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The Hesiodic Shield of Herakles: Monstrous Texts and the Art of the Nightmare

William Brockliss

The Hesiodic Shield of Heracles is a monstrous text, which establishes an antagonistic relationship with the reader – a phenomenon not found in any other archaic Greek text, and perhaps not again until modern works of horror. The reader is cast as a viewer (several figures are described as “not to be spoken of” or “not expressible in speech”) and is confronted with a succession of nightmarish images that give the text characteristics of a monstrous body: excessiveness, disorder and a dangerous glare.

A number of scholars have studied monstrousness in the ancient world (Garland 1995, Atherton 1998, Felton 2012); Cohen (1996) and Clark (1996) have considered the idea of textual monstrousness in later literature. But none has yet applied this idea to ancient texts. Martin (2005) has revived interest in the Shield with his argument that it evinces a “trash aesthetic” of “more is more.” I will build on his findings, but show that the excessiveness of the text is not so much indicative of “pulp literature,” but is rather an element of its monstrousness.

The reader/viewer’s mind is assaulted with imagery that has the excessive, repetitive qualities of a monster’s body, like that of Typhoeus (Theog. 820ff.), with his huge physique and hundred heads. The text indulges in extended lists, such as the grim personifications Pursuit, Rally, Din, Murder, Manslaughter, Strife, Turmoil and Fate (154-6), and repeats gruesome details incessantly (corpses – 152-3, 156-8, 172-3; blood 159, 173-4, 194, 251-2, 255-6). The effect on the reader is not that of the subtle insinuation of a literary illusion, but of repeated psychological blows.

The reader/viewer also witnesses concatenations of tableaux that are as mismatched as the body of a monster – the Chimera, for instance, has the heads of a lion, a snake and an apparently peaceful she-goat (Theog. 319-24). While the Shield of Achilles in Iliad 18 achieves complementarity between scenes of war and peace, the shield fractures any such balance by cutting swiftly between scenes of exaggerated gore and perfect serenity. The effect is nightmarish: in place of developed narrative we have short, intense bursts of ill-matched scenes, like the garish, illogical montage of a bad dream.

Finally, both the shield and the text that depicts it possess a dangerous glare that returns the gaze of the viewer, and threatens destruction. The image of Fear early in the narrative offers a model for this threat. After Studniczka (1896) and Lattimore (1959), and in keeping with the use of dérkomai elsewhere in the ekphrasis to describe antagonistic staring (lions staring at boars (168-9); the Fates staring at one another (262)), I will propose that the phrase used of Fear at 145, empalin… dedorkōs, should be rendered “staring back [at the viewer].” The use of dérkomai also of snakes on the belts of Gorgons who chase Perseus (233-6), presumably hoping to petrify him with their stares, suggests that Fear’s eyes likewise threaten the reader/viewer with annihilation. That we should attribute such a dangerous glare also to the whole shield is suggested by the list, immediately beforehand, of the shield’s too-bright, gleaming materials – gypsum, ivory, electrum and gold (141-3). The shield is like one great eye that promises to blind the viewer. I would argue moreover that this dangerous glare is a quality not only of the shield but also of the text, which is introduced by these gleaming materials: it is an excessively vivid poem that, like a Gorgon, threatens the sight of the reader/viewer, burning its images into his/her mind like the too-real scenes of a nightmare.

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Monsters and Giants

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