Prolegomena: Symbolic and Numerological Elements in Achilles’ Shield and Plato’s Timaeus

Micromosaic of the Shield

This is an introduction to an upcoming longer paper, examining the symbolic and esoteric meaning behind the Shield of Achilles, particularly in relation to Platonic cosmogony. By: Jay The liad of Homer is a foundational work of Western Civilization, and one of it's most famous sections is the book dealing with the forging of the shield for the great warrior Achilles by the god of metallurgy, Hephaestus. While the story of the forging of the shield occupies a lengthy book, this paper will examine the beginning of Hephaestus' work, highlighting the numerology, shape and imagery from lines 560-600. In this section, it is apparent that the shield functions not merely as a defensive piece, but as a symbolic construct for the Greek worldview itself. At the imploring of Thetis, mother of Achilles, Hephaestus begins crafting a shield that “...any man in the world of men will marvel at through all the years to come—whoever sees its splendor” (ll. 545-6), cluing the hearer into the special, surreal nature of this armor.1 In other words, this is not mere armor, but in fact will become a microcosm display of the totality of the Greek worldview itself. It is significant to note that the image chosen for the Greek world is a circular shield, about which shape more will be said later, but that what first appears is the defensive nature of the symbol. Homer could have chosen a sword with engravings or a spear, but has instead chosen a defensive article, intending the reader to see the proper place of warfare as a necessary evil in this life. Indeed, the Iliad itself famously portrays the strife and misery caused by warfare. Thus, Homer would have hearers of his epic understand that true wisdom sees that warfare should have a defensive, balancing role in the protection and maintenance of civilized order. Homer continues: And first Hephaestus makes a great and massive shield, blazoning well-wrought emblems across its surface, raising a rim around it, glittering, triple-ply, with a silver shield-strap run from edge to edge and five layers of metal to build the shield itself, and across a vast expanse with all his craft and cunning the god creates a world of gorgeous immortal work. (ll. 558-64)2 As with above in lines 545-6, translator Fagles has chosen to use “world,” indicating that the shield's purpose is not merely as a weapon for Achilles, but as a microcosm image of the whole of the Greek worldview. It has, in effect, the function of a creation account. The shield itself is possibly even a mnemonic device, whereby the oral tradition of the Greek account of creation might possible be recalled, as well as functioning as a memory device for the Greek orator reciting the story. Critic James M. Redfield explains of this totality world notion:

The wider world appears in the minds of the characters, who often speak of a time of peace or of a place at peace. It appears also in the mind of the poet, particularly in the similes. Each simile is a kind of window through which we glimpse a world beyond the battlefield of Troy. Through the device of the simile, the wider world is included in the narrower. Through the similes the battlefield is located within the wider world and, at the same time, resembles all the various aspects of the wider world, so that the parts recapitulate the whole.3

This concept of the wider macrocosm being encapsulated in the smaller microcosm is profuse in the Greek tradition. A later example from Plato’s Timaeus includes the idea of the universe as a whole being in a kind of shape like a man, or the macroprosopus. Plato describes the gods as creating the universe as a sphere, like a human head, wherein reason governs the motions of the body, corresponding to the universal reason which governs the spherical universe itself.4

The triplicity mentioned is also relevant, inasmuch as numbers for Greek culture has a semi-divine status. It is from Pythagoras, of course, that we have the tradition of the divinity and esoteric character of numbers, but this symbolism also comes forth in Homer, where the construction of the three ply shield would correspond to the familiar three-tiered world, with the perfect spherical heavens at the top, the earth, and then the underworld. The shield itself, of course, does not present this as the meaning, but to the Greek, he would have seen the world as “stacked” in this way. The use of three, however, also occurs in Plato’s creation account, where the eternal god creates the world through the demiurge, and since a dyad cannot stand alone, must then reciprocate itself to the god, producing a third principle, divine sophia, which governs the world.5

Strikingly, while Plato links this principle of sophia, or divine wisdom, with Athena, after mentioning the three-ply nature of the shield, Homer proceeds to mention the two gods whose images adorn the shield: “Ares and Pallas” (l. 601).6 Dialectical process was a central notion to the Greeks, whose culture was itself based around oral rhetorical dialectics. Thus, the dialectical balance of war and wisdom, constantly displayed in the Iliad, as Athena fights for the Greeks, and Ares for the Trojans, displays the dialectical balance of forces in the Greek tradition itself. In fact, as Homer’s description moves on, the hearer is told of two cites, one at peace and one at war—again, showing the dialectical balance. For the Greek mind, the number two was a signifier of opposition and duality, only overcome by the dialectical synthesis of the triad. As Plato explains: “But two things cannot be put together without a third.”7

It is also worth noting that Hephaestus takes the raw metallic ore and crafts a balanced, ordered shield from the chaos of the fire and smelting process, imposing order out of chaos, just as Timaeus 30a presents the eternal god shaping order out of chaos. The shield goes on to demonstrate the ordered, cyclical progression of the seasons, a circular “dance,” as well as the shield itself being circular. This is crucial to the Greek mind, inasmuch as the circle was seen as a prefect image of the divine, being itself never-ending. The Greek view of time was cyclical, not linear, and was bound up with the notion of a circular universe. Again Plato echoes the shield imagery when he writes of the universe itself, when he writes, “For as the universe is in the form of a sphere, all the extremities being equidistant from the center, are equally extremities, and the center, which is equidistant from them, is equally to be regarded as the opposite of them all.”8

It is apparent, then, that for Homer, the Greek world was itself imaged in the shield of Achilles, which functioned as a microcosm of the totality of macrocosm, in this case, a restatement of a kind of Greek creation account, where a complex, yet mystical mathematical order is imposed on the chaos of raw substance: in Homer, Hephaestus on the shield, in Plato, the god upon the raw chaos of matter. For the Greeks, then, the imposition of order demanded a civilized society which mirrors the order found within the eternal spheres where the celestial gods reside. It is on earth where the battles of gods and men are fought, and where the dialectical dyad is balanced and transcended, yet not without the heavenly ordered which descends from divine.


Works Cited

Homer, Iliad, tr. Robert Fagles (New York, NY: Pengiun Books, 1990).

Plato, Timaeus Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntingdon Cairns (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961).

Redfield, James M. Nature and Culture in the Iliad (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

1Homer, Iliad, tr. Robert Fagles (New York, NY: Pengiun Books, 1990), 482.

2Ibid., 483.

3Redfield, James M. Nature and Culture in the Iliad (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 186.

4See sections 43-4 of Plato, Timaeus Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntingdon Cairns (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 1173.

5Ibid., sections 30-32.

6Homer, Iliad, 484.

7Plato, Timaeus, section 31e.

8Ibid., section 62e.

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