Child sacrifice and drama (Agamemnon)

It has been a great pleasure to continue to work my way once more through these Greek dramas as part of the Great Books of the Western World reading plan. There is so much here that it is difficult to know where to begin.

One aspect of drama itself that has long interested me is its ties to religious ritual. In ancient Greece, the drama grew out of the worship of the gods. Throughout the classical period, there was an altar in the center of the stage, lest the roots of the drama in worship and sacrifice be forgotten. When drama declined following the collapse of the Roman Empire (though I would aver that it declined long before that), it was largely replaced by Christian liturgy. One can see, for example, evidence of this in the frequent calls of the early medieval Church Fathers to avoid the theater in favor of attendance at the services of the Church’s liturgical cycle — matins and vespers, mass and compline, and so on. And rightfully so, I might add; St. John Chrysostom’s condemnation of the theaters is hardly a form of proto-puritanism. It is, rather, a recognition that the theaters — far from being the place of presentation for great literary achievements — had become showplaces for pornographic nonsense. It’s often forgotten today, but there is an indubitable relationship between concern for the mind and concern for morals (witness, as a case study, Bertrand Russell’s inability to develop a coherent philosophical justification for his general outlook, closely related to his begin a philanderer).

Drama was not to remain dead, however. It, like philosophy, art, music, and the other liberal and fine arts, was merely waiting to be reborn in the high middle ages in a form purified by the crucible of Christian faith. As in ancient Greece, drama grew once again out of ritual. The liturgical worship of the Church gave birth to the mystery and, later, the moral plays of the middle ages and, eventually, formed the trajectory that led to Shakespeare.

Aeschylus’s plays, and the Agamemnon in particular, stand out to me as particularly fascinating exemplars of what seem to be holdovers from primitive Greek ritual. In particular, Agamemnon seems to me almost certainly to feature some remnant of rituals of child-sacrifice. Agamemnon himself, of course, is guilty of sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia. And then there are the other child-murders in his family, such as the famous child-murder and cannibalism in the story of Thyestes. There are some biblical scholars, so I have read, who believe that the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is a sort of dramatization of the Israelite abandonment of child-sacrifice, a practice that remained quite common in the ancient world, including among those peoples who lived around and among the Israelites. The story of Agamemnon seems to be such a moment in the history of the Greeks as well. Of course, infanticide was never abandoned by the Greeks, and it may be argued that this makes them different from the Israelites in an important way, and it does. Yet, it also seems that there was, especially by the Roman period, a certain unease with the practice and a shame that attached to it.

I am reminded here of the arguments of Chesterton in his Everlasting Man, one of which concerns the Roman abhorrence of the Carthaginian practice of infant-immolation. This is, says Chesterton, proof positive that while the Romans worshiped gods, who may be angels or God misunderstood, the Carthaginians worshiped demons. And hence the Roman Empire became, eventually, the vehicle for the destruction of Carthage and, later, the spread of Christianity. If this is so, and I think Chesterton is right, it all begins with the Greeks.


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