"He adorns the earth, he adorns the sea, he adorns the heavens above, he adorns the sun that never rests, the full moon, and all the stars, as they sparkle in the sky…” With these majestic words, Homer depicts in some of his 134 verses in the Iliad the legendary shield of Achilles. A shield that is a masterpiece of craftsmanship and has been discussed and analyzed like a few objects of ancient history. And who else could have created this shield if not Hephaestus, the god of fire and metalwork? And of course, there are many who have argued that Homer did not describe in his verses in the Iliad a real shield but were the imaginative inventions that he skillfully combined. What is certain is that the mythical shield of Achilles can only conceal great and small symbolisms.
Achilles was one of the most renowned and courageous heroes of antiquity and mythology who distinguished himself with his involvement in the Trojan War. He was born in the land of Fthiotida (Phthia in ancient times), as the offspring of Thetis -goddess of the sea- and King Peleus. And as the son of a goddess, his mother could only desire him to be immortal. To accomplish this, legend says that every day his mother, secretly from Peleus, anointed him with ambrosia, and at night she exposed him to the fire, gripping him by the heel.
When Peleus discovered what was going on, however, he did not let Thetis complete her plan and snatched the baby’s heel from the fire. That’s why that part of him was the only weak spot on his body. Thus, the famous Achilles Heel was born. After failing to make Achilles fully immortal, Thetis decided to return to the depths of the sea. From where she had come from and where her father’s eternal palace was located. The upbringing of Achilles was now entrusted to Centaur Chiron in Pelion by Peleus’ command. There, the legendary Achilles grew up and learned to master weapons and the art of hunting.
In Homer’s epic in Iliad, the shield of the legendary Achilles is a remarkable tribute. The story goes that his mother, Thetis, ordered the shield for him. Achilles had lent his equipment to Patroclus, who went to fight in his place, but Patroclus was slain by Hector. So Hector took his weapons as spoils. Achilles thus needed new arms and his mother, Thetis, asked the god Hephaestus to make a new one. And so he did.
But it was not a simple shield but a whole symbol that reflected the cosmos and the human condition. The metals used by Hephaestus to make it were copper, tin, gold, and silver, which represented different qualities and values. What also makes it stand out was its symbolism which conveyed various messages and themes. It essentially consisted of five zones, each of which formed five concentric circles. In them, there were many elaborate representations with elements from all over the universe.
In the first cycle, he drew all the elements of the universe, such as the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, and the sea, showing the order and harmony of nature. In the second circle, he depicted two cities of mortal men, one peaceful and one warlike, contrasting the different ways of life and the consequences of war and peace. In the third cycle, he described a scene of rural life, with farmers harvesting crops and celebrating with music and dance, showing the joy and abundance of agriculture. In the fourth cycle, he portrayed a scene of pastoral life, with shepherds tending their flocks and a lion attacking a bull, showing the beauty and danger of nature. The fifth and final circle includes the Ocean which embraces the earth, symbolizing the limit and unity of the world.
Historians’ analyses, however, suggest that the shield is not just the description of a weapon (and a peaceful one at that) but an entire symbolism that reveals Homer’s vision of life. According to the German writer, Wolfgang Sandewald, these intersecting contradictions show the basic forms of a civilized and essentially normal life. Perhaps he even wanted to show the contrasts of simple everyday life with the violence and cruelty of the Trojan War and to imply that war is an unnatural and destructive force that disrupts the balance of nature and society.