After the death of Achilles, his mother Thetis decided to award his beautiful armor to the bravest of the remaining Greeks under Troy. Ajax and Odysseus were the clear favorites to get it from the outset: not only both of them were accomplished and fearsome warriors in their own right, but also, it was none other than them who courageously managed to defend the body of Achilles after his heel was pierced by an arrow of Paris. Expectedly, these two were the only ones who dared to come forward and make a claim for Achilles’ armor. It was left to Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaeans, to make the final decision.
Now, some say that, as far as Agamemnon was concerned, this decision wasn’t at all problematic. Apparently, Ajax had offended Athena by rejecting her help during one of the fights under Troy, and it would have been more than irreverent on part of the Greeks to insult her yet again by siding with the hubristic hero. Others, however, think that Agamemnon didn’t want to cause any problems, so he chose to delegate this decision to an assembly of either Greek or Trojan warriors, which eventually decided in Odysseus’ favor. Yet a third group claims that, on the advice of Nestor, he sent spies by night to overhear the Trojans’ unbiased opinion of the heroes; and at least according to their findings, it appeared that the Trojans admired Odysseus’ bravery much more than they did Ajax’s.
The Madness of Ajax
Ajax didn’t take the decision lightly; on the contrary, in fact, he started planning his revenge the minute he heard it. However, Athena, aware of the severe consequences of such a revenge, struck Ajax with madness and, before he knew it, the great Greek hero found himself in the middle of a crowd of shapes. Thinking them his fellow fighters, Ajax stormed against them, slaughtering hundreds, and injuring and imprisoning many others. Unfortunately for him, the shapes were, in fact, flocks of Trojan sheep and herds of innocent cows.
When Ajax came to his senses, he found himself flogging a horned ram with a horse’s halter, shouting “treacherous Odysseus” to him; around him – a pool of blood and many beheaded animals. Ajax felt so humiliated at the sight that he immediately resolved to kill himself. But before that, he decided to leave a message appointing his half-brother Teucer to be the legal guardian of Eurysaces, his son by Tecmessa. Next, he took his sword – the one he had gotten from none other than Hector during a ceremonial weapon-exchange of respect – and he buried it upright in the earth. “Odysseus took everything from me,” he sighed regretfully. “This is at least my own. Lest any man but Ajax vanquish Ajax.” After calling on the Erinnyes to avenge him, Ajax threw himself on the sword.
Ovid says that once Ajax’s blood touched the ground, a strange new hyacinth-like flower suddenly sprang from the ground. “The ensanguined earth,” he writes eloquently, “sprouted from her green turf that purple flower which grew of old from Hyacinthine blood. Its petals now are charged with double freight – the warrior's name, Apollo's cry of woe.” It is quite possible that Ovid is referring to a fritillary, a small, nodding, bell-shaped purple flower resembling a lily; its petals are marked with spots which look as if they spell the Greek letters Ai! Ai! This is not only a cry of woe (which can be translated into English as “oh, woe is me!”), but also the Greek vocative form of “Ajax” (i.e., “Oh, Ajax!”); finally, some say that these letters can also stand for Aias Aiacides, or Ajax the Aeacid.
Ajax in the Asphodel Fields
Odysseus Meets the Dead Ajax
If we are to trust Odysseus’ words, after having met Achilles in the Underworld, he was surrounded by the ghosts of many other dead people; all of them wanted to tell him their melancholy stories; all of them wanted to ask him things about life on earth. Alone of them all and full of pride stood Ajax, still angry at Odysseus for having won the argument with him over the armor of Achilles. “Would that I had never gained the day in such a contest,” sighs Odysseus while recounting this episode of his journey to the Phaeacians, “for it cost the life of Ajax, who was foremost of all the Greeks after the son of Peleus, alike in stature and prowess!”
Odysseus Tries to Soothe Ajax
Odysseus even tried to pacify Ajax. “Oh dear friend,” he supposedly said, “will you not forget and forgive even in death, but must the judgment about that hateful armor still rankle with you? It cost us Argives dear enough to lose such a tower of strength as you were to us. We mourned you as much as we mourned Achilles son of Peleus himself, nor can the blame be laid on anything but on the spite which Zeus bore against the Greeks, for it was this that made him counsel your destruction – come here, therefore, bring your proud spirit into subjection, and hear what I can tell you.” So did Odysseus speak, but Ajax answered not a word. He just turned to Erebus and joined the other spirits of those dead and gone.
The Body of Ajax
Back on earth, Ajax’s wife Tecmessa and his half-brother Teucer arrived as soon as they heard – either from Zeus, a prophet or a messenger – that Ajax has started acting erratically and confused. Both of them were late: they found Ajax laying in a pool of blood, Menelaus next to him forbidding his burial. Leaving Tecmessa behind him to guard Ajax’s corpse, Teucer went straight to Agamemnon demanding a proper funeral for such a great hero. “Even if we are not allowed to burn him on a pyre,” Teucer says, “it is too cruel to leave the great Ajax to be the food of vultures and dogs.” However, Agamemnon declined Teucer’s demand, even though Odysseus himself urged him not to. But, a few hours later, as so many times before, the prophet Calchas changed his mind. On his advice, Agamemnon allowed Ajax to be buried at Cape Rhoeteum and in a coffin – making him the only Greek hero fallen at Troy whose body was not honorably burned at a pyre.
The madness of Ajax – and all of the surrounding events – is best chronicled in Sophocles’ play Ajax. In the Epitome of his Library, Apollodorus offers a neat summary of these events. The meeting of Odysseus and Ajax is recounted in the eleventh book of the Odyssey.