THE SACRIFICE OF IPHIGENEIA
Finally everything was ready for the expedition. The army had assembled once again at Aulis. Only one thing delayed the departure of the fleet: there was not a breath of wind. They waited for a breeze to get up, but in vain.
“How long will this go on?” many of them began to ask.
“It’s clear the gods are against us,” others muttered. “We should return to our homes.”
The leaders were as worried as their men. Eventually they decided to consult Calchas, the army’s mighty seer. And here is what he told them:
“The goddess Artemis is angry with the leader of our forces. She has harboured resentment against him for many years because although Agamemnon always seeks her help whenever he’s in need, when the time comes to make offerings he conveniently forgets her. Recently, he added insult to injury. He shot a deer, and as his arrow found its mark from a great distance, he began to boast not even Artemis had skills that could match his. Worst of all, here in the woods at Aulis he shot a wild goat, a sacred animal which Artemis particularly loved. Now her anger has overflowed, and she demands that he recall an old obligation which he still has not fulfilled. He once promised that he would offer her the loveliest being born that year within his kingdom – and as chance would have it, the most beautiful of all turned out to be his baby daughter Iphigeneia. He, of course, forgot his promises to Artemis, to her rage and mortification. But now the time has come for Agamemnon to pay in full. The goddess will not be placated until he sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia to her. Only then will the wind fill our sails and blow the ships to Troy.”
Agamemnon listened horror-struck. There was no point in quarrelling over Calchas’ explanation; yet to meekly accept the slaughter of his beloved daughter, that was too terrible to contemplate. No, he would never allow such a thing to happen! Hiding his true thoughts, however, he said:
“Clytemnestra would never accept such a sacrifice.”
“Nobody wants this thing to happen,” Menelaus replied, “but unless we give the goddess what she demands, how shall we ever leave for Troy?”
“I don’t care if we never leave, if it means sacrificing Iphigeneia!” muttered Agamemnon under his breath. Aloud, however, he merely said, “I don’t know. One thing is sure, though: her mother will never allow it.”
“When it’s a goddess laying down the terms, we’re not likely to seek the mother’s opinion. What’s needed is for you to make your mind up.”
“Much as I hate the thought I must obey. I am commander of the army and cannot do otherwise. If Clytemnestra agrees to it, I will raise no objections.”
“Say it straight out,” one of his generals accused him. “You do not intend to obey the goddess.”
“Then let’s elect another commander,” a second suggested.
“Let’s make Palamedes our leader!” shouted a third.
Odysseus sprang to his feet.
“If you want Palamedes as commander, then goodbye. I shall pack up and leave.” And he made as if to return to his followers.
“Stop, Odysseus. I don’t agree that we should change commanders either,” said Menelaus, “but Agamemnon must make up his mind here and now.”
The commander-in-chief still said nothing.
“Listen, Agamemnon,” Odysseus said. “I had no desire at all to help Menelaus, but from the moment that I gave my word, there was no going back on it. Don’t think I do not understand you. I know how hard it is for you to tell Iphigeneia she must come here to be sacrificed to Artemis. Even if you’re acting on the goddess’ orders, you can’t put it to her in so many words. There is another way, however. Sit down and write to your wife Clytemnestra, telling her to send Iphigeneia here so you can give her in marriage to Achilles. Pretend you’re doing it because the army wants to give him a reward for saving us from the wrath of Telephus, back in Mysia. Only make sure you write that Iphigeneia must come alone, without any female companions – without her mother, that is. Tell her it’s not right for the king’s wife to be seen in an army camp. And add that she’s to send the girl at once, because we’re just waiting on this wedding to set off.”
Again, Agamemnon did not reply.
Finally it was Menelaus who wrote the letter for him, on a clay tablet.
“Sign it,” he told him. “The army is growing restless. Iphigeneia must come here.”
“What if Achilles does not agree to have his name mixed up in this? Shouldn’t we consult him first?” asked Agamemnon, playing for time.
“And what if he says no?” Odysseus retorted. “How shall we find another way of getting Iphigeneia sent here? Listen, Agamemnon, there is no alternative. You must sign.”
“Yes, you must sign,” the others echoed.
And only then, with a shaking hand, did Agamemnon scratch his name at the foot of the clay tablet.
The letter was sent off, while the high king withdrew into his tent and, falling face down on his couch, burst into bitter tears.
But soon he sprang to his feet once more.
“What have I done?” he cried. “No, I shall not let it happen!” And with these words he took another tablet and scribbled this brief message to Clytemnestra:
‘Do not send Iphigeneia. The wedding is off!’
Then he called a trusted servant and told him:
“Take my chariot and horses and make all speed for Mycenae. Deliver this letter into my wife’s hands. But take care: nobody must know that I have sent you.”
Now Menelaus had feared his brother might have second thoughts, so he kept a careful watch. As soon as he saw Agamemnon’s charioteer readying the horses, he set off ahead and lay in wait at a bend in the road. When the chariot came, he stepped out in front of it.
“Stop!” he cried.
The driver had no choice but to obey.
“Give me the letter!” Menelaus commanded.
“I have no letter,” said the servant, in a frightened voice.
“Then what is this?” he asked, and pulled from under the servant’s cloak the tablet he had been trying to conceal in his armpit. “Now get out of here. But do not go straight back. Put it off as long as you like, and when you do return, tell Agamemnon any story that you please. Tell him I took the letter if you like. It doesn’t bother me.”
In the end, having let two days go by, Menelaus went alone to Agamemnon.
“Doing this hurt me as much as it will hurt you,” he told him, “but there was no other way. Here, take back this letter, and let’s think how we can break the news of the sacrifice to Iphigeneia.”
“How dare you spy on me and intercept my mail!” screamed Agamemnon, outraged.
This was more than Menelaus could take.
“How dared you send a second letter, when you’d already signed the first?” he retorted. “So you want the expedition called off, eh? We decided on war, Agamemnon, and wars cannot be waged without sacrifices. Not one life, but thousands will be lost in the upholding of our honour, the honour of all the Achaeans. And now the lot has fallen on your daughter, you, the commander-in-chief, step back from the brink! Very well, then; I no longer consider you my brother. I no longer recognise you as high king. Disband the army, since that’s what you want, but you’ll become the laughing-stock of all your generals – and don’t think they will take this humiliation from you. Why, which of them will agree to abandon an expedition which promises glory, treasure and a chance to mete out a bitter lesson to all wife-thieves, whoever they may be!”
Agamemnon’s resistance was at an end. He fell weeping into the arms of his brother. “It is hideous,” he sobbed. “Iphigeneia is the dearest thing on earth to me!”
Indeed, it was not long before his luckless daughter arrived from Mycenae accompanied by her mother and two girl friends. Agamemnon was caught unprepared. “We’d told her to come alone,” he muttered. “This makes things much more difficult.”
Iphigeneia ran into her father’s embrace.
“Oh, my unfortunate girl!” he cried out, unable to check his words; and two tears rolled down his cheeks.
“But I’ve come to be married, father. I’m as happy as can be!”
“What words of greeting are these?” her mother added. “Has something happened? You are trembling like a leaf.”
“No, no, they were words of joy. I am so deeply moved that the thought of her happiness fills me with dread.”
“You’re getting your words all mixed up, father!” Iphigeneia cried.
“How can one be stirred by fear at his daughter’s happiness? You’re out of your mind.”
“Out of my mind with joy. Such a wedding! Oh, goddess of the moonlight night, have pity on me!”
“Mother, father is talking nonsense. Something is wrong!”
“One moment you say you’re happy, husband, and the next you look miserable. Anyone would think our daughter was going to marry Hades!”
“No, it’s Achilles that she’s getting, and I’m glad of that. But Hades, too, is a great king – of the underworld.”
“Mother, father is making me afraid.”
“Fear not, my child, it’s only out of happiness. But just tell me this, Agamemnon – what has this wedding got to do with the underworld?”
“I don’t know. Don’t ask. Anyway, why are you here, when I told you not to come?”
“The greatest day in our daughter’s life, and you thought you could keep me away?”
“Don’t look on it like that. Ah, well, never mind. Since you insisted on bringing her here in person I will not be angry with you. But this is an army camp. You can’t stay any longer. Besides, I shall be here. Everything will be done as it must, and as the gods would wish.”
“Oh, father, don’t send mother away. I want her by my side.”
“I shall stay, my girl. I shall be near you in your joy, and if the gods so wish it, in your sorrow, too.”
“If you must, then, stay,” said Agamemnon. “After all, this is a wedding and a time of great rejoicing.” Then, covering his face with his hands, he withdrew inside his tent lest anyone should see their mighty leader weeping. But Iphigeneia and her mother saw his tears and fell into each other’s arms with sobs.
They were still standing there with heavy hearts when they heard footsteps approaching. Turning, they saw a young warrior, handsome as a god, decked in shining armour.
“Forgive me,” he murmured, “I did not see you here,” and made as if to leave.
“One moment,” Clytemnestra said, “perhaps you are...”
“No, I am Achilles, son of Peleus and Thetis,” the young man replied, a little embarrassed.
“And I am Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon – and here is Iphigeneia. Yes... Iphigeneia!”
“Delighted to have made your acquaintance; but I am on duty and I’m afraid I cannot stay.”
“Wait a moment. I want to meet the man who’s going to marry my daughter. Is there anything bad in that?”
“I am delighted to hear that our commander is giving away his daughter. And I agree there’s nothing wrong in getting to know one’s son-in-law before the wedding; but I’m afraid I really can’t help you. I haven’t heard anything about it. I don’t know who the lucky man will be.”
Achilles’ words were all it took for Iphigeneia to sink her head upon her mother’s shoulders and soak it with tears. If anything, Clytemnestra was more shattered still.
“So they lied when they said they wanted Iphigeneia to come here to be married – and to you at that! She wasn’t brought here for her own good. Why did they bring her, then? What evil are they hiding from us?”
Achilles stood thunderstruck by what he heard.
“I am sorry, but I do not understand this at all,” he said.
Iphigeneia could bear no more. Leaving her mother, she ran to find her friends, where she could sob her heart out unrestrained.
Clytemnestra gave Achilles a sympathetic look. He was the innocent victim of a plot – a plot in which her daughter was an even greater victim. Exactly what coils was she caught in, though? How could she learn? Just then, who should she see but a faithful servant of hers, now serving with Agamemnon’s forces. She called him over.
“I want you to tell me everything you know,” she ordered.
“Madam, I am just a servant. Yours, of course, but Agamemnon is my master. It is not fit for me to speak unless he gives the word.”
“So you do know, then?”
“I know a lot. I know it all, in fact; but I am afraid to tell.”
“If by telling you will do harm, then say nothing. If not, speak out boldly.”
“You are right. I can do no greater harm than that which is about to happen. Besides, sooner or later you, Achilles and the unfortunate girl will learn it all. But maybe someone can hear us. Could Iphigeneia be listening?”
“Speak freely. Do not be afraid.”
The servant began his tale. He told them all there was to know: for it was he who had set off for Mycenae with the second message, which Menelaus had taken from him.
“Oh, woe is me!” cried Clytemnestra when the servant finished. “Now I know why his wits seemed scrambled when he spoke to us. A hideous crime – and all planned in advance. So I am to lose my precious daughter!”
“No!” cried Achilles. “I will not allow it! They have plotted against me behind my back, and used my name to ensnare an innocent girl. They will have me to reckon with first. Let the fleet rot in Aulis! Let Paris go unpunished! I shall not let this sacrifice take place!”
Suddenly they heard the voice of Iphigeneia behind them.
“Mother, I feared some great evil and came to find you. I could not help overhearing what was said. But do not be afraid. My father is against this sacrifice and he will find a way to save me.”
“Oh, my girl, what terrible misfortune has befallen us. Come, we must try to stir your father’s heart. He loves you dearly.”
“Yes, mother. He grieves for me as much as you do. His sorrow is even greater than my own. If it is possible, he will save me.”
“What do you mean, ‘if’? He is the high king!”
“Perhaps that will be the very reason which prevents him, mother.”
“If he prefers the trappings of power to his child!”
“I cannot believe that is true.”
“I know your father better than you do.”
“I ought to be leaving,” murmured the servant. “I think I hear my master coming. He must not see me with you.”
“Father!” wailed Iphigeneia, as Agamemnon approached. “Why, father? What harm have I done to the Achaean army?”
“What’s that you’re saying? I do not understand. Or are you foretelling some evil stroke of fortune?”
“She’s not foretelling it, she’s heard every detail. We have learned the horrible deed you have decided on.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Father, you will save me, won’t you? I came here to be wedded. Surely you will not let me die instead?”
“So you know it all! It seems someone took pity on me, since my own lips could not pronounce the hideous truth!”
“What now, father?”
“My child, do you think this does not break my heart?”
“It’s your decision that concerns us, not your heart! Are you going to sacrifice an innocent creature and her mother’s happiness for the sake of Menelaus and his faithless wife? Tell me, have you thought about that? How shall I find the courage to go back to Mycenae with my expectations of a splendid wedding dashed? How shall I face her empty room while you are far away? And tell me this: what shall I say to her younger sisters and little Orestes when they ask me? Shall I tell them she is married? What excuses shall I give if they find my pillow soaked with tears? ‘Yes, she is married’, I shall tell them, ‘but she took Charon for a husband.’ And when they ask me how this terrible thing happened, again, what shall I say? Even if I do not tell them it was you who killed her, do you think the secret can be kept for ever? Some day it will come out! Then, when you return, victorious though it may be, how do you think your children will receive you? Even if they overcome their fear, how will you be able to take them in your arms? Have you thought at all of all these things? No, all you fear is that they may choose some other for their leader and that you will lose the glory of your rank!”
“Be silent, woman! It is enough that I have a breaking heart.”
“I know how much you love her,” she replied. “I would not speak to you at all if I did not. I love all my children dearly but in equal measure. You, too, love them all. Yet you were always especially fond of Iphigeneia. Remember once you held her on your knees and said: ‘You are little still, yet I cannot wait to see you happy with a good man worthy of your parents’ name?’ And she replied, winding her fingers in your beard, ‘Do not hurry, father. I am so happy that we are all together. But when that young man takes me from you and the years have passed, I want to take you into my home in your old age, to repay your love and care for me as well as I know how.’ That’s how she spoke to you, and your eyes filled with tears. Then do you remember how you always told me, ‘If I live my life out to its span, I shall ask Iphigeneia to take me in, and when my time has come, it is her I want to close my eyes in death?’ Now look what turn fate has taken. That you, of all people... and to Iphigeneia! I did not mean the things I said to you at first, but even so, how could you have agreed? How could you bring yourself to send us such a letter... how? There we were, filled with unsuspecting happiness, convinced the goddess of love herself had chosen such a divine youth as Achilles for us. Our innocent daughter jumped for joy when she read the letter; and when she came, her heart leapt in her breast when she beheld him, as handsome as a god. Now she is doomed to die in the first flush of youth, without ever knowing the delights which the goddess of love so richly showers on rich and poor, immortals and common men alike. Yet you accepted such a fate and decided on the hideous sacrifice. I boil with anger every time I think of it. Enough of that, however. I tell you this, though: only you can save her!”
“I cannot. It is a goddess who commands. At first I would not submit to her wishes. I resisted with all my might, but the army rose against me. All my generals claimed I wanted the expedition to be called off, the kidnappers and thieves left unpunished, and the harsh vengeance of the gods to fall upon us. ‘We swore an oath!’ they cried. I promised to submit to their demands. The first to pay his blood-toll in this war would be me. I had no choice but to accept. But listen, I hear shouts again! There are many who still believe I will go back on my word. I shall go to see what is afoot. You go back to my tent and console yourselves with tears. I, alas, do not even have the right to weep.”
And with these words he hastened towards the spot the shouts were coming from.
“It is over, mother,” Iphigeneia sighed. “Father can do nothing now. My fate is sealed. But be of good heart – I shall endure until the end.”
“All is not lost. There is hope still. Let us go to seek Achilles.”
“No, mother, there is no one we can turn to. Don’t you hear the shouts?”
“What do they mean?”
“They mean that all are crying for my blood and Achilles cannot save me. But, look. Here he comes.”
“Tell us, Achilles, what are the soldiers shouting?” Clytemnestra asked in fear.
“For the sacrifice to be carried out immediately!”
“What do their leaders say?”
“Exactly the same words, alas!”
“Then let it be. Yes, immediately!” Iphigeneia broke in. “Life is sweet and death a black shadow, but this agony must end for all of us.”
Yet she gazed at Achilles with such bitter disappointment in her eyes that he cried out:
“No, over my dead body!”
“I will not let it come to that,” said Iphigeneia.
“What are you saying, girl?” her mother interrupted. “They will never dare cross swords with Achilles.”
“They have dared already,” the young hero answered.
“But you have the Myrmidons behind you. Who will dare resist you?”
“They will be the first to hurl stones at me.”
“So you are alone?”
“There is no one on my side.”
“Then all is lost, my girl.”
Yet Achilles still clung to one hope.
“All is not lost,” he said. “I am the son of Thetis and Peleus. I shall stand before her with my sword in hand. Let them dare!”
“Listen to me,” Iphigeneia broke in, “and you, too, mother, listen. The time has come for me to say what has long been turning in my mind. This sacrifice must be made. A goddess insists upon it, and the whole army. The fleet must sail for Troy. Achilles, you are no longer guided by your mind. Your heart has gone out to me just as mine has clung to yours. Perhaps that is why you cannot see that what matters above all is that the ravagers be punished. If the abduction of Helen slighted Menelaus alone, it would be a matter of little consequence. As things are, Paris has humiliated all of Greece, and he must not go unpunished. We cannot bow our heads to this barbarity. Those who meekly swallow insults are to be despised. That is why I shall go of my own accord to the altar of Artemis. I shall bare my throat unaided to the priest’s keen knife, and with my blood I shall placate the goddess. Then Artemis will raise the wind the ships require, and the gods will aid the Achaeans to besiege high-towered Troy and return victorious to their homeland.”
Achilles listened in awed respect. Torn between astonishment and admiration, he could find no words to dissuade her. Iphigeneia, the girl who had so suddenly won his heart, was destined to lay down her life.
“You are right,” he told her. “It was as you said – I was blinded by love. Yet now I have a deeper understanding of that which has been taken from me, and the sacrifice which but a short while ago I could not bear the thought of, I now accept with pride. In this brief space I have loved and lost a valiant spirit.”
Iphigeneia stayed no longer. She bade her mother and Achilles farewell.
“I am going to find my father. I have delayed too long already,” she said.
Her unhappy mother, seeing that further words would be of no avail, withdrew to her tent. She would not emerge from it till all was over.
Dusk was falling when her faithful servant ran to seek her out.
“My lady,” he cried, “A miracle beyond belief has happened!”
Clytemnestra came running from the tent. A wind was blowing.
“If it had been the miracle I hoped for,” she told herself, “Iphigeneia would have been the first to bring the news to me.”
“Your daughter has been taken by the goddess!” the servant gasped. “Hear how it happened. She bared her throat to the knife so willingly that all who saw it wondered at her courage. As the priest raised his arm to strike the blow, we all lowered our eyes, to avoid witnessing the dreadful sight. We held our breath and waited. You could have heard a leaf fall. Then, suddenly, we heard the sound of the knife, quite clearly, and at that very instant a loud voice crying, ‘A miracle! A miracle!’ We raised our eyes at once, but the girl was nowhere to be seen. In her place, at the priest’s feet, a deer twitched in its death-throes. We stood there numb with shock, then Calchas climbed up to the altar. Stretching his hand before him, he announced: ‘Mighty Agamemnon and leaders of the Achaeans, hear my words! The goddess did not wish her altar to be stained with this innocent maiden’s blood. She has taken Iphigeneia with her, far away to the distant land of Taurus, where she will be her priestess. The goddess’ anger is placated. You see the evidence around you: the leaves are rustling on the trees and a wind has blown up off the land. The fleet, with all our troops on board, can now set sail for Troy. Let us go forth with courage and faith in final victory.’”
The servant’s tale was ended but Clytemnestra could not believe his words.
“A beautiful story, fellow, but only to console me, I fear,” she told him. “This ‘miracle’ you speak of is too hard to believe.”
“But everybody saw it. Look, here comes Agamemnon. He will tell you for himself.”
“Our pain is softened, wife. Our daughter is in the goddess’ hands and will know eternal life. Now we shall set sail with the army. Troy will be taken, its towers will fall, and on our return we shall all celebrate the great victory.”
Excerpted from The Iliad - The Trojan War by Menelaos Stephanides
Copyright © by Dimitris Stefanidis. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.