Ajax (of the earth?) In Greek and Latin mythology, Latin form of the Greek Aias, a great hero of the Trojan War. Ajax was the son of Telamon of Salamis and Periboea (or Erioboea), and half brother of Teucer. He was called Great Ajax because he was taller than the other Greek heroes. Ajax brought 12 ships to Troy, where he proved himself second only to Achilles in strength and bravery, though he is portrayed as rather stupid by Homer in the Iliad.
In later mythology Ajax goes mad when the armor of the dead Achilles is offered as a prize to Odysseus for his cunning and not to Ajax for his bravery. Ajax, according to this version, killed himself by falling on the sword given him by Hector. Out of his blood sprang the purple lily, and on its petals could be traced the first letters of his name, Ai.
His death is the subject of Sophocles’ play Ajax, he is described in detail in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book 13), and he appears in Horace’s Odes (II, IV, 5). A statue and temple to Ajax were erected at Salamis, and a yearly festival, the Aianteia, was held in his honor.
He was also worshipped at Athens, where the tribe Aiantis was named after him. In later Greek mythology he was supposed to linger with Achilles in the island of Leuce. Another Ajax in Greek mythology was the son of the Locrian king Oileus and was called Locrian or Lesser Ajax to avoid confusion with the Great Ajax. He took 40 ships to Troy. Though he was small, he distinguished himself beside his larger namesake.
He was renowned for hurling the spear and was the swiftest runner next to Achilles. On his voyage home, to appease the anger of Athena, he suffered shipwreck on the Gyraean Rocks off the island of Myconos or, according to a variant myth, on the southernmost point of Euboea.
Poseidon rescued him, but when Ajax boasted that he had escaped against the will of the gods, Poseidon took his trident and struck off the rock on which Ajax sat, and he sank into the sea. Other accounts say that Athena’s anger fell upon Ajax because when Cassandra had sought refuge at Athena’s altar during the taking of Troy.
Ajax tore her away by force, causing the sacred image of Athena, which Cassandra was holding, to fall. Though Agamemnon took Cassandra from Ajax, the Greeks left the crime of sacrilege unpunished, and the goddess vented her anger on the whole fleet with shipwrecks and high winds on the way home. Along with other heroes of the Trojan War, Ajax was believed to live with Achilles in the island of Leuce.
The Locrians worshipped him as a hero. A vacant place was left for him in the line when their troops formed for battle.
Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow -Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante