Thursday, December 13, 2018

Book Review: Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles

The Trojan War is one of the earliest wars recorded in the history of human combat. The Iliad and the Odyssey are among the oldest extant works of western literature, written by the blind poet Homer in the eighth century. The Trojan War concerns the Achaeans of ancient Greece and the inhabitants of Ilios, the Trojans. But the story begins before that, at the wedding of the sea nymph goddess Thetis and the mortal but mighty king of the Myrmidons, Peleus. The seeds of this tragic and interminable war were sown when Eris, the goddess of strife, was not invited but arrived anyway, tossing into the company a golden apple inscribed with the words ‘to the most fair.’ Paris, the long-lost son of the Trojan King Priam, is asked to choose between the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Lured by her promise of bestowing upon him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy, Paris chooses Aphrodite… Unfortunately, Helen is married to Menelaus, king of Sparta. And thus, the epic war begins, brought to life by the words of the poet Homer, and forever cemented in the minds of succeeding generations.

Greek mythology and the various heroes, gods, and demi gods have a solid place in modern popular culture, given the many novels and movies devoted to various mythological themes. Names like Zeus, Poseidon, Achilles, Hector, Paris, Helen, Menelaus and Agamemnon are not unfamiliar, especially the mighty Achilles, hero of the Greek forces. Achilles being the son of a goddess, Thetis, and a mighty mortal, Peleus, meant he was already special. Added to this was his legendary prowess as a warrior. When Achilles loses his armor during battle to Hector, the son of King Priam, his mother pleads with Hephaistos, the lame god, to fashion her son an incredible shield. Thetis, knowing that Achilles’ death would follow upon that of Hector, still had the shield made, bowing, one imagines, to the inevitability of the cycle of life. Hephaistos makes the shield, and the details are minutely described by Homer. These details bring us to the reconstruction of this magnificent piece of armor by Kathleen Vail, who documented this artistic project in her book, Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles.

A lifetime student of Homer’s ancient Greece, Vail has created a 'physical, artistically relevant, life-size reconstruction of the divine shield of Achilles based literally and solely on Homer’s specifications in Book 18 of the Iliad.' This is no easy feat because although many now discovered and similarly crafted and decorated Mycenaean artifacts – swords, daggers, vases, and more - prove the potential existence of this shield, Vail was working from the details in Homer’s poem and existing archaeological discoveries. The shield is described as having an awe-inspiring effect on Achilles’ enemies, notwithstanding his mighty prowess and physical attributes. However, for me, the importance of the shield is what the poet conveys in the descriptions and which Vail recreates for the reader with images of the actual reconstructed shield and the corresponding artifacts which provided the inspiration for the images.

Vail takes each section and describes it in detail, as well as the significance in Greek society at the time, starting with the centre piece, creation, and radiating outward in circles depicting levels of Greek society – civil, judicial, military, entertainment, daily and pastoral activities. Ultimately the shield depicts both earthly and heavenly cycles of life. The shield is a microcosm of civilization, depicting the values and ideals of the ancient world, and the eternal cycle of birth, death, renewal. If the shield ever existed, where could it possibly be now? Thetis held funeral games in honour of her son Achilles, offering his armor as the prize to the ‘best of the Achaeans.’ Odysseus won the armor but given his many wanderings and shipwrecks before finally reaching home and his beloved wife, Penelope, who knows what happened to the shield? Perhaps only the gods know?

Kathleen Vail offers both the interested amateur and the dedicated scholar a minutely detailed and incredibly well researched literary work, complete with meticulously referenced and labelled images and many bibliographic references. The reconstruction of the shield is, to me, more than a labor of love. There is far more to the story of Achilles, the flawed and magnificent warrior, than the war. The psychological depths, the drama, the tragic emotions, actions, and motivations of the characters, both human and divine, the merging of heavenly and earthly activities, and many grander symbolic themes make the Iliad more than just a poem. The reconstruction of the shield proves this.

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