On Agamemnon and Abraham. Short Essay on Pride and Self-Sacrifice in the Ancient World

Revista ERASMUS, nr. 15/2006-2009, Bucureşti, [f.e.], 2009.

Dan-Vladimir Ivanovici

„Her father offered up a prayer,
then ordered men to seize her
and lift her up—she’d fallen forward
and just lay there in her robes—to raise her,
high above the altar, like a goat,
urging them to keep their spirits up.
They gagged her lovely mouth,
with force, just like a horse’s bit,
to keep her speechless, to stifle any curse
which she might cry against her family..“[1]

„Stupid boy, dost thou then suppose that I am thy father? I am an idolater. Dost thou suppose that this is God’s bidding? No, it is my desire. Then Abraham in a low voice said to himself: O, Lord in heaven, I thank Thee. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster, rather than that he should lose faith in Thee.“[2]

In a study dedicated to violent tendencies in different cultures Johan Galtung concluded, after enumerating characteristics such as dichotomist dualism, theology of Grace, or the apocalyptic feeling, that the existence of peace in the western culture is, indeed, a miracle.[3] Violence, in one form or another, is one of the actions found in the strategic social repertoire of every human community. In the Mediterranean world, violence has an ancient tradition that seems to contradict both Greek rationalism and the Christian love of one’s neighbor. Modern philosophers such as René Girard have conferred to violence a fundamental role in the evolution of human societies, presenting it as the initial catalyst that imposed the setting of lay and religious rules. We will attempt to evince that two of the most violent moments pertaining to the history of Greek thought, respectively the Judeo-Christian tradition refer to aspects relating to the core of the human nature and that they should not be dismissed as primitive elements in the history of European culture. The Iliad and the Odyssey represent that passing from myth to history, a fascinating age in the history of mankind when men could still become gods through their personal efforts. Ideal Greek monarch and celebrated god at Sparta, Agamemnon synthesizes a series of characteristics and behaviors that approach him more to the gods of that period than to his fellow men. Coming from a preponderant rural world, the heroes of the Iliad seem to be a group of proud and determined peasants, courageous but calculated, as opposed to their leaders who possess extraordinary destinies. The specificity of Greek spirituality in this period seems to have been the amalgamation of two elements apparently divergent: free human action and divine predestination. Accordingly, two types of heroes can be found in the poems: those in whose lives the degree of predestination toward greatness and glory (fundamental problem and the gift par excellence to obtain in a world with no eschatological concept of life) prevails over freedom of action and the type of hero that forces its own destiny obliging the universe to recognize its merits. Among the former we could place Achilles, meant for greatness he lives up to his destiny. Agamemnon, on the contrary, is a self-made man. Inheritor more of a problematic situation than of favorable premises he manages to impose his will on the nature of things and assure his immortality but greatness has its price that must be paid when acquired against the divine will.

Agamemnon is, even more than Achilles, the central character of the Iliad because he represents a human type, he is liable of becoming an example. While Achilles’ viability as a model is low, Agamemnon can be imitated and is thus more interesting. Of the three main dramatic scenes that dominate his life: his quarrel with Achilles, the decision to sacrifice his own daughter, and death by the hand of his wife, only two are mentioned by Homer, the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis seeming not to be known by the blind poet. In the Iliad the time spent at Aulis is not placed in connection with Iphigenia’s sacrifice, the sign and Calchas’ prophecy not being related to Agamemnon’s family. His daughters are named Chrysothemis, Laodice and Ihianassa and none of them is sacrificed. The cover-up of this dark moment was interpreted as either an intentional act of the poet or as a subsequent development of this variant because, as Richard Seaford observed, in the Iliad and the Odyssey the episodes containing crimes made within the family tend to be left out. A very different situation is present in tragedies where this type of crime is chosen and presented as central indicating, in most cases, a degenerated sacrificial act. The sought and sustained contrast between serenity within the family and the violence of the world surrounding the oikos, element central in the poems pertained to a pre-classical reality, to the world that inherited the Mycenaean royalty, would have been undermined by moments such as Iphigenia’s immolation.

The reason for which Artemis requested the sacrifice is still debated by researchers. Critics considered that the offence brought to the goddess by the king of Mycenae was disproportionably punished by the request of this sacrifice and looked for alternative reasons. N. G.L. Hammond suggested that the goddess had been angered by the slaughter intended by the Atrids at Troy and, as a protector of the weak; she requested a sacrifice from the attackers. The bottleneck of this variant resides in the sacrifice of an innocent as retribution for the killing of other innocents. William Whallon connected the goddess’ request to the curse of the house of Pelops but this option too has little in its favor. The renowned Walter Burkert reminded that „Artemis is and remains a mistress of bloody sacrifices“[4]. The death of Iphigenia is a bloody sacrifice sought by the goddess of hunting from warriors left for killing and loot:

„For goddess Artemis is full of anger

at her father’s flying hounds—she pities

the cowering sacrificial creature in distress,

she pities its young, slaughtered

before she’s brought them into life.

Artemis abominates the eagles’ feast.“[5]

Inheriting the prehistoric cult of the Goddess of Animals, Artemis still held the right in the archaic period to request a sacrifice for the success of any bloody endeavor. Greek mythology offers a large number of examples where the success of war-related actions is tied to the sacrifice of virgins or of characters implicated only partially (the daughters of Hercules and Erechtheus or the son of Kreon). Lloyd-Jones believed that the necessity for such a sacrifice remained as obscure to the ancient Greeks watching Aeschylus as it does to us today since the tragedian had to invent for the public a reason presented by Calchas who expressed the pity took by the goddess on the victims of the vultures.[6] My contention is that a people with as good a memory as the Greek one is rather unlikely to forget rapidly the use of such a practice. Myths that presented in an unveiled manner the practice were still on circulation at the time of Aeschylus indicating that his explanation was one according to his own opinion of the universe and the role the gods played in it.

Looking through the prism created by theories on the appearance and function of blood sacrifices at traditional populations, the sacrifice of Iphigenia is perfectly realized. Both the motivation as an appeasement of the gods’ wrath stirred by an act unsuitable to a civilized community and the nature of the sacrificed, the virginity and relation to the king, appear as more than within limits. The innocence of the victim is essential in this case for it is meant to stir in the sacrificers the wrath they needed in order to win in their endeavor. In an act that contradicts the general theory of sacrifice proposed by René Girard the Achaeans sacrifice a guiltless victim which is impossible to have catalyzed the anger of the community and serve as a scapegoat. The purpose of the sacrifice is clear: Agamemnon was burning the bridges; none would have dared to back up from an endeavor so highly paid in advance. Once fulfilled everyone, from Agamemnon to the last rower, realize the abomination of the act and are to fight with the despair of one who needs eventual success in order to cover the deed. The purity of Iphigenia renders the act possible because it takes her outside regular society just enough to be sacrificed; it gives her a degree of otherness always required by sacrificers in order to justify their act. Virgins presented a perfect combination for a sacrificial victim, pure and half alien. It is worth mentioning the connection guessed by Vidal-Naquet between marriage and death for the virgins of archaic Greece.

The fact that this particular sacrifice had to do with an endeavor violent par excellence is indicated by the fact that Iphigenia had to be tied as a wild animal. Hunting and war had long been perceived by many groups as acts remaining outside their culture when the community came not to depend exclusively on them. Contrasting with ritual sacrifices of domestic animals done regularly by communities or their representants, sacrifices preceding hunting or war retained a violent valence manifested in the victim’s struggle signaling the abnormality of the situation. The transgressional nature of the act is not restrained to the sacrifice itself, the agent of the sacrifice and his behavior being even more surprising. Aeschylus presents us Agamemnon urging his men not to back up and go through with the sacrifice, an attitude more than disturbing, paradoxical.

On the other side there is Abraham, rich shepherd in the tradition of Abel but cursed with the lack of descendents. A just man, he is the innocent victim of gods as random in their actions as the Olympians. Yet he receives the promise of a foreign God that he will have a son who will take his name further and who will be immortal. The promise came true, Abraham was blissful and as he watched his son grow brought thanks to God. And then:

„… God tempted Abraham and said unto him,

Take Isaac, thine son, whom thou lovest, and

get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him

there for a burnt offering upon the mountain which I

will show thee.“[7]

Isaac’s sacrifice lacks any logic. More than that, it seems to contravene the initial promise for through Isaac Abraham was to become the father of a new people. God now asked him to spill the blood in which his present and future glory resided. (The image of an apparently illogical God appears often in the OT corpus and was interpreted as a testing of the chosen people imposed by the people’s constant tendency to lapse back into polytheism.) Regardless of his own opinion, Abraham proved ready to fulfill the requested sacrifice and left for Mount Moriah. Not being informed of any former sins of Abraham we are left to believe that he was tested on account of a precept later formulated by St Paul the Apostle in the first epistle to the Romans: „All that is not faith is sin“[8]. Such an attitude meant a radical change compared to the ritualism that dominated Mesopotamian cults from which Abraham had just parted. Neither virtue nor ethical behavior counts as the conduit necessary to appease the gods but faith in their power and benevolence. Such a shift of emphasis was radical because it tied spiritual excellence not to acts visible to the rest of the community but to an interior aspect pertaining to the person alone, accentuating the connection between individuals and the divine. The law of the OT kept the sacrificial rite along with the promise that it will one day be revoked, the period between Abraham and Messiah being one when the two modes of relating to the divine coexisted.

The value of the sacrifice resided in the objective behind it and this aspiration to the divine had found a more noble expression in language according to the OT prophets. It could be said that, after being chosen especially because his virtues had been acknowledged by God, Abraham had been tested enough in the long years spent waiting patiently the fulfillment of the promise made to him by God when he never stopped believing even though Sara was getting older and the possibility to bear child seemed remote. Abraham continued to believe…

Among the tragedians of the classical age only Aeschylus has the cruelty to let Iphigenia die on the altar, both Sophocles and Euripides presenting variants less violent of the story where Artemis intervened in the last moments to save her. Aeschylus knew the tradition according to which Iphigenia was saved in the last moment by Artemis but he opted for the version where she dies. Although Agamemnon’s behavior gave plenty of reasons to anger the gods, the trigger of the conflict between him and Artemis, which was to lead to Iphigenia’s sacrifice, had to do in Sophocles with a fact apparently unimportant: the killing by Agamemnon of an animal dear to the goddess. Alone Aeschylus indicates a more profound cause, concordant with the outcome he opted for; Artemis being in his vision infuriated by the deaths the war was to cause. The version is consistent with the tendency of the pre-classic era when moral values were being transferred from men unto gods both by philosophers and by poets. As E. R. Dodds observed in his famous study on the nature and purpose of the irrational in Greek classical culture, Zeus and his fellow gods begin evincing an interest in ethics towards the end of the Odyssey.

We chose the Aeschylean version precisely because this element as well as because the general character of Aeschylus’ works which is closer to the theme of the essay; the thorny relation between human freedom and divine intervention being one of Aeschylus’ matters of concern. The trilogy containing Agamemnon attempts to explain the effect of inherited guilt, Aeschylus seeming to deny fatalism represented in Greek thought by Theognis who affirmed that:

„No man, Cyrnus, is responsible for his

own destruction or his own success, the

gods are those who give both. No man can

know the consequences of his own actions.

Mankind wanders following its futile paths

while the gods accomplish everything they planed“[9].

Aeschylus’ man is more complicated. The image of a world ruled by Zeus emerges, a world where mortals are often instruments of the Olympians’ will, still enjoying the freedom to choose from various ways of acting but always within their preodained destiny.

Agamemnon too is an instrument of Zeus who uses him to pay back the offence brought by the Trojans to the rules of hospitality patronized by him. Clytemnestra too is subsequently used by him to punish the arrogance toward the gods evinced by the king of Mycenae and Orestes to complete the curse that fell on his house at the killing of Myrtilus. A. Lensky noticed that „it was Aeschylus who discovered the problem of the uncertainty inherent in every human action“[10].  Any human decision is taken in accordance with a series of circumstances known to man but he remains ignorant of the divine plan and his place in the drama of humankind. He can fall in any given moment a victim of an inherited curse, of which he was unaware of, or to be integrated in the plans of a god without his knowledge or just interrupt the bathing of a goddess and lose his life as a result. All one could do is resemble Ulysses: remain pious and treat chastisements with obstinacy and catastrophes attracted by his own behavior, intentional or not. Aeschylus seems to go a little further in the end and indicate that the small degree of freedom allowed to man is enough and can prove decisive in some cases.

To a reader familiarized with Homeric behaviors the sacrifice of Iphigenia can seem legitimate initially. The past of Agamemnon and Menelaus’ family, marked by raping, incest and betrayal offered cover and legitimacy to the gods that decided to place him in such a situation and the same context seems to predispose the king to a wrong choice. Nevertheless, a recent study indicates the decisive role played by Agamemnon as the catalyst and instrument of this horrifying act. One might be tempted to give the king of Mycenae the benefit of a doubt due to his participation into a culture and psychology such as the Homeric one but we must not forget that what Homer’s and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon share more the name than the way of acting, that the psychological structure of the two characters if fundamentally divergent as we will attempt to show.  The king is eccentric from all points of view yet within the limits of a human being. He is a reminiscence of a cultural motif pertaining to the archaic period represented in the world of the tragedians through him: the individual whose lifes is greatly influenced by forces alien to him..  We have all the necessary data on the son of Atreus, we know the past of his family, his inherited predispositions and the way he passed his youth. We are also given his brother with whom we can compare him constantly in order to see how much of his actions is inherited and how much is voluntary.  The comparison of the two brothers indicates the degree of personal freedom of decision allowed to a Greek inheriting a preordained destiny. They are carrying an old curse that will unavoidably affect them but the magnitude of the blow will be consistent with personal behavior. Thus, Agamemnon’s pride will cause him both to lose Iphigenia and his life by the hand of his wife while the moderation that seems to characterize Menelaus will defend him of such a violent outcome. The recurrent reminder of Iphigenia’s death done by Clytemnestra points to the real reason of her gesture. It was not the wounded pride of the betrayed wife, not the love for Aegistus (a pawn she controlled) but the immolation of her daughter that pushed her to murder.[11]

Agamemnon’s destiny is less influenced by predestination than by his own actions, his death resulting from his voluntary actions. Inheritor of the same name and duty to revenge his murdered father, Menelaus refrains from pursuing revenge and follows Tyndareus at Sparta while Agamemnon decides to fulfill his duty violently by attacking not only Mycenae but also areas outside of his inheritance. His blood thirst seems to grow proportionally with his conquests. More glory-oriented and violent than his brother, young Agamemnon sets the path that would lead the king into Clytemnestra’s blade. The ferocity of the now older king announcing that he will impale even the unborn children of the Troy (Ill. 6.57-58) indicates the state of mind with which he began the endeavor that would end with his death. In his vanity, he believed that he can use both his brother and Zeus in order to satisfy his craving for power.

Contrasting with other rulers depicted in Greek tragedies Agamemnon allows himself to be influenced only by those aspects that relate strictly to him. Such an attitude categorized as „morally insensitive“[12] was unacceptable in the Greek world of the archaic period when personal purity or impurity affected the entire community attracting the divine goodwill, respectively wrath on the whole group. Thus, Ulysses falls asleep and all his companions suffer and eventually die for his deed. The coldness and self-centrism of Agamemnon transpires also from the relation to his wife who expressed her worry for the Trojans as well as the Achaeans while her husband was promising death to their unborn. Cold-blooded murderer since she had planed in great detail the demise of her husband, Clytemnestra appears at the end of the play as more humane than Agamemnon although his deeds have attenuating circumstances. The allusions and secondary elements employed by the poet generate this impression that generalized insensitivity and egotism are more dangerous and alien to the true human nature than a moment of passion with gruesome results. Writing in and for a world that saw Agamemnon as a hero Aeschylus was yet aware of his blame and he manages to impose his view on the public through nuances not necessarily through radical twists of play. Human freedom of choice and the implications of pride in one’s life are plainly expressed.

Reaching Aulis with his army, Agamemnon is announced by Calchas the prophet that Artemis is requesting the sacrifice of his daughter in exchange for the wind necessary to take the Achaean ships to Troy. Both Agamemnon and his brother fall into despair at the receiving of the prophecy:

„so painful that the sons of Atreus

struck their canes on the ground and wept“[13]

A decision had to be made and the king of Mycenae chose to sacrifice his daughter. A sacrifice for the community one might say, certainly a laudable act and Agamemnon must be pitied for having to go through such a calvary. Agamemnon the man suffered and has to be mourned on account of a humanity that we share with him. We should keep in mind that the gods were already showing interest in morals at this time, that the jealousy pinned on the gods by poets was to be soon replaced and that, like us, the gods enjoyed a larger picture. Agamemnon could have stopped the campaign but he did not. In Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis the king and Menelaus take this latter option into consideration but Aeschylus’ Agamemnon is too proud and, at the same time, too coward for such a gesture. He is too fond of his renown to stop in such a moment:

„How can I just leave this fleet, and let my fellow warriors down?“ [14]
Agamemnon’s doubts take only a second as his decision was obvious to all who know him. He lacks the Bachic frenzy, the temporary insanity that possessed Hercules when he killed his family. The king, after an initial moment of terror, takes a calculated decision for which he cannot be absolved. This is the reason why Aeschylus makes him say, just a few lines after saying the fatidic verse through which he condemned his daughter, that such a desire is natural. He speaks of a right to desire the virgin’s blood. The eternal glory coming from the leading of such a campaign was good enough a reason, in his view, to justify the death of an innocent. Representant of an agonistic society whose expected hell was to receive both just and sinners. Agamemnon is liable to be charmed by glory but that alone does not absolve him. Iphigenia was to die and disappear in the haziness of Hades but he was being offered immortality if only he hurried her on her path. Abraham on the other hand did not strive for immortality or glory but he was promised both by God. He, the pariah, was allured with a destiny he never even dreamt of. His implication seems to be indecisive and still, in the end Abraham and not Agamemnon proves to be the true self-made man because when the time came to confront the world the latter ceded while the former did not. We can say that the king was acting on account of a different code of etiquette, that he could have been accused of cowardice if he decided to retreat but the sacrifice of a son transcends cultural patterns, pertaining to the common human quality.

The human being’s capacity to forget passed errors and troubles, both a curse and a benefaction, does not influence the actions of a divinity that already by the time of Aeschylus was striving towards immutability. Agamemnon’s life was heading, according to Greek mores, to the moment when he was to pay for the mistakes of his ancestors and of his own.  No one doubted, in Homer or Aeschylus’ times, that he was going to pay regardless his disposition at the time of his decision yet his post factum behavior indicates that the punishment was well deserved. Although he had stated that „wisdom comes through suffering“[15] as soon as the moment passes he forgets the grief and returns to the ravishing pride that led his actions, transgressing divine and human laws. His refusal to change even after Iphigenia’s death rendered her sacrifice futile and required its vengeance. Death by the hand of his jealous wife, infuriated by the death of her daughter was yet not enough, the curse continuing even after Agamemnon’s death indicating that without a proper cleansing men cannot reenter social life after anti social acts.

Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, although ostentatious in behavior, is weak. His awareness of this weakness, an issue recurrent in Aeschilean tragedies, is what differentiates him from the Agamemnon of Homer. While in the Iliad he could blame Zeus, as the father of ate, for the mistakes he made under its influence, in the tragedy this possibility is taken from him and he is left alone to face his mistakes. In order to evince through Agamemnon the source of evil in the world Aeschylus denies through the chorus the blame of envy traditionally placed on the Olympians. The endeavor to build a perfect and rational divine world required this cleansing of the gods as they were now placed above the human realm, not in its succession. Along with the gods’ improvement, with the belief in a world of order the distance between the two areas grew, the gods having less and less reasons to intrude in the ordinary, losing their emotivity. Where a less sophisticated society would place greatness, in the strength to remain calm in front of evident dangers a society that inherited both Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian tradition places personal weakness. Apollo recommended self-awareness at Delphi and Christianity transformed introspection in the basis of its ritual system, both acknowledging the importance of this step in individual fulfillment. Agamemnon lacked the strength to recognize his own weaknesses, he let himself be carried along by past mistakes and fell lower and lower to even killing his daughter and losing the eternal glory he craved for.

Upon his returning home, he begins to boast and instead of thanking the gods he declares that he acknowledges their help in conquering Troy, daring to reserve them a secondary role. It was said about him that „he has a very official mind“[16] and this is one of the main differences between him and Abraham. The king lives for appearances while Abraham is used with the public opprobrium. Living in a society where sterility was indicating a curse he breaks from his brethren and their opinion. This is most obvious in his decision to sacrifice his son because with him the integration he craved for so long was going to go away too. The decision is the more difficult since in his new exile he will be alone; Sara will no longer be by his side. He does not seem to think her capable of understanding the new burden that befell them because he does not share with her the divine commandment. Abraham chooses God over the opinion of his brethren and his wife, putting his faith against the odds. He is the solitary individual that feels responsible for those surrounding him and does not stand aside because he is proud but because he thinks it beneficial for his family. In this, he resembles Hector of Troy who felt responsible for his brother, father and city in such a degree that he rejects his wife and goes to his death. Agamemnon was leading for himself; attacks Troy for his glory while Abraham conquers himself to save his family.

Aeschylus underlines Agamemnon’s pride towards the end of the play by placing all that is in Zeus’ care, by stressing the existing order. Unlike Ulysses who was always pious and wise[17] even though constantly maimed, Agamemnon overlooks the warnings of the chorus at his return to Mycenae in order to maintain his monarchic poise. The same self-imposed ostentation prevents him from reacting to Clytemnestra’s veiled threats. The officiousness of her welcoming speech indicated her insincerity but the self-image he was promoting did not allow him to react.  The bipolarity of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon appears clearly in the episode of his triumphal entry. Although he desired an oriental ritual, he refuses it waiting for Clytemnestra to convince him to accept it. The dichotomy between voluntary and involuntary deeds influenced by ate which seems to be the mark of his character in the Iliad justifies E. R. Dodds’ theory on the simplicity of the person in the Homeric age but is not applicable in the age of the tragedians. We enter here the recent scholarship on self and individuation in the Homeric époque, studies which attest that even from that period we can distinguish conscious differentiations between dire acts done due to lack of awareness, ignorance, temporary insanity and a fully aware choice to transgress the divine and civic laws. The conduit considered in the Iliad as athastalie indicates an initial awareness of both the right and the wrong one way to proceed in a certain situation and a voluntary option for the latter. The fact that in the time of Homer heroes had the power to choose between right and wrong does nothing but incriminate even more the way that Agamemnon acted in Aeschylus. By talking about murder instead of sacrifice, Agamemnon incriminates himself. For his own pride he chose:

„to kill my child, the glory of my house,

to stain a father’s hands before the altar

with streams of virgin’s blood“[18].

Meekness and pride. What two other epithets could better describe the nature of the two characters. Both had a sacred duty towards their offspring, duty engrained in the human nature, both overlook it but for different reasons. An old and mocked Abraham was ready to believe the promise of a foreign god up to denying every aspect of his person and, some would say, his humanity. Nevertheless human he does it for the right reason; his faith is unmovable as proven by the three days journey to Moriah. The long road on slow mules would have been an ordeal for anyone in the given conditions, a perfect chance to change one’s mind. Abraham kept on going. With a steady hand he raised the dagger still believing in God’s the initial promise. Beside the obvious parallel to Christ, both being beloved sons, both offered as a sacrifice without having been done anything wrong, Abraham’s gesture indicates his faith in God’s power, in His capacity to even resurrect the dead for since He promised that Isaac will live Abraham believed that he would, he believed the impossible. He did not ask the burden to be taken from him, he did not beg for forgiveness for his innocent son but, we are told, he woke up early in the morning and left to fulfill God’s will and sacrifice himself. On the other hand we have a king descending from Pelops, an Atrid that could take pride in the recovery of his family’s throne and a special authority in his world but that searched new ways to satisfy his desire for glory. In a world where the gods were quick to punish all mistakes he managed to offend both Artemis and Achilles disregarding the consequences. Tested by the gods he manages, due to his pride, to transform the ritual that could have brought the redemption of his house into a whole new curse:

„He undertook an act beyond all daring.

Troubles come, above all, from delusions

inciting men to rash designs, to evil

So Agamemnon steeled his heart

to make his own daughter the sacrifice,

an offering for the Achaean fleet,

so he could prosecute the war

waged to avenge that woman Helen.“[19]

Agamemnon’s renown cannot be denied but even Homer charges it with an ironical valence by making Ulysses present Agamemnon as famous to Polifem the cyclop.[20] Famous, indeed, but more because he was murdered.[21] The negative valence of his fame is even more obvious when contrasted with Achilles’ in the XXIVth book of the Odyssey. Like Ulysses’ companions forced to choose between dying drowned by the divine wrath caused by sacrilege and starving to death,[22] Agamemnon too had to choose.  The compassion we are bound to show to any fellow pushes us to mourn him for having to make such a decision and we might even come to forgive the king, but then we remember Ulysses. If Ulysses would have not existed, or would have not had to face the same choice then Agamemnon would have been excusable. Ulysses chose not to eat Helios’ cattle and undermines our attempt to excuse Agamemnon on account of partaking to a different culture. The same culture indicates to us the right path to choose through a character contemporary to the king of Mycenae. Like Abraham, Ulysses chose to believe against all odds. In virtue of the absurd as Kierkegaard would say following Tertullian because any human reason had long ceased to apply in his relationship with the divine.

As J. T. Hooker pertinently argued, the civilization of the poems is one of glory rather than shame and this is most evident when looked through Christian lenses. Inheritors of both, we are faced with a choice of our own. The violent values of the Iliad retain their attractiveness and the poetry, sending to mores which were deciphered and integrated in Mediterranean philosophy is still actual. What we are following is the common point of the two cultures, the paradox that nurtures the contrasting attitudes of the two characters. The capacity to sacrifice oneself fascinating due to the paradoxical nature of such an act that contravenes with the natural instinct is channeled in two different directions by the heroes of our story. While the Greek king lives for himself and approaches the world as a play where he was given the mail role, ignoring the feelings of the other actors, Abraham transforms himself into a stage on which the others could play. Agamemnon sacrifices everything for himself, he is the personal, the individual par excellence, that moral form of evil that Hegel spoke of while Abraham sacrifices himself not for everything because that would have placed him next to Agamemnon but for little, for faith.

His deed contravenes with the ethical and philosophical tradition because it was not meant for the universal, for the community. It was not meant to appease some angry deity that threatened to destroy the community but to satisfy what seemed as a caprice of a random God. Abraham’s decision to obey may seem exaggerated, after all the world he lived in was full of gods to choose from but he stood by his initial decision to put his faith in the one God that reached out to him. His gratitude and faith, the type of man that he was, led him on that path and he did not falter. This abnegation brings Abraham everything because through it he becomes the father of a new people while Agamemnon, mislead perhaps by the myths he grew up with, believing that he could win against the gods disappears in the fog of Hades and loses his honor for dying not in battle but on the hallway of his palace.  Greek spirituality did not imagine a relation to the divine so personal that would transcend natural laws and came to project morality as their sublime, subjecting the universe to a morality deriving from human reason, making chaos into kosmos and eventually legitimating the sacrifice of one for the benefit of many. Christianity, building on the Jewish tradition, accepted only self-sacrifices as man stood alone in front of a God he was supposed to believe capable of arranging the world around every person. The personal relation to an almighty God allowed people to escape the burden of deciding for others, to sacrifice one for the good of many but asked them to sacrifice themselves, their pride. They were to accept that they lack perspective and put their faith in someone else trusting that if they sacrifice themselves, their desire to know and rule, things will turn out for the best.

The choice between kosmos and olam[23] still stands. The representants of the two systems of relating to the divine and the world that we chose to present are perhaps not the most representative but they are fascinating in their complexity. Agamemnon chose to put his trust in his own strength and died, Abraham denied his instincts and lives on and although our rational nature tells us that Agamemnon in his pragmatism is the more likely example for all of us, we cannot stem the impulse to agree with Kierkegaard:

„When I think of Abraham, I am as though annihilated. I catch sight every moment of that enormous paradox which is the substance of Abraham’s life, every moment I am repelled, and my thought in spite of all its passion cannot get a hairs-breadth further. I strain every muscle to get a view of it-that very instant I am paralyzed“[24].


[1] Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 270-80, http://www.mala.bc.ca/âJohnstoi/aeschylus/aeschylus_agamemnon.htm, 18.02.2007.

[2] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Trans. by Walter Lowrie, Princeton U Press, Princeton NJ, 1974,  p.7.

[3] Johan Galtung, Cultural Violence, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 27, No.3. (Aug., 1990),  pp.291-305.

[4] Walter Burkert,  Griechische Religion in der archaischen und classischen Epoche, Stuttgart, 1977, p. 237  apud Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Artemis and Iphigenia, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 103. (1983), pp. 87-102,  p. 88.

[5] Aeschylus, op.cit., I., pp. 158-63.

[6] Lloyd-Jones, op.cit., p. 101.

[7] Genesis 22, 1-2.

[8] Rom.14, 23.

[9] Theognis, pp. 133-136 apud E. R. Dodds, Grecii şi iraţionalul,  Trans. by Catrinel Pleşu with Intr. by Petru Creţia, ed. Meridiane, Bucharest, 1983, p. 36.

[10] Albin Lesky, Decision and responsibility in the Tragedy of Aeschylus, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 86. (1966), pp. 78-85, p. 80.

[11] The role played by the curse on the outcome of this epissode necessitates a separate study. The dialogue between the queen and the chorus on the subject being very interesting for Aeschylus’ view of guilt and its ereditary nature.

[12] F.R. Earp, Studies in Character: Agamemnon, Greece & Rome, Vol. 19, No. 56. (Jun., 1950), pp. 49-61, p. 50.

[13] Aeschylus, op.cit., pp. 239-40.

[14] Ibidem, pp. 248-9.

[15] Ibidem, p. 295.

[16] Earp, op. cit., p. 51.

[17] Odyssey I, 60-62, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0218, 18.02.2007.

[18] Aeschylus, op. cit., pp. 209-11.

[19] Ibidem, pp. 258-65.

[20] Odyssey IX, pp. 263-4.

[21] S. Douglas Olson, The Stories of Agamemnon in Homer’s Odyssey, Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol.120 (1990),  pp. 57-71, p. 68.

[22] Odyssey II, pp. 350-1.

[23] While Kosmos implied a high degree of order based on a raison the Greeks strived to discover the Jewish olam, maintained its incognoscibility to human beings as a recognition of God’s perspective and man’s lack of it.

[24] Kierkegaard, op. cit.,  p. 68.

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