Discussion Series: Homer’s Poetic Justice

The Shield of Achilles

[478] First he [the divine Hephaistos] shaped the shield so   great and strong, adorning it all over and binding it round with a gleaming   circuit in three layers; and the baldric was made of silver. He made the shield   in five thicknesses, and with many a wonder did his cunning hand enrich it.

[483] He wrought the earth, the heavens, and the sea; the moon also   at her full and the untiring sun, with all the signs that glorify the face of   heaven – the Pleiads, the Hyads, huge Orion, and the Bear, which men also call   the Wain and which turns round ever in one place, facing. Orion, and alone never   dips into the stream of Okeanos.

[490] He wrought also two cities, fair to see and busy with the hum   of men. In the one were weddings and wedding-feasts, and they were going about   the city with brides whom they were escorting by torchlight from their chambers.   Loud rose the cry of Hymen, and the youths danced to the music of flute and   lyre, while the women stood each at her house door to see them.

[497] Meanwhile the people were gathered in assembly, for there was   a quarrel [neikos], and two men were wrangling about the blood-price   for a man who had died, the one claiming to the dêmos that he had   the right to pay off the damages in full, and the other refusing to accept anything.   Each was seeking a limit [peirar], in the presence of an arbitrator   [histôr], and the people took sides, each man backing the   side that he had taken;

[502] but the heralds kept them back, and the elders sat on their seats   of stone in a solemn circle, holding the staves which the heralds had put into   their hands. Then they rose and each in his turn gave judgment [dikê],   and there were two measures of gold laid down, to be given to him whose judgment   [dikê] should be deemed the fairest.

[509] About the other city there lay encamped two hosts in gleaming   armor, and they were divided whether to sack it, or to spare it and accept the   half of what it contained. But the men of the city would not yet consent, and   armed themselves for a surprise; their wives and little children kept guard   upon the walls, and with them were the men who were past fighting through age;   but the others sallied forth with Ares and Pallas Athena at their head – both   of them wrought in gold and clad in golden raiment, great and fair with their   armor as befitting gods, while they that followed were smaller. When they reached   the place where they would lay their ambush, it was on a riverbed to which live   stock of all kinds would come from far and near to water; here, then, they lay   concealed, clad in full armor. Some way off them there were two scouts who were   on the look-out for the coming of sheep or cattle, which presently came, followed   by two shepherds who were playing on their pipes, and had not so much as a thought   of danger. When those who were in ambush saw this, they cut off the flocks and   herds and killed the shepherds. Meanwhile the besiegers, when they heard much   noise among the cattle as they sat in council, sprang to their horses, and made   with all speed towards them; when they reached them they set battle in array   by the banks of the river, and the hosts aimed their bronze-shod spears at one   another. With them were Strife and Riot, and fell Fate who was dragging three   men after her, one with a fresh wound, and the other unwounded, while the third   was dead, and she was dragging him along by his heel: and her robe was bedrabbled   in men’s blood. They went in and out with one another and fought as though they   were living people haling away one another’s dead.

[541] He wrought also a fair fallow field, large and thrice ploughed   already. Many men were working at the plough within it, turning their oxen to   and fro, furrow after furrow. Each time that they turned on reaching the headland   a man would come up to them and give them a cup of wine, and they would go back   to their furrows looking forward to the time when they should again reach the   headland. The part that they had ploughed was dark behind them, so that the   field, though it was of gold, still looked as if it were being ploughed – very   curious to behold.

[550] He wrought also a field of harvest grain, and the reapers were   reaping with sharp sickles in their hands. Swathe after swathe fell to the ground   in a straight line behind them, and the binders bound them in bands of twisted   straw. There were three binders, and behind them there were boys who gathered   the cut grain in armfuls and kept on bringing them to be bound: among them all   the owner of the land stood by in silence and was glad. The servants were getting   a meal ready under an oak, for they had sacrificed a great ox, and were busy   cutting him up, while the women were making a porridge of much white barley   for the laborers’ dinner.

[561] He wrought also a vineyard, golden and fair to see, and the vines   were loaded with grapes. The bunches overhead were black, but the vines were   trained on poles of silver. He ran a ditch of dark metal all round it, and fenced   it with a fence of tin; there was only one path to it, and by this the vintagers   went when they would gather the vintage. Youths and maidens all blithe and full   of glee, carried the luscious fruit in plaited baskets; and with them there   went a boy who made sweet music with his lyre, and sang the Linus-song with   his clear boyish voice.

[573] He wrought also a herd of horned cattle. He made the cows of   gold and tin, and they lowed as they came full speed out of the yards to go   and feed among the waving reeds that grow by the banks of the river. Along with   the cattle there went four shepherds, all of them in gold, and their nine fleet   dogs went with them. Two terrible lions had fastened on a bellowing bull that   was with the foremost cows, and bellow as he might they haled him, while the   dogs and men gave chase: the lions tore through the bull’s thick hide and were   gorging on his blood and bowels, but the herdsmen were afraid to do anything,   and only hounded on their dogs; the dogs dared not fasten on the lions but stood   by barking and keeping out of harm’s way.

[587] The god wrought also a pasture in a fair mountain dell, and large   flock of sheep, with a homestead and huts, and sheltered sheepfolds.

[590] Furthermore he wrought a green, like that which Daedalus once   made in Knossos for lovely Ariadne. Here was a dance [khoros] of youths   and maidens, whom all would woo, all with their hands on one another’s wrists.   The maidens wore robes of light linen, and the youths well woven shirts that   were slightly oiled. The girls were crowned with garlands, while the young men   had daggers of gold that hung by silver baldrics; sometimes they would dance   deftly in a ring with merry twinkling feet, as it were a potter sitting at his   work and making trial of his wheel to see whether it will run, and sometimes   they would go all in line with one another, and many people was gathered joyously   about the place of dancing [khoros]. There was a bard also to   sing to them and play his lyre, while two tumblers went about performing in   the midst of them when the man struck up with his tune.

[607] All round the outermost rim of the shield he set the mighty stream   of the river Okeanos.

[609] Then when he had fashioned the shield so great and strong, he   made a breastplate also that shone brighter than fire. He made helmet, close   fitting to the brow, and richly worked, with a golden plume overhanging it;   and he made greaves also of beaten tin.

[614] Lastly, when the famed lame god had made all the armor, he took   it and set it before the mother of Achilles; whereon she darted like a falcon   from the snowy summits of Olympus and bore away the gleaming armor from the   house of Hephaistos. [617]