Iphigenia’s sisters

They knew about humanity, the ancient Greeks, and for all the high-flown verses about gods and monsters, behind it speaks man, and our own struggles, which are timeless.

Iphigenia the daughter of Agamemnon, fairest of Mycenae, came to Aulis to see the fleet readying to sail to Troy, promised that she would be married there to Achilles, bravest of the Achaean princes. Instead she was bound hand and foot and slain by her father on the altar of Artemis: a sacrifice to the goddess to procure a wind to sail by.

And behind them, without saying a word, stood Odysseus, wisest of the Greeks.

It is only a legend, I hope, but it tells of a reality. Agamemnon, chief of the kings of the Greeks, had two personae: as a king and as a man. To his wife, Clytemnestra and to his daughter he was a man, a husband and father, but the massed bands of Achaea saw only a king, with public duties, and no private motivation was permitted.  As a father he loved his daughter without question or condition; as a king he was expected to think only of the benefit of the nation, and the knife that fell on Iphigenia was that of the king.

(Somehow, Clytemnestra did not see it that way and therefrom runs the tragedy that befell the king on his return from the ashes of Troy.)

It is a false dichotomy: the king is a man. Public opinion, and a wife’s opinion, differ on this point. Thomas Hobbes was not around in that age to be consulted: perhaps if Odysseus had felt ready to open his mouth, he might have been as wise, but the wrath of a mob of soldiers is not to be chanced.

The sacrifice of Iphigenia was for the public good, as the Greeks saw it: a ‘scientific expert’, an augury, insisted that the fleet could not move without this blood sacrifice, and with all the eyes of the nation upon him, Agamemnon the king wholly suppressed Agamemnon the man, and lifted his hand against the latter’s own daughter.

Later poets struggled with this story. Some had Iphigenia spirited away by a goddess at the last moment and left to live out a happy life in green meadows far away, because no man can bear the idea of what the tale describes.

Reaching behind the horror, it all seems familiar. We do not want our governors nor their advisers to be anything other than the public personae with no personal connections. We gawp and giggle at the private life of King Henry VIII, but he too was suppressing the man in favour of the king, casting off queens to further the dynastic stability his father had won through blood in order to achieve peace, and to that end, marriage was not a private contract but a matter of state. Henry at least never killed any of his children, though Peter the Great did. Iphigenia though was innocent and sacrificed to the superstition of the day.

We who would see countless of Iphigenia’s sisters and brothers cast upon the altar of expediency and form, misjudge our motives. If we expect governors to be men and women of the people, we must expect them to be people, to love their children and sacrifice themselves, not their children. Indeed if a governor cannot be human, he cannot govern, and he must rule other as they are human: as Hobbes observed “He that is to govern a whole nation must read in himself, not this, or that particular man; but mankind”. If the Press are indeed the Fourth Estate, they must accept the humanity of their subjects, but that seems unlikely: there is news in praising selflessness upon the altar even if it is self-interestedness disguised as selflessness.

See also


Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short