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Symbols

Learn about symbols in Homer's epic poem The Iliad with Course Hero's video study guide.

The Iliad | Symbols

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Achaean Ships

For the Achaean army, their ships represent home and survival. They are their home base, holding supplies and treasures, and their means of flight if the war should completely turn against them. The Achaeans are very protective of them. Each group camps around its own ships, and they build a protective wall around them once the Trojans start to gain ground outside the city. Without the ships the Achaeans could not get home, which is why when Hector begins getting close enough to burn one of them, it is such a threat. They are also symbols of power and might, crossing a sea to make war in a distant land. Homer takes quite a bit of time in Book 2 to enumerate the ships of each group and commander, representing relative strength.

Eating

Homer employs the ritual of eating, which is governed by social rules, as a means of characterization in the poem. When characters eat and how reveal important states of mind. After the death of Patroclus, Achilles chooses not to eat breakfast, showing his separation from his peers. When Achilles fights Hector, he expresses a desire for cannibalism, illustrating his distance from civilization. In the end Achilles shares a meal with Priam, reconnecting with his humanism through this social ritual.

Shield of Achilles

The most symbolic object in the poem, the shield that the god Hephaestus makes for Achilles, represents the world outside of the Trojan War and his status as the dominant warrior in the conflict. The images on the shield depict scenes of war and peace. Some of the scenes of everyday life include conflict or violence that evokes the brutality of war. The circular dance symbolizes the endlessness of time, and the Ocean River that runs around all the images also bounds the world without end.

Achilles's shield is also invulnerable to attack. Spears go through many other shields, but not his. His superior armor (particularly the shield) represents his special status in the conflict that glorifies him and distances him from his comrades. However, even his divine armor will not prevent his eventual death.

Armor

Armor symbolizes glory and honor. The finer the armor is the more prestigious its wearer. To take an enemy's armor is to strip him of honor and take it for oneself. This causes fighters to expose themselves to harm on the battlefield to take this prize.

Armor also has great value as a symbol of trust and goodwill. When Glaucus and Diomedes meet in battle, they realize that they are guest-friends and exchange armor to display their old ties.

Armor seems to have a life of its own in The Iliad. Hector's helmet is constantly flashing, setting him apart from other warriors. Armor rings and clashes as fighters prepare for combat as well as when they fall on the battlefield, almost seeming to express eagerness or sorrow for the circumstances. The armor worn by two Lapiths who block the gates in the Achaean wall gets its own epic simile, its clatter compared to the noise of boars ripping up trees. In Book 19, Achilles's new armor clashes as Thetis delivers it, almost seeming to announce itself.

Eagle of Zeus

Zeus, king of the gods, often sends mortals signs in the form of an eagle, his personal bird emblem. Eagles were valued for the distances they fly and the sharpness of their sight. Eagle signs indicate the direction of Zeus's changing favor. Hector ignores an eagle sign in Book 12, starting his path toward destruction. An eagle serves as a good omen, reassuring Priam of Zeus's promise of a safe entry into the Achaean camp to recover his son's body.

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