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Sacrifice in Greek Myth

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Essay title: Sacrifice in Greek Myth

It is a well-known fact that the Greeks of old practiced sacrifice. Many believe that they also practiced human sacrifice. However, not many can say to what extent or for what specific purposes where such sacrifices made. Very few historical texts are available depicting the true nature of these sacrifices and whether or not they played a role in the everyday society of ancient Greece. Our best depictions of ancient Greek history can be found in their mythologies. Thus we can only begin to decipher the truth behind these ritualistic sacrifices by first analyzing their mythology. One of the most famous examples of human sacrifice in Greek mythology can be found in the depiction of Iphigenia at Aulis given by Euripides. This paper sets out to compare the role of human sacrifice in Greek myth and its role as depicted by Euripides in Iphigenia at Aulis. The three major points discussed shall be the purpose of sacrifice in Greek myth, those suitable for sacrifice in Greek myth, and the portrayal of sacrifice in Greek myth.

"The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric" (Girard Violence 8).

In essence the sacrifice satisfies this purpose by taking on the role of scapegoat. Such "scapegoating" can take on one of two forms. This is the more mythical and religious. The sacrificial victim is offered as a target for the God's wrath which otherwise would be suffered by the followers. The second, involves the idea of blame, in such a case the community believes that the sacrificial victim is to blame for some unwanted state of affairs. Thus in order to eliminate the cause of the situation they must make the sacrifice.

It is in a state of disaster where the need for sacrifice is most prevalent. A community faced with such a disaster has the tendency to establish a false causal link between its chosen scapegoat and the real or imaginary cause of its trouble (Girard Violent Origins 103). This link however weak is all that is necessary for the sacrificial victim to fulfill the role of scapegoat. Thus, by sacrificing this scapegoat the community is returned to serenity even if the sacrifice in reality has no effect upon the perceived state of affairs.

Iphigenia at Aulis is a wonderful example of the role of sacrifice. First the community is presented with a disaster. The army is unable to sail to Troy due to lack of a favorable wind. In order to quell the disaster Agamemnon is told he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Thus the link is established between the cause of the disaster and the scapegoat. Though the idea of one small girl having any affect on something as grand as the weather may seem completely illogical it is accepted by Agamemnon and more importantly the army. "The scapegoat always appears to be a more powerful agent, a more powerful cause than he really is" (Girard Violent Origins 91). Her murder is believed to appease the deity Artemis and in turn should bring a favorable wind. Though originally the link is established between Iphigenia and the winds, we are never given any reason to believe that now that she has been murdered the winds do come. Thus it can be seen that the only true outcome of Agamemnon murdering his daughter is to satisfy the army in order to save his own life.

According to Rene Girard, in order for any victim to be deemed suitable for sacrifice it must first meet two requirements. The victim must bare a resemblance to the object they replace and the victim must in some way be isolated from society (Violence 11-12). Girard makes no contrast between animals and humans, he believes the two are interchangeable. Though the Greeks may have found it barbaric to practice human sacrifice, its role in myth took on a whole different aspect (O'Bryhim 35). "In Euripides' Electra, Clytemnestra explains that the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia would have been justified if it had been performed to save human lives"(Girard Violence 11). This serves as one example in which a valid human sacrifice is established.

A resemblance must be established in order for the community to accept the victim as a valid replacement. In the case of humans the resemblance is inherent. Since sacrifices are only made in order to benefit a community of humans. If such a requirement were deemed unnecessary the result of such sacrifices would seem somewhat random. For example, would it be logical for one to sacrifice a human in order to save an animal?

Those that would make the sacrifice must also be free of reprisal. This is accomplished by choosing a victim without any solid link to society. This is inherent in animals. No animal can be thought of as fully integrated into society. However, due to the natural tendency of all humans to socialize and assimilate themselves into their surroundings, the number of proper human sacrifices

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