restricted access 2. Ritual Conflation in the Ajax

From: Tragic Rites

University of Wisconsin Press colophon
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50 2 κοὐκ ἔστ᾽ ἄελπτον οὐδέν . . . [Nothing is unexpected.] Aj. 648 The poetic effects of the rituals in the Ajax are most easily observed if we consider the play in three parts, each principally concerned with one conflated ritual. Other tripartite divisions of the play are certainly possible,1 and the logic of the play also allows for a two-part division in which Ajax’s suicide is the fulcrum on which the halves are balanced.2 However, the division of the play into three parts on the basis of ritual criteria best illustrates the role that these rituals play in shaping the audience’s perception of the trajectory of the plot and the character of Ajax himself. In essence the play presents its audience with a sequence of three ritual scenes, each one conflated internally within its own part of the play. The first part of the Ajax (1–645) deals with the immediate aftermath of Ajax’s slaughter of the herds. The slaughter itself is described retrospectively as a sacrificial ritual, but the fallout from Ajax’s ritualized violence blurs the lines between sacrifice and funerary ritual, generating competing images of Ajax the officiant and Ajax the victim. The second part (646–865) is concerned with Ajax’s suicide, which is at first falsely presented as an act of purification but later proves to be ritualized as another act of sacrifice. Ajax is portrayed as both the officiant to be purified by blood and the sacrificial victim whose blood is required. The third part (866–1420) concerns the discovery of Ajax’s body and the ensuing fight over its treatment. As Ajax’s family and friends fight over his burial, the funeral they attempt to arrange becomes confused with Ritual Conflation in the Ajax 51 Ritual Conflation in the Ajax both supplication and curse rituals, creating the somewhat paradoxical impression that the corpse is both in need of protection and a source of protection. These examples of internal conflation in individual ritual scenes highlight the contradictions inherent in Ajax’s character, which render his relationships with the various communities referenced in the play (his family, the Greek army, etc.) problematic. The roles assigned to Ajax in all these rituals are inconsistent and contradictory, resulting each time in a ritual that is in some way “incorrect” and unsuccessful in integrating him into any community within the bounds of the play. These repeated ritual failures lie at the heart of the tragedy of the Ajax, stressing the hero’s complete isolation. His participation in rituals that cast him in conflicting roles continually emphasizes his persistent liminal status and the failure of the reintegration phase, as the play’s successive rituals prove to be unable to respond appropriately to the changes of status he undergoes. Ritual cues convey to the audience that this play is fundamentally the story of a man unable to achieve a secure place in any community. The Ajax not only conflates multiple kinds of ritual within individual ritual scenes but also conflates elements from rituals that are separated from each other in the play’s timeline. For example, the description of Ajax’s sword in part II quotes the description of his sword in part I, highlighting the fact that this weapon has a similar function in each ritualized scene. Similarly, the purifying loutra proposed for Ajax’s burial in part III refer directly to the loutra that Ajax proposes to perform himself in part II. In these and other examples of ritual conflation across the play, the evocation of a previous ritual action encourages the audience to use what it knows about the earlier ritual outcome to anticipate and interpret the way in which the latter ritual plays out. This is especially true when, as often, the earlier outcome appears to be at odds with the trajectory of the later scene. In this play, the dramatic effect of this kind of conflation is uniformly negative. In some instances ritual conflation generates the expectation that an earlier ritual problem will be repeated, as in the case of the sword and its violent, polluted connotations. In other circumstances conflation generates doubt as to the efficacy of a given ritual, as in the case of the purifying loutra proposed for Ajax’s burial, which failed to purify earlier in the play. These ritual connections across the play are not superficial ones that might connect any rituals with similar features; rather, they are founded on deep congruencies of language and circumstance that suggest a...