55. Iphigenia in Tauris, by Euripides (413 BC)

Plot : Orestes is still pursued by some of the Furies despite being exonerated of his mother’s murder by Athena, (see Aeschylus’ last play in the Oresteian saga, The Eumenides)  – under Apollo’s direction, he goes to Tauris with his friend Pylades, to steal the statue of Artemis, to rid himself of his continuing torment. They are captured and taken before the temple priestess for purification before being put to death as sacrifices. The priestess is actually Iphigenia, Orestes’ sister who all the world believes was sacrificed years ago by her father Agamemnon to allow the Greek armies to leave port and sail to Troy, but was saved at the last moment by the goddess Artemis.

Not recognising each other at first, they eventually discover the truth, and now must hatch a plan to escape Tauris with not only their lives, but also the statue in the temple.

My thoughts : As mentioned in an earlier post, I was quite pleased with the idea of this  re-imagining of the fate of Iphigenia, whose sacrifice at the hands of her own father Agamemnon was one of the most despicable acts I have come across in Greek literature (and there are quite a few to choose from). It seems I was not alone in this feeling, as when I searched for a suitable painting to embellish the post, there were dozens to select from.

Several points to raise here

  • Iphigenia, so close to becoming a sacrificial victim herself, is thrown by fate into the role of collaborating in the sacrifice of other innocent victims
  • Her feelings for her father seem to fluctuate between hate and love, as did Orestes’ feelings for his mother. This seems a very natural and realistic reaction beyond the two-dimensional drive for revenge as they could have been presented,
  • Like many tragedies, this play is initially driven by its share of coincidences and misunderstandings, but as in Euripides’ other non-tragedies, the worst is averted and the sympathetic characters finally head towards a happy ending
  • The Chorus tells of how Apollo petitioned Zeus to ensure that mankind’s dreams would not be prophetic and rob of his dues from the Delphic Oracle. (So Iphigenia’s dream at the start of the play foretelling Orestes’ death should immediately be suspect)
  • Athena is a more effective deity to pray to, than either Apollo or Artemis or even Poseidon

Euripides’ final surviving play, Iphigenia at Aulis, returns her to her fate as sacrifice, which we should reach in a month or so.

Favourite lines/passages:

The sacrifice of Iphigenia required to send the Greek forces on their mission to recapture Helen, described as

“Her blood was the unjust ransom for a worthless wife”        Orestes, page 148

And the Chorus, in sympathising with Iphigenia in her belief that Orestes must now be dead, summarises all tragedies in one line

“What God should abhor, God to your hurt pursues”                 The Chorus, page 137

Personal rating : 7

Next : Helen, also by Euripides, and another reboot?! Bit of a lateral thinker, our Euripides : inventor of the parallel universe genre? or simply open to making a quick extra drachma?




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