a synopsis and analysis of the play by Euripides

This article on Iphigenia in Tauris was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 305-9.

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THE origin of the story which forms the plot of the Iphigenia is of such a remarkable kind, that it deserves to be traced in detail, as an example, not only of the inventiveness of Euripides, but also of the casual and fantastic nature of mythological growth. The history is as follows. Among the Greeks of the prehistoric period the offering of human sacrifices was a custom which apparently prevailed in many places, being closely associated with the worship of Artemis Tauropolus, who was also called Hecate and Iphigenia. With the advance of civilization the practice naturally disappeared. But in some cases, instead of being entirely abolished, it was replaced by certain milder ceremonies, such as the scourging of men with whips, the sprinkling of drops of human blood, or the dedication of the clothes of women who had died in childbirth. These curious reminiscences of the old barbaric rite continued to survive in many parts of Greece, and especially at Halae. At Halae, also, the ancient wooden statue of the goddess remained as an additional memorial.

The same custom of slaying human victims in honour of a maiden goddess was practiced by the Tauri, a people of the Crimea. When, therefore, the Greeks, in the course of their voyages, became acquainted with this nation, it followed almost as a matter of course, owing to the similarity of the names, that they should identify the Taurian goddess with their own Artemis Tauropolus.

So far everything is straightforward. But the peculiar part of the history commences with the introduction of Agamemnon's daughter. The identity of her name, Iphigenia, with one of the names of the goddess, caused her to be associated in various confusing ways with this ancient form of worship. It gave rise to the post-Homeric story that she was herself offered as a sacrifice. It led to the tradition that she became a priestess of Artemis at Brauron, where her tomb was shown. It even caused her to be identified with the goddess. Hesiod, for example, said that she was changed into Hecate; and the Taurians declared that the Iphigenia to whom they sacrificed was no other person than the daughter of Agamemnon.

Such then was the intricate state of the tradition when Euripides began to write his tragedy. By combining and rearranging the tangled threads, and by adding fresh inventions of his own, he has not only produced a striking legend, but also provided himself with one of the finest of his plots. He supposes that the original seat of this barbarous worship was among the Tauri in the Crimea, and that Iphigenia, after her sacrifice at Aulis, was transported thither by Artemis, and became her priestess. He introduces, with daring ingenuity, the fortunes of Orestes, and makes Apollo command, as the price of his purification, that he should sail to the land of the Taurians, gain possession of the statue of Artemis, and convey it to Attica. Orestes accordingly sets out, accompanied by Pylades. On landing at the Crimea they are captured by the inhabitants, and delivered to Iphigenia to be slain on the altar, according to custom. Iphigenia, who has never seen her brother since his childhood, is about to commence the sacrifice, when chance causes the relationship to be discovered. Thereupon they seize the statue, and escape together from the land. Athene then appears, and bids them convey the statue to Halae in Attica, and establish the worship of Artemis Tauropolus at Halae and Brauron. But the human sacrifices are to be discontinued, and milder offerings substituted; and Iphigenia is to become priestess at Brauron, where she will die and be buried. By this ingenious manipulation the three constituent elements of the legend -- the old Greek ceremonies, the Tauric worship, and the traditions about Iphigenia -- are rescued from their previous confusion, and combined into a plausible and connected story, and at the same time the odium of the primitive form of sacrifice is thrown upon the barbarians.

As for the date of the Iphigenia, it should probably be assigned to the same period as the Helena. The high estimation in which it was held among the ancients is proved by the frequent references of Aristotle; and the modern verdict has been no less favourable. This general admiration is justified by the beauty of the play, which is a magnificent picture of devoted friendship and sisterly affection. The celebrated scene in which Iphigenia is about to sacrifice her brother, the fatality which seems perpetually to intervene, just when they are on the very brink of mutual recognition, the long suspense, the various unexpected turns of fortune, and then at length the disclosure of the letter's contents, the revelation of the kinship, and the ecstatic joy of brother and sister, constitute one of the greatest triumphs of dramatic art.

The Iphigenia has given rise to various imitations, of which Goethe's Iphigenia is the most famous; and it is interesting to notice, in the German play, the manner in which the incidents of the legend have been altered and modified, so as to bring them into closer harmony with modern sentiment. In Goethe's version of the story, Thoas, the king of the Taurians, is represented as the lover of Iphigenia, under whose gentle influence he has abandoned the atrocious customs of the country. But being unable to win her affections, he determines to avenge himself by restoring the ancient sacrifices. Orestes and Pylades are taken prisoners, and condemned to be the first victims. Their identity, however, is soon discovered by Iphigenia, who joins with them in devising a plan of escape. But when the plot is ripe for execution, she is seized with compunctions unknown to the Greek heroine, and refuses to deceive the king in spite of his barbarity. Eventually, she discloses to him the whole secret, and then, by the eloquence of her appeals, persuades him to let them all depart. By these alterations the moral significance of the play is in many respects improved, and a more sentimental tone imparted to the plot, after the fashion of the modern drama. But it must be confessed that, as a work of art, Goethe's Iphigenia fall far below the Greek tragedy; and the vagueness of the action, and the dreamy discursiveness of the characters, contrast unfavourably with the precision, lucidity, and rapid movement of the original.

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