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The Smelliest Women of Ancient Greece

by on June 5, 2018

he Lemnians by William Russell Flint. Abandoned by their husbands in favor of slave girls captured in nearby Thrace, the women of Lemnos responded by slaughtering first their husbands then all the men on the island. ( CC BY NC-ND 2.0 )

We all know Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, made sure that she was worshipped by punishing those who ignored her altars. One brief appearance of this wrath in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts turned into a particularly fragrant episode.
The Ladies of Lemnos
Jason and company were sailing on the Argo when they washed up on the shores of the Greek island of Lemnos at a time when that isle was in the grip of a harrowing problem. Aphrodite had decided to curse the women of Lemnos for neglecting her shrines. In punishment, the ladies were made to smell particularly foul. As a result, the men of Lemnos decided to repudiate their wives in favor of pretty and relatively odor-free slave-girls imported from Thrace. In revenge, the Lemnian women wrought havoc, killing every man they could get their hands on—not only those who’d broken their vows, but any and every male, presumably children too.

Portrait of Hypsipylé, first wife of Jason, from Octavien de Saint-Gelais ( Public Domain )

he only woman to flout this convention was the queen of Lemnos, Hypsipyle, who felt bad for her old father, King Thoas. She entombed him in a hollow chest and set him out to sea, sort of like a reverse Moses, so he could hopefully wash up to safety somewhere else. In the meantime, the Lemnian women became farmers and warriors, assuming men’s traditional roles, but cast a wary eye on the sea in case the people of Thrace sailed over to avenge their captured women.
Hypsiplye saves her father

Hypsipyle saves her father Thoas by Français ( Public Domain )

The Heroes Arrive
Instead of the feared Thracians’ arrival, the Argo docked, and Hypsipyle met the Greek heroes on the beach. To make sure the newcomers didn’t suddenly decide to attack, she proposed inviting them to a feast. At one point, Hypsipyle’s wise old nanny advised that the Lemnian women, in case the Thracians did eventually decide to pursue vengeance, get themselves some new warriors on the island—the Argonauts! These proven soldiers could father their future children and keep the people of Lemnos safe.
When Hypsipyle had to explain why every lady on Lemnos was single, she lied that the Lemnian women forced their guys out once they took up with the Thracians. Jason was quite taken with Hypsipyle, and Aphrodite made him fall for her pretty hard; soon, they were shacking up together. Within time, every man on the Argo but Heracles had found a lady love on Lemnos, and their journey—to recover the Golden Fleece—was ever-more delayed. They kept finding reasons to avoid sailing on and leaving their new paramours behind…
Jason and the Argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts by Lorenzo Costa ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

More Divine Intervention
That is, until finally Heracles got up the courage to yell at them. He was the only Argonaut who had not got caught up in the lovefest on Lemnos, as he had remained on the Argo lamenting the loss of his adopted son, Hylas. Heracles exclaimed scornfully that they wouldn’t win glory by bedding strange women and the gods wouldn’t drop the fleece, object of their quests, in their laps. Jason and his cohort were thus shamed into leaving. Hypsipyle started crying, but said Jason could come back to her once he got the Golden Fleece if he so desired. If he never returned and she discovered she was pregnant in the meantime, she requested that he tell her what to do with the baby. Jason replied that, if she was pregnant and the baby was a boy, to send the child to his hometown of Iolcus, so that the offspring could care for Jason’s parents, if they were still alive.
Ovid’s Letters
In Ovid’s Heroides—reconstructed love letters from the women of mythology to the men who’d done them wrong—Hypsipyle remonstrated with Jason for never returning to her. Why, she asked, did she have to hear of his exploits through the grapevine rather than from Jason himself? And Jason had slept with Medea, a “barbarian poisoner,” rather than marry Hypsipyle, a good Greek girl? Hypsipyle cried, “Alas! where is the faith that was promised me? Where the bonds of wedlock, and the marriage torch, more fit to set ablaze my funeral pile?” She declared herself better than Medea, who had abandoned her family; in fact, Hypsipyle had saved her own dad. After all, Jason had stayed with her for two whole summers; she had welcomed him into her home and into her heart and bed; and that was all she got? He told her he’d come back eventually…but he never delivered.
Medea with Jason

Jason and Medea by Charles-Andre van Loo. Medea by some reports killed two of the children born with Jason when he left her for another ( Public Domain )

Jason’s Lemnos Legacy
The only good thing that came from sleeping with treacherous Jason was somewhat of a surprise. Hysipyle gave birth to twins; as Hypsipyle sniped, “The ways of deceit they know not; for the rest, they are like their father.” She cursed Medea and Jason—and that turned out great for those two, right? The resultant twins were Euneus and his brother, whose name is variously given as Nebrophonus or Deiphilus or Thoas. Euneus became king of Lemnos and popped up in Homer’s Iliad as the generous ruler of Lemnos who gave the Greeks some fine wine. He also ransomed one of Priam’s sons from Achilles with a mixing bowl for wine.
Queen Hypsipyle’s Fall
Hypsipyle was eventually sold into slavery after the Lemnian women discovered she’d spared her own father’s life. She became a nurse to the baby son of Lycus, king of Nemea. An oracle had stated that the child (alternately named Opheltes or Archemorus) should never be put down on the ground until he could toddle. But seven heroes—the guys who eventually attacked Thebes—approached and needed water when Hypsipyle and the infant prince were outside; afraid to inadvertently fulfill the prophecy, Hypsipyle put the baby in a bed of parsley (technically not the ground) near a spring. But a dragon or snake popped its head out of the water and gulped the baby down. The heroes saved Hypsipyle from being killed in punishment by Lycus.
By Carly Silver, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins

Enhance Your Memory with this Ancient Greek Memorization Technique

by on May 29, 2018

By Wu Mingren, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was the personification of memory. In ancient Greece, prior to being written down, stories were recounted orally. Due to that, memory played an important part in the life of an ancient Greek storyteller. Thus, it is not too surprising that the concept of memory was given the form of the goddess Mnemosyne. In addition, the Greeks also invented ways to improve their memories. One of these was the Method of Loci, which was used for a long time in the Western world.
Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory
Mnemosyne was a Titaness / Titanide, who was one of the 12 children of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth). Her siblings include Cronus and his wife, Rhea, Oceanus and his wife, Tethys, Iapetus, and Themis. Mnemosyne was also believed to be the mother of the Muses.
Mnemosyne

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of Mnemosyne. ( Public Domain )

According to Greek mythology, Zeus (who was Mnemosyne’s nephew) slept with Mnemosyne for nine consecutive days. As a result of this union, the Muses were born. These were the nine goddesses responsible for providing inspiration to those involve in literature, science, and the arts. The nine Muses and their respective domains are as follows: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (music), Erato (lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (hymns), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy) and Urania (astronomy).
The Muses

Sarcophagus known as the “Muses Sarcophagus”, representing the nine Muses and their attributes. Marble, first half of the 2nd century AD, found by the Via Ostiense. ( Public Domain ) The Muses were the daughters of the memory goddess Mnemosyne.

A River and Palace for Memories
Additionally, Mnemosyne was the name given to a river in the Underworld. The ancient Greeks believes that before the souls of the dead are reincarnated, they would be required to drink water from an Underworld river known as Lethe. The name of this river means ‘forgetfulness’, and drinking from it would cause a soul to forget about their past lives. Conversely, the river Mnemosyne, which flowed parallel to Lethe, caused one to remember. According to the writer Pausanias, drinking from two fountains of water, one named Lethe, and the other Mnemosyne, was part of the rituals at the “oracle of Trophonios (Trophonius) at Lebadeia in Boiotia (Boeotia)”.
One of the methods invented by the ancient Greeks to improve their memories was the Method of Loci. This technique is known alternatively as the Memory Journey, the Memory Palace, or the Mind Palace Technique. According to the Roman orator Cicero, this technique was discovered by a Greek lyric poet by the name of Simonides of Ceos. Cicero goes on to relate a story in which the sophist was invited to present a lyric poem at a banquet in Thessaly. Shortly after he presented the poem, Simonides was called outside, during which the roof of the banqueting hall suddenly collapsed. The other guests were crushed to death, many of their bodies mangled beyond recognition.
Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen. ( Public Domain ) Cicero wrote the method of loci memory technique was was discovered by a Greek lyric poet by the name of Simonides of Ceos.

This made it difficult for the identification of the dead, which was required for their proper burial. By consulting his visual memory of where the guests had been seated around the banquet table, Simonides was able to identify the dead. It was from this experience that Simonides realized that it would be possible to remember anything by associating it with a mental image of a location, thereby developing the Method of Loci.
Visualization to Enhance Memorization
The Method of Loci relies on mentally visualizing the things that one intends to remember. These objects are placed in a particular order in various locations along a familiar route through a place, e.g. a city, house, workplace, etc. A mental journey with a starting and an ending point is made. Therefore, when you wish to remember, for example, a shopping list, or the points of a speech, you only need to go on this mental journey in order to remember each element. This memorization technique may be further enhanced by making the images more vivid. For instance, the mental images may be accompanied by mental smells and sounds.
The Method of Loci memorization technique was popular in the ancient world and was used up until the middle of the 17th century. It was eventually superseded by phonetic and peg systems. However, recent research has shown that the memory palace technique can be very effective.
As the Guardian reported:
“After spending six weeks cultivating an internal “memory palace”, people more than doubled the number of words they could retain in a short time period and their performance remained impressive four months later […] after just 40 days of training, people’s brain activity shifted to more closely resemble that seen in some of the world’s highest ranked memory champions, suggesting that memory training can alter the brain’s wiring in subtle but powerful ways.”
So, it may be worthwhile to create your own memory palace after all.

The Realm of Poseidon: A Mythical Voyage Around the Aegean

by on May 23, 2018

By Peter Marshall, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins

“Poseidon
the great god
I begin to sing, he who moves the earth
and the desolate sea…
You are dark-haired
you are blessed
you have a kind heart.
Help those who sail upon
The sea
In ships.”
~Homeric Hymn to Poseidon

Gods and Legends
Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea, the shaker of the land responsible for earthquakes, and the god of horses. Usually living in the sea, he could make the waters either calm or stormy depending on his volatile moods. As a patron deity of Athens, Poseidon competed with Athena, who planted the sacred olive tree, by establishing a magical well of salt water on the Acropolis.
Poseidon and Athena

Poseidon and Athena battle for control of Athens – Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo (1512). ( Public Domain )

If any boat was to survive in Poseidon’s Realm, its crew would have to appease him, usually in the form of sacrifices. The ancient Greeks would kill bulls on beaches or temples and offer up the sacrifices to the god; I preferred in my sailing voyage around the Aegean to make a libation to his memory and presence, usually in the form of the first glass of wine which I poured in the waters of Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’.
Poseidon—Neptune to the Romans—was one of the three main gods of ancient Greece. He was the brother to Zeus, the most powerful god and ruler of the Heavens, and to Hades, the god of the Underworld where a soul goes to spend a ghostly existence after death. As with the other gods and goddesses, they intervened into human affairs and often took the form of what humans called fate.
Zeus, Poseidon and Hades

The Greek Trinity: Zeus, Poseidon and Hades — gods of heavens, sea, and underworld. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

When Odysseus, for instance, tried to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, Homer tells us in his epic poem The Odyssey, it took him many years because he had angered Poseidon after blinding one of his sons, the one-eyed monster Cyclops Polyphemus for eating his crew and for keeping him captive in a cave. On the other hand, Odysseus was helped on his way by the intervention of the goddess Athena who wanted the Trojans defeated.
The gods and goddesses normally lived on the summit of Mount Olympus (the tallest mountain in Greece, and only climbed by humans at the beginning of the last century, and by myself this century). Although in some ways idealized, they were all-too-human, quarrelling with each other, committing adultery, laughing as well as being downhearted. Zeus would often have arguments with his wife Hera, the goddess of marriage and childbirth, particularly because of his many infidelities.
Despite the cities along the coast of the Eastern Aegean being the birthplace of philosophy and science, with one philosopher saying we can know nothing of the gods and the afterlife, most Greeks firmly believed in their gods. They held Delos in the center of the Aegean to be a sacred island, the birthplace of Apollo, the god of light, music and knowledge, and his twin sister Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the moon. And they readily consulted oracles, especially at Delphi, in their attempts to see into the future.
Heraion Temple

The priestess of the oracle at ancient Delphi, Greece. ( Public Domain )

But Apollo was also the brother of Dionysius, the god of wine and ecstasy. Many festivals of plays and songs were put on his honour. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche for one saw the birth of Greek tragedy to a combination of ‘Apollonian’ spirit giving form to ‘Dionysian’ energy.
Aegean Voyage
Mythology was an important part of my voyage around the Aegean as it helps to understand ancient Greeks. I set off in a small sailing boat with a traveling companion and traveling at roughly the same speed as the ancient boats, I drew a great circle around the Aegean.
My voyage in space reflected my voyage in time, for I investigated the various stages in ancient Greek history, from the Cycladic, Minoan, Mycenaean, Classical and the Hellenic. I also wanted to test my hunch that Greek civilization cannot be properly understood except from the point of view of the sea. It was central to their lives; Plato described accurately the city states like ‘frogs around a pond’. With a mountainous hinterland and poor soil, they inevitably looked to the sea for foreign trade and new colonies.
The only time they stopped fighting against each other was when they declared a temporary truce for their Olympic games every four years and when they were united against a common foe. Twice they had to face the Persians who had at the time the most powerful empire the world had ever known, under Xerxes I, the ‘King of Kings’. They brought vast armies and huge fleets to conquer the troublesome and squabbling peoples on their western border.
However, believing themselves to be free, the greatly outnumbered Greeks managed to push back the far greater force which would have enslaved them and changed the nature of Europe forever.
Map of the Aegean Sea

Historic map (1528) of Aegean Sea by geographer Piri Reis. ( Public Domain )

After sailing for six seasons in my small sailing boat, covering over 5,000 miles, I visited many ancient sites both famous and obscure and met many Greeks and Turks on the way. I suffered a near shipwreck and sinking. But more than sailing narrative and personal quest, I returned with a remarkable portrayal of the Greeks and a fuller understanding of their history, mythology and culture.
It is certainly worth studying the art, sculpture, literature, philosophy and architecture of ancient Greece—not only because the people are valuable and fascinating in themselves—but because the culture forms the seabed of Western civilization. I have witnessed the unforgettable portrait of arguably the most beautiful and magical sea in the world.
Peter Marshall is the author of Poseidon’s Realm: A Voyage around the Aegean the recently published by Zena. ISBN 9780951106969. He has written 16 books which have been translated into as many languages. His website is www.petermarshall.net

The Helots: Slave Warriors of Ancient Sparta

by on May 18, 2018

By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
The ancient Greek city state of Sparta had a social hierarchy that was different from many of its neighbors. The top of the social pyramid was occupied by the two kings, whose powers were checked by a ‘council of elders’. These elders were chosen from the next class, the Spartiates. Below this aristocratic class was a middle class which was called the Perioeci. The lowest class, which was also the largest, in Spartan society was held a group known as the Helots.
According to the Greek geographer Pausanias, the Helots hailed from a city called Helos. This city is said to have been conquered by the Spartans, and its inhabitants became their first slaves. Subsequent peoples enslaved by the Spartans were also called Helots. The Greek historian, Thucydides, however, gives a different account of the origins of the Helots. According to this writer, the Helots were the descendants of the Messenians who were enslaved by the Spartans during the First Messenian War in the 8th century BC. Another account of the origins of the Helots can be found in Strabo’s Geography. According to this writer, the peoples who were subjected to Spartan rule were initially accorded equal rights. During the reign of Agis I, however, these rights were revoked, and the subjects forced to pay a tribute. All complied, except the people of Helus, who revolted. They were crushed in a war, and reduced to slavery.

Map of Sparta

Whilst they are considered as slaves, it has been pointed out that they were somewhat different from other slaves in the neighbouring Greek city states. It is claimed that in Athens, for instance, slaves did not have families and communities of their own. The Helots, by contrast, had their own families and communities. Additionally, the Helots were not privately owned, but belonged to the state. According to Strabo, “the Lacedaemonians held the Helots as state-slave in a way, having assigned to them certain settlements to live in and special services to perform.”
As the male citizens of Sparta devoted their lives to athletic and military training, war, politics, and hunting, they could not afford to spend time on agricultural activities. The task of producing food was left to the Helots. Although the Helots were, generally speaking, peasants, they may be employed for other jobs, such as servants or grooms, as well. Additionally, the Helots could be conscripted into military duties at times of war. For instance, the Greek historian Herodotus records that each of the 5000 Spartiate at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC was protected by seven light-armed Helots. Thus, there was a total of 35,000 Helots at that battle.
Although the Helots were crucial for the functioning of Spartan society, the other classes had an uneasy relationship with them. Given that the Helots greatly outnumbered their Spartan masters, the possibility of them revolting against their repressive rulers was ever present. The first major Helot revolt took place around 665 BC, and is known as the Second Messenian War (The First Messenian War had ended around 40 years prior to this conflict). The Helots seized on the occasion of Sparta’s defeat by Argos at the Battle of Hysiae to launch a revolt. It took the Spartans nearly 20 years to put down the rebellion.
Painting of Leonidas

“Leonidas at Thermopylae” by Jacques Louis David. All 300 Spartans along with the Helot slave warriors fought to their deaths. Persia won the battle, but lost the war.

Given the precarious state of things, the Spartans took precautions to prevent the Helots from revolting. During the Persian Wars, for instance, the Spartans were not too eager to send their hoplites abroad to fight for the freedom of Greece. This was due to the fear that the Helots would revolt when the Spartan army was fighting away from home. Despite these and other precautions, several revolts by the Helots took place over the centuries. When an earthquake struck the Eurotas Valley in 464 BC, the Helots seized this opportunity to revolt. This was the largest revolt recorded. The Helots fortified Mount Ithome, which was besieged by Sparta. The siege only ended five years later when both sides agreed to a truce. The surviving Helots were taken by Athens and settled on Naupactus on the Corinthian Gulf.
Photo of the location of Ancient Sparta

The Site where Ancient Sparta used to Stand. Situated on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese, Greece. Photo by Ronny Siegel, 2013.

Spartan treatment of Helots improved overtime, perhaps as a means of appeasing them. For instance, Helots could hope to be emancipated, and it is known that groups of Helots were sometimes liberated. Nevertheless, the system collapsed in the 4 th century BC. In 371 BC, the Spartans suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Leuctra. The victorious Thebans then invaded the Peloponnese, and the Helots of Messenia were liberated. The last Helots (the Helots of Laconia) were emancipated at the end of the 3 rd century BC by the reformer kings Cleomenes III and Nabis.

Ajax: Clean out your soul

by on May 16, 2018

By Ben Potter
Aias to the Greeks, Aiax to the Romans, now known to us as the anglicized Ajax, he was ‘the best of all men that ever came to Troy, save only Achilles’.
However, Ajax’s status as number two in the Greek pecking order wasn’t always fully appreciated. After Achilles perished when the arrow fired by the Trojan prince Paris pierced his Achilles’ heel (oh the irony!) and Ajax gallantly carried his fallen comrade from the battlefield, it was assumed that the coveted armor worn by the slain hero would pass on to the number two warrior, Ajax.

Ajax returning Achilles

However, the Greek commander Agamemnon and his brother, husband of the wanton Helen, Menelaus had other ideas. Persuaded by his eloquence, they decided to give the armor to Odysseus.
So what’s the big deal? Ajax is a wealthy prince and a mighty warrior, surely he doesn’t need Achilles’ armor, right?
Wrong.
The armor is not merely precious, useful and a wonderful souvenir which could rival a piece of the true cross, but it is hugely symbolic. It is so saturated in symbolic honor that to be denied it, Ajax has been forced to suffer a de facto demotion.
This snub is enough to tip a character, who is often portrayed as tactless, boorish and arrogant, totally over the edge.

Ajax

He resolved to steal out into the night and enter the beach encampments of his fellow Greek commanders whereupon he would kill whomever he could and bring the rest back to his own tent for torture.
This, Ajax achieved… or at least thought he had achieved. Instead the goddess Athena, looking to protect her favorite, Odysseus, sent Ajax mad so that instead of mutilating Agamemnon, Menelaus et al, he butchered a flock of sheep.
It is at this point, with sanity suddenly returning to him, that Sophocles’ Ajax begins.
However, an Athenian audience wouldn’t have been waiting with bated breath to see what was in store for the man whose stock has dropped from the heights of second greatest of all the Greeks to being a traitor and maniacal livestock botherer. They already knew his fate; he was to commit suicide.
Whilst myths are able to evolve and Athenian tragedians do often significantly change major details of stories, this one was perhaps a step too far even for the innovative Sophocles to tinker with.
Instead what he does is develop Ajax’s tragic flaw. Quite obviously pride would be the one to play up, but Sophocles mixes it with a shot of blasphemy to make a cocktail of hubris.
There is some minor evidence for such impiety in The Iliad. In book XI, Ajax won’t listen to the gods when they instruct the Greeks to retreat from the battlefield, but continues fighting nobly and bravely when the other heroes are making their tactical withdrawal.
Also, most Greek heroes are honored by a patron deity who watches over them. Odysseus and Diomedes have Athena, Achilles has Thetis; even the Trojans Paris and Hector have Aphrodite and Apollo respectively. However, Ajax is alone.

Achilles and Thetis

It is this theme that Sophocles nurtures as we learn that Athena did not merely send Ajax wild to save her dear Odysseus, but to punish the doomed man himself. The Messenger (a stock character in ancient tragedy) highlights just why this is:
“The gods have dreadful penalties in store for worthless and redundant creatures, mortals who break the bounds of mortal modesty. And Ajax showed he had no self-control the day he left his home. ‘Son,’ said his father – and very properly – ‘Go out to win, but with God beside you.’ ‘Oh,’ said Ajax with vain bravado, ‘any fool can win with God beside him; I intend to win glory and honor on my own account.’”
Thus Ajax is seen not only as a character with a deeply flawed personality, but one who is on the end of Divine retribution. So the question that crops up isn’t so much ‘did he deserve his fate’ as ‘can we feel any sympathy for him at all’?
Well… Ajax was honor-bound to come to Troy by the oath sworn during his courtship of Helen. In Sophocles, Ajax is less concerned with rescuing the stolen princess than with trying to please or even emulate his father Telamon, who himself sacked Troy in the previous generation along with Heracles – a feat, of course, which Ajax has been unable to better.
Telamon, “the man who never smiles”, is the only man who Ajax seems afraid of and indeed he comments timorously: “How will he welcome me, when I come home empty-handed?”

Death of Ajax

It feels like Ajax been pushed all his life to try and accumulate kleos (reputation) and succeed at every turn simply in order to be able to step out of his father’s shadow. The failure to gain Achilles’ armor would have be seen as unacceptable in Ajax’s own eyes and presumably also in those of Telamon.
Can we find sympathy for a man whose every waking thought is centered round yearning for his father’s approval? Is this something which reinforces Ajax’s pathetic vanity? And in turn does it cause us to pity rather than despise him?
Sophocles includes a “family scene” which contrasts starkly to its inspiration in book VI of The Iliad. It involved Hector, his wife, Andromache and their son, Astyanax. Hector, knowing he was going into mortal combat from which he may not return, is depicted as a loving husband and gentle father.
The parody in Ajax shows the ‘hero’, not going nobly into battle, but about to selfishly and capriciously commit suicide. In these final moments they can share together he is very curt and snaps at his wife, Tecmessa. He hopes that his son, Eurysaces, will be as good a man as he is, only more lucky. Hector on the other hand desired that Astyanax would emulate him, going on to bigger and better things. This makes it seem like Ajax can’t bear to be outshone by anyone, not even his own flesh and blood!
Both men also worry about their wives being sold into slavery should they die. However, by committing suicide and Tecmessa being a foreigner, Ajax has all but guaranteed this fate for her.
The dramatic irony of this scene causes us to feel great pity for poor Tecmessa, an innocent victim of a self-destructive and proud fool who, instead of being the linchpin of victory in the Trojan War heaps woe upon woe, tarnishes his reputation, enslaves his loved-ones, bereaves his loyal and loving half-brother and leaves his father without an heir.
However, this is not the only way in which Sophocles creates suspense, pity and fear. Ajax falls on his sword just over half way through the story, the rest of the play is a struggle between Ajax’s half-brother, Teucer and the opposing, gloating siblings, the sons of Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus.
The tension comes about because Teucer is being denied by the Atreidai (the sons of Atreus) the right to bury Ajax.
Prohibition of burial rites might seem like more of an insult than a real tragedy to us, but it was of vital importance to the Greeks. It was not a matter of life and death, it was much more important than that!

Ajax commits suicide

Indeed, the importance of burial rites ties in with the fact that Sophocles has been, very wrongly, accused of making a hash out of Ajax due to the fact that the main character dies, and therefore the climax is reached, so early in the performance.
What these critics don’t understand is that the death is a foregone conclusion, common knowledge to all, but the burial of Ajax is far from guaranteed. Consequently, this sacred rite, the blasphemous denial of which would leave no Athenian theatre-goer sitting comfortably, creates tension and drama of the very highest order. Especially as all the men at the crux of the debate are edgy, angry and highly dangerous.
Indeed some interpret the play as reflecting the mental pressure on men in the appalling conditions of siege-warfare, far away from their homes and loved-ones and with the constant threat of slavery or annihilation hanging over their heads.
However, the play ends on a hopeful note thanks to a most unlikely source.
Odysseus, acting like a deus ex machina, manages to convince Agamemnon that Ajax, despite his faults, deserves a burial. Although Agamemnon doesn’t really concur and is amazed that Odysseus, mortal enemy of Ajax, wants to help Teucer, he allows him to do as he pleases.
And these are the words with which Odysseus guides the heart-broken Teucer through his darkest hour:
“I have this to say to you: I am your friend henceforth, as truly I was your enemy; and I am ready to help you bury your dead and share in every office that we mortals owe to the noblest of our kind”.
And thus Odysseus shows us that even in death, even through enmity, even when blood has been shed, bile been spat, even when hate and hostility trickle from the lips more readily than any words of friendship or conciliation…. even then there is still room for someone to step in and make things right, to honor the gods through a kind act and to lighten, even slightly, the weight upon a bereaved and dejected soul.

Tabula Cortonensis

by on May 11, 2018

By Natalia Klimczak, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
2,200 years ago, a pair of skilled Etruscan hands crafted a tablet that became a key to the language of this remarkable civilization. This unique bronze artifact is known as the Tabula Cortonensis and, apart from its role in deciphering a lost language, it also contains untold secrets of the Etruscan civilization if you read between the lines of its text.
The Etruscan civilization is a mysterious one. They created their own language, religion, architecture, and other cultural aspects. Their culture has been separated as one of the treasures of ancient times due to their amazing achievements before Romanization. However, there are still more questions than answers about the enigmatic people. Therefore, a discovery like the Tabula Cortonensis is priceless because it brings us one step closer to the Etruscans.
Tablets in Cortona

The Etruscan tablets.

A Curious Tablet
The tablet was discovered near the city of Curtun, which was known as Corito in the Roman Empire, and is now called Cortona. It lies in Arezzo Provincia in Tuscany. The site is well-known for the discovery of a 4th-century tomb that may have belonged to the famous mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras.
Cortona, Italy

Modern Cortona, Tuscany, Italy.

The tablet was unearthed in 1992, however it wasn’t exhibited for many years. This artifact is made of bronze and, for unknown reasons, it had been cut into eight fragments. Unfortunately, one of the pieces is lost. The tablet is 2-3 millimeters (.08-0.12 inches) thick and measures about 50 by 30 cm (19.69 x 11.81 inches). Researchers discovered that the tablet was made using the lost wax process. It has been suggested that the sheet may have been cut so it could be used for different purposes.
Some researchers believe the tablet was created in this way to be hung. However, there is no place for a ring or hook, so this seems unlikely. It is also uncertain if the Etruscans had specific measurements for different documents created on bronze tablets. There are some suggestions that the tablets for religious purposes had a specific size, but it is possible that contracts like the Tabula Cortonensis were also created with a precise pattern.
The Transfer Agreement
The text on the Tabula Cortonensis is a common record of a land transfer agreement between two parties. The text itself was written with skill, but its content is not unique. Although it is relatively wordy, the document isn’t the longest Etruscan writing discovered either – the Capua Tablet and the Liber Linetus from Zagreb are both longer.
The tablet was carefully studied by Luciano Agostiniani and Francesco Nicosia. They found that the inscription was clear in its content, but also full of specific information for the situation. For example, the names of the people who agreed to the contract are provided. The text also provides information about the Etruscan style and language used for this kind of agreement – a language which was thought to be the same in every region of Etruria.
Keys to a Forgotten Language
The lengthy text makes this artifact a useful tool in research on the Etruscan language. However, the researchers were surprised by the differences between the language they thought they knew and the text which had been written on the tablet. According to Agostiniani and Nicosia:
The letters are, with a few exceptions, those of the normal north Etruscan alphabet of the later 3rd or 2nd century BC. The absence of Phi and of the aspirate H is probably a coincidence: there are no words in the inscription in which they would have occurred. The gamma has the curved shape that becomes the Latin C. (Etruscan did not have the sounds of B, G or D. Their neighbors, the Romans, first pronounced C either with the sound of K, the Etruscan way or as gamma, the Greek way. Until the letter G was invented, they pronounced Caius Julius Caesar as Gaius Iulius Kaisar.) Two signs are unusual. The backward E, epsilon, though rare, is known from other inscriptions from Cortona. The “paragraph” sign used to set off four of the seven sections of this legal document (lines 7, 8, 14, 23) is unique. It would be perfectly understandable to any modern proof-reader.
The tablet records a contract for the sale, or lease, of land, including a vineyard (vina), in the plain of Lake Trasimeno (celtineitiss tarsminass), between the Cusu family (Cusuthur), to which Petru Scevas belongs, and 15 people, perhaps a group of buyers, witnessed by a third group of names sometimes listed along with their children and grandchildren (clan, “son”, and papals, “grandson”).
Map of Etruscan civilization

Maximum extent of the Etruscan civilization and the twelve Etruscan League cities.

The ancient inscription is full of mistakes, or, it provides evidence of gaps in modern knowledge about the Etruscan language. Agostiniani explains this by saying that the tablet contains a unique language used by the people who lived specifically in Cortona. That would mean people could have used different language in various parts of Etruria.
Searching for the Lost Civilization
Researchers need to complete additional excavations and analysis of previously discovered Etruscan artifacts to reveal more fascinating information about this unique civilization. But every discovery like the Tabula Cortonensis provides new information that allows us to create a clearer picture of their daily life and language, something that looks to be more complicated than once believed.

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