I don’t remember much about my course in the Classical World from my senior year of college (2004), but apparently it was a good class for writing poetry. Today’s poem was inspired by Greek tragedies and Biblical leaders; the surrounding notes have to do with Greek tragedies and a line about the plays performed during festivals to Dionysus (three tragedies and one satyr play, which were apparently tragicomedies that may have satirized the performed tragedies). The surrounding notes also contain a list of the Top Ten Reasons Agamemnon Had to Die, the top of which is that he sacrificed his own daughter. I suspect the list was actually generated by one of the tag-team professors for that course, which in retrospect makes that class way cooler than I remember it being.

Anyway, today’s poem touches on four people who killed their own children.

Tantalus invited the gods to a feast where he served up his own son for dinner to test their omniscience; he is punished in Tartarus by being chained to a fruit tree above a pool, but both fruit and water recede from him.

Agamemnon was the brother of Menelaus, original husband of Helen before she was taken to Troy. Apparently he angered Artemis for hunting a sacred animal and eventually sacrificed his own daughter to appease her.

Jephthah was one of the judges of Israel, and his story can be found in Judges 11. Right before going to war with an enemy nation, he vowed that if he won, when he returned home he would offer up whoever came out first as a burnt offering. He was successful, but the first person to greet him was his only child, his beloved daughter.

Finally, Abraham was an old man when he had the son through Sarah that God had promised him. Several years later God asked Abraham to take his son up a mountain and sacrifice him. Abraham obeyed, repeatedly telling Isaac that God would provide the lamb. He had the knife raised over his son before God stopped him, indeed providing a ram for sacrifice—foreshadowing Christ’s death for our sins. (This story is in Genesis 22.)


Originally written October 6, 2003

Tantalus’s Grief
I did what I
  thought the gods desired
  and for that
  I am punished.

Agamemnon’s Sacrifice
The gods requested
  the blood of an innocent
  so I slew my own daughter.

Jephthah’s Vow
I made a rash vow
  and when she rejoiced
  for me and my victory
  I was forced to sacrifice her.

Abraham’s Response
My God told me to sacrifice
  my only legitimate heir
  and when I laid him on the altar
My God stayed my hand
  and gave His son instead.

Image source: the Metropolitan Museum of Art