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The Shield and the Bow: Arms, Authority and Identity in the Iliad and the Odyssey

Aara Suksi

In Homeric epic, the hero’s kleos is achieved through acts of extreme violence.  His aristeia is manifested in the accounts of the bodies of the enemies left dead in his wake.  But the justice of this violence, wrought to exact revenge, is also laden with a profound ambivalence that is a problem for the narrative.  Certain narrative devices seem to have authorized the hero’s violence by placing it within a kind of ritualized context.  One such device was the hero’s acquisition of unique arms or armor identifying him as especially marked by fate or the gods as one authorized to exact violent revenge.  My paper considers how this device of unique armor worked in the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Although Achilles and Odysseus are often largely defined in contrast to one another, as very different kinds of heroes, with very different backgrounds, temperaments, and destinies, this paper demonstrates that a series of parallels can be drawn between Achilles and Odysseus specifically as violent wielders of weapons.  These parallels resonate with the relationship that is established in other ways between the two epics and their heroes as observed by scholars such as Clay, Nagy, and Edwards.

Both Achilles and Odysseus are, for a long period of time in their respective epics, absent from a community that intensely longs for them and their performance of violent revenge.  At a crucial point in each poem, the hero becomes present and eager to fight, but finds it impossible to pursue his program of vengeance because he is without the arms he needs to enter into battle.  For each hero, coming into possession of the weapons marks his re-entry into his proper sphere of action and a delayed communal recognition of his identity and superior worth.

In each case, the arms have a history as objects of ritualized reciprocal exchange.  Fletcher has shown how in tragedy, “haunted” props, such as Philoctetes’ bow or Ajax’ sword, bring their history of personal relationships with them into the “present” enacted on the Athenian stage.  The arms of Achilles and Odysseus work in a similar way in their respective narratives. 

Further, the arms are provided by a female close to each hero, in Achilles’ case by Thetis, and in Odysseus’, by Penelope, so that the hero’s re-entry into the public sphere is closely related to his position in a private domestic order.  In both cases, the female’s premature lament for the hero, who is still alive, accompanies her instrumental role in enabling his violent revenge.  Alexiou, Holst-Warhaft, Nagler and others have explored the role of female ritual lament in the incitement of male violent revenge in early Greek culture.  In the cases of Thetis and Penelope, not only do they lament their losses before the fact, but they also, as a potent sign of their subordination to the male world of violence, actually provide the weapons of revenge.

In both cases, the hero is uniquely capable of wielding the arms, and so of exacting revenge with seemingly supernatural efficacy. Moreover, the difference in the fates of the two heroes is paralleled by the fact that while Odysseus left his bow at home when he departed for Troy, and so must accomplish his nostos in order to wield it, Achilles, in contrast, only came into possession of his divine armor in the final year of the war at Troy, the site of his anger, his kleos and his early death.  Finally, both the shield of Achilles and the bow of Odysseus are associated, in different ways, with the art of the epic poet. 

Much important work has been done in separate studies on either the arms of Achilles or the bow of Odysseus.  This consideration of the parallels between the heroes and their weapons seeks to invite further comparative work on how the arms create meaning in Homeric epic.

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Homer: Poetics and Exegesis

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