Greek Mythology, Part 2

Through this action Odysseus keeps a firm grasp on his honor, despite his earlier cowardice. Ajax has no one with whom he could truly connect — no one of equal stature to help him through his problems. For all the past deeds and the honor he has accrued, ultimately it takes Odysseus, a man he wishes to murder (Ajax), to grant him honor after death. vContinuing with the likening of Odysseus to normal men, this shows that honor can be maintained by men even though they might let cowardice come through on occasions. Odysseus, who in the Ajax represented normal men, gave hope to all the Greek men in the audience, by showing them that regular men can attain honor. Honor is of paramount concern to for the Greeks, as shown by Greek heroes such as Achilles who die for ‘death and glory’, eternal honor. To let Odysseus maintain his honor while taking away his bravery, Sophocles shows how important honor is to the Greeks for all time.

Propaganda is a tool often and widely used during times of war in hopes of bolstering one’s citizens and soldiers, and demoralizing the enemy. As a form of propaganda the Philoctetes compares Odysseus to the Spartans and Philoctete to the Athenians. Shortly after Philoctetes enters the play, he and Neoptolemus start up a conversation, during which Philoctetes tells Neoptolemus, “The hand of Odysseus, the hands of the sons of Atreus” (p. 174, Philoctetes). This is in reference to his abandonment by Odysseus, who claims responsibility earlier in the play (p. 163, Philoctetes). In response to hearing Philoctetes’ story of woe, Neoptolemus tells him, “I have suffered too At the hands of the sons of Atreus, and the hand of Odysseus” (p. 174, Philoctetes). Atreus is the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, the King of Sparta. For Philoctetes to call Odysseus “the hands of the sons of Atreus” (p. 174, Philoctetes), he is reducing Odysseus to a tool of an ally of Menelaus. He is connecting Odysseus to the Spartans for everyone Athenian in the audience. This connection is helped along by Neoptolemus’ remark lumping Menelaus and Odysseus together in one breath.

In an effort to further link Odysseus to Sparta, Neoptolemus continues his tale of woe to Philoctetes and eventually tells him, “these we have already given to someone else – to Odysseus” (p. 175, Philoctetes). This is in reference to Agamemnon and Menelaus giving Achilles’ arms to Odysseus instead of Neoptolemus, who rightfully deserves his father’s arms (Philoctetes). This again emphasizes Odysseus’ connection to Sparta. With the brothers’ decision to give the arms of the greatest Greek warrior to a man such as Odysseus, instead of to the son, even though he arrives after the arms are given, shows special treatment to Odysseus. This is similar to a nation’s desire to keep their allies happy during time of difficulty, like war. After hearing Neoptolemus’ tale in full, Philoctetes remarks, “I recognize the handiwork Of the brothers and Odysseus” (p. 176, Philoctetes). Philoctetes could have easily just said Odysseus or just the brothers, yet he comments on how the “handiwork” reminds him of both. His statement strengthens the audience’s mental connection of Odysseus with Sparta.

Finally, Odysseus’ homeland itself is connected with Corinth. The New Columbia Encyclopedia states that the “remains of a Corinthian colony circa 8th century B.C. have been found [in Ithaca]” (Harris). Ithaca might or might not have been a colony of Corinth during the Peloponnesian War, but it was at one point in its history. The connection to Corinth might have been known. This would be particularly important to the Athenians since Corinth was essentially Sparta’s navy. The reason Ithaca’s connection to Corinth is important is because, “Corinth was traditionally allied with Sparta” (Harris). Therefore the audience, Athenians, might forever link Ithaca as an ally of Sparta, and therefore Odysseus, Ithaca’s king, whom the Greeks believe to be a real person, is considered to be an ally of the Spartans. By virtue of being Odysseus’ enemy, as the Spartans are the enemies of the Athenians, Philoctetes is made into an Athenian.

Part 1 | 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