Iphigenia: The Cycle Breaker
As a Greek, I know a lot about dysfunctional families. I mean, we Greeks started the idea that drama starts in families and that the roots of how the universe turns out is tied to the intimate relationships that take root in the family drama. Not only that Greek families are full of drama (most families are) but they pass on their dysfunction from one member to another down the centuries.
Look at the House of Atreus. This family gave rise to a whole cycle of plays from at least three different playwrights. A rude decision to sacrifice a child (Agamemnon) led to resentment (Clymenistra) which years later came back as revenge and betrayal (she took a lover while Agamemnon was fighting the Trojan War and she plotted to kill him upon his return, which she faithfully did while he was coming out of his bathtub, one foot on land and other foot on water to fulfill the words of the prophecy). This betrayal sparked another act of revenge (Orestes killed his mother in order to avenge the death of his father) which led to punishment by insanity (Orestes was pursued by the harpies for the greater part of his life). The roots of the family go back to Atreus. He was the nasty king who thought he could fool the gods by inviting them to a banquet where he served them stew made from human flesh, and which flesh of all flesh? The flesh of his own daughter who he had butchered to test the god’s godliness and wisdom. Atreus was condemned to the lowest pit of Hades for his crime against his family and the gods. That was good for him. But his one heinous act had to be paid back in karmic justice for several generations down the line. What the ancients understood about evil acts or sin is that they affect not just the sinner him or herself but their whole family, community, and sometimes their nation. And not just that but that sin carries over through a mighty long course of time shifting from one member to another in families before they finally “get it.” Sin is sticky. One bad sin requires recompense, sometimes in several generation cycles. And not just people, but families, take a long time to evolve and change.
What I love about these Greek dramas is something we know very intimately and innately: that families pass on a karmic justice from one generation to another. Cycles of abuse, madness, betrayal, prejudice, drug and alcohol abuse—they all travel from one generation to the other seemingly without end. What bad habits and ways of thinking you picked up from your parents or your deep ancestors, you carry on. So many good books carry this theme in them, the theme of the family curse that gets passed down. Fences, Holes, Death of a Salesman, Romeo and Juliet. The ancients had a saying, “Let not the sins of the fathers pass onto the sons.” We are doomed to repeat the sins of our fathers (and mothers) until, until—what? Until there appears someone in the family line that puts a stop to the curse. I call this person the course changer. He or she is the one individual who stops the cycle because they learn the collective lesson their family has failed to do up to that point. Most of the time that lesson has to do with self-awareness (“Know thyself”) and forgiveness. The course changer either does something to pay for the price of sin (self-sacrifice) or takes another course of action. In other words, they stop the cycle. They refuse to repeat the sins of their fathers (and mothers). These course changers tend to be wise, self-aware, and courageous.
In the House of Atreus, that course changer was Iphegenia. She was the daughter Agamemnon sacrificed so that the gods could send favorable winds to get his armada of war ships up and going as they had been stranded for ages on the beach, and he was itching to go to war and show off his bravado. Before this, it was her father’s pride, his greatest sin, that hunted down a deer sacred to the goddess Artemis in a sacred grove, and then had the audacity to boast about his catch bragging that he was the better hunter. (Her father was your typical proud, power-hungry, self-centered Greek man still in existence to this day who would sacrifice family for power.) Agamemnon concocts a plot to deceive his wife about his true plan which is to sacrifice Ifigenia to appease the wrath of the goddess. He writes a letter to her to send their daughter as he has arranged a marriage for her with the illustrious warrior Achilles. Clymenestra, not content with marrying her daughter in a slapdash way, comes to Aulis to see her married off the proper way. When she questions Achilles about the intended marriage, innocent he shrugs her off as he has no idea what she is talking about. When he too finds out about the plot, he vows to protect Ifigenia. At this point, however, the Greek army has grown impatient at waiting around for war, so instead of standing up to him, they throw stones on him considering him a traitor to the cause. In a complex interplay of personal intentions clashing with the good of the state, Ifigenia eventually agrees by her own accord to be sacrificed willingly so that the ships can sail. She willingly goes to the pyre. Of course, the goddess takes pity on her and switches her body with a deer at the very last minute, but no one realizes this.
As the story goes , after her mother killed her father who was in turn killed by her brother in revenge to follow the code of conduct, blood-for-blood in those days, except that the revenge also happened to be the most heinous form of murder in those days, matricide, that spiraled Orestes into fits of for decades. In his effort to give peace to his tortured soul, Orestes winds up on the island she was officiating as a priestess of Isis-Artemis. ( As it turned out, the goddess Artemis had taken pity on Ifigenia after all and instead of allowing her to be sacrificed on the pyre, extracted her in the last moment and placed a golden stag in her place.) However, there was a big problem: the cult of the island mandated that any stranger that winds up on its shore should be sacrificed for the goddess’s glory. Ifigenia is in the act of preparing the sacrifice, when something Orestes says reminds her of her family drama. Once she realizes that this is no ordinary stranger, but her very own brother, she chooses to disobey the rule and not sacrifice him. She breaks the big societal and religious code to follow the dictates of her own conscience.
In this radical act of defiance for a good reason, Ifigenia emerges as the true hero of the saga. Instead of following the codes of tradition blindly, as both her father and brother had, she put forgiveness and the “human” thing to do first. She effectively broke the cycle of family member destroying family member. The cycle of violence that families inherit is vicious. It takes one strong person to break it with self-knowledge and forgiveness. But it is through her example that we are given the strength to do the right thing, to break with cycles of dysfunction and liberate ourselves and successive generations from the madness and the destruction of negative patterns and uncritical thinking.
Additionally, this story (told in three cycles of plays) serves as a thematic unit dissecting the consequences of sin, of which hubris (“pride”) is the most lethal. It was because of her father’s sin that Iphigenia had to suffer. It was because of Iphigenia’s murder/sacrifice that triggered the murder of her father by her mother. In turn, it was her brother’s seeking out vengeance on his own mother to pay blood-for-blood that spiralled him into madness. What this story shows is how dysfunction and destruction is bred through our relationships with our closest kin. It shows how utterly inane and insane our seeking to right the wrongs by continuing the wrong is. It shows how sin and negative patterns of thinking and acting are passed down maliciously from generation to generation in families. It shows how pernicious is the price we pay for the wrongs of our parents and family members as it is like the buzzing wings of a fly caught in a spider web whose motion reverberates throughout the entire fabric. But it is a story that speaks to the power of self-sacrifice, honor, dignity, and forgiveness for changing the course of personal and human history.
The psychological truth inherent in these classical plays is timeless because they are so accurate at pinpointing the internal workings of the human heart. Even after thousands and thousands of years, characters like Ifigenia and Orestes, Oedipus and Agamemnon stand out like giants along the stage of human drama and repeat their lines to awaken us to the golden truth that through these masked characters, these figures of a playwright’s imagination, these shadows on the proskenion of consciousness, we might “γνῶθι σαυτόν.”