Plato’s Cosmology and Achilles’ Shield Compared (Full)


Symbolical and Numerological Elements in the Shield of Achilles Compared with Plato’s Cosmology

-It’s not carrying over from word the references. Apologies, will add later.

By: Jay

(c) Copyright, all rights reserved

The famed shield of Achilles is a mysterious, yet well-known chapter from Homer’s classic, The Iliad. Within the chapter is contained an entire microcosmic representation of the Greek worldview, replete with unique numerological significations, as well as other symbolic motifs, intended to convey through it’s imagery an entire hierarchical cosmology. The purpose of this paper will be to examine the specific numbers and symbols used, and to compare it with other roughly contemporary traditions, such as Plato’s cosmological explanations. In so doing, the intent is to achieve a greater understanding of the Greek mind as it viewed the totality of reality, comparing earlier mythological oral poetry with it’s later offspring, philosophy itself.1

The shield of Achilles and the rest of his armor embody the Greek conception of the hero as intimately and magically connected to his armor. The Greek warrior sought glory first and foremost, or timé, and the path to glory was one of successful warfare. Literary critic Kenneth John Atchity explains, “Achilles is the epitome of Iliadic man. The two artifacts which belong uniquely to him, Hephaestos’ shield and Peleus’ spear define not only the identity of Achilles, but also the essence of human nature as Homer conceives of it.”2 As is evident in Homer, the individualistic focus of the Greeks upon the singular hero is unique. Historian Michael Grant comments:

With lively, yet disengaged comprehension, each personage is depicted as a distinct individual [in the Iliad]. The most arresting is Achilles, who possesses in extreme degree the all the virtues and faults of the Homeric hero, and almost completely embodies the heroic code of honor….[Homer] dedicated his entire existence, with all the aid that his birth and wealth and physical prowess could afford him, to an unceasing, violently competitive, vengeful struggle to win applause…3

Undoubtedly, in such a society the warrior’s armor and weaponry would be bound up with his very existence and survival. It is fitting, then, that the shield will become the instrument chosen by Homer to embody the microcosm of the Greek worldview. In fact, much more than just the shield itself are relevant: the deities involved in which actions and artifacts are also significant, as well as Achilles himself being an incarnation of the ancient Grecian culture as will be shown. The creation of the shield arises from Achilles’ divine mother, Thetis, who interceded on his behalf with the Olympian artificer and god of the underworld, Hephaestos. Thetis is a sea-goddess who gave birth to Achilles through union with a mortal. Achilles occupies the demigod status as a middle ground between the world of the mortals and that of the immortal gods. He is not fully divine, but more closely attuned to the realm of the gods than most humans. The hearer is even given an early image of his apotheosis prior to the shield’s forging:

And Iris racing the wind went veering off
as Achilles, Zeus’ favorite fighter, rose up now
and over his shoulder Pallas slung the shield,
the tremendous storm-shield with all its tassles flaring—
and crowning his head the goddess swept a golden cloud and from it she lit a fire to blaze across the field….
so now from Achilles’ head the blaze shot up the sky….
and charioteers were struck dumb when they saw that fire,
relentless, terrible, burst from proud-hearted Achilles’ head,
blazing as fiery-eyed Athena fueled the flames. (ll. 234-62)4

Pallas Athena is the embodiment of the principle of wisdom or sophia, and is the patron deity of Athens itself.5 The Greeks, prizing wisdom, here give Achilles the embodiment of divine wisdom by deifying him through the fire of Athena. Achilles is also preferred by Zeus as his “favorite fighter.” Zeus here embodies the principle of timé, in that he rewards the outcome of warfare with apotheosis through his daughter, Athena, the virgin emanation from his head.6 Zeus and Athena’s appearance results in the imposition of an order upon the chaos of the battlefield. This will become an important theme as the chapter progresses. Relevant also is the deification of Achilles’ head, as opposed to his hands or a weapon. Athena, embodying wisdom and emanating from Zeus’ head, would naturally be associated with Achilles’ head, the seat of humanly wisdom and intelligence.

In Plato’s Timaeus, which is a cosmology of the universe purportedly descending through a hermetic tradition from the priests of Egypt, there is an interesting parallel.7 First, Plato writes that Athena is the same deity the Egyptians identified as Nieth, and Athena granted to the people of Greece her patronage and special blessing, since they were to be the wisest.8 The “republic,” the reader learns, is a polis modeled after Atlantis, which is patterned like the ideal realm of the forms.9 The reason this is crucial is that Plato sees the entire visible sphere as a vastly organized hierarchy brought into visible form out of chaos. In other words, “order out of chaos.”10 Indeed, for Plato, the entire universe has a built-in hierarchical structure which is to be followed rigorously in all areas of life. The polis is to be organized after the image of a man who is governed by reason, which mirrors the celestial hierarchy, which in turns reflects the chain of being, as is the entire argument of The Republic.

Achilles thus embodies the Athenian warrior ruled and governed by wisdom, ideally, though Achilles is still mortal and fatally flawed, giving in to rage. His duty is to bring order out of chaos and incarnate the Greek ideals, and it is his shield that demonstrates precisely this. Homer writes:

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)11

The shield is massive, firstly, which clues the hearer in to the surreal and fantastical nature of the object. It is not an actual shield for battle, but a special, magical device.12 It has many images on its surface, and is circular with a triple-ply construct. The shield will function as a cosmology, or creation account, much like Plato’s Timaeus. Fagles uses the word “world” to describe the work. 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.13

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 writes:

First, then, the gods, imitating the spherical shape of the universe, enclosed the two divine courses in a spherical body, that, namely, which we now term the head, being the most divine part of us and the lord of all that is in us: to this the gods, when they put together the body, gave all the other members to be servants, considering that it partook of every sort of motion. In order then that it might not tumble about among the high and deep places of the earth, but might be able to get over the one and out of the other, they provided the body to be its vehicle and means of locomotion; which consequently had length and was furnished with four limbs extended and flexible; these God contrived to be instruments of locomotion with which it might take hold and find support, and so be able to pass through all places, carrying on high the dwelling-place of the most sacred and divine part of us.14

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. Reason is to govern the passions as in a chariot, emblematic of the divine light or Athena’s wisdom that enlightens Achilles.

However, most prominent is the circular and/or spherical imagery. The shield’s circularity provides an excellent conduit for explicating the importance of the circle to the Greek. For Plato, the circle is by nature the most perfect of mathematical symbols. In fact, the entire universe, created ideally perfect but the highest deity, is a spherical living being. It is one of the earliest usages of the “ouroboros,” where the serpent is shown devouring its own tail. Plato explains the Egyptian doctrine he received as follows:

Wherefore he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the center, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures; for he considered that the like is infinitely fairer than the unlike. This he finished off, making the surface smooth all round for many reasons; in the first place, because the living being had no need of eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.15

The Creator creates a perfectly circular creation, just as the shield embodies. The circularity demonstrates as well as cyclical view of history common to the Greeks, as opposed to linear conception of time. Plato sees the universe as eternally providing for itself, with not beginning or end. The snake imagery is useful inasmuch as the snake has no need of hands or feet, and having no need of locomotion or spatial alteration. However, we are also told that the shield has a triplicity to it. This corresponds to the “cross-section” view of the cosmos viewed from one perspective, where the scheme looks something like this:
Olympian heavenly gods



The shield does not present this as the clear meaning, but to the Greek, it would have been viewed as structured in this manner. The use of three also occurs in Plato’s Timaeus, where the eternal god creates the living universe through a secondary demiurge, and since a dyad cannot stand alone according to his Pythagorean presuppositions, the first principle must then reciprocate itself to the creator god, producing a third principle, divine sophia, which governs the world. He writes:
Now that which is created is of necessity corporeal, and also visible and tangible. And nothing is visible where there is no fire, or tangible which has no solidity, and nothing is solid without earth. Wherefore also God in the beginning of creation made the body of the universe to consist of fire and earth. But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines; and proportion is best adapted to effect such a union. For whenever in any three numbers, whether cube or square, there is a mean, which is to the last term what the first term is to it; and again, when the mean is to the first term as the last term is to the mean–then the mean becoming first and last, and the first and last both becoming means, they will all of them of necessity come to be the same, and having become the same with one another will be all one.16

This creation scheme is very close to the imagery of the shield, especially its aspect of relating and encompassing all things. For the Platonist or the ancient Greek, all of life had meaning. Every aspect of life, whether it is the four seasons, warfare, the gods, or dance, all are vital parts of a lived liturgy. Hephaestos continues the shield forging, utilizing the blazing sun, the moon, and several constellations that all proceed in a similar circular fashion as before.17 This again highlights the interconnectedness of all things for the Greek. The stars as well as the planets have their place in the rounded heavens, as the planets make their courses through the various zodiacal houses. Plato, too, includes this astrological element in his system, after discussing the planets:
Thus he spake, and once more into the cup in which he had previously mingled the soul of the universe he poured the remains of the elements, and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure as before, but diluted to the second and third degree. And having made it he divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny, according to which their first birth would be one and the same for all…18

This is the source of his famous transmigration of souls, or reincarnation doctrine. The primitive Grecian of Homer’s day would also have been at home with astrology, which is why it is given a prominent place on the shield. That one’s fate was a determining factor in one’s destiny was common to the ancient world. The feeling of existence being determined by forces outside the individual’s control gave rise to the religious fetish of deities associated with different constellations controlling these events, according to the “law of destiny” mentioned above.
Next, the shield shows two cites. One is at war, and another is peaceful, and there is a dance being done by young men, with a law court deciding a case in a “sacred circle.”19 Circular imagery is again prominent. Literary critic Laura Jepsen accurately explains the meaning here while discussing the anthropocentric focus of the Greeks:
A glance at the circular motif reveals its import in pagan iconography. In the Iliad the “sacred circle” is represented by Achilles’ shield, where around the rim flows the ocean embracing the world of Homeric civilization….To the early Greek, the sanctity of the circle was expressed by the orchestra, the circular dancing place for worshippers celebrating the ritual around the altar of the god of wine, Dionysius, in whose honor tragedy traditionally originated.

The author of comedy—if we can trust the brilliant discourse assigned by Plato to Aristophanes in Symposium—we are indebted to the explanation of Love by attributing the origin to primeval cosmic circle-men….each human being was originally a whole with back and flanks rounded to form a circle….They were akin to circular celestial bodies.20

Recall again Plato’s “ouroboros.” Since the heavens were closer to the gods and the ideal forms, it stands to reason that the true, ideal forms the original men created in and by “Love” would have been spherical entities. Anything less than a perfect sphere would have been imperfect, and unworthy of the creator, according to the Platonic scheme. Beings that exist in the present stage are partial by nature, and always seeking wholeness, Aristophanes continues to argue, claiming that the original beings were hermaphrodites.21
Redfield elucidates the usage of the circles and the shield’s literary function:
The shield is intended as a systematic image of the wider world outside the Iliad. The patterns which emerge unreflectively in the similes have here been reflected upon and set into coherence. Yet this very difference makes the shield a kind of master simile; the pattern of the shield can instruct us in our reading of the similes—remembering that our fundamental purpose is to grasp the Homeric understanding of the place of man in nature….[N]ature is presented as stormy, violent, and dangerous; the weather similes are thus linked to the ocean similes….Nature is hostile to man. The similes are linked to the shield—the ocean and shore similes being linked, obviously, to the outer rim, the weather similes to the center, through the link between stars and weather through the double role of Zeus as sender of meteorological signs and contriver of the weather.22

The world is being set into a pattern of coherence, consonant with the Platonic doctrine that all reality was a vastly structured grid of forms, all measured and organized according to the Pythagorean principle of mathematics having a divine status. For Plato, numbers and geometrical forms are the principal means to knowing the mind of the god(s). When describing the nature of the bodies in the created visible universe, Plato says:
But three of them can be thus resolved and compounded, for they all spring from one, and when the greater bodies are broken up, many small bodies will spring up out of them and take their own proper figures; or, again, when many small bodies are dissolved into their triangles, if they become one, they will form one large mass of another kind. So much for their passage into one another. I have now to speak of their several kinds, and show out of what combinations of numbers each of them was formed.23

It is worth stressing the highly unique and all-encompassing scope Plato conceives of numbers having in describing to us the essence of true reality, which is the divine forms. Numbers constitute a kid of mystical go-between from our world to the ideal world. Plato scholar G.M. Grube writes:
For the Platonic [thinker] number is the Idea of Good, or at any rate one aspect of the supreme Idea, mythically represented. Objectively considered the laws of the universe and the Ideas are mathematical. The conglomeration of elements which is a man, just as the movements of the stars, can be expressed as mathematical formulae. Time, space, sound are all mathematical from one point of view, and the purpose or supreme law of the universe can (or so Plato thought) be expressed in terms of numbers.24

This fits well with the numerical imagery of the shield. The shield utilizes three and four, as well as infinity (circularity). The infinite potentiality of numbers is partly what gave numbers such a mystique for the Pythagoreans, and certainly Plato inherited this idea.
It is also interesting to consider that the shield appears to involve an early form of taxonomic classification and ordering of different aspects of the Greek worldview. In other words, as well as being an oral myth, it also seems to function as an early classification method. Plato saw dividing things according to such classifications as a logical process proper to the philosopher. This is what he attempts to do in a somewhat loose fashion in The Timaeus, but interestingly, this is actually done more consistently by his student Aristotle, whose scientific taxonomy we still use today. Grube explains:
…[T]he proper method of scientific discourse is said to be a right classification of things into classes each of which corresponds to an Idea in nature, a process which is compared to dissection along the lines of joints. This logical method, here explained for the first time [in the Phaedo], consists then in dividing things into natural classes according to their common characteristics which correspond to the universal Forms. Men who can do this are dialecticians: they unite scattered things under one idea by means of division and synthesis.25

Nature thus presents apparent patterns and forms in the midst of its chaos. The gods appear to act haphazardly, yet also in an ordered fashion. The Greek attempt to systematize their worldview thus conformed to the pattern they presupposed in their classification scheme itself. Thus, whether it is the gods ruling and embodying brute nature, or the flux of this lesser creation that had slipped away from the realm of the ideal forms somehow, both presentations see an underlying ordering of the totality of reality according to mathematical and taxonomic actualities.
Greek critic Andre Michaelopoulos is correct when he refers to this as a “typical piece of unconscious background” (citing another commentator):
It gives us a picture of Greek life which must be natural since neither dramatic nor religious motives interfere to distort it. The writer is clearly describing a round shield with concentric zones of ornament such as are found on Phoenician bowls of later date….To this day you may see the peasants of Greece dancing in rings and lines, with agile acrobats to lead them, just as they danced on the shield of Achilles. History goes on its pompous way, leaving the peasant unaltered and country life unchanged.26

Indeed, we have a view of Greek life and thought that remained very much the same in Plato’s day as it was in Homer’s, and Plato embodies the next step in the development of a more scientific and rationalist approach to the nature of reality, over against the more mythic and overtly religious character of Homer’s tragedy as embodied on the shield an in Achilles himself. With Plato, the new hero becomes the philosopher king, skilled at dialectics and the mathematical Pythagorean mysteries. No longer is the ideal man a warrior, but the thinker. However, both are ideally governed by the love of wisdom.

3 thoughts on “Plato’s Cosmology and Achilles’ Shield Compared (Full)

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