The Shield of Heracles (also known as The Shield of Herakles and, in the original, Aspis Herakleous) is a poem of 480 hexameter lines written by an unknown Greek poet in the style of Hesiod (lived 8th century BCE). It deals with the Greek hero Heracles (also known as Hercules) and his nephew Iolaus and their battle with Cycnus, son of the war-god Ares. It is unclear when the action of the poem takes place in the traditional stories about Heracles. No mention is made of other events in the hero's life other than the divine circumstances surrounding his birth.
The poem was thought to be an original work by Hesiod but was already suspect as the work of another by around the 3rd century BCE. Some modern-day sources continue to attribute the work to Hesiod even though by now it has long been established as the work of another writing in Hesiod's style. The poem borrows heavily from Homer's Iliad, chapter 18, in which he describes the shield of Achilles. The author of The Shield of Heracles took some lines directly from Iliad and only modified others but the majority of the poem is an original work.
The poem begins with a description of Heracles' beautiful mother Alcmene and how she was impregnated by both the god Zeus and her husband Amphitryon on the same night, giving birth to twin sons: Heracles (son of Zeus) and Iphicles (son of Amphitryon). Iolaus, who is Heracles' charioteer in the poem, is Iphicles' son, but Iphicles himself does not appear in the work. After Heracles' status as a demi-god is established, the tale of Cyncus and the combat begins. Cyncus was a cruel despot of Thessaly who would invite guests to dinner and then murder them. He also would rob those pilgrims who were enroute to the sanctuary of the god Apollo to make sacrifices and leave gifts and offerings. One day, as Heracles and Iolaus were traveling in their chariot through the country, they met Cycnus and Ares in their own chariot coming from the other direction. They both stopped near the sanctuary of Apollo where Cycnus challenged Heracles to single combat. Apollo, abiding close by in his sanctuary, stirred Heracles' blood to accept the challenge (even though, considering Heracles' temper and general character in the myths, he would have needed no encouragement). Heracles fights Cycnus and kills him with a spear through the throat. Ares then attempts to kill Heracles in revenge but is thwarted by the goddess Athena. Heracles wounds Ares in the thigh in this altercation and beats him. At this point, Ares' other sons, Panic and Dread, appear and take the wounded god back to Mount Olympus to be cared for. Cyncus is buried by King Ceyx of Thessaly and a great monument is set up to honor him, but Apollo causes the river Anaurus to flood and wash the grave away so that Cycnus' memory would be blotted out because of his many evil deeds.
The following is the complete text of The Shield of Heracles as translated by H.G. Evelyn-White, 1914:
(ll. 1-27) Or like her who left home and country and came to Thebes, following warlike Amphitryon, even Alcmena, the daughter of Electyron, gatherer of the people. She surpassed the tribe of womankind in beauty and in height; and in wisdom none vied with her of those whom mortal women bare of union with mortal men. Her face and her dark eyes wafted such charm as comes from golden Aphrodite. And she so honoured her husband in her heart as none of womankind did before her. Verily he had slain her noble father violently when he was angry about oxen; so he left his own country and came to Thebes and was suppliant to the shield-carrying men of Cadmus. There he dwelt with his modest wife without the joys of love, nor might he go in unto the neat-ankled daughter of Electyron until he had avenged the death of his wife's great-hearted brothers and utterly burned with blazing fire the villages of the heroes, the Taphians and Teleboans; for this thing was laid upon him, and the gods were witnesses to it. And he feared their anger, and hastened to perform the great task to which Zeus had bound him. With him went the horse-driving Boeotians, breathing above their shields, and the Locrians who fight hand to hand, and the gallant Phocians eager for war and battle. And the noble son of Alcaeus led them, rejoicing in his host.'And all night long he lay with his modest wife, delighting in the gifts of golden Aphrodite.'
(ll. 27-55) But the father of men and gods was forming another scheme in his heart, to beget one to defend against destruction gods and men who eat bread. So he arose from Olympus by night pondering guile in the deep of his heart, and yearned for the love of the well-girded woman. Quickly he came to Typhaonium, and from there again wise Zeus went on and trod the highest peak of Phicium: there he sat and planned marvellous things in his heart. So in one night Zeus shared the bed and love of the neat- ankled daughter of Electyron and fulfilled his desire; and in the same night Amphitryon, gatherer of the people, the glorious hero, came to his house when he had ended his great task. He hastened not to go to his bondmen and shepherds afield, but first went in unto his wife: such desire took hold on the shepherd of the people. And as a man who has escaped joyfully from misery, whether of sore disease or cruel bondage, so then did Amphitryon, when he had wound up all his heavy task, come glad and welcome to his home. And all night long he lay with his modest wife, delighting in the gifts of golden Aphrodite. And she, being subject in love to a god and to a man exceeding goodly, brought forth twin sons in seven-gated Thebe. Though they were brothers, these were not of one spirit; for one was weaker but the other a far better man, one terrible and strong, the mighty Heracles. Him she bare through the embrace of the son of Cronos lord of dark clouds and the other, Iphicles, of Amphitryon the spear- wielder — offspring distinct, this one of union with a mortal man, but that other of union with Zeus, leader of all the gods.
(ll. 57-77) And he slew Cycnus, the gallant son of Ares. For he found him in the close of far-shooting Apollo, him and his father Ares, never sated with war. Their armour shone like a flame of blazing fire as they two stood in their car: their swift horses struck the earth and pawed it with their hoofs, and the dust rose like smoke about them, pounded by the chariot wheels and the horses' hoofs, while the well-made chariot and its rails rattled around them as the horses plunged. And blameless Cycnus was glad, for he looked to slay the warlike son of Zeus and his charioteer with the sword, and to strip off their splendid armour. But Phoebus Apollo would not listen to his vaunts, for he himself had stirred up mighty Heracles against him. And all the grove and altar of Pagasaean Apollo flamed because of the dread god and because of his arms; for his eyes flashed as with fire. What mortal men would have dared to meet him face to face save Heracles and glorious Iolaus? For great was their strength and unconquerable were the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Then Heracles spake to his charioteer strong Iolaus:
(ll. 78-94) `O hero Iolaus, best beloved of all men, truly Amphitryon sinned deeply against the blessed gods who dwell on Olympus when he came to sweet-crowned Thebe and left Tiryns, the well-built citadel, because he slew Electryon for the sake of his wide-browned oxen. Then he came to Creon and long-robed Eniocha, who received him kindly and gave him all fitting things, as is due to suppliants, and honoured him in their hearts even more. And he lived joyfully with his wife the neat-ankled daughter of Electyron: and presently, while the years rolled on, we were born, unlike in body as in mind, even your father and I. From him Zeus took away sense, so that he left his home and his parents and went to do honour to the wicked Eurystheus — unhappy man! Deeply indeed did he grieve afterwards in bearing the burden of his own mad folly; but that cannot be taken back. But on me fate laid heavy tasks.
(ll. 95-101) `Yet, come, friend, quickly take the red-dyed reins of the swift horses and raise high courage in your heart and guide the swift chariot and strong fleet-footed horses straight on. Have no secret fear at the noise of man-slaying Ares who now rages shouting about the holy grove of Phoebus Apollo, the lord who shoots from afar. Surely, strong though he be, he shall have enough of war.'
(ll. 102-114) And blameless Iolaus answered him again: `Good friend, truly the father of men and gods greatly honours your head and the bull-like Earth-Shaker also, who keeps Thebe's veil of walls and guards the city, — so great and strong is this fellow they bring into your hands that you may win great glory. But come, put on your arms of war that with all speed we may bring the car of Ares and our own together and fight; for he shall not frighten the dauntless son of Zeus, nor yet the son of Iphiclus: rather, I think he will flee before the two sons of blameless Alcides who are near him and eager to raise the war cry for battle; for this they love better than a feast.'
(ll. 115-117) So he said. And mighty Heracles was glad in heart and smiled, for the other's words pleased him well, and he answered him with winged words:
(ll. 118-121) `O hero Iolaus, heaven-sprung, now is rough battle hard at hand. But, as you have shown your skill at other-times, so now also wheel the great black-maned horse Arion about every way, and help me as you may be able.'
(ll. 122-138) So he said, and put upon his legs greaves of shining bronze, the splendid gift of Hephaestus. Next he fastened about his breast a fine golden breast-plate, curiously wrought, which Pallas Athene the daughter of Zeus had given him when first he was about to set out upon his grievous labours. Over his shoulders the fierce warrior put the steel that saves men from doom, and across his breast he slung behind him a hollow quiver. Within it were many chilling arrows, dealers of death which makes speech forgotten: in front they had death, and trickled with tears; their shafts were smooth and very long; and their butts were covered with feathers of a brown eagle. And he took his strong spear, pointed with shining bronze, and on his valiant head set a well-made helm of adamant, cunningly wrought, which fitted closely on the temples; and that guarded the head of god-like Heracles.
(ll. 139-153) In his hands he took his shield, all glittering: no one ever broke it with a blow or crushed it. And a wonder it was to see; for its whole orb was a-shimmer with enamel and white ivory and electrum, and it glowed with shining gold; and there were zones of cyanus drawn upon it. In the centre was Fear worked in adamant, unspeakable, staring backwards with eyes that glowed with fire. His mouth was full of teeth in a white row, fearful and daunting, and upon his grim brow hovered frightful Strife who arrays the throng of men: pitiless she, for she took away the mind and senses of poor wretches who made war against the son of Zeus. Their souls passed beneath the earth and went down into the house of Hades; but their bones, when the skin is rotted about them, crumble away on the dark earth under parching Sirius.
(ll. 154-160) Upon the shield Pursuit and Flight were wrought, and Tumult, and Panic, and Slaughter. Strife also, and Uproar were hurrying about, and deadly Fate was there holding one man newly wounded, and another unwounded; and one, who was dead, she was dragging by the feet through the tumult. She had on her shoulders a garment red with the blood of men, and terribly she glared and gnashed her teeth.
(ll. 160-167) And there were heads of snakes unspeakably frightful, twelve of them; and they used to frighten the tribes of men on earth whosoever made war against the son of Zeus; for they would clash their teeth when Amphitryon's son was fighting: and brightly shone these wonderful works. And it was as though there were spots upon the frightful snakes: and their backs were dark blue and their jaws were black.
(ll. 168-177) Also there were upon the shield droves of boars and lions who glared at each other, being furious and eager: the rows of them moved on together, and neither side trembled but both bristled up their manes. For already a great lion lay between them and two boars, one on either side, bereft of life, and their dark blood was dripping down upon the ground; they lay dead with necks outstretched beneath the grim lions. And both sides were roused still more to fight because they were angry, the fierce boars and the bright-eyed lions.
(ll. 178-190) And there was the strife of the Lapith spearmen gathered round the prince Caeneus and Dryas and Peirithous, with Hopleus, Exadius, Phalereus, and Prolochus, Mopsus the son of Ampyce of Titaresia, a scion of Ares, and Theseus, the son of Aegeus, like unto the deathless gods. These were of silver, and had armour of gold upon their bodies. And the Centaurs were gathered against them on the other side with Petraeus and Asbolus the diviner, Arctus, and Ureus, and black-haired Mimas, and the two sons of silver, and they had pine trees of gold in their hands, and they were rushing together as though they were alive and striking at one another hand to hand with spears and with pines.
(ll. 191-196) And on the shield stood the fleet-footed horses of grim Ares made gold, and deadly Ares the spoil-winner himself. He held a spear in his hands and was urging on the footmen: he was red with blood as if he were slaying living men, and he stood in his chariot. Beside him stood Fear and Flight, eager to plunge amidst the fighting men.
(ll. 197-200) There, too, was the daughter of Zeus, Tritogeneia who drives the spoil. She was like as if she would array a battle, with a spear in her hand, and a golden helmet, and the aegis about her shoulders. And she was going towards the awful strife.
(ll. 201-206) And there was the holy company of the deathless gods: and in the midst the son of Zeus and Leto played sweetly on a golden lyre. There also was the abode of the gods, pure Olympus, and their assembly, and infinite riches were spread around in the gathering, the Muses of Pieria were beginning a song like clear-voiced singers.
(ll. 207-215) And on the shield was a harbour with a safe haven from the irresistible sea, made of refined tin wrought in a circle, and it seemed to heave with waves. In the middle of it were many dolphins rushing this way and that, fishing: and they seemed to be swimming. Two dolphins of silver were spouting and devouring the mute fishes. And beneath them fishes or bronze were trembling. And on the shore sat a fisherman watching: in his hands he held a casting net for fish, and seemed as if about to cast it forth.
(ll. 216-237) There, too, was the son of rich-haired Danae, the horseman Perseus: his feet did not touch the shield and yet were not far from it — very marvellous to remark, since he was not supported anywhere; for so did the famous Lame One fashion him of gold with his hands. On his feet he had winged sandals, and his black-sheathed sword was slung across his shoulders by a cross- belt of bronze. He was flying swift as thought. The head of a dreadful monster, the Gorgon, covered the broad of his back, and a bag of silver — a marvel to see — contained it: and from the bag bright tassels of gold hung down. Upon the head of the hero lay the dread cap of Hades which had the awful gloom of night. Perseus himself, the son of Danae, was at full stretch, like one who hurries and shudders with horror. And after him rushed the Gorgons, unapproachable and unspeakable, longing to seize him: as they trod upon the pale adamant, the shield rang sharp and clear with a loud clanging. Two serpents hung down at their girdles with heads curved forward: their tongues were flickering, and their teeth gnashing with fury, and their eyes glaring fiercely. And upon the awful heads of the Gorgons great Fear was quaking.
(ll. 237-270) And beyond these there were men fighting in warlike harness, some defending their own town and parents from destruction, and others eager to sack it; many lay dead, but the greater number still strove and fought. The women on well-built towers of bronze were crying shrilly and tearing their cheeks like living beings — the work of famous Hephaestus. And the men who were elders and on whom age had laid hold were all together outside the gates, and were holding up their hands to the blessed gods, fearing for their own sons. But these again were engaged in battle: and behind them the dusky Fates, gnashing their white fangs, lowering, grim, bloody, and unapproachable, struggled for those who were falling, for they all were longing to drink dark blood. So soon as they caught a man overthrown or falling newly wounded, one of them would clasp her great claws about him, and his soul would go down to Hades to chilly Tartarus. And when they had satisfied their souls with human blood, they would cast that one behind them, and rush back again into the tumult and the fray. Clotho and Lachesis were over them and Atropos less tall than they, a goddess of no great frame, yet superior to the others and the eldest of them. And they all made a fierce fight over one poor wretch, glaring evilly at one another with furious eyes and fighting equally with claws and hands. By them stood Darkness of Death, mournful and fearful, pale, shrivelled, shrunk with hunger, swollen-kneed. Long nails tipped her hands, and she dribbled at the nose, and from her cheeks blood dripped down to the ground. She stood leering hideously, and much dust sodden with tears lay upon her shoulders.
(ll. 270-285) Next, there was a city of men with goodly towers; and seven gates of gold, fitted to the lintels, guarded it. The men were making merry with festivities and dances; some were bringing home a bride to her husband on a well-wheeled car, while the bridal-song swelled high, and the glow of blazing torches held by handmaidens rolled in waves afar. And these maidens went before, delighting in the festival; and after them came frolicsome choirs, the youths singing soft-mouthed to the sound of shrill pipes, while the echo was shivered around them, and the girls led on the lovely dance to the sound of lyres. Then again on the other side was a rout of young men revelling, with flutes playing; some frolicking with dance and song, and others were going forward in time with a flute player and laughing. The whole town was filled with mirth and dance and festivity.
(ll. 285-304) Others again were mounted on horseback and galloping before the town. And there were ploughmen breaking up the good soul, clothed in tunics girt up. Also there was a wide cornland and some men were reaping with sharp hooks the stalks which bended with the weight of the cars — as if they were reaping Demeter's grain: others were binding the sheaves with bands and were spreading the threshing floor. And some held reaping hooks and were gathering the vintage, while others were taking from the reapers into baskets white and black clusters from the long rows of vines which were heavy with leaves and tendrils of silver. Others again were gathering them into baskets. Beside them was a row of vines in gold, the splendid work of cunning Hephaestus: it had shivering leaves and stakes of silver and was laden with grapes which turned black. And there were men treading out the grapes and others drawing off liquor. Also there were men boxing and wrestling, and huntsmen chasing swift hares with a leash of sharp-toothed dogs before them, they eager to catch the hares, and the hares eager to escape.
(ll. 305-313) Next to them were horsemen hard set, and they contended and laboured for a prize. The charioteers standing on their well-woven cars, urged on their swift horses with loose rein; the jointed cars flew along clattering and the naves of the wheels shrieked loudly. So they were engaged in an unending toil, and the end with victory came never to them, and the contest was ever unwon. And there was set out for them within the course a great tripod of gold, the splendid work of cunning Hephaestus.
(ll. 314-317) And round the rim Ocean was flowing, with a full stream as it seemed, and enclosed all the cunning work of the shield. Over it swans were soaring and calling loudly, and many others were swimming upon the surface of the water; and near them were shoals of fish.
(ll. 318-326) A wonderful thing the great strong shield was to see — even for Zeus the loud-thunderer, by whose will Hephaestus made it and fitted it with his hands. This shield the valiant son of Zeus wielded masterly, and leaped upon his horse-chariot like the lightning of his father Zeus who holds the aegis, moving lithely. And his charioteer, strong Iolaus, standing upon the car, guided the curved chariot.
(ll. 327-337) Then the goddess grey-eyed Athene came near them and spoke winged words, encouraging them: `Hail, offspring of far-famed Lynceus! Even now Zeus who reigns over the blessed gods gives you power to slay Cycnus and to strip off his splendid armour. Yet I will tell you something besides, mightiest of the people. When you have robbed Cycnus of sweet life, then leave him there and his armour also, and you yourself watch man-slaying Ares narrowly as he attacks, and wherever you shall see him uncovered below his cunningly-wrought shield, there wound him with your sharp spear. Then draw back; for it is not ordained that you should take his horses or his splendid armour.'
(ll. 338-349) So said the bright-eyed goddess and swiftly got up into the car with victory and renown in her hands. Then heaven- nurtured Iolaus called terribly to the horses, and at his cry they swiftly whirled the fleet chariot along, raising dust from the plain; for the goddess bright-eyed Athene put mettle into them by shaking her aegis. And the earth groaned all round them.
And they, horse-taming Cycnus and Ares, insatiable in war, came on together like fire or whirlwind. Then their horses neighed shrilly, face to face; and the echo was shivered all round them. And mighty Heracles spoke first and said to that other:
(ll. 350-367) `Cycnus, good sir! Why, pray, do you set your swift horses at us, men who are tried in labour and pain? Nay, guide your fleet car aside and yield and go out of the path. It is to Trachis I am driving on, to Ceyx the king, who is the first in Trachis for power and for honour, and that you yourself know well, for you have his daughter dark-eyed Themistinoe to wife. Fool! For Ares shall not deliver you from the end of death, if we two meet together in battle. Another time ere this I declare he has made trial of my spear, when he defended sandy Pylos and stood against me, fiercely longing for fight. Thrice was he stricken by my spear and dashed to earth, and his shield was pierced; but the fourth time I struck his thigh, laying on with all my strength, and tare deep into his flesh. And he fell headlong in the dust upon the ground through the force of my spear-thrust; then truly he would have been disgraced among the deathless gods, if by my hands he had left behind his bloody spoils.'
(ll. 368-385) So said he. But Cycnus the stout spearman cared not to obey him and to pull up the horses that drew his chariot. Then it was that from their well-woven cars they both leaped straight to the ground, the son of Zeus and the son of the Lord of War. The charioteers drove nearby their horses with beautiful manes, and the wide earth rang with the beat of their hoofs as they rushed along. As when rocks leap forth from the high peak of a great mountain, and fall on one another, and many towering oaks and pines and long-rooted poplars are broken by them as they whirl swiftly down until they reach the plain; so did they fall on one another with a great shout: and all the town of the Myrmidons, and famous Iolcus, and Arne, and Helice, and grassy Anthea echoed loudly at the voice of the two. With an awful cry they closed: and wise Zeus thundered loudly and rained down drops of blood, giving the signal for battle to his dauntless son.
(ll. 386-401) As a tusked boar, that is fearful for a man to see before him in the glens of a mountain, resolves to fight with the huntsmen and white tusks, turning sideways, while foam flows all round his mouth as he gnashes, and his eyes are like glowing fire, and he bristles the hair on his mane and around his neck — like him the son of Zeus leaped from his horse-chariot. And when the dark-winged whirring grasshopper, perched on a green shoot, begins to sing of summer to men — his food and drink is the dainty dew — and all day long from dawn pours forth his voice in the deadliest heat, when Sirius scorches the flesh (then the beard grows upon the millet which men sow in summer), when the crude grapes which Dionysus gave to men — a joy and a sorrow both — begin to colour, in that season they fought and loud rose the clamour.
(ll. 402-412) As two lions on either side of a slain deer spring at one another in fury, and there is a fearful snarling and a clashing also of teeth — like vultures with crooked talons and hooked beak that fight and scream aloud on a high rock over a mountain goat or fat wild-deer which some active man has shot with an arrow from the string, and himself has wandered away elsewhere, not knowing the place; but they quickly mark it and vehemently do keen battle about it — like these they two rushed upon one another with a shout.
(ll. 413-423) Then Cycnus, eager to kill the son of almighty Zeus, struck upon his shield with a brazen spear, but did not break the bronze; and the gift of the god saved his foe. But the son of Amphitryon, mighty Heracles, with his long spear struck Cycnus violently in the neck beneath the chin, where it was unguarded between helm and shield. And the deadly spear cut through the two sinews; for the hero's full strength lighted on his foe. And Cycnus fell as an oak falls or a lofty pine that is stricken by the lurid thunderbolt of Zeus; even so he fell, and his armour adorned with bronze clashed about him.
(ll. 424-442) Then the stout hearted son of Zeus let him be, and himself watched for the onset of manslaying Ares: fiercely he stared, like a lion who has come upon a body and full eagerly rips the hide with his strong claws and takes away the sweet life with all speed: his dark heart is filled with rage and his eyes glare fiercely, while he tears up the earth with his paws and lashes his flanks and shoulders with his tail so that no one dares to face him and go near to give battle. Even so, the son of Amphitryon, unsated of battle, stood eagerly face to face with Ares, nursing courage in his heart. And Ares drew near him with grief in his heart; and they both sprang at one another with a cry. As it is when a rock shoots out from a great cliff and whirls down with long bounds, careering eagerly with a roar, and a high crag clashes with it and keeps it there where they strike together; with no less clamour did deadly Ares, the chariot- borne, rush shouting at Heracles. And he quickly received the attack.
(ll. 443-449) But Athene the daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus came to meet Ares, wearing the dark aegis, and she looked at him with an angry frown and spoke winged words to him. `Ares, check your fierce anger and matchless hands; for it is not ordained that you should kill Heracles, the bold-hearted son of Zeus, and strip off his rich armour. Come, then, cease fighting and do not withstand me.'
(ll. 450-466) So said she, but did not move the courageous spirit of Ares. But he uttered a great shout and waving his spears like fire, he rushed headlong at strong Heracles, longing to kill him, and hurled a brazen spear upon the great shield, for he was furiously angry because of his dead son; but bright-eyed Athene reached out from the car and turned aside the force of the spear.
Then bitter grief seized Ares and he drew his keen sword and leaped upon bold-hearted Heracles. But as he came on, the son of Amphitryon, unsated of fierce battle, shrewdly wounded his thigh where it was exposed under his richly-wrought shield, and tare deep into his flesh with the spear-thrust and cast him flat upon the ground. And Panic and Dread quickly drove his smooth-wheeled chariot and horses near him and lifted him from the wide-pathed earth into his richly-wrought car, and then straight lashed the horses and came to high Olympus.
(ll. 467-471) But the son of Alemena and glorious Iolaus stripped the fine armour off Cycnus' shoulders and went, and their swift horses carried them straight to the city of Trachis. And bright- eyed Athene went thence to great Olympus and her father's house.
(II. 472-480) As for Cycnus, Ceyx buried him and the countless people who lived near the city of the glorious king, in Anthe and the city of the Myrmidons, and famous Iolcus, and Arne, and Helice: and much people were gathered doing honour to Ceyx, the friend of the blessed gods. But Anaurus, swelled by a rain- storm, blotted out the grave and memorial of Cycnus; for so Apollo, Leto's son, commanded him, because he used to watch for and violently despoil the rich hecatombs that any might bring to Pytho.