First Writing Assignment

This assignment appears as a topic in the forum for each of the tribes. Submit your essays as replies to the topic in the forum for your tribe.

In 458 BCE, Aeschylus produced a set of four plays, a trilogy of tragedies: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides, and a satyr play, Proteus, which did not survive the process of transmission through the manuscript tradition. We now refer to the three extant tragedies as the Oresteia, a title derived from “Orestes,” the son of Agamemnon who returns to avenge the death of his father. (Similarly, the Odyssey from the Greek Odússeia, is the story of Odysseus.)

Here is the opening performance of the chorus, the párodos (πάροδος), from the first play, Agamemnon. The first section of the párodos, lines 40-103, are in an anapestic rhythm that signals the entry of the chorus into the orchestra. Once in position, the chorus then then dances as it sings a series of songs or lyric passages, the strophes (pronounced “strów-fees”) from the Greek στροφαί plural of στροφή, which literally means a “turning” or “circling” and comes down to us through the more familiar Latin term “verse,” antistrophes (“reverse turnings”), and epodes from the Greek ἐπῳδοί plural of ἐπῳδός, which means “a following song,” i.e., a song that comes after one or more strophes and antistrophes. (The topic of the response will follow.)

Ten years since the great contestants [40]
of Priam’s right,
Menelaus and Agamemnon, my lord,
twin throned, twin sceptered, in twofold power
of kings from god, the Atreidae,
put forth from this shore [45]
the thousand ships of the Argives,
the strength and the armies.
Their cry of war went shrill from the heart,
as eagles stricken in agony
for young perished, high from the nest [50]
eddy and circle
to bend and sweep of the wings’ stroke,
lost far below
the fledglings, the nest, and the tendance.
Yet someone hears in the air, a god, [55]
Apollo, Pan, or Zeus, the high
thin wail of these sky-guests, and drives
late to its mark
the Fury upon the transgressors.

So drives Zeus, the great god of guests, [60]
the Atreidae against Alexander:
for one woman’s promiscuous sake
the struggling masses, legs tired,
knees grinding in dust,
spears broken in the onset. [65]
Danaans and Trojans
they have it alike. It goes as it goes
now. The end will be destiny.
You cannot burn flesh or pour unguents,
not innocent cool tears, [70]
that will soften the gods’ stiff anger.
But we, dishonored, old in our bones,
cast off even then from the gathering horde,
stay here, to prop up
on staves the strength of a baby. [75]
Since the young vigor that urges
inward to the heart
is frail as age, no warcraft yet perfect,
while beyond age, leaf
withered, man goes three-footed [80]
no stronger than a child is,
a dream that falters in daylight.
But you, lady,
daughter of Tyndareus, Clytaemestra, our queen:
What is there to be done? What new thing have you heard? [85]
In persuasion of what
report do you order such sacrifice?
To all the gods of the city,
the high and the deep spirits,
to them of the sky and the marketplaces, [90]
the altars blaze with oblations.
The staggered flame goes sky-high
one place, then another,
drugged by the simple soft
persuasion of sacred unguents, [95]
the deep-stored oil of the kings.
Of these things what can be told
openly, speak.
Be healer to this perplexity
that grows now into darkness of thought, [100]
while again sweet hope shining from the flames
beats back the pitiless pondering
of sorrow that eats my heart.

I have mastery yet to proclaim the wonder at the wayside
given to kings. Still by god’s grace there surges within me [105]
singing magic
grown to my life and power,
how the wild bird portent
hurled forth the Achaeans’
twin-stemmed power single-hearted, [110]
lords of the youth of Hellas,
with spear and hand of strength
to the land of Teucrus.
Kings of birds to the kings of the ships,
one black, one blazed with silver, [115]
clear seen by the royal house
on the right, the spear hand,
they alighted, watched by all
tore a hare, ripe, bursting with young unborn yet,
stayed from her last fleet running. [120]
Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.

Then the grave seer of the host saw through to the hearts divided,
knew the fighting sons of Atreus feeding on the hare
with the host, their people.
Seeing beyond, he spoke: [125]
“With time, this foray
shall stalk the city of Priam;
and under the walls, Fate shall spoil
in violence the rich herds of the people. [130]
Only let no doom of the gods darken
upon this huge iron forged to curb Troy—
from inward. Artemis the undefiled
is angered with pity
at the flying hounds of her father [135]
eating the unborn young in the hare and the shivering mother.
She is sick at the eagles’ feasting.
Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.

Lovely she is and kind [140]
to the tender young of ravening lions.
For sucklings of all the savage
beasts that lurk in the lonely places she has sympathy.
She demands meaning for these appearances
good, yet not without evil. [145]
Healer Apollo, I pray you
let her not with crosswinds
bind the ships of the Danaans
to time-long anchorage [150]
forcing a second sacrifice unholy, untasted,
working bitterness in the blood and fearing no man.
For the terror returns like sickness to lurk in the house;
the secret anger remembers the child that shall be avenged.” [155]
Such, with great good things beside, rang out in the voice of Calchas,
these fatal signs from the birds by the way to the house of the princes,
wherewith in sympathy
sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.

Zeus: whatever he may be, if this name [160]
pleases him in invocation,
thus I call upon him.
I have pondered everything
yet I cannot find a way,
only Zeus, to cast this dead weight of ignorance [165]
finally from out my brain.

He who in time long ago was great,
throbbing with gigantic strength,
shall be as if he never were, unspoken. [170]
He who followed him has found
his master, and is gone.
Cry aloud without fear the victory of Zeus;
you will not have failed the truth. [175]

Zeus, who guided men to think,
who has laid it down that wisdom
comes alone through suffering.
Still there drips in sleep against the heart
grief of memory; against [180]
our will temperance comes.
From the gods who sit in grandeur
grace is somehow violent.

On that day the elder king
of the Achaean ships, not faulting
any prophet’s word, [185]
shifted with the crosswinds of fortune,
when no ship sailed, no pail was full,
and the Achaean people sulked
along the shore at Aulis facing
Chalcis, where tides ebb and surge: [190]

and winds blew from the Strymon, bearing
sick idleness, ships tied fast, and hunger,
distraction of the mind, carelessness
195 for hull and cable;
with time’s length bent to double measure
by delay crumbled the flower and pride
of Argos. Then against the bitter wind
the seer’s voice clashed out
another medicine [200]
more hateful yet, and spoke of Artemis, so that the kings
dashed their staves to the ground and could not hold their tears.

The elder lord spoke aloud before them: [205]
“My fate is angry if I disobey these,
but angry if I slaughter
this child, the beauty of my house,
with maiden bloodshed staining
these father’s hands beside the altar. [210]
What of these things goes now without disaster?
How shall I fail my ships
and lose my faith of battle?
To urge the wind-changing sacrifice of maiden’s blood [215]
angrily, for the wrath is great— it is right. May all be well yet.”

But when he put on necessity’s yoke
he changed, and from the heart the breath came bitter
and sacrilegious, utterly infidel, [220]
to warp a will now to be stopped at nothing.
The sickening in men’s minds, mad,
reckless in first cruelty brings daring. He endured then
to sacrifice his daughter
in support of war waged for a woman, [225]
first offering for the ships’ sake.

Her supplications and her cries of father
were nothing, nor the child’s lamentation
to kings passioned for battle. [230]
The father prayed, called to his men to lift her
with strength of hand swept in her robes aloft
and prone above the altar, as you might lift
a goat for sacrifice— with a guard
against the lips’ sweet edge, to check [235]
the curse cried on the house of Atreus
by force and a bit’s speechless power.

Pouring then to the ground her saffron mantle
she struck the sacrificers with [240]
the eyes’ arrows of pity,
lovely as in a painted scene, and striving
to speak—as many times
at the kind festive table of her father
she had sung, and in the clear voice of a stainless maiden [245]
with love had graced the song
of worship when the third cup was poured.

What happened next I saw not, neither speak it.
The crafts of Calchas fail not of outcome.
Justice tilts her scale so that those only [250]
learn who suffer; and the future
you shall know when it has come; before then, forget it.
It is grief too soon given.
All will come clear in the next dawn’s sunlight.
Let good fortune follow these things as [255]
the one who is here desires,
our Apian land’s single-hearted protector (translation by Richmond Lattimore).

The play you are reading, Iphigenia at Aulis, by Euripides’ appeared in the celebration of the City Dionysia in 405 BCE, fifty-eight years after the production Agamemnon. Since 431, that is, for more than twenty-five years, Athens had been at war with Sparta, and during that time as a consequences of casualties, disease, and the privations of war, the population of Athens had declined substantially. Some, but probably very few, in the audience that spring had seen Aeschylus’ Oresteia, but his version of the story would certainly have been among those circulating at the time Euripides’ play reached the stage.

You have read Euripides’ play and had a chance to reflect on the character of Iphigenia. How does Euripides’ depiction of Iphigenia and the events at Aulis differ from the version in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon? In an essay of 300-400 words, discuss the variations and how they contribute to your understanding and interpretation of the drama.