Iphigenia’s heroic moment

κλέος γὰρ οὔ σε μὴ λίπῃ
Iphigenia at Aulis, line 1505

When we read anthologized exploits of ancient Greek heroes, the stories typically revolve around male warriors, such that the concept of “heroic exchange” seems to be defined primarily, if not exclusively, in terms of physical skill. Heroes are often portrayed as warriors who excel on the battlefield. More generally, they have exceptional physical strength that they employ in some protective capacity, broadly speaking. Modern definitions of the heroic exchange are typically expressed as some version of this: Heroes risk or give their lives for their people and in turn are honored eternally for their sacrifices.

When a woman does sneak into the mix, it’s usually Atalanta, for her participation in the Calydonian Boar Hunt. Atalanta ranks because what’s prized is aristeia, or “firstness,” via tests of strength. Odysseus, renowned for his cunning rather than physical strength and noted in Homer for being smaller than other heroes, is often mocked and despised. The qualities ancient tradition associates with women (cunning being one) don’t tend to feature in modern definitions of heroism, despite being described in “heroic” terms in ancient literature.

The above quote is an interesting example. The phrase has been translated,
“Your name will live for ever” (Philip Vellacott)
“No fear that fame will e’er desert thee!” (Coleridge)
“Your glory will not die” (W. S. Merwin & George E. Dimock, Jr.)
This sounds like “hero” language. The chorus utters it about the eponymous Iphigenia. The play is about her sacrifice at Aulis.

Earlier in the play, after Iphigenia explains how her sacrifice should be conducted (myth and ritual alert), Achilles marvels, “ὦ λῆμ᾽ ἄριστον” (1421). The four translations I looked at all translate this phrase as either “oh heroic spirit” or “oh noble spirit.” I wonder about this, since the word “λῆμα” means will, desire, or purpose, suggesting an intentionality that’s not conveyed by “spirit” and that very much speaks to heroic endeavors.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, feelings, suggested readings and/or topics, and anything else you’d like to share in the spirit of dialogue in the comments 🙂

9 thoughts on “Iphigenia’s heroic moment

  1. When I saw “May your name live forever” I immediately thought of when King Leonidas told the traitorous hunchback Ephialtes “May you live forever”, to curse him from ever dying a good death. Then I realized that’s why the history of the world is the history of war and battles, to give a person the chance to die a good death and for glory, for protecting their country and family. And also because of the war between Good and Evil that has to be fought. I think that’s why movies like 300 and Gladiator and books written by Homer are so important and beloved.

    1. This is very insightful and moving 🧡 When I think about the many different ancient Greek texts that I’ve read, I see that common thread of being concerned with dying the “right” way or having a “good” death. Thank you for sharing this!

      1. You are more insightful and moving than me, and at least 40 times smarter than me! You are so brilliant that I can’t believe you respond to my comments, you are probably the nicest person who ever lived also! 💙🙂🙏🏻

      2. Oh my goodness. I’m very honored that you take the time to read and comment on my posts, and I appreciate hearing your insights and thoughts!

  2. I loved reading this, and I loved hearing even more about Iphegenia when we talked together. I am so moved by the ending of the story and still thinking about it! Thank you as always for sharing your insights.

    And I’m also so surprised that Odysseus isn’t considered a hero because he’s not known for his physical prowess! I mean, he can shoot an arrow through a whole bunch of axe blades but he still can’t get a break? 🙂 In all seriousness, I do get the difference – and I think many men I know still feel it to some degree today. I know a lot of men who are so amazing and talented in so many ways, but who secretly feel insecure because they don’t have big muscles or don’t do sports. It’s not even somehting they strive for, in particular, but they seem to feel some sort of pressure to be that way. The next time someone says something like that, I might just point out that the awesome, clever Odysseus (okay, he’s not a super nice guy but at least very clever) wasn’t known for being muscular and skilled in combat or anything, either!

    Thanks as always for making me feel a connection to the very distant past….

    1. Thank you, as always, for always giving me something more to think about!
      I’m always a little surprised by how much hate Odysseus gets in the “meme” sphere (ha). But seriously, I do find that there’s an unconscious bias prizing physical strength and “fierceness” over other, “quieter” types of skills and sacrifices.

  3. I have the opposite problem, I’m 6’3” and full of muscles and menacing looking, but inside I’m a soft teddy bear who likes this emoji 🌸🐬💙🥰🌷

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