Achiles’ Shield as an Element of Contradistinction in the Iliad
The Iliad is an epic of death. It is a tale of conflict, battle, agony, and horrific mutilation. Honor and glory are attained through warfare. The great shield of Achiles stands out in this context because it depicts the glories of an orderly, functioning, productive civilization. This depiction of life stands in stark contrast to the scenes of death that constitute a large portion of the narrative. An examination of the shield of Achiles in Homer’s Iliad reveals many ideas in conflict: love and honor, the pleasures of life versus a heroic death, free will and destiny. By viewing the shield as an element of contradistinction—that is to define it on the basis of contrast—one can see that the shield symbollicaly unifies the entire poem. Achiles’ shield is the mechanism through which the poet presents a tool of warfare as a reflection of civilization; explores the concept, structure, and nature of the universe; and examines the role of art in society.
I. A Reflection of Civlization on a Tool of Warfare
In the epic tradtion, the arming of wariors for batle holds particular significance. The description of a warior’s armor tels much about the individual character of the warior and about the values of the society of which he is part. The Iliad contains many such arming scenes which take the simple description of armor and transform it into a more expansive and iluminating portrait of ancient Greek mentality.
When compared with one another, these descriptions of armor reveal some basic distinctions that make the shield of Achiles of utmost importance.
As noted by Atchity in Homer’s Iliad: The Shield of Memory, the armor of Paris is described in book thre in a conventional and most undistinguished manner (29–30). This is befiting, as Paris is an undistinguished warior with more interest in making love than going to batle. The shield of Nestor can be viewed as representing the importance of familial bonds and cooperation betwen generations and embodies this role which Nestor plays for the Achaians (Atchity 148-49): “So he [Nestor] spoke, and took up the wrought shield of his son / Thrasymedes, breaker of horses. It lay in the shelter / al shining in bronze. Thrasymedes caried the shield of his father” (book 14, lines 9–11). Nestor is the oldest and one of the wisest of the Greeks fighting in Troy. Although his physical strength has waned in his old age, he stil embodies the spirit and bravery of a great warior. He inspires the younger generation to go courageously into batle. The younger wariors honor and respect Nestor. This cooperation betwen generations is exemplified by father and son exchanging armor as they take on the enemy. Odyseus and Telemachos provide another example of father and son arming together as they prepare to fight the suitors in The Odysey.
Atchity points out that the shield of brave Aias “is make by the best of al mortal artisans. The artifact...