Iphigenia at Aulis
You know her story, don’t you? The great king Agamemnon offended Artemis, by murdering her sacred deer. He spoke arrogantly of this goddess.
Later on, a prophet had to be called to the council of kings. No storms had come to wash the battleships to war. Zeus’ commanded siege of Troy depended upon the famous storms of Aulis that never seemed to come. The gods had to be consulted.
The blind prophet, Calcas, announced that the great king had to sacrifice his daughter. This was subsequently, immediately, done by that terrible tyrant.
But, there are as many versions of a myth as there are grandmothers in Greece. In what most people know, the daughter was fooled into believing she was going to a wedding. Then, she was thrown upon the altar and killed by her own father before she even really understood what was happening.
There exist other versions of this myth, some of them with more historical and cultural credibility.
For instance, was there really not enough wind at Aulis, or was this merely a declaration of other kings that were angered at the power of Agamemnon? Thus, these noble kings declared that their war ships could not sail without an unthinkable sacrifice. Directors of stage and screen often enjoy this version, while all this talk of not enough wind is framed with lots and lots of wind. Also, sometimes a mighty wind comes moments before the sacrifice. Men in the crowd gesture at the king to stay his hand. The great king, all worldly glory at stake, strikes down upon his daughter’s naked breast. The great king must sacrifice the daughter to maintain power.
In another version of this myth, the great king filled the air with a heavy fog, to mask what he was about to do. He dressed a deer in wedding white. He dragged the deer to the altar, and sacrificed it. The daughter was smuggled away to a temple of that very goddess lest the goddess be angered for long at such trickery.
In another version, the goddess, herself, chose to be merciful. She descended in a mysterious fog, and claimed the girl for her temples and holy rites in an apotheosis.
Here is the version I like, that I shall call my own.
The kings of Aulis schemed to hold back the power of Agamemnon, because the world had never seen this kind of power before and the kings had grown so accustomed to their own power. They declared that the wind was not strong enough to set sail. Agamemnon, a shrewd man, knew that these great kings were lying. But, to call out their lie would only destroy his power on the throne. Instead, he called the prophet, Calcas. Agamemnon confessed to the sin of slaughtering a holy deer and speaking disrespectfully of a goddess. Agamemnon was lying, of course.
The great king was confident the blind man – who could not know the intricacies of sailing – would announce that this was the cause of all the bad winds. The seer would speak of what could be done to change the winds.
No king, not even Agamemnon, could speak heretically against a goddess’ will.
Calcas, a true believer, hated what the entrails told him. He announced it with a whisper. The kings that heard Calcas shouted to the top of the sails. “Iphigenia must be killed! Agamemnon must sacrifice his beloved daughter, his beautiful jewel, on the altar. Her flesh must be burned, and spread to the other kings like a slaughtered deer’s venison to be devoured!”
(The poor girl was nowhere near these things. She was at home, with her mother, dreaming of the days when her husband would ride home from the hunt and her sons and daughters would bow to the great man, whomever he may be. She toyed with different names, and different faces for her husband, from among the gathered heroes of the siege of Troy. She wondered if she could best Helen for beauty someday.)
Agamemnon, the great king, was not through with his machinations. He called his daughter to a wedding feast that would become her own death. He used the name of the arrogant warrior that was the great king’s loudest opponent among the gathered kings – Achilles, the proud.
When Iphigenia arrived in smiles and wedding finery, Agamemnon led her to the pyre, and she did not understand what was happening. She asked her father what was happening.
“Quiet, girl,” he said.
Everyone looked so sadly at the girl, but this was supposed to be a wedding. This was supposed to be joyous.
“Why is everyone so sad?” she said.
“Hush, child,” said Agamemnon.
Achilles boiled in a stew of anger that his name had been used for such trickery. He tried to rally the kings against Agamemnon. He shouted to his allies. He reached for his sword.
Ulysses touched Achilles’ arm. Menelaus closed his eyes and shook his head. Ajax refused to look. Ajax stared at his sandals, choking down a secret love he harbored for the girl that would soon be dead.
No one joined Achilles’ fury. Achilles was too young and too brash to realize that this fury was futile in the face of the will of a Goddess. This failure would be his true shame that day. The humiliation of Achilles quieted all of them that believed Achilles should have been the great king, as their greatest warrior.
Iphigenia screamed openly, terrified because she didn’t know what was happening. Agamemnon led his weeping daughter to the pyre. He took her in his arms like a babe. He laid her on top of the pyre like placing an infant in a large cradle, to be burned alive.
Agamemnon tied her down with sturdy ship’s ropes. He covered her face with black cloth. He told her to hold still.
He struck the flint himself, at the base of the pyre. It caught quickly. A heavy smoke exploded from the pyre, like something holy. Iphigenia screamed with all her soul. Agamemnon poured wine down her throat through the black cloth to shush her. The wine was drugged. No one objected to that little mercy for the girl who would be burned alive.
But it was all a shrewd king’s tricks. He and Calcas had arranged an alternative to save the girl. Calcas had been horrified at what he had had to declare. He told the king of herbs and smokes and a plan to save the girl if the goddess could only be blinded for a while. Agamemnon put this plan in place.
Inside the mysteriously thick smoke that made all eyes present water with more than their share of tears, the blind prophet did not need to see to save the girl. Calcas untied and undressed the drugged girl on that smoking pyre. He did not need to see to undress her. He did not need to see to pull the drugged fawn from his shoulder pouch. He threw the faun onto the funeral pyre. He smothered it in the girl’s wedding clothes. He slipped away and away and away and away from the scene of this miracle. He smuggled the girl into the forests and the hills.
When the smoke died, the body on the pyre was revealed to all. The girl had become a holy fawn of Artemis, like the one Agamemnon had supposedly destroyed. The army, seeing the magical transformation, glorified Agamemnon as their great king. They felt the weight of Olympus behind their shields and swords. They were prepared for war, now. They would all willingly die for this great siege.
Elsewhere, Iphigenia was transformed in the woods to a fawn of a different sort. Calcas, the true believer, did not take the girl to her mother as had been planned. He was terrified of the swift retribution of the goddess of hunting dogs and poisonous air, and sickness and death. He took the girl over hill and dale, over mountains, over seas, to a temple of the very goddess that had been cheated of her sacrifice.
(This goddess’ temples were famous for their holy prostitution.)
By the time Calcas returned to the king to tell him the news of the daughter’s holy service, the army was gone to glorious war at Troy. The iron will of battle fed by the sacrifice had to be struck at once. The great king, Agamemnon, had not remained at Aulis long enough to discover if his daughter had made it all the way home.
Discovering this, Calcas then traveled to Clytemnestra in her palace, and told her the story of her lost daughter.
The queen had been horrified to learn her daughter had been murdered by her own father. She did not wish to speak with the prophet that had doomed her. Still, Calcas was insistent, and snuck into the palace in the night, when all the lights were gone. He knew the halls like he knew his own home. He knew Clytamnestra’s chamber in the dark, as well. He sat beside her bed. He woke her with these words, “Your daughter Iphigenia is still alive, my queen.”
Awakening to this, the queen clutched her blanket in fear and hope. “If my daughter is alive, where is she? Bring her to me, demon.”
Calcas told the queen of his fear of holy retribution. He told her what he did after he had saved the girl’s life.
The hope in Clytamnestra died. She was crushed when she found out her daughter’s true fate, on her back among the fishermen of an island far from home. This girl that had dreamed of marrying kings – and had a right to dream of such things – had been swallowed up by her father’s war, body and soul.
Clytamnestra hushed Calcas, then. She told him never to speak of these things again. She turned her back to the blind prophet. He could not see that she had turned away from him, but he heard the distance in her voice when it bounced back from the stone walls.
“Let my daughter remain dead,” said the queen, “Better she be dead a martyr than alive a temple whore.” An afterthought came to her lips. “Thank you for telling me,” she said. “Thank your for saving her life.”
Calcas bowed. He said nothing else. He left her there, alone in the dark with the terrible price of war like a bronze veil.
Calcas traveled on to Troy, to witness the glory of Greece with his empty eyes. He told Agamemnon, privately, that she had died of an illness from the heavy smoke before she could be smuggled home safely. Her delicate lungs could not manage such thick blackness.
Agamemnon wept all night long, bemoaning his hubris at trying to use and fool a goddess. A priestess of Artemis, another prophet, knew the truth in Calcas’ words, though she knew the king would not believe her. She held these words inside of herself. She pitied the great king. She loved him, even, though she knew it would be her own death.
All of these things were told to men that came to the temple by a girl prettier than the others, but mostly dirtier. She told men this story if they stayed long enough.
The men told the story to other men, and to sons and daughters.
Once, someone came to the girl just to ask her this: would you rather have been killed on that pyre instead of working here for the goddess?
I said to the man – the princess naked on a dirty pallet, with an opium pipe in my palm – “I’d rather have died on that pyre.”
Pity washed over the man. He strangled me. I did not fight him or call for help. He set fire to my body in that straw bed. He bowed to the flame, and decided that I must have been a goddess.
Herodotus reported that in his day, Taurians still offered human sacrifices to a virgin goddess who they said was Agamemnon’s daughter.
Most scholars of Herodotus’ age believed that Iphigenia was actually Artemis, herself.
There is a space between the truth and the picture. “The Anger of Achilles” by Jacques Louis David was supposed to rile patriotic blood in Paris.
Clytemnestra gazes down upon the boy warrior, Achilles’ face – her tearful eyes. Achilles doesn’t see the matron, or his bride he reaches for his sword, his sharp pupils killing the king. Agamemnon, on the right of them all, gives Achilles one proud look. Agamemnon knows that boy won’t swing.
Someday, the proud stallion will buck. Today, the boy will half-unsheathe his sword; then, he’ll back away, angered.
Clytemnestra knows this, too. Her eyes carry that sad accusation: Iphigenia is just a deer to those men.
Iphigenia looks away pale and grief-stricken.