Ajax the Great – Greek Mythology

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Ajax, the son of Periboea and King Telamon, is one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. He played an important role during the Trojan War and is often portrayed as a great, courageous warrior in literary texts like Homer’s Iliad. He’s referred to as ‘Greater Ajax’, ‘Ajax the Great’ or ‘Telamonian Ajax’, which distinguishes him from Ajax the Lesser, the son of Oileus.  

Second only to the famous Greek hero Achilles, Ajax is well known for the pivotal role he played in the Trojan War. In this article, we’ll be taking a close look at his role as well as his tragic demise.

Birth of Ajax

King Telemon and his first wife Periboea desperately wished for a son. Heracles prayed to Zeus, the god of thunder, asking for a son to be born to them.

Zeus sent them an eagle as a sign that their request would be granted and Heracles told the couple to name their son ‘Ajax’ after the eagle. Later, Periboea became pregnant and she gave birth to a son. They named him Ajax and the child grew to be a brave, strong and fierce warrior.

Through Peleus, his uncle, Ajax was the cousin of Achilles who was the only warrior greater than himself.

Ajax in Homer’s Iliad

In Iliad, Homer describes Ajax as a man of great stature and size. It’s said that he looked like a massive tower when going into battle, with his shield in hand. Although Ajax was a fierce warrior, he was also courageous and extremely good-hearted. He was always quiet and reserved, with incredibly slow speech and preferred to let others do the talking while he did the fighting.

Ajax as One of Helen’s Suitors

Ajax was among the 99 other suitors who came from all corners of Greece to court Helen, supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world. He competed against the other Greek warriors to win her hand in marriage, yet she chose the Spartan king, Menelaus, instead. Ajax and the other suitors then promised to help defend their marriage.

Ajax in the Trojan War

While Menelaus was away from Sparta, the Trojan Prince Paris eloped with or abducted Helen, taking her back to Troy with him. The Greeks swore that they would bring her back from the Trojans and so went to war against the Trojans. Ajax donated twelve ships and gave many of his men to their army and he himself decided to fight as well.

During the Trojan War, Ajax carried a shield said to be as large as a wall made up of seven cows hide and a thick layer of bronze. Because of his skill in fighting, he wasn’t injured during any of the battles he fought. He was also one of the few warriors who didn’t require the help of the gods.

  • Ajax and Hector

Ajax faced Hector, the Trojan prince and the greatest fighter of Troy, many times during the Trojan War. In the first fight between Hector and Ajax, Hector sustained an injury but Zeus stepped in and called the fight a draw. In the second fight, Hector set fire to some of the Greek ships and although Ajax wasn’t injured, he was still forced to retreat.

However, the main face-off between these two warriors occurred at a critical point in the war when Achilles had taken himself out of the war. During this time, Ajax stepped up as the next greatest warrior and faced Hector in an epic duel. Hector threw a lance at Ajax but it hit the belt that held his sword, bouncing off it harmlessly. Ajax picked up a large stone that no on else could lift and he hurled it at Hector, hitting him in the neck. Hector fell to the ground and admitted defeat. Afterwards, the heroes exchanged gifts as a way of showing respect for one another. Ajax gave Hector his belt and Hector presented him with a sword. This was a sign of utter respect between two great warriors on opposing sides of the war.

  • Ajax Saves the Fleet of Ships

When Achilles left, Ajax was sent to convince him to return but Achilles refused. The Trojan army was gaining the upper hand and the Greeks were forced to retreat. When the Trojans attacked their ships, Ajax fought fiercely and bravely. Because of his size, he was an easy target for Trojan arrows and lances. Although he couldn’t save the fleet on his own, he was able to stave off the Trojans until the Greeks arrived.

The Death of Ajax

When Achilles was killed by Paris during the War, Odysseus and Ajax fought the Trojans to reclaim his body so that they could give him a proper burial. They were successful in this venturee but then both wanted to have Achilles’ armor as a reward for their accomplishment.

The gods decided that the armor would be kept on Mount Olympus until Ajax and Odysseus determined who would win it and how. They had an oral competition but it didn’t turn out well for Ajax because Odysseus convinced the gods that he deserved the armor more than Ajax did and the gods awarded it to him.  

This sent Ajax into a rage and he was so blinded by anger that he rushed to slaughter his comrades, the military men. However, Athena, the goddess of war, intervened quickly and made Ajax believe that a herd of cattle was his comrades and he slaughtered all the cattle instead. After he had killed each and every one of them, he came to his senses and saw what he had done. He was so ashamed of himself that he fell on his own sword, the one Hector had given to him, and committed suicide. After his death, he is said to have gone with Achilles to the Island of Leuce.

The Hyacinth Flower

According to some sources, a beautiful hyacinth flower grew in the place where Ajax’s blood had fallen and on each of its petals were the letters ‘AI’ the sounds that symbolize cries of despair and grief.

The hyacinth flower that we know today, doesn’t have any markings as such but the larkspur, a popular flower commonly seen in modern gardens does have similar markings. In some accounts, it’s said that the letters ‘AI’are the first letters of Ajax’s name and also of a Greek word meaning ‘alas’.

Ajax the great importance

Ajax the Lesser

Ajax the Great shouldn’t be confused with Ajax the Lesser, a man with a smaller stature who also fought in the Trojan War. Ajax the Lesser fought bravely and was famous for his swiftness and his skill with the spear.

After the Greeks won the war, Ajax the Lesser took King Priam’s daughter Cassandra away from Athena’s temple and assaulted her. This made Athena angry and she caused Ajax and his ships to be wrecked as they journeyed home from war. Ajax the Lesser was rescued by Poseidon, but Ajax showed no gratitude and boasted that he had escaped death against the gods’ will. His hubris angered Poseidon, who drowned him in the sea.

Signficance of Ajax the Great

The shield is a well known symbol of Ajax, indicating his heroic personality. It’s an extension of his prowess as a warrior. Depictions of Ajax features his large shield, so that he can be easily recognized and not confused with the other Ajax.

A temple and statue were built in Salamis in honor of Ajax the Greater and every year a festival called Aianteia was held to celebrate the great warrior.

In Brief

Ajax was one of the most important warriors during the Trojan War, who helped the Greeks win the war. He’s considered second only to Achilles in terms of power, strength and skill. Despite his anti-climactic death, Ajax remains one of the most important heroes of the Trojan War.