The Greek army was gathered in Aulis. Its men had come from many towns and islands. Some were there with dreams of glory, some with dreams of gold. Others were there because their chief had demanded their presence, and either loyalty to the chief or fear of him had brought them.
The fleet was waiting and the soldiers were ready to embark. But for weeks now the wind had been blowing from the wrong direction, and the men were getting restless at waiting so long. They were beginning to think of the harvest – they had expected that the war would be won long before harvest time – but that was now so close that many men were making ready to go home, and some had already gone.
Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army, was fearful that the conquest and glory he sought would escape him if the winds continued contrary. And so he consulted the seer Calchas. After much searching the seer replied, “The goddess Artemis sends you a warning. If you wish to make war against Troy, you will have to kill your daughter.”
So Agamemnon sent for his daughter Iphigenia, pretending to her and her mother that he planned to marry her to the hero Achilles. When she arrived an altar was built to Artemis, and she was bound to the altar. Her mother, Clytemnestra, pleaded with Agamemnon for the life of their child, but he would not listen. Agamemnon raised the sacrificial knife, but as it descended a mist came down. When the mist cleared, Iphigenia had vanished, and a deer lay sacrificed on the altar. Shortly after, the wind changed, and the army set sail for Troy, but the rest of that tale is not part of our story.
So now you know who was the first to die in the war of the Greeks against Troy. But “No”, you reply, “I had thought it would be Iphigenia, but since she vanished I have no idea who it can be.” Do you truly have no idea? Then I will give you a clue.
Agamemnon would not listen to the pleas of his wife and daughter. He persisted in his plan to sacrifice his daughter, regardless of what her murder would do to his family and himself, regardless of what war would do to others. He thought of himself as a great man, he thought that a great man should look only to his own fame and ignore others, he thought that compassion was fit only for women and was no concern of his.
When this tale is told nowadays, men talk in horrified tones of the old bloodthirsty goddesses, of Artemis who demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter. They do not see that Artemis demanded no sacrifice. She simply gave Agamemnon a warning, that his acts would have consequences. The goddess tried to make him understand that the cost of his glory and fame was the death of many daughters and mothers, sons and fathers. That is why she asked if he was prepared to bring death to his own daughter.
Do you think Artemis should have spoken more clearly? The Immortals’ desire for us is that we choose our own paths. They may warn or advise, but will not tell us what to do.
Now do you see who it was who first died? Surely those women who meet this tale know the answer by now. For you men who still do not know I will give one further clue. Even this clue may not be enough. You have the answer hidden deep within you. It may not yet be your time to become aware of it, but it is surely time to try.
Look into yourself – look into your heart. Do you see who it is who lies there, in a sleep near to death, a sleep that has lasted for centuries, a sleep from which only you can awaken her? Now do you know the answer to my question? Do you know? Do you?
(Some answers that others have given can be found in the notes to this story.)
The myth is much as I have given it , and can be found in a play by Euripides. The title comes from a well-known saying that “Truth is the first casualty of war.” This phrase has been variously attributed; many Web references suggest that a version occurs in a play by Aeschylus but without giving any specific details as to which play and scene.
There are many possible ways of answering the question I ask.
Jungians might answer “Agamemnon’s [or men’s] feminine side.” A more political answer, following Riane Eisler, in her book The Chalice and the Blade and elsewhere, would be men’s participation in a partnership culture. My own preference would be Agamemnon’s [or men’s] sense of compassion and sense of connectedness with others.
I feel uncomfortable with the Jungian answer, as I don’t believe our characteristics fit neatly into feminine and masculine ones. I vividly remember a workshop during which we were asked to identify our strongest masculine and feminine aspects. On that occasion – other occasions might well lead to different answers – my answer was the reverse of what convention would suggest. I was clear that my strongest masculine aspect was that of being nurturing while my strongest feminine aspect was fierceness. I am reminded that the two great heroes of Irish myth, Cuchulain and Finn MacCool, both obtained their training as warriors from women.
Daniel Cohen has been active in the Goddess movement in Great Britain for many years, and was co-editor of “Wood and Water”, a Goddess-centred, feminist-influenced pagan magazine which ran for over twenty years. He is particularly interested in how Goddess spirituality can open up new ways of behaviour for men, non-oppressive and using their talents to heal rather than harm. He believes that myths and old stories have great power to shape behaviour, and so a valuable tool for change is to find new stories or to tell old stories in new ways. This story is one of his many re-tellings and re-visions. An illustrated collection of twenty-five stories has recently been published under the title “The Labyrinth of the Heart” (ISBN 978-0-9513851-2-8), and can be ordered from both physical and online bookstores. Some of the stories, together with book reviews, articles, and poems, can be found on his website at http://www.decohen.com