"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 aegis" means doing something under protection of a powerful, knowledgeable, or benevolent source. The word aegis is identified with protection by a strong force with its roots in Greek mythology, 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.

In Greek mythology

The aegis (Greek Αιγίς), 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. Some of the Attic vase-painters retained an archaic tradition that the tassels had originally been serpents in their representations of the ægis.

When the Olympian shakes the aegis, Mount Ida is wrapped in clouds, the thunder rolls and men are struck down with fear. "Aegis-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, Apollo, holding the aegis, charges the Achaeans, pushing them back to their ships drawn up on the shore. According to Edith Hamilton's Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes , the Aegis is Zeus' breastplate, and was "awful to behold."

Locating the aegis

Greeks of the Classical age always detected that there was something alien and uncanny about the aegis. It was supposed by Euripides (Ion, 995) that the Gorgon was the original possessor of this goatskin, yet the usual understanding is that the Gorgoneion was added to the aegis, a votive gift from a grateful Perseus.

There is also the origin myth that represents the ægis as a fire-breathing chthonic monster similar to the Chimera, which was slain and flayed by Athena, who afterwards wore its skin as a cuirass (Diodorus Siculus iii. 70), or as a chlamys. The Douris cup shows that the aegis was represented exactly as the skin of the guardian serpent, with its scales clearly delineated.

John Tzetzes says that it was the skin of the monstrous giant Pallas whom Athena overcame and whose name she attached to her own.

In a late rendering by Hyginus, (Poetical Astronomy ii. 13) Zeus is said to have used the skin of the goat Amalthea (aigis "goat-skin") which suckled him in Crete, as a shield when he went forth to do battle against the titans.

Appearance in Classical art

In accordance with these varied meanings, 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 head, the gorgoneion, in the centre.

It often is represented on the statues of Roman emperors, heroes, and warriors as well as on cameos and vases. A vestige of that appears in a portrait of Alexander the Great in a fresco from Pompeii dated to the first century B.C., which shows the image of the head of a woman on his armor that resembles the Gorgon.


Herodotus (Histories iv.189) thought he had identified the source of the ægis in Libya, which was always a distant territory of ancient magic for the Greeks:
Athene's garments and ægis were borrowed by the Greeks from the Libyan women, who are dressed in exactly the same way, except that their leather garments are fringed with thongs, not serpents.

Robert Graves in The Greek Myths (1955; 1960) asserts that the ægis in its Libyan sense had been a shamanic pouch containing various ritual objects, bearing the device of a monstrous serpent-haired visage with tusk-like teeth and a protruding tongue which was meant to frighten away the uninitiated. In this context, Graves identifies the aegis as clearly belonging first to Athena.

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, or chlamys , the purpose of which it in part served. In accordance with this double meaning, the ægis 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, the gorgoneion, in the centre. It is often represented on the statues of Roman emperors, heroes, and warriors, and on cameos and vases.

A current modern interpretation is that the Hittite sacral hieratic hunting bag (kursas), a rough and shaggy goatskin that has been firmly established in literary texts and iconography by H.G. Güterbock, is the most likely source of the aegis..


Greek Αιγις has three meanings:

  1. "violent windstorm", from the verb 'αïσσω (stem 'αïγ-) = "I rush or move violently".
  2. The gods' shield as described above.
  3. "goatskin coat", from treating the word as "something grammatically feminine pertaining to goat (Greek αιξ (stem αιγ-))".

The original meaning may have been #1, and Ζευς 'Αιγιοχος = "Zeus who holds the aegis" may have originally meant "Sky/Heaven, who holds the storm". The transition to the meaning "shield" may have come by folk-etymology among a people familiar with draping an animal skin over the left arm as a shield.

In Egyptian and Nubian mythology

The aegis also appears in Ancient Egyptian mythology. The goddess Bast sometimes was 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 lioness head. Plato drew a parallel between Athene and the ancient Libyan and Egyptian goddess Neith, a war deity who also was depicted carrying a shield.

Ancient Nubia shared many aspects of its mythology with ancient Egypt and there is debate about the original source of some religious concepts that the two cultures share and, whether the assimilation was from Nubia to Egypt, the reverse, or through continuing exchanges. At one time the Kush of Nubia ruled ancient Egypt.

The image to the right was discovered in Sudan, which is the contemporary name for the territory of Nubia during the period in which the artifact was made, during the 300s BC. The figure is that of Isis and she is wearing an aegis. It is likely to be an artifact of the flourishing culture of Meroë, successors to the culture of Kush, because of the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs and cartouches.

In Norse mythology

In Norse mythology, the dragon Fafnir (best known in the form of a dragon slain by Sigurðr) bears on his forehead the Ægis-helm (ON ægishjálmr), or Ægir's helmet, or more specifically the "Helm of Terror". (However, some versions would say that Alberich was the one holding a helm, named as the Tarnkappe, which has the power to make the user invisible. It may be an actual helmet or a magical sign with a rather poetic name. Ægir is an Old Norse word meaning "terror" and the name of a destructive giant associated with the sea; ægis is the genitive (possessive) form of ægir and has no direct relation to Greek aigis.


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