Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles

An Artistic Reconstruction and Exploration of the Ingenious Ancient Greek Weapon Immortalized by Homer in Book 18 of the Iliad

Non-Fiction - Historical
190 Pages
Reviewed on 12/13/2018
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Author Biography

Kathleen Vail is a member of the Maker Movement taking on the Classics. Combining career skills as a computer engineer and graphic artist for the US Department of Defense with research skills as a lifetime student of Homer’s ancient Greece, Kathleen has created a physical, artistically relevant reconstruction of the divine shield of Achilles based literally and solely on Homer’s specifications in Book 18 of the Iliad.

Enjoying great success since its creation, Vail’s reconstruction of Achilles’ shield appears on the cover of Dr. Kenneth Atchity’s 2014 Kindle version of Homer’s Iliad: The Shield of Memory, and Carolina López-Ruiz’ Gods, Heroes, and Monsters (2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2018). She has also given presentations of her work to various groups and organizations, including Virginia chapters of the Classical Association and Mediterranean Society.

Visit Kathleen’s website and blog, for an in-depth exploration of all things Achilles, including his spectacular armor, and Homer’s amazing power to excite our imaginations and inspire great creations by artists and artisans, aka Makers, throughout the ages, and across all art forms.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Fiona Ingram for Readers' Favorite

The Trojan War is one of the earliest wars recorded in the history of human combat. The Iliad and the Odyssey are among the oldest extant works of western literature, written by the blind poet Homer in the eighth century. The Trojan War concerns the Achaeans of ancient Greece and the inhabitants of Ilios, the Trojans. But the story begins before that, at the wedding of the sea nymph goddess Thetis and the mortal but mighty king of the Myrmidons, Peleus. The seeds of this tragic and interminable war were sown when Eris, the goddess of strife, was not invited but arrived anyway, tossing into the company a golden apple inscribed with the words ‘to the most fair.’ Paris, the long-lost son of the Trojan King Priam, is asked to choose between the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Lured by her promise of bestowing upon him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy, Paris chooses Aphrodite… Unfortunately, Helen is married to Menelaus, king of Sparta. And thus, the epic war begins, brought to life by the words of the poet Homer, and forever cemented in the minds of succeeding generations.

Greek mythology and the various heroes, gods, and demi gods have a solid place in modern popular culture, given the many novels and movies devoted to various mythological themes. Names like Zeus, Poseidon, Achilles, Hector, Paris, Helen, Menelaus and Agamemnon are not unfamiliar, especially the mighty Achilles, hero of the Greek forces. Achilles being the son of a goddess, Thetis, and a mighty mortal, Peleus, meant he was already special. Added to this was his legendary prowess as a warrior. When Achilles loses his armor during battle to Hector, the son of King Priam, his mother pleads with Hephaistos, the lame god, to fashion her son an incredible shield. Thetis, knowing that Achilles’ death would follow upon that of Hector, still had the shield made, bowing, one imagines, to the inevitability of the cycle of life. Hephaistos makes the shield, and the details are minutely described by Homer. These details bring us to the reconstruction of this magnificent piece of armor by Kathleen Vail, who documented this artistic project in her book, Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles.

A lifetime student of Homer’s ancient Greece, Vail has created a 'physical, artistically relevant, life-size reconstruction of the divine shield of Achilles based literally and solely on Homer’s specifications in Book 18 of the Iliad.' This is no easy feat because although many now discovered and similarly crafted and decorated Mycenaean artifacts – swords, daggers, vases, and more - prove the potential existence of this shield, Vail was working from the details in Homer’s poem and existing archaeological discoveries. The shield is described as having an awe-inspiring effect on Achilles’ enemies, notwithstanding his mighty prowess and physical attributes. However, for me, the importance of the shield is what the poet conveys in the descriptions and which Vail recreates for the reader with images of the actual reconstructed shield and the corresponding artifacts which provided the inspiration for the images.

Vail takes each section and describes it in detail, as well as the significance in Greek society at the time, starting with the centre piece, creation, and radiating outward in circles depicting levels of Greek society – civil, judicial, military, entertainment, daily and pastoral activities. Ultimately the shield depicts both earthly and heavenly cycles of life. The shield is a microcosm of civilization, depicting the values and ideals of the ancient world, and the eternal cycle of birth, death, renewal. If the shield ever existed, where could it possibly be now? Thetis held funeral games in honour of her son Achilles, offering his armor as the prize to the ‘best of the Achaeans.’ Odysseus won the armor but given his many wanderings and shipwrecks before finally reaching home and his beloved wife, Penelope, who knows what happened to the shield? Perhaps only the gods know?

Kathleen Vail offers both the interested amateur and the dedicated scholar a minutely detailed and incredibly well researched literary work, complete with meticulously referenced and labelled images and many bibliographic references. The reconstruction of the shield is, to me, more than a labor of love. There is far more to the story of Achilles, the flawed and magnificent warrior, than the war. The psychological depths, the drama, the tragic emotions, actions, and motivations of the characters, both human and divine, the merging of heavenly and earthly activities, and many grander symbolic themes make the Iliad more than just a poem. The reconstruction of the shield proves this.

Romuald Dzemo

Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail is aptly described in the sub-title: An Artistic Reconstruction and Exploration of the Ingenious Ancient Greek Weapon Immortalized by Homer in Book 18 of the Iliad. Here is a book that will mesmerize fans of Homer’s Iliad and readers who have been fascinated by the world of ancient Greece. The reader follows the tale behind Achilles’ shield, forged by Hephaestus at the request of his mother, the nymph goddess, Thetis. And the god of the forge provides Achilles with the perfect weapon. The book follows the adventures of this young hero who hates war but who is destined for glory as he sets out to bring the city of Troy down and exact revenge. Kathleen Vail deconstructs the Greek world and Homer’s world, enabling readers to feel the beauty of the work, to immerse themselves in the setting in which the great poet wrote.

This book is well researched, featuring interesting and eye-catching images from the ancient Greek world. The references are seamlessly crafted into the writing. I had the feeling of walking into Achilles’ world, of feeling his heartbeat, and being in contact with a culture that is so ancient and yet feels so familiar. Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles is a work of art that examines the different components of a tale that has fascinated readers over the centuries — the setting with cultural nuances, political conflicts, and the place of power in the Greek world, with images pulled from the day-to-day lifestyle of the era, and a lot more. This book is intelligently presented, rendered in language that is as accessible as it is delightful. It is a beautiful offering to aficionados of Homer’s Iliad.

Ray Simmons

I spent my childhood reading about heroes. First, the heroes of the Bible. My mother is very religious and approved of my love for men like Samson, King David, and Moses. Then I discovered the Greek Pantheon and its heroes, and I could not get enough of those stories. As I grew up, I realized that Hollywood drew deeply from that source and those ancient Greek stories are part of the bedrock of our popular culture. This bedrock is built on the hard work and dedication of real researchers who go out and find the facts that underlie the myth. That is why Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail resonated so much with me. I loved it! I loved it because I can see the painstaking care of someone who loves those stories as much, maybe even more than I do.

Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles is very well written. The content lays out the history behind one of the greatest and earliest wars in human history. Many of the principle characters are there. Thetis, the mother of Achilles, Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, Menelaus, the wronged husband, and so many more. Kathleen Vail lays out the story and gives us all the background as she reconstructs the shield and why it was made. Rich in detail, myth, and history, this is indeed a story for the ages. If you love Greek mythology and want to delve deeper into its roots, then this is the book for you.

Grant Leishman

Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail is a scholarly attempt to put some meat and vision to the legendary shield of the warrior Achilles from Greek fable and mythology, especially as described by Homer in his numerous epic poems, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. The author takes us on a trip through legendary Greek history, describing in detail the circumstances and the background to the most famous of all Greek battles; the battle for Troy and then its aftermath. We are shown various other scholars’ depictions of their view of what they believed Achilles’ shield would have looked like, before the author creates her own version of the fantastic armor that was the Shield of Achilles. Using Homer’s direct translated text, she follows the journey of the shield subsequent to the death of Achilles, as Odysseus takes control of the legendary armor. She finds considerable justification for accepting the words of Homer as being in some part real and truthful, rather than just fanciful meanderings.

As a big fan of both Homer and the fables of Greek mythology, I found Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles to be a fascinating insight into the Greek traditions, heroes and fables of the time. Kathleen Vail has produced a book that is as useful to a Greek scholar as it is to someone with a love of heroic adventure and the time of mythical Greek lore. I don’t usually quote from books I review, but one passage in this book is so telling and reminds us all why the study of history, and especially of archaeology, is critical to us as a human race. “Human history is rendered tangible in the physical form of archaeological artifacts. In our search for archaeological treasures, we find meaning and significance in our collective human life on Earth. With each discovery, we gain extraordinarily perceptive records. From this unique perspective, we gain both a telescopic view into the lost and distant past and a microscopic view of iconic moments in the human experience.” For me, this perfectly sums up the field of study and the importance of this book. Perhaps the most ironic observation is that Achilles, the greatest warrior in history, actually hates war. As a final note, the photographs and renderings of Greek history and mythology give the book an impressive perspective that even the layman can truly enjoy. This is a fantastic book and receives my wholehearted endorsement.

Mamta Madhavan

Reconstructing The Shield Of Achilles: An Artistic Reconstruction and Exploration of the Ingenious Ancient Greek Weapon Immortalized by Homer In Book 18 of the Iliad by Kathleen Vail revolves around the shield of Achilles which came to light in Homer's Iliad, written in the 8th century BC. The author brings the shield to life through this book which is a real treat for all those readers who are interested in learning more about Greek mythology, the Trojan War, and Homer's Iliad. The whole world is on the shield; be it war, peace, weddings, life, death, farming, dancing, and more that will amaze readers with its vivid descriptions and images. The innermost and outermost parts of the shield depict elements of human life, the sun, moon, stars, and sea. The author explores each scene on the legendary Shield of Achilles and gives intimate glimpses of life in ancient Greece in those days.

This book is insightful, poetic, aesthetic, and creative and the author does a fabulous job recreating the shield using her own interpretations after reading the epic poem. The images in the book are gorgeous and they make the book more appealing and captivating to readers. The author's time spent on researching and writing on a topic like this is commendable and is evident in the pages of the book. The Iliad was not only about the Trojan War but also about Achilles, and the author's reconstruction of the shield not only speaks about its significance but also relives Homer's story of war, peace, and humanity.