Meditations on the Shield of Achilles: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXVI
The shield of Achilles, I believe, gives us the Homeric worldview in microcosm. The shield is first an image of the Homeric cosmos with its round plate symbolizing the earth bounded by the ocean (the waters below) and the stars (the waters above). Upon this miniature cosmos, the drama of human life plays out in a series of ordered and unordered conflicts: man against man, and man against nature. In the scene with the law court, we see ordered conflict of man against man, with due process and restraining an argument that might otherwise turn murderous. Notice also that the struggle is not just between the two bringing the suit, but also between the judges who strive to win the prize for the "straightest" judgement. The final image of the dancers also has the aura of a competition as only the most beautiful are allowed to compete and the men dance with daggers at their sides. The companion image is of men in unordered conflict as shown by the image of the city at war. Note that even the attackers are in conflict with each other as they try to decide whether to take the city by storm or to exact protection money. In the world of nature, we see the king presiding over the conquest of the earth in the form of plowing. Here, their is good order and man reaps the fruit of the earth with which to make feast and offer sacrifice to the gods. In the companion scene, a lion devastates a heard of cattle, throwing the herders into disorder and reasserting the power of nature in the conflict between man and his surroundings. All these struggles play out upon a shield, itself a fundamental article of human conflict. This shield, Achilles bears upon his shoulders Atlas-like in image of a world held and borne up by conflict. This is the core of the Homeric worldview: that the cosmos is predicated on strife and competition and men make the best of it for the short time that they live and breathe upon the earth.