Saturday, April 05, 2008

Smiths in Homer

In book 18 of the Iliad, we have the shield of Achilles presented to us, a marvelous work of craft, a presentation or imitation of the life of two cities on a shield. There is a city of war and a city of peace, and Homer spends many lines describing it. The shield seems like a discordant note in a symphony, or rather like a chordant note in a cacophony. Amidst the horrors of war, it appears. It is like a poppy growing on a dungheap.

Interpretation varies on the meaning of the shield, and it is a mark of Homer’s genius that the shield can bear all the interpretations. Homer’s poem, his making, is rich enough to bear it. But I want to talk about it as a construction of a smith.

Chesterton remarks in _A Short History of England on the remarkable poetry that lies below that most prosaic of names. Smiths take earth and make artifacts, implements, and beautiful things out of it by commanding elemental forces. It is as if the gods have inspired them. I think there is something to be said about the mere craft of smithship, as there is a convergence of themes in this book.

Hephaestus, the smith, is ugly and lame. As a result, he is thrown from the heavens and abandoned by his mother, only to be taken care of by the goddess Thetis. Nevertheless, despite his lameness, he is the one who makes the halls of Olympus where the gods dwell in splendor. It is Hephaestus, more than any other god, who makes the glory of the gods possible.

Thetis, during her visit, reveals to the reader the conditions of her marriage to Peleus, the father of Achilles. It was not a happy marriage, but rather one to which she was forced, being yoked to a mortal doomed to grow old and die. This was planned by Zeus. Achilles is the result of an arranged marriage, and therefore one could reasonably say that Achilles, son of Thetis, is arranged, a work of craftsmanship.

But there is more: Hephaestus is attended by female robots, cast in gold and silver, who do his bidding and by extension that of the gods. He is called upon to make new armor for Achilles, and he makes it and the splendid shield out of gold and silver. Achilles is a robot of the gods, an automaton created so that the will of Zeus may work towards its end. All of his glory comes only from the gods, and it is no credit to himself. Furthermore, the god his glory ultimately depends on is the lame smith, Hephaestus, who creates armor (and hence the persona) for his last battles.

What does this mean? The greatness of the hero lies in the gods, in particular the artificer god. But from the parellel with Homer the blind poet, we can see that the greatness of the hero also lies in the human artificer of words, the poet. It is not his own. The most melancholy part of the story of Achilles is that he seeks an immortality based on martial glory where none of it really belongs to him. The only thing he is really responsible for is the death of Patroclus. Like the Christian who can say that all comes from God except his sin, for Achilles all comes from the gods and poets except for his shame and sorrow, which belong particularly to him.

Let this end the Homeric ramble.

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