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The Iliad, continued...
(click for: Books I-XIIDiagram: Structure of Bk. IBooks XIII-XVIIIBooks XIX-XXIVBook XVIFinal Iliad wrap-up)


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The Shield of Achilles

Homer's description of the shield Hephaistos makes for Achilles (XVIII: 478-607) is the most famous excursus in the Iliad. Presumed to be Homer's original invention, this passage has served as an inspiration to later poets, notably W. H. Auden, whose poem "The Shield of Achilles" offers a distinctly modern (i.e., pessimistic) perspective on the shield's contents, described from Thetis's point of view.

The Shield is famous, most of all, as the prototypical example of ekphrasis, the depiction of a work of visual art within a work of verbal art. It may seem like a simple enough thing, to describe a picture in words, but it was radical when Homer did it--and it raises all sorts of fascinating questions. For example, a work of visual art cannot tell you "in so many words" how you are supposed to feel about it; a verbal description can (perhaps, must; do you think it is possible for such a description to be wholly objective?). On the other hand, a visual image can be grasped instantaneously, whereas the words of a text can only be read sequentially. So a picture can deliver an instantaneous "punch" that a text cannot (hence the cliché, formerly a Chinese proverb: "A picture is worth 10,000 words").

James Heffernan, a literary scholar, proposes that ekphrasis stages a power struggle between the image and the word [Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)]. According to Heffernan, ekphrasis "evokes the power of the silent image even as it subjects that power to the rival authority of language." Do you see this happening in the Shield of Achilles passage?

What other issues might Homer be interested in raising here? For example, whose world is depicted on the shield, and from whose point of view (the gods', the mortals', the poet's...)? How do the scenes depicted on the shield relate to the larger world of the Trojan War, and to the rest of the poem? Are there symbolic aspects that resonate with you as a member of Homer's audience? Finally, since Homer here is describing the creation of a work of art, do you infer anything about his own project, the creation of the Iliad?

Family Ties

The reason Achilles gets this fancy shield in the first place, of course, is that his mother procures it for him. Thetis is not the only immortal who does her best, against the odds, to protect her mortal child from harm; in fact, parent-child bonds are one of the few things the gods and humans in this story seem to take almost equally seriously. An interesting case of this is the death of Sarpedon in Book 16; Zeus, Sarpedon's father, makes a painful decision not to save him (XVI: 431-461). What do you make of this?

Keep an eye on the theme of parents and children as you read on...

Poor Patroklos

Study closely the scene (Bk.16, lines 20-100) in which Achilleus agrees to send Patroklos into battle in his stead. Does this strike you as a good idea? What does it contribute to the poem (as opposed to the Greek defenses)?

Look carefully at the scene of Patroklos's defeat by Hektor (Bk. 16, lines 783 to the end). Why must Patroklos die, and why is the manner of his death significant? Look, too, at the exchange of words between Hektor and Patroklos as the latter dies: who "wins" this argument, in your opinion?

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