the_sacrifice_of_iphigenia

François Perrier’s The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (17th century), depicting Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia.

Much of the concern and criticism of Hillary Clinton stems from the ways in which she deviates from traditional and acceptable American views of what it means to be a woman. Despite her enduring commitment to women’s rights, civil rights and health care, she is seen as untrustworthy and uncaring. She is viewed as identified with Wall Street and the military, as both a perpetrator and a puppet of an establishment that is unconcerned with ordinary people. However, while her moderate middle-of- the-road politics are unappealing to many, few of her positions are in any way more hawkish and tied to Wall Street than those of the Obama administration, and certainly not of previous administrations, none of which suffered from similar condemnation.

From my perspective, Clinton is being held to a set of standards that – while acceptable for men – are unacceptable and even abhorrent in women. The idealized woman in our society is still either the perfect self-sacrificing mother or the sexy sidekick. Clinton and most other successful women have been male-identified, which has been necessary for their success, and is just as frequently a contributing factor to their failures. They are seen both as unwomanly and still less than men. I once heard a man say he could never vote for Clinton because she had a political agenda.

This article examines the damage that occurs in women who are both unable to idealize and to identify with their mothers, and their frequent subsequent identification with their fathers and/or patriarchal values. The Greek myth of Iphigenia will be used to illustrate the concept and impact of the “sacrifice of the feminine.”

Oedipal Theory

In traditional female Oedipal theory, the girl, who has been strongly attached to her mother, discovers to her horror that her mother lacks “male endowments”, or symbolically, is deficient, lacking power. This is reinforced by the lack of powerful role models in society and an educational system that gives token acknowledgment to women’s literature and accomplishments while perpetuating traditionally Eurocentric male figures.1

This discovery, and the subsequent loss of her inability to idealize her mother, is ostensibly the reason for ruptures in the mother-daughter relationship. Freud says “the turning away from the mother is accompanied by hostility; the attachment to the mother ends in hate” and “girls hold their mother responsible for their lack of a penis and do not forgive her.” 2 The daughter feels ashamed, and contempt for her “castrated mother.” Freud believed that this disappointment and contempt allows girls to form heterosexual relationships, since the girl will then turn toward the still-idealized father as a step toward forming heterosexual relationships. However, in doing so, the daughter enters into a rivalrous competition with her mother for her father’s attention.

Although the issue of competition and rivalry with the mother for the father, as described in the theory, could apply to some of the women I have seen in my practice over the last 40 years, none of my patients seemed to want to identify with their mothers. If the daughter became a Daddy’s girl, she became the idealized stand-in for the mother she perceived as a damaged being. Conversely, some mothers were still idealized and seemed too remote, too different from them, for the little girl to identify with.

Shame and contempt for our mothers is not only not a necessary aspect of female development, in my opinion, but is in fact an outcome of the pathologizing and degradation of women in our culture.

Women, as they become more whole, long for “the good mother” experience and seek out relationships with other women. Disturbances in mature adult relationships, for both women and men, can be explained in part as the result of internalizing shame and contempt of the feminine, via the mother, and overvaluing the masculine, via the father and the general culture.

Iphigenia

The myth of Iphigenia as told by Euripides, illustrates one of the consequences of the lack of a strong feminine figure with whom to identify: the sacrifice of the feminine.3

The story takes place on the shores of the Aegean Sea at Aulis, a city sacred to Artemis, the goddess of the moon and the hunt. The king, Agamemnon, is there with his fleet, which is waiting to sail, but there is no wind. Supplies are running low, and the men are restive. They consult the oracle at Delphi, who tells them that a doe, sacred to the goddess Artemis, has been slaughtered by the soldiers, and the goddess, in revenge, has becalmed the fleet. Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, must be sacrificed to Artemis for the winds to return. Then they will be able to sail to Troy, and the city will fall to the Greeks.

jacopo-amigoni-the-sacrifice-of-iphigenia

Jacopo Amigoni Born: 1682, Venice, Italy Died: 1752, Madrid, Spain

The killing of the deer is an offense against the feminine connectedness to all living things.

The punishment that Artemis (who lives outside the patriarchy) imposes is to becalm the fleet. There is no wind, no inspiration, no inflation; symbolically, this is a removal of the masculine force. They are castrated, forced to wait like women. This passivity is intolerable to the troops and their leaders. The oracle’s response – that to restore the winds, Iphigenia must be sacrificed – is another way of stating that to be powerful and effective, there must be a further destruction of feminine consciousness.

Agamemnon is appalled by this directive, but agrees to send for Iphigenia, under the pretext that she is to be married to the great Achilles. He has some misgivings, but a messenger arrives to announce the arrival of Iphigenia with her mother, Clytemnestra. Discovering that the armies are aware of their arrival, Agamemnon gives in to despair, blaming destiny and the mob, which would kill them all if he doesn’t acquiesce with the plan.

Agamemnon’s dilemma is whether to continue to represent the patriarchy or to remain conscious of his feeling function. He assumes that to stay conscious of his feelings will mean his certain death. He cannot allow his feelings, represented by the women, to survive apart from him – to remain in a disassociated state – because he is already aware of them; Iphigenia and Clytemnestra have already arrived. He cannot save them because to do so will remove him from the world of men. If he attempts to separate himself from the patriarchal values, he is in the same position to that world as Clytemnestra is to him – powerless.

Clytemnestra and Iphigenia enter, both joyous and excited, believing this to be Iphigenia’s wedding day. Iphigenia runs to her father, saying, “Mother, don’t be angry if I run from you to be the first to embrace him.” Agamemnon tries to hide his grief, not altogether successfully, and lies to both of them, claiming that his sorrow is at giving his daughter in marriage. Iphigenia goes to rest and Agamemnon attempts and fails to convince Clytemnestra to go home and leave Iphigenia at the camp.

The next scene begins with the entrance of Achilles, who has come seeking Agamemnon. He finds instead Clytemnestra, who confuses him with her greetings and references to his marriage to her daughter. A slave informs them both that he has been used as the lure to bring Iphigenia to Aulis to be sacrificed.

the-sacrifice-of-iphigenia-1646-47-bertholet-flemalle-belgian-1614-1675-oil-on-canvas

Bertholet Flemalle Born: May 23, 1614, Liège, Belgium Died: July 10, 1675, Liège, Belgium

Clytemnestra is horrified; Achilles is affronted that he has been used without his consent. Clytemnestra kneels at his feet, abasing herself, and pleads with him to save her daughter’s life. He says he will defend Iphigenia and his good name, but to preserve his own friendship with the king, he urges Clytemnestra to plead with Agamemnon, cautioning her to “do nothing that would disgrace your fathers.” She is to remain decorous, unemotional, and above all, discreet, not allowing the world to know her grief at her daughter’s fate.

When Iphigenia discovers her fate, she begins pleading for her life. It is perhaps the most poignant moment of the play and one that feels as applicable today as it was 2,300 years ago:

Why should Paris’ coming to Argos

mean that I must die? Look at me. In my eyes.

Kiss me, So that at least I may remember that

when I am dying, if you will not listen to what I say.

In three words I can say it all:

the sweetest thing we ever see is this

daylight. Under the ground there is

nothing.

Only the mad choose to be dead.

The meanest life is better than the most glorious death.

(lines 1660 – 1679)

 

Deeply tormented, Agamemnon, defends his decision by referring to his own powerlessness:

If I disobey the goddess, if I ignore the oracle,

then the army will sail to Argos, they will kill

you and me, and your sisters who are still at

home. I have not become Menelaos’ creature.

I am not guided by him. It is Greece that

compels me to sacrifice you, whatever I wish.

We are in stronger hands than our own.

(lines 1701 – 1710)

Iphigenia now understands the hopelessness of her situation, and although she curses her fate, begins to accept it, saying

Mother, both of you, listen to me.

I see that you are wrong

to be angry with your husband.

It is hard to hold out against the inevitable.

Now, mother, listen to the conclusion

that I have reached. I have made up my mind to die.

I want to come to it with glory, I want to have thrown off

all weak and base thoughts. Mother, look at it

with my eyes. All the people, all the strength of Greece

have turned to me. All those ships, whether they sail,

whether Troy falls, depends on me. I will be the one

to protect our women, in the future …

(lines 1835- 55)

 

Thousands of men have slung shield on shoulder,

thousands have taken hold of the oars when they saw their country wronged.

And each of them will strike and, if need be, die for Greece.

And shall my one life stand in the way of it all?

What answer could I make to those who are ready to die?

There is another thing. It would not be right for this man

to join battle with the whole of the army and die for the sake of a woman.

If it means that one man can see the sunlight

what are the lives of thousands of women in the balance? …

Take me, kill me, and bring down Troy. That will be my monument for ages

to come. That will be my wedding, my children, the meaning of my life.

(lines 1868-90)

 

The story comes rapidly to a close. There is a brief scene between Iphigenia and her mother, with Iphigenia clearly the stronger, giving directives that her mother and sisters should not mourn her, and that her mother should raise her baby brother Orestes “to be a man, for my sake.” She goes off willingly to be slaughtered, leaving her mother behind.

clytemnestra-receiving-the-news-of-iphigenias-sacrifice-1787-francois-gerard-french-1770-1837-oil-on-canvas

Francois Gerard Born: March 12, 1770, Rome, Italy Died: January 11, 1837, Paris, France

What happened inside Iphigenia to change her from the life-embracing instinctual young girl to a self-sacrificing being who justifies – glories in her own death as a monument to Greece?

Iphigenia arrived at her father’s camp with her mother. She turned from her mother and ran to her father, as a transition to her ultimate joining with her husband. What happened inside her during the time she was alone, her time inside the tent, the intrapsychic space? She is initially preparing herself for marriage, for an entry into a different stage of her life and a loss of childhood forever. In Jungian thought, all marriages bring about a “death to the maiden.” It is a symbolic joining with her mother in the role of wife, more even than it represents a joining with her husband. When Iphigenia discovers that there will be no wifehood, no motherhood for her, she fights against her fate.

Classicists say that she stops struggling when she realizes the futility of fighting against the inevitable.4 Her apparent reconciliation with her doom occurs while her mother and Achilles are discussing some blatantly doomed ways of saving her, but her reconciliation really occurs just before, when Agamemnon tells her that he, too, is powerless and cannot save her. This is the point at which she decides to identify with her father’s values, with Greece.

Greece is the only thing worth saving; the masculine ideal is the only thing that appears to have any power. Her mother has no power apart from her husband; her father’s power is dependent on his army and the gods. Even Achilles, the hero, has no power except his ability to die gloriously in a bungling attempt to save her. She doesn’t need him for that; she can enter into the heroic mode by herself. She can identify with the power and the glory that her father represents. She doesn’t have to take on the role of the powerless woman, either as a wife or as a victim futilely protesting her death. She can be a hero, a martyr, a monument; she can protect the women and children and soldiers of Greece with her bold action. She replaces the idealized father, who failed her by revealing himself to be powerless. To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, she became the man she always wanted to marry.

A question remains: where is Clytemnestra? Where is the strong, powerful mother, who could protect her daughter from destruction? Where is the Demeter who would destroy the world to get her daughter back? Where is the mother who would risk any suffering for the sake of one of her children? Where is the protective mother who nurtured her baby? How can any mother allow her daughter to be sacrificed?

Clytemnestra herself had been sacrificed long before. Her marriage to Agamemnon took place by force. In the play, she reminds him

…you married me against my will.

You killed the husband I had, Tantalos.

You ripped from my breast my baby,

still living, you smashed it to the ground.

Then when my brothers, the sons of Zeus, on their shining horses,

bore down on you bringing war, you came on your knees

to my old father Tyndareos, and he saved you.

So you got me for your wife again. I came to love

you. Admit that as your wife I have deserved no

reproach. My demands in love have been modest. I

have done what I could to increase your house

So that you would be glad to come home, and you went out proud

and at peace.

(lines 1541-1558)

 

This is clearly a woman so invested in preserving the patriarchy that she is completely depotentiated. Her own power was sacrificed, first when a young Agamemnon raped her, then when her father gave her to Agamemnon to marry. She, as an undeveloped and unprotected girl, did what Iphigenia later does: she consented to the sacrifice, she identified with the values of the patriarchy, killed off the feeling self to be a “good wife”. Clytemnestra is no daughter of Artemis; she cannot live separate from men. Her only value lies in her connection to a man.

For this reason she could not save her daughter. Since she could not influence her husband, she turned to another man, Achilles (who turned out to be a real heel). He was a particularly bad choice, because he had his own struggles with the patriarchy, looking to it for approval. He didn’t want her to make a scene, so she didn’t. He advised her to appeal again to Agamemnon, so she did. And finally, she turned to her daughter to lead the way.

From Mama’s Girl to Father’s Daughter

Many women don’t identify with women; they look down on men and look down even further on women, although they might not admit it. They see men as babies, incompetent beings, but still see them as having more inherent value than women. They become “the men of the family”; they can be better men than the men they’re associated with. And if they make less money, or are less valued by society as a whole, they still have the consolation of knowing that they can outsmart, out-endure just about any man they know.

The psychic development of women in our culture and our time begins, as in all cultures, with an identification with the mother. For some women this identification continues throughout their lives. They become mothers and wives like their own mothers and grandmothers, in a traditional pattern of behavior. Their development seems to progress from being the child of a mother to being the mother of a child, with the relationship to the man as provider remaining constant. They are the Clytemnestras of the world.

For other women, the identification continues until they begin separating. When Iphigenia runs from her mother to greet her father, she leaves her mother behind and is no longer merged with her. When viewed in relation to the father and to the world, the mother is seen as flawed, defective, and someone to be ashamed of. This information may be acquired directly from the mother if the mother also carries “the shame in the feminine,” that is, if the mother has identified with a devalued mother herself or has identified with her father and devalued her own mother. Thomas Ogden, a renowned psychoanalyst, speaks of certain pathologies as arising from the narcissistic wound incurred “when the mother’s unconscious conception of both herself and her daughter is that of shamefully incomplete human beings.”

When the mother holds an unconscious belief that being a female is to be flawed and shamefully lacking, it would be expected that her daughter would identify with this sense of shame and inner defectiveness, but would also feel narcissistically wounded at her mother’s hands. Under these circumstances, it would be expected that the daughter would be angry and turn to her father to repair the narcissistic injury.

This sense of shame could also be acquired by a daughter who views her traditional mother through the eyes of the culture, or, in Clinton’s case, through the eyes of her father. Hugh Rodham, to whom Clinton rarely refers, reportedly was sarcastic and demeaning to his wife and only daughter, and was authoritarian and strict, arbitrary and relied on physically disciplining his children.5

A daughter raised in such an environment may see her mother waiting on and being subservient to her father or being dependent on her father for her sense of value as well as economic security. Although Clinton clearly admires her mother, who taught her to “stand up to bullies”, her mother failed to intervene when her father would discipline his children by “excessive spanking” and perfectionist demands, as has been reported in various sources describing Clinton’s relationship to her parents.

I remember hearing a young therapist talking about older women. She had tremendous disdain for  the women of her mother’s generation, seeing them as helpless and pitiable. She described being a child watching her mother wait on her father and deciding that she would never be in that role. She would never be subservient to a man; yet, internally, her softer, feeling side was completely subjugated to her goal-driven nature.

She is Iphigenia in her final monologue, disidentified with her passive mother and also disidentified with her father. Instead, her identification is to the ideals he represents. She will be a hero; she will surpass Achilles, since without her sacrifice, Achilles himself would be a nonentity. She is truly the “woman behind the man,” since without her embracing the patriarchal values, the patriarchy would fall apart. Western culture has depended on the support of women for its ideals. It has needed both the Lady

Macbeths and the Nancy Reagans – and, some would say, Hillary Clinton – all supporters of the patriarchy in very different ways, but sacrificing their own feminine consciousness in the process.

The crucial point in the myth of Iphigenia occurs when she decides to identify with Greece. By this identification with the force that will kill her, she attempts to gain control of her death. She herself kills off the young girl she was at this point, ignoring her love for life, her belief that “the sweetest thing we ever see is this daylight,” that “the meanest life is better than the most glorious death.”

This is one of the main adaptations I have seen women make. Rather than being like their powerless and devalued mothers, they identify with and try to surpass their fathers, disregarding the cost to less developed aspects of themselves. The task of therapy has been to keep the young girl – the feeling self — alive and to help her mature to a powerful and conscious adult woman.

Conclusion

Many families where the mother can be viewed as colluding with an abusive father are a reenactment of the Iphigenia complex. The rage that women feel toward their mothers for the lack of protection often exceeds the anger they feel toward their abusers. The rage is fueled by their self-hatred for being victimized and their identification with mothers who failed them so profoundly.

I wrote the first version of this article just before the first Gulf War erupted. As I listened to the Senate hearings, and heard voice after voice testify as to why we couldn’t wait for sanctions to take effect against Iraq, I heard the voices of the restless troops at the edge of the Aegean, demanding action, demanding Iphigenia’s sacrifice. This was repeated with the second Gulf War. True, in war, it is mostly young men who die, but whatever the gender of those sacrificed, it is our feeling function that is killed first. Otherwise, we could never so carelessly send our youth to their deaths, nor inflict the type of pain and suffering that we inflicted on the Iraqi people.

At that time – and subsequently – I heard the same argument Agamemnon voiced: that if we waited, we ourselves would die, this time by a nuclear arsenal rather than by arrows and spears. I cannot say that Agamemnon always speaks falsely; all I know is we have rarely attempted alternative solutions.4

The ancient Greeks lived at a time when the patriarchy was coming into its strength; we live at a time when the failure to incorporate feminine values into our culture may result in our extinction. Part of the contempt that many feel for women leaders, such as Clinton, which they don’t experience toward men who have similar histories and values, is a result of the expectation that women will be protective, will watch out for the poor and disenfranchised, will side with those who do not have privilege. Despite Clinton’s many strong stands and accomplishments in these areas, the ways she is seen to be part of a corrupt establishment, and her association with a compromised and powerful man (like Agamemnon in the myth), destroy her credibility.

In one alternate version of the myth, Iphigenia is replaced by a deer on the sacrificial altar and rescued by Artemis, who takes her to be a priestess at her temple. When the war is lost, she leaves the temple with her brother Orestes, whose life she has saved, and sails with him for Mycenae. By saving Orestes, Iphigenia is returned to the world. This solution, to re-enter the world through the masculine, has been a workable solution for many women. They enter the world of their fathers, leaving their feminine sides in some protected parts of their lives perhaps, and thereby regain their sense of potency. Yet this resolution continues to leave them cut off from their feelings.

I do not think a successful resolution can be achieved without the evolution of a new feminine archetype, or at least the resurrection of some more ancient, fully empowered, feminine archetypes. We cannot all live in a temple to Artemis, separate from men, although some women do make that choice. We cannot feel whole when we remain merged with a powerless mother, nor can we be satisfied to identify solely with patriarchal values, as many have done. We, as women, all need larger-than-life figures who represent a whole and empowered feminine. Connie Zweig, in the book she edited, To Be a Woman (1990), refers to this as the archetype of the conscious feminine.

It is autumn as I write, and I think of another mother-daughter pair. Instead of Clytemnestra and Iphigenia, I think about Demeter and Persephone. After Persephone had been taken to the underworld by Hades, Demeter threatened to destroy the world to save her. She bargained with the pantheon of gods to bring back her daughter for half a year, and agreed to return the earth to life and fertility for half the year in exchange. We cannot avoid our descent into the underworld, nor do we necessarily want to ban all union with our masculine selves, even if it seems to take place in the darkest unconsciousness. Yet without a Demeter, without an equally strong feminine force pulling us up to the light, how bleak and barren our lives would be. To have no access to our powerful and passionate feminine nature is truly a nuclear winter.


1   I am aware that I am describing a nuclear family that is becoming less and less typical. Many children in single-parent or same-sex parent homes, however, still struggle with triadic issues, the conflict being with the mother or the other. The theory I am proposing is culture specific; the difficulties I see for women in identifying with their mothers do not necessarily apply to other times or societies.

2  Freud, 1933, pp. 121-124

3 Euripides was the most recent of the ancient Greeks to write down this story, which comes from a much older oral tradition and has been referred to by several earlier sources.

4 Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two leaders in our time who operated from the feminine principle in their public lives. Modern women leaders, such as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, have mostly been supporters of patriarchal values.

 

Bibliography

Bernstein, Carl: A Woman In Charge. Knopf, 2007

Bolen, Jean Shinoda, Goddesses in Everywoman . San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1974.

Euripedes, Iphigenia at Aulis, translated by W.S. Merwin and George Dimock, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Iphigenia at Taurus, translated by Richard Lattimore. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Freud, Sigmund, New Introductory Lectures, XXXIII :Femininity (1933). Complete Psychological Works of Freud, Standard Edition. New York: Norton, 1976.

Hill, Gareth, Masculine and Feminine: The Natural Flaw of Opposites in the Psyche. Boston : Shambala Publications, 1992.

Jung, Carl G., ed., Man and His Symbols. New York: Doubleday, 1954.

Ogden, Thomas, The Primitive Edge of Experience . Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1989. Perera, Sylvia, Descent to the Goddess. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1981.

Zweig, Connie, ed., To Be a Woman: The Birth of the Conscious Feminine . Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1990.