The Fulmination of Goodness

Iphigenia and Greek Tragic Suffering

“The Sacrifice of Iphigenia” by Corrado Giaquinto (1759–60)

Weatherbound and unable to set sail to Troy, King Agamemnon obeys the words of the prophet Calchas and sacrifices his young daughter, Iphigenia.[1] The weather shifts and the Greeks are able to go forth and wage war. In the ensuing tragedies by Aeschylus and Euripides, we read of the endless sufferings that arise as a result of this first suffering: that of Iphigenia. Her death serves as the inciting incident for myriad other violences both within her own family and outside of it, the rippling effect of her slaughter felt throughout the canon, far beyond the main action of the Trojan War.

Indeed, the sacrifice of Iphigenia represents the most fundamental element of the genre of Greek tragedy: innocent and ‘good’ figures disproportionately suffer because of the actions of figures within their plays who are more deserving of punishment, and as a result of this unfairness, their undeserved sufferings feed into those of other people.

In this genre, suffering always provokes more suffering, but innocent suffering has the greatest impact on further miseries. This is the greatest hallmark of tragedy. In this essay, I will examine how Iphigenia’s undeserved fall from fortune creates supernumerary suffering throughout the canon using Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy in context with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon in order to investigate the shattering consequences of the vulnerability of innocence.

Formerly a guestfriend in Menelaus’ home, Paris breaks Zeus’ sacred law of hospitality when he steals Helen away and brings her to Troy. Spurned and spurred on by Zeus, the Greeks have no choice but to go to war. Therefore, when Agamemnon is directed by Artemis, goddess of the hunt and protector of the young, to sacrifice his daughter in apology for the young Trojan lives that will be taken in the upcoming battles, he is similarly choiceless. He must sacrifice Iphigenia. To let her live would be a direct act of impiety against the gods; moreover, if he does “not fulfill Artemis’ condition, everyone, including Iphigenia, will die”[2] (Nussbaum 34). So, why is it not his suffering that becomes the origin of everyone else’s? Here, one may momentarily consider the executioner to be the ultimate sufferer.

In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, readers do not experience the actual sacrifice of Iphigenia; instead, the Chorus of old men of Argos and their leader recount the moment when Agamemnon, distraught over the deed that has been asked of him, decides to go through with the gods’ demands:[3]

And I can still hear the older warlord saying,
‘Obey, obey, or a heavy doom will crush me! —
Oh but doom will crush me

once I rend my child,
the glory of my house –
a father’s hands are stained,
blood of a young girl streaks the altar.
Pain both ways and what is worse?
Desert the fleets, fail the alliance?
No, but stop the winds with a virgin’s blood,

feed their lust, their fury? — feel their fury! —
Law is law! —
Let all go well.’ (lines 205–217)

Perhaps this is the reader’s digest version of Agamemnon’s painful decision: just twelve lines to signify the momentous choice of filicide. Perhaps we can indeed consider Agamemnon as a tragic figure if we become sympathetic to this choiceless choice he is faced with; after all, Artemis has demanded a sacrifice, and no mortal can safely defy the gods. Additionally, Agamemnon suffers under the radical irony of his situation: regardless of his own struggles in deciding whether to stain his hands or “desert the fleets,” to do so means that he commits the exact same crime that the gods have demanded penance for even as he follows through with their direct commands. He defies Zeus by murdering his daughter, a guestfriend who should have been safe in his home; he kills an innocent youth whom Artemis should value just as much as she values the young Trojans bound to perish.

Nussbaum seems to briefly place Agamemnon within the realm of undeserved sufferers, noting that “it is hard to imagine that Agamemnon could rationally have chosen any other way,” as “both courses involve him in guilt” (Nussbaum 34). He must choose between two ruinous futures: to stain his hands with the “blood of a young girl” or to “desert the fleets, fail the alliance” and thus be responsible for the deaths of many.[4] “The special agony of this situation,” Nussbaum explains, “is that none of the possibilities is even harmless” (35).

Strangely enough, our first indication that Agamemnon is not the veritable origin of suffering is his active role within his own lamentation; Iphigenia, the girl whose throat will soon be cut, is never the subject of the sentence. Instead, every action belongs to Agamemnon as the subject with Iphigenia existing as either the direct object of his speech or reduced synecdochally to only her blood. According to the King of Argos, this doom crushes him. He is the one performing the rending or failing the alliance; his hands are stained if they stop the winds with her blood, feeding the lust and fury of war. Ironically, this diminution of Iphigenia is a significant indication of her importance within the play and elsewhere, as she is dehumanized while she is still alive, turned into prey before she knows there are predators who seek her. More pitiable than her synecdochic blood are her deep roots in blessed innocence: child, glory, young girl, virgin.

Compared to Agamemnon, who is capable of such powerful, independent actions as rending, deserting, and failing, all Iphigenia can do is passively bleed. Because she is on the receiving end of this first violence, it is her death that signifies the immense vulnerability of the innocent and the great sufferings that are borne from their rending.

Moreover, even if this is a genuine, verisimilar grief for a moment, Agamemnon’s attitude changes over the course of the last three lines of the selected text. Nussbaum highlights his ludicrous comportment after he has made his decision: “An act that we were prepared to view as the lesser of two hideous wrongs and impieties has now become for him pious and right, as though by some art of decision-making he had resolved the conflict and disposed of the other ‘heavy doom’” (35–6). Indeed, it is in the interlude between deciding that “law is law” and reaching his final conclusion of “Let all go well” that Agamemnon grows enthusiastic about the task before him; because of this, we must accept that Agamemnon is not the first tragic figure of the Trojan War.

Nussbaum’s analysis is corroborated by the Chorus, who recounts that “once he slipped his neck in the strap of Fate,” Agamemnon “stopped at nothing, / seized with the frenzy” as he commanded his men to lift Iphigenia “like a yearling” over the altar, to “gag her hard” so that her voice is choked by the bridle (lines 216–237). This is a further dehumanization — the blood of the child, glory, young girl, virgin becomes the blood of a sacrificial adolescent animal — for which Agamemnon is responsible. It is therefore Iphigenia, not her father, who suffers inordinately.

What is a yearling to an eagle king?

Even the Chorus struggles with the arrogant, terrible piety that Agamemnon wears proudly as Iphigenia “strains to call” the names of those restraining her at the altar, “her glance like arrows showering / wounding every murderer through with pity / clear as a picture” (238–241). They recall the vivacious, ardent love that Iphigenia embodied throughout her life, one that Clytaemnestra cites as her reason for slaughtering Agamemnon in turn when he arrives home from the war with Cassandra in tow: “…he sacrificed his own child, our daughter, / the agony I laboured into love / to charm away the savage winds of Thrace” (1442–44). The queen demands to know why the Chorus did not banish him for his filicide, why they did not “hunt him from the land for all his guilt” (1445–6).

Clytaemnestra understands the gravity of this murder, the agony that arose from this first undeserved death, and she makes it known to the audience and diegetic participants that Agamemnon’s raising of Iphigenia “like a goat in the air above the altar” is why she has killed him (Nussbaum 36). Iphigenia’s murder clears the way for the rest, exemplifying the flagship theme of recurring suffering within Greek tragedy. This is not just the fragility of goodness, but the sharp glass that shatters violently into innumerable shards as the Goodness is forcibly, undeservedly broken. Iphigenia’s innocence manipulates the hands of Fate so effectively that everyone close to her becomes fated[5] to suffer her same blows.

Iphigenia’s death hearkens forward to the slaughter of Polyxena at the tail end of the Trojan War, a young royal sacrificed to appease a deity (in Polyxena’s case, it is the holy ghost of Achilles) before the Greeks are able to successfully depart from their territory.

These events parallel a similar stolen innocence, but only the sacrifice of Iphigenia serves as an inciting incident for the ensuing suffering; after all, it is Polydoros’ death in Euripides’ Hekabe, not Polyxena’s, that inspires Hekabe’s murderous grief, one that is sharp enough to blind Polymestor and ruthless enough to slaughter his children in turn. Cassandra, chosen by Agamemnon as his concubine, is killed alongside him by Clytaemnestra, who is then killed by Orestes. Orestes’ revenge against the mother who killed his father is reminiscent of a suffering that reverberates throughout the final scenes of Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers and much of The Eumenides as he is pursued by a corporeal guilt that he is unable to outrun or hide from.[6] Priam, his soldiers, and most of his sons are claimed during the war while the women of Troy suffer as slaves for the duration of their lives. Even Helen, whose image instigated the animosity behind the war but who did not ask to be rescued, suffers for much of her time in hiding.[7]

Thus we locate Iphigenia, mouth gagged and robes swept around her, lifted up above the altar so that her father might slit her throat. Agamemnon’s self-pity is nothing to the pity the audience feels for Iphigenia, the pain that she would openly feel for herself if only she could speak it aloud through the strap forced into her child mouth, the miseries that pulse throughout all the anguishes that follow this one. Indeed, just as the Chorus realizes after their recounting of the sacrifice, “Justice turns the balance scales, / sees that we suffer / and we suffer and we learn. / And we will know the future when it comes” (lines 250–253).

The sacrifice of the child, glory, young girl, virgin is the acidic ruination of innocence, the undeserved suffering that reverberates throughout the canon.

The hallmark of Greek tragedy is this reverberation.

[1] This essay does not include the events of Iphigenia in Tauris, which features an Iphigenia rescued at the last moment by Artemis and sent abroad to live as a priestess. This omission is apt considering that the consequent suffering endured by the rest of the House of Atreus occurs before most of the household knows that Iphigenia is still alive.

[2] Nussbaum explains this in more detail: “Agamemnon is told by the prophet that if he does not offer up his daughter as a sacrifice, the entire expedition will remain becalmed. Already men are starving (188–9), the winds blowing from the Strymon ‘were wearing and wasting away the flower of the Argives’ (189–90)” (34).

[3] A staging of this play may feature Iphigenia’s slaughter on stage as the Chorus recounts it, but the events of this play take place after the Trojan War has been won, many years after Iphigenia was killed.

[4] Of course, one may wonder why anyone must die at all. Why do the Greeks not just let Helen go on living with Paris in Troy and move on? For this I have not yet come up with a response better than: the Greeks wanted to fight the Trojans anyway. This makes the sacrifice of Iphigenia even more despicable, as she dies for a war that would have happened regardless of when the ships set sail or why.

[5] Cassandra predicts Agamemnon’s and her own death in Euripides’ The Trojan Women: “Our wedding night will be a night of death / And devastation for his house; I’ll kill him, I’ll / Avenge my father and my brothers’ blood. / But let all that go! Enough! Why should I / Sing about the blade that’s soon to slash / My throat, and the throat of others, or how my marriage / Will set the plot in motion to butcher a mother /And bring down the house of Atreus?” (lines 411–18).

[6] Similarly, Electra suffers from the loss of her entire family either by death or exile until Orestes returns in The Libation Bearers, though he is quickly driven out by the Furies once he commits matricide.

[7] Note that a key ingredient in inciting suffering is violence: Helen and Paris could not be the instigators of all the resultant violence because they left Menelaus’ palace without violence. Agamemnon, meanwhile, could have compounded his own suffering, one borne from an inherited curse, and defied the gods so that he might face their wrath alone and not give up his daughter for a war over a woman who did not ask to be brought back.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1979.

Euripides. Trojan Women. Translated by Alan Shapiro. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Nussbaum, Martha C. “Tragedy: Fragility and Ambition: III.” The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 32–36.

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Hannah Isaac

Hannah Isaac

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Retired lemonade stand entrepreneur. Short stories, book reviews, essays, and musings.