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What is an AEGIS ?

Aegis is the name identified with the weapon system, combat system, Navy program office, and ships, which have modernized and strengthened our Surface Navy to cope with potential threats well into the 21st century. The name is rich in classic symbolism for authority and protection, and is most apt for the Navy's ability to defend battle groups. The word is pronounced ee-jis in Greek and aa-jis in Latin.

The Advanced Surface Missile System (ASMS) was re-named "Aegis" in December 1969 after the aegis, the shield of the Greek god Zeus. The name was coined at the suggestion of Captain L. J. Stecher, a former Tartar Weapon System manager, after an internal U.S. Navy contest to name the ASMS program was initiated. Captain Stecher also submitted a possible acronym of Advanced Electronic Guided Interceptor System although this definition was never used. While many other meanings have been attributed to the name Aegis, the name is not an acronym. The main manufacturer of the Aegis combat system, Lockheed Martin, makes no mention of it being an acronym, nor does the U.S. Navy.

Aegis is the term used for the armor of Zeus and of Athena, from which the expression "under the aegis of" meaning "under the protection of" is derived. Homer, in the Odyssey and the Illiad, consistently repeats the formulaic "Pallas Athena, daughter of Aegis-bearing Zeus" when mentioning the patron goddess of Athens.

The AEGIS was most often associated with Athena who sprang forth fully armed from the head of her father, Zeus. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, shipbuilding and warfare; was the embodiment of prudent and intelligent tactics. Athena lent the AEGIS to Perseus to battle the dreaded Medusa. A Gorgon with steely scales and snakes for hair, Medusa was so frightening to behold that those who viewed her directly turned to stone. Perseus slew Medusa by watching her reflection in the AEGIS' polished surface. Forever after, the shield also became adorned with four snakes in place of the gold tassels, representing fear, flight, force and pursuit, again enhancing the shield's mystic impenetrable powers.

"Down sat they all : and down Achaia's sons,
A well-greaved host, at Agamemnon's hest
Down too Apollo of the silver bow,
And down Athene sat, in semblance these
As winged vultures, on a lofty beech,
Tree of their father aegis-wielding Zeus,
Right fain to see the men. Whose ranks sat dense,
With shield and helm and spear a bristling field. "

THE ILIAD by Homer translated by William Charles Green

"Athena went among them holding her priceless aegis that knows neither age nor death. From it there waved a hundred tassels of pure gold, all deftly woven, and each one of them worth a hundred oxen. With this she darted furiously everywhere among the hosts of the Achaeans, urging them forward, and putting courage into the heart of each, so that he might fight and do battle without ceasing. Thus war became sweeter in their eyes even than returning home in their ships ."
THE ILIAD Book II by Homer translated by Samuel Butler

Aegis has entered modern English to mean a shield, protection, or sponsorship, originally from the name of the mythological protective shield of Zeus. The name has been extended to many other entities, and the concept of a protective shield is found in other mythologies, while its form varies across sources.

The concept of doing something "under someone's gis" means doing something under protection of a powerful, knowledgeable, or benevolent source. The word gis is identified with protection by a strong force with its roots in Classical mythology, specifically Greek myth adopted by the Romans; there are parallels in Norse mythology, and in Egyptian mythology as well, where the Greek word aegis is applied by extension.

The gis (Greek ?????), already attested in the Iliad, is the shield or buckler of Zeus or of Pallas Athena, which according to Homer was fashioned by Hephaestus, furnished with golden tassels and bearing the Gorgoneion (Medusa's head) in the central boss. The Attic vase-painters retained an archaic tradition that the tassels had originally been serpents in their representations of the gis. Homer always represents it as part of the armour of Zeus, whom on this account he distinguishes by the epithet aegis-wielding.

Originally symbolical of the storm-cloud, it is probably derived from word signifying rapid, violent motion. When the god shakes it, Mount Ida is wrapped in clouds, the thunder rolls and men are smitten with fear. According to Edith Hamilton's Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, the Aegis is Zeus' breastplate, and was "awful to behold". "gis-bearing Zeus", as he is in the Iliad, sometimes lends the fearsome goatskin to Athena. In the Iliad when Zeus sends Apollo to revive the wounded Hector of Troy, holding the gis, Apollo charges the Achaeans, pushing them back to their ships drawn up on the shore.

He sometimes lends it to Athene and (rarely) to Apollo. In the later story (Hyginus, Poet. Astronom. ii. 13) Zeus is said to have used the skin of the goat Amaltheia (aryls = goat-skin), which suckled him in his infancy 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 Chimaera, which was slain by Athene, who afterwards wore its skin as a cuirass (Diodorus Siculus iii. 70).

It appears 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 transference, 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, sometimes as a cuirass, with a border of snakes corresponding to the tassels of Homer, usually with the Gorgon's head in the center. It is often represented on the statues of Roman emperors, heroes and warriors, and ' on cameos and vases.

The skins of various quadrupeds having been used by the most ancient inhabitants of Greece for clothing and defence, one cannot wonder that the goat-skin was employed in the same manner. It must also be borne in mind that the heavy shields of the ancient Greeks were in part supported by a belt or strap (balteus) 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 wonld 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 existence.

Other statues of Athena represent her in 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 a statue of Athena at Dresden. 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 shonlder. the breast, and the back, falling behind so to reach the feet. Schorn (in Bettiger's Amalthea, ii. 215) considers this as the original form of the aegis.

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 (II. v. 738, xviii. 204), 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 (II. xv. 229, 307-321), and on another occasion to cover with it the dead body of Hector in order to protect it from insult (xxiv. 20). In these passages one must suppose the aegis to mean the shield, together with the large expanded skin or belt%y 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 (IV. v. 741), and its border was surrounded with golden tassels, each of which was worth a hecatomb (ii. 446-449).

By the later poets and artists, the original conception of the aegis appears to hare 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. 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. Am. viii. 354; Sil. xii. 720), and as the shield of Pallas or Minerva (" protegit aegide fratrem," Or. lift. T. 46; "contra sonantem Pallas aegida," Hor. Carm. in. 4, 57) ; but it more frequently appears as the breast-plate of Minerva with the Gorgon's head in the centre (" positam in pectore argida," Ov. Met. ii. 754 ; Verg. Am. viii. 455-438 ; on which Servius says, " munimentum pectoris aereum, habens in medio Gorgonis capnt ;" 442, 443 ; Val. Place, vi. 174).

It is remarkable that, although the aegis properly belonged to Zeus, yet it is seldom found 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 Kgis luDga over his left shoulder. The annexed Zens with the Apgie on the left arm. From an ancient cameo figure Zeus is represented with the aegis wrapped round fore part of his left arm. The shield is placed underneath it, at his feet. The Roman emperors also assumed the aegis, extending thereby to exhibit themselves in the manner of Jupiter. Of this the armed statue of Hadrian in the British Museum presents an example.

The aegis, or skin of the goat Amalthea, was in early depictions fastened over the shoulders and breast, and hung over the left arm as a shield-cover [LEFT]. Afterwards it was used solely as a breastplate with the Gorgon's head. Pallas Athena (Minerva) was depicted wearing the aegis with the Gorgon's head on her breast in the statue by Phidias in the Parthenon [RIGHT].

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:56:03 ZULU