Iphigenia was sacrificed for the Greeks, signifying the beginning of the Trojan War with the launching of Greek ships. Polyxena is Iphigenia's Trojan counterpart. Polyxena, however, was sacrificed in Troy, signifying the end of the war.
Polyxena was the youngest daughter of Priam, king of Troy, and Hecuba.
According to legend, Polyxena went with her brother Troilus to a fountain where he watered his horse. Achilles appeared and slew Troilus. When Achilles caught sight of Polyxena, he fell in love with her.
Hector, Polyxena's brother, was eventually killed by Achilles. In the Aeneid, Aeneas sees Hector's death drawn on a mural in a temple of Carthage.
(I.483) Ter circum iliacos raptaverat
exanimumque auro corpus vendebat Achilles.
|Three times he (Achilles) had dragged Hector around the Trojan walls, and Achilles sold the lifeless body for gold.|
Achilles ransomed the Hector's corpse for its weight in gold. When the Trojan's gold fell short, Polyxena is said to have thrown down her golden bracelets from the towers of Troy (Bell, 377).
Another story says that Polyxena offered herself as a slave to Achilles in return for her brother's lifeless body.
Either way, Polyxena is represented as a loyal sister.
Achilles was apparently so smitten with the young princess that he told Priam that he would try to form a peace between Troy and Greece in return for Polyxena. However, Achilles stated that Helen would have to be returned to the Greeks. Priam refused to give up Helen, but stated that if Achilles could make a peace, he would give him Polyxena.
According to some accounts, Polyxena pretended to love Achilles and therefore learned of his vulnerable heel (Bell, 377).
Polyxena, probably at the prompting of Paris, sent for Achilles and asked him to meet her and Deiophobus, her brother, in the temple of Thymbraean Apollo (Bell, 377). At the temple, she assured Achilles, they would complete the marriage arrangement.
Achilles came and Paris, who had been hiding in the bushes, shot Achilles in his vulnerable heel. Achilles died in the arms of Odysseus, Ajax, and Diomedes, all of whom had followed him to the temple.
Achilles asked Odysseus, Ajax, and Diomedes to sacrifice Polyxena at his tomb after Troy was defeated. It is debatable whether he asked for this sacrifice out of love (in the hopes to marry her in the afterlife) or out of revenge (for he would have known she betrayed him).
In Seneca's play Troades, Helen laments Polyxena's fate:
(942) Polyxene miseranda, quam
cineremque Achilles ante mactari suum,
campo maritus ut sit Elysio, iubet.
|Miserable Polyxena, whom Achilles commands be surrendered to him and to be sacrificed before his own ashes, so that he may be married in the Elysian fields.|
In the Troades, it falls to Helen to retrieve Polyxena for the sacrifice. Just as Iphigenia was taken to be sacrificed under the pretenses that she was going to marry Achilles, Polyxena was taken under the ruse that she was to marry Pyrrhus (Neoptolemus), son of Achilles.
In the Troades, Andromache, ironically, after hearing of Polyxena's future marriage to Pyrrhus, calls upon the Trojan women to "celebrate worthily" as if the marriage were a funeral. Andromache implores them to "let beatings and groans sound" - the sounds of a funeral. Quite eloquently, Andromache says the burning Troy to be the "wedding torch." Andromache, therefore, compares this wedding to the final destruction of Troy.
(892) Pestis exitium lues
utriusque populi, cernis hos tumulos ducum
et nuda totis ossa quae passim iacent
inhumata campis? Haec hymen sparsit tuus.
Tibi fluxit Asiae, fluxit Europae cruor,
cum dimicantes laeta prospiceres viros,
incerta voti. Perge, thalamos appara.
Taedis quid opus eset quidve solemni face?
Quid igne? Thalamis Troia praelucet novis.
Celebrate Pyrrhi, Troades, conubia,
celebrate digne: planctus et gemitus sonet.
|Plague, ruin, infection of two peoples, do you (Helen) see these tombs of leaders and all the bare bones which, scattered, lie unburied on the plains? These your (Helen's) marriage has scattered, for you Asia's blood has flowed, [for you] Europe's blood has flowed, while you, cheerful, viewed your fighting husbands, uncertain of your prayer. Go, prepare the marriage chamber. What need of a pine torch and what [need of] a solemn wedding torch? What [need] of fire? Troy kindles the light for this unusual marriage. Celebrate Pyrrhus' wedding [to Polyxena], Trojan women, celebrate worthily: let beatings and groans sound.|
In the Troades, Agamemnon opposes the sacrifice of Polyxena (much as he, at first, opposed the sacrifice of his own daughter, Iphigenia). The difference between the two, however, is that Iphigenia's death was necessary for the Greek fleets to reach Troy. Polyxena, however, is an innocent maiden. The war is over, and it is a grave which calls for her sacrifice. In the Troades, Agamemnon states:
(287) Regia ut virgo occidat
tumuloque donum detur et cineres riget
et facinus atrox caedis ut thalamos vocent,
non patiar. In me culpa cunctorum redit;
qui non vetat peccare, cum possit, iubet.
|That a royal maiden should be murdered and should be given as a gift to the burial mound, and should moisten the ashes [of Achilles] and that they call the atrocious crime of murder a marriage bed, I will not allow it. In me the whole blame returns; who does not forbid [others] to sin, whenever he is able, he commands [it].|
Hyginus, in Fabulae, agrees with the idea that Polyxena led Achilles into a trap. However, Hyginus asserts that Achilles demanded Polyxena's sacrifice from the grave, and not when he was dying, as the Trojan's were dividng the plunder. Hyginus, then, calls Polyxena "part of the spoils."
In the war, the status of women fell lower than their status during times of peace. Polyxena, then, along with all the other captive Trojan women, were little more than objects to be traded amongst the warriors. They had no real standing, and were, in fact, spoils of war. Interestingly, in the funeral games Achilles organizes for Patroclus, one of the prizes is a woman who is said in the Iliad to be "skilled in much work of her hands, and they rated her at four oxen" (23.702-5; Blundell, 48).
Danai victores cum ab Ilio classem conscenderent et vellent in patriam suam quisque reverti et praedam quisque sibi duceret, ex sepulcro vox Achillis dicitur praedae partem expostulasse.
Itaque Danai Polyxenam Priami filiam, quae virgo fuit formosissima, propter quam Achilles cum eam peteret et ad colloquium venisset ab Alexandro et Deiphobo est occisus, ad sepulcrum eius eam immolaverunt.
When the Greek victors were boarding their fleet from Troy and each wished himself to be returned into his native land and each wished to accumulate plunder for himself, the voice of Achilles, from the grave, is said to have demanded part of the spoils.
And so the Greeks sacrificed at his [Achilles'] tomb Polyxena, daughter of Priam, the maiden who was very beautiful, whom when Achilles was seeking her and had come for the purpose of a conversation, he was murdered by Paris and Deiphobus.
Polyxena was then sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles. Seneca, in his Troades, depicts Polyxena as a strong, valiant maiden, who does not shy away from her doom. This is perhaps a reflection of Seneca's Stoic philosophy. He describes her as even more beautiful than usual as she goes to her death. As she dies, Seneca states that Polyxena does not go quietly, but instead states that she "did not lay down her spirits; She fell so that she would make the earth weigh on Achilles, prone and with an angry attack."
Seneca, however, gives Polyxena's valiant effort a tragic end, stating that "the blood having been shed did not stand or flow on the surface of the earth; the savage mound immediately swallowed and drank all of the blood."
In the Troades, a messenger recounts the death of Polyxena to Andromache:
(1118) Praeceps ut altis cecidit
e muris puer
Nec Troes minus
Terror attonitos tenet
Nec tamen moriens adhuc
Non stetit fusus cruor
Although the boy [Astynax] fell headfirst from the high wall and the Greek crowd mourned because of the crime performed, that same people turned toward another crime and toward the tomb of Achilles. The tomb's surface edge is gently beaten by waves of the Rhoeteum sea; a field surrounds the front and a lofty valley and by means of a slight slope the middle of the tomb is enclosed.
A crowding assembly increases according to the custom of the theater and filled all the shore. Some imagine the fleet's delay to be released by this death, others rejoice that the lineage of the enemy is cut. The larger part of the unreliable crowd hate the crime, and watch.
Nor less do the Trojans crowd their own funeral and trembling with fear they watch the final part of Troy's ruin; when suddenly, as is the custom in marriages, torches proceed and the daughter of Tyndaris [Helen] herself the matron of honor, lowering her sad head, "So may Hermione presently wed" the Trojan's pray, "thus shameful Helen is restored to her husband."
Terror holds both peoples stunned. She [Polyxena] carriers her face lowered in modesty. But however her checks shine and the last beauty is is greater in splendor than usual, as Phoebus' light is typically most radiant when it falls at last, when stars return to their positions and uncertain day is pressed by imminent night.
The entire crowd is stunned, and nearly all praise more things about to pass. Her form's beauty moves these, her tender age [moves] others, the wandering changes of circumstance [moves] still others; her mind, brave and open to death, moves all.
She preceeds Pyrrhus; the judgement of all trembles, they are astonished and show compassion. As soon as he has touched the sublime of the lofty mountain and the youth has stood on the grave of his father put forth on a high-raised summit, the courageous heroine did not turn her step back; she stands having turned toward the blow with a grim and brave countenance.
Such a steadfast soul strikes everyone's judgement and Pyrrhus, slow to kill, is the strange wonder. When his right hand, having been driven, hid the iron deep within, a sudden [stream of] blood broke forth through the monstrous wounds, death having been received.
Although dying, she still did not lay down her spirits; She fell so that she would make the earth weigh on Achilles, prone and with an angry attack.
And each crowd mourned; but the Phrygians sent a timid sigh, the victor moans more loudly. This [is] the order of the sacred ceremony.
The blood having been shed did not stand or flow on the surface of the earth; the savage mound immediately swallowed and drank all of the blood.
Andromache's call for "beatings and groans" comes true, as each crowd mourns Polyxena's death.
Some authors give the fate of Polyxena a romantic twist, stating that her sacrifice was actually her marriage to Achilles and, after her death, Polyxena went to live with Achilles on the White Isle, with his mother, Thetis (Tripp, 9).
Robert Bell adds, however, that she would have shared Achilles with Helen, Iphigenia, Medea, and Deidamia, all of whom also are said to have spent their afterlives with the Greek hero (Bell, 378).
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