Odyssey: The Ghost of Ajax

This story is part of the Odyssey unit. Story source: Homer's Odyssey, translated into English by Tony Kline. (2004).

The other ghosts of the dead departed stood there sorrowing, and each asked me about their dear ones. Only the spirit of Ajax, Telamon’s son, stood apart, still angered over my victory in the contest by the ships, for Achilles’ weapons. Achilles’ divine mother, Thetis, had offered them as a prize, with the Trojan prisoners and Pallas Athene herself as judges. I wish I had never won the reward for that debate, that armour that caused the earth to close over so noble a head as that of Ajax, who in beauty and martial action was supreme among the Danaans, save for that faultless son of Peleus.

I spoke to his ghost in calming words: “Ajax, son of faultless Telamon, even in death can you not forget your anger with me, over those fatal weapons? The gods themselves must have cursed the Argives with them. In you a tower of strength was lost to us, and we Achaeans never cease to share as great a grief for you, as we do for Achilles, Peleus’ son. But Zeus alone is to blame whose deadly hatred for the Danaan host hastened your doom. Come closer to me, my lord, so you can hear my speech. Curb your wrath: restrain your proud spirit.”

He chose not to give a single word in answer, but went his way into Erebus to join the other ghosts of the dead departed. For all his anger he might still have spoken to me, or I to him, but my heart desired to see other ghosts of those who were gone.

Know that I saw Minos there, Zeus’ glorious son, seated with the golden sceptre in his hand, passing judgement on the dead as they sat or stood around him, making their case, in the broad-gated House of Hades.

I next saw great Orion, carrying his indestructible bronze club, driving the phantoms of wild creatures he once killed in the lonely hills over the fields of asphodel.

I saw Tityos, son of glorious Gaea, spread out over a hundred yards of ground, while a vulture sat on either side tearing his liver, plucking at his entrails, his hands powerless to beat them away. He is punished for his rape of Leto, Zeus’ honoured consort, as she journeyed to Pytho through lovely Panopeus.

I saw Tantalus in agonising torment, in a pool of water reaching to his chin. He was tortured by thirst, but could not drink, since every time he stooped eagerly the water was swallowed up and vanished, and at his feet only black earth remained, parched by some god. Fruit hung from the boughs of tall leafy trees, pears and pomegranates, juicy apples, sweet figs and ripe olives. But whenever the old man reached towards them to grasp them in his hands, the wind would sweep them off into the shadowy clouds.’

‘And I saw Sisyphus in agonising torment trying to roll a huge stone to the top of a hill. He would brace himself, and push it towards the summit with both hands, but just as he was about to heave it over the crest its weight overcame him, and then down again to the plain came bounding that pitiless boulder. He would wrestle again, and lever it back, while the sweat poured from his limbs, and the dust swirled round his head.

But long before that the countless hosts of the dead came thronging with eerie cries, and I was gripped by pale fear lest royal Persephone send up the head of that ghastly monster, the Gorgon, from Hades’ House.

So I hastened to the ship, and ordered my friends to embark, and let loose the cables. Swiftly they climbed aboard, and took their seats at the oars, and as we rowed the force of the current carried her down the River of Ocean, till afterwards a fair breeze blew.

(700 words)

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