The Second Shield
It is the truth of the mirror that it delivers up to its reflective surface–the invisibility of the markings dissolved thereupon. They cannot be seen. The White Mirror records White Deeds, Black Mirror Black Ones. What are Black Deeds, but that they pretend to be recorded, represented just as they are? As if the deeds had no extension beyond the devices that record them, beyond the recordable surface that inscribes them, that dissolves the inscription that makes them pat. That remains when apparency dissipates and all is black. That resumes the surface when the depths run free. That finds the encryption that modulates between black and gold. That provides the commutation device that rules these several inversions. That makes one See, where none can Be.
The Shield of Achilles surely is our most ancient and recondite device for the multiplication of absences; for Achilles withdraws from his own identity, once his prize woman has been taken from him, once the plague has been taken from the camp; once the god’s priest’s daughter has been taken from the warlord; once Achilles’ favorite has gone off at last to disastrous battle; “impetuous fool,” Achilles calls him, once the confirmation of his foreknowledge has been brought to him; once his battle gear has been taken from Patroklos’ corpse.
The ancient Greek hegemony of presences is utterly debauched. Achilles knows what is going to occur but in that knowing is reduced to a tortuous ignorance that far surpasses that of the other warriors, who at least are at rest with the code that governs their acts. Being itself is stripped from Achilles. He can only throw himself back into the war animated by this fabric of absences, this tissue of denials. In Achilles the Trojan War becomes The War of All Things Against All Things that Heraclitus unleashed from a fathomless interior prior to all ontology. But first Achilles must be suited up once more. His battle-gear will be provided by Hephaistos, and their show piece will be a shield. The shield will bear on its surface, such imagery as will mirror in inversion, a totality that its circumstance utterly belies– imagery of such transcendent serenity as only the complex and ravaging structures of nonbeing into which it will be thrown can organize conditions for. As if a shield could remain innocent of that from which it shields the warrior that deploys it. As if a shield were innocent…
What strange affinity is written
‘twixt Achilles and Hephaistos?
The fiery interior of matter itself
that puts out upon the surface of the world,
the surface of the world.
Charles Stein, Barrytown, NY, 14.01.10
from Iliad Book T (XVIII) lines 369-615
came to the palace of Hephaistos,
a palace imperishable and so devised
as to seem set among the stars,
made all of bronze and indeed
the most extraordinary of immortal palaces,
and of course the crooked-footed deity himself had constructed it.
She found him all perspiring
as he rushed about
twisting to and fro with his pair of bellows;
for he was busy making
twenty tripod cauldrons
to stand about the wall of his messauges.
He put golden wheels beneath each leg of them,
that they might enter the assemblies of the gods
and return again to his palace
quite on their own, a wonder to see.
They were all but completed–
only the ear-handles, cunningly fashioned,
were not yet fastened on them.
He had accomplished this much
and was hammering the rivets,
and while he worked at these things,
the goddess Thetis, with silver feet, approached him.
Fair Charis, with glimmering veil,
whom the famous lame deity had taken to wife–
Charis saw her descending
and took her by the hands
and spoke and addressed her:
“Why, O trim-robed Thetis, have you come to our abode,
though certainly revered by us and welcome?
But first do follow me,
that I might set before you
things appropriate for a visitor.”
So saying, the radiant goddess led her,
and she sat her down on a throne studded with silver,
beautiful and intricately crafted,
and a foot stool was beneath it,
and she called to Hephaistos, famous craftsman, and said to him:
“Come here, Hephaistos; Thetis needs something from you.”
The famous lame one responded:
“Well, then, indeed, a most honored deity is in our halls.
It was she that once saved me
when I was in pain
from that long fall I suffered
through the will of my dog-eyed mother.
She wanted to hide me away because I was lame,
and would have undergone
much torment in my spirit
if Thetis and Eurynomê had not
welcomed me to their breasts–
of backward flowing Okeanos.
For nine years while with them,
I forged much intricate craftwork:
neck chains, curling brooches, twisted fastenings.
The unspeakable streams of Okeanos
with murmuring foam flowed around us.
No gods or mortals knew of it
but Thetis and Eurynomê. 495
And Thetis now has come into our home
so it behooves me to pay
the emolument due her
for saving my life.
So do set before her
fair things to entertain a visitor,
while I put away my bellows and my other tools.”
And from behind the anvil block
a monstrous limping, panting thing arose;
and yet beneath him
his slender leggings nimbly skooted along.
He set down the bellows away from the fire
and gathered the rest of the instruments
with which he was wont to labor
into a silver chest,
and, with a sponge,
he wiped his countenance,
and bathed his neck
and shaggy breast
and he put on a chiton
and grasped a stout scepter
and walked back limping.
Mechanical golden handmaids
skooted about nimbly
in support of their lord.
They’d been fashioned to seem living maidens
with a mind in their breasts
and savoir faire for craftwork
granted by the immortal gods.
And they busied themselves
in support of their lord
from beneath him,
and he, with labored steps
drew near to Thetis,
who sat on a shining chair.
He took her hand and spoke to address her:
“Why, O trim-robed Thetis
do you come to our abode?
You never favored us with a visit before now.
Say what is on your mind.
My heart bids me fulfill it
if fulfill it I can,
and if it’s the sort of thing to be fulfilled.”
Thetis answered him then, her tears a-streaming.
“O Hephaistos–who of the goddesses on Olympos
has suffered as many painful cares as I–
cares that Zeus son of Kronos has put upon her?
Of all the daughters of the sea
he forced me to marry a mortal–
Peleus, son of Aiakos–
and I suffered the bed of the man
very much against my desire,
and now he lies in his halls
conquered by grievous old age,
though other matters than these afflict me now.
Zeus gave me a son to bare and to foster
distinguished among the warriors.
And he shot up like a wild fig tree.
And then when I had reared him like a shoot in an orchard
best-placed to catch sunrays,
I sent him off in beaked ships to Ilion
to make war on the Trojans.
And I’ll never welcome him again
returning to the palace of Peleus,
and though he lives and sees the light of the sun,
he knows only sorrow
and I am unable to help him,
though I go to him.
The girl whom the son of the Achaians
awarded him as a guerdon,
Lord Agamemnon has snatched right out of his arms.
And indeed he was eating his heart out
on account of him.
But the Trojans had trapped the Achaians
by the sterns of the ships
and would not allow them an exit,
and the elders of the Argives beseeched him
and named many glorious gifts for him;
and though he himself
refused to ward off their ruin,
he put his battle-gear on Patroklos
and sent him into the war
and provided a considerable army to boot.
They fought all day about the Skaian gates,
and on that day they should have sacked the city,
the valiant son of Menoitios
having done much damage,
had Apollo not slain him
among the frontline fighters
and given the glory to Hektor.
On account of all this
I come to your knees
that you might be willing to give to my son,
whose doom comes swift upon him,
a shield and four-horned head-gear,
corselet and handsome greaves
fitted out with ankle pieces,
for the gear that was his was lost
when his friend was slain by the Trojans,
and now my son lies writhing
in anguish on the ground.”
The famous lame deity responded:
“Take courage; do not let these matters
further trouble your heart.
If only I could hide him
away from grievous death
when his dread fate comes upon him–
but handsome battle-gear shall belong to him
that many men in later times will marvel at.”
So saying he left her there
and went back to his bellows
and turned them toward the fire
and commanded them to start functioning.
Twenty bellows in all blew on the vats.
Each puffed out suitably to shoot up
whatever sort of breath-blast was required,
some puffing presently, some presently shut off–
however Hephaistos might wish it to further the work.
He threw bronze in the fire, indefatigable metal,
and tin, and precious gold,
And he placed a giant anvil
on the anvil block
and took up in one hand
a big hammer,
in the other he took up the tongs.
First he created the shield, massive and stable,
each segment intricately elaborated.
Around it he cast
a glowing rim
with triple-thickness, all glittering,
and a silver baldric attached to it.
The shield had five layers,
upon each of which he’d created
numerous elaborate devices
and upon which considerable
ingenuity was lavished.
On it he created the earth,
on it the heavens,
on it the sea,
and the moon at the full,
and all the constellations
with which the heavens are crowned:
the Pleiades and the Hyades and mighty Orion
and the Bear, that they also call
by a second name: the Wagon.
It turns about itself
and ever keeps an eye on
who alone of the constellations
has no part
in the baths of Okeanos.
And on it he created two cities of mortal humans, very beautiful.
In one of them were weddings and drink-feasts.
They were leading the brides
out of their bridal bowers
to the city,
guided by luminous torches,
and the bridal anthem went up audibly.
Young men whirled in the dance
and among them lyres and flutes
kept up the music.
And the women were standing admiringly,
each in front of her door.
But the people were gathered in the place for assembly.
A dispute had arisen.
Two men were striving concerning
the blood-price for a homicide.
One swore he’d paid up entirely
and was making his case
in front of the people.
The other refused to accept it.
Both agreed to take the matter to an arbiter.
The people were persuaded by both of them,
lending succor to each by turns,
and the heralds had to hold back the people.
The elders sat on polished stones
in a sacred circle,
grasping in their hands by turns
the scepters of the loud heralds.
And each stoop up in turn
and delivered his decision.
In a central place
amdist it all
lay two talents of gold
to be given to the one among them
who pronounced the most righteous judgment.
About the other city
sat two camps of men
in shining battle-gear.
They were considering a pair of strategies:
whether to divide in two
the wealth contained within the handsome citadel
or rather to sack it.
The city’s people would hear nothing
of the first alternative
and had withdrawn to form an ambuscade.
Dear wives and innocent children were guarding the wall
on which they stood
together with the men
whom old age had overtaken.
The rest were on the march.
Arês and Pallas Athena
constructed of gold
and clad in golden raiment
They were huge and beautiful and conspicuous
as is befitting deities.
Diminutive were the people beneath them.
And when they arrived at the place to prepare their ambush–
it was in a river bed–a watering hole
for every sort of grazing animal–
they settled there
clothed in shining bronze.
And then two sentinels
went to their posts
far from the armies,
and waited to catch sight of flocks of white sheep
and herds of cattle
with helical horns.
And soon these did come by
and two shepherds along with them
playing on reed pipes
completely unaware of the stratagem;
and the men rushed them
and cut off the herds of cattle
and the handsome flocks of white sheep
and slaughtered the herdsmen.
And the leaders of the siege,
when they heard the great disturbance among the animals
as they sat in counsel,
mounted their high-stepping horses
and were off to see what it was
and quickly reached the site of it.
And both armies set their troops in order
and fought a battle by the river bank
and were going at one another with bronze javelins,
and Strife was there and Uproar and ruinous Fate,
taking one man alive, newly wounded,
another not wounded at all,
another–a dead one–dragged by the feet through the fray.
And the cloak Strife wore on her shoulders
was red with the blood of men.
And as if they were living mortals, these deities
joined the battle and fought
and dragged off the corpses
of each other’s slain.
And he placed on the shield
a field, soft and fallow,
rich and broad,
to be ploughed three times over,
and over it many ploughmen
were turning their yokes
and driving them down and back,
and whenever they came to the turning point
at the end of the field,
a man came forth and put in their hands
a cup of honey-sweet wine,
and thus would they turn the furrows,
eager to arrive at the end of deep-soiled fallow field rows.
And behind the ploughmen as they proceeded
the field turned black
and appeared just as if it had indeed been ploughed
though it still was gold,
such was the wonder of the craft of it.
And he put upon it
a plot of land
separated off for a king,
and workers wielding sharp sickles in their hands.
Swathes of cut grain were falling to the ground
along the rows
while binders were binding others with straw bands.
Three binders stood there,
while boys behind them gathered in the crook of their arms
the fallen swathes
to furnish them to the binders with alacrity.
And the King stood among them in silence
holding his scepter
before the harvest scene,
his heart rejoicing.
Heralds, some distance off
beneath an oak tree
were readying a feast,
dressing a mighty ox
they’d slaughtered for sacrifice,
and the women were sprinkling white barley
for a porridge
for the workmen.
And he put upon it a great vineyard
with heavy grape clusters–
the vineyard was gold and beautiful
and the bunches were black,
and everywhere the vines were supported
by silver poles.
All around the vineyard
he drove a ditch
in blue-black enamel,
and about that a fence of tin.
One solitary path went through it,
and on it the vine-workers walked
when they gathered a vintage.
Maidens and children in childish exuberance
carried the honey-sweet fruit
in wicker baskets.
And among them a boy played sweetly
on a clear-toned lyre
and sang the lovely Linos melody
to mourn the end of summer
with his small boy’s voice.
His companions, beating time with their feet,
amidst dancing and general celebratory shouting.
And on it he created a herd of straight-horned cattle.
The cows were made of gold and tin
and were on the move, all bellowing,
from farmstead to pasture
along a murmuring river
along the waving reeds.
Four golden shepherds
walked with the cattle.
Nine swift wild-footed dogs
But two ferocious lions
among the front-most cattle
had seized a bellowing bull
and he was groaning mightily
while being dragged from the herd,
and the dog and youths pursued them.
The lions had ripped open the skin of the ox
and were gulping down its black blood
and eating the innards,
and the shepherds were sicking the hounds upon them
in the hopes of fighting them off,
but the hounds shrank from sinking their teeth in the lions
and stood nearby barking
and springing aside.
And on it the famous lame deity
created a pasture
in a beautiful valley–
a long pasture
for white fleecy sheep
and he created a farmstead
and roofed huts
and sheep pens.
And on it the famous lame deity created
with intricate art
a dance floor
like the one that Daidalos created in broad Knossos
for Ariadne of the beautiful tresses.
And youths and maidens
that bring many cows as a bride-price
holding each other’s hands, gripped by the wrists.
The maidens were clad in light linen garments,
the youths wore fine-spun chitons
gleaming slightly with oil;
and the maidens had beautiful chaplets,
and the youths had golden daggers
that hung from baldrics of silver.
And they were twirling about with dexterous steps
and particular lightness and grace of foot,
just like a potter
sitting with his wheel
fitted between his palms to test it out
to see how it would turn–
and then they’d rush in lines
towards one another.
And a great throng was there to enjoy it
standing around the dance floor,
and two tumblers
tumbled up and down
in the midst of it
as leaders of the dance.
And on it he put the great force
of the river Okeanos
at the edge of the rim
of the tight-wrought shield.
And when he had finished the shield, massive and stable,
he made a corselet, brighter than firelight
and a heavy helmet
to fit snug to Achilles’ temples
handsome and ornamented intricately,
and he put a gold crest upon it
and he made him greaves
of pliant tin.
And when the famous lame deity
had labored to create these articles of battle-gear,
he laid them out before Achilles’ mother
and she, like a falcon, swooped down from snowy Olympos
bearing the shining battle-gear from Hephaistos.
Charles Stein, Barrytown, NY, 6.02.10