Iphigenia is Married at Aulis

Photo credit: Tony Bevington   [Image description: craggy, rough cliffs rising from a calm Aegean sea]

Photo credit: Tony Bevington

[Image description: craggy, rough cliffs rising from a calm Aegean sea]

On the day that Iphigenia dies at Aulis, the sun makes a mythic desert of the sea shore. It leaps from the hard edges of the beach stones, and it smiles on the figureheads of the still ships; proud Pallas Athene, and Kadmos who sowed the dragon’s teeth.

An army gathers at the peak of a high slope, where a slab of pale rock glistens, and turns itself to the sun like the flat of a knife.

Agamemnon, who called his daughter Iphigenia when she was born and handed to him, pink and bald except for a tufted crown of blonde hair, takes her now and helps her to the stone. He is not, but nearly, weeping. The girl’s eyes are red and dry. To call them innocent would be obvious.

Her mother is watching, Clytemnestra. In her hands, she is holding the baby Orestes, holding him above her head, with his own round face to the sun, because she thinks it is right that he see his sister killed. If asked, she would not be able to tell whether she considers this forced witness an act of love or vengeance. Some months from now, Clytemnestra will begin to plot the murder of her husband, but in this moment she is only in this moment, and she is bright, with pain and with attention. Her daughter was small, once, and she loved her with a fierceness reversely proportional to that smallness. The beginnings of her growth thrilled and sickened in even measures.

Some years from now, Clytemnestra will be called power-mad and sluttish. She will be painted red and pared down, into the wicked queen, and conjured before disobedient wives. She will be the woman who killed her husband, never mind why.

Greece’s army is watching as Agamemnon leads his daughter to the slab. She is loved, because she is beautiful and has been persuaded to die. She is loved as Greece is loved. The city’s architecture rises, in the bridge of her spine and the arch of her shoulders. She is loved as Helen is loved, and Helen is hated. Helen was a girl, once, of much this age and look. They have caught her early, not violated yet or violating.

Iphigenia is loved and unsalvageable. How, in this moment, are they to look at her and not see the inexorable rightness of her death. Look at the certainty of her step. Look at the still ships in the harbor. Look at the straining curve of her neck, the deer’s curve that will arch to meet the knife. The girl is beautiful and the girl is young, but the wind must blow, and the ships must move, and Greece must go to war.

With her father’s hand, Iphigenia is lowered onto the altar.

Does she feel honored by her own murder, this girl who dies so that others might die? She will bleed on this stone so that a war might be fought. She will die a death that will be little remembered so that men may die deaths that will never be forgotten. She is not the first girl to do so, she will not be the last.

Still, though, when she lies on her back, Iphigenia feels the eyes of the gods on her body. History gathers at her throat. As the prophet raises his knife, Troy is falling, Odysseus is being blown from course, Dido is casting herself on the pyre, Cassandra is wailing before the house of Agamemnon, Achilles is raging, Clytemnestra is standing over her husband with axe in hand, Penelope is unweaving a funeral shroud.

The child sees herself, momentarily, as a luminous collection of futures, a body of stories and winds.

Kathryn Harlan is a fiction writer and student currently based in Los Angeles.