Saturday, July 16, 2011

More on the Grief of War: Mother Ajax

The discussion that Casey and I had about Petry’s interview on The Daily Show and especially her beautiful consideration of the similes featuring mothers in these passages of the Iliad (see her post) has also led me to reconsider another such simile that I had previously examined in my published work. In Iliad 8, the coordinated fighting method of the half-brothers Ajax and Teucer is described, and that description includes a compressed simile of a child and his mother (Iliad 8.266–272):

Τεῦκρος δ’ εἴνατος ἦλθε παλίντονα τόξα τιταίνων,
στῆ δ’ ἄρ’ ὑπ’ Αἴαντος σάκεϊ Τελαμωνιάδαο.
ἔνθ’ Αἴας μὲν ὑπεξέφερεν σάκος· αὐτὰρ ὅ γ' ἥρως
παπτήνας, ἐπεὶ ἄρ τιν’ ὀϊστεύσας ἐν ὁμίλῳ
βεβλήκοι, ὃ μὲν αὖθι πεσὼν ἀπὸ θυμὸν ὄλεσσεν.
αὐτὰρ ὃ αὖτις ἰὼν πάϊς ὣς ὑπὸ μητέρα δύσκεν
εἰς Αἴανθ’· ὃ δέ μιν σάκεϊ κρύπτασκε φαεινῷ.

Teucer came ninth, bending back his curving bow,
and he stood under the shield of Ajax, son of Telamon.
Then Ajax was lifting his shield up and out. And then the hero
once he looked around, when he shoots someone in the crowd
and has hit him, that man falling down on the spot loses his life.
And then Teucer goes back, like a child runs behind his mother,
to Ajax. And Ajax hides him with his shining shield.

In my examination of the ways in which Teucer’s illegitimacy (his mother was the war captive of Telamon, Teucer and Ajax’s father, while Ajax’s mother was Telamon’s wife) is portrayed, I connect this simile to other images we find in Greek literature in which the nothos (‘bastard’) is pictured as a perpetual child (Ebbott 2003: 39–40) and then I explore other Indo-European myths of twins or pairs to think about how Teucer’s identity is connected to that of his brother (Ebbott 2003: 41–44). But considering this simile in conjunction with the other similes depicting mothers and their children (see Muellner 1990 for how studying the similes as a system reveals much more about their meaning), I now am wondering whether the mother-child simile here, especially in light of the obvious role Ajax is playing as his brother’s protector on the battlefield, is connected with the special relationship not only between these two, but between soldiers who fight together on the battlefield together generally. The fact that Teucer will end up as the protector when he protects Ajax’s corpse after Ajax kills himself out of shame (his suicide happens after the events of the Iliad but the audience would have been aware of it) adds poignancy to this image, but also reflects the possibility that the role of “mother” can change depending on the circumstances of battle.

We can’t know whether “real-life” ancient Greek warriors would have specifically used the analogy of being a “mother” to their comrades, but I think we can plainly see that the emotions the Iliadic warriors express about one another and the way that American soldiers feel about their comrades has much in common. As Casey mentioned, those poetics and the emotional connections they can evoke are the reasons why Homeric epic is meaningful to us still today. But the close and careful work on the epics that the Homer Multitext involves leads to a deeper appreciation of these poetics—realizing both how the poetry in its multiformity creates meaning, but also what meaning it carries in our lives and our world.

Ebbott, M. 2003. Imagining Illegitimacy in Classical Greek Literature. Lanham, MD.

Muellner, L. 1990. “The Simile of the Cranes and Pygmies: A Study of Homeric Metaphor,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 93: 59–101.

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