How a Classical Homer occasionally downgrades the heroic glory of Ajax in order to save it: Part 2

2021.06.01 | By Gregory Nagy

Part 2 of a three-part essay dedicated to Gloria Ferrari Pinney

§0. Here in Part 2 of a three-part essay dedicated to Gloria Ferrari Pinney and posted in Classical Inquiries—this second part was posted one day before her eightieth birthday—I elaborate on arguments I introduced in the first part (Nagy 2021.05.24, linked here), now concentrating on this question: how was it that Odysseus won and Ajax lost the right to own the armor of the fallen Achilles in the context of a Judgment made by their Achaean comrades-in-arms? The answer, from the standpoint of a “Preclassical Homer,” is multiform: there were many variations on this theme of a Judgment, as still reflected in Preclassical vase paintings. For example, some of these paintings depict a decision that is made by way of pebbles used as ballots, but there is one painting where the depicted decision is made by way of leaves, and such a Judgment, as argued by Gloria Ferrari Pinney and her co-author Richard Hamilton, would be a secret ballot as distinct from an open ballot by way of pebbles (Pinney and Hamilton 1982; there is a comparable argument made by Alan Shapiro 1981). The illustration that I have chosen for my essay here shows a picture of that painting. By contrast with such Preclassical visualizations attested in vase paintings, however, the “Classical Homer” as reflected in the textual tradition of “our” Iliad and Odyssey shows no mention of any such balloting—either secret or open. In Odyssey 11.469–470 and 550–551, there is mention, yes, of a Judgment: it happens explicitly at line 545, where the figure of Odysseus himself retells how he was ‘engaging in the judgment’, δικαζόμενος. But there is no mention there of a Vote by way of balloting, secret or otherwise. Such an omission, as I started to argue already in Part 1 of my three-part essay (again, Nagy 2021.05.24, linked here), is a distinctive characteristic of what I am calling the Classical Homer, where various events as narrated in multiform versions by a Preclassical Homer are reshaped in a relatively more uniform version that is more effective in safeguarding the epic glory of Ajax, even at the cost of some degree of downgrading. A case in point is the Vote, inventoried as Event C at §3 of Part 1. And now, here in Part 2, I offer an inventory of other such epic events, each one of which is relevant to myths about the armor of Achilles.

Red-figure amphora by the Syleus Painter: Athena oversees the voting for the arms of Achilles, ca. 480 BCE. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO, inv. no. 30-13. Photo, Wikimedia Commons.

§1. By way of introduction to my Part 2, I must first sharpen a point that I was making in Part 1: that there existed in Preclassical phases of “Homeric” poetry many different and mutually contradictory versions of myths about what I call here the Judgment, which had been arranged by Agamemnon together with Menelaos as leaders of the Achaeans—and which had been supervised by the goddess Athena. Such multiform versions can be traced back, as I argued in Part 1, to a “Preclassical Homer,” which is a cover-name I devised in a book titled Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2010|2009), and the multiformities of such a “Preclassical Homer” correspond to the multiformities we see on display in Preclassical Athenian vase paintings that depict in their own way this Judgment. In terms of the visual arts, for purposes of my argumentation, the term “Preclassical” here suits a period of time covering the sixth century, also before, and extending slightly into the fifth century—to be distinguished from the term “Classical,” which suits the rest of the fifth century and slightly thereafter. And such terminology, again for my purposes here, corresponds to two distinct phases in my reconstruction of the verbal arts of epic that evolved ultimately into what we know as “our” Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. These two phases are reflected in the twin titles of my twin books Homer the Preclassic (again, Nagy 2010|2009) and Homer the Classic (Nagy 2009|2008).

§2. That said, I return to the question I asked at the start of Part 2 here: how was it that Odysseus won and Ajax lost the right to own the armor of the fallen Achilles in the context of the Judgment made by their Achaean comrades-in-arms? What follows, then, is an inventory of various epic events, other than the Vote, that are relevant to the myths about the Judgment of awarding the armor of Achilles to Odysseus and not to Ajax.

§3. In the inventory that follows here in Part 2, not all of the epic events that I analyze can be found represented in Preclassical or even Classical vase paintings. To be contrasted are epic events A B C D as I had analyzed them in Part 1, all of which are in fact attested in Preclassical vase paintings. Still, I will take up where I left off in the listing that I had started in Part 1, so that the first event to be listed here in Part 2 will be “Event E.”

Event E. The myth that I am about to analyze here can be viewed either as a prelude to the myth about the Vote or as a free-standing alternative to that myth. In the case of this myth, the Judgment of the Achaeans is to be decided on the basis of what has been overheard by spies who were sent to infiltrate the territory of Troy, still uncaptured, and who were mandated to find out what is being said by the Trojans about the relative merits of Ajax and Odysseus. The myth about such a spying expedition is attested in the scholia for Aristophanes Knights 1056, reporting on an episode from the Epic Cycle. The episode was part of the Little Iliad, and the text of the scholia for Aristophanes not only gives a paraphrase but also quotes some of the relevant verses (F 2 pp. 129–130 ed. Allen 1912). One of two Trojan girls who are overheard by the Achaean spies declares that Ajax is superior, and the reason given is that Ajax rescued the corpse of the fallen Achilles from the battleground, carrying it back to safety—back to the headquarters of the Achaeans. But the other girl, prompted by the goddess Athena, denies this version of the story as a pseudos, a ‘falsehood’. By implication, Athena here is skewing the Judgment of the Achaeans in favor of Odysseus. Similarly, in Preclassical vase paintings, Athena is frequently visualized as skewing the Vote, as we see for example in the vase painting I showed as illustration for my essay here (I cite again Pinney and Hamilton 1982; also Shapiro 1981; further bibliography provided by Guy Hedreen 2001:106n55). The myth about this kind of Judgment, by way of overhearing, is actually mentioned, at least indirectly, in Odyssey 11.469–470 and 550–55, where we read about an encounter in Hadēs between the visiting Odysseus and the ghost of Ajax. At line 547, Odysseus recalls the Judgment: παῖδες δὲ Τρώων δίκασαν καὶ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη ‘the children of the Trojans rendered-judgment [dikazein], and so too did Pallas Athene’. The word δίκασαν ‘rendered judgment’ here picks up on the earlier self-description of Odysseus at line 545 as δικαζόμενος ‘engaged-in-the judgment [dikazesthai]’. Here too, as in the fragment from the Epic Cycle and in the Preclassical vase paintings, the involvement of the goddess Athena implies a skewing of the Judgment in favor of Odysseus, but, in contrast with the voting-by-ballot that we see pictured in vase paintings, “our” Odyssey makes no mention of any Vote by way of balloting, secret or otherwise. To that extent, at least, the epic glory of Ajax is shielded by the Classical Homer.

Event F. The scholia for Aristophanes Knights 1056 (again, as printed in Little Iliad F 2 pp. 129–130 ed. Allen 1912) also report an alternative myth, in part contradictory, which tells about a different overhearing by spies: this time, Trojan women who are already prisoners of war are heard to declare that it was Odysseus, not Ajax, who lifted the corpse of Achilles and carried it back to the headquarters of the Achaeans. Aside from the partial contradictions we see here between this myth and the other myth about overhearing by spies, we also see here a totalizing contradiction of what is narrated elsewhere in the Epic Cycle. We learn from an epic known as the Aithiopis (Proclus-summary p. 106 lines 9–11 ed. Allen 1912) that Ajax lifted and carried the corpse of Achilles back to Achaean headquarters, while Odysseus, from behind, fought off the attacking Trojans who sought to possess the body. There is a guarded mention of this role of Odysseus in “our” Odyssey, 5.308–311, where this hero expresses a wish: if only he had died gloriously at Troy—at the very moment when the Trojans were throwing spears at him while he was fending off the Trojan warriors who were trying to capture the corpse of the fallen Achilles. By implication, it was Ajax and not Odysseus who was actually carrying the corpse back to Achaean headquarters, while Odysseus, from behind, was fighting off the Trojans who were pursuing Ajax. In this case, Ajax is not even directly mentioned by the Classical Homer, but at least it is he and not Odysseus who seems to get the credit, by implication, for carrying the corpse of Achilles to safety. Once again I can say: to an extent, at least, the epic glory of Ajax is shielded here by the Classical Homer. In this case, however, we need to confront a complication: in the scholia BPQ for Odyssey 5.310 a claim is made that it was Odysseus who lifted and carried the corpse of the fallen Achilles while it was Ajax who was fending off with his spear the Trojan warriors who were trying to capture the corpse. That said, I must note that this claim is destabilized by a comment added in the scholia for the Odyssey here: ὡς καὶ ἐπὶ Πατρόκλῳ ‘just as [Ajax was fending off the Trojans with his spear, fighting] over [the fallen] Patroklos’. As I will show in Part 3 of my three-part essay, the role of Ajax in Iliad 17, where he takes part in rescuing the corpse of Patroklos, is far more complicated than the simple role postulated by the Homeric scholia here. For commentary by Homerists today about the scholia BPQ for Odyssey 5.310, I refer to a bibliographical survey by Malcolm Davies (2017:72–73), who also cites an ancient text, the authorship of which cannot be determined, where we read that it was Odysseus who did the lifting and the carrying of the corpse of Achilles (Oxyrhynchus Papyri 2510).

Event G. In the Little Iliad, as we read in the Proclus-summary (p. 106 lines 29–31 ed. Allen 1912), it is said that Odysseus brings Neoptolemos, youthful son of Achilles, from Skyros to Troy and then, once they join the Achaeans besieging Troy, he gives the young warrior the armor of Achilles to wear. It is also said in the Little Iliad (Proclus-summary p. 106 line 31) that this hero Neoptolemos, otherwise known as Pyrrhos, experiences an apparition of his father’s ghost upon receiving the armor. I connect this experience of Neoptolemos/Pyrrhos with what we see represented in a vase painting that I show here:

Neoptolemos/Pyrrhos holding the helmet of Achilles as he receives the armor of Achilles from Odysseus. 490-480 BCE, by the painter Douris. Link: Vienna 3695

Here is what I said about this painting in an earlier essay (Nagy 2017.12.21, linked here):

In this vase painting by an artist named Douris, dated at around 490/480 BCE, we see pictured a moment when Neoptolemos/Pyrrhos the hero reaches out to receive from Odysseus the helmet of his dead father, Achilles. The picture shows in profile the young hero as he contemplates the helmet that he holds delicately in his hand. But the profile of the helmet that is facing him seems to have a face of its own—a dead face that is staring back at Pyrrhos, returning the young man’s gaze. The dead face is radiating its vision of death. I am reminded of the traditional pose in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1, where the young prince returns with his gaze the blank stare of death emanating from the skull that is facing him as he holds it in his hand.

§4. The event that we have just contemplated, where Odysseus hands over to Neoptolemos/Pyrrhos the armor of Achilles, has led to multifaceted questions about a problem we find in a celebrated tragedy by Sophocles, the Philoctetes. The bibliography for opinions published about these questions is vast, and I am guided by the incisive overview of Sheila Murnaghan (2019). To my mind, as I read all the divergent interpretations that have been put on record over many decades about the problem, the multifacetedness of the questions involved in the interpretation of this tragedy all boils down to this simple question: when Neoptolemos/Pyrrhos speaks about a quarrel between himself and Odysseus over the possession of the armor, was he uttering a falsehood? Clearly, as we have just seen in my analysis of “Event G,” Neoptolemos/Pyrrhos does in fact receive from Odysseus the armor of Achilles. But we have already seen, in an earlier essay (Nagy 2021.05.17, linked here), that there existed an alternative myth that told a contradictory story: that Odysseus did in fact keep the armor of Achilles—only to lose it ultimately to Ajax himself. I repeat here what I reported in that earlier essay at §10 about this myth, as narrated in the text of Pausanias (1.35.4) and in the Greek Anthology, epigrams 9.115 and 9. 116. According to this myth, Odysseus was sailing back home from Troy, holding on to the treasured possession of the armor once worn by Achilles, when a storm caused this treasure to fall overboard and get swept away by the currents of the sea, which carried back the armor of Achilles to the shores of the Hellespont at Troy—all the way to the headlands of Rhoiteion, dominated by a tumulus housing the body of the hero Ajax.

§5. In Part 3 of my three-part essay, I will argue that both these mutually contradictory versions of myths about the rivalry of Ajax and Odysseus over the armor of Achilles, as attested in the era of a “Preclassical Homer,” are omitted by our “Classical Homer” for a double-edged reason. In “our” Iliad and in “our” Odyssey, as we will see, the heroic glory of Ajax needs to be safeguarded—but it cannot be completely vindicated.


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