On the Etruscan Pair of shields with head of Acheloos, on view at the Dallas Museum of Art

Art discussed in this post:

Pair of shields with head of Acheloos. Bronze. Etruscan, 6th c. BC. Lent by the Republic of Italy to the DMA: 135.2012.5-6

You can view the art here: Pair of shields with head of Acheloos

These shields were found in Etruscan tombs. On the one hand, it makes sense that a river god like Acheloos would be invoked in the tomb. As water gives life in this world, it can symbolize whatever life one could have after death. But water also speaks to malleability, change, and terror. Death’s finality is a weird, terrible thing that maybe only a god can truly see.

On that note, I wondered about the story of Hercules and Acheloos, which the curators used to introduce these shields. They fought over a woman; Acheloos, as the river, changed his shape to become a bull. His horn was broken off by Hercules and he was beaten. In order to get it back, he gave Hercules another “magic horn” (the curators’ words). Hercules took that other horn, gave it away, and it became the cornucopia.

I really don’t like that last part, that the magic horn became the cornucopia. That detail, for me, wrecks the story. What I asked myself while looking at these shields: did the story of the fighting inspire piety for Acheloos? It probably did. There should be some connection between the river god, death, and the trading of horns.

My speculation: Heracles should die contesting a river god about to impale him. That he survives means he has temporarily put off perishing and death’s sting. The “magic horn,” then, is knowledge of a sort and a trap. But it also links Acheloos and Hercules. To be an immortal beaten by a mortal is to know death. Acheloos has our pain in some sense. In another sense, he doesn’t, because we don’t understand our own pain. We just broke a horn off once and then mindlessly accepted another horn. Acheloos is present at the tomb because he is sympathetic. That he looks like he might charge on one shield – he won’t, it’s a tomb, after all – speaks to our failure and his.