Iphigenia in Aulis — excerpt

So many of the heroines of the Tales of Gnosis College seem willing to step into mad-science driven oblivion (as of the date of my writing this Nanetta and Moira certainly, and, depending on one’s metaphysical view of the matter, Iris and Maureen and perhaps Anwei as well) for some great purpose or another that I sometimes wonder if I haven’t discovered in myself yet another fetish. It wasn’t something I was aware of when I started writing these stories. But one does learn the strangest things about oneself when one starts pouring out one’s imagination onto the (virtual) page.

That I might have dug such a thing out of myself is perhaps not too surprising. Edgar Allan Poe conjectured in The Philosophy of Composition (1846) that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical topic in the world. As death is one of the things that people hate and fear most, to treat with it in fiction in this manner is thus a Dark Thing. And like most Dark Things, it has Deep Roots. They go all the way back (at least) to the legends of the heroic age of Greece, in a story that lives down to this day, that of Iphigenia, preserved for us in a tragedy of Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis, written around 407 BCE.

The story leading up to the bilingual excerpt I am producing here is as follows. The Greeks have gathered their forces under the command of Agamemnon to fight the against the Trojans, one of whose princes, Paris, has abducted Helen, the world’s most beautiful mortal woman and wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus. As so often in war, things are going badly from the start, as the Greek fleet is penned in at Aulis by unfavorable winds. A seer, Calchas, claims that the ill winds are the consequence of Agamemnon’s having offended the goddess Artemis. Agamemnon can get back into the good graces of Artemis and get his fleet released only by making a human sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon lures Iphigenia to Aulis with by sending a message telling her that he wants to give her as a bride to Achilles, the mightiest of all Greek warriors. The thrilled Iphigenia promptly shows up at Aulis, together with her mother Clytemnestra (and infant brother Orestes) expecting a wedding. Clytemnestra, however, soon gets wind of Agamemnon’s plans and things soon become rather awkward, all the more so because Achilles also soon gets wind of Agamemnon’s scheme, which scheme Agamemnon had neglected to let Achilles in on. Meanwhile, the rest of the Greeks, sick of being penned in at Aulis, are becoming mutinous. A very grim situation indeed: Clytemnestra and Iphigenia begging and pleading with Agamemnon to spare Iphigenia’s life, Achilles threatening to go ballistic on Iphigenia’s behalf, the rest of the Greeks believed to be threatening murder if Iphigenia isn’t sacrificed.

The situation is resolved with Iphigenia has a change of heart and decides to submit to her being sacrificed for the greater good. And it is something absolutely stunning to read, which I why I am including it as a text here.

The Greek text can be found at the Perseus archive of classical texts. The English language translation is from the Internet Classics Archive and was done by Thomas Bushnell, BSG.

μῆτερ, εἰσακούσατε
τῶν ἐμῶν λόγων: μάτην γάρ σ᾽ εἰσορῶ θυμουμένην
σῷ πόσει: τὰ δ᾽ ἀδύναθ᾽ ἡμῖν καρτερεῖν οὐ ῥᾴδιον.
τὸν μὲν οὖν ξένον δίκαιον αἰνέσαι προθυμίας:
ἀλλὰ καὶ σὲ τοῦθ᾽ ὁρᾶν χρή, μὴ διαβληθῇ στρατῷ,
καὶ πλέον πράξωμεν οὐδέν, ὅδε δὲ συμφορᾶς τύχῃ.
οἷα δ᾽ εἰσῆλθέν μ᾽, ἄκουσον, μῆτερ, ἐννοουμένην:
κατθανεῖν μέν μοι δέδοκται: τοῦτο δ᾽ αὐτὸ βούλομαι
εὐκλεῶς πρᾶξαι, παρεῖσά γ᾽ ἐκποδὼν τὸ δυσγενές.
δεῦρο δὴ σκέψαι μεθ᾽ ἡμῶν, μῆτερ, ὡς καλῶς λέγω:
εἰς ἔμ᾽ Ἑλλὰς ἡ μεγίστη πᾶσα νῦν ἀποβλέπει,
κἀν ἐμοὶ πορθμός τε ναῶν καὶ Φρυγῶν κατασκαφαὶ
τάς τε μελλούσας γυναῖκας, ἤν τι δρῶσι βάρβαροι,
μηκέθ᾽ ἁρπάζειν ἐᾶν τούσδ᾽ ὀλβίας ἐξ Ἑλλάδος,
τὸν Ἑλένης τείσαντας ὄλεθρον, ἣν ἀνήρπασεν Πάρις.
ταῦτα πάντα κατθανοῦσα ῥύσομαι, καί μου κλέος,
Ἑλλάδ᾽ ὡς ἠλευθέρωσα, μακάριον γενήσεται.
καὶ γὰρ οὐδέ τοί τι λίαν ἐμὲ φιλοψυχεῖν χρεών:
πᾶσι γάρ μ᾽ Ἕλλησι κοινὸν ἔτεκες, οὐχὶ σοὶ μόνῃ.
ἀλλὰ μυρίοι μὲν ἄνδρες ἀσπίσιν πεφραγμένοι,
μυρίοι δ᾽ ἐρέτμ᾽ ἔχοντες, πατρίδος ἠδικημένης,
δρᾶν τι τολμήσουσιν ἐχθροὺς χὑπὲρ Ἑλλάδος θανεῖν,
ἡ δ᾽ ἐμὴ ψυχὴ μί᾽ οὖσα πάντα κωλύσει τάδε;
τί τὸ δίκαιον τοῦτό γε; ἆρ᾽ ἔχοιμ᾽ ἂν ἀντειπεῖν ἔπος;
κἀπ᾽ ἐκεῖν᾽ ἔλθωμεν: οὐ δεῖ τόνδε διὰ μάχης μολεῖν
πᾶσιν Ἀργείοις γυναικὸς εἵνεκ᾽ οὐδὲ κατθανεῖν.
εἷς γ᾽ ἀνὴρ κρείσσων γυναικῶν μυρίων ὁρᾶν φάος.
εἰ βεβούληται δὲ σῶμα τοὐμὸν Ἄρτεμις λαβεῖν,
ἐμποδὼν γενήσομαι ‘γὼ θνητὸς οὖσα τῇ θεῷ;
ἀλλ᾽ ἀμήχανον: δίδωμι σῶμα τοὐμὸν Ἑλλάδι.
θύετ᾽, ἐκπορθεῖτε Τροίαν. ταῦτα γὰρ μνημεῖά μου
διὰ μακροῦ, καὶ παῖδες οὗτοι καὶ γάμοι καὶ δόξ᾽ ἐμή.
βαρβάρων δ᾽ Ἕλληνας ἄρχειν εἰκός, ἀλλ᾽ οὐ βαρβάρους,
μῆτερ, Ἑλλήνων: τὸ μὲν γὰρ δοῦλον, οἳ δ᾽ ἐλεύθεροι.
IPHIGENIA: Mother, hear me while I speak, for I see that thou art wroth with thy husband to no purpose; ’tis hard for us to persist in impossibilities. Our thanks are due to this stranger for his ready help; but thou must also see to it that he is not reproached by the army, leaving us no better off and himself involved in trouble. Listen, mother; hear what thoughts have passed across my mind. I am resolved to die; and this I fain would do with honour, dismissing from me what is mean. Towards this now, mother, turn thy thoughts, and with me weigh how well I speak; to me the whole of mighty Hellas looks; on me the passage o’er the sea depends; on me the sack of Troy; and in my power it lies to check henceforth barbarian raids on happy Hellas, if ever in the days to come they seek to seize her daughters, when once they have atoned by death for the violation of Helen’s marriage by Paris. All this deliverance will my death insure, and my fame for setting Hellas free will be a happy one. Besides, I have no right at all to cling too fondly to my life; for thou didst not bear me for myself alone, but as a public blessing to all Hellas. What! shall countless warriors, armed with shields, those myriads sitting at the oar, find courage to attack the foe and die for Hellas, because their fatherland is wronged, and my one life prevent all this? What kind of justice is that? could I find a word in answer? Now turn we to that other point. It is not right that this man should enter the lists with all Argos or be slain for a woman’s sake. Better a single man should see the light than ten thousand women. If Artemis is minded to take this body, am I, a weak mortal, to thwart the goddess? Nay, that were impossible. To Hellas I resign it; offer this sacrifice and make an utter end of Troy. This is my enduring monument; marriage, motherhood, and fame-all these is it to me. And it is but right, mother, that Hellenes should rule barbarians, but not barbarians Hellenes, those being slaves, while these are free.
τὸ μὲν σόν, ὦ νεᾶνι, γενναίως ἔχει:
τὸ τῆς τύχης δὲ καὶ τὸ τῆς θεοῦ νοσεῖ.
CHORUS: Thou playest a noble part, maiden; but sickly are the whims of Fate and the goddess.
Ἀγαμέμνονος παῖ, μακάριόν μέ τις θεῶν
ἔμελλε θήσειν, εἰ τύχοιμι σῶν γάμων.
ζηλῶ δὲ σοῦ μὲν Ἑλλάδ᾽, Ἑλλάδος δὲ σέ.
εὖ γὰρ τόδ᾽ εἶπας ἀξίως τε πατρίδος:
τὸ θεομαχεῖν γὰρ ἀπολιποῦσ᾽, ὅ σου κρατεῖ,
ἐξελογίσω τὰ χρηστὰ τἀναγκαῖά τε.
μᾶλλον δὲ λέκτρων σῶν πόθος μ᾽ ἐσέρχεται
ἐς τὴν φύσιν βλέψαντα: γενναία γὰρ εἶ.
ὅρα δ᾽: ἐγὼ γὰρ βούλομαί σ᾽ εὐεργετεῖν
λαβεῖν τ᾽ ἐς οἴκους: ἄχθομαί τ᾽, ἴστω Θέτις,
εἰ μή σε σώσω Δαναΐδαισι διὰ μάχης
ἐλθών. ἄθρησον: ὁ θάνατος δεινὸν κακόν.
ACHILLES: Daughter of Agamemnon I some god was bent on blessing me, could I but have won thee for my wife. In thee I reckon Hellas happy, and thee in Hellas; for this that thou hast said is good and worthy of thy fatherland; since thou, abandoning a strife with heavenly powers, which are too strong for thee, has fairly weighed advantages and needs. But now that I have looked into thy noble nature, I feel still more a fond desire to win thee for my bride. Look to it; for I would fain serve thee and receive thee in my halls; and witness Thetis, how I grieve to think I shall not save thy life by doing battle with the Danai. Reflect, I say; a dreadful ill is death.
λέγω τάδ᾽ οὐδὲν οὐδέν᾽ εὐλαβουμένη.
ἡ Τυνδαρὶς παῖς διὰ τὸ σῶμ᾽ ἀρκεῖ μάχας
ἀνδρῶν τιθεῖσα καὶ φόνους: σὺ δ᾽, ὦ ξένε,
μὴ θνῇσκε δι᾽ ἐμὲ μηδ᾽ ἀποκτείνῃς τινά,
ἔα δὲ σῷσαί μ᾽ Ἑλλάδ᾽, ἢν δυνώμεθα.
IPHIGENIA: This I say, without regard to anyone. Enough that the daughter of Tyndareus is causing wars and bloodshed by her beauty; then be not slain thyself, sir stranger, nor seek to slay another on my account; but let me, if I can, save Hellas.
ὦ λῆμ᾽ ἄριστον, οὐκ ἔχω πρὸς τοῦτ᾽ ἔτι
λέγειν, ἐπεί σοι τάδε δοκεῖ: γενναῖα γὰρ
φρονεῖς: τί γὰρ τἀληθὲς οὐκ εἴποι τις ἄν;
ὅμως δ᾽, ἴσως γὰρ κἂν μεταγνοίης τάδε,
ὡς οὖν ἂν εἰδῇς τἀπ᾽ ἐμοῦ λελεγμένα,
ἐλθὼν τάδ᾽ ὅπλα θήσομαι βωμοῦ πέλας,
ὡς οὐκ ἐάσων σ᾽ ἀλλὰ κωλύσων θανεῖν.
χρήσῃ δὲ καὶ σὺ τοῖς ἐμοῖς λόγοις τάχα,
ὅταν πέλας σῆς φάσγανον δέρης ἴδῃς.
οὔκουν ἐάσω σ᾽ ἀφροσύνῃ τῇ σῇ θανεῖν:
ἐλθὼν δὲ σὺν ὅπλοις τοῖσδε πρὸς ναὸν θεᾶς
καραδοκήσω σὴν ἐκεῖ παρουσίαν.
ACHILLES: Heroic spirit! I can say no more to this, since thou art so minded; for thine is a noble resolve; why should not one avow the truth? Yet will I speak, for thou wilt haply change thy mind; that thou mayst know then what my offer is, I will go and place these arms of mine near the altar, resolved not to permit thy death but to prevent it; for brave as thou art, at sight of the knife held at thy throat, thou wilt soon avail thyself of what I said. So I will not let thee perish through any thoughtlessness of thine, but will go to the temple of the goddess with these arms and await thy arrival there. (Exit ACHILLES.)
μῆτερ, τί σιγῇ δακρύοις τέγγεις κόρας;
IPHIGENIA: Mother, why so silent, thine eyes wet with tears?
ἔχω τάλαινα πρόφασιν ὥστ᾽ ἀλγεῖν φρένα.
CLYTAEMNESTRA: I have reason, woe is me! to be sad at heart.
παῦσαι: ‘μὲ μὴ κάκιζε: τάδε δέ μοι πιθοῦ.
IPHIGENIA Forbear; make me not a coward; here in one thing obey me.
λέγ᾽: ὡς παρ᾽ ἡμῶν οὐδὲν ἀδικήσῃ, τέκνον.
CLYTAEMNESTRA: Say what it is, my child, for at my hands thou shalt ne’er suffer injury.
μήτ᾽ οὖν γε τὸν σὸν πλόκαμον ἐκτέμῃς τριχός,
μήτ᾽ ἀμφὶ σῶμα μέλανας ἀμπίσχῃ πέπλους.
IPHIGENIA: Cut not off the tresses of thy hair for me, nor clothe thyself in sable garb.
τί δὴ τόδ᾽ εἶπας, τέκνον; ἀπολέσασά σε;
CLYTAEMNESTRA: Why, my child, What is it thou hast said? Shall I, when I lose thee-
οὐ σύ γε: σέσῳσμαι, κατ᾽ ἐμὲ δ᾽ εὐκλεὴς ἔσῃ.
IPHIGENIA: “Lose” me, thou dost not; I am saved and thou renowned, as far as I can make thee.
πῶς εἶπας; οὐ πενθεῖν με σὴν ψυχὴν χρεών;
CLYTAEMNESTRA: How so? Must I not mourn thy death?
Ἰφιγένειαbr> ἥκιστ᾽, ἐπεί μοι τύμβος οὐ χωσθήσεται. IPHIGENIA: By no means, for I shall have no tomb heaped o’er me.
τί δαί; τὸ θνῄσκειν, οὐ τάφος, νομίζεται.
CLYTAEMNESTRA: What, is not the act of dying held to imply burial?
βωμὸς θεᾶς μοι μνῆμα τῆς Διὸς κόρης.
IPHIGENIA: The altar of the goddess, Zeus’s daughter, will be my tomb.
ἀλλ᾽, ὦ τέκνον, σοὶ πείσομαι: λέγεις γὰρ εὖ.
CLYTAEMNESTRA: Well, my child, I will let thee persuade me, for thou sayest well.
ὡς εὐτυχοῦσά γ᾽ Ἑλλάδος τ᾽ εὐεργέτις.
IPHIGENIA: Aye, as one who prospereth and doeth Hellas service.
τί δὴ κασιγνήταισιν ἀγγελῶ σέθεν;
CLYTAEMNESTRA: What message shall I carry to thy sisters?
μηδ᾽ ἀμφὶ κείναις μέλανας ἐξάψῃ πέπλους.
IPHIGENIA: Put not mourning raiment on them either.
εἴπω δὲ παρὰ σοῦ φίλον ἔπος τι παρθένοις;
CLYTAEMNESTRA: But is there no fond message I can give the maidens from thee?
χαίρειν γε. Ὀρέστην τ᾽ ἔκτρεφ᾽ ἄνδρα τόνδε μοι.
IPHIGENIA: Yes, my farewell words; and promise me to rear this babe Orestes to manhood.
προσέλκυσαί νιν ὕστατον θεωμένη.
CLYTAEMNESTRA: Press him to thy bosom; ’tis thy last look.
ὦ φίλτατ᾽, ἐπεκούρησας ὅσον εἶχες φίλοις.
IPHIGENIA: O thou that art most dear to me! thou hast helped thy friends as thou hadst means.
ἔσθ᾽ ὅ τι κατ᾽ Ἄργος δρῶσά σοι χάριν φέρω;
CLYTAEMNESTRA: Is there anything I can do to pleasure thee in Argos?
πατέρα τὸν ἀμὸν μὴ στύγει, πόσιν γε σόν.
IPHIGENIA: Yes, hate not my father, thy own husband
δεινοὺς ἀγῶνας διὰ σὲ δεῖ κεῖνον δραμεῖν.
CLYTAEMNESTRA: Fearful are the trials through which he has to go because of thee.
< ἄκων μ᾽ ὑπὲρ γῆς Ἑλλάδος διώλεσεν.
IPHIGENIA: It was against his will he ruined me for the sake of Hellas.
δόλῳ δ᾽, ἀγεννῶς Ἀτρέως τ᾽ οὐκ ἀξίως.
CLYTAEMNESTRA: Ah! but be employed base treachery, unworthy of Atreus.
τίς μ᾽ εἶσιν ἄξων πρὶν σπαράσσεσθαι κόμης;
IPHIGENIA: Who will escort me hence, before my hair is torn?
ἐγώ, μετά γε σοῦ …
CLYTAEMNESTRA: I will go with thee.
μὴ σύ γ᾽: οὐ καλῶς λέγεις.
IPHIGENIA: No, not thou; thou say’st not well.
πέπλων ἐχομένη σῶν.
CLYTAEMNESTRA: I will, clinging to thy robes.
ἐμοί, μῆτερ, πιθοῦ:
μέν᾽: ὡς ἐμοί τε σοί τε κάλλιον τόδε.
πατρὸς δ᾽ ὀπαδῶν τῶνδέ τίς με πεμπέτω
Ἀρτέμιδος ἐς λειμῶν᾽, ὅπου σφαγήσομαι.
IPHIGENIA: Be persuaded by me, mother, stay here; for this is the better way alike for me and thee; but let one of these attendants of my father conduct me to the meadow of Artemis, where I shall be sacrificed.
ὦ τέκνον, οἴχῃ;
CLYTAEMNESTRA: Art gone from me, my child?
καὶ πάλιν γ᾽ οὐ μὴ μόλω.
IPHIGENIA: Aye, and with no chance of ever returning.
λιποῦσα μητέρα;
CLYTAEMNESTRA: Leaving thy mother?
ὡς ὁρᾷς γ᾽, οὐκ ἀξίως.
IPHIGENIA: Yes, as thou seest, undeservedly.
σχές, μή με προλίπῃς.
CLYTAEMNESTRA: Hold! leave me not!
οὐκ ἐῶ στάζειν δάκρυ.
ὑμεῖς δ᾽ ἐπευφημήσατ᾽, ὦ νεάνιδες,
παιᾶνα τἠμῇ συμφορᾷ Διὸς κόρην
Ἄρτεμιν: ἴτω δὲ Δαναΐδαις εὐφημία.
κανᾶ δ᾽ ἐναρχέσθω τις, αἰθέσθω δὲ πῦρ
προχύταις καθαρσίοισι, καὶ πατὴρ ἐμὸς
ἐνδεξιούσθω βωμόν: ὡς σωτηρίαν
Ἕλλησι δώσουσ᾽ ἔρχομαι νικηφόρον.

ἄγετέ με τὰν Ἰλίου
καὶ Φρυγῶν ἑλέπτολιν.
στέφεα περίβολα δίδοτε, φέρετε
— πλόκαμος ὅδε καταστέφειν —
χερνίβων τε παγάς.
ἑλίσσετ᾽ ἀμφὶ ναὸν
ἀμφὶ βωμὸν Ἄρτεμιν,
τὰν ἄνασσαν Ἄρτεμιν,
τὰν μάκαιραν: ὡς ἐμοῖσιν, εἰ χρεών,
αἵμασι θύμασί τε
θέσφατ᾽ ἐξαλείψω.
ὦ πότνια πότνια μᾶτερ, οὐ δάκρυά γέ σοι
δώσομεν ἁμέτερα:
παρ᾽ ἱεροῖς γὰρ οὐ πρέπει.
ἰὼ ἰὼ νεάνιδες,
συνεπαείδετ᾽ Ἄρτεμιν
Χαλκίδος ἀντίπορον,
ἵνα τε δόρατα μέμονε δάϊ᾽
ὄνομα δι᾽ ἐμὸν τᾶσδ᾽ Αὐλίδος
στενοπόροις ἐν ὅρμοις.
ἰὼ γᾶ μᾶτερ ὦ Πελασγία,
Μυκηναῖαί τ᾽ ἐμαὶ θεράπναι …
IPHIGENIA: I cannot let thee shed a tear. (Exit CLYTAEMNESTRA. To the CHORUS) Be it yours, maidens, to hymn in joyous strains Artemis, the child of Zeus, for my hard lot; and let the order for a solemn hush go forth to the Danai. Begin the sacrifice with the baskets, let the fire blaze for the purifying meal of sprinkling, and my father pace from left to right about the altar; for I come to bestow on Hellas safety crowned with victory. Lead me hence, me the destroyer of Ilium’s town and the Phrygians; give me wreaths to cast about me; bring them hither; here are my tresses to crown; bring lustral water too. Dance to Artemis, queen Artemis the blest, around her fane and altar; for by the blood of my sacrifice I will blot out the oracle, if it needs must be.

O mother, lady revered! for thee shall my tears be shed, and now; for at the holy rites I may not weep.

Sing with me, maidens, sing the praises of Artemis, whose temple faces Chalcis, where angry spearmen madly chafe, here in the narrow havens of Aulis, because of me.

O Pelasgia, land of my birth, and Mycenae, my home!
καλεῖς πόλισμα Περσέως,
Κυκλωπίων πόνον χερῶν;
CHORUS: Is it on Perseus’ citadel thou callest, that town Cyclopean workmen build?
ἐθρέψαθ᾽ Ἑλλάδι με φάος:
θανοῦσα δ᾽ οὐκ ἀναίνομαι.
IPHIGENIA: To be a light to Hellas didst thou rear me, and so I say not No to death.
κλέος γὰρ οὔ σε μὴ λίπῃ.
CHORUS Thou art right; no fear that fame will e’er desert thee!
ἰὼ ἰώ.
λαμπαδοῦχος ἁμέρα
Διός τε φέγγος, ἕτερον ἕτερον
αἰῶνα καὶ μοῖραν οἰκήσομεν.
χαῖρέ μοι, φίλον φάος.
IPHIGENIA: Hail to thee, bright lamp of day and light of Zeus! A different life, different lot is henceforth mine. Farewell I bid thee, light beloved! (Exit IPHIGENIA.)

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