Reflection (Iliad Book XVIII)

Twelve Trojan warriors die, merely because Achilles shouts at them across the Achaean trench. That is all Achilles does, in Book XVIII of the Iliad, and no more deaths are reported—unless we count the ones depicted around the city at war, on the shield that Hephaestus forges for Achilles at the request of Thetis. (See note 1)

A beacon stands in front of the sea at the end of a street lined with trees and a cafe. We see the beacon between two bicyclists on the road that crosses the foreground
“Achilles, dear to Zeus, roused him,
and round about his mighty shoulders Athene flung her tasselled aegis,
and around his head the fair goddess set thick a golden cloud,
and forth from the man made blaze a gleaming fire.” (Iliad 18.203–6)
Kireçburnu (“Lime Point”)
Κλειδὴς καὶ κλεῖθρα τοὺ Πόντου (“Lock and Key of the Pontus”)
Sarıyer, Istanbul
Sunday morning, March 26, 2023

The shield gives us also such a scene as Homer uses for his similes: from a herd of cattle, two lions take down a bull, and dogs cannot drive them off. The dogs get up close and bark, then run away. Dogs do that to me sometimes, as I walk around Sarıyer.

In 2019, I analyzed Book XVIII into seven parts, which I described only briefly; and then I developed seven points, sometimes straying far from Homer. Briefly, the points were thus:

  1. Homer’s account of the shield of Achilles is an instance of ekphrasis.
  2. As on the shield, a dance may be better shown through the path of its movements than through a snapshot of the dancers.
  3. As Zeus summarized what was to come, in Book XV, so Thetis summarizes what has happened so far.
  4. Achilles takes responsibility for the death of Patroclus.
  5. Chapman’s use of “whom” rather than “who” sets off musings on grammatical prescription and description, leading inevitably to the conclusion that, while breathing and digesting may be autonomic, we are autonomous in our speaking and writing. (I enjoyed using those words when pondering Automedon’s solution to a practical problem in Book XVI.)
  6. As Aias observed that the Achaeans had no city to retreat to, at the end of Book XVI, so Hector observes that there is not much left of Troy to retreat to.
  7. Women engage in sympathetic wailing.

Achilles in his camp

Having been sent to Achilles by Aias through the intermediary of Menelaus in the previous book, Antilochus finds the son of Peleus already contemplating the possibility that Patroclus has been killed. When his fears are confirmed, his enslaved women wail. Antilochus does too, while keeping presence of mind enough to hold Achilles’s hands, lest they take up a knife to cut their owner’s throat.

Thetis hears the groans of her son, and the other Nereids gather about her. Homer names them in a list that I alphabetize by means of LibreOffice: (See note 2)

  1. Actaee,
  2. Agave,
  3. Amatheia,
  4. Amphinone,
  5. Amphithoe,
  6. Apseudes,
  7. Callianassa,
  8. Callianeira,
  9. Clymene,
  10. Cymodoce,
  11. Cymothoe,
  12. Dexamene,
  13. Doris,
  14. Doto,
  15. Dynamene,
  16. Galatea,
  17. Glauce,
  18. Halie,
  19. Iaera,
  20. Ianassa,
  21. Ianeira,
  22. Limnoreia,
  23. Maera,
  24. Melite,
  25. Nemertes,
  26. Nesaea,
  27. Oreithyia,
  28. Panope,
  29. Pherousa,
  30. Proto,
  31. Speio,
  32. Thaleia,
  33. [Thetis],
  34. Thoe,
  35. “other Nereids that were in the deep of the sea.”

Thetis is unhappy to have borne a son

  • whom she raised and sent off to Troy, but
  • who will never return to the house of Peleus.

She knows

  • not what his problem is,
  • only that she cannot help him.

A child’s problems are harder to solve, once the child grows up. Thetis thought she had solved Achilles’s problem by securing the aid of Zeus in Book I. She tells her son this when she visits him, accompanied by the Nereids. She says the Achaeans have learned that they need him.

Achilles tells his mother that he has been bereft of

  • Patroclus,
  • the armor given to Peleus when Thetis was given to him as wife.

There is a back story about the marriage here that Homer may expect his listeners to know, though we may not be sure what it is. (See note 3)

For what he has taken, Hector shall pay, says Achilles, though it mean he never sees home again.

It does mean that, says Thetis.

Achilles just wants to die: he is “a profitless burden upon the earth.” He is not mortally depressed though; he sees the possibility of relief from his emotional burden (lines 107–13):

may strife perish from among gods and men, and anger that setteth a man on to grow wroth, how wise soever he be, and that sweeter far than trickling honey waxeth like smoke in the breasts of men; even as but now the king of men, Agamemnon, moved me to wrath. Howbeit these things will we let be as past and done, for all our pain, curbing the heart in our breasts, because we must.

Anger is seductive; it seduced Achilles. Now what attracts Achilles is the possibility of revenge. Heracles died, by fate and the anger of Hera; let Achilles die, his mother not holding him back, so long as he may win fame.

Thetis does manage to impose a condition: that Achilles not fight until she returns in the morning with new armor from Hephaestus.

Thetis sends the other Nereids to report to their father, “the old man of the sea” (line 141). Meanwhile, on the battlefield,

  • thrice does Hector grasp Patroclus by the feet;
  • as many times does Aias drive him off—but not for good, any more than shepherds can drive a lion from a carcass.

Unbeknownst to Zeus, as Homer tells us and Iris tells Achilles, Hera sends down the messenger goddess, who tells Achilles also that Hector wants to cut off the head of Patroclus “and fix it on the stakes of the wall” (lines 176–7). I suppose that is the Achaean wall, which Achilles is still behind. He points out:

  • His mother told him not to fight till she brought new armor from Hephaestus.
  • For now, he can fit only into the armor of Aias, who must already be wearing it.

Implicitly then, Achilles does contemplate the possibility of disobeying his mother. Iris tells him:

  • The gods know the Trojans took his armor.
  • He should just show himself to them.

Although Hera communicated through the medium of Iris, Athena herself now shows up, to

  • excite Achilles,
  • put her aegis on him (I don’t know if there is really more than one aegis),
  • make him shine like a lighthouse.

While he does go from wall to trench, he is obedient to his mother by going no further. He yells three times. This is enough to kill twelve Trojans, as I mentioned in the beginning; it is not clear whether they

  • have heart attacks,
  • are trampled by their fleeing comrades,
  • are distracted from seeing the incoming missiles of the other Achaeans.

Those other Achaeans do manage to retrieve Patroclus’s body.

Hera makes the unwilling sun set, thus calling off battle for the day. I do not know whether the heavens ever actually stray from their assigned course.

The Trojan Assembly

The Trojans gather, but remain standing, lest Achilles attack. There is a debate between Polydamas and Hector, who were born on the same night, but who are excellent only respectively in speech and spear. We saw these two disagree in Book XII over whether to pursue the Achaeans into their walled compound. Polydamas is now described as (line 250)

Πανθοΐδης: ὃ γὰρ οἶος ὅρα πρόσσω καὶ ὀπίσσω.

the son of Panthous; for he alone looked at once before and after.

He wants to retreat behind the Trojans’ own walls. Somehow he knows all about Achilles’s anger with Agamemnon; unfortunately that seems to be over now, but at least Achilles will not be able to invade Troy itself, and he may not even bother to try.

Hector will have none of it.

  • Isn’t Polydamas sick of being inside the walls? Not much is left there anyway.
  • Zeus has let Hector win glory at the Achaean ships.
  • Hector will face Achilles and let Enyalius decide who dies.

As the fools that Athena makes them to be, the Trojans agree with Hector.

The Achaean Camp

Achilles laments like a lion who is searching for the man who snatched his [sic] whelps. (I took up lion gender with the previous book.) He tells the Myrmidons:

  • He vainly told Menoetius he would bring his son back with loot after sacking Troy. (Perhaps it was only later that Thetis told him this could not happen, as reported in the previous book.)
  • He will not bury Patroclus before bringing the armor and head of Hector. (I think he will not actually sever the head.)
  • Then he will kill a dozen Trojan male captives.

They all wash and anoint the body of Patroclus.


Zeus points out to Hera that she has got what she wanted in the rousing of Achilles.

Of course she has, says Hera; even a mortal is likely to do that.

The House of Hephaestus

Thetis finds Hephaestus forging the twenty automatic tripods that I mentioned (in connection with Book VIII) as making the Iliad a science fiction story. Hephaestus will also turn out to have robot handmaids (lines 417–21):

there moved swiftly to support their lord handmaidens wrought of gold in the semblance of living maids. In them is understanding in their hearts, and in them speech and strength, and they know cunning handiwork by gift of the immortal gods.

Meanwhile, the blacksmith’s wife Charis welcomes their guest.

Hephaestus recalls how Thetis and Eurynome (not a Nereid, but an Oceanid) saved him, caring for him for nine years after his mother threw him out of Olympus for his lameness. In Book I, it was his father who had thrown him out.

Thetis complains of being the only Nereid whom Zeus wed to a mortal.

  • Peleus is an old man now.
  • He gave her a son, whom (as she observed earlier) she raised and sent to Troy.
  • She will never welcome him home.
  • Neither can she help him.
  • Agamemnon took his prize girl.
  • “Verily in grief for her was he wasting his heart” (line 446).
  • The Argive elders begged and offered gifts to Achilles.
  • He only put his armor on Patroclus and sent him out.
  • Patroclus would have taken Troy, had Apollo not killed him.
  • Now Achilles needs armor.

Thetis does not mention her son’s righteous anger with Agamemnon.

The Shield of Achilles

Hephaestus gets to work. He commands twenty bellows to blow: they must be automatic too. He puts bronze, tin, gold, and silver on the fire. He puts an anvil on the anvil block. He takes up hammer and tongs. He forges shield, corselet, helmet, and greaves. Little is said about any of these but the shield, and what is described here is what we would consider merely ornamental. There is a cult of weaponry in the United States, but as far as I know, there is not a cult of decorating one’s weapons. Perhaps something has been lost (along with all the human beings killed in mass murders, as in the Covenent School in Nashville).

Achilles’s shield depicts the cosmos—earth, heaven, sea, sun, moon, and constellations—and then two cities on earth, at peace and war respectively.

In the peaceful city, there are marriages and feasts, but also a conflict over a blood price, to be resolved by arbitration. However, there would seem to be multiple arbiters, for there is a prize of gold (line 508),

τῷ δόμεν ὃς μετὰ τοῖσι δίκην ἰθύντατα εἴποι.

to be given to him whoso among them should utter the most righteous judgment.

There must then be an arbiter of arbiters, and perhaps this arbiter is popular acclaim.

Around the other city, there are two armies, but it is not clear to me whether one of those armies is a defending one, as it is at Troy. There are two proposals, perhaps one from each army, but again this is not clear:

  1. Waste the town.
  2. Spare it in return for half its wealth.

Hector will consider requesting the latter of Achilles in Book XXII. However, within the city of the shield, the defenders do not like the idea. The children, women, and old men guard the walls while the young men make a sortie, led by Ares and Athena. These divinities are depicted as being

  • dressed in gold,
  • taller than the mortals.

Homer teaches not only war, but also art.

I don’t know what the shield itself teaches about war. The party from the city ends up ambushing a herd of sheep and cattle. When the beseigers hear the commotion, battle is joined.

Also depicted on the shield are the following.

  1. Fallow land being plowed. It looks realistic, even while being made of gold. As he turns at the end of each row, the plowman is handed a cup of wine.

  2. A king’s estate being harvested while a feast is being prepared.

  3. A vineyard being harvested, while a boy plays the Linus song.

  4. The herd of cattle that I mentioned near the beginning.

  5. A pasture for sheep in a dell.

  6. A dance floor where youths and maidens run around like a potter’s wheel.

If Homer does have in mind a real shield, it is plausible that these six scenes form a ring around the scenes of the two cities, which in turn make a ring around the cosmos at the center. Around the rim of shield is Oceanus.

To fetch the shield and the rest of the armor, Thetis now comes like falcon from Olympus. Apparently she did not cool her heels visiting with Charis.

  1. “Forge” is one of those words that can take opposite meanings. I looked at the examples of

    The online Merriam-Webster dictionary notes under “forge” the variety of meanings of the verb (bullet points mine):

    • You can forge ahead (which, confusingly enough, can mean either
      • “move slowly and steadily” or
      • “move with a sudden increase of speed”),
    • you can forge a check or a painting (make something fake), or
    • you can forge a sword (make something real).


  2. Here is Hesiod’s list of Nereids in the Theogony (lines 243–62), also alphabetized by me:

    1. Actaea,
    2. Agave,
    3. Amphitrite,
    4. Autonoe,
    5. Cymatolege,
    6. Cymo,
    7. Cymodoce,
    8. Cymothoe,
    9. Doris,
    10. Doto,
    11. Dynamene,
    12. Eone,
    13. Erato,
    14. Euagore,
    15. Euarne,
    16. Eucrante,
    17. Eudora,
    18. Eulimene,
    19. Eunice,
    20. Eupompe,
    21. Galatea,
    22. Galene,
    23. Glauce,
    24. Glauconome,
    25. Halimede,
    26. Hipponoe,
    27. Hippothoe,
    28. Laomedea,
    29. Leagore,
    30. Lusianassa,
    31. Melite,
    32. Menippe,
    33. Nemertes,
    34. Nesaea,
    35. Neso,
    36. Panope,
    37. Pasithea,
    38. Pherusa,
    39. Polynoe,
    40. Pontoporea,
    41. Pronoe,
    42. Protho,
    43. Proto,
    44. Protomedea,
    45. Psamathe,
    46. Sao,
    47. Speo,
    48. Thalia,
    49. Themisto,
    50. Thetis.

    Here is a comparison of the lists of Homer and Hesiod (Wikipedia does a more thorough job):

    Homer Hesiod
    Actaee Actaea
    Agave Agave
    Cymodoce Cymodoce
    Cymothoe Cymothoe
    Doris Doris
    Doto Doto
    Dynamene Dynamene
    Galatea Galatea
    Glauce Glauce
    Melite Melite
    Nemertes Nemertes
    Nesaea Nesaea
    Panope Panope
    Pherousa Pherusa
    Proto Proto
    Speio Speo
    Thaleia Thalia
    Thetis Thetis


  3. Concerning Peleus, I have the following references at hand, and each one tells a story of Peleus, but not always the same story, and never with sources.

    • Azra Erhat, Mitoloji Sözlüğu (İstanbul: Remzi Kitabevi, first printing 1972, twelfth printing 2003).
    • Paul Harvey (editor), The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Oxford, first published 1937, reprinted with corrections 1980).
    • George Howe and G. A. Harrer, A Handbook of Classical Mythology (New York: F. S. Crofts, 1947).

    Entries in these books treat mythological figures as if they were historical. However, they are not historical in themselves, but each poet creates the figures anew for his or her own purposes. In the Theogony (lines 1003–7, Glenn Most translation), Hesiod has Peleus raping Thetis:

    As for the daughters of Nereus, the old man of the sea, Psamathe, divine among goddesses, bore Phocus in love with Aeacus because of golden Aphrodite; while Thetis, the silver-footed goddess, overpowered by Peleus, gave birth to Achilles, man-breaker, lion-spirited.

    Ovid has an elaborate account of the rape in the Metamorphoses (Book XI). He tells us also something that Homer may assume, though it is not in all of the modern books above: Thetis was destined to bear a son who would be superior to his father, and therefore Zeus would not “embrace” her, though he wanted to. This explains Hera’s jealousy in Book I. The actual wedding of Thetis and Peleus is described by Photius I of Constantinople. By his account, the immortal horses Xanthus and Balius were gifts of Poseidon; however, there is no mention of their parents, Zephyr and Podarges, whom Homer tells of in Book XVI. Neither does Photius mention the armor that Peleus passed along to his son.

    Wikipedia cites Ovid, Photius, and other sources, but not Hesiod.↩︎

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