Sophocles: Ajax & Divine Madness


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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20 Responses

  1. Avatar Chris says:

    This is off point, and I don’t know why this always bugs me, but if I remember the Illiad right, while Ajax is indeed an imposing brute, Diomedes is pretty explicitly Achilles’ closest rival. Right? The over size shield has to be the best publicity gimmick in all of classical literature.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Chris says:

      @Chris, That’s a good point. I just remember Ajax being a bad mofo, but am not really sure where he gets this reputation as the closest rival. Of course, it’s possible that Sophocles is just saying that Ajax thinks of himself that way- he could have an exaggerated self-opinion. But then Odysseus seems to agree with him. Well, I guess I’ll just have to reread the Iliad. Thanks for the note!Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    In Daniel, God strikes Nebuchadnezzar down and the guy is out in the fields eating grass like the cows…

    Does that count? It’s vaguely similar to what happens to Ajax.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird, Yeah, that’s a good one. I have to reread it, but really the closest thing I could think of was Noah running around naked and drunk, which doesn’t really count since he was drunk.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

        @Rufus F., brief aside: What does the name “Noah” mean?

        Well, it means “comforter”. Huh. Why is that?

        Well, Noah only did two things of note. The first thing was carpentry. The second? Tradition holds that he planted the first vineyard.

        That running around drunk thing was the first man getting drunk for the first time, according to some traditions.

        Later this week when you enjoy a glass of something, remember Noah.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird, If we do a wine week, I’ll post some great poems about that. There are some wonderful Homeric poems on the topic and a handful of Sufi poets who wrote quite a bit about the vine and its delights. Unfortunately, the genre seems to have died out.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

            @Rufus F., well, part of the problem is the “Sideways” phenomenon.

            As if wine were some sort of different pleasure than the physical.

            The comparison that I make is to weed. Imagine someone explaining the special nuances between Afghan and Purple Cush and Maui Wowee.

            Dude. You’re getting stoned and watching your box set of Quantum Leap.

            Wine, for some reason, has been trying to generate a mystique above and beyond the whole “dude, you drink it and then you get tipsy” thing.

            TO ITS DETRIMENT.Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

              @Jaybird, Ah right. Well, if they legalize pot in California, we might see the same thing- upscale yuppie hash bars and movies about the refined taste for vintage marijuana. And then there will be people who will stop smoking it because pot has become too pretentious for their tastes. Sales of beer will soar. Incidentally, there’s also some beautiful Sufi poetry about hash- I have no idea what doctrinaire Muslims make of the stuff, especially since there’s even some strongly Platonic Sufi poems about love for beautiful boys. This of course reminds me of how many people I’ve known who had very good experiences with LSD and told me, “Now I totally get why so many people are religious!”

              Incidentally, I spent the weekend picking grapes in a local vineyard with the Portuguese family that owns it and had the best wine and food I’ve had in some time.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

              @Rufus F., please don’t get me wrong.

              I delight in good food and good wine (and, yes, can tell the difference between good and bad).

              But there is a point beyond which there are severe diminishing returns (and like the dude said at the Wedding at Cana, nobody gives a crap what the second glass tastes like).Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

              @Jaybird, “He gave us the wine to taste it/ Not talk about it and waste it.”

  3. Avatar Paul B says:

    hôs kai tês nûn phthimenês nuktos, megaloi thoruboi katechous hêmâs

    I’ve got the odes from Ajax burned into my mind from a fun experience as a member of the chorus in a college production. Can’t remember all the words, let alone what they mean, but it’s amazing how the meter sticks in your brain.

    Anyway, I had Ajax’s madness in mind when I was pushing back against Aristotle’s tragic conception the other week. And as far as biblical parallels go, there’s a bit of divine madness in the Saul & David story (and maybe David & Absalom, too).Report

  4. Avatar Imaginary Lawyer says:

    Saul is a pretty good example of madness in the OT.Report

    • Avatar Roberto in reply to Imaginary Lawyer says:

      @Imaginary Lawyer, That’s what I was thinking about. I Samuel says that “But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him.”
      That’s at least analogous to divine madness.Report

      • Avatar Rufus in reply to Roberto says:

        @Roberto, Yeah, I looked this up after you mentioned it and that’s right. I’d just remembered that story as Saul being miserable about losing the kingship unless David plays the lyre. But, indeed, it says that Saul was tormented by “an evil spirit from the Lord”. (Samuel 16:14) It’s absolutely reminiscent of a Greek myth and a wonderfully evocative image besides.Report

  5. Avatar angullimala says:

    I think you left out an important point. Ajax does NOT feel guilt at having lost his temper and gone into a berserk fury. He feels shame because, in his fury, he only killed sheep instead of the people that he wanted to kill. It is shame (loss of face in front of others) and NOT guilt (loss of face to oneself) that motivates his suicide.

    As for parallels – remember that some of the people who joined in to become the “Nation of Israel” were “originally” Greeks. We know from abundant material remains that the Phillistines were Greek members of the “Sea Peoples” who settled in the Gaza strip during the Bronze age collapse and generally adapted to the local language & religion. There is persuasive (but not conclusive) evidence that the Tribe of Dan were, likewise, originally Greeks who settled in the area and got absorbed into the emerging nation of “Israel”. It’s not surprising that some of their stories and myths would have been incorporated into the later literature of Israel.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to angullimala says:


      There is persuasive (but not conclusive) evidence that the Tribe of Dan were, likewise, originally Greeks

      Timeo Danaos et yarmulkas ferentes?Report

      • Avatar angullimala in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        @Mike Schilling,
        Yes, the use of the term Danaoi by Homer to refer to some of the Greeks is a big part of it. Then there is the references to the “Denyen” (a group of the “sea peoples”) by Egyptian sources. These were amopng those listed as having been defeat by Rameses III and then incorperated into the Egyptian army as mercs. Then there is Greek legend of Danaides – 50 daughters of Danaus who marry Egyptian princes. Finally, the Tribe of Dan is shown in early Israeli literature (like the book of judges) to be something of “outsiders” to the rest of Israel and the Song of Deborah asks “And Dan, why did he linger by the ships? ” instead of fighting with the rest of Israel. This makes little sense if we assume the Tribe had been part of Israel from the beginning – Israels territory during that time was land-locked and they had no seafaring tradition. However, it does accord nicely with the behavior of Achaen seaborne raiders who formed fortified camps (of sorts) by beaching their ships and then surrounding them with simple earthworks and timber ramparts (as described, for example, in the Iliad).

        Obviously, this is not “proof” by any means, but given what we know of the movements of various peoples during this time, I think it is a very plausible theory.Report

    • Avatar Rufus in reply to angullimala says:

      @angullimala, Yeah, I probably left it out, but I didn’t mean to suggest he felt guilt- it’s more like he was pissed at Agamemnon, Menelaus and Odysseus, and now he’s pissed at them and Athena too. But, no, he never says anything like “Man, I wish I hadn’t done that!” More like “Look what they’ve done to me!”Report

      • Avatar angullimala in reply to Rufus says:


        Yeah. Actually, I should also point out that not only does Ajax not feel “guilt” but he doesn’t even feel shame for the right reason (at least from the POV of a modern audience).

        Most modern Americans, when putting themselves into Ajax’s shoes, think “boy, I would be embarrassed to totally lost my shit like that. My peers would think I was a dangerous whackjob and not want to be around me”. Then they assume that is why Ajax killed himself – out of shame for his lack of control. Ajax, however, is actually thinking something more like “It’s ok that I totally lost my shit, but boy am I embarrassed that I only killed animals and not the people I intended to kill. My peers must be laughing at me” and kills himself because he feels mocked.Report

  6. Avatar angullimala says:

    Also –

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    Seriously, it’s farking awesome if you like this stuff. They haven’t updated since April so I’m afraid they may be running out of money (though I’m not sure), but I love it enough to plug it whenever I meet people who are interested in this kind of stuff.

    So, please, drop by and at least consider buying the DVD to help keep that resource alive.Report