by Sam Leo


In the Greek tradition surrounding the Trojan War, Iphigenia was the daughter of Agamemnon, one of the Greek kings, and his wife Clytemnestra, who was Helen of Troy's sister (and a daughter of Zeus and Leda). Before the fleet set sail for Troy, Agamemnon offended the goddess Artemis, who caused the winds to be calmed. Iphigenia, under the pretext of being brought to the launch site at Aulis to marry the hero Achilles, was offered in sacrifice to Artemis, the sacrifice being carried out by the priest Calchas. Clytemnestra, misled, was enraged--civil war among the Greeks was a possibility, Achilles' name had been used without his knowledge--but Iphigenia accepted her fate, saying she would not be a cause of dissension among the Greeks. In Euripides' play Iphigenia in Aulis, Artemis relents at the last moment and whisks Iphigenia to safety, leaving a hind on the altar to receive Calchas knife.

Not here.


"No, my lady, no!" one of the servant women cried as Iphigenia, dressed in a saffron robe, walked calmly toward the altar.

Smiling, she gently pushed the older woman's hands away. "No, my friend," she answered. "I will not be the cause of dissension among my people. I go, and I go willingly." Pausing, she looked hard at her friend's face. "I am sure," she continued, "that Calchas will be most considerate of me...!"

The woman wailed; Iphegenia raised her dark eyes, saw Calchas and her father waiting for her, and hurried her steps.

"Shall I dance?" she asked Calchas as she stepped atop the altar platform.

The priest's eyes were stern. "Yes," he agreed. "Dance, as you would for any sacrifice!"

With a nod and a bow, she began her circle around the altar, her steps light, the robes flying around her slender body, her woven braids streaming out from her head. Hesitantly, the musicians joined in; while they played, Iphigenia circled the usual nine times. Then she stopped, stood before Calchas.

He gestured to an assistant; this man came forward with a cloth lying across his hands, and a clean bronze blade lying on the cloth. "Make yourself ready," Calchas said, "and sit here."

The girl, her wide eyes fixed on the blade, nodded. Slowly, her hands went to the girdle of her robe; she undid it, cast it down. Then she shrugged the robe off her shoulders, leaving herself nude. Trembling in spite of herself, she sat down on the steps of the altar, as Calchas had indicated. A light sheen of perspiration appeared on her skin, and her smallish nipples stood rigidly erect.

At a silent gesture from the priest, a handsome young man sat down beside her, on her left, and slipped his arm around the small of her back. "I am here to help you," he whispered, his lips close to her ear. "To help you remain sitting as long as necessary, to help assure you bring no shame upon yourself."

Rewarding him with her quick and radiant smile, she allowed her shoulder to rest against his. Reaching down, he touched her thighs, guiding her legs into a relaxed position. His touch was soft, gentle. He put one of her hands on the steps, the other on his own knee. Finally he nodded to Calchas.

The priest completed his litany for Artemis; then, holding the knife firmly, he approached the girl. She glanced at her father, saw the tears in his eyes. Then she looked back at Calchas, at the knife.

Calchas laid his hand on her head, pushed it back. The young man pressed his palm against her stomach. "It will not cause you much pain," the young man whispered, "if you neither fight nor struggle. Let it be easy, Iphigenia."

"I want you to hold my hand," she asked, her voice quavering.

He smiled and nodded. Taking her hand, he pressed his and hers together against her stomach.

"You must give your permission," Calchas told her formally, "if you are to be the sacrifice. I cannot take you if you do not. Do not speak, but nod your head if you agree that we may offer you to Artemis." She hesitated just a little, but then, after a quick glance at the young man's face, she moved her head up and down twice.

Leaning over her, Calchas studied her smooth and delicate throat, running his fingertips over it, feeling her pulse. Breathing hard, she watched his face, watched him bring the knife up and move it around a little, its razor tip just touching her skin. At last he let it stop, the point resting just to the right of her windpipe. She blinked, swallowed hard.

"Be very still, my lady," the young man advised, "so that my master can use all his skills."

She clutched his hand in answer, and Calchas, pushing her head hard over against her left shoulder, began pressing on her throat with the point of the sharp blade.

Her eyes widened; for an instant her skin resisted. Then the knife slipped in, and her blood instantly began rushing out, quickly covering both the knife and the sacrificer's hand. Her eyes flew open even wider, and her lips parted slightly; without the young man's restraining hands, she would've jerked upwards and ruined Calchas' careful work. But he held her tightly, pushing hard on her stomach, as the priest slowly and methodically guided the blade on into her throat. There was a rough tearing sound as it cut through her windpipe; he pressed it a little deeper, letting it cut through a few more blood vessels, a little more muscle. Then, with a quick jerk, he pulled it out.

Iphigenia was obviously fighting both to sit still and to breathe; blood shot from her neck in a thick stream, splattering on the ground before Calchas managed to get a goblet under it. She squeezed the man's hand with hers as her eyelids drooped; with an effort, she opened them again. Her legs trembled, and urine wetted the stone beneath her thighs.

At last she moved her head, once again resting it on the young man's shoulder as a river of blood streamed down between her breasts and over their clasped hands. Again her eyelids dropped, again she forced them open. Looking into the young man's eyes, she tried to speak, but could not.

"No, my lady, rest," the young man soothed. "Rest, let yourself go into the dark. You have done so very well; you should be proud. Let your life go now, do not struggle to keep it."

She nodded, squeezed his hand, put her head back on his shoulder. Almost immediately her body shook violently, and abruptly the flow of blood diminished to a trickle. Her eyes stared sightlessly into the distance, out across the blue Aegean.