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Athena with the Aegis

Aegis (Gr. Aigis, αἰγίς), in Homer, is the shield or buckler of Zeus, fashioned for him by Hephaestus, furnished with tassels and bearing the Gorgon's head in the centre.

Originally symbolic of the storm-cloud, it is probably derived from aisso, signifying rapid, violent motion. Another possible etymology is from the root Αιγ- (Aeg-) meaning wave, as per Αιγαίον (Aegean) = wavy sea. When the god shakes it, Mount Ida is wrapped in clouds, the thunder rolls and men are smitten with fear. He sometimes lends it to Athena and (rarely) to Apollo. According to Part One, Section One of Edith Hamilton's "Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes" (Warner Books' United States Paperback Edition), the Aegis is Zeus' breastplate, and was "awful to behold."

In a later story (Hyginus, Poet. Astronom. ii. 13) Zeus is said to have used the skin of the goat Amalthea (aigis=goat-skin) which suckled him in Crete, as a buckler when he went forth to do battle against the giants. Another legend represents the aegis as a fire-breathing monster like the Chimaira, which was slain by Athena, who afterwards wore its skin as a cuirass (Diodorus Siculus iii. 70). Still others say it was the skin of the monstrous giant Pallas.


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, the purpose of which it in part served. 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's head in the centre. It is often represented on the statues of Roman emperors, heroes, and warriors, and on cameos and vases.

The aegis also appears in Egyptian Mythology. The goddess Bast was sometimes 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 lion's head.

In Norse Mythology, the dwarf Fafnir (best known in the form of a dragon slain by Sigurðr) bears on his forehead the Aegis-helm (ON ægishjálmr), or Ægir's helmet. It may be an actual helmet or a magical sign with a rather poetic name. Ægir is an unrelated Old Norse word meaning "terror" as well as the name of a destructive giant associated with the sea. "Ægis-" is the genitive (possessive) form of ægir and has no relation to the Greek word aegis.

Aegis has entered modern English to mean a shield, protection or sponsorship, based on its use as a protective shield of Zeus.

Surname

Melanegis or Melanaigis, i.e. armed or clad with a black aegis, occurred as a surname of Dionysus at Eleutherae (Suid. s. v. Eleutheros ; Paus.1.38.8), and at Athens (Suid. s. v. Apatouria; Conon, Narrat. 39; Paus. 2.35.1)

What was the Aegis? (The Aegis on Coins)

Greek Mythology

See also : Greek Mythology. Paintings, Drawings

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