chapter  2
29 Pages

Prayers Out of Bounds


Homer’s Iliad contains what modern sportscasters would call “a color commentary” of a footrace held as part of the funeral games honoring slain warrior Patroclus. Ajax breaks out in the lead at the start, followed closely by Odysseus, so close in fact that Ajax can feel him breathing down his neck as he runs “lightly and relentlessly on.” It doesn’t look like Odysseus has a chance. Then, coming down the home stretch, Odysseus does what many contemporary athletes would do in this situation: he prays. And his prayer is answered. The goddess Athena not only gives him a supernatural boost of adrenalin; she causes Ajax to slip and fall in a pile of cow dung, assuring Odysseus’ victory. After the race, Ajax accepted the second prize of an ox, but not graciously. As he spat out cow dung he complained: “Curse it, that goddess tripped me up. She always stands by Odysseus like a mother and helps him.”