Greek Mythology

Greek Mythology has always interested me, so much so that while I was at college I took a class on the subject. During the class I was required to write a paper that counted as a significant portion of my grade. For a while I had trouble thinking about my topic, but then it came to me. And it intrigued my professor at the time, so over the next several posts I will share the paper I wrote back in April of 2004.

Whenever someone thinks of Odysseus, an image of a courageous, intelligent, honorable man, a Greek Hero, is conjured in his mind. This image is produced by Homer’s Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’ return from the Trojan War. However, if someone reads either the Ajax and/or the Philoctetes, a different picture of Odysseus is formed. This time there are few, if any, positive thoughts of the man; and these are outweighed by the negative colors used to paint his character. Bravery, honor, and the care for companions are a few of the major differences in Odysseus’ character. While the one true constant is the man’s potent intelligence, what changes is how he uses it in the stories.

In the opening of the Ajax, there is a conversation between Odysseus and Athena, during which we see the first glimpse of cowardice escape from Odysseus. In a reply to Athena, he says, “I’d rather leave him where he is.” (p. 20, Ajax) referring to Ajax, who is currently in his tent. Odysseus has no desire to meet the man because he is in fear for his life. This is a contradiction of the original depiction we have of Odysseus in which the man goes to the land of the dead, faces and defeats a wild Cyclopes, listens to the sirens’ calls — to name a few deeds from the Odyssey. The Greek Heroes are better than men are now, not only physically but also in their characters; this is what makes them heroes. In the Ajax there is no better example of a Homeric Greek Hero than Ajax himself. Ajax is fearless in the face of all dangers, including his own death. During the play, Ajax sees death as the only way out of his problems and takes his life in order to escape with honor (Ajax). However, all men, outside literature, share certain traits — fear of the supernatural, fear of the unknown, and fear of death. Any man flinches at the moment of his death.

Of all of the heroes during the Trojan War, there are few who are portrayed as normal men, a humbling experience for their characters. One of those few, the one chosen by Sophocles, is Odysseus. Of all the heroes, he is the only one who tries to get out of going to Troy but is unsuccessful (523, Powell); so he is a prime choice. Why does Sophocles take such a famous hero and chip away at Odysseus’ character? The comparison of Odysseus to a normal man brings his fear of death closer to the audience, since it is similar to how they would react. In comparison to one of Ajax’s stature, Odysseus’ actions are cowardly and not belonging to a king and hero such as himself. The comparison to normal men is further accented by Odysseus’ attempt to save face, “I’d never fear him sane” (p. 20, Ajax, The). An excuse it is, but when people fail to do what is required of them, or what they should do, excuses come to their lips naturally.

The Ajax is slanted to show Odysseus’ cowardice, but the honor that belongs to him from the previous work, Homer’s Odyssey, is maintained. When Agamemnon and Menelaus desire nothing more than to deny Ajax the burial he deserves, Odysseus fights for Ajax’s burial (Ajax). Even though Odysseus and Ajax are bitter enemies, Odysseus fights to give what is required by the gods, Ajax’s burial (p. 64, Ajax). Odysseus uses his vast intelligence, while fighting for Ajax’s burial rights. In his argument with Agamemnon, Odysseus uses theological arguments to convince Agamemnon, “For the love of all the gods, think twice Before you do a rash and vile thing” (p. 63, Ajax). He goes on to mention to Agamemnon, “god’s laws, …, you would annihilate” (p. 64, Ajax), again in hopes to sway the man. Since Agamemnon is still unwilling to allow the burial, Odysseus attempts a different approach. He attempts to convince Agamemnon by showing how, through his hatred, he sees the honor due Ajax, “Yes; his goodness outweighs his enmity by far” (p. 64, Ajax), “But he was noble” (p. 64, Ajax). Because Agamennon is still unwilling to budge, Odysseus says, “Some day I too shall need that office”, in reference to a burial (p. 65, Ajax). Even though Odysseus is speaking of his own life he is ultimately telling Agamemnon that he needs the rites of burial. This finally sinks in; however, to save face, Agamemnon tells Odysseus to “Do what you will,” having never given his true approval. Thus, Odysseus maintains the level of honor that is due a Greek hero.

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

     Ajax translated by E.F. Wlting
     Philoctetes translated by E.F. Watling
     Ed. William H. Harris, and Judith S Levey
     The New Columbian Encyclopedia 4th edition
     Columbia University Press, New York, 1975