Monday, 19 February 2018

The Fall of Troy: Part 6

The Anger of Achilles by Jacques Louis David
by Philip Womack

Part 6: Iphigenia at Aulis

If any link in the whole great chain of the Trojan War could have been broken, it should have been this one. This, in truth, was the weakest one, and there were many moments when it might have gone the other way.

The Greek fleet should have stayed on the beach. The men should have been left to grow bloodthirsty and restless.  And then what might have happened? Agamemnon would have been killed at night in his tent by a rebel soldier. His brother, Menelaus, would have had to step in to take control. Being weaker, he would have been unable to control the unruly mass of Greek princelings, and they would have formed factions. 

Menelaus indeed would have been challenged, and then would have met his death, in a duel with Ajax or Achilles, a spear through his flank. Released from their oaths, the chiefs would have fought for the high kingship, or would have dispersed back to their plains and mountains.

And Helen would have grown old in Troy, and would not remember Sparta. She would have, like her mother in law, many children, who would grow up speaking the Trojan tongue, which she would master. Her weaving would become like that of her sisters in law, only, because of its slight strangeness, would be more highly valued. She would weave of her own gods at first; and then what she saw around her; and then her children breaking horses.

Thirty years later, a boat would land, and, wading into the surf, would come a proud man, black curls wet with salt water, seeking alliance and marriage: Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who had fought for his kingdom from Aegisthus. Helen would hear the Greek sounds in his mouth, and would remember the rude halls and the beard of her husband, and would stutter a greeting to him, forgetting the words for "drink" and "rest". 

The Trojans would be more powerful than ever, and perhaps it would be their ships that sailed to Greece, and their poem that lasted for ever.


But that is not what happened. Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, was playing ball with her attendants when the news came. Achilles was to marry her. Achilles, most handsome, most brave, of all the Greek fighters.

Her mother, Clytemnestra, who had become perhaps a little too friendly with her cousin Aegisthus, did not sense  that anything was wrong. If anything, she was pleased - with Iphigenia out of the way, she would more easily install Aegisthus in Agamemnon’s place. She would not go, of course; she would stay in Mycenae, and see to the affairs that she had already started to view as her own.

When Iphigenia arrived at Aulis, she saw the marriage tent set out, its cloths hanging heavy. She was given a drink of water by a ragged woman - the only woman she would see.

Inside the tent would be Achilles, nervously polishing his sword hilt. She wondered where the rest of the women were, why nobody was throwing flowers or nuts, why there was no singing. She wondered where her father was. The ragged woman lifted the tent flap, and shoved her in. Inside was airless and dark, and Iphigenia moistened her lips.

Some say that the Greeks almost went through with the mock ceremony. Some say that the king's daughter was led to Achilles at the altar, and that he took her hand, and that she saw in his eyes what was about to happen; and she was butchered where she stood, with Agamemnon looking on in horror. But that is not what happened.

It was done quietly, foully. She did not know what happened to her. She entered the tent, and stood alone in the dark, and a man, who did not know her, and who had been found from the barbarian north, and who would go back home and drink himself to death, knocked her on the head with a club. 

And that was enough. Her bridal wreath came loose, and lay in the dust by her long golden hair.

Agamemnon could not look at her body. The priests placed her on a pyre. It burned long, and when the smoke died away at dawn, Agamemnon felt something brush his cheek. 

Across the sea, the billows grew higher, and the white sails of the Greek fleet swelled outwards. 


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