I don’t know much about ancient Greek mythology, except the most obvious and well-known aspects, of course. But I know how one character from this genre is usually used.
Ajax. He is usually associated with the toilet, otherwise known as the bathroom. I know John Harington, Elizabeth I’s “godson”, wrote a book about her new flushing toilet, he called A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. And then there is Ajax, a commercial cleaner meant for the toilet. I think it is clear, the name Ajax, is associated with this indelicate subject, and has been for some time.
But who was Ajax? And more specifically, what does he have to do with the toilet and commode? Oh, I am sure he was war hero, or something like that. But why the association with the bathroom? That is what has perplexed me for some time now.
Two of them really, since both Ajax (the Great) and Ajax the Lesser fought in the Trojan War. I think I would have just changed my name rather than accepting the “lesser” epithet.
So Ajax is associated with toilets? Is that better or worse than what Trojans are associated with? If you dump a Trojan down the toilet, you’d better send some Ajax in too to renew their ancient battle.
But what about John Harington? I mean, why the reference to Ajax? Yeah, I know, he jokingly was referring to “A Jakes” (already explained in a previous post). But why did he make a reference to Ajax at all?
I came in to explain this, but see that the relevant points have already been hit. The answer to your question is above.
In Shakespeare’s time, a toilet/privy was jokingly called a Jakes, as already observed. It’s the Elizabethan equivalent of calling a toiler a John (because every man uses one, and John or Jakes – they’re different forms of the same name – has to use it).
So he was writing about a toliet, “A Jakes”, and, to those classically educated Elizabethans, the transformation of “A Jakes” to “Ajax” is irresistible. Heck, the equivalent is irresistible today. That’s why we have a chain of portable toilets called “Johnny on the Spot”.
Whether the classical equivalence of “A Jakes” = “Ajax” had anything to do with the naming of the cleanser I do not know. I doubt it. I suspect that they were just looking for a striking name, and the association with Greek mythology added class, the association with a hero suggested strength, and a short name with the juxtaposition of the rare letters “J” and “X” made it memorable.
Of course, it also ruined things for readers of the Iliad. I can’t read “Ajax” without thinking of the scouring cleanser. Cartoonist J.B. Handelsman even drew a cartoon about the Iliad in which he shows a cylindrical can of cleanser, sword in hand, fighting on the side of the Greeks.
I was impressed when translator Robert Fitzgerald rendered all the names of the characters in his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey in their original Greek forms, rather than the more familiar Latin equivalents. Not ony does this make it Odysseos rather than Ulysses, it turns Ajax into the baggage-less form Aias.
While the connection with “a jakes” is a fortuitous one, the Ajax brand was originally used by Colgate-Palmolive for their powdered cleaning product in the late 40s, and was not a toilet bowl cleaner at first. The first use was for a floor cleaner; other products were added to the brand over time… Add to that the “stronger that dirt” slogan and jingle (Performed by the Doors ;)), it’s clear the name was chosen to imply it was strong, like the Greek hero.
Consider also that the somewhat similar-sounding borax had long been popularly used as a cleanser for, e.g., laundry, and was even used as a brand name in that context at one point. (I still remember “Boraxo” brand handwashing powder from the mid-20th century, advertised as an effective cleanser for seriously dirty hands from working in the garden, with machinery, etc.).