Achilles’ Shield

from Book 18 of The Iliad

The shield given to Alexander did not survive, but from the description given by Homer, the artist John Flaxman recreated the shield in 1821.

(translated by Ian Johnston)


Meanwhile, silver-footed Thetis reached Hephaestus’ home.
Made of eternal bronze and gleaming like a star,                                             [370]
it stood out among the homes of the immortals.                                 460
The crippled god had constructed it himself.
She found him working with his bellows, moving round,
sweating in his eager haste. He was forging
twenty tripods in all, to stand along the walls
of his well-built house. Under the legs of each one
he had fitted golden wheels, so every tripod
might move all on its own into a gathering of the gods
at his command and then return to his own house.
They were wonderful to look at. His work on them
had reached the stage where finely crafted handles                             470
had still not been attached. He was making these,
forging the rivets. As he was working on them                                                [380]
with his great skill, silver-footed goddess Thetis
approached more closely. Noticing her, Charis,
lovely goddess with the splendid veil, came forward—
she was wife to the celebrated crippled god.

Taking Thetis by the hand, she called her name, and said:

“Long-robed Thetis, why visit our house now?
You’re a welcome and respected guest, but to this point
you haven’t come by very much. Do step inside.                       480
Let me show you our hospitality.”

With these words, the goddess led her inside the house.
She asked Thetis to sit in a silver-studded chair,
beautifully finished, with a footstool under it.                                                 [390]

Then she called the famous artisan Hephaestus:        
“Come here, Hephaestus. Thetis needs to see you.”

The celebrated lame god then replied to Charis:

“Here’s a fearful honoured goddess in my home,
the one who saved me when I was in pain,
after my great fall, thanks to my mother,                                    490
that shameless one, eager to conceal me,
because I was a cripple. At that time,
I would have suffered heartfelt agonies,
if Thetis and Eurynome, daughter
of circling Ocean stream, had not taken me
into their hearts. With those two, for nine years                                     [400]
I made many lovely things—brooches,
spiral bracelets, earrings, necklaces—
inside their hollow cave. The Ocean stream
flowed round me, always with the roar of surf.                          500
No one else knew, neither god nor mortal man.
But Thetis and Eurynome—the ones
who rescued me—they knew.* And now Thetis
has come into my home. So I must give her
full recompense—fair-haired Thetis saved my life.
But Charis, show her now our hospitality.
I’ll put away my bellows and my tools.”

Huge god Hephaestus got up from the anvil block                                         [410]
with laboured breathing. He was lame, but his thin legs                     510
moved quickly under him. He placed his bellows
far from the fire and collected all his work tools,
then stored them in a silver chest. With a sponge,
he wiped his face, both hands, thick neck, and hairy chest.
Then he pulled on a tunic and came limping out,
gripping a sturdy staff. At once he was helped along
by female servants made of gold, who moved to him.
They look like living servant girls, possessing minds,
hearts with intelligence, vocal chords, and strength.
They learned to work from the immortal gods.                                   520           [420]
These women served to give their master detailed help.

Hephaestus came limping up to Thetis and sat down
in a shining chair. Then, clasping her hand, he spoke:

“Long-robed Thetis, why have you come here,
to our house, an honoured welcome guest?
To this point, you haven’t come here often.
But say what’s on your mind. My heart tells me
I shall do it, if I can accomplish it,
if it’s something that can be carried out.”

Thetis answered him in tears:                                  

 “Oh, Hephaestus,                                                 530
is there any goddess on Olympus
who’s suffered so much painful sorrow                                                 [430]
in her heart to equal the unhappiness
that Zeus, son of Cronos, loads on me
more than any other god? Of all goddesses
living in the sea, he made me subject
to a mortal man, Peleus, son of Aeacus.
So I had to put up with a man in bed,
though much against my will. Now he lies there,
in his home, worn out by harsh old age.                                     540
And I have still more pain. He gave me a son
to bear and raise as an outstanding warrior.

The boy grew up as quickly as a sapling.
Then, when I had reared him like a tree
in a fertile garden, I sent him off
in the beaked ships to fight at Ilion
against the Trojans. I’ll never welcome him                                           [440]
returning home to the house of Peleus.
And while he still lives to glimpse the sunlight,
he lives in sorrow. When I visit him,                                          550
I cannot help him. Achaea’s sons chose for him
as his prize a girl, whom great Agamemnon
seized right out of his arms. In grief for her,
his heart has pined away. Then the Trojans
penned Achaeans in by their ships’ sterns,
not letting them come out. The senior men
among the Argives pleaded with my son.
They promised splendid gifts. But he refused,                                        [450]
declining to protect them from disaster.

But then he sent Patroclus to the war,                                       560
dressing him in his own armour, providing
a force of many men. They fought all day
around the Scaean Gates, and that very day
would have utterly destroyed the city,
if Apollo had not killed Menoetius’ son,
after he’d inflicted bloody carnage.
He killed him at the front, giving Hector
all the glory. That’s why I’ve come here now,
asking at your knees if you’d be willing
to give my son, who is fated to die soon,                                   570
a shield, helmet, good leg armour fitted
with ankle clasps, and body armour, too.
His previous equipment was all taken                                                    [460]
when Trojans killed his loyal companion.
Now my son lies in the dust, heart filled with pain.”

The famous crippled god then answered Thetis:

“Cheer up. Don’t let these things afflict your heart.
I wish I could hide him from distressful death,
when his cruel fate arrives, as surely
as I know there’ll be fine armour for him—                               580
such splendid armour that it will astound
all the many men who chance to see it.”

With these words, Hephaestus left her there, going to start
his bellows. He directed them right at the fire,
then told them to start working. So the bellows,
twenty in all, started blowing on the crucibles,                                               [470]
each one emitting just the right amount of air,
sometimes blowing hard to help when he was busy,
sometimes gently, whatever way Hephaestus wished,
so his work could go ahead. He threw on the fire                               590
enduring bronze and tin, precious gold and silver.

Next, he placed the great anvil on its block, took up
a massive hammer in one hand and in the other his tongs.
The first thing he created was a huge and sturdy shield,
all wonderfully crafted. Around its outer edge,
he fixed a triple rim, glittering in the light,                                                      [480]
attaching to it a silver carrying strap.
The shield had five layers. On the outer one,
with his great skill he fashioned many rich designs.
There he hammered out the earth, the heavens, the sea,                     600
the untiring sun, the moon at the full, along with
every constellation which crowns the heavens—
the Pleiades, the Hyades, mighty Orion,
and the Bear, which some people call the Wain,
always circling in the same position, watching Orion,
the only stars that never bathe in Ocean stream.*

Then he created two splendid cities of mortal men.                                        [490]
In one, there were feasts and weddings. By the light
of blazing torches, people were leading the brides
out from their homes and through the town to loud music                 610
of the bridal song. There were young lads dancing,
whirling to the constant tunes of flutes and lyres,
while all the women stood beside their doors, staring
in admiration.                                   

                                  Then the people gathered
in the assembly, for a dispute had taken place.
Two men were arguing about blood-money owed
for a murdered man. One claimed he’d paid in full,
setting out his case before the people, but the other                                       [500]
was refusing any compensation. Both were keen
to receive the judgment from an arbitration.                                       620
The crowd there cheered them on, some supporting one,
some the other, while heralds kept the throng controlled.
Meanwhile, elders were sitting there on polished stones
in the sacred circle, holding in their hands
the staffs they’d taken from the clear-voiced heralds.
With those they’d stand up there and render judgment,
each in his turn. In the centre lay two golden talents,
to be awarded to the one among them all
who would deliver the most righteous verdict.

The second city was surrounded by two armies,                                 630
soldiers with glittering weapons. They were discussing                                   [510]
two alternatives, each one pleasing some of them—
whether to attack that city and plunder it,
or to accept as payment half of all the goods
contained in that fair town. But those under siege
who disagreed were arming for a secret ambush.
Their dear wives and children stood up on the walls
as a defence, along with those too old to fight.
The rest were leaving, led on by Pallas Athena
and Ares, both made of gold, dressed in golden clothes,                     640
large, beautiful, and armed—as is suitable for gods.
They stood out above the smaller people with them.
When the soldiers reached a spot which seemed all right
for ambush, a place beside a river where the cattle                                         [520]
came to drink, they stopped there, covered in shining bronze.
Two scouts were stationed some distance from that army,
waiting to catch sight of sheep and short-horned cattle.
These soon appeared, followed by two herdsmen
playing their flutes and not anticipating any danger.
But those lying in ambush saw them and rushed out,                          650
quickly cutting off the herds of cattle and fine flocks
of white-fleeced sheep, killing the herdsmen with them.
When the besiegers sitting in their meeting place                                            [530]
heard the great commotion coming from the cattle,
they quickly climbed up behind their prancing horses
and set out. They soon caught up with those attackers.
Then they organized themselves for battle and fought
along the river banks, men hitting one another
with bronze-tipped spears. Strife and Confusion joined the fight,
Along with cruel Death, who seized one wounded man                       660
while still alive and then another man without a wound,
while pulling the feet of one more corpse from the fight.
The clothes Death wore around her shoulders were dyed red
with human blood. They even joined the slaughter
as living mortals, fighting there and hauling off
the bodies of dead men which each of them had killed.                                  [540]

On that shield Hephaestus next set a soft and fallow field,
fertile spacious farmland, which had been ploughed three times.
Many labourers were wheeling ploughs across it,
moving back and forth. As they reached the field’s edge,                   670
they turned, and a man came up to offer them
a cup of wine as sweet as honey. Then they’d turn back,
down the furrow, eager to move through that deep soil
and reach the field’s edge once again. The land behind them
was black, looking as though it had just been ploughed,
though it was made of gold—an amazing piece of work!

Then he pictured on the shield a king’s landed estate,                                    [550]
where harvesters were reaping corn, using sharp sickles.
Armfuls of corn were falling on the ground in rows,
one after the other. Binders were tying them up                                  680
in sheaves with twisted straw. Three binders stood there.
Behind the reapers, boys were gathering the crop,
bringing it to sheaf-binders, keeping them busy
Among them stood the king, a sceptre in his hand,
there by the stubble, saying nothing, but with pleasure
in his heart. Some distance off, under an oak tree,
heralds were setting up a feast, dressing a huge ox
which they’d just killed. Women were sprinkling white barley
on the meat in large amounts for the workers’ meal.                                       [560]

Next, Hephaestus placed on that shield a vineyard,                            690
full of grapes made of splendid gold. The grapes were black,
the poles supporting vines throughout were silver.
Around it, he made a ditch of blue enamel,
around that, a fence of tin. A single path led in,
where the grape pickers came and went at harvest time.
Young girls and carefree lads with wicker baskets
were carrying off a crop as sweet as honey.
In the middle of them all, a boy with a clear-toned lyre
played pleasant music, singing the Song of Linos,                                           [570]
in his delicate fine voice. His comrades kept time,                             700
beating the ground behind him, singing and dancing.*

Then he set on the shield a herd of straight-horned cattle,
with cows crafted out of gold and tin. They were lowing
as they hurried out from farm to pasture land,
beside a rippling river lined with waving reeds.
The herdsmen walking by the cattle, four of them,
were also made of gold. Nine swift-footed dogs
ran on behind. But there, at the front of the herd,
two fearful lions had seized a bellowing bull.                                                  [580]
They were dragging him off, as he roared aloud.                                 710
The dogs and young men were chasing after them.
The lions, after ripping open the great ox’s hide,
were gorging on its entrails, on its black blood,
as herdsmen kept trying in vain to chase them off,
setting their swift dogs on them. But, fearing the lions,
the dogs kept turning back before they nipped them,
and stood there barking, close by but out of reach.

Then the famous crippled god created there a pasture
in a lovely valley bottom, an open ground
for white-fleeced sheep, sheep folds, roofed huts, and pens.               720

Next on that shield, the celebrated lame god made                                         [590]
an elaborately crafted dancing floor, like the one
Daedalus created long ago in spacious Cnossus,
for Ariadne with the lovely hair.* On that floor,
young men and women whose bride price would require
many cattle were dancing, holding onto one another
by the wrists. The girls wore fine linen dresses,
the men lightly rubbed with oil wore woven tunics.
On their heads the girls had lovely flower garlands.
The men were carrying gold daggers on silver straps.                          730
They turned with such a graceful ease on skilful feet,
just as a potter sits with a wheel between his hands,                                       [600]
testing it, to make sure that it runs smoothly.
Then they would line up and run towards each other.
A large crowd stood around, enjoying the dancing magic,
as in the middle two acrobats led on the dance,
springing, and whirling, and tumbling.

On that shield, Hephaestus then depicted Ocean,
the mighty river, flowing all around the outer edge.
When he’d created that great and sturdy shield,                                  740
he fashioned body armour brighter than blazing fire,                                      [610]
a heavy helmet shaped to fit Achilles’ temples,
beautiful and finely worked, with a gold crest on top.
Then he made him leg guards of finely hammered tin.
When the famous lame god had made all the armour,
he took it and set it there before Achilles’ mother.
Then, like a hawk, she sped down from Olympus,
carrying the gleaming armour of Hephaestus.