Homer and His Age, by Andrew Lang

Chapter 7

Homeric Armour

Tested by their ideas, their picture of political society, and their descriptions of burial rites, the presumed authors of the alleged expansions of the Iliad all lived in one and the same period of culture. But, according to the prevalent critical theory, we read in the Iliad not only large “expansions” of many dates, but also briefer interpolations inserted by the strolling reciters or rhapsodists. “Until the final literary redaction had come,” says Mr. Leaf — that is about 540 B.C. —“we cannot feel sure that any details, even of the oldest work, were secure from the touch of the latest poet.” 99

Here we are far from Mr. Leaf’s own opinion that “the whole scenery of the poems, the details of armour, palaces, dress, decoration . . . had become stereotyped, and formed a foundation which the Epic poet dared not intentionally sap. . . . ” 100 We now find 101 that “the latest poet” saps as much as he pleases down to the middle of the sixth century B.C. Moreover, in the middle of the sixth century B.C., the supposed editor employed by Hsistratus made “constant additions of transitional passages,” and added many speeches by Nestor, an ancestor of Pisistratus.

Did these very late interlopers, down to the sixth century, introduce modern details into the picture of life? did they blur the unus color? We hope to prove that, if they did so at all, it was but slightly. That the poems, however, with a Mycenaean or sub-Mycenaean basis of actual custom and usage, contain numerous contaminations from the usage of centuries as late as the seventh, is the view of Mr. Leaf, and Reichel and his followers. 102

Reichel’s hypothesis is that the heroes of the original poet had no defensive armour except the great Mycenaean shields; that the ponderous shield made the use of chariots imperatively necessary; that, after the Mycenaean age, a small buckler and a corslet superseded the unwieldy shield; that chariots were no longer used; that, by the seventh century B.C., a warrior could not be thought of without a breastplate; and that new poets thrust corslets and greaves into songs both new and old.

How the new poets could conceive of warriors as always in chariots, whereas in practice they knew no war chariots, and yet could not conceive of them without corslets which the original poet never saw, is Reichel’s secret. The new poets had in the old lays a plain example to follow. They did follow it as to chariots and shields; as to corslets and greaves they reversed it. Such is the Reichelian theory.

The Shield

As regards armour, controversy is waged over the shield, corslet, and bronze greaves. In Homer the shield is of leather, plated with bronze, and of bronze is the corslet. No shields of bronze plating and no bronze corslets have been found in Mycenaean excavations.

We have to ask, do the Homeric descriptions of shields tally with the representations of shields in works of art, discovered in the graves of Mycenae, Spata in Attica, Vaphio in Sparta, and elsewhere? If the descriptions in Homer vary from these relics, to what extent do they vary? and do the differences arise from the fact that the poet describes consistently what he sees in his own age, or are the variations caused by late rhapsodists in the Iron Age, who keep the great obsolete shields and bronze weapons, yet introduce the other military gear of their day, say 800–600 B.C. — gear unknown to the early singers?

It may be best to inquire, first, what does the poet, or what do the poets, say about shields? and, next, to examine the evidence of representations of shields in Mycenaean art; always remembering that the poet does not pretend to live, and beyond all doubt does not live, in the Mycenaean prime, and that the testimony of the tombs is liable to be altered by fresh discoveries.

In Iliad, II. 388, the shield (aspis) is spoken of as “covering a man about” ([Greek: amphibrotae]), while, in the heat of battle, the baldric (telamon), or belt of the shield, “shall be wet with sweat.” The shield, then, is not an Ionian buckler worn on the left arm, but is suspended by a belt, and covers a man, or most of him, just as Mycenaean shields are suspended by belts shown in works of art, and cover the body and legs. This (II. 388) is a general description applying to the shields of all men who fight from chariots. Their great shield answers to the great mediaeval shield of the knights of the twelfth century, the “double targe,” worn suspended from the neck by a belt. Such a shield covers a mounted knight’s body from mouth to stirrup in an ivory chessman of the eleventh to twelfth century A.D., 103 so also in the Bayeux tapestry, 104 and on seals. Dismounted men have the same shield (p. 132).

The shield of Menelaus (III. 348) is “equal in all directions,” which we might conceive to mean, mathematically “circular,” as the words do mean that. A shield is said to have “circles,” and a spear which grazes a shield — a shield which was [Greek: panton eesae], “every way equal”— rends both circles, the outer circle of bronze, and the inner circle of leather (Iliad, XX. 273–281). But the passage is not unjustly believed to be late; and we cannot rely on it as proof that Homer knew circular shields among others. The epithet [Greek: eukuklykos], “of good circle,” is commonly given to the shields, but does not mean that the shield was circular, we are told, but merely that it was “made of circular plates.” 105 As for the shield of Menelaus, and other shields described in the same words, “every way equal,” the epithet is not now allowed to mean “circular.” Mr. Leaf, annotating Iliad, I. 306, says that this sense is “intolerably mathematical and prosaic,” and translates [Greek: panton eesae] as “well balanced on every side.” Helbig renders the epithets in the natural sense, as “circular.” 106

To the rendering “circular” it is objected that a circular shield of, say, four feet and a half in diameter, would be intolerably heavy and superfluously wide, while the shields represented in Mycenaean art are not circles, but rather resemble a figure of eight, in some cases, or a section of a cylinder, in others, or, again, a door (Fig. 5, p. 130).

What Homer really meant by such epithets as “equal every way,” “very circular,” “of a good circle,” cannot be ascertained, since Homeric epithets of the shield, which were previously rendered “circular,” “of good circle,” and so on, are now translated in quite other senses, in order that Homeric descriptions may be made to tally with Mycenaean representations of shields, which are never circular as represented in works of art. In this position of affairs we are unable to determine the shape, or shapes, of the shields known to Homer.

A scholar’s rendering of Homer’s epithets applied to the shield is obliged to vary with the variations of his theory about the shield. Thus, in 1883, Mr. Leaf wrote, “The poet often calls the shield by names which seem to imply that it was round, and yet indicates that it was large enough to cover the whole body of a man. . . . In descriptions the round shape is always implied.” The words which indicated that the shield (or one shield) “really looked like a tower, and really reached from neck to ankles” (in two or three cases), were “received by the poet from the earlier Achaean lays.” “But to Homer the warriors appeared as using the later small round shield. His belief in the heroic strength of the men of old time made it quite natural to speak of them as bearing a shield which at once combined the later circular shape and the old heroic expanse. . . . ” 107

Here the Homeric words which naturally mean “circular” or “round” are accepted as meaning “round” or “circular.” Homer, it is supposed, in practice only knows the round shields of the later age, 700 B.C., so he calls shields “round,” but, obedient to tradition, he conceives of them as very large.

But, after the appearance of Reichel’s speculations, the Homeric words for “round” and “circular” have been explained as meaning something else, and Mr. Leaf, in place of maintaining that Homer knew no shields but round shields, now writes (1900), “The small circular shield of later times . . . is equally unknown to Homer, with a very few curious exceptions,” which Reichel discovered — erroneously, as we shall later try to show. 108

Thus does science fluctuate! Now Homer knows in practice none but light round bucklers, dating from about 700 B.C.; again, he does not know them at all, though they were habitually used in the period at which the later parts of his Epic were composed. We shall have to ask, how did small round bucklers come to be unknown to late poets who saw them constantly?

Some scholars, then, believe that the old original poet always described Mycenaean shields, which are of various shapes, but never circular in Mycenaean art. If there are any circular shields in the poems, these, they say, must have been introduced by poets accustomed, in a much later age, to seeing circular bucklers. Therefore Homeric words, hitherto understood as meaning “circular,” must now mean something else — even if the reasoning seems circular.

Other scholars believe that the poet in real life saw various types of shields in use, and that some of them were survivals of the Mycenaean shields, semi-cylindrical, or shaped like figures of 8, or like a door; others were circular; and these scholars presume that Homer meant “circular” when he said “circular.” Neither school will convert the other, and we cannot decide between them. We do not pretend to be certain as to whether the original poet saw shields of various types, including the round shape, in use, though that is possible, or whether he saw only the Mycenaean types.

As regards size, Homer certainly describes, in several cases, shields very much larger than most which we know for certain to have been common after, say, 700 B.C. He speaks of shields reaching from neck to ankles, and “covering the body of a man about.” Whether he was also familiar with smaller shields of various types is uncertain; he does not explicitly say that any small bucklers were used by the chiefs, nor does he explicitly say that all shields were of the largest type. It is possible that at the time when the Epic was composed various types of shield were being tried, while the vast ancient shield was far from obsolete.

To return to the size of the shield. In a feigned tale of Odysseus (Odyssey, XIV. 474–477), men in a wintry ambush place their shields over their shoulders, as they lie on the ground, to be a protection against snow. But any sort of shield, large or small, would protect the shoulders of men in a recumbent position. Quite a large shield may seem to be indicated in Iliad, XIII. 400–405, where Idomeneus curls up his whole person behind his shield; he was “hidden” by it. Yet, as any one can see by experiment, a man who crouched low would be protected entirely by a Highland targe of less than thirty inches in diameter, so nothing about the size of the shield is ascertained in this passage. On a black-figured vase in the British Museum (B, 325) the entire body of a crouching warrior is defended by a large Boeotian buckler, oval, and with échancrures in the sides. The same remark applies to Iliad, XXII. 273–275. Hector watches the spear of Achilles as it flies; he crouches, and the spear flies over him. Robert takes this as an “old Mycenaean” dodge — to duck down to the bottom of the shield. 109 The avoidance by ducking can be managed with no shield, or with a common Highland targe, which would cover a man in a crouching posture, as when Glenbucket’s targe was peppered by bullets at Clifton (746), and Cluny shouted “What the devil is this?” the assailants firing unexpectedly from a ditch. A few moments of experiment, we repeat, prove that a round targe can protect a man in Hector’s attitude, and that the Homeric texts here throw no light on the size of the shield.

The shield of Hector was of black bull’s-hide, and as large and long as any represented in Mycenaean art, so that, as he walked, the rim knocked against his neck and ankles. The shape is not mentioned. Despite its size, he walked under it from the plain and field of battle into Troy (Iliad, VI. 116–118). This must be remembered, as Reichel 110 maintains that a man could not walk under shield, or only for a short way; wherefore the war chariot was invented, he says, to carry the fighting man from point to point (Leaf, Iliad, vol. i. p. 573). Mr. Leaf elaborates these points: “Why did not the Homeric heroes ride? Because no man could carry such a shield on horseback.” 111 We reply that men could and did carry such shields on horseback, as we know on the evidence of works of art and poetry of the eleventh to twelfth centuries A.D. Mr. Ridgeway has explained the introduction of chariots as the result of horses too small to carry a heavy and heavily-armed man as a cavalier.

The shield ([Greek: aspis]), we are told by followers of Reichel, was only worn by princes who could afford to keep chariots, charioteers, and squires of the body to arm and disarm them. But this can scarcely be true, for all the comrades of Diomede had the shield ([Greek: aspis], Iliad, X. 152), and the whole host of Pandarus of Troy, a noted bowman, were shield-bearers ([Greek: aspistaon laon], Iliad, IV. 90), and some of them held their shields ([Greek: sakae]) in front of Pandarus when he took a treacherous shot at Menelaus (IV. 113). The whole host could not have chariots and squires, we may presume, so the chariot was not indispensable to the écuyer or shield-bearing man.

The objections to this conjecture of Reichel are conspicuous, as we now prove.

No Mycenaean work of art shows us a shielded man in a chariot; the men with the monstrous shields are always depicted on foot. The only modern peoples who, to our knowledge, used a leather shield of the Mycenaean size and even of a Mycenaean shape had no horses and chariots, as we shall show. The ancient Eastern peoples, such as the Khita and Egyptians, who fought from chariots, carried small shields of various forms, as in the well-known picture of a battle between the Khita, armed with spears, and the bowmen of Rameses II, who kill horse and man with arrows from their chariots, and carry no spears; while the Khita, who have no bows, merely spears, are shot down as they advance. 112. Egyptians and Khita, who fight from chariots, use small bucklers, whence it follows that war chariots were not invented, or, at least, were not retained in use, for the purpose of giving mobility to men wearing gigantic shields, under which they could not hurry from point to point. War chariots did not cease to be used in Egypt, when men used small shields.

Moreover, Homeric warriors can make marches under shield, while there is no mention of chariots to carry them to the point where they are to lie in ambush (Odyssey, XIV. 470–510). If the shield was so heavy as to render a chariot necessary, would Homer make Hector trudge a considerable distance under shield, while Achilles, under shield, sprints thrice round the whole circumference of Troy? Helbig notices several other cases of long runs under shield. Either Reichel is wrong, when he said that the huge shield made the use of the war chariot necessary, or the poet is “late”; he is a man who never saw a large shield like Hector’s, and, though he speaks of such shields, he thinks that men could walk and run under them. When men did walk or run under shield, or ride, if they ever rode, they would hang it over the left side, like the lion-hunters on the famous inlaid dagger of Mycenae, 113 or the warrior on the chessman referred to above (p. 111).

Aias, again, the big, brave, stupid Porthos of the Iliad, has the largest shield of all, “like a tower” (this shield cannot have been circular), and is recognised by his shield. But he never enters a chariot, and, like Odysseus, has none of his own, because both men come from rugged islands, unfit for chariot driving. Odysseus has plenty of shields in his house in Ithaca, as we learn from the account of the battle with the Wooers in the Odyssey; yet, in Ithaca, as at Troy, he kept no chariot. Here, then, we have nations who fight from chariots, yet use small shields, and heroes who wear enormous shields, yet never own a chariot. Clearly, the great shield cannot have been the cause of the use of the war chariot, as in the theory of Reichel.

Aias and his shield we meet in Iliad, VII. 206–220. “He clothed himself upon his flesh in all his armour” ([Greek: teuchea]), to quote Mr. Leaf’s translation; but the poet only describes his shield: his “towerlike shield of bronze, with sevenfold ox-hide, that Tychius wrought him cunningly; Tychius, the best of curriers, that had his home in Hyle, who made for him his glancing shield of sevenfold hides of stalwart bulls, and overlaid the seven with bronze.”

The shield known to Homer then is, in this case, so tall as to resemble a tower, and has bronze plating over bull’s hide. By tradition from an age of leather shields the Currier is still the shield-maker, though now the shield has metal plating. It is fairly clear that Greek tradition regarded the shield of Aias as of the kind which covered the body from chin to ankles, and resembled a bellying sail, or an umbrella unfurled, and drawn in at the sides in the middle, so as to offer the semblance of two bellies, or of one, pinched in at or near the centre. This is probable, because the coins of Salamis, where Aias was worshipped as a local hero of great influence, display this shield as the badge of the AEginetan dynasty, claiming descent from Aias. The shield is bossed, or bellied out, with two half-moons cut in the centre, representing the waist, or pinched — in part, of the ancient Mycenaean shield; the same device occurs on a Mycenaean ring from AEgina in the British Museum. 114

In a duel with Aias the spear of Hector pierced the bronze and six layers of hide on his shield, but stuck in the seventh. The spear of Aias went through the circular (or “every way balanced”) huge shield of Hector, and through his corslet and chiton, but Hector had doubled himself up laterally ([Greek: eklinthae], VII. 254), and was not wounded. The next stroke of Aias pierced his shield, and wounded his neck; Hector replied with a boulder that lighted on the centre of the shield of Aias, “on the boss,” whether that means a mere ornament or knob, or whether it was the genuine boss — which is disputed. Aias broke in the shield of Hector with another stone; and the gentle and joyous passage of arms was stopped.

The shield of Agamemnon was of the kind that “cover all the body of a man,” and was “every way equal,” or “circular.” It was plated with twelve circles of bronze, and had twenty [Greek: omphaloi], or ornamental knobs of tin, and the centre was of black cyanus (XI. 31–34). There was also a head of the Gorgon, with Fear and Panic. The description is not intelligible, and I do not discuss it.

A man could be stabbed in the middle of the belly, “under his shield” (XI. 424–425), not an easy thing to do, if shields covered the whole body to the feet; but, when a hero was leaping from his chariot (as in this case), no doubt a spear could be pushed up under the shield. The ancient Irish romances tell of a gae bulg, a spear held in the warrior’s toes, and jerked up under the shield of his enemy! Shields could be held up on high, in an attack on a wall garrisoned by archers (XII. 139), the great Norman shield, also, could be thus lifted.

The Locrians, light armed infantry, had no shields, nor bronze helmets, nor spears, but slings and bows (XIII. 714). Mr. Leaf suspects that this is a piece of “false archaism,” but we do not think that early poets in an uncritical age are ever archaeologists, good or bad. The poet is aware that some men have larger, some smaller shields, just as some have longer and some shorter spears (XIV. 370–377); but this does not prove that the shields were of different types. A tall man might inherit the shield of a short father, or versa.

A man in turning to fly might trip on the rim of his shield, which proves how large it was: “it reached to his feet.” This accident of tripping occurred to Periphetes of Mycenae, but it might have happened to Hector, whose shield reached from neck to ankles. 115

Achilles must have been a large man, for he knew nobody whose armour would fit him when he lost his own (though his armour fitted Patroclus), he could, however, make shift with the tower-like shield of Aias, he said.


Fig. 1. “The Vase of Aristonothos”

The evidence of the Iliad, then, is mainly to the effect that the heroes carried huge shields, suspended by belts, covering the body and legs. If Homer means, by the epithets already cited, “of good circle” and “every way equal,” that some shields of these vast dimensions were circular, we have one example in early Greek art which corroborates his description. This is “the vase of Aristonothos,” signed by that painter, and supposed to be of the seventh century (Fig. 1). On one side, the companions of Odysseus are boring out the eye of the Cyclops; on the other, a galley is being rowed to the attack of a ship. On the raised deck of the galley stand three warriors, helmeted and bearing spears. The artist has represented their shields as covering their right sides, probably for the purpose of showing their devices or blazons. Their shields are small round bucklers. On the ship are three warriors whose shields, though circular, cover the body from chin to ankles, as in Homer. One shield bears a bull’s head; the next has three crosses; the third blazon is a crab. 116

Such personal armorial bearings are never mentioned by Homer. It is not usually safe to argue, from his silence, that he is ignorant of anything. He never mentions seals or signet rings, yet they cannot but have been familiar to his time. Odysseus does not seal the chest with the Phaeacian presents; he ties it up with a cunning knot; there are no rings named among the things wrought by Hephaestus, nor among the offerings of the Wooers of Penelope. 117

But, if we are to admit that Homer knew not rings and seals, which lasted to the latest Mycenaean times, through the Dipylon age, to the very late AEginetan treasure (800 B.C.) in the British Museum, and appear again in the earliest dawn of the classical age and in a Cyclic poem, it is plain that all the expansionists lived in one, and that a most peculiar ringless age. This view suits our argument to a wish, but it is not credible that rings and seals and engraved stones, so very common in Mycenaean and later times, should have vanished wholly in the Homeric time. The poet never mentions them, just as Shakespeare never mentions a thing so familiar to him as tobacco. How often are finger rings mentioned in the whole mass of Attic tragic poetry? We remember no example, and instances are certainly rare: Liddell and Scott give none. Yet the tragedians were, of course, familiar with rings and seals.

Manifestly, we cannot say that Homer knew no seals, because he mentions none; but armorial blazons on shields could be ignored by no poet of war, if they existed.

Meanwhile, the shields of the warriors on the vase, being circular and covering body and legs, answer most closely to Homer’s descriptions. Helbig is reduced to suggest, first, that these shields are worn by men aboard ship, as if warriors had one sort of shield when aboard ship and another when fighting on land, and as if the men in the other vessel were not equally engaged in a sea fight. No evidence in favour of such difference of practice, by sea and land, is offered. Again, Helbig does not trust the artist, in this case, though the artist is usually trusted to draw what he sees; and why should he give the men in the other ship or boat small bucklers, genuine, while bedecking the warriors in the adverse vessel with large, purely imaginary shields? 118 It is not in the least “probable,” as Helbig suggests, that the artist is shirking the trouble of drawing the figure.

Reichel supposes that round bucklers were novelties when the vase was painted (seventh century), and that the artist did not understand how to depict them. 119 But he depicted them very well as regards the men in the galley, save that, for obvious aesthetic reasons, he chose to assume that the men in the galley were left-handed and wore their shields on their right arms, his desire being to display the blazons of both parties. 120 We thus see, if the artist may be trusted, that shields, which both “reached to the feet” and were circular, existed in his time (the seventh century), so that possibly they may have existed in Homer’s time and survived into the age of small bucklers. Tyrtaeus (late seventh century), as Helbig remarks, speaks of “a wide shield, covering thighs, shins, breast, and shoulders.” 121

Nothing can be more like the large shields of the vase of Aristonothos. Thus the huge circular shield seems to have been a practicable shield in actual use. If so, when Homer spoke of large circular shields he may have meant large circular shields. On the Dodwell pyxis of 650 to 620 B.C., a man wears an oval shield, covering him from the base of the neck to the ankles. He wears it on his left arm. 122

Of shields certainly small and light, worn by the chiefs, there is not a notice in the Iliad, unless there be a hint to that effect in the accounts of heroes running, walking considerable distances, and “stepping lightly” under shields, supposed, by the critics, to be of crushing weight. In such passages the poet may be carried away by his own verve, or the heroes of ancient times may be deemed capable of exertions beyond those of the poet’s contemporaries, as he often tells us that, in fact, the old heroes were. A poet is not a scientific military writer; and in the epic poetry of all other early races very gross exaggeration is permitted, as in the Chansons de Geste, the old Celtic romances, and, of course, the huge epics of India. In Homer “the skill of the poet makes things impossible convincing,” Aristotle says; and it is a critical error to insist on taking Homer absolutely and always au pied de la lettre. He seems, undeniably, to have large body-covering shields present to his mind as in common use.

Small shields of the Greek historic period are “unknown to Homer,” Mr. Leaf says, “with a very few curious exceptions,” 123 detected by Reichel in Book X. 15 124, where Diomede’s men sleep with their heads resting on their shields, whereas a big-bellied Mycenaean shield rises, he says, too high for a pillow. But some Mycenzean shields were perfectly flat; while, again, nothing could be more comfortable, as a head-rest, than the hollow between the upper and lower bulges of the Mycenzean huge shield. The Zulu wooden head-rest is of the same character. Thus this passage in Book X. does not prove that small circular shields were known to Homer, nor does X. 5 13. 526–530, an obscure text in which it is uncertain whether Diomede and Odysseus ride or drive the horses of Rhesus. They could ride, as every one must see, even though equipped with great body-covering shields. True, the shielded hero could neither put his shield at his back nor in front of him when he rode; but he could hang it sidewise, when it would cover his left side, as in the early Middle Ages (1060–1160 A.D.).

The taking of the shield from a man’s shoulders (XI. 374) does not prove the shield to be small; the shield hung by the belt (telamon) from the shoulder. 125

So far we have the results that Homer seems most familiar with vast body-covering shields; that such shields were suspended by a baldric, not worn on the left arm; that they were made of layers of hide, plated with bronze, and that such a shield as Aias wore must have been tall, doubtless oblong, “like a tower,” possibly it was semi-cylindrical. Whether the epithets denoting roundness refer to circular shields or to the double targe, g-shaped, of Mycenaean times is uncertain.

We thus come to a puzzle of unusual magnitude. If Homer does not know small circular shields, but refers always to huge shields, whereas, from the eighth century B.C. onwards, such shields were not in use (disregarding Tyrtaeus, and the vase of Aristonothos on which they appear conspicuously, and the Dodwell pyxis), where are we? Either we have a harmonious picture of war from a very ancient date of large shields, or late poets did not introduce the light round buckler of their own period. Meanwhile they are accused of introducing the bronze corslets and other defensive armour of their own period. Defensive armour was unknown, we are told, in the Mycenaean prime, which, if true, does not affect the question. Homer did not live in or describe the Mycenaean prime, with its stone arrow-tips. Why did the late poets act so inconsistently? Why were they ignorant of small circular shields, which they saw every day? Or why, if they knew them, did they not introduce them in the poems, which, we are told, they were filling with non-Mycenaean greaves and corslets?

This is one of the dilemmas which constantly arise to confront the advocates of the theory that the Iliad is a patchwork of many generations. “Late” poets, if really late, certainly in every-day life knew small parrying bucklers worn on the left arm, and huge body-covering shields perhaps they rarely saw in use. They also knew, and the original poet, we are told, did not know bronze corslets and greaves. The theory of critics is that late poets introduced the bronze corslets and greaves with which they were familiar into the poems, but scrupulously abstained from alluding to the equally familiar small shields. Why are they so recklessly anachronistic and “up-to-date” with the corslets and greaves, and so staunchly but inconsistently conservative about keeping the huge shields?

Mr. Leaf explains thus: “The groundwork of the Epos is Mycenaean, in the arrangement of the house, in the prevalence of copper” (as compared with iron), “and, as Reichel has shown, in armour. Yet in many points the poems are certainly later than the prime, at least, of the Mycenaean age”— which we are the last to deny. “Is it that the poets are deliberately trying to present the conditions of an age anterior to their own? or are they depicting the circumstances by which they are surrounded — circumstances which slowly change during the period of the development of the Epos? Cauer decides for the latter alternative, the only one which is really conceivable 126 in an age whose views are in many ways so naïve as the poems themselves prove them to have been.” 127

Here we entirely side with Mr. Leaf. No poet, no painter, no sculptor, in a naïf, uncritical age, ever represents in art anything but what he sees daily in costume, customs, weapons, armour, and ways of life. Mr. Leaf, however, on the other hand, occasionally chides pieces of deliberate archaeological pedantry in the poets, in spite of his opinion that they are always “depicting the circumstances by which they are surrounded.” But as huge man-covering shields are not among the circumstances by which the supposed late poets were surrounded, why do they depict them? Here Mr. Leaf corrects himself, and his argument departs from the statement that only one theory is “conceivable,” namely, that the poets depict their own surroundings, and we are introduced to a new proposition. “Or rather we must recognise everywhere a compromise between two opposing principles: the singer, on the one hand, has to be conservatively tenacious of the old material which serves as the substance of his song; on the other hand, he has to be vivid and actual in the contributions which he himself makes to the common stock.” 128

The conduct of such singers is so weirdly inconsistent as not to be easily credible. But probably they went further, for “it is possible that the allusions” to the corslet “may have been introduced in the course of successive modernisation such as the oldest parts of the Iliad seem in many cases to have passed through. But, in fact, Iliad, XI. 234 is the only mention of a corslet in any of the oldest strata, so far as we can distinguish them, and here Reichel translates thorex ‘shield.’” 129 Mr. Leaf’s statement we understand to mean that, when the singer or reciter was delivering an ancient lay he did not introduce any of the military gear — light round bucklers, greaves, and corslets — with which his audience were familiar. But when the singer delivers a new lay, which he himself has added to “the kernel,” then he is “vivid and actual,” and speaks of greaves and corslets, though he still cleaves in his new lay to the obsolete chariot, the enormous shield, and, in an age of iron, to weapons of bronze. He is a sadly inconsistent new poet!

Meanwhile, sixteen allusions to the corslet “can be cut out,” as probably “some or all these are additions to the text made at a time when it seemed absurd to think of a man in full armour without a corslet.” 130 Thus the reciters, after all, did not spare “the old material” in the matter of corslets. The late singers have thus been “conservatively tenacious” in clinging to chariots, weapons of bronze, and obsolete enormous shields, while they have also been “vivid and actual” and “up to date” in the way of introducing everywhere bronze corslets, greaves, and other armour unknown, by the theory, in “the old material which is the substance of their song.” By the way, they have not even spared the shield of the old material, for it was of leather or wood (we have no trace of metal plating on the old Mycenaean shields), and the singer, while retaining the size of it, has added a plating of bronze, which we have every reason to suppose that Mycenaean shields of the prime did not present to the stone-headed arrow.

This theory of singers, who are at once “conservatively tenacious” of the old and impudently radical in pushing in the new, appears to us to be logically untenable. We have, in Chapter I, observed the same inconsistency in Helbig, and shall have occasion to remark again on its presence in the work of that great archaeologist. The inconsistency is inseparable from theories of expansion through several centuries. “Many a method,” says Mr. Leaf, “has been proposed which, up to a certain point, seemed irresistible, but there has always been a residuum which returned to plague the inventor.” 131 This is very true, and our explanation is that no method which starts from the hypothesis that the poems are the product of several centuries will work. The “residuum” is the element which cannot be fitted into any such hypothesis. But try the hypothesis that the poems are the product of a single age, and all is harmonious. There is no baffling “residuum.” The poet describes the details of a definite age, not that of the Mycenaean bloom, not that of 900–600 A.D.

We cannot, then, suppose that many generations of irresponsible reciters at fairs and public festivals conservatively adhered to the huge size of the shield, while altering its material; and also that the same men, for the sake of being “actual” and up to date, dragged bronze corslets and greaves not only into new lays, but into passages of lays by old poets who had never heard of such things. Consequently, the poetic descriptions of arms and armour must be explained on some other theory. If the poet, again, as others suppose — Mr. Ridgeway for one — knew such bronze-covered circular shields as are common in central and western Europe of the Bronze Age, why did he sometimes represent them as extending from neck to ankles, whereas the known bronze circular shields are not of more than 2 feet 2 inches to 2 feet 6 inches in diameter? 132 Such a shield, without the wood or leather, weighed 5 lbs. 2 ozs., 133 and a strong man might walk or run under it. Homer’s shields would be twice as heavy, at least, though, even then, not too heavy for a Hector, or an Aias, or Achilles. I do not see that the round bronze shields of Limerick, Yetholm, Beith, Lincolnshire, and Tarquinii, cited by Mr. Ridgeway, answer to Homer’s descriptions of huge shields. They are too small. But it is perfectly possible, or rather highly probable, that in the poet’s day shields of various sizes and patterns coexisted.

Archaeology of the Shields

Turning to archaeological evidence, we find no remains in the graves of the Mycenaean prime of the bronze which covered the ox-hides of Homeric shields, though we do find gold ornaments supposed to have been attached to shields. There is no evidence that the Mycenaean shield was plated with bronze. But if we judge from their shape, as represented in works of Mycenaean art, some of the Mycenaean shields were not of wood, but of hide. In works of art, such as engraved rings and a bronze dagger (Fig. 2) with pictures inlaid in other metals, the shield, covering the whole body, is of the form of a bellying sail, or a huge umbrella “up,” and pinched at both sides near the centre: or is like a door, or a section of a cylinder; only one sort of shield resembles a big-bellied figure of 8. Ivory models of shields indicate the same figure. 134 A gold necklet found at Enkomi, in Cyprus, consists of a line of models of this Mycenaean shield. 135


Fig. 2. Dagger with Lion-Hunters

There also exists a set of small Mycenaean relics called Palladia, found at Mycenae, Spata and in the earliest strata of the Acropolis at Athens. They resemble “two circles joined together so as to intersect one another slightly,” or “a long oval pinched in at the middle.” They vary in size from six inches to half an inch, and are of ivory, glazed ware, or glass. Several such shields are engraved on Mycenaean gems; one, in gold, is attached to a silver vase. The ornamentation shown on them occurs, too, on Mycenaean shields in works of art; in short, these little objects are representations in miniature of the big double-bellied Mycenaean shield. Mr. Ernest Gardner concludes that these objects are the “schematised” reductions of an armed human figure, only the shield which covered the whole body is left. They are talismans symbolising an armed divinity, Pallas or another. A Dipylon vase (Fig. 3) shows a man with a shield, possibly evolved out of this kind, much scooped out at the waist, and reaching from neck to knees. The shield covers his side, not his back or front. 136

One may guess that the original pinch at the waist of the Mycenaean shield was evolved later into the two deep scoops to enable the warrior to use his arms more freely, while the shield, hanging from his neck by a belt, covered the front of his body. Fig. 4 shows shields of 1060–1160 A.D. equally designed to cover body and legs. Men wore shields, if we believe the artists of Mycenae, when lion-hunting, a sport in which speed of foot is desirable; so they cannot have been very weighty. The shield then was hung over one side, and running was not so very difficult as if it hung over back or front (cf. Fig. 5). The shields sometimes reach only from the shoulders to the calf of the leg. 137 The wearer of the largest kind could only be got at by a sword-stab over the rim into the throat 138 (Fig. 5). Some shields of this shape were quite small, if an engraved rock-crystal is evidence; here the shield is not half so high as an adjacent goat, but it may be a mere decoration to fill the field of the gem. 139


Fig. 5. Rings: Swords and Shields

Other shields, covering the body from neck to feet, were sections of cylinders; several of these are represented on engraved Mycenaean ring stones or on the gold; the wearer was protected in front and flank 140 (Fig. 5).

In a “maze of buildings” outside the precincts of the graves of Mycenae, Dr. Schliemann found fragments of vases much less ancient than the contents of the sepulchres. There was a large amphora, the “Warrior Vase” (Fig. 6). The men wear apparently a close-fitting coat of mail over a chiton, which reaches with its fringes half down the thigh. The shield is circular, with a half-moon cut out at the bottom. The art is infantile. Other warriors carry long oval shields reaching, at least, from neck to shin. 141 They wear round leather caps, their enemies have helmets. On a Mycenaean painted stele, apparently of the same relatively late period, the costume is similar, and the shield — oval — reaches from neck to knee. 142 The Homeric shields do not answer to the smaller of these late and ugly representations, while, in their bronze plating, Homeric shields seem to differ from the leather shields of the Mycenaean prime.

Finally, at Enkomi, near Salamis, in Cyprus, an ivory carving (in the British Museum) shows a fighting man whose perfectly circular shield reaches from neck to knee; this is one of several figures in which Mr. Arthur Evans finds “a most valuable illustration of the typical Homeric armour.” 143 The shield, however, is not so huge as those of Aias, Hector, and Periphetes.

I can only conclude that Homer describes intermediate types of shield, as large as the Mycenaean but plated with bronze, for a reason to be given later. This kind of shield, the kind known to Homer, was not the invention of late poets living in an age of circular bucklers, worn on the left arm, and these supposed late poets never introduce into the epics such bucklers.

What manner of military needs prompted the invention of the great Mycenaean shields which, by Homer’s time, were differentiated by the addition of metal plating?


Fig. 6. Fragments of Warrior Vase

The process of evolution of the huge Mycenaean shields, and of the Homeric shields covering the body from chin to ankles, can easily be traced. The nature of the attack expected may be inferred from the nature of the defence employed. Body-covering shields were, obviously, at first, defences against showers of arrows tipped with stone. “In the earlier Mycenaean times the arrow-head of obsidian alone appears,” as in Mycenaean Grave IV. In the upper strata of Mycenae and in the later tombs the arrow-head is usually of bronze. 144 No man going into battle naked, without body armour, like the Mycenaeans (if they had none), could protect himself with a small shield, or even with a round buckler of twenty-six inches in diameter, against the rain of shafts. In a fight, on the other hand, where man singled out man, and spears were the missiles, and when the warriors had body armour, or even when they had not, a small shield sufficed; as we see among the spear-throwing Zulus and the spear-throwing aborigines of Australia (unacquainted with bows and arrows), who mainly use shields scarcely broader than a bat. On the other hand, the archers of the Algonquins in their wars with the Iroquois, about 1610, used clubs and tomahawks but no spears, no missiles but arrows, and their leather shield was precisely the [Greek: amphibrotae aspis] of Homer, “covering the whole of a man.” It is curious to see, in contemporary drawings (1620), Mycenaean shields on Red Indian shoulders!

In Champlain’s sketches of fights between French and Algonquins against Iroquois (1610–1620), we see the Algonquins outside the Iroquois stockade, which is defended by archers, sheltering under huge shields shaped like the Mycenaean “tower” shield, though less cylindrical; in fact, more like the shield of the fallen hunter depicted on the dagger of Mycenae. These Algonquin shields partially cover the sides as well as the front of the warrior, who stoops behind them, resting the lower rim of the shield on the ground. The shields are oblong and rounded at the top, much like that of Achilles 145 in Mr. Leaf’s restoration? The sides curve inward. Another shield, oval in shape and flat, appears to have been suspended from the neck, and covers an Iroquois brave from chin to feet. The Red Indian shields, like those of Mycenae, were made of leather; usually of buffalo hide, 146 good against stone-tipped arrows. The braves are naked, like the unshielded archers on the Mycenaean silver vase fragment representing a siege (Fig. 7). The description of the Algonquin shields by Champlain, when compared with his drawings, suggests that we cannot always take artistic representations as exact. In his designs only a few Algonquins and one Iroquois carry the huge shields; the unshielded men are stark naked, as on the Mycenaean silver vase. But in his text Champlain says that the Iroquois, like the Algonquins, “carried arrow-proof shields” and “a sort of armour woven of cotton thread”— Homer’s [Greek: linothoraex] (Iliad, II. 259, 850). These facts appear in only one of Champlain’s drawings 147 (Fig. 8).

These Iroquois and Algonquin shields are the armour of men exposed, not to spears, but to a hail of flint-tipped arrows. As spears came in for missiles in Greek warfare, arrows did not wholly go out, but the noble warriors preferred spear and sword. 148 Mr. Ridgeway erroneously says that “no Achaean warrior employs the bow for war.” 149 Teucer, frequently, and Meriones use the bow; like Pandarus and Paris, on the Trojan side, they resort to bow or spear, as occasion serves. Odysseus, in Iliad, Book X., is armed with the bow and arrows of Meriones when acting as a spy; in the Odyssey his skill as an archer is notorious, but he would not pretend to equal famous bowmen of an older generation, such as Heracles and Eurytus of OEchalia, whose bow he possessed but did not take to Troy. Philoctetes is his master in archery. 150


Fig. 7. Fragment of Siege Vase

The bow, however, was little esteemed by Greek warriors who desired to come to handstrokes, just as it was despised, to their frequent ruin, by the Scots in the old wars with England. Dupplin, Falkirk, Halidon Hill and many another field proved the error.

There was much need in Homeric warfare for protection against heavy showers of arrows. Mr. Monro is hardly correct when he says that, in Homer, “we do not hear of bodies of archers, of arrows darkening the air, as in descriptions of oriental warfare.” 151 These precise phrases are not used by Homer; but, nevertheless, arrows are flying thick in his battle pieces. The effects are not often noticed, because, in Homer, helmet, shield, corslet, zoster, and greaves, as a rule prevent the shafts from harming the well-born, well-armed chiefs; the nameless host, however, fall frequently. When Hector came forward for a parley (Iliad, III. 79), the Achaens “kept shooting at him with arrows,” which he took unconcernedly. Teucer shoots nine men in Iliad, VIII. 297–304. In XI. 85 the shafts ([Greek: belea]) showered and the common soldiers fell —[Greek: belea] being arrows as well as thrown spears. 152 Agamemnon and Achilles are as likely, they say, to be hit by arrow as by spear (XI. 191; XXI. 13). Machaon is wounded by an arrow. Patroclus meets Eurypylus limping, with an arrow in his thigh — archer unknown. 153 Meriones, though an Achaean paladin, sends a bronze-headed arrow through the body of Harpalion (XIII. 650). The light-armed Locrians are all bowmen and slingers (XIII. 716). Acamas taunts the Argives as “bowmen” (XIV. 479). “The war-cry rose on both sides, and the arrows leaped from the bowstrings” (XV. 313). Manifestly the arrows are always on the wing, hence the need for the huge Homeric and Mycenaean shields. Therefore, as the Achaeans in Homer wore but flimsy corslets (this we are going to prove), the great body-covering shield of the Mycenaean prime did not go out of vogue in Homer’s time, when bronze had superseded stone arrow-heads, but was strengthened by bronze plating over the leather. In a later age the bow was more and more neglected in Greek warfare, and consequently large shields went out, after the close of the Mycenaean age, and round parrying bucklers came into use.

The Greeks appear never to have been great archers, for some vases show even the old heroes employing the “primary release,” the arrow nock is held between the thumb and forefinger — an ineffectual release. 154 The archers in early Greek art often stoop or kneel, unlike the erect archers of old England; the bow is usually small — a child’s weapon; the string is often drawn only to the breast, as by Pandarus in the Iliad (IV. i 23). By 730 B.C. the release with three fingers, our western release, had become known. 155


Fig. 8. Algonquin Corslet.
From Laverdiere, Oeuvres de Champlain, vol. iv. fol. 4. Quebec, 1870.

The course of evolution seems to be: (1) the Mycenaean prime of much archery, no body armour (?); huge leather “man-covering” shields are used, like those of the Algonquins; (2) the same shields strengthened with metal, light body armour-thin corslets — and archery is frequent, but somewhat despised (the Homeric age); (3) the parrying shield of the latest Mycenaean age (infantry with body armour); (4) the Ionian hoplites, with body armour and small circular bucklers.

It appears, then, that the monstrous Mycenaean shield is a survival of an age when bows and arrows played the same great part as they did in the wars of the Algonquins and Iroquois. The celebrated picture of a siege on a silver vase, of which fragments were found in Grave IV., shows archers skirmishing; there is an archer in the lion hunt on the dagger blade; thirty-five obsidian arrow-heads were discovered in Grave IV., while “in the upper strata of Mycenae and in the later tombs the arrow-head is usually of bronze, though instances of obsidian still occur.” In 1895 Dr. Tsountas found twenty arrow-heads of bronze, ten in each bundle, in a Mycenaean chamber tomb. Messrs. Tsountas and Manatt say, “In the Acropolis graves at Mycenae . . . the spear-heads were but few . . . arrow-heads, on the contrary, are comparatively abundant.” They infer that “picked men used shield and spear; the rank and file doubtless fought simply with bow and sling.” 156. The great Mycenaean shield was obviously evolved as a defence against arrows and sling-stones flying too freely to be parried with a small buckler. What other purpose could it have served? But other defensive armour was needed, and was evolved, by Homer’s men, as also, we shall see, by the Algonquins and Iroquois. The Algonquins and Iroquois thus prove that men who thought their huge shields very efficient, yet felt the desirableness of the protection afforded by corslets, for they wore, in addition to their shields, such corslets as they were able to manufacture, made of cotton, and corresponding to the Homeric [Greek: linothoraex]. 157

Mr. Leaf, indeed, when reviewing Reichel, says that “the use of the Mycenaean shield is inconsistent with that of the metal breastplate; “the shield” covers the wearer in a way which makes a breastplate an useless encumbrance; or rather, it is ignorance of the breastplate which alone can explain the use of such frightfully cumbrous gear as the huge shield.” 158

But the Algonquins and Iroquois wore such breastplates as they could manufacture, though they also used shields of great size, suspended, in Mycenaean fashion, from the neck and shoulder by a telamon or belt. The knights of the eleventh century A.D., in addition to very large shields, wore ponderous hauberks or byrnies, as we shall prove presently. As this combination of great shield with corslet was common and natural, we cannot agree with Mr. Leaf when he says, “it follows that the Homeric warriors wore no metal breastplate, and that all the passages where the [Greek: thoraes] is mentioned are either later interpolations or refer to some other sort of armour,” which, ex hypothesi, would itself be superfluous, given the body-covering shield.

Shields never make corslets superfluous when men can manufacture corslets.

The facts speak for themselves: the largest shields are not exclusive, so to speak, of corslets; the Homeric warriors used both, just as did Red Indians and the mediaeval chivalry of Europe. The use of the aspis in Homer, therefore, throws no suspicion on the concomitant use of the corslet. The really surprising fact would be if late poets, who knew only small round bucklers, never introduced them into the poems, but always spoke of enormous shields, while they at the same time did introduce corslets, unknown to the early poems which they continued. Clearly Reichel’s theory is ill inspired and inconsistent. This becomes plain as soon as we trace the evolution of shields and corslets in ages when the bow played a great part in war. The Homeric bronze-plated shield and bronze corslet are defences of a given moment in military evolution; they are improvements on the large leather shield of Mycenaean art, but, as the arrows still fly in clouds, the time for the small parrying buckler has not yet come.

By the age of the Dipylon vases with human figures, the shield had been developed into forms unknown to Homer. In Fig. 3 (p. 131) we see one warrior with a fantastic shield, slim at the waist, with horns, as it were, above and below; the greater part of the shield is expended uselessly, covering nothing in particular. In form this targe seems to be a burlesque parody of the figure of a Mycenaean shield. The next man has a short oblong shield, rather broad for its length — perhaps a reduction of the Mycenaean door-shaped shield. The third warrior has a round buckler. All these shields are manifestly post-Homeric; the first type is the most common in the Dipylon art; the third survived in the eighth-century buckler.


Fig. 9. Gold Corslet

99 Leaf, Iliad, vol. ii. p. ix.

100 Ibid., vol. i. p. xv.

101 Ibid., vol. ii. p. ix.

102 Homerische Waffen. Von Wolfgang Reichel. Wien, 1901.

103 Catalogue of Scottish National Antiquities, p. 375.

104 Gautier, Chanson de Roland. Seventh edition, pp. 393, 394.

105 Leaf, Iliad, vol. i. p. 573.

106 Helbig, Homerische Epos, p. 315; cf., on the other hand, p. 317, Note I.

107 Journal of Hellenic Studies, iv. pp. 283–285.

108 Leaf, Iliad, vol. i. p. 575.

109 Studien zur Ilias, p. 21.

110 Reichel, 38, 39. Father Browne (Handbook, p. 230) writes, “In Odyssey, XIV 475, Odysseus says he slept within the shield.” He says “under arms” (Odyssey, XIV. 474, but cf. XIV. 479).

111 Iliad, vol. i. p. 573.

112 Maspero, Hist. Ancienne, ii. p. 225.

113 For the chariots, cf. Reichel, Homerische Waffen, 120_ff. Wien, 1901.

114 Evans, Journal of Hellenic Studies, xiii. 213–216.

115 Iliad, XV. 645–646.

116 Mon. dell. Inst., is. pl. 4.

117 Helbig citing Odyssey, VIII. 445–448; Iliad, XVIII. 401; Odyssey, xviii. 292–301.

118 Helbig, Das Homerische Epos, ii. pp. 313–314.

119 Homerische Waffen, p. 47.

120 See the same arrangement in a Dipylon vase. Baumeister, Denkmaler, iii. p. 1945.

121 Tyrtaeus, xi. 23; Helbig, Das Homerische Epos, ii. p. 315, Note 2.

122 Walters, Ancient Pottery, p. 316.

123 Iliad, vol. i. p. 575.

124 Ibid, vol. i. p. 569, fig. 2.

125 On the other side, see Reichel, Homerische Waffen, pp. 40–44. Wien, 1901. We have replied to his arguments above.

126 Then how is the alleged archaeology of the poet of Book X. conceivable?

127 Classical Review, ix. pp. 463, 464.

128 Ibid., ix. pp. 463, 464.

129 Leaf, Iliad, vol. i. p. 578.

130 Ibid, vol. i. p. 577.

131 Iliad, vol. ii. p. X.

132 Ridgeway, Early Age of Greece, vol. i pp. 453, 471.

133 Ibid., vol. i. p. 462.

134 Schuchardt, Schliemann’s Excavations, p. 192.

135 Excavations in Cyprus, pl. vii. fig. 604. A. S. Murray, 1900.

136 Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. xiii. pp. 21–24.

137 Reichel, p. 3, fig. 5, Grave III. at Mycenae.

138 Ibid., p. 2, fig. 2.

139 Reichel, p. 3, fig. 7.

140 Ibid., p. 4, fig II, 12; p. I, fig I.

141 Schuchardt, Schliemann’s Excavations, pp. 279–285.

142 Ridgeway, vol. i. p. 314.

143 Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol. xxx. pp. 209–214, figs. 5, 6, 9.

144 Tsountas and Manatt, p. 206.

145 Iliad, vol. ii p. 605

146 Les Voyages de Sr. de Champlain, Paris, 1620, f. 22: “rondache de cuir bouili, qui est d’un animal, comme le boufle.”

147 Dix’s Champlain, p. 113. Appleton, New York, 1903. Laverdière’s Champlain, vol. iv., plate opposite p. 85 (1870).

148 Cf. Archilochus, 3.

149 Early Age of Greece, i. 301.

150 Odyssey, VIII. 219–222.

151 Ibid., vol. ii. 305.

152 Iliad, IV. 465; XVI. 668, 678.

153 Iliad, XI. 809, 810.

154 C. J. Longman, Archery. Badminton Series.

155 Leaf Iliad, vol. i. p. 585.

156 Tsountas and Manatt, 209.

157 In the interior of some shields, perhaps of all, were two [Greek: kanones] (VIII 193; XIII. 407). These have been understood as meaning a brace through which the left arm went, and another brace which the left hand grasped. Herodotus says that the Carians first used shield grips, and that previously shields were suspended by belts from the neck and left shoulder (Herodotus, i. 171). It would be interesting to know how he learned these facts-perhaps from Homer; but certainly the Homeric shield is often described as suspended by a belt. Mr. Leaf used to explain the [Greek: kanones] (XIII. 407) as “serving to attach the two ends of the baldrick to the shield” (Hellenic Society’s Journal, iv. 291), as does Mr. Ridgeway. But now he thinks that they were two pieces of wood, crossing each other, and making the framework on which the leather of the shield was stretched. The hero could grasp the cross-bar, at the centre of gravity, in his left hand, rest the lower rim of the shield on the ground, and crouch behind it (XI. 593; XIII 157). In neither passage cited is anything said about resting the lower rim “on the ground,” and in the second passage the warrior is actually advancing. In this attitude, however-grounding the lower rim of the great body-covering shield, and crouching behind it — we see Algonquin warriors of about 1610 in Champlain’s drawings of Red Indian warfare.]

158 Classical Review, ix. p. 55. 1895.

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