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During World War II, an entire race of people was decimated as a result of blind adherence to one charismatic ruler; the holocaust has become emblematic of the senseless horror of war and the loss of innocent lives. Perhaps influenced by World War II, the Korean War, and the questioning of complete adherence to authority, whose seeds were just breaking through the glorious façade of the 1950's suburban idyll, Dannie Abse wrote "The Victim of Aulis" in 1951-6. The poem is an accusation against the disastrous effects of blind obedience, particularly as it is manifested in religion and war. Abse anchors his critique within the safely distant realm of Greek mythology; this creates a world with which most readers are familiar and thus transfers his indictment of modern society into the images of the cultural psyche. The poet borrows a scene from Greek mythology depicting the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia to Artemis at the beginning of the Trojan War, which serves as the ultimate expression of the intimate intermingling of war and religion.
The Greek gods were not only intimately involved in the action of the Trojan War, they were also the impetus for the war. Although the overt cause of the war was Paris' abduction of Helen, this act was the result of quarrelling goddesses. The Trojan prince Paris was forced to choose the fairest amongst the goddesses Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena. Each goddess attempted to sway Paris with offerings, and Aphrodite's temptation was Helen; this leads to the war and the immortal alliances that overshadow its mortal activities. The story that the poem implicitly addresses is of the Achaen king Agamemnon and his daughter Iphigenia. The Achaen forces have gathered at Aulis before mounting their attack on Troy when one of Artemis' stags is killed; this, coupled with Agamemnon's boasting of the act, is why "Artemis is offended" (51). In retaliation, the goddess imprisons the troops at Aulis by preventing the wind from powering their fleet. In order to appease the goddess and begin the war, Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter Iphigenia as "the child" who will become "the victim of Aulis." Although Artemis intervenes and makes Iphigenia one of her priestesses, only the goddess knows that Iphigenia escaped death.
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Agamemnon is the most powerful adherent to both the word of god and of war and he offers the highest tribute to both, his daughter. Although Iphigenia is the literal "victim of Aulis," her sacrifice alludes to a greater sacrifice; Aulis is the location where the troops gathered in order to wage war, and Iphigenia is only the first victim to be taken by the resulting atrocities. Through Iphigenia, Abse shows that, as in most historical wars, the real victims are the innocents, the sacrificed women and children. Abse repeatedly and exclusively classifies Iphigenia as "the child" in order to reinforce her purity, and although she is a young woman, she "has not breasts" (62). The role of Artemis as Iphigenia's savior and as the preventor of war augments the characterization of both Iphigenia's and the impending victims' innocence, as Artemis is the goddess of virginity, the ultimate symbol of purity. The poem also shows Iphigenia's complete lack of understanding and involvement in the fate that awaits her; she repeatedly asks "why father?" and on her way to death is "playing with colored beads of spray" (44). The questioning of one man's child becomes the universal cry of innocence as it transcends into the natural world, becoming "the wind howling, why father? why father?" (74). "The child! The child!" of line 22 also becomes all children as the soldiers are inspired to think of their "own daughters/ with clumsy father-pride" (23-4); through this Abse reminds the reader that all who die in war are someone's child.
Although the men bemoan the fate of Iphigenia and allude to their own daughters, they also bow to all higher authorities when they do not attempt to save Iphigenia and attempt to absolve themselves of all guilt. While both the soldiers' passivity on Iphigenia's behest and their active role in the war could place them in collusion with Agamemnon and the other captains, they find absolution in their role of selfless obeyors. They "must obey, being little men" (18) and, consequently, decisive action must be "[left] to the Captains" (20); in this way the sacrificed children of war can become "faceless now/ indistinct as the mingling of voices" (25-6). This transference of responsibility moves up the hierarchical ladder to the divine as "Agamemnon is in religion" (38) and the troops are powerless pawns in the hands of the gods: "we only throw the dice and curse" (11). The blaming of the gods for the acts of men in war is also a theme in the Iliad, which is illuminated by Achilles' comment to the Trojan king Priam after both men have suffered great losses in the war: "this is the fate the Gods have spun for mortal men, that we should live in misery, but they themselves have no sorrows" (24: 525).
By placing the ultimate responsibility for the war and the resulting murderous actions at the feet of the gods, Abse accuses not just the religious followers, but the religion itself. The Trojan War was a divinely inspired expedition, like many other wars and particularly the holocaust. Abse makes the underlying suggestion that religion is the cause of brutal sacrifice, not just here with Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia and of the others who are sacrificed to act out the will of the gods, but extending to the Christian mythologies of Abraham and Isaac and reaching its zenith with Christ. As the ignorant child questions "why father?" as she trustfully follows her father to death, her soldier equivalent questions "why Father" as he trustfully follows his divine father.
Abse, Dannie. "The Victim of Aulis." White Coat, Purple Coat: Collected Poems 1948-1988. New York: Persea Books, 1990. 37-39.
Homer. Iliad. Trans. Martin Hammond. Middlesex: Penguin, 1987.