The Greek Army at Aulis by Aoki Lee Simmons

The wind was dead, not angry or peaceful, or kind or cruel but dead. The air did not move but hung, hot and heavy, leaving men to gasp for breath in open space. The ships sat low in the glassy water, nothing moved. The waves lapping at the shore like the tongues of thirsty dogs at a trough empty of water. Weak waves, devoid of the aggressive white crests of action. The sound of them rhythmic like the gentle tapping knock of a man’s fist at the door of madness. The land kept her silence, day after day, week after week, month after month. The men started out excited, they grew restless. Like high spirited horses, running in place, raring to go. Then they grew angry, and fell on each other with harsh words and harsher blows. Finally they grew listless, as they waited for the wind.

To everyone else there was a great veil of silence over the port of Aulis, after the moment of raging had passed. But for the son of Atreus, the land practically shrieked. What started as whispers that sounded disturbingly like the wind they all desperately needed, grew to a cacophony of breathy shouts. Like aggressively bickering shades. He took sleeping draughts and drank to excess but they would not quiet. He flew around his tent like a fury banging his head against the door post to free them and still they whispered, shouted and sang inside his head. Finally Agamemnon consulted Calchas, the seer, despite his own vicious dislike of consulting people who were not himself. He demanded a divine answer to this accursed lack of wind. Calchas said the goddess Artemis, withheld the wind. Because, he, King Agamemnon, had killed a deer at the hunt, and to her, these animals were sacred. He had also angered the gods in other ways, but this was the least offensive sounding. One could not publicly call the King an irreverent rapist of virgins. But when Calchas explained how to best please the goddess, Agamemnon threatened his life with bellows heard throughout the camp. Whatever passed between the seer and the King, here is what happened next.

Iphigenia, the young daughter of Agamemnon, was brought to camp to see her father. There was a rumor that she was brought to marry Achilles but it was immediately disproved. She was a small, curly haired child dressed in white. Heavily lashed violet eyes wide at the display of the Achaean armies and ships. As she walked towards her father through a great crowd of gathered soldiers she excitedly pointed out the colors on the ships sails, the points of spears which reflected light, the tallest and most sumptuous tents of Kings. Her bright presence, utterly ignorant of the oppressive tension in the air, felt a bit like wind.

When she reached her father, they embraced. He picked her up and held her, and struggling to speak around the voices in his head, told her to look for dolphins in the sea. As she gazed out towards the water, Agamemnon brought close the knife behind her head.

There was silence in the camp, absolute silence. Uneasy and swollen. Then shock rippled through the army, first the man who had seen the deed turned to the man behind him and told of what he had seen. Then that man to the man behind him, and so on. Until it reached the chariot boys and simple spearmen, at the very edges of the crowd. Word travels fast in an army. Almost as though the Eris flew through the ranks, telling every man to hold his breath. No one knew what to do, even Odysseus stood, below the dais, and watched the blood flow through the King’s fingers, without his usual armour of words. Only a few were close enough to see the girl’s bloody final breaths, the life struggle out of her. Who knows if there would have been outrage? Or acceptance? Or fear? who knows what would have happened, if right then the wind had not begun to blow. A full and lusty wind, out to sea. Strong and cool. The type of wind that swells sails. Lifting the hair of sweating necks. Wind to blow forth 1000 ships to Troy. Agamemnon still stood in silence. Still holding the limp body of his dead daughter. As the cheering began, and chanting, and then the war cry. He still stood, holding the child. He was not mourning his daughter, forgotten in his hands, he was marveling at the silence in his head. Silence, after months of the voices of all the shades in Hades along with every ant in the sand and every crying Greek and Trojan mother and the hoofbeats of the horses of the sun chariot and the shrieking of the furies. As his daughter exhaled her last he heard the dying breath of every man woman and child who would die at Troy, and then silence like he had never known. He was so enraptured he dropped Iphigenia’s body, it rolled down the dais steps and fell with a thud to the ground. Before this could be noticed, Calchas stepped forward and raised his arms, “The Goddess is appeased,” and Odysseus and Nestor lead the silent, marveling King away.

Across the sea Hector woke early, he went to the window and stared long and hard at the shoreline. He had done so every day for hours, every day since Paris had returned with the Spartan Queen. He stared until his vision blurred. There! He saw a ship. No there! In the West! He saw another. Everywhere! He blinked, there was no ship there. His vision often played tricks like this, so often he feared he wouldn’t know when the ships truly came. He blinked once and the horizon teamed with ships, he blinked again and saw only the sea.


Image by Natasha Bershadsky, based on a still frame from Iphigenia (1977), a film by Michael Cacoyannis, with Kostas Kazakos as Agamemnon.