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  Ajax: Stronger Than Dirt?

Art Posted by Stacey Gamble on Friday July 14, @03:19PM
from the village-Illiad dept.

The following is something I wrote for a school journal. The object is to entertain and inform, but I'm submitting it to The Beast Bay in the spirit of the rites of Eleusis. I hope it turns people on to the Odyssey and all the wonderful Greek plays based on it, and helps give people some ideas about how to portray the Gods.

In Ajax by Sophocles, the playwright once again takes his main character on a quest for honor in the typically Greek tragedian style. In this play, he utilizes a brilliant antagonistic character who is at once infallible and omnipotent – the goddess Athena. Athena has jurisdiction over both wisdom and war, and she isn't prone to bestowing her blessings universally – she has definite ideas as to whom she deems deserving. One thing that definitely does not earn her favor is to have her power questioned, or for any human to take personal credit for the qualities that are her domain, and this is the fatal error of our tragic hero, Ajax. She shows her disapproval, and the breadth of her capabilities, when she decides to more or less “make his day:”

Look well at this, and speak no towering word

Yourself against the gods, nor walk too grandly

Because your hand is weightier than another's,

Or your great wealth deeper founded. One short day

Inclines the balance of all human things

To sink or rise again. (ll.127-132)

Ajax believes himself to be the greatest warrior in all of Greece, and this he attributes to his own skill and strength, an error on his part that proves fatal. Athena is a goddess who will hold a grudge eternally, and she remembers well how thankless Ajax was when she offered her help during one of the many battles of the Trojan War:

He boasted. And when once Athena stood

Beside him in the fight, urging him on

To strike the enemy with his deadly hand,

He answered then, that second time, with words

To shudder at, not speak: 'Goddess,' he said,

'Go stand beside the other Greeks; help them.

For where I bide, no enemy will break through.' (ll. 770-776)

Odysseus, on the other hand, credits her with his success and is her faithful suppliant. Perhaps this is why the armor of Achilles is given to him, and his receiving of it irks Ajax to no end:

If the bestowing of the famous armor

Had rested with Achilles while he lived,

To give them as a war-prize to the bravest,

No rival then would have filched them from my hands;

But now the sons of Atreus have contrived

That a man of most dishonest mind should have them,

Pushing my claims aside. (ll. 442-448)

Because of this perceived insult, Ajax plots to kill Odysseus, but Athena protects her favorite warrior: “I checked him; I threw before his eyes obsessive notions, thoughts of insane joy . . .” (ll. 51-52) Thinking them to be Odysseus and the entire Greek Army, Ajax makes a “jawbone of an ass” of himself by ripping their livestock to shreds. As Athena sits back laughing, he sets aside a ram for special torture, seeing it as his arch nemesis, Odysseus. Interestingly enough, in the Greek zodiacal system the ram is the symbol for Aries, which is ruled by Mars and by Athena when in its feminine quality. What we now call the Hermetic system of symbolism was probably very well known by the common Greek who would be the audience of this play, so it seems that those watching the play in its “first run” may well have perceived this as a clear insult to Athena herself. Apparently Athena did, because her punishment of Ajax didn't end with his psychotic episode.

Having humiliated livestock in this “udderly” revolting fashion, Ajax is now faced with the problem of living down his iniquity, and it's far beyond just dancing with an amphora on his head at the last drunken orgia. He has done something that the Greeks would call kokos, which in John Moore's translation means “base.” Now he must face his friends, his family, his troops, and worst of all, his consistently stern and disapproving father. Things can't get much worse for our hero, so he opts for suicide as the wisest solution, and the only one which can salvage his honor. Unfortunately, this is also part of Athena's design, and according to the prophet Calchas, suicide will no longer be as attractive an option on the morrow. Ajax's friends and family do their best to keep him under observation until the dawn of the next day, but he outsmarts them. In his excessive suicide speech, he still overlooks Athena and calls the wrath of the Furies down on his enemies:

How Atreus' sons have brought me to my ruin,

And sweep upon them for their ruin too.

They see me falling by my own hand;

So too by loved and kindred hand may they! (ll. 838-841)

In grand Sophoclean fashion, Ajax buries his sword to the hilt and leans upon it. This death scene is the only one in the thirty-one Greek tragedies remaining after the dark ages in which the action takes place in front of the audience.

There seems to be no chance of Ajax recovering his honor even though he has sacrificed himself, the honorable custom among the Ancient Greeks. His wife and child will most likely be sold into slavery, and worst of all, his brother Teucer will have to explain all of this to their father. The only way for Teucer to save face is to oppose the Atreides' decree to refuse Ajax proper burial. Menelaus is firm on this decree, because he bears an old grudge against Ajax, for reasons that Teucer points out publicly: “There was some reason for it: You were found out procuring fraudulent votes.” (ll.1136-37) In a feat of true honor and heroism, Odysseus insists on his proper burial:


Do you, Odysseus, take his part against me?


I do.

I hated him while it was fair to hate.


But now he is dead,

Shouldn't you rightly trample on his corpse?


Forbear, my lord, to seek unworthy triumphs. (ll. 1346-49)

Agamemnon sustains his bitterness, but finally relents; “Whether on earth or in the underworld, I hate him. You may do whatever you wish. (ll. 1372-73) Ajax is given his burial, and to this day retains the honor of having his story bear the happiest ending possible in a tragedy by Sophocles.

There are at least four lessons to be learned from this wonderfully entertaining, fast-paced, and vividly written Greek tragedy. The first is that no matter what great ends we attain in life, we should always remember those who helped us get where we are. The second is that the goddess of wisdom and war really isn't very nice, so use her attributes wisely. The third is best stated in the words of the great Gilda Radner when in the persona of Roseanne Rosannadanna: “It just goes to show you – if it ain't one thing, it's another” (Radner, SNL). The fourth, and perhaps most ominous: “What a difference a day makes!”

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