“...that I might take due vengeance and make a second Aulis for atonement here...” - Euripides’ Iphigenia at Tauris
Iphigenia waited at the altar, chin lifted, neck bare. A soldier held each of her arms, pulling her body taut, open, but she could still feel herself trembling. She could not bring herself to look into her father’s eyes, though some desperate part of her imagined that, if she did, the knife would clatter down upon the stone and he would take her in his arms and promise her that it was all right. But no - those were childhood fantasies, and now, in this supreme moment of responsibility, she found herself suddenly an adult. No one around her spoke. The knife touched her throat and Iphigenia closed her eyes.
But there was no pain. Only a rich, potent dizziness, and she found she could not feel her legs.
“Look at me, Iphigenia.” The injunction echoed in her mind like prophecy. Iphigenia looked.
The woman who spoke looked barely older than Iphigenia herself, but she was tall and strong and had skin that shone like gold. The statues did not capture her beauty, but it was impossible not to recognize her.
“My lady,” Iphigenia tried to say, but she could not hear the words outside of her head. Perhaps this was how death felt, and the goddess spared her the pain only in a final mercy, recognition of her willing sacrifice. But then where was wingéd Hermes, extending his hand to lead her to the Underworld? All she was aware of was Artemis before her, her presence so vivid and bright that it was greater than all the sea and sand the sky that the world contained. There were shadows upon the goddess’ sharp cheekbones like the dappling of leaves. She was, Iphigenia thought, the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
The goddess laughed, and the sound was vast and blood-speckled, a huntress’ laugh. “You are not dead,” she told Iphigenia, “I am not in the habit of killing pious young virgins. There are few enough of you as it is.”
It was all a trick, a test of her own and her father’s piety. It was cruel, to be sure, malicious, as the gods so often are, but now it had served its purpose and she could go home -
The goddess reached out a hand and stroked Iphigenia’s hair. The touch was almost maternal, almost sisterly, but somehow not quite either. It at once comforted Iphigenia and frightened her. “No, my child,” she said, “you may not go home. I have spared your life, but now it is owed to me. You shall spend it in my service, in the fashion that I dictate.”
All at once, anger rose in her, anger which she did not feel during all the barbed negotiations surrounding her death. She had felt so calm then, clarity pure in her like the hard edge of a knife, cutting through her mother’s sobs and screams, her uncle’s heated accusations of disloyalty. She remembered how cool her skin felt as she stepped forward, knelt at her father’s feet and said, “I will.” That calm was gone now, now that the choice was made and her life spared and the goddess who demanded the sacrifice in the first place stood before her, gentle and commanding, her face as clear and untroubled by guilt as Iphigenia’s own.
“Why?” Iphigenia asked, hearing hubris shrill in her young voice, “I have done nothing against you, or any of the gods. Why me?”
In a single instant, the gentleness vanished, and the goddess seemed fearsome in her beauty, terrible. “Do you question me in my mercy? Daughter of Agamemnon, the gifts of the gods are not to be taken lightly.”
Iphigenia tasted danger like blood upon her tongue, coppery. “I am sorry, my lady,” she begged, placating, and though she could not hear her voice, she knew the goddess could, “I did not expect to live through this day, and I am grateful, truly I am, but only - I will give you whatever honors you wish, I will consecrate myself to you and never marry, but I wish to see my family again - my mother, my sisters, my brother -” the word father hovered on her lips, but she did not speak it, “they will be worried about me, they will wonder what has happened.”
Artemis smiled. “Let them wonder. There is a curse upon your family, Iphigenia, and your sacrifice has been only one piece of it. Consider it this way: by taking you as my own I have removed you from the curse that lies upon the house of Atreus. You need never witness what horrors will there come to pass.”
Iphigenia thought that seeing her father waiting for her at the altar with the sacrificial knife was horror enough, but she did not say so.
“Where will you take me?” she asked. She could hear her voice now, but it sounded small and faint. She still could not see anything but the goddess, could not tell where she was.
“Far, far from Greece,” Artemis told her, “to a temple dearly loved by me. Your duties there, I expect, will shock you deeply, but they will be sacred, and performed in my honor. You shall be the highest among the priestesses, and revered by all. I shall always be with you.”
Iphigenia tasted copper upon her tongue, so strong it almost made her sick. “What duties?” she asked, trying to smooth out the panicked edges of her words as she spoke, “Goddess, I pray you, please let me know what my fate shall be.”
The smallest hint of a smile curved Artemis’ lips. “Do you really wish that I tell you? I thought to give you some time, first, to let you rest, convalesce from this ordeal before laying the weight of your new life upon you. But, if you insist -”
“I want to know,” Iphigenia said, firm, solid.
“You were angry, a moment ago,” Artemis said, almost lightly, almost offhandedly, “it was misdirected anger, aimed at me, your patron and rescuer, but no matter. Find that anger again, Iphigenia. Find it, deep within yourself.” With her brown, narrow fingers, the goddess touched Iphigenia lightly upon the sternum.
Obediently, she focused inward and found a core of fury inside her, warm as an ember beneath Artemis’ fingers. It seemed to gather in her throat like knotted string, tangling up her thoughts. She looked at Artemis and imagined scratching at those forest-shadowed cheeks with her fingernails. The goddess was hardly taller than she.
Again, Artemis smiled. “Good girl. Now, with whom does the guilt for your anger truly rest? Not with me - I am your goddess, inexorable and unfathomable. Who, in their bloodthirst, cried out for your death? Who argued, with smooth, sly rhetoric, the worthlessness of your life? Who held the knife which was to murder you?”
Tears were warm against Iphigenia’s cheeks. She could not speak, could not tell where her anger ended and her sorrow began. The force of her feeling threatened to engulf the world.
“Yes,” Artemis told her, “hold that, keep it deep inside you. I am going to give you revenge, Iphigenia. Revenge on every boorish Greek who thinks the worth of a girl’s life can be weighed against the benefits of a war and found wanting. Your revenge will be as strong and as pitiless as the teeth of a wolf. Your hands will reek with more blood than your father could ever have spilt at my altar.”
Iphigenia did not know what she felt in the intertwining web of heat within her sternum, knew only the goddess hadn’t answered her question, had kept from her some vital detail which would turn these strange, prophetic words crystal and sharp. “Please -” she began to ask, but Artemis touched her lips.
“No more,” she commanded, “not now,” and as the words faded into the air, Iphigenia felt the dizziness overcome her again and she lost consciousness.
When she awoke, she was lying in a bed, and the walls around her were made of soft yellow stone. She tried to move, but her limbs were heavy and did not obey her. There were voices above her bed, but they spoke a language she could not recognize or understand. After some time, a woman who smelled of sandalwood knelt at Iphigenia’s side with a bowl of thin broth, and fed her, slowly and gently. The woman did not attempt to speak to Iphigenia, and so Iphigenia did not attempt to speak to her. She was not sure if sound would have come from her throat if she had tried.
For many days, she was too weak to leave the bed. She was cared for, by the first woman and two others, who did the work tenderly, eyes lowered as if they did not want to embarrass her. Iphigenia assumed that they could not speak Greek until she heard them talking amongst themselves one day - “She cannot be older than thirteen,” one of them said, in a hushed voice.
“Too young,” agreed another, “for this dreadful work.”
“Where am I?” she tried to ask, but, as she had feared, she could make no sound.
She found, during the days that she was bedridden, that she could not stop crying. She did not even know what she was crying about, only that the tears poured from her and seemed to go on forever. The women who tended her did not comment on her tears, but in the tenderness of their touch Iphigenia thought she could feel sympathy.
When she was strong enough, they helped her out her out of bed and into a long, heavy tunic. It felt different upon her body than any she had worn before, but perhaps, she thought, it was only because she was being dressed no longer as a girl, but as a woman. The women who tended her brought her out of the room and showed her the temple in which she now would live. They spoke slowly, as if to a child. When they led her to the inner shrine in which the image of Artemis stood, beautiful and enigmatic, Iphigenia fell to her knees in prayer. It appeared like piety, and perhaps it was, but more than that she took the chance to focus her mind, to say to the goddess who had determined her fate, Let me know your will, let me know what you desire. I am lost here, a stranger. At least stay with me, guide me as you have promised.
When she finally stood, she found she could speak again. “My name is Iphigenia,” she told the women, “I am the daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra, princess of Mycenae. I serve the goddess Artemis. Tell me, if you would, where this temple lies and what my duties shall be within it.” Her voice sounded strong and resonant, unfamiliar to her own ears.
Good, she heard Artemis say within her mind, you have come back to yourself. You will find yourself changed, my dear girl, but for the better. Attend to your duties - as I warned you, they shall be difficult, but, in time you will learn that here, as my priestess, you hold power of which you never could have dreamed in as a princess in Agamemnon’s palace.
It was not that Iphigenia did not see the stains upon the altar, red-brown upon the marble, incriminating, nor that she could not smell the tang of metal in the air, ever-lingering, but only that, in that moment, the goddess’ voice sure and beautiful within her, there was nothing in that shrine but power, and majesty, and worship, and she could believe that Artemis spoke truth, forget everything but the new fate which hung about her like the unaccustomed weight of her chiton. In these unfamiliar walls, farther distant from Mycenae than she ever expected to travel, Iphigenia could find herself, and no one would ever demand her life from her again.