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In the Greek drama (?) Iphigenia, in order to be able to go on a war against Troy, the Greeks need wind, and for the wind, they need to sacrifice Agamemnon's daughter (the gods demand it). Menelaus wants him to JUST DO IT!, he's like: "Okay (screaming internally)", but he does it in the end (the girl sacrifices herself).

Well I've got one question about this story:

Why did the gods demand a human sacrifice, after they've put the last guy, who played soylent green on them, in Hell? (Ya know, that Tantalus guy)?

  • That is called a scapegoat... Picking a sacrificial victim among your community and violently bashing him/her. technically as you are dysfunctional there IS a reason, and a victim is a PRETTY good reason. You know as Oedipus: plague, the problem (dysfunction), he marries his mother, killed his father (the reason)... kill the guy (solution). Lots of myth are dimly violent in their core. – Gibet Aug 24 '17 at 20:45
  • @Gibet Well, she didn't do anything, so scapegoat is off the list. – Mephistopheles Aug 24 '17 at 20:47
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    Euripides specifically calls out Agamemnon as a "baby killer" in Iphigenia at Aulis. (In the words of his wife: "You came to me, as all have heard, seizing me by force, killing my former husband and dashing my newborn infant to the earth".) This is part of Euripides deconstruction of Aeschylus, who has Clytemnestra killing her husband out of jealousy over Cassandra, as opposed to revenge over their daughter. It's also quite telling that Agamemnon only changes his mind about Iphigenia after it is too late, raising doubts about his intentions on the matter. – DukeZhou Aug 24 '17 at 21:13
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    It's called a Labrys (etymology is pretty easy to discern, and heavily feminine;) Heavy metal for sure, but bronze! She was a powerful woman, and Agamemnon almost certainly married her for her father's status and holdings. – DukeZhou Aug 24 '17 at 21:21
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    Also note that the root for Ancient Greek term for a scapegoat or sacrificial victim, φαρμακός (pharmakos) has a range of meanings, in part related to magic plants (medicines or poisons), and is the basis for modern terms like pharmacological: perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=farmakon&la=greek – DukeZhou Aug 24 '17 at 21:23
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I've always thought it falls under Frazer's concept of Sympathetic Magic. In Ancient Greek, the idea of the lifeforce is bound with words related to breath or wind: ψυχή (psuke) and πνεῦμα (pneuma), specifically. Thus, releasing the life force, or breath, from Iphigenia's body raises the winds to sail to Troy. Likewise with Polyxena for the ride back.

Euripides seems to have had something of an obsession with human sacrifice, as it is a subject of several of his plays, and even more if you consider Medea's act a form of human sacrifice. (She is whisked away by Helios in the end, so, as appalling as the act is to we humans, it did not earn her disfavor with her patron god.)

My feeling with Polyxena in particular is that her spirit was much greater than the Greeks imagined—she shames them with her heroism in accepting her fate—which results in the storm that scatters the Greek fleet returning from Troy.


Note: This is my own interpretation. In the text themselves, it is simply an appeasement of gods or spirits who then allow the winds to blow. In the case of Iphigenia, it's Artemis. In the case of Polyxena, it's the ghost of Achilles.

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  • I dunno, the gods seemed to have a clear statement on human sacrifices when they plunged that guy to hell, who fed his son to them. – Mephistopheles Aug 24 '17 at 21:19
  • @RedactedRedacted You're interpreting it wrong. It wasn't the killing so much as the arrogance in trying to put one over on Zeus. (See also Lycaon, the first psychopath.) The story of the Rat Cook in Game of Thrones will help to clarify. – DukeZhou Aug 24 '17 at 21:26
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    Well, that's f@&#ed up. – Mephistopheles Aug 24 '17 at 21:28
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Homer nowhere mentions any sacrifice of Iphigenia, and debate is ancient on whether the “Iphianassa” whom Agamemnon offers as a potential bride to Achilles, at Iliad 9.145 & 9.287, is the same person. Since nowhere have I found any hint that Achilles was necrophiliac, this offer clearly implies that the daughter in question was still alive so far as her father knew, nine years into the siege.

The Agamemnon of Aeschylus has the chorus remember the sacrifice of Iphigenia as completed, with the victim unwilling, bound and gagged lest an outcry from her bring misfortune. Throughout the Oresteia revenge for Iphigenia is represented as Clytaemestra’s primary motivation and justification for murdering her husband, with the concubinage of Cassandra just an insult added to injury, and hardly a justification for the act of a queen who was adulterous herself. (Bronze Age culture both in Greece and in Israel appears to have seen sexual promiscuity as culpable only in the female marriage partner.) The purpose of the sacrifice was to calm a persistent adverse wind from Thrace, understood as expressing the displeasure of Artemis. Agamemnon himself is said to have “plunged [his neck] into the yoke-strap of Necessity” [ἀνάγκας ἔδυ λέπαδνον] in this matter, a highly ambiguous phrase in relation to his willingness to go through with it, though that part of the choral ode goes on to make him out as willing.

In Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis the ostensible purpose of the sacrifice is to bring a wind; the fleet is stuck for lack of any wind, not an adverse one, though the thousand ships are usually understood as having oars. The original ending to the play appears to be lost; what we have is a Deus ex machina rescue of the sacrificial victim, with animal substitution as in Genesis 22.11–13. The lost ending was most likely similar: Euripides was notably fond of the Deus ex machina, and had earlier written Iphigenia among the Taurians premised on the title character’s having survived her ordeal at Aulis, not that that precedent would have been binding on him. (For this and other issues with the text, see the introduction to the Aulis play in the newer Loeb edition of Euripides by David Kovacs.) Earlier in the Aulis play, in what Aristotle hailed as a prime example of character growth and transformation in tragedy, Iphigenia had so far reconciled herself to the sacrifice as to become the willing victim that sanctity normally required.

In Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, and even more prominently in Michael Cacoyannis’ splendid 1977 film version of it, doubt is cast on whether there even are any gods (thanks, Protagoras), let alone a god who is demanding this utterly unheard-of and counter-cultural act. (This film, titled simply Iphigenia, or ΙΦΙΓΕΝΕΙΑ, is the source of most of the grainy moving images in the execrably snarky YouTube video linked from OP’s question. The film ends ambiguously, though most viewers interpret it as implying that the sacrifice was indeed carried out, with no miraculous animal substitution, even though by that point a wind has started to blow.) It may well be just a plot cooked up between the wily and unscrupulous Odysseus (perhaps hoping for an early ticket home if Agamemnon refuses to go through with the sacrifice) and the seer Calchas. By the end of the play and film, both Agamemnon and Menelaus have spoken against the sacrifice, joining Clytaemnestra and even the boy Orestes in opposition to it, but despite this family unanimity resistance is seen as futile, given the blood-lust of the army, which Agamemnon terms “the many-headed monster I command.”

So ancient sources are kind of all over the map on this sacrifice, as on so many matters of myth; but throughout it is clear that human sacrifice is completely abnormal in ancient Greek/Mycenaean culture, as it was in ancient Hebrew culture.

As for Tantalus’s being in “Hell,” he is indeed shown in Odyssey 11.582–92 as punished in the afterlife, though there is no separate afterlife-world for such punishments; but how would his great-grandsons know this years before Odysseus’ visit to the realm of the dead? Did Heracles somehow report it out after his twelfth labor?

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  • I think that there's a clear distinction between Hebrew mythology, where one of the most important stories is specifically about about Abraham not sacrificing his son, and Greek Mythology, where stories of human sacrifice abound. Regardless of the lack of conclusive archeological evidence, there is no doubt it was a major theme in Greek mythology, and even history, if you include the story of Themistocles' sacrifice of the captives at Salamis. – DukeZhou Aug 30 '17 at 0:37
  • Very nice detail, btw, on the distinction between the weather conditions in Aeschylus and Euripides. (My creative interpretation is definitely rooted in the latter;) Also for bringing up the Cacoyannis. That film was a favorite of the scholars I studied under! youtube.com/watch?v=-SQFWWaKMS0 – DukeZhou Aug 30 '17 at 1:03
  • @DukeZhou, I stop well short of Campbellian monism in my approach to myth, but I compare 'em as I see 'em. We have multiple versions of the Aulis myth, and only one surviving telling of the sacrifice of Isaac (which is what the tale is usually called), but that does not necessarily mean that the rescue-and-substitution ending is fundamental to the latter myth. As for human sacrifice being a motif in more Greek myths than one, myths commonly contemplate deeds that are wholly abnormal for the culture that generates and preserves them, including maternal infanticide (Medea, Signý, Guðrún). – Brian Donovan Aug 30 '17 at 14:22
  • Certainly human sacrifice and infanticide were used to show the barbarity of earlier and foreign cultures, with the Athenian tribute as a prime example. Nevertheless, there is barbarity in Greek culture in the Classical period, taking forms such as the terrorization of the helots, and the massacre at Melos under Athenian hegemony. – DukeZhou Aug 30 '17 at 14:56
  • @DukeZhou feel free to term it evil: in the context of things Ancient Greek, barbarity has implications that are at best tangential. And Euripides was only the greatest of many who could and did see and denounce it as evil at the time; witness a play I like to call Troy's Daughters. – Brian Donovan Aug 30 '17 at 15:48
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Going from a non-literary standpoint and into a metaphorical one, one could figure it was like the gods' version of making someone walk "barefoot on broken glass" to get what they want. A lot of them didn't want Troy to fall, so when they made that ultimatum with the wind, the idea was Agamemnon would see it as 'not worth it', but at the same time, they weren't outright barring him from doing it. They just figured they'd all give up when it turns out a guy loves his own flesh and blood more than he does cutting flesh and spilling blood.

Surprise, surprise, he actually kills his own daughter just so he can go kill some other people!

Moral of this story: Greek main characters are the worst

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  • I actually wrote a play about this, where Cassandra calls out Agamemnon, pointing out his "sacrifice of family for career", which, in the Greek canon, is literal. (Welcome to Mythology, btw! :) – DukeZhou Mar 1 '18 at 18:25

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