AGAMEMNON, son of Atreus, king of men, raised above his brother kings to the proud supremacy of the host assembled at Aulis to chastise the traitor Paris and recover the lost wife of Menelaus, thought little of his own sins; least of all of that day when in his impetuous haste he pursued the lovely white hind into the very grove of Artemis and slew her at the foot of the statue of the goddess. He had forgotten how the goddess there, stone though men thought her, trembled with wrath at the outrage, and raised her lance to slay him, and how he, white and terror-stricken, fell on his face and prayed for mercy and promised to offer in place of the slain hind the fairest creature that should be born that year. But the gods never forget, and when men are strongest in their self-righteous condemnation of others, some buried sin is kindled into life and fiercely calls for punishment.
A death-like calm lay on the waters at Aulis, and
princes and men hung in listless despair about the beach, and at length, much urged, the prophet Kalchas spake:--
"The waters are becalmed by the will of Artemis, whom Agamemnon, king of men, hath defrauded of her due; nor will any wind of heaven ruffle the sea or fill our white sails until the victim, promised by the king, lies before the altar of the goddess."
Then Agamemnon trembled, and his ruddy cheek grew pale as ivory which has been worn by the hands of men, and his voice was low and tremulous as he said:
"Hecatombs of heifers and lambs have fallen in my city of Argos to the dread goddess, what would she have more?"
"She cares not for hecatombs of heifers or of lambs," exclaimed the seer; "she requires the accomplishment of thy vow, O king."
"My vow, what vow?" asked Agamemnon, with tremulous lips.
"When the bleeding hind lay dying at her feet and the outraged goddess was about to slay thee, thou didst promise her the fairest creature that should be born that year for her very own."
"And did she not receive it?" faltered the king.
"Thou knowest that she did not, for what creature of earth or air, born that year, could compare with Iphigeneia, thine own daughter?"
Agamemnon groaned and hid his face: too well he
knew that his beautiful and richly-gifted child was far the most excellent creature that had come to this dull earth in that year; but to yield her up, her who had honoured his banquets with her sweet voice, who of all his children loved him most, to be slain like a mere beast at the altar--O better to die a thousand deaths, better to face the lightning and the thunder or to be swallowed up quick into the centre of the earth! So the council broke up and nothing was done, and the weary days dragged on; then Menelaus and Odysseus remonstrated with Agamemnon and pointed out to him that for the sake of his own feelings he was ruining the lives of many thousands of brave men and delaying the accomplishment of their vow, and they wrested from the king a sort of permission to bring the maid if they could by subtlety to the camp: he thought no doubt that Klytaemnestra, her mother, would refuse to let her go, and to make more certain, he sent away a messenger to his queen to bid her beware of treachery and by no means to let the maiden go; but this messenger Menelaus met on the road and took his missive from him, and going to the king upbraided him roundly for his want of faith.
And so Odysseus and Diomedes went to Argos and bade the queen send back with them the noble Iphigeneia, that she might be wedded to Achilles, the son of silver-footed Thetis; and Klytaemnestra, well pleased at such a bridegroom for her beloved child, would not
send her, but took her herself in her chariot with her son, the little Orestes, to Aulis.
Iphigeneia once there, the cruel plot was quickly unravelled, and the noble son of Peleus, the unconscious bridegroom of the maiden, was very wroth, and though he had never cast a thought upon her, he bravely promised to stand by her, and not permit her to be handed over to the cruel priests. And Agamemnon himself could not give her up; better let Helene die in yonder foreign city--better let Zeus, incensed at his thwarted designs, send him to the house of Hades than that the child should be slain. Iphigeneia is richly worth the world to him; no need of her soft arms about his neck, no need of those piteous cries for mercy, piercing his ears. Iphigeneia shall be saved. Artemis demands in vain. The king must hide his face from his people; he cannot give for them the life of his child.
Then the gods suddenly put it into the heart of Iphigeneia to consider what a choice of fame was before her. Kalchas, the prophet, who knew the present, the past, and the future, had declared that her life was necessary to the welfare of the host; that until she were surrendered no favourable gale should swell the Achaean sails--that the ten thousand ships, with all their costly weight of warriors, should lie spell-bound at Aulis. What man was there in all the army who was not ready to give his life for the common good? what chieftain who was not leaving home and
friends, often loved wife and little children, that the will of the eternal gods might be done, and that men might learn to know and do the right? And this same blameless son of Peleus, this Achilles, with his lustrous curls and beautiful manhood, whose bride she would have been well content to be, was it not rumoured that to him a choice had been given of a life drawn out to the extremest space of years allotted to man, in quiet peace and homely comfort, or of a few brilliant years, cut short by a violent death, and that he had chosen to die in the flower of his age, so that he might leave a name which should kindle the sympathies of men wherever the language of his country was spoken? Peace and comfort had seemed contemptible to him in comparison with glory, and should she choose less nobly? If he had chosen the quiet walks of life, no evil would have resulted from it, which would have checked the national life of Achaea; but if she fled with her father, they might hide themselves from the very thunderbolts of Zeus, but what could dull their ears to the curses of the indignant people, or blind their eyes to the ruined purpose of that mighty host?
Then a divine joy filled the breast of the maiden; death seemed to her no longer terrible, but a crown of honour to be dearly sought for. She lifted her head, which she had hidden on her father's breast, and bravely drew herself from his arms, and demanded as a right the death from which she had hitherto shrunk
with terror; then gathering the maidens of Aulis about her, she placed the sacrificial garland on her brows and walked with steadfast feet to the grove of Artemis, where the priests awaited her.
Who can tell of that scene of woe, of the father with bowed head hidden in his gown, of the maiden so noble and so lovely that the stern priest could not plunge the knife into her bosom until he had flung a veil over her head, and so quenched the light of her glorious eyes, and all the silent awe-struck chiefs, who held their breath and fixed their eyes on the ground, unable to behold death under this new aspect? Then the voice of the hoary priest rung out slow and clear, as with one hand on the head of the victim he raised the other towards heaven:
"To thee, O daughter of Latoné, delighting in the bow, to thee, pure maid, I devote this pure maid a sacrifice, worthy of thee, vowed to thee from her birth! Accept this victim, O goddess; be propitious to this wind-bound Achaean host, and bring us safe, with swelling sails, to wide-wayed Troy, which the Fates have willed that we should level with the dust!"
So prayed the priest, and ere the sound of his voice had died away, the knife had descended and was raised again red with blood. A groan burst from the spectators, and the eyes that had been bent on the ground, turned as with one consent to the spot where Iphigeneia had stood. No longer stood she there, but on the pavement at the altar's foot, crushed and weltering
in blood, lay--not the royal maiden in her delicate nuptial robes, but a white fawn with tender eyes and quivering limbs.
A sigh of amazement and of relief broke from the ring of chiefs, and with one impulse they started forward to gaze more nearly at the wonder, but the priest raised his hand to warn them back, and turning to the king, who still stood with bowed head hidden in his mantle--"Behold!" he said, "O son of Atreus--behold the wonders of the goddess!"
At these words Agamemnon slowly raised his head, and turned his woebegone face towards the priest, but when he beheld the hind, "Where, then," he said, "is the noble Iphigeneia?"
"The goddess had her," said the priest, solemnly. "Thy vow is paid. Fear not; even now I hear the sighing of the rising wind. Go, bid the mariners set up the masts and the white sails. Even now while we speak the favourable wind is blowing."
Then all was joyful movement throughout the host, and by the dawn of morning the dancing waves of the blue Aegean bore the armament on its happy way to Troy.
Meanwhile the maiden Iphigeneia, snatched from the sacrificial knife by the mighty arm of Artemis, was carried in the chariot of the goddess, rapt in deep sleep, far beyond the straits of Helle, through the blue Clashers to a temple which she had among the Thracians on the Tauric Chersonese. There, when the
maid awoke her mind was so bewildered that she knew not whether the knife which she had felt at her throat had not indeed set her spirit free, and she were not already among the departed in the hollow of the earth, or whether this gloomy vaulted roof and these cold skies were not some strange region of the living earth to which she had been borne.
Then a grave and noble lady, wearing the dress and fillets of a priestess, comforted her, telling her that she was still indeed a living woman upon the natural earth, and that the gracious Artemis, to whom she had been vowed from her birth, willed that she should here attend her shrine and become herself in due course high priestess of this temple, which was specially sacred, seeing that it was honoured by the presence of an image of the goddess which had been sent direct from Zeus.
The heart of the young Iphigeneia rejoiced to be still among the living, and she broke into grateful adoration of the goddess whose mercy had saved her, and in her chastened mood she was well content to spend her days in learning from the priestess all the duties of her office. So that as years went on she grew into a grave and stately woman, reverenced by all the fierce men of that stormy clime, from Thoas the king, to the meanest swineherd on his lands. And when the high priestess passed into eternal night, it was Iphigeneia who wore her fillets, and who hung the shrine with garlands, and offered the daily sacrifice at the
altar. But as the years passed away, and Iphigeneia was now in the perfection of her mature womanhood, there grew upon her a mighty longing for her own home and people, and for those finer manners which the Immortals had taught to the Achaean race; and in the long and silent hours, when the women, her attendants, plied the loom, working rich garments for the goddess and costly hangings for the temple, Iphigeneia wandered back in thought to the home of her childhood, to the king, her father, with his Jove-like brows and ample chest, to her mother and sisters, and to the little Orestes with his rosy cheeks and clustering curls. O! where were they? how did they look? what were they doing? should she ever see them again, or the blue Aegean, or the marble halls of Argos?
Now there was a cruel custom among the Thracians, cruel and inhospitable, to offer as a sacrifice to Artemis any poor soul cast by the sea upon the peninsula, or landing there unawares. Hitherto it had been Iphigeneia's happy lot to escape the execution of this law, for no stranger had come or been driven to that cold and comfortless shore; but one morning when she had risen from a couch troubled by dreams of evil to her brother, she was summoned to receive the report of a countryman who came in haste to announce to her that two youths of very comely presence had landed on the coast.
Now when the countryman arrived, Iphigeneia, concluding
from her evil dream that Orestes had perished, was preparing offerings of honey and of milk to his spirit; but at these tidings a strange joy filled her heart. Had not the gods sent this costly sacrifice to do him honour, two comely youths to bear his spirit company to the fields of the blessed? She had never before contemplated the ghastly rite but with horror, but if Orestes were dead, why should other youths prosper? It was fitting that all that was beautiful and happy should bear him company. So she gave the word, and the ministers of the temple went down in haste to the shore to secure the youths, who were sleeping under the shadow of the rocks, after their rough sea travel. But when they stood before her, guarded and bound, a divine pity took possession of her soul, and she wept to think of the mother who bore them, of their father or perhaps sister about to be bereaved of such noble youths by the cruel law of Artemis, and she bade the attendants loose their hands, seeing that they were sacred to the goddess, and in a voice broken with compassion, she asked them whence they came. "Weep not for us, lady," said the elder and taller of the youths, "if thou hast compassion on us, seeing that we must die, and it becomes those who are appointed to die to be steadfast, and not to weaken their resolution by tender thoughts or sights."
Now the countryman had told Iphigeneia that the stranger who seemed tossed and troubled in his mind
addressed his companion as Pylades, and she now desired to know which of them was so named. "I am so called, lady," said he who had first spoken, but when the priestess desired to know of the other how he was named, he declined to answer, preferring to die unknown, that so his enemies might not triumph in his untimely fate; but when she importuned him to tell her whence he came, he said he was from Argos.
At the mention of her beloved native town, Iphigeneia trembled, and grew now pale, now rosy red; so moved was she to hear once more her native Argive tongue and see before her one born within the happy walls of that far-off city, and she asked him of Troy, if it were true that it had fallen, of Helene, of Achilles--so that the strangers marvelled who this stately priestess might be who was so well informed of what was of most interest in their own Achaean land.
"And tell me," said she, growing more eager, "tell me of the royal Agamemnon and of his fortune."
At the mention of the name of Agamemnon, the stranger trembled and turned pale as ivory and bade her ask of some other, but she entreated him in the name of all the gods to tell her of his condition.
"Alas he is dead--Agamemnon the king is fallen --slain in his own house, returning from the war, slain by the hand of Klytaemnestra."
"Alas!" cried Iphigeneia, catching with breathless horror the broken sentences of the stranger, "alas! worthy of all tears, both she who slew and he who
died; but tell me, thou who knowest so well these terrible events, lives the wife of the ill-fated king?"
"She lives no longer!" exclaimed the stranger; "the son she bore, he slew her."
"O miserable house!" exclaimed Iphigeneia, utterly confounded; "but surely by misadventure?"
"By misadventure surely," replied the stranger, "but not without design; he was appointed by Phoebus to avenge his father."
"Did Agamemnon leave no child then save Orestes?"
"Yes, his daughters Elektra and Chrysothemis."
"How!" said the priestess, "is no account made of Iphigeneia?"
"She is long since dead," replied the stranger, "and no longer sees the light."
"And lives the noble Orestes still? or is he also dead in Argos."
"He lives, lady, though he is a wanderer upon earth."
Thus relieved of the anxiety into which her dream had cast her on behalf of her brother, she told the stranger that if he would carry a message for her to her friends in Argos she would save him alive, and contrive his escape from that dread shore.
The stranger refused to accept this deliverance for himself, but he promised that Pylades, who was here only on account of his friendship to him, should execute her commission for her.
Then Iphigeneia went to seek a scroll which she had prepared for such an occasion, and while she was gone the two youths took a tender farewell of each other. Presently Iphigeneia returned, and with many solemn words delivered her scroll into the hands of Pylades, requiring him to take an oath that he would certainly give it into the hands of him to whom it was addressed.
Pylades swore by Zeus, the king of heaven: "but how," said he, "if the ship be wrecked and the scroll washed away by the sea, and I only escape with my life?"
"In case such a mischance should befall," said Iphigeneia, "I will tell thee what is written in the scroll that thou mayst report it to my friends. The message is to Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. Tell him that she who was slain in Aulis, Iphigeneia, so long believed to be dead, still lives, and bids him as her dear brother fetch her home to Argos, that she may not die here in this cruel land. And if he disregard thy words, tell this same Orestes, son of Agamemnon, that she will bring a curse on him and his for ever. Take the letter, and remember what I have told thee."
"The oath I have sworn is easily redeemed," said Pylades, taking the scroll, and handing it to his friend, "for here I deliver to thee, Orestes, the letter of thy sister."
Then Orestes, for he indeed it was, flung his arms in transport about his sister, and she was so amazed that she could not believe that it was her own brother,
[paragraph continues] Orestes, whom she had last seen a little child in his nurse's arms, grown into so noble and princely a man. But when he talked to her of their home, of the history of their race, and especially of the delicate web into which she had woven the quarrel of Atreus, their great ancestor, with Thyestes his brother, for the golden ram, she knew that it must indeed be he, and she could not sufficiently delight in talking to and in gazing at him.
When their rapture had a little subsided the terrible circumstances in which they stood came back upon their minds, and Iphigeneia demanded in her trouble what had brought them to this inhospitable land.
Then Orestes related to her how the Eumenides had tortured him on account of the slaughter of his mother, and how Phoebus, by whose command he had done the deed, had stood his friend, and bade him go to Athens to plead his cause against the dread goddesses on the hill of Ares before the invincible Athenas. There Phoebus still was his friend, for he claimed the deed as his own, and Pallas Athene declared him guiltless; nevertheless the agony of mind did not leave Orestes until he sunk exhausted at the shrine of Delphi, entreating Phoebus to slay him or to accomplish his deliverance.
Then there came a voice from the golden tripod which bade him go to Tauris, possess himself of the image of Artemis, which had fallen from heaven, and convey it to Athens; for so only could the gods be completely appeased.
When Iphigeneia heard this she saw that on her craft and courage depended not only her own chance of escape from Tauris, but the lives of her brother and cousin, endangered for Orestes' sake. But as all the people were excited by the expectation of the coming sacrifice, it was impossible for them to steal away unobserved; she therefore sent for Thoas, the king, and told him that she had just become acquainted with the fact that one of the youths, being guilty of blood-shedding, was unfit for sacrifice, and that she must take him down to the sea-shore, there to perform over him certain rites which would insure his purification.
"Do thou therefore, O king, warn the people by solemn proclamation to keep aloof, and on no account to mar the effect of the rites by curious looks, seeing that the guilty man hath laid his hands upon the very statue of the goddess, and if it be not instantly purified by sea water and by solemn and secret rites, which no one but myself can discharge, terrible plagues will light on thee and on all thy people."
Thoas heard with submission the commands of the revered priestess and hastened to obey them, and to forbid any one on pain of death to follow or to watch her. So the youths were led by the ministers of the temple down to the sea, and Iphigeneia followed slowly, bearing reverently in her hands the image of the goddess. But when they reached the sands and the headland behind which the ship of
[paragraph continues] Orestes lay hidden, there was no question of rite or lustral water, but the two princes broke from the priests who held them and leapt on board their ship, dragging Iphigeneia after them. Then the ministers of the temple, thinking they were doing their priestess wrong, would have attacked them and rescued her, and at their cries Thoas and his people came hurrying to the shore so that it would have gone hard with the princes, for bows were bent and spears aimed at them, had not Athene herself appeared and commanded the king to let Iphigeneia go, telling him that the stranger was Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, and that he had sought the Tauric Chersonese by the express command of Phoebus, that he might convey to the Achaean land the statue of Artemis, and his sister long thought dead.
Then Thoas bade his people hold back, and a favourable wind filled the sails of the ship and bore them swiftly over the Euxine through the blue clashing rocks into the lovely midland sea with its wealth of shining islands. And so coasting and sailing they came to the happy land where Athene delights to dwell, and to which she has given mind and the love of freedom above all lands.
And thus Iphigeneia came once more to her own beloved land: yet she sought not to dwell again in Argos or Mycenae, for there the graves of her father and mother, on her account filled before their time, would have made her life wretched. She bore the
image of Artemis, to whose service she had been vowed from infancy, to the temple dedicated to her at Brauron, not far from the plain of Marathon in Attike, and there tranquil and honoured she spent the years of her maturity, ever ready to counsel or to aid those who sought her, and rejoicing in the happiness of Elektra her sister, who was wedded to Pylades, and of Orestes and his fair cousin and wife Hermione, but herself a virgin priestess until the day of her death.
At length, full of years and honours, she passed into the Elysian fields, and men raised a tomb to her as to a heroine, and as she had passed through the mortal agony for her people, to her were dedicated costly veils and precious robes of mothers, who had died in giving birth to children.