No, not the soap or the programming language, any number of football clubs, nor several different automobiles, but Ajax the Greek hero and subject of a play by Sophocles. Ajax, you may or may not recall, is one of the heroes in Homer’s Iliad. There are two Ajaxes in that story. The one we care about it Telamonian Ajax or Biggie A as his friends called him because well, he was a big guy. Tallest and strongest of all the Greeks, he kicked Trojan butt. He is remarkable for his ginormous shield made of seven cow hides and a layer of bronze. He was also never wounded in any of the battles in the Iliad nor does he receive personal help from any of the gods involved in the battles.
After Achilles is killed by Paris it is Ajax and Odysseus who fight back the Trojans to retrieve Achilles’ body. Both Ajax and Odysseus claim rights to Achilles’ armor. So they have a competition between the two that lasts for days in which neither one can best the other. Finally, Agammenon and Menelaus decide that they each need to present oral arguments and whoever is the most persuasive will win. Now while Biggie A makes a right fine wall, he’s not as sharp in the wits department as Odysseus.
Sophocles’ play opens the night of this competition. Ajax has lost and is more than a little miffed. He has decided that he is going to kill Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus and whoever gets in his way. But Odysseus and Athena are BFF and the goddess sends a little insanity Ajax’s way. Instead of slaughtering the Greeks he hacks into the livestock that the Greeks had taken from the Trojans and hadn’t divided out as rewards yet. But Ajax thinks he is decimating the Greeks and hauls a huge ram back to his tent thinking it it Odysseus and proceeds to torture it. Athena tries to get Odysseus to laugh at Ajax and his misfortune but Odysseus, showing somewhat uncharacteristic restraint, refuses to even chuckle which causes Athena to call him a party pooper but which also gets her to release the poor Ajax from his madness.
When Ajax comes to his senses he is horrified at what he has done. Great hero that he is, his honor is gone and the Greeks are already making fun of him. Nonetheless, his wife, Tecmessa, a Trojan prize and with whom he has a son, begs him to think of her and not do anything rash. He needs to hang around or she’ll end up a slave in the household of one of the other Greeks. She is a silly woman because she cares more for her own wellbeing than the honor of her husband. The chorus of Ajax’s men also worry about what will happen to them if Ajax kills himself like he is threatening to do. Nobody sympathizes with poor Ajax.
Biggie A finally says, dudes! Enough! I am going to go out into the woods with this really sharp sword I got from the hand of Hector himself and perform a purification ritual to the gods. The most astonishing thing is that everyone believes him. Off he goes, alone.
We’ll fast forward through all the Oh my gosh how could we have believed hims to everybody showing up in the woods to find the mighty Ajax impaled upon his sword. Then we have a little Antigone moment when Agamemnon says no one will bury the body and Teucer, Biggie A’s half bro, tells Agamemnon to bug off. Then Odysseus shows up and plays the mediator and offers to help Teucer bury Ajax because Odysseus at this point is feeling rather guilty about things. Teucer nicely says thanks but no thanks. And after a few more lines the curtain falls.
The most interesting thing about the whole story is that the point of it seems to be a reminder that humans can’t do anything without the help of the gods and if they do manage to be successful without the gods they shouldn’t boast about it or they will be sorry. Ajax made the mistake of boasting. According to a messenger:
But as soon as he left home, ajax proved
Himself a fool, despite his father’s sound advice.
His father said to him: “Son, seek to win,
But always with the help of heaven.”
And he replied, with arrogance and folly,
“Father, with the gods’ help, a worthless man
Could gain a victory. I think I could win
The same success for myself without them.”
And so Athena brings Ajax low. And to make sure we understand and to serve as a warning to Odysseus as well in case he was getting ideas, she tells Odysseus:
And now that you have looked upon such things,
Never speak out against the gods yourself,
Nor swell with pride if you surpass another
In bodily strength or measure of wealth.
A single day can raise aloft or sink
All mortal things: the gods are fond of those
With self-control, but those without they loathe.
Got that? Don’t make the gods angry and always tell them thank you, no matter what.
The translation I read is by Shomit Dutta and was published in 2001 by Cambridge University Press for a student audience. The play is printed on the right hand page and the left page is covered with notes on the text, background information, and questions that might show up on the essay test. There are also occasional photographs of old productions of the play. My favorite is the one of the chorus in an 1882 production at Cambridge. Every man is wearing a beard, most of them obviously fake. They are all wearing tunic dresses and sandals and little peaked hats. Several of the men also have on shapeless fur pelts over their tunics. The group stands around a pedestal and they are posed with up-stretched arms and pointed toes as though they were standing there swooping and swaying. Good for giggle.