Death, Daimones, and Achilles’ proleptikon sakos I argue that the omission of the underworld from the opening scenes of the shield ecphrasis in Iliad 18 serves a proleptic function, heralding the subsequent portrayal of Achilles as a death daemon. In this feature, Achilles’ shield is not distinct from later epic tradition, but exemplary for it. Such a reading stands in contrast with existing attempts to interpret the images either in reference to disparate moments of the narrative or as an extended thematic reflection.
At first blush, the ecphrasis imagery of Iliad 18 appear unrelated to Achilles. Andersen (1976) links selected images with specific narrative moments throughout the poem. Another common solution has been to treat the images in aggregate form, whether as a mirror for the key themes of the Iliad (Taplin 1980, following Schadewaldt, Reinhardt, and Marg) or an icon of the life Achilles has chosen to forsake (Edwards 1991, 208). Harrison (2001, 74) asserts that the digressive imagery serves no proleptic function. While such approaches are useful in understanding what is present, they fail to note what is absent. Achilles’ shield contains an icon of the whole cosmos: earth, sky, waters, heavens, the encircling river of Okeanos; however, there is no underworld. Elsewhere in the poem there are indications of a symmetrical conception of the universe (cf. Il. 8.13-16, 15.189-93). Moreover, Hellenistic interpreters emphasized the role of the shield as cosmological image (Hardie 1985, 15-17). The omission is no oversight.
Scholars have conceptualized Achilles’ shield in essentially two-dimensional terms, usually as concentric rings (Edwards 1991, 201) or perhaps as a frieze (Leaf 602-6). The description of the shield invites a three-dimensional alternative. Just as the cosmos is symmetrical along a vertical axis, so the ecphrasis evokes symmetry along the horizontal axis. The world and its actions protrude forward, Okeanos girds the boundary, and Achilles stands beneath, in the abode of the dead.
This icon of Achilles as denizen of the underworld and master of that domain anticipates the actions that follow. As the audience hears repeatedly, his decision to return to battle has ensured his doom. Achilles is already counted among the dead. Athena sustains him with supernatural food (Il. 19.352-4). He is likened to βροτολοιγός Ares incarnate (Il. 20.46). Like a death daemon, he is implacable, sparing none in his path (e.g. Il. 21.64 ff, 22.37ff). Priam sees him as harbinger of death (Il. 22.26-32). He drags his quarry from the battlefield as if a Ker. Like Hades, he refuses to relinquish the man whom he takes. He judges contests in his funereal domain. As has often been observed, Priam’s journey to ransom Hektor’s body evokes a heroic katabasis (cf. Edwards 1991, 15-16).
Thus read, the shield description of Iliad 18 is not sui generis in the manner generally maintained. Rather, it is the model for proleptic ecphrasis in later epic, especially in Ps.-Hesiod¸ Apollonius, and Virgil. Moreover, the fact that the immediate focal point is death and the underworld anticipates the subject matter of its most immediate rivals: the Nekyia of the Odyssey and the Shield of Herakles.
Andersen, Øivind. “Some Thoughts on the Shield of Achilles” SO 51 (1976) 5-18
Edwards, Mark W. The Iliad : a Commentary, Vol. V: Books 17-20, G.S. Kirk ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)
Hardie, Philip R. “Imago Mundi: Cosmological and Ideological Aspects of the Shield of Achilles” JHS 105 (1985) 11-31
Harrison, Stephen J. “Picturing the Future: The Proleptic Ekphrasis from Homer to Vergil” in Texts, Ideas, and the Classics: Scholarship, Theory, and Classical Literature.S. J. Harrison ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) 70-92