in a clear voice,
sing of Hephaestos
who is famous for his skill.
With Athena of the gleaming eyes,
he taught human beings
all over the earth
their glorious crafts,
people who before
used to live in caves
in the mountains
like wild beasts.”
—Homeric Hymn to Hephaistos, trans. Jules Cashford
I can’t talk about Achilles’ shield without talking about the god who crafted it, Hephaestus. Hence the beginning of the Homeric Hymn to the god of, among others, smithing and fire.
The hymn pairs Hephaestus and Athena as humanity’s teachers. Both show humans how to make things that will shape how they live. In the hymn, crafts seem to be associated with peace: The hymn continues, “Now [humans] have an easy life/the whole year round,/living in their own homes/at peace.” Yet Athena’s craft is also cunning and strategy in war, and Hephaestus’ craft includes forging weapons, including the ones Achilles will wear when he returns to battle to meet his death.
Which brings us to Achilles’ shield, described in Iliad 18.481-608. The shield pictures the cosmos as the Greeks understood it: the sky, sea, and stars, scenes of peace, dispute, war, farming, feasting, herding, and dancing. One theory is that the description of the shield functions as a compressed narrative of the Homeric epics, a description of civilization as the ancient Greeks understood it.