The Aegis (Greek: Αιγίς), as stated in the Iliad, is the shield or buckler or breastplate of Athena and Zeus, famously bearing Medusa's head, which, according to Homer was fashioned by Hephaestus "... and among them went bright-eyed Athene, holding the precious aegis which is ageless and immortal: a hundred tassels of pure gold hang fluttering from it, tight-woven each of them, and each the worth of a hundred oxen."
The modern concept of doing something "under someone's aegis" means doing something under the protection of a powerful, knowledgeable, or benevolent source. The word aegis is identified with protection by a strong force with its roots in Greek mythology and adopted by the Romans; there are parallels in Norse mythology and in Egyptian mythology as well, where the Greek word aegis is applied by extension.
In Greek mythology
Virgil imagines the Cyclopes in Hephaestus' forge, who "busily burnished the aegis Athene wears in her angry moods—a fearsome thing with a surface of gold like scaly snake-skin, and he linked serpents and the Gorgon herself upon the goddess's breast—a severed head rolling its eyes." furnished with golden tassels and bearing the Gorgoneion (Medusa's head) in the central boss. Some of the Attic vase-painters retained an archaic tradition that the tassels had originally been serpents in their representations of the aegis. When the Olympian deities overtook the older deities of Greece and she was born of Metis (inside Zeus who had swallowed the goddess) and "re-born" through the head of Zeus fully clothed, Athena already wore her typical garments.
When the Olympian shakes the aegis, Mount Ida is wrapped in clouds, the thunder rolls and men are struck down with fear. "Aegis-bearing Zeus", as he is in the Iliad, sometimes lends the fearsome goatskin to Athena. In the Iliad when Zeus sends Apollo to revive the wounded Hector of Troy, Apollo, holding the aegis, charges the Achaeans, pushing them back to their ships drawn up on the shore. According to Edith Hamilton's Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, the Aegis is the breastplate of Zeus, and was "awful to behold."
Locating the Aegis
Greeks of the Classical age always detected that there was something alien and uncanny about the Aegis. It was supposed by Euripides (Ion, 995) that the Gorgon was the original possessor of this goatskin, yet the usual understanding is that the Gorgoneion was added to the Aegis, a votive gift from a grateful Perseus.
There also is the origin myth that represents the ægis as a fire-breathing chthonic monster similar to the Chimera, which was slain and flayed by Athena, who afterward wore its skin as a cuirass (Diodorus Siculus iii. 70), or as a chlamys. The Douris cup shows that the Aegis was represented exactly as the skin of the guardian serpent, with its scales clearly delineated. Often the Aegis is described as the bag in which Athene carried her shield and the serpent who was her son.
In a late rendering by Hyginus (Poetical Astronomy ii. 13), Zeus is said to have used the skin of the goat deity Amalthea (aigis "goat-skin") which suckled him in Crete, as a shield when he went forth to do battle against the Titans. She is thought to bear the name of the deity who was derived from Libya, where known as Neith, the same source sometimes identified as the parallel for Athene.
In accordance with this double meaning, the Aegis appears in works of art sometimes as an animal's skin thrown over the shoulders and arms, and sometimes as a cuirass, with a border of snakes corresponding to the tassels of Homer, usually with the Gorgon head, the gorgoneion, in the centre.
It often is represented on the statues of Roman emperors, heroes, and warriors as well as on cameos and vases. A vestige of that appears in a portrait of Alexander the Great in a fresco from Pompeii dated to the first century BC, which shows the image of the head of a woman on his armor that resembles the Gorgon.
- Athene's garments and ægis were borrowed by the Greeks from the Libyan women, who are dressed in exactly the same way, except that their leather garments are fringed with thongs, not serpents.
Robert Graves in The Greek Myths (1955; 1960) asserts that the ægis in its Libyan sense had been a shamanic pouch containing various ritual objects, bearing the device of a monstrous serpent-haired visage with tusk-like teeth and a protruding tongue which was meant to frighten away the uninitiated. In this context, Graves identifies the aegis as clearly belonging first to Athena.
Another version describes it to have been really the goat's skin used as a belt to support the shield. When so used it would generally be fastened on the right shoulder, and would partially envelop the chest as it passed obliquely round in front and behind to be attached to the shield under the left arm. Hence, by metonymy, it would be employed to denote at times the shield which it supported, and at other times a cuirass, or chlamys, the purpose of which it in part served. In accordance with this double meaning, the ægis appears in works of art sometimes as an animal's skin thrown over the shoulders and arms, and sometimes as a cuirass, with a border of snakes corresponding to the tassels of Homer, usually with the Gorgon's head, the gorgoneion, in the centre. It is often represented on the statues of Roman emperors, heroes, and warriors, and on cameos and vases.
A current modern interpretation is that the Hittite sacral hieratic hunting bag (kursas), a rough and shaggy goatskin that has been firmly established in literary texts and iconography by H.G. Güterbock, is the most likely source of the aegis.
Greek Αιγίς has three meanings:
- "violent windstorm", from the verb 'αïσσω (stem 'αïγ-) = "I rush or move violently". Akin to "καταιγίς" hurricane.
- The shield of a deity as described above
- "goatskin coat", from treating the word as meaning "something grammatically feminine pertaining to goat" (Greek αἰξ (stem αἰγ-) = "goat", + suffix -ίς (stem ίδ-))
The original meaning may have been #1, and Ζευς 'Αιγιοχος = "Zeus who holds the aegis" may have originally meant "Sky/Heaven, who holds the storm". The transition to the meaning "shield" may have come by folk-etymology among a people familiar with draping an animal skin over the left arm as a shield.
In Egyptian and Nubian tradition
The aegis also appears in Ancient Egyptian mythology. The goddess Bast sometimes was depicted holding a ceremonial sistrum in one hand and an aegis in the other – the aegis usually resembling a collar or gorget embellished with a lioness head. Plato drew a parallel between Athene and the ancient Libyan and Egyptian goddess Neith, a war deity who also was depicted carrying a shield.
Ancient Nubia shared many aspects of its mythology with ancient Egypt and there is debate about the original source of some religious concepts that the two cultures share and, whether the assimilation was from Nubia to Egypt, the reverse, or through continuing exchanges. At one time the Kush of Nubia ruled ancient Egypt.
An image of Isis wearing an aegis was discovered in present-day Sudan, the territory of Nubia when the artifact was made in the 4th century BC. It is likely to be an artifact of the flourishing culture of Meroë, successors to the culture of Kush, as indicated by the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs and cartouches.
In Norse mythology
In Norse mythology, the dragon Fafnir (best known in the form of a dragon slain by Sigurðr) bears on his forehead the Ægis-helm (ON ægishjálmr), or Ægir's helmet, or more specifically the "Helm of Terror". However, some versions would say that Alberich was the one holding a helm, named as the Tarnkappe, which has the power to make the user invisible. It may be an actual helmet or a magical sign with a rather poetic name. Ægir is an Old Norse word meaning "terror" and the name of a destructive giant associated with the sea; ægis is the genitive (possessive) form of ægir and has no direct relation to Greek aigis.
- Iliad 2.446–9, (Martin Hammond's translation).
- Aeneid 8.435–8, (Day-Lewie's translation).
- Part I, section I (Warner Books' United States Paperback Edition)
- Noted by Graves 1960, 9.a; Karl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks 1951, p 50.
- As in Kerenyi 1951:50
- John Tzetzes, On Lycophron, 355.
- Williams, Dyfri. Masterpieces of Classical Art, p. 296, 2009, British Museum Press, ISBN 9780714122540
- Güterbock, Perspectives on Hittite Civilization: Selected Writings (Chicago 1997).
- Calvert Watkins "A Distant Anatolian Echo in Pindar: The Origin of the Aegis Again", Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100 (2000), pp. 1-14. on JSTOR
- to quickly move, to shoot, dart, to put in motion: entry ἀίσσω at LSJ
- Plato: Timaeus 5
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