Shield of Achilles

Andreas Jung

Plot of the Iliad

Some two thousand years ago a bard would be standing in the middle of a theatre. He would sing the best epic he knew, the famous Iliad of Homer! He would sing of the Greek army coming over to Troy to conquer the town and rescue Helena, the most beautiful woman in the world. He would sing of the rage of Achilleus, the great hero of the Greeks.

Achilleus is young, handsome and the most brilliant fighter of them all. He is born as son of a goddess, Thetis,  and a mortal man. But it is predicted that either he will die in his early years as an outstanding hero or he will live a long life at home as a nobody. Being offended by the Greek commander, how­ever, Achilleus refuses to fight. But he allows Patroklos, his closest friend, to dress in his own armour and join the battle. But there arrives Hektor, the proud leader of the Trojans – he kills Patroklos and takes the armour off.

Now Achilleus' anger turns to sheer rage – further he has no other aim than to murder Hektor for having killed his beloved friend! But how is he to do so? – He has no armour, since it all has been taken. While Achilleus is weeping on the beach in grief and anger, his mother, the goddess Thetis, arrives. And she climbs Mount Olympus to find Hephaistos, the gifted smith of the gods. She asks him to forge new armour for her son. And Hephaistos takes tin, bronze, silver and gold to shape new armour. As a masterpiece he forms a broad shield and decorates it with marvellous pictures.

In his striking new armour Achilleus enters the battlefield and conquers them all. The Trojans escape into town and close all the gates – outside remains only Hektor. Furious Achilleus hurries over and kills Hektor unforgivingly. Then he commits the most dreadful sacrilege – he drags the dead body three times around the grave of Patroklos and leaves it alone - exposed to the flies!

This breach of honour and convention enrages the Gods and they command that the outrage be stopped. Also they send a messenger to Hektor's father, the Trojan king, to lead him through the Greek camp, while all the soldiers are asleep, to the tent of Achilleus. And Hektor's father implores Achilleus, to release his dead son. Achilleus' heart melts and he returns Hektor's body to be buried back in Troy with all due honours.

Shield as Art

And the bard sings of Achilleus' tremendous Shield…

Hephaistos forges the Shield and decorates it with various pictures – you see them coming to life, since the little figures, human beings as well as animals, start to act, to move, to fight. Nine times he creates a different scene, and each has its own content, its own meaning. Hephaistos starts with the world, forms two cities and adds three pictures of agriculture or two of animal farming. Thereafter he creates a wonderful dancing scene and completes his work with an image of the Ocean.

Read Shield of Achilles in its entirety here.