 24, line 765.

4. Owen, S. T. pg. 189.

5. Stobart, J. C. pg. 47.

6. Hogan, J. C. pg. 239-40.

7. Webster, T. B. L. pg. 214.

8. Gardner, E. A. pg. 27-28.

9. Ferruci, F. pg. 29.

10. Clarke, H. pg. 80.

11. Ferruci, F. pg. 30-31.