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Ajax the Lesser

[ey-jaks]

For other uses of this name, see Ajax.
Ajax (Greek: Αἴας) was a Greek mythological hero, son of Oileus, the king of Locris. He was called the "lesser" or "Locrian" Ajax, to distinguish him from Ajax the Great, son of Telamon. He was the leader of the Locrian contingent during the Trojan War. He is a significant figure in Homer's Iliad and is also mentioned in the Odyssey. In Etruscan mythology, he is known as Aivas Vilates.

Mythography

His mother's name was Eriopis. According to Strabo he was born in Naryx in Locris, where Ovid calls him Narycius Heros. According to the Iliad, he led his Locrians in forty ships against Troy. In spite of his small stature, he is de­scribed as one of the great heroes among the Greeks, and acts frequently in conjunction with the Telamonian Ajax. In battle he wore a linen cuirass (λιμνοθώρηξ), was brave and intrepid, especially skilled in throwing the spear, and, next to Achilles, the swiftest of all the Greeks.

In the funeral games at the pyre of Patroclus he contended with Odysseus and Antilochus for the prize in the footrace; but Athena, who was hostile towards him and favored Odys­seus, made him stumble and fall, so that he won only the second prize, On his return from Troy his vessel was wrecked on the Whirling Rocks (Γυραὶ πέτραι), but he him­self escaped upon a rock through the assistance of Poseidon, and would have been saved in spite of Athena, but he said that he would escape the dangers of the sea in defiance of the immortals. In punishment for this presumption, Poseidon split the rock with his trident, and Ajax was swallowed up by the sea.

In later traditions this Ajax is called a son of Oileus and the nymph Rhene, and is also men­tioned among the suitors of Helen. According to a tradition in Philostratus, Ajax had a tame dragon, five cubits in length, which followed him everywhere like a dog. After the taking of Troy, it is said he rushed into the temple of Athena, where Cassandra had taken refuge, and was embracing the statue of the goddess as a suppliant. Ajax violently dragged her away and led her to the other captives. According to some writers he even raped Cassandra in the temple. Odysseus, at least, accused him of this crime, and Ajax was to be stoned to death, but saved himself by establishing his innocence with an oath. The whole charge was sometimes said to have been an invention of Agamemnon, who wanted to have Cassandra for himself.

Death

Whether true or not, Athena still had cause to be indignant, as Ajax had dragged a suppliant from her temple. When on his voyage home he came to the Capharean rocks on the coast of Euboea, his ship was wrecked in a storm, he himself was killed by Athena with a flash of lightning, and his body impaled upon the rocks, which afterwards were called the rocks of Ajax.

After his death his spirit dwelled in the island of Leuce. The Opuntian Locrians worshiped Ajax as their national hero, and so great was their faith in him that when they drew up their army in battle, they always left one place open for him, believing that, although invisible to them, he was fighting for and among them. The story of Ajax was frequently made use of by ancient poets and artists, and the hero who appears on some Locrian coins with the helmet, shield, and sword is probably this Ajax.

Other accounts of his death are offered by Philostratus and the scholiast on Lycophron.

In art

The rape of Cassandra by Ajax was frequently represented in Greek works of art, for instance on the chest of Cypselus described by Pausanias and in extant works.

References

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