Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

iphigenia at aulis

you know the story, don't you? a great king offends a goddess, and murders a sacred deer. he speaks arrogantly of this goddess.

finally, a time came when a seer had to be called to the king, because for some reason, no storms had come to wash the ships to war in a place famous for storms and winds.

the seer said that the great king had to sacrifice his daughter.

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 - even if she had been told.

but there are 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 construction of other kings that were angered at the power of agamemnon? thus, they declared that their ships could not sail without an unthinkable sacrifice. directors of stage and screen often enjoy this version, wherein all this talk of not enough wind is framed with lots and lots of wind, or else the wind arrives before the sacrifice and still the great king must sacrifice the daughter to maintain his power.

another version of this myth is that 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.

another version, the goddess, herself, chose to be merciful. she descended in a mysterious fog, and claimed the girl for her temple.

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 them out on their lie would only destroy his power on the throne. he called the seer, calcas, and 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 did 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 could speak against a goddess' will, after all.

calcas, a true believer, hated what the entrails told him. he announced it with a whisper. the kings that heard him shouted it to the top of the sails. iphigenia must be killed. agamemnon must sacrifice his beloved daughter, his beautiful jewel, on the altar. her flesh would be burned, and spread to the kings like a slaughtered deer's venison.

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 greatest opponent among the gathered kings - achilles, the proud. when iphigenia arrived, agamemnon led her to the pyre.

achilles, angered that his name had been used for such trickery, tried to rally the kings against agamemnon. he was too young, too brash, to realize that this would not work and that this failure would be his true shame that day. the humiliation of achilles' failure quieted them that believed achilles should have been the great king, as their greatest warrior.

agamemnon led his weeping daughter to the pyre. he threw her on top, to be burned.

a heavy smoke poured forth from the pyre, like something holy. but it was only a trick. inside the smoke, the blind seer, calcas, horrified at what he had had to declare, and without the aid of his empty eyes, undressed the girl on the pyre. he did not need to see to undress her. he did not need to see to pull the drugged fawn from his back. he threw the faun onto the funeral pyre. he wrapped it in the girl's clothes.

he smuggled the girl away, down the back of the pyre, into the forests and hills.

the army, seeing the magical transformation, glorified agamemnon as their king.

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. he took her over hill and dale, over mountains, to a temple of the goddess. (this goddess' temple was known for its prostitution...)

by the time calcas returned to the king to tell him the news, the army was gone to glorious troy. the fire of war stoked by the sacrifice had to be struck at once. the king had not remained long enough to discover if his daughter had made it all the way home.

calcas instead went to clytemnestra in her palace, and told her the news.

the queen, horrified to learn her daughter had been murdered by her own father, was crushed when she found out her daughter's true fate, on her back among the rabble of an island far from home. she hushed calcas, and urged the man never to speak of these things again. let the girl be dead. better she be dead a martyr than alive as a holy whore.

calcas traveled on to troy, to witness the glory of greece with his empty eyes.

all of these things were told to men that came to the temple by a girl prettier than the others, and mostly cleaner. she told men this story if they stayed long enough.

the men told the story to other men, 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?

she said to the man - the princess naked on a dirty pallet, with an opium pipe in her palm - "i'd rather have died on that pyre."

pity washed over the man. he strangled her. he set fire to her body. he bowed to the flame, and decided that she 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.

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