The shield of Achilles and the Bhavacakra

Having recently visited a Buddhist temple shortly after reading a bit of Homer, I’ve noticed a parallel which I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone point out before: between the Buddhist bhavacakra (wheel of life) and the shield of Achilles described in the 18th book of the Iliad.

The bhavacakra consists of the following concentric layers:

  1. The hub, depicting the three poisons (ignorance, attachment, and aversion), symbolized by a pig, a bird, and a snake, respectively
  2. Two half-circles representing positive and negative karma; depicting happy people moving upward on one side and miserable people moving downward on the other
  3. Scenes representing the six realms of samsara
  4. Scenes representing the 12 links of dependent origination
  5. A huge monster holding the wheel, representing impermanence

The shield of Achilles as described by Homer also has five layers:

  1. The hub, depicting the earth, sea, sky, sun, and moon
  2. The constellations (generally depicted as the 12 signs of the zodiac, though Homer doesn’t actually say that)
  3. Two scenes depicting a city and peace and a city at war
  4. Six scenes of country life
  5. The River Ocean encircling it all

Despite the obvious differences, I thought the general scheme of the two symbols was remarkably similar — especially the division of the three middle layers into two, six, and 12 scenes; though I doubt if any specific correspondences exist between the two groups of six and twelve. The scenes of peace and war, though, fit fairly well with the idea of positive and negative karma; and the great River makes a good symbol of impermanence.

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2 Comments

Filed under Coincidence / Synchronicity

2 responses to “The shield of Achilles and the Bhavacakra

  1. That’s exactly the kind of similarity upon which Jung built his vast theories of the collective unconscious – but I guess you already know that. If the similarity has been noted it would probably be somewhere by the Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell.

    Either way, an Oxford academic called Nicholas J Allen seems to have noticed the same thing as you a few years ago

    Paper referenced as ‘in press’ in http://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/CFCG/article/viewFile/CFCG0707110033A/30914

    also 2006b in http://users.ox.ac.uk/~njallen/indo_european.htm

  2. I figured I couldn’t have been the first. I don’t know whether to attribute such parallels to some proto-Indo-European tradition or to something more Jungian, but I tend to lean in the latter direction. (Ezekiel 1, a non-Indo-European text, contains the same combination of a river, animals representing the fixed signs of the zodiac, and wheels within wheels.)

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