Saturday, 30 January 2016

Atheism and Atrocity at Aulis

Two ferocious ancient stories asking whether we should believe in gods are set within spitting distance of each other across the turbulent straits of Euripus which divide mainland Greece from the island of Euboea (today pronounced Ä–via).

Death Site of Iphigenia and Aristotle
Drive less than an hour north-east from Athens, to the strand facing the town of Chalkida, and you arrive at the sanctuary of Artemis where Iphigenia was murdered by her father’s soothsayer Calchas. He told the Greeks that Artemis would not otherwise grant a fair wind to their fleet, waiting to sail for Troy. In a searing tragedy by Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, to which a fascinating conference at Nottingham University was this week devoted, there is little doubt left that the goddess’s command had not been verified. Iphigenia died for reasons of political expediency masquerading as piety.

 Such are the Crimes to Which Religion Leads
The superstition-repudiating Latin poet Lucretius uses this story in the great first section of his Epicurean epic On the Nature of Things. After describing the atrocity, he concludes in his resonant line 101, ‘Such are the crimes to which religion leads’ (tantum religio potuit suadere malorum). This memorable hexameter has ever since been quoted by atheists, sceptics, agnostics and humanists all over the world (just google it).

Aristotle's fabricated suicide
And Aristotle, who believed that God was remote and unresponsive to prayer or ritual, died just opposite from Iphigenia, at Chalkida. Early Christians, who needed to cast his human-centred philosophy and matter-based science into disrepute, invented a story that he had been converted to religion at the last minute. They said he had hurled himself into the waves caused by the violent tides at Chalkis because he could not scientifically explain them. [They were not explained until an article by the brilliant Greek astronomer, Dimitrios Eginitis, in 1923]. The Christians said Aristotle's last words were these: ‘If Aristotle can’t grasp the Euripus, let the Euripus take Aristotle’.

Aristotle disapproved of suicide and had been drummed out of Athens on charges of impiety. He almost certainly died of stomach cancer. He would have been appalled by the Christian slander, as by all the far greater crimes subsequently committed in the name of religion.

The only Oscar-Nominated Greek Tragedy
In April I’m visiting this site, where the ancient imagination thrashed out its religious doubts, to relive these sad deaths and take photographs. But in the meantime, I recommend watching Michael Cacoyannis’ dazzling 1976 film of Iphigenia in Aulis on Youtube, and reading both Barry Unsworth’s The Songs of the Kings (2002, an exquisite retelling of the tragedy with clear echoes of the pro-war spin used by Tony Blair’s henchmen), and Tim Whitmarsh’s outstanding new book  Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. There should always be time for an intellectual workout in company with the Greeks on subjects as important as religion.


  1. I never got round to reading that Unsworth though he was a friend as well as a fabulous novelist - this prompts me. Great piece

  2. Thanks Amanda. I had an email correspondence with him about the book, which I thought was superb, and his most poetic by far as well as continuing the interest in slavery from Sacred Hunger. He told me he had become interested in Iphigenia when he saw the Tony Harrison Oresteia at the National Theatre in 1980. I was so sure he was father to a daughter given the extraordinary subtlety of his writing about Agamemnon that I asked him if he had one: he wrote back, simply, "How did you know? I have three". Still makes me cry.

  3. However, Edith, in many versions of the myth, Iphigenia didn't die there, but like Isaac ,was replaced by a sacrificial animal,then taken to the Crimea and went on to marry. I also recall from Euripides that Agamemnon was reluctant to sacrifice her, even when facing rebellion by his troops.

    When you realise that non-believers like Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot massacred millions, pretending your daughter has been sacrificed is surely not the worst crime in the calendar?

  4. Also when it come to sacrificing your offspring, it's odd that L. Junius Brutus is praised for killing his sons for politics alone, suppressing his feelings as in David's famous painting.