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AJAX AND THE SUICIDE IN HOMER, SOPHOCLES AND OVID Sam Ryan

Ajax the Great was born in Greece to King Telemon of Salamis, who was a grandson of Zeus (Metamorphoses: 13.28-31). In his youth, Ajax was a suitor of Helen, and along with the other suitors he agreed to the mutual-defense Oath of Tyndareus, which compelled each applicant to come to the military aid of whoever won Helen. Accordingly, when the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen from her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta, Ajax (who was by then a king in his own right) was compelled to donate 12 ships to the Achaean muster against Troy (Iliad: 2.622-3). Even before the war, Ajax was renowned as one of the best warriors in Greece. The Achaeans and later authors believed him second in combat only to his cousin, Achilles, with whom he had trained under the centaur Chiron as a boy: The best warrior was Telemonian AjaxWhile Achilles was in his rage (Iliad: 2.880-1). In fact, Homer claims that they were so close to equivalence that when establishing their camp at the beach, the Greeks set Achilles in a tent at one end and Telemonian Ajax at the other, as they trust[ed] their manhood and the strength of their hands, and needed no other protection (Iliad: 8.224-7). Adding to his bravery and prowess, the Iliad describes him as godlike Ajax (9.641) and big Ajax (often); he is also named by Priam and Helen as the largest and strongest in his army: a giant of a Greek head and shoulders above the other Achaeans the armys mountain. (3.242-5) Their esteem was not misplaced: while Achilles brooded in his quarters over the feud with Agamemnon, Ajax defended the Greek ships almost single-handedly against the Trojan incursions; he fought Hector to a standstill twice, and Paris once; he defended and retrieved the fallen body of Patroclus; and finallyonce Patroclus death had provoked Achilles to fighthe defended Achilles corpse and, with Odysseus, brought it back to the beach. The Iliad records his killing at least 26 Trojans (Lombardo

1997: 503) and hints at the slaughter of many more beforehandthe Iliad, of course, depicts only a part of the final year of the war. There is in several cases and in multiple sources an authorial reverence for Ajax that borders on supernaturalism, although he did not at any point in the Iliad request or receive the help of the gods. For example, Ovid makes the claim that at the end of his life, Ajax had never been wounded before, (Metamorphoses: 13.391) suggesting that he was a kind of mortal god like Hercules or Achilles, a human of divine descent with paranormal abilities. (Though there are probably dozens of such characters, they are not the default template for classical heroes: Hector and Patroclus, for example, appear to have been heroic and yet entirely mortal in their abilities.) But the most succinct and unambiguous example of this contradiction comes just before Homers account of Telemonian Ajaxs first duel with Hector: "While they prayed, Ajax was clapping on / Gleaming bronze armor, and when every inch / Of his skin was covered he hustled forward / Like the giant God of War himself... Ajax was that big, a human barricade, a Greek wall, / The gristle that was his face arranged in a smile..." (Iliad: 7.215-22) In this passage, even as the other Greeks pray to Zeus for his protection, Ajax ignores the appeasement of the gods and focuses instead on making himself more godlike and fearsometo great effect, as the Trojans trembled, and Hector felt his heart pounding in his chest. (Iliad: 7.225-6) It is clear at this point that Ajax considered himself above prayer, above the mortal tradition of asking the gods for help, though he was not ignorant of it. This is an unusual expression of hubris, or hybris, which generally requires the offender to shame or dishonor his victim (a famous example: Achilles using Ajaxs belt to drag the body of Hector in the dust behind his chariot for days instead of giving him a proper burial,) but which can also describe an unhealthy

disdain for the will of the gods. In the ancient Greek world, warriors and men of high status competed incessantly for glory, or kleos, which could usually be won only at the expense of others or in death. In the Iliad, Ajaxs hybris does not detract from the glory of others, despite the zero-sum game of kleos-grubbing that surrounds him, and perhaps this is why the gods do not yet punish him for it. After the corpse of Achilles was returned to the beach, the Greek elders decide that his armor (forged by Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods) should be awarded as a prize to Achilles successor. The two most qualified men in the army are those who brought Achilles back: Odysseus and Ajax. These two, who suddenly become bitter foes despite their history of camaraderie, are asked to orate to the assembled Greeks and justify their deserving the armor. These speeches are presented in Book 13 of Ovids Metamorphoses, in which Ajax lays claim to most of the military victories of the Iliad and calls Odysseus a cowardly weakling (13.115-16), and Odysseus defends his intelligence as a force for good (13.136-42) and dismisses most of Ajaxs arguments as irrelevant or hypocritical (13.145-158). The Achaean leaders, predictably, are swayed by Odysseuss oratory, and award the sacred armor to him. Ajax is furious and considers himself humiliated before his peers, his judgment clouded by jealousy over the armor he thought he would win. What happens next is the most famous element of Ajaxs story, and it is presented with variations depending on the source. It is generally agreed that Ajax commits suicide on the beach after losing the contest to Odysseus. In Sophocles play Ajax, the hero is driven mad with rage at his loss and intends to slaughter the Achaean leaders, including Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus, but is tricked by Athena into believing that the stock of sheep and cattle at the Greek camp are these enemies. Ajax proceeds to

massacre most of the unsuspecting animals, and their shepherds, to the horror and befuddlement of his comrades. He drags one beast to his tent and tortures it, believing it to be his enemy Odysseus, explaining to Athena, His back the scourge must crimson ere he dies. (Sophocles, 440BCE) When he comes to his senses, and realizes what he has done, his shame is crippling: not only had he fully intended, in his madness, to massacre his friends and comrades, but he also unwittingly destroyed much of the Greek supply of food and kleos in its animal form. In his grief, Ajax takes the sword Hector gave him (Iliad: 7.317-18) and leaves the hut, plants the sword in the sand of the beach and throws himself on it, ending his life. I mentioned that the story here differs between sources. In Ovids Metamorphoses, Ajax somewhat unexpectedly declares right away that he is so angry he must kill himself, and thereupon stabs himself in the heart with his own sword, falling to the ground. A purple hyacinth then proceeds to grow from the soil dampened by his blood (Metamorphoses: 13.394). On the grounds that Sophocles came first by 400 years, that most of the pertinent artistic depictions agree with him, and that his account is more detailed and explanatory than Ovids, I consider him more authoritative on this matter. Ovid omits any mention of the madness or the slaughter of the animals, or the involvement of gods. Moreover, Sophocles description of Ajax is closer to what we know of the Greek Wall from the Iliad: after all, when Achilles arbitrarily gives the prize to Diomedes in their sparring contest at Patroclus funeral games, Ajaxs reaction (although unrecorded) is certainly less melodramatic than suicide (Iliad: 23.849-50). Simply put, his self-destructive reaction to Odysseus victory is unreasonable and uncharacteristic of the Homeric Ajaxunless it is contrived by the gods.

There is both textual and contextual evidence for this. First, it follows that the gods might have seen Ajaxs speech to the Achaeans as stepping over the line he toed in the Iliad: fighting without the help of the gods, but not lording it above the other men enough to deprive them of their divinely approved kleos. To speak of Odysseus, who had Athena like [his] mother, always at his side (Iliad: 23.810) as winning glory merely by competing with Ajax (Metamorphoses: 13.19-20), to explicitly demand kleos from the Achaean kings at the expense of goddess-loved Odysseus, would certainly provoke the notoriously fickle Olympian gods. Athena is obviously riled against Ajax, or else she could have simply put him to sleep and quieted his malicious thoughts. Instead, she directs his murderous thoughts against the Achaean bounty under the pretext of protecting his human victims. Additionally, in Sophocles there is specific textual support for Ajaxs madness as a punishment from Athena: Calchass prophecy outlines two conversations in which Ajax explicitly rejects the help of the gods at Troy (which, in his defense, are not to be found in the Iliad.) And Athena relates the following to Odysseus: Warned therefore by his fate, never do thou thyself utter proud words against the gods; nor swell with insolence for a day can bring all moral greatness low, and a day can lift it up. When he expresses fear at seeing Ajax, she calms him by asking, to mock foes, is that not the sweetest mockery? (Sophocles, 440BCE) Ajax is right to despair, for after what must have been years of benevolent neglect, the gods have suddenly begun to demand his piety and supplication. Although Im not very well versed in the deaths of mythical figures, it seems to me that Ajaxs manner of suicide is rare for them. (This may be why Ovid ends his life so briefly, and with so little exposition: perhaps changing social values made suicide more palatable in Roman times as an act of sudden insanity than as the rational response to

an overwhelmingly cruel world.) No other major character kills himself during the Trojan War, and those most common literary examples (the family of Oedipus in Sophocles Theban plays, along with Romeo and Juliet, come to mind) tend to kill themselves for love, or out of the utmost tragic despondency. In the context of Athenas actions and his previous record, Ajaxs suicide did more than end his shot at a post-war story like the Odyssey, was more than an act of despair; it was a final and irrevocable act of hybris, a reclamation of free will and responsibility; it ended his mortal enthrallment to the Olympian gods who newly sought to torture and humiliate him with madness and despair. You cant fire me, Ajaxs suicide said, loud and clear, because I quit. For this reason I consider it an event of great literary significance: the first time that suicide was, if not exalted, permitted to exist as an element of heroism. (The nearest example I can think of is in medieval Japan, when the samurai warrior-class adopted the practice of seppuku as a mechanism for dealing with dishonor in battle.) The suicide of Ajax also has important archaeological and historical implications if it is a true story. Researchers have recently discovered what they believe to be Ajaxs palace in the kingdom of Salamis, which occupies the proper geographical location and appears to have been abandoned for Crete around the time of the end of the Trojan War (Carr 2006.) If they are correct, the abandonment of the palace may have been a direct result of Ajaxs failure to return home. Of course, its possible that Ajax was defeated in battle, or committed suicide while still in a fit of madness (Athenas intervention a convenient explanation for some post-traumatic stress disorder,) or was shipwrecked on his way home from the war, or in fact made it back to Salamis and died in happy old age, but had no heir.

Well probably never know the veracity of Ajaxs story, or why the people of Salamis fled his palace, but Homer, Sophocles and Ovid, among others, have provided us a compelling myth to hold on to: that there was one Achaean king who, despite his various flaws, despite the expectations of his society and his comrades, stood on his own against the immortal Olympians and would not accept their judgment idly. And I give him kleos for that.

WORKS CITED Homer, n.d. The Iliad. Translated by S. Lombardo, 1997 CE. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. Ovid, 8 CE. Metamorphoses. Translated by D. Raeburn, 2004 CE. London: Penguin Books. Sophocles, c. 440 BCE. Ajax. Translated by R.C. Trevelyan, 1919 CE. [internet] Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/ajax.html [Accessed 18 October, 2008.] Regrettably the web site does not display page or line numbers. I've tried to avoid paraphrasing this source for that reason. Carr, John, 2006. Palace of Homers hero rises out of the myths. 28 March. [internet] Available at: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/article697 302.ece [Accessed 18 October, 2008.] To preserve readability and authorial sanity, the general outline of events in the Trojan War and information given in lecture (e.g. terms of the Oath of Tyndareus, the nature of hubris) have not been cited, although textual evidence could be found for most of the things I said.