Agamemnon: A Verdict
Whether or not Agamemnon deserves our sympathy, I fear it’s still too soon to say. Not in the least unlike Hamlet and Raskolnikov, the literary jury continues to be “out” on him and his successors, and out it will remain. That chicaning and marauding old King of the Greeks did, after all, sell his very own daughter for little more than an advantageous wind. Nubile, docile, though ultimately far too ingenuous to survive, Iphigenia was the price for smooth sailing to the east.
It was she, perhaps second only to that femme fatale Helen whom Agamemnon’s southern brother Menelaus really ought not to have left home alone, who was most responsible for actually getting the Trojan War underway. Iphigenia, albeit in death, was in some ways more directly involved than Helen in the launching of those thousand eager ships. It was her blood rather than Helen’s smile which would raise the anchors and usher out of port those countless, restive idle Grecian vessels, whence they’d hasten off toward the Turkish coast and Homeric immortality. Once there, soaked in the rage militaire of Agamemnon at the helm, the ageless conflict between Asia and Europe, Troy and Greece would finally begin.
Tempting his obedient little girl with the promise of Achilles’ hand in marriage (and what starry-eyed young princess amongst us, forever dreaming of her Mr. Charming and his white horse, wouldn’t jump at such a match?), Agamemnon had in mind for his daughter other plans. You see, it was a mortal, rather than a matrimonial end that he had in store for his third of three daughters. Completing the task that Abraham had only just begun, Agamemnon the religious zealot of a king performed the cruelest bait and switch that mythology has ever seen. Revealing to his gullible daughter Iphigenia her unavoidable fate, Agamemnon proceeded to slash her throat in supplication of a burdensome god. For our Greek, that god was Artemis—for our Jew, Adonai. Nevertheless, enduring the fate that Isaac had so fortuitously dodged, Iphigenia was made to be no more. Poor thing. Just before the end, she wasn’t (as was Isaac) availed of an angel who might speak to the better, though too often stubbornly concealed nature in man. There was no lordly intercession on her behalf, no replacement by a disposable farm animal so that she might live another day (no matter how appealing the high Romantic German poet and philhellene Goethe’s later story might seem in comparison; in his re-telling of this ancient tale, Iphigenia is saved by an agent of Zeus, before being herself promoted to the level of goddess in the far away beach-town of Tauris).
Goethe, however enamored of his work I usually am, leaves me wanting on this and only this account. Sacrificed was Iphigenia—taking, as I do, the more orthodox and moribund tale. She was a guiltless princess thrown into the jaws of an insatiable god. All this, for a remorseless father and a zealous king. Yet, lest we forget, there remained the presence of a mother left behind who was now without her baby girl. Mourning the senseless loss of a dear member of her rambunctious brood (of whom we count the indefatigable Electra, the unremarkable Chrysothemis and the daring Orestes) was Clytemnestra—a now inconsolable, now vengeful mother, wife, adulteress, and queen.
Worse still, ten years hence, Agamemnon proceeded to kidnap and seal the fate of yet another father’s daughter. This time around, it would be Cassandra. Probably, and if I might add, nauseatingly, this second unwed princess was none too distant in age from his own baby girl Iphigenia—to and from whom he gave and reclaimed life.
Cassandra was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, king and queen of Troy. So alluring was she, that before being captured by Agamemnon as a spoil of war, the god Apollo attempted to win her hand, though more likely, he wanted her virginity. So far as the uncharacteristically lustful god was concerned, only the latter would do. In this case, as it too commonly is when dealing with men, the erotic was to trump the Platonic—the penis for the numinous. Such is the unavoidable personality defect of a god and a pantheon crafted in the image of man.
Traditionally unknown for his amours, Apollo—quintessential deity of light, music, purity, poetry, veracity, and truth—had his aim on Cassandra and no one else. It might be worth adding here that Apollo had actually previously enjoyed a dalliance with none other than Cassandra’s own mother—Hecuba. The queen, fertile for both god and man, bore him a son called Troilus. His name is memorable only if affixed to that of Cressida, with whom he had a troubling love affair. If not for the pen of Shakespeare, being that he lived in the shadows of brothers Paris (whose judgment turned out not to be so very wise) and Hector (whose military skill was nearly unparalleled), the comparatively undistinguished Troilus would be entirely unknown to us today.
That said, taking seriously her promise to lie with the god in due time, Apollo conferred upon Cassandra the gift of prophecy. Now, as if made Delphic by divine intervention, Cassandra would be able to see the future and all of the booms and the busts that it held. Victories and defeats, auguries and portents, nothing would be beyond her scope. All that was left to do was to reciprocate this gift with a little numinous, lecherous consummation of sorts. She had to gratify sexually the awaiting Apollo, from whom she’d accrued an unbelievable gift.
However, much to that god of bards’ consternation (and sexual frustration), Cassandra denied him her bed. Revoking her promise to lie with him, Cassandra evidently esteemed more highly her chastity than she did the deity. A win for feminism and sexual agency if ever there was one, however steep its cost.
Alas, her abstemious nature in the end availed Cassandra not. Instead of taking back the gift he’d so heedlessly bestowed, the now chagrined Apollo turned his gift into a curse. His once beloved and now insufferable Cassandra would retain her ability to prophesy, but until her last breath, no one would believe the words that she would say. All would be sound and fury lashing at the wind, while neither countrymen nor captor would heed her words.
Thrice was this apparent. First, when her love-struck brother Paris set sail for the Spartan coast to redeem his Aphrodisiac prize, she warned her father of exactly what would happen. She foretold that the passionate venture would bring destruction upon the house that Priam built. The king, of course, did not take seriously her premonition nor the urgency of her fear.
Fast-forward a decade of incessant and excruciating war, which had already seen the lives of Ajax and Hector spent, and an odd-looking horse greeted the besieged city at its gates.
Uncertain what to make of this gift horse and its unnatural grin, the Trojans found themselves in a quagmire. Equally as many wanted this obvious sign of peace, this clear olive branch invited into their city as wanted it turned away. Rushing down from the citadel, as if Nietzsche’s Zarathustra bringing to the laity his unsavory truth, the priest Laocoon attempted to intervene. “Are you mad, wretched people?”, the incredulous Laocoon exclaimed, “Do you think the foe has gone? Do you think gifts of the Greeks lack treachery? What was Odysseus’ reputation? Either the Greeks are hiding in this monster, or it’s some trick of war, a spy or engine, to come down on the city. Tricky business is hiding in it. Do not trust it, Trojans; do not believe this horse. Whatever it may be, I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts”.
As if empirically to prove correct his desperate premonition, Laocoon—the burly warrior-diviner—took matters into his own hands. He proceeded to launch his spear into the wooden horse’s flank, upon whose entrance an audible moan could be heard. To the sober mind, this should’ve been nothing other than an injured Greek inhabiting the horse’s entrails. At that moment though, thinking himself vindicated and his city saved, two venomous snakes slithered from the shoreline and entangled him in their grip. Inspiring what was to become, in my opinion, the greatest classical sculpture ever to be built, the virile Laocoon and his two sons suffocated in a silent clamor of desperation under the snakes’ joined clasp. Seeing him frozen in marble, one can still feel the anguish visited upon this former man of the cloth as he languishes in his place.
At this point, it’s no more than a sad fait accompli. The Greek deceit has by now officially become a Trojan Horse. Last to protest allowing its entrance beyond the city’s threshold is none other than our unheard heroine, Cassandra. “Oh miserable people!” she implored her countrymen, “Poor fools! You do not understand at all your evil fate”. Her Trojans were acting blindly and, as time would prove, self-injuriously by ignoring the very thing that “has your destruction within it”. Right she was. They accused her of speaking “windy nonsense” before wheeling the horse through their gates. Then, jubilant in the success of ending a torturous ten-year war, they drank the night away as any Greek or Turk would do. Trading Apollo for Dionysius, those inebriants reveled in the bath of a hard-won victory.
Though hard was it won, easily was it lost. The rest, as they say, is history. Or mythology. Either way, it needn’t be recounted here. For that, we turn to scribblers like Homer and Virgil, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles.
Specifically, we turn to Aeschylus for the third and final instance of Cassandra being ignored to her interlocutor’s great peril. Having been since ravished by the victorious Agamemnon, under whose command her home of Troy was razed to the earth and then set ablaze, Cassandra had become a sex slave, for lack of a better word. Such was the descent of the former princess from royalty on-high to lechery on-demand. Arriving back at Mycenae, shackled to her captor’s side, she was to be employed as a royal courtesan, a Hellenic harlot for the king’s pleasure and for his bed. But, Agamemnon’s plans changed immediately upon his arrival at Greece where his wife Clytemnestra awaited him.
It’s known that heaven hath no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned. Clytemnestra was such a woman, and she’d not soon forget the man who did the scorning. In fact, for the first time after ten long and arduous years, he was right there in front of her face.
During her husband Agamemnon’s absence, this furious queen-bee was hell-bent on revenge. Day after day, she took to scheming her plans until the night fell, when she then took the temporary love of an illicit man. Prodded along by her paramour Aegisthus, with whom she spent many a restless hour ironing out her plot, the two agreed that the king must die.
Naturally, Cassandra got an early whiff of their machinations, but it mattered not. With bedeviled lucidity, she saw through their aims but couldn’t do a thing about them. She saw regicide in Agamemnon’s near future, and homicide in that of her own. And, as always, she was quick to respond, but her response fell on deaf ears. In anticipation of too many horror films today, Agamemnon was impaled by his wife’s blade whilst submerged in a bathtub.
Perhaps, upon returning home, the sinful king was attempting to immerse and cleanse himself and begin life anew. So scarred was his body by a life of immorality and chicanery and roguish pursuit, that a baptism would’ve been his only real chance at a second go. Alas, he never did exit the bath, so we’ll never really know if he would’ve done so as an improved and freshly Christian man. After the slaying of the king, Cassandra was next. And, after a fit of madness, she stoically embraced an end whose details she knew too well. This, of course, was her third and final prophecy.
Yet I return to the fallen king. Are we to mourn for the loss of Agamemnon? Is there anything redemptive in this unrepentant king? For having murdered his own daughter, alienated Achilles and thus prolonged the war, slaughtered countless innocent and militant Trojans alike, and taken poor Cassandra as a sexual captive back home to a grieving wife, are we to be moved to pathos in seeing his end? Perhaps, if only to cheer for Orestes and Electra, whose subsequent adventures begin after his final scene ends. But on the whole, taken as an individual and not as the motivating force behind a gallant and parricidal son, I don’t think Agamemnon has earned our sympathy. Maybe it’s time for that particular chapter to be closed. Like those precociously wise yet tortured anti-heroes, Hamlet and Raskolnikov, Agamemnon doesn’t earn our highest esteem. And while we mourn the suicide of the first and the exile of the second, we shrug off the murder of the third.