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To Sacrifice a Child: Iphigenia at Aulis

From time to time, I’ve heard preachers say something along these lines: “Who besides God would sacrifice a son for someone else?” While this makes for a nice rhetorical setup, the reality is that the sacrifice of a child is not completely unprecedented. One quick answer to this preacherly trope is Agamemnon. The Greek dramatist Euripides paints the picture well in Iphigenia at Aulis.

Having behaved stupidly and killed one of the deer sacred to Artemis–these Trojan-War-era people were always knocking off sacred animals of one sort or another–Agamemnon found his newly assembled fleet of ships becalmed and hence the vast army he assembled to avenge Greek honor against Troy stymied. Until he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, the ships would remain stuck in port and the dishonor of Paris, who had run off with brother Menelaus’ wife Helen, would go unanswered. Clearly, Agamemnon could not let this moment pass without action. In Euripides telling of the story, the king lures Iphigenia to Aulis with welcome words. She is to marry Achilles. Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, hearing the joyful tidings, loads up her children and heads toward the nuptials at Aulis.

The problem is that nobody told Achilles of his upcoming marriage and nobody intends for such a marriage to take place. Various twists and turns give the story a life on the stage, but in the end, the noble and quite self-controlled Iphigenia goes off like a lamb to the slaughter–if I can use that phrase–willingly sacrificing herself to the greater good. Never mind that the greater good involves countless deaths over ten years and the eventual destruction of Troy. It’s the greater good.

Iphigenia sounds curiously similar to Jesus as she sets her mind on a sacrificial death and says, in effect, “Not my will, but yours.”

I shall die–I am resolved–
And having fixed my mind I want to die
Well and gloriously, putting away
From me whatever is weak and ignoble.
Come close to me, Mother, follow my words
And tell me if I speak well. All Greece turns
Her eyes to me, to me only, great Greece
In her might–for through me is the sailing
Of the fleet, through me the sack and overthrow
Of Troy.

Isn’t that noble? On a purely human level, I suppose it is, the one sacrificing for the many. But in returning to our preacher, I’d like to consider the worldviews represented by the sacrifice of Iphigenia compared to that of Christ.

What makes Iphigenia the suitable sacrifice? Is she sinless and born of God and woman? Semi-divine characters positively litter the classical landscape: Achilles in this case and possibly Clytemnestra. That makes Iphigenia one-quarter divine, yet a goddess can call for her death. That seems harsh. In fact, nothing seems to make Iphigenia the right sacrifice except that Artemis decreed that it should be so.

What sins will Iphigenia’s death expiate? In the case of Christ, it is the sins of all mankind against God the Father. In other words, Father sacrifices Son to set aside the sins of a hostile mob. In the case of this play, Iphigenia is given by her father to pay for her father’s sins against a goddess who has no apparent feelings for or against the girl.

What results from the sacrifices? In the case of Christ, we have reconciliation of mankind with God. We have peace. In the case of Iphigenia, we get a war and an aftermath of violence. Even her own family will be devastated as a result of this action. Agamemnon comes home to be murdered by his wife who is then murdered by her son who is then pursued by the Furies. But that’s another group of plays and another writer.

Certainly there are similarities between these sacrifices, but our preacher had it right in saying that no fatherly sacrifice can compare to that of Jesus. Whether you believe the story or not, the Gospel account of Jesus’ sacrifice is not simply warmed over Greek or Egyptian myth.

Posted in Classical, Classical Literature.

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