He brought back the body of Achilles
Ajax was one of the great heroes of the Trojan War. He was the king of Salamis, near Athens. Homer says Ajax was a very big and strong man. Only his cousin Achilles, who he had gone to school with, was a better fighter. When Achilles was killed, Ajax rescued his body.
Then he went crazy
But afterwards, since he had gotten Achilles’ body, Ajax thought he should get Achilles’ armor as a reward. When the Greeks decided to give the armor to Odysseus instead, Ajax went crazy and killed a whole flock of sheep, thinking they were Greeks. Ajax thought he was killing Odysseus and Agamemnon.
It’s a great story, because it shows how this mental illness, this psychosis, which was completely not Ajax’s fault, was so terrible.
Then Ajax killed himself
When Ajax realized what he had done, he was so ashamed that he killed himself by fixing his sword upright in the ground and then throwing himself on it. So that’s even worse: not just the tragedy of psychosis, but the shame piled on top of it, that led him to kill himself.
Even later on, when Odysseus visited the underworld, Ajax’s ghost was so ashamed that he wouldn’t speak to Odysseus.
I love this Greek vase showing the suicide, because it creates such a feeling of tension. You don’t see Ajax killing himself. He’s not really doing anything much: kneeling down, fixing his sword in the ground so that it points upward. He’s taken off his armor and piled it up next to him, so he’s naked. But if you know the story, you know that the next thing he does is to fall on his sword and die. It’s so sad, but it doesn’t show the bloody part – it leaves that for you to imagine.
Note: This guy is not the same Ajax that raped Cassandra (that’s Ajax the Lesser).
The Iliad of Homer (Oxford Myths and Legends), by Barbara Leonie Picard. A retelling of the story.
The Iliad (Penguin Classics) by Homer. Translated by Robert Fagles. A great translation!
Approaches to Teaching Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, by Kostas Myrsiades (1987).