Teucer – Legendary Archer of the Trojan War and Founder of Ancient Salamis

The Tale of Teucer – Legendary Archer of the Trojan War and Founder of Ancient Salamis

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Teucer, great archer and legendary son of a king in Greek mythology, fought alongside his brother Ajax in the Trojan War, but the intrigues and tragedy of war ended with his banishment and exile.

Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, is filled with the names of numerous heroes. On the Greek side, for instance, some of the most famous characters are Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus and Menelaus. On the Trojan side, the better-known heroes include Hector, Aeneas, Sarpedon and Glaucon. Not all the combatants in the Iliad, however, are considered as heroes.

Iliad, Book VIII, lines 245–53, Greek manuscript, late 5th, early 6th centuries AD.

Iliad, Book VIII, lines 245–53, Greek manuscript, late 5th, early 6th centuries AD. Public Domain

One of the telling signs of an unheroic character is their use of a bow and arrows, rather than a spear and shield. Of these, the most famous is perhaps Paris, a prince of Troy and the abductor of Helen. Unlike heroic modern portrayals of the character in film, Homer’s Paris is a cowardly character. Not all users of the bow are portrayed negatively and unheroic, however, as seen in the case of the archer Teucer. 

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Bronze statue depicting legendary archer, Teucer.

Bronze statue depicting legendary archer, Teucer. Wikimedia Commons

Teucer was the son of King Telamon of the island of Salamis and his second wife, Hesione, who was the daughter of King Laomedon of Troy. Being the son of a second wife, Teucer was considered to be illegitimate. Teucer’s mother was the sister of Priam, the king of Troy during the Trojan War, meaning that Teucer was the nephew of the Trojan king, as well as the cousin of Hector and Paris. Nevertheless, Teucer fought on the Greek side during the famous war.

Teucer also had a half-brother, the Greek hero Ajax the Great (to distinguish him from another Ajax participating in the Trojan War), who was the son of Telamon and his first wife, Periboea. Teucer and Ajax were also the cousins of the legendary hero Achilles.

In the Iliad, Teucer’s method of fighting is described as such: “ and Teucer came up ninth, tensing his reflex bow / and lurking under the wall of giant Ajax’s shield. / As Ajax raised the rim, the archer would mark a target, / shoot through the lines – the man he hit dropped dead/ on the spot – and quick as a youngster ducking under / his mother’s skirts he’d duck under Ajax’s shield / and the gleaming shield would hide him head to toe.”

It has been pointed out that this description also hints at Teucer’s illegitimate status, as being hidden away by their mothers is one of the things done to protect illegitimate children. Nevertheless, Teucer was an efficient killer, and Homer gives us a list of his victims: “Who was the first Trojan the marksman Teucer hit? / Orsilochos first, then Ormenus, Ophelestes, / Daetor and Chromius, princely Lycophontes, / Polyaemon’s son Amopaon and Melanippus too - / corpse on corpse he dropped to the earth that rears us all.”

Teucer also tried to kill Hector, though he missed twice.

Legendary archer Teucer

Legendary archer Teucer. ( Salamina.gr)

Teucer reappears in Sophocles’ tragedy, Ajax. In the tragedy, Teucer plays an important role in securing the body of Ajax for a proper burial after he commits suicide. According to the Roman poet Ovid, Ajax had been competing with Odysseus for the arms of Achilles after the end of the war. Odysseus won due to his eloquence, and Ajax was extremely unhappy. Although Ovid records that Ajax committed suicide there and then out of grief, Sophocles provides a different account of the story. In the playwright’s version, Ajax became filled with wrath and planned to kill the other Greek leaders. The goddess Athena intervened, however, and Ajax slaughtered a herd of sheep, believing they were his comrades. When Ajax returned to his senses, he was filled with remorse and killed himself. As he had sought to murder them, Agamemnon and Menelaus refused to allow Ajax’s body to be buried, resulting in a stand-off with Teucer. Fortunately, Odysseus arrived and convinced the Greeks to allow Ajax to be buried.

The suicide of Ajax the Great. Etrurian red-figured calyx-krater, ca. 400–350 BC

The suicide of Ajax the Great. Etrurian red-figured calyx-krater, ca. 400–350 BC. Public Domain

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When Teucer returned to Salamis, he brought news of Ajax’s death to his father. Telamon banished Teucer, for he thought that his son coveted the throne of Salamis, and had abandoned Ajax in his time of need, doing nothing to prevent his death.

Comments

The statue of a Trojan archer - (often suggested as being Paris) which appeared on the West pediment of the Temple of Aphaia was in the semi kneeling position, not standing upright in the way modern archers do. This stance appears on some vases also. I believe this may be what Xenophon describes when he says " when they shot they put out the left foot and rested the bottom of the bow against it as they drew back the string." Since he says that their bows were "between 4 and 5 foot long" this action is impossible if you are standing upright. but reasonable if you adopt the semi kneeling position I have yet to do more research on this but find it a fascinating point for study.

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