The Iliad

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The Shield of Achilles Symbol Analysis

The Shield of Achilles Symbol Icon
The shield of Achilles is forged by Hephaestus in Book 18. The shield is supernaturally strong, but it also contains a supernatural level of detail. Using many metals, Hephaestus creates a picture of the entire world, starting from the cosmos and working down to the everyday details of human experience. The shield is a symbol of the inextricable link between warfare and all other parts of life. Because the rest of the world is contained in the shield, warfare can be thought of as the key to every other part of life.

The Shield of Achilles Quotes in The Iliad

The The Iliad quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Shield of Achilles. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Honor and Glory Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of The Iliad published in 1998.
Book 18 Quotes

And first Hephaestus makes a great and massive shield…
There he made the earth and there the sky and the sea
and the inexhaustible blazing sun and the moon rounding full
and there the constellations…And he forged on the shield two noble cities filled
with mortal men. With weddings and wedding feasts in one…
But circling the other city camped a divided army
gleaming in battle-gear.

Related Characters: Hephaestus
Related Symbols: The Shield of Achilles
Page Number: 18.558-594
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Hephaestus, the god of the forge, fashions armor and a shield for Achilles in preparation for Achilles' return to the battlefield. The description of the shield of Achilles is one of the most famous passages in Western literature, so there's a lot to point out about it.

1) Notice that the shield is divided up into carefully composed sections. Perhaps the most important division in the shield is that between the city and the battlefield. One part of the shield shows happy families and merry parties, while the other half shows soldiers fighting. Neither half of the shield is "complete"--and yet when one puts together the two scenes, they depict the totality of human civilization. In this way, the shield conveys the duality of life: you can't have parties and weddings unless you have soldiers protecting you and keeping you safe. By the same token, soldiers would have nothing to fight for if not for the innocent civilians with whom they share a city.

2) Put another way, the two halves of the shield could reflect the duality of Achilles's own spirit. Achilles is trapped between mortality and immortality: between a long, happy, forgettable life, and a short, violent, glorious life that will be remembered forever. Achilles' dilemma is that he can't have glory and a long life: neither choice is perfect. In the end, though, Achilles chooses a life of valor: he chooses the fierce sun, not the quiet moon; the soldiers, not the weddings. The shield reminds us of the choice Achilles has made, and the dual nature of all human society.

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The Shield of Achilles Symbol Timeline in The Iliad

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Shield of Achilles appears in The Iliad. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 18
The Gods Theme Icon
Wartime Versus Peacetime Theme Icon
Hephaestus sets to work. He forges the famous shield of Achilles that contains on it a picture of the entire world. It includes the sea, the... (full context)
Book 22
Honor and Glory Theme Icon
The Gods Theme Icon
Fate and Free Will Theme Icon
Mortality Theme Icon
...at Hector and misses, but Athena passes the weapon back to Achilles. Hector’s spear hits Achilles’ shield but cannot pierce it. Hector turns to Deiphobus but cannot find him. He soon realizes... (full context)