The First Casualty Of War by Daniel Cohen


This is the tale of the first death in the Trojan War.

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
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Categories: Fiction, General, Goddess Movement, Men and Feminism

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21 replies

  1. In my mind, I always hear Artemeis saying: I never told you to kill your daughter!” Actually the words are not in the story, but they could have been. I NEVER TOLD YOU TO KILL YOUR DAUGHTER.

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  2. I like your retelling of the Iphigenia story, and I like your interpretation. But I don’t entirely agree with it
    However, I’m less intersted in the ways I disagree, than in how a good myth (a ‘true’ myth) is susceptible of many interpretations in the hands of a gifted mythographer. (Think of Robert Graves and the White Goddess: when, oh when will people understand that Graves writes as a poet and a mythographer, not an historian ?)

    History, on the other hand, is expected to be ‘really’ true: and for history, truth means something like – it can be verified by the facts. Science and good journalism are tested by similar criteria. If an historian or a journalist doesn’t stick to the facts we say they are ‘mythologising’.

    This is where the fundamentalists get confused: they want to verify myths by the same criteria with which they verify history (It ‘really’ happened therefore it’s ‘really true’.) Because we live in a world view dominated by technology (where ‘true’ = verifiable and knowledge = information) to call a thing a ‘myth’ is to immediately discredit it. As if the Garden of Eden story is diminished if we think of it as a myth.

    Of course, it’s all quite the other way round. Myth is infinitely (literally) more powerful than fact precisely because it is so variable: because there is no final, absolute ‘correct’ interpretation. The truth of a myth lies in the telling, not in what is told.

    So perhaps the first casualty of war is the space for many versions of the same story to exist at the same time. (I don’t have a name for this ‘space’ – and I suspect that giving it a name would create its own distortions)
    After all, we expect a war to have a winner and a looser, and any telling of the story must conform to that paradigm: otherwise how could it be ‘true’ ?

    But of course, there are as many versions of any war as we care to imagine, and the truth of each of these versions derives not from the facts of the matter, but from the power of the human mind to continually mythologise it’s own experience – for how else could it become experience if we didn’t mythologise it first ?

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    • Hi june courage, I think you are right about myths having several interpretations and that there is something very valuable in that – which is why I love Daniel’s work. His work tries to provide non-oppressive interpretations that may also be healing. It’s amazing huh how much we are shaped by myths, stories, and we (as humans) can be so unaware of it…

      Oh, I like your interpretation of the first casualty being the elimination of multiple versions.

      Thanks Daniel for another great post!

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      • Ditto! Thank you Daniel, thank you June Courage, and thank you Xochitl. I see the art and science of unlimited multiplicity as the first casualty of the war polarity, which is also the inevitable predicament of duality ( one over the “other”).

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  3. I guess I could have gone further: what I like about paganism is the way that it creates the possiblity (possibilities) of many truths, many myths, many gods. That was the point the monotheists made again and again about their pagan neighbours : ‘but they can’t be right, they have lots and lots gods, even one that look like animals !!!!!!!!. ‘

    Monotheism inevitably aligns itself with ONE truth, ONE story, ONE result only. One phallus has to be bigger than all the others.
    Monotheism is the bookies version of reality: there can only ever be a single winner.

    Besides, I know that my beautiful Goddess loves all her children, monotheists and polytheists, and non-believers alike.

    I think perhaps that myths are the stories the Goddess whispers to us in our sleep: ‘look, she says, it might be understood like this’.

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    • “I think perhaps that myths are the stories the Goddess whispers to us in our sleep: ‘look, she says, it might be understood like this’.”

      That is beautiful. Thank you.

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    • june, Thank you for your insights. I see a similar epistemological amplitude in panentheism / vishisthadwaita, where the atheist is even considered a believer when the definition of the absolute reality is Sat-Chid-ananda: existence-knowledge-bliss absolute… qualities that the non-believer cannot deny without denying its very being. Perhaps paganism and panentheism interconnect…

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  4. I believe pantheism (and animism) to be absolutely fundamental to paganism. Are not all things full of gods ?

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  5. I do believe the Goddess loves all of her children, but I do not believe she loves war, and if a myth says She (or God does), it is not just a “mulitiple” version of plural truth, it is a justification of domination, which in my humble opinion is WRONG.

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  6. Hi, Carol and thank you for your response.

    Truth as an abstract, or an archetype (or Platonic form, or what you will) is Truth. It has no plural or multiple version. For myself, I don’t see any contradiction between various intepretations of a given truth (subject as such interpretations must be to a human articulation) and an idea of Truth in itself.

    As to the Goddess and war, no-one in this discussion has so far suggested that she loves war, but you raise an interesting problem: the thorny old issue of pacifism versus the Just War. Is there such a thing as a Just War, and can a Goddess focussed morality argue the case for it ? Was is right to fight Hitler and liberate the concentration camps, or should the fascist empires have been left to spread themselves across Europe in the last century? These are obviously questions which any fundamentally serious theaology needs to address: how do we deal with the truth that war can seem both just and wrong at the same time ? Or is it never just and always wrong ?

    And then there is the mythology of the war goddesses.
    As we all know, in many non-Christian traditions, war is immediately associated with a Goddess. In Irish, Norse, Yoruba, Greek, Hindu, and many other myth systems, it is goddesses who invoke war, who encourage men to fight and who revel in death.

    To be sure, it would be very reassuring if the goddesses always showed themselves as sweetness and light (rather like the patriachal ideal of Victorian femininity), but the truth is, they often don’t.
    So how shall we understand the Goddess who appears as skald-crow, screaming for human flesh on the Irish battlefield; or the Valkeries who escort their swaggering, drunken, blood soaked warriors to paradise ? And what, come to that, shall we make of Kali, dancing on corpses, herself crazy-drunk with the taste of dead ?

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  7. Thank you so much for bringing up this story.. I agree with Carol Christ. Whenever I hear the story, I, too, hear Artemis saying “I NEVER TOLD YOU TO KILL YOUR DAUGHTER!” There is something wrong with this story. The story doesn’t seem to make sense. Why would Artemis say such a thing? Artemis loves women and mothers and children. She is not a big fan of men’s BS. It makes absolutely no sense that she would demand the killing of a girl child in order to favor one group of men over another in a war!

    I have always thought that this story is either in some way mistranslated, or else misunderstood. Unfortunately, as many people as have worked on the study of Greek Tragedy, the number probably does not come close to the number of people who have spent their lives obsessing over the New Testament or the Hebrew Bible…

    …speaking of which. Has anyone noticed how similar this story is to the story of Abraham and Isaac? There are different versions of that story, too. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all treat it a little differently. One wonders if there is more than one Agamemnon story as well.

    Here is what my take on it is. I wrote a paper on the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus recently, and from what I can see it appears that wealthy families in Ephesus would pay great sums of money for the honor of having their daughter serve in the Temple as Priestess either for a year term, or permanently. Priestesses of Artemis remained virginal until their term was over, however long that might be. My thought on this was that what Agamemnon really did was to offer his daughter as a “sacrifice” to the Temple… that is, to give her to be made a permanent priestess. The price for that was an offering of a deer. Euripides wrote it in this way to make it poetic drama, but I’m thinking that at least some of his audience knew what he meant, although some did not. This would kind of be like some people nowadays believe that the earth was created in 6 actual days.

    I don’t have the Greek text in front of me, nor do I speak Ancient Greek, but I think it would be really interesting if the kind of research was done on this story as has been done on the Bibles and see what people come up with.

    Actually, this is something that I would enjoy working on myself somewhere down the road.

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  8. I think that the Greeks rewrote traditional stories to fit their purposes which were to justify patriarchy and war, while lamenting the tragedy of war and the downfall of the higher eschalon patriarchs. There is nothing “we” as feminists have to “take” from the Greek writers any more than there is anything “we” have to “take” from the Bible. The one is NOT revealed truth and the other is NOT archetypal truth. Both are stories told “with a point of view” (Merlin Stone) in order to justify patriarchal “interests” that included domination of women, children, slaves, and the enemy.

    If we want prepatriarchal stories we will have to read between the lines of the Bible and the Greek texts using a method such as archaeomythology.

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    • In “Lost Goddesses of Early Greece – A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths”, Charlene Spretnak has succeeded well in presenting the original, pure Greek Goddesses as they were revered for millennia, long before the Indo-European elements “contaminated” the myths of authentic pre-Hellenic goddesses and patriarchal interests were imposed to create the now familiar Greek Olympian mythology.

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  9. Or “retell” the stories from the point of view of the “other” and in order to justify our own “interests” in creating a more just world. I think Daniel is doing a little of both. And bless him for it!

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  10. Joan DeArtimis, Yes! I like your version very much, and it makes perfect sense. Agamemnon wasn’t listening ! He heard the word ‘offering’ and, no doubt because he was all hyped up for war, immediately understood that to mean ‘blood sacrifice’.

    So one of the things this myth can be about is a king high on adrenalin and (no doubt) a good deal of best greek wine, doing that thing where he asks a woman’s opinion only to completely ignore what she has said and make his own mind up anyway.
    Why does the king behave in such an arbitrary, insane way ? Because that’s how kings do behave when they have absolute power (think Stalin, think Hitler) and no-one can stop them acting out their own insane ideas. Not even the gods.

    Now we can interpret the myth to mean: when his blood is up and there is no-one to stand in his way, the king will hear only what he wants to hear and act accordingly, whatever the crazy consequences.

    At which point his mother nods and shrugs : ‘just like his father’, she says.

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  11. June, to answer your earllier question, I think we as feminists need to sift through and criticize pagan myths as much as biblical myths. European and Hindu myths of the Goddess are all or almost all filtered through the Indo-European ideology and come from cultures that celebrated warfare and domination, idealized warriors and conquest and so forth. So while I argued that women need the Goddess, I certainly did not mean we need every Goddess myth or image out there.

    Personally, I have never found a Goddess myth I liked (except for the ones retold by Daniel and Charlene Spretnak), which is why I prefer to learn of Her from nature rather than myth. Nature of course includes death and destruction. Warfare is a human creation, though apparently it has roots in (male) behaviors shared with chimpanzees.

    I am not a Victorian, but I just watched Helen Hunt’s story on Who Do You Think You Are, and while she turned up her nose and said she wanted a rum cocktail (I like my wine too) when she learned one of her ancestors helped to found the WCTU (temperance), she ended up crying and feeling proud as proud could ever be when she realized that this was one way women found at the time to fight for the rights of women and children.

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  12. Hi, Carol. I never said, or meant to imply that you were a victorian !!! What I was referring to is the tendency in some quarters to see women as sweetness and light and men as the sole cause of aggression and the misery that results from it. And that was how many victorians (men and women ) did portray women.

    I certainly agree that we need to revise, and continually revise, all mythology. The whole point about my original response to this post was to say that there is NO single, stable ‘meaning’ for any myth, or body of myth, and that it is this process of constant revisioning – I mean the actual process of revision, as we have been doing in these posts, rather than any imagined ‘result’ of the process – which gives the stories meaning.

    For myself, I’m not sure how useful it is to extrapolate from animal to human behaviour. We seem unable to observe animals without a degree of anthropomorphosism which probably distorts our findings. Again and again researchers come up with ‘discoveries’ whch perhaps say more about their own societies than the animals they intend to describe. And besides, because animals have no ‘history’ of their own, we have, for the most part, no way of assessing if they have always behaved in a given way (are these results good only for the last hundred years or longer?) or whether like us, to, are subject to profound social change.

    Nevertheless, we can observe, and certainly do know from historical accounts, that female animals can be just as aggressive as male, but in different ways and for different reasons. Male violence in the animal kingdom is directed at other males (including their offspring) and at females (to get sex). Female violence is directed toward other females (the alpha female is just as much part of the chimpanzee colony as is the alpha male: and the alpha female’s offspring eat better and grow up stronger than the other kids on the block) and against any threat or percieved threat against their young.The aggression with which female animals of any species will defend their young is legendary, and akcnowledged with awe and respect since time immemorial in all human societies.

    So male agression seems largely directed at self protection and survival, and female aggression toward the protection and survival of their young – and behaviour observed in chimps show that this female violence can and will include killing another female’s young.
    Perhaps one of the things that figures like Kali symbolise is the ferocity of female violence once it is roused. However, as I said, I’m not sure how far we migh want to push comparisons between our own and animal behaviour when it comes to violence. What still troubles me is how we find a language through which to understand these issues for human societies from a feminist perspective.

    So – I throw the question out again to anybody who wants to take it up: must a Goddess centered understanding mean absolute pacifism ? The pacifism of ,say, a Ghandi ? Or are there times when aggression is justified ? Would you fight to save your children ? Would you kill to feed your children ? Is violence (against a murderously aggressive male, for example) ever justified ? Rather than explain Kali’s ferocity away, should we see it as a source of power for all women ?

    Answers on many postcards please !!!

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  13. Nice to come back from a weekend away and find all these warm and valuable comments.

    Yes, the possibility of the sacrifice as an offering of the daughter as a priestess makes a lot of sense if Agamemnon had been willing to see it that way.

    The Abraham and Isaac story has a lot of parallels and differences. I had mentioned it in the first version of my story, but found it came out too didactic for storytelling.

    I am sure that all myths have many reading, some very much against the conventional grain. That’s why I don’t like Campbell’s approach, which fixes the myth. There is a difficult but rather wonderful discussion of the manifold nature of myhts in Wendy Dongier’s “The Implied Spider; Politics and Theology in Myth”. The introduction to my boo of stories has a discussion of this.

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Trackbacks

  1. Who Is Jephthah’s Daughter? The Cost of War by Carol P. Christ «
  2. Who Is Jephthah’s Daughter? The Sacrifice of Women and Girls by Carol P. Christ «

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