‘The Sacrifice of Iphigenia’ and Agamemnon’s Dilemma: In Defence of Agamemnon

‘The Sacrifice of Iphigenia’ (1942) by Mark Rothko

In the episode ‘Dance of Dragons’ from Season 5 of Game of Thrones viewers who had knowledge of Greek tragedy recognised the retelling of the sacrifice of the Greek princess Iphigenia by her father King Agamemnon from the extant play by Aeschylus, ‘Agamemnon’.

In the episode the priestess Melisandre advises Stannis Baratheon that if he wants to win the battle for Winterfell and become King of Westeros he must sacrifice his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light, R’hllor. As a princess and daughter of Stannis, Shireen has king’s blood, which has magical properties. Stannis, like Agamemnon, is at first reluctant, but his wife Selyce, who could be described as a religious extremist, considers it a ‘great honour’ for her daughter to be sacrificed.

Shireen wants to help her father and offers her services to him but is completely unaware as to what they have planned for her. She is dragged towards the pyre where she is to be burned to death, screaming in terror and begging her father and then her mother to save her. Selyce regrets her decision but is prevented from saving her daughter from the flames.

To say this scene was shocking and revolting is an understatement. The reaction to the horror was unanimous. This event did not appear in the book by George RR Martin, but the series showrunner David Benioff, was the scriptwriter for the film ‘Troy’ ( 1994) and the death of Iphigenia was one of the scenes cut from his original screenplay. But its first ever appearance is perhaps even more shocking and even more disturbing than the derivative scene from Game of Thrones because of the reaction to this slaughter, by Agamemnon himself.

In Aeschylus’ ‘Agamemnon’ which is the first of the three plays within the Oresteia trilogy we learn from the lyrical parodos of the sacrifice of Iphigenia. It is sung by the Chorus who are the old men left behind at Argos whilst the expedition took place under the command of Agamemnon to recover Helen (who was married to his brother, Menelaus) who had been abducted by Paris and taken to Troy. Ten years have now elapsed.

The members of the Chorus declare that they have the authority to narrate the facts that took place when the army left for Troy. They describe the divine phenomena that the Achaeans witnessed: two eagles, one white, one black, devouring a pregnant hare. Calchas, the army seer, understands that the gods are indicating that the Greeks will eventually win the war, but he fears that, in exchange for the glory they will achieve through massacre, Artemis may demand a different sacrifice, one without law, without feast. From the very beginning of the tragedy and of the Aeschylean narrative, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, which is exactly what Artemis will demand, is identified as a crime against the laws of men and of the gods.

The goddess Artemis has raised strong winds which has prevented the Greek ships from leaving the port of Aulis and the sacrifice of Iphigenia is demanded to assuage her wrath for the killing of the hare by Agamemnon in an earlier hunting expedition that had encroached upon one of her sacred areas. It seems according to another source that he may have mocked Artemis over this. An act of hubris that does not go down well with the gods or goddesses and is always punished. Agamemnon is faced with the necessity of making a decision but expresses his doubts:

The elder chief spoke thus and said:

“A heavy death is disobedience,

heavy too, if I mangle my daughter, jewel of the house,

defiling my father’s hand

with blood from a virgin’s slit throat,

by the altar: which of these options is without harm?

How can I become the deserter of the ships

and default on my duties towards the alliance?

it is lawful to crave with a fury superior to all fury

a wind-halting sacrifice

and a virgin’s blood.

So be it.”

Agamemnon is fully aware of the moral dilemma now facing him. Whichever ‘option’ he chooses will lead to utter catastrophe. If he decides to disobey the goddess’s command, she will not allow the fleet to sail and Agamemnon will have betrayed the other Greek kings who have stood with him in their ‘darkest hour’ on the expedition to recover Helen from Troy, and a very personal betrayal of his brother, Menelaus. Unconscionable.

But, that would be the least of his worries as he would have betrayed Zeus himself. Under one of his many titles Zeus was also the god of hospitality and the actions of Paris in stealing Helen away was an extreme act of impiousness towards Zeus. One cannot truly overstate the seriousness of such an offence against the mighty Zeus. The mission to recover Helen was really the ‘by proxy’ revenge of Zeus against Paris, Helen and Troy. Abusing a hosts hospitality in the ‘heroic’ world of ancient Greece will lead to the sack and complete destruction of your city.

But should Agamemnon kill his own daughter, Iphigenia, then he will commit an unforgivable crime that will pollute him and thereby condemn himself and the whole House of Atreus, for eternity. Whatever decision he makes will be the wrong one. So can we really say that Agamemnon has any real ‘choice’?!

One is reminded not only of ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (1983) but also of the dilemma faced by Offred in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ when she is told to either choose five women to live and leave the rest to certain death or make no decision and condemn all the women in the detention camp, to the colonies and to a slow painful death anyway. The resonances with the Nazi death camps are obvious and of course the pivotal scene in ‘Sophie’s Choice’ where Sophie is forced to choose takes place on the way into a Nazi death camp.

Perhaps Offred’s situation is closer to Agamemnon’s in terms of the numbers involved and the collateral damage being invoked. Offred chooses the five. Obviously. As five are better than none. That is a pragmatic decision. But, she has still condemned the others to death by not choosing one of them. It is for Offred, clearly, a human choice based upon emotion, but perhaps rather than choosing five to survive she might have refused to play at being an interventionist God and let the situation take its course. Would we have blamed her? After all, it was not her who had created the situation in which this moral dilemma was taking place.

But Agamemnon cannot be just a human being. If he was he would choose his daughter. But he is more. He is a King. How can he betray the alliance? This is his imperative. At the end of his speech even the definitions involve change. He refers to his daughter now as a virgin to be lawfully sacrificed with such fury that this act will remove those furious winds sent by Artemis.

Offred will spend an agonising time worrying about her decision yet Agamemnon has decided almost immediately. The quickness of the decision is evidence to me that Agamemnon really has no choice. There is no reason to debate or to question. The decision was already made when Artemis demanded her sacrifice. It was a fait accompli. To refuse the Gods is to reject everything that your world stands for. The Chorus condemns the decision made by Agamemnon, yet they agree to the necessity of such a sacrifice. I cannot condemn Agamemnon for acting as he must. To say ‘‘No’’ to the gods is, literally unthinkable, in this divinely determined authoritarian realm.

But the Chorus is acting now as the voice of justice, human justice not God-determined retribution. Justice for Iphigenia and justice for all the innocents who will be sacrificed (murdered) at Troy. With that I do most certainly agree.

Yet although Agamemnon has ‘decided’ to sacrifice his daughter for the ‘greater good’ in terms of the norms and conventions of the ‘heroic’ age and in a modern utilitarian sense thereby ensuring the aristocratic hierarchical society is maintained and not destabilised, he can only carry out the barbaric act by temporarily losing his mind and act in a frenzy when performing the sacrifice of his own daughter. The act is as barbaric as the act carried out by the German SS officer in ‘Sophie’s Choice’.

The King gives two commands: that Iphigenia be lifted above the altar as though she were a goat, the usual ritual victim in sacrifices offered to Artemis Agrotera in Athens, Sparta and other poleis, and that she be prevented from speaking. Iphigenia is literally being transformed into a scapegoat and with the gag being put into her mouth she is denied that fundamental difference between man and beast: speech. No wonder her father must embrace madness to fulfil this act but his commands betray the full comprehension of what he is doing; the rational acceptance of murder.

The text describes Agamemnon as being in a frenzy when sacrificing Iphigenia, but I would contend that this is Agamemnon’s angry and very human response to the impossibility of the situation he is in. The Chorus underlines the horror of Agamemnon’s orders through the powerful image of Iphigenia, who, held high by the sacrificers, unable to move and control her body, drops her elegant robe. This is the climax of her body’s transformation from a young princess’s to an animal’s: she is naked, speechless, and completely in someone else’s power. Not in the power of her father as King but in the power of the irrational gods.

Agamemnon has turned his beautiful daughter into a scapegoat to show how barbaric and inhuman the Gods are. Her sacrifice is not to appease Artemis but to actually demonstrate just how bestial and barbaric the offerings demanded by the gods are and how wrong her death is. Hence he utterly dehumanises his own daughter to show us, the audience, what these all-powerful creatures truly are: arbitrary and bestial at heart. To sacrifice Iphigenia he must become like an animal. That is what the gods have made him become. The inhuman act removes his Kingship and utterly undermines the relationship between man and god. It is a damning and revolutionary condemnation.

Iphigenia is not slaughtered in vain as the young Princess Shireen is by her father. Shireen’s death is pointless and stands for nothing. Stannis has achieved nothing and so the death of his young daughter has counted for nothing. His ambition has caused the extinction of his House. There is no bloodline left. His own death is now his reward.

But Agamemnon knows that he will most certainly die for his crime but manages to turn an impossible situation into a hugely symbolic and powerful event that will resonate through the ages. Iphigenia has to die. But it is the way she dies that will be forever remembered. Who will follow any god who demands the sacrifice of a child or a young woman? Both scenes are powerful rebukes to religious fanaticism.

The Chorus passes their judgement upon Agamemnon that although he has fulfilled the will of the gods he has however become polluted: committing an atrocity which he must pay for. Agamemnon will be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, when he returns from the Sack of Troy. The cycle of violence continues. Orestes will eventually avenge the death of his father and in the final play of the trilogy, ‘The Eumenides’ he will be placed on trial and with the help of a deus ex machina be released and not killed for the murder of Clytemnestra. A tentative new judicial system has now appeared in Athenian society and justice is now no longer the prerogative of authoritarian and tyrannical gods.

The sacrifice of Iphigenia would be covered by Euripides in ‘Iphigenia at Aulis’ and in this version Agamemnon has second thoughts. The most interesting alteration for me is that at the end of the play it seems that Artemis had replaced Iphigenia with a deer. However, it is considered to be not an authentic part of the original text. But my point is that somebody felt it necessary to absolve Artemis of culpability in the murder of Iphigenia and relieve the audience of such a terrible act.

There should be nothing cathartic about the sacrifice of Iphigenia or even an attempt at a happy(ish) ending. Aeschylus meant it to be a horror show. For Iphigenia does represent and symbolise the murder of all the innocents whether in war or in any modern society. Whether that is Troy or Auschwitz or Warsaw or Dresden or My Lai or Chicago or Fallujah or……….

Agamemnon shows us what happens to a human being when they have no choice but to follow an order given by a (or any) higher authority. But Agamemnon knows he has no choice. So he makes sure that we understand what will be lost and sacrificed by the murder of Iphigenia. We lose not just the life of an innocent young woman but we lose completely our own humanity. Once we have dehumanised our closest loved ones then the door is open to large-scale, industrialised, mass acts, of barbarism.

When during the worst period of the Second World War, the artist, Mark Rothko, was searching for a way to comprehend the Nazi atrocities that had now become public knowledge, he, already having read Nietzsche, decided to paint particular episodes from archaic Greek tragedy. One of those he chose was ‘The Sacrifice of Iphigenia’ painted in 1942.

These were dark days indeed. For Rothko (and for most of us) the Nazis had descended to a level of monstrosity that had never been witnessed before in human history. He was searching for a way to comprehend and then express that horror. He found it in Aeschylus and in his powerful, raw, human depiction of the slaughter of a single young woman by Agamemnon, her father, King of Mycenae and Commander-in-Chief of the Greeks in the Trojan war, the most powerful human being in the Western world. I hope my defence of Agamemnon for this undoubted crime will go some way, maybe, to providing a reason why Rothko chose this as his response to the murder of the innocents in the Nazi death camps and our descent into barbarism.

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