In Homer’s Iliad: The Shield of Memory, Dr. Kenneth Atchity follows Homer’s footsteps through the Iliad like a lover intent on winning his heart and mind. What’s more, Atchity invites us to a beautiful symposium, discussing his journey clearly and compellingly, enticing us with amazing glimpses into the ingenious mind and motives of Homer.
In spite of everything you may have learned about Homer’s Iliad, Dr. Ken proves that it is an epic love story. In fact, it’s such a powerful love story that it can generate immortality in the form of human memories, perpetuating human desire to imitate this epic level of love. And, if we are successful, this is the kind of love that actuates social stability and brings about peace in our lives.
“In his appreciation of the poem,” says Atchity about the Iliad, “Even the man for whom war is the reality, therefore, can find peace.” He explains, “While historical peace may be ephemeral and rare, human peace is not only possible, but also truly realized, in the poems of memory.” (1)
Especially in Homer’s Iliad–arguably the greatest poem of memory every recorded.
Let the Symposium Begin
The late poet and novelist, John Gardner, in his foreword to Homer’s Iliad: The Shield of Memory, states that he knows of no better introduction to the Iliad than this book. Gardner hails Atchity for his close analysis of specific themes and images throughout the Iliad, for proving “what we all suspected all along, that the poem is a brilliantly organized work, philosophically profound, perhaps the noblest work of art produced in the entire tradition of Western Civilization.” (2)
Reclining comfortably, now, upon our symposium couches, Atchity explains that, even as we are watching over Hephaistos’ shoulder, Hephaistos is doing essentially the same thing that Homer is doing, as we are reading or listening to the Iliad:
The artist creates the world, through and to his own vision of order.
Achilles’ shield contains the whole cosmos known to Homeric man—of the inanimate stars and waters, and of all life and time and space and action. Forged into the very substance of this supreme tool of warfare is a detailed vision that transcends all momentary circumstances, all individual fates, and reveals humanity in its continuing, essential character. In the process of its making, the ideal and real become one dynamic continuum. (3)
The Shield of Achilles is a Symbol of the Entire Iliad
Encompassing, as Atchity puts it, the poem’s “mnemonic technique, purpose, and function,” the Shield of Achilles is a divine masterpiece–at once the central image and a symbol of the entire epic. As a supernatural mnemonic device, Hephaistos’ creation “remains untarnished as only a memory can be.”
Atchity has become our bard, compelling us to lean forward as he continues, “And as we maintain that breathtakingly clear vision in our memory, it directly affects how we view ourselves and our actions, instilling in our minds the very order that fashioned it.” (4)
As a devoted student of Dr. Ken’s visionary perspective, I see Achilles whipping his horses and riding into the fray. I understand that when he swears to end the war single-handedly, he is swearing to protect the Achaeans who follow him and all the future generations who will follow him, as well–even mine.
We see that poetry, as Homer conceives of and practices it, is the ordering agent in human affairs, a form of worship as well as a sign of man’s awareness of divine order. From a detachment that is virtually Olympian—because the Muses possess the poet with a vision of past, present, and future, and of both sides of the conflict in all their complications—Homer presents the happy results of orderly human action and the disastrous consequences of disorderly behavior.
All mortals and immortals within the Iliadic world are polarized by these cosmic opposites: order and disorder. Each character is defined in terms of his link with one or the other. The great shield is a magnificent emblem of poetic order from which ideal human society issues.(5)
Focusing on the Central Images Within the Iliad
Atchity’s profound philosophical understanding of Homeric society is achieved by focusing on central images within the Iliad. He sees the ideal world depicted on the divine Shield of Achilles. And he sees this ideal world functioning as a counterbalance to the social upheaval in Achilles’ real world.
Atchity attributes this social upheaval to the simultaneous decline of the “heroic” social system colliding with the rise of the “familial” social system in Ancient Greece.
The Shield of Achilles, offering a new, enlightened social system with both heroic and familial components harmonized within the social hierarchy, depicts Homer’s poetic resolution to the social upheaval occurring in the Iliadic world. By serving one another in mutual reciprocity, Homer’s vision foresees individuals perfectly balanced within the wider community.
As Atchity explains, the tension between the two social systems becomes a constructive force in the ideal world, each serving the other. This is because the emotional strength of the familial system, which binds primarily via love between individuals/families/community, is additionally strengthened by the pragmatic power of the heroic system, which binds primarily via honored oaths of loyalty to individuals/tribes/confederations. (6)
The Turbulent Relationship Between Order and Disorder
The primary theme woven into the chaotic events of the Iliad, on every level from the human to the divine, is the turbulent relationship between order and disorder. And, unfortunately for the participants, social disorder is the natural, but terrible result as social systems collide.
“Specifically,” states Atchity, “the poem is a statement of the consequences to order when disorder is inserted at any level of the hierarchical cosmos as Homer conceives of it, and the restoration of order through the obliteration of the disorderly intrusion. Order, once interrupted, can only be returned through the destruction of disorder: that is the lesson of the Iliad.” (7)
Turning his piercing gaze to the marriage bed of Hektor, upon which the close of the Trojan War pivots as Hektor’s body is gently laid to rest prior to his funeral, Atchity recognizes a particularly antithetical image. While the Shield of Achilles offers an image of the victorious ascent of order over disorder, the marriage bed of Hektor depicts the terrible price humans must pay for the destruction of disorder.
As she mourns the loss of her husband, Atchity notes that “Andromache’s lament concludes with the image of the marriage bed deprived of its natural occupant. It is in this way that Homer communicates his characteristically social perspective: that war ends, as it begins, with conjugal disorder.” (8)
Indeed, it is the “heroic” social system embodied in the character of Paris that inspires his selfish desire to seduce the wife of an Argive king until she abandons her conjugal bed in Sparta and travels with him to Troy.
Helen is human progress itself, vacillating between two orders, waiting in suspension for a continuity that will come only when their conflict has been transformed into cooperation, their antithetical potentials synthesized. The fact that Helen’s individual will is suspended but that her actions, although involuntary, have collective repercussions which are material for memory reveals Homer’s refusal to accept either norm, the heroic or the familial, as sufficient; neither, alone, provides man with a divinely-sanctioned order for social well-being, or even for social survival.
Inasmuch as he rejects both purely communal and purely personal motivations, Homer stands as a prophet of the great Athenian phenomenon which managed to gloriously combine the (“know thyself”) of Socrates with the holistic spirit of Plato’s Republic. When a balance is maintained between these two orientations, human nature achieves its fullest, most nearly divine expression. (9)
It Is Our Memories That Make Our Heroes Immortal
In the final analysis, then, it is our love of epic stories, even (or perhaps especially) epic love stories framed with all the gory constructs of war, that fire our finest synapses, indelibly etching into our memories the finest deeds of the finest heroes.
It is our memories, in fact, that make our heroes immortal. Dr. Atchity explains that this is because memory communicates the promise of continuity on an essentially human level–remembered words can bring living order even to fatal encounters. (10)
I think that Dr. Ken has brought to light a very appealing point about the enduring love relationship between life and memory. Blessed by this very poignant relationship, “memory shields the individuals from death.” (11)
We never forget the ones we love, as long as they live on in our memories. Even within the most mundane levels of society, we may cast aside our fear of death, knowing that our loved ones will keep us alive in their memories.
How much more glorious to be the source of ageless memories of an epic victory–A magnificent hero ushering in the triumph of order over disorder?
As Dr. Ken explains,
We understand, with the Achilles who no longer shuns death, that the shield gives him access to an immortality that is purely human: though he, like all who share human nature, can’t escape mortality in time, he will have an orderly place forever in the minds of men to come who will hear how he carried this shield into battle to restore the honor of his dear friend and of the Argive nation.” (12)
Achilles’ personal love for Patroklos becomes, at the end of the story, the pattern for the international love between him and the old king of Troy; and the epic ends, not with the death of Achilles or even of Troy or Priam, but with a ritual that promises the continuity of human order—made possible by Achilles’ loving gesture: the return of Hektor’s body. (13)
A really epic love story–from the beginning, all the way to the end.
…Heavy sigh… I love a great love story, don’t you? This book, Homer’s Iliad: The Shield of Memory by Dr. Kenneth Atchity, just keeps getting better and better, every time I read it.
Pick it up on Amazon and get the added bonus of seeing my reconstruction of the Shield of Achilles on his Kindle edition cover–A very great honor that Dr. Atchity has bestowed upon my work!
(1) Atchity, Kenneth. Homer’s Iliad: The Shield of Memory (Kindle Locations 1843-1846). Story Merchant. Kindle Edition.
(2) ibid, (Kindle Locations 65-68).
(3) ibid, (Kindle Locations 109-114).
(4) ibid, (Kindle Locations 117-119).
(5) ibid, (Kindle Locations 130-135).
(6) ibid, (Kindle Locations 139-145).
(7) ibid, (Kindle Locations 148-150).
(8) ibid, (Kindle Locations 2002-2005).
(9) ibid, (Kindle Locations 2041-2053).
(10) ibid, (Kindle Locations 1819-1829).
(11) ibid, (Kindle Location 1857).
(12) ibid, (Kindle Locations 109-114).
(13) ibid, (Kindle Locations 99-155).