), the shield of
Zeus. The origin of the word appears to have been confused by the ancients
themselves; in the Homeric sense it is probably from the root of ἀί̂σσω,
to move violently, but it was early
taken to come from αἴξ
). According to the mythologers, the
aegis worn by Zeus was the hide of the goat Amaltheia, which had suckled him
in his infancy. Hyginus relates (Astron. Poet.
13) that, when
he was preparing to resist the Titans, he was directed, if he wished to
conquer, to wear a goat-skin with the head of the Gorgon. To this particular
goatskin the term aegis was afterwards confined. Homer always represents it
as part of the armour of Zeus, whom on this account he distinguishes by the
). He, however, asserts that it was borrowed on
different occasions both by Apollo (Il.
), and by Athena (Il. 2.447
The skins of various quadrupeds having been used by the most ancient
inhabitants of Greece for clothing and defence, we cannot wonder that the
goat-skin was employed in the same manner. It must also be borne in mind
that the heavy
Aegis worn by Athena. From Museum at Naples.
shields of the ancient Greeks were in part supported by a belt or
) passing over the right shoulder, and,
when not elevated with the shield, descending transversely to the left hip.
In order that a goat-skin might serve this purpose, two of its legs would
probably be tied over the right shoulder of the wearer, the other extremity
being fastened to the inside of the shield. In combat the left arm would be
passed under the hide, and would raise it together with the shield, as is
shown in a marble statue of Athena, preserved in the Museum at Naples,
which, from its style of art, may be reckoned among the most ancient in
Other statues of Athena represent her in a state of repose, and with the
goat-skin falling obliquely from its loose fastening over her right
shoulder, so as to pass round the body under the left arm. It thus appears
in the left-hand figure below, from a statue of Athena at Dresden.
Aegis worn by Athena.
Aegis worn by Athena. From Torso at Dresden.
From Statue at Florence,
Another mode of wearing this garment, also of peaceful expression, is seen in
another statue of Athena at Dresden, of still higher antiquity than that
last referred to, and in the very ancient image of the same goddess from the
temple of Zeus at Aegina. In both of these the aegis covers the right as
well as the left shoulder, the abreast, and the back, falling behind so as
almost to reach the feet. Schorn (in Böttiger's Amalthea,
2.215) considers this as the original form of the
By a figure of speech, Homer uses the term aegis to denote not only the
goat-skin, which it properly signified, but together with it the shield to
which it belonged. By thus understanding the word, it is easy to comprehend
both why Athena is said to throw her father's aegis round her shoulders
), and why on one occasion Apollo is said to hold it in
his hand and to shake it so as to terrify and confound the Greeks (Il. 15.229
), and on another
occasion to cover with it the dead body of Hector in order to protect it
from insult (24.20). In these passages we must suppose the aegis to mean the
shield, together with the large expanded skin or belt by which it was
suspended from the right shoulder.
As the Greeks prided themselves greatly on the rich and splendid ornaments of
their shields, they supposed the aegis to be adorned in a style
corresponding to the might and majesty of the father of the gods. In the
middle of it was fixed the appalling Gorgon's head (Il. 5.741
), and its border was surrounded with golden tassels
), each of which was worth a
hecatomb (2.446-449). In the figures given above
and below, the serpents of the Gorgon's head are transferred to the border
of the skin.
By the later poets and artists, the original conception of the aegis appears
to have been forgotten or disregarded. They represent it as a breast-plate
covered with metal in the form of scales, not used to support the shield,
but extending equally on both sides from shoulder to shoulder; as in the
right-hand figure in the preceding column, from a statue at Florence.
The Roman poets sometimes regard it as a shield and sometimes as a
breast-plate. Thus it is represented as the shield of Jupiter (Verg. A. 8.354
; Sil. 11.720), and as the
shield of Pallas or Minerva ( “protegit aegide fratrem,”
Ov. Met. 5.46
; “contra sonantem
Hor. Carm. 3.4.57
); but it more
frequently appeals as the breast-plate of Minerva with the Gorgon's head in
the centre ( “positam in pectore aegida,”
Ov. Met. 2.754
; Verg. A. 8.435
; on which
Servius says, “munimentum pectoris aereum, habens in medio Gorgonis
caput ;” Sil. 9.442, 443; V. Fl.
It is remarkable that, although the aegis properly belonged to Zeus, yet we
seldom find it as an attribute of Zeus in works of art. There is, however,
in the Museum at Leyden, a marble statue of Zeus, found at Utica, in which
the aegis hangs over his left shoulder. The annexed
Zeus with the Aegis on the left arm. From an ancient cameo.
figure is taken from an ancient cameo. Zeus is here represented
with the aegis wrapped round the fore part of his left arm. The shield is
placed underneath it, at his feet.
The Roman emperors also assumed the aegis, intending thereby to exhibit
themselves in the character of Jupiter. Of this the armed statue of Hadrian
in the British Museum presents an example. In these cases the more recent
Roman conception of the aegis is of course followed, coinciding with the
remark of Servius (Aen.
8.435), that this breast-armour was
called aegis when worn by a god; lorica,
worn by a man. (Comp. Mart. 7.1