The shield of Heracles

There is no stopping the Summer of Hercules! Today, though, I want to focus on something other than movies or comic books. Let’s leave the twenty-first century for a moment and have a look at the earliest known text about one of Heracles’ adventures, the so-called Shield of Heracles.

This short epic poem was attributed to Hesiod, a poet from Ascra and a contemporary of Homer’s (ca. 700 BC), who wrote the Theogony and Works and Days. However, the Shield actually dates, most probably, from the first half of the sixth century BC, and was created by someone working in the Hesiodic tradition rather than Hesiod himself. The Shield takes its cues from earlier poems. Its opening lines are taken from the Ehoiai or Catalogue of Women, a fragmentary poem, also attributed (wrongly) to Hesiod, in which the genealogies of Greek heroes are recounted.

Preliminary matters

The poem starts of, in the fashion of the Ehoiai, by telling how both Amphitryon and Zeus slept with Alcmene – coincidentally a granddaughter of the hero Perseus – on the same night. As a result, she gave birth to twins: the mighty Heracles, son of Zeus, and the mortal Iphicles, son of Amphitryon (ll. 1–56).

After this brief introduction, the poem switches to an episode later in Heracles’ career, announcing that it was Heracles “who had killed Cycnus (Kyknos), the high-hearted son of Ares,” the god of war. This Cycnus is a bandit who is holed up near a sanctuary to Apollo, where he robs and kills whoever passes by, and also steals the sacrificial animals intended for the archer-god. Upon seeing Heracles, the poet of the Shield tells us that he wants to kill the son of Zeus and strip him of his armour (ll. 65–69).

Cycnus is not alone, but accompanied by his fiery father, who lights up the grove and altar of Apollo, “the shining from his eyes was like fire” (l. 73). Similarly, Heracles is not alone, but accompanied by nephew and squire, Iolaus, who serves as the hero’s charioteer. After a brief exchange between Heracles and Iolaus, the former begins preparing for the impending fight. His greaves are “glorious gifts of Hephaestus” (l. 123), while his cuirass – made of gold or decorated with gold – was provided by Athena back when he first started his famous Labours (ll. 124–127).

Heracles, as the strongest of all the Greek heroes, is associated with wrestling and close-range fighting. But the poet makes a point of mentioning the quiver with arrows that is strapped to Heracles’ back and which would have been used by the hero to defeat, for example, the Stymphalian birds (l. 130). He also picks up a heavy spear and puts a helmet on his head – there is no mention of the lion skin that is so characteristic of Heracles.

The shield of Heracles

More than a third of the poem is taken up by a lengthy description of Heracles’ shield (ll. 139–317). The inspiration for this passage was clearly Homer’s description of the new shield of Achilles in the Iliad (Il. 18.478–608). Like Achilles’ shield, that of Heracles is described as round and decorated with detailed figured scenes, created from enamel, ivory, electrum (a natural alloy of gold and silver), gold, and cobalt.

In the middle of the shield is the face of Panic, undoubtedly intended to strike terror in the hearts of the enemies who looked upon the shield, with Hate hovering above him (ll. 144–153). Various other personifications are also present on the shield, such as Onrush, Battlenoise, Manslaughter, and Death. The shield also features a scene of boars and lions fighting each other (ll. 168–177), and the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs (ll. 178–191), with the hero Theseus. Interestingly, Ares himself is also included on the shield, as are Athena and Apollo (ll. 191–206). The shield furthermore depicts the sea and includes Heracles’ ancestor Perseus, depicted immediately beneath Panic’s head and shown flying through the air, carrying Medusa’s head, while being pursued by Gorgons (ll. 207–237).

In the upper part of the shield, the siege of a city is shown (ll. 237–271). The battle is described as fierce, with the Keres – a type of death spirits that accompanied Ares in battle and can be compared with the Valkyries of Germanic myth – drinking the blood of the wounded and the fallen. The scene also includes the Fates to add to the theme of death that dominates the description of this part of the shield.

Just like the Homeric shield of Achilles depicts a city at war and a city at peace, so too does the shield of Heracles feature a second city (ll. 271–313), that is also “well walled”. This scene is far friendlier and includes a wedding, with people dancing and making music. Outside of the city, there are men riding horses, farmers tilling the land, and charioteers engaged in races. The poet then quickly concludes by saying that the encircling rim of the shield depicted Ocean, the world-river.

The battle between Heracles and Cycnus

With the description of the shield out of the way, the rest of the poem is devoted to the battle between Heracles and Cycnus. Athena appears and speaks heartening words to both Heracles and Iolaus: it is interesting that in depictions of the battle between Heracles and Cycnus, such as vase-paintings, Athena is also often included in the scene. Athena tells Heracles that he is indeed destined to kill Cycnus, but is not allowed to appropriate either his horses or his armour (ll. 330– 337).

The two opposing parties now drive their chariots towards each other. When close, Heracles addresses Cycnus and gives him the option to simply let him and Iolaus pass unmolested on their way to Trachis (ll. 350–356). Perhaps to intimidate Cycnus, Heracles tells him that Ares will not be able to help him, as the hero already defeated the god of slaughter once before (ll. 357–367).

Cycnus replies nothing and the two opponents jump down from their chariots. The poet adds the interesting detail that the battle takes place during the hottest time of summer, when grain and grapes ripen, so probably sometime in August (ll. 393–402). Both heroes scream. Cycnus hurls his spear at Heracles, but it bounces off the shield. Heracles stabs Cycnus in the area between the shield and helmet and manages to pierce Cycnus’ throat, causing the son of Ares to drop lifeless to the ground (ll. 413–424).

Heracles leaves Cycnus’ body where it lay, but Ares thirsts for vengeance (later sources add that Ares transformed Cycnos into a swan, i.e. kyknos). Undaunted, Heracles turns to face the god of war and the two prepare to engage in combat. Athena then rushes in to block Ares’ way, telling him that he is not permitted to kill the hero. But Ares pays no heed and charges at Heracles anyway. Athena manages to prevent Ares from striking the hero with his spear and then closes with sword drawn. Heracles is quicker, however, and manages to plant his spear in the god’s thigh. Ares falls to the ground and is taken by Panic and Terror back to Olympus (ll. 424–466)

Heracles then decides to ignore Athena’s earlier command and strips the dead Cycnus of his armour. Iolaus and his uncle then hasten on to Trachis. Athena returns to Olympus and Cycnus is buried by those who dwell in southern Thessaly. However, Cycnus’ tomb is obliterated later by the River Anaurus as a favour to Apollo, who was still angry over the offerings that Cycnus had taken from him (ll. 467–480).

Closing remarks

The Shield of Heracles does not enjoy a high reputation. The opening is lifted from the Ehoiai and the description of the shield is modelled very closely after the Homeric description of Achilles’ shield. The actual battle with Cycnus is over in an instant; the battle against his father Ares is more interesting. Nevertheless, it is interesting for offering a glimpse of Heracles’ career, with reference to his birth, the Twelve Labours, and so forth.

This story, similar to Theseus’ adventures on his road from Troezen to Athens, also suggest that Greece in the age of heroes – and perhaps modelled after contemporary experiences – was not a very safe place. Aside from monsters and fabulous beasts, there were bandits like Cycnus who preyed on those who wished to make offerings to Apollo, as well as simple travellers on the road to Trachis.

If you want to read the poem for yourself, you should visit the Chicago Homer. There, you can read the poem in translation as well as in the original Greek. The poem is also widely available in many different editions; the translation by Richmond Lattimore of Hesiod’s works (which includes theShield) is eminently readable. Lattimore’s translation was used in this blog post, with occasional changes.

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