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The prehistory to Iphigenia on Tauris
The heroine Iphigenia is the daughter of King Agamemnon , the general of the Greek troops in the Trojan War . Homer’s epic Iliad in particular reports on the Trojan War , but also numerous other writings from ancient Greece. So now the entire Greek fleet gathers at Aulis to sail together to Troy to go to war, when suddenly there is a calm. The sailing ships of the Greeks cannot sail without wind. You ask a seer what to do. He replies that the calm is a punishment from the goddess Artemisbecause Agamemnon once made fun of her. He also tells that the wind blows again only when Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess (there are certainly parallels to the biblical story of Abraham, who is supposed to sacrifice Isaac, cf. Gen 22, 1-19 ). Agamemnon thinks he has no other choice and decides to sacrifice his daughter. With a trick he lures Iphigenia, who is still in her native Mycenae , to Aulis: He tells her that none other than the greatest hero of the Greeks, Achilles to take her as a wife. Iphigenia travels from Mycenae to Aulis in joyful anticipation, and instead of a wedding ceremony, there is a sacrifice ceremony there – with herself as the sacrifice! Just as Agamemnon is about to thrust the dagger into his daughter’s breast, the goddess Artemis steps in to save him. Without the Greeks noticing, they ‘rapture’ Iphigenia to Tauris (today one would speak of ‘teleporting’ somewhat casually). Agamemnon thinks his daughter has been sacrificed, the wind begins to blow again and the Greek fleet can set sail, into the Trojan War that will last 10 years and finally, through the ruse of Odysseus with the Trojan horse, with a victory for the Greeks will end.
So Iphigenia is in the Taurerland (presumably today’s Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea), where she serves as Artemis’ priestess. A custom of the Taurians says that every stranger who docks on the banks of the Taurer should be sacrificed to the goddess Artemis. Iphigenia performed this cruel ritual for almost 20 years. She often thinks of her homeland and her family, which she misses (not exactly her father, for whom, for understandable reasons, she does not harbor any very tender thoughts …).
Orestes is pursued by the Erinyes
At the same time, some events take place which lead directly to the beginning of the tragedy of Euripides. The Trojan War is won. Agamemnon returns home to Mycenae. It was there that his wife, Clytemnestra , angry about the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, began an affair with a certain Aegisth. Together the lovers kill the returning Agamemnon. Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (i.e. the brother of Iphigenia), is so angry about this murder of his father that he (a few years later) avenges his father: he kills his mother and her lover. Matricide cannot go unpunished, and so the spirits of revenge now persecute ( Erinyen, see picture) Orestes (a modern, psychoanalytic finding would certainly be able to explain the madness of Orestes without any goddesses of revenge …). The god Apollo announces to Orestes that he will only lose his madness if he travels to Tauris and steals a statue of Artemis from the temple and brings it to Athens. So Orestes and his friend Pylades set off on the long journey to Tauris, where (which of course he does not know) his sister Iphigenia lives and has to sacrifice all strangers (including: all Greeks) …
Plot summary from Iphigenia on Tauris
After this history, it is certainly quickly clear what will happen. Orestes arrives in Tauris (67ff.) And is captured (235ff.). He is now to be sacrificed by his own sister to the goddess Artemis. The siblings do not recognize each other, of course, since Orestes was still an infant 20 years ago when Iphigenia last saw him and, moreover, both siblings believe that the other is dead (467ff.).
So Iphigenia prepares the sacrifice (341 ff.); the viewer or reader’s heart beats … will Iphigenia ignorantly kill her own brother? Will the tragedy really end in such a terribly tragic way, with a sibling?
Iphigenia, who has not heard from her native Greece for a long time, asks the Greek stranger (ie her brother Orestes) about her homeland (481ff.), About Helena, who was the reason for the Trojan War (521ff.); after the wanderings of Odysseus (who has still not returned home) (533-534); after the death of Achilles (535ff.); after Agamemnon, her (and Orestes) father (448ff.); after her mother Clytemnestra (552ff.); after how the mother died (556ff.); and finally after herself, Iphigenia, and what people think of her in Greece (563ff.). She also learns that her brother Orestes, who was believed to be dead, is still alive (567ff.) In this tight dialogue between the two, the plot slowly overturns. Iphigenia feels homesick and wants to have a letter sent home, which Pylades is supposed to deliver. She gives him the letter Anagnorisis of Greek tragedy. The siblings have each other again and are in each other’s arms with tears of joy.
But how are the two (including the statue of Artemis) supposed to flee Tauris? Iphigenia devises a ruse (1031ff.). She tells the Tauride king Thoas that the two victims are tainted with blood guilt and must first be washed clean of it in the sea before they can be sacrificed. And since the two would have touched the statue of Artemis and thus desecrated it, the Artemis statue would also have to be washed in the sea. The plan works, the king lets Iphigenia go to the sea alone with the statue and the two ‘victims’. A little later the king learns from a messenger that everything was just a ruse and that the three were on board a ship and would flee (1284 ff.).
Pallas Athene (*)
King Thoas is about to send his army to catch and punish the three fleeing Greeks when the goddess Athene (1435-1489), the famous Deus-Ex-Machina (or the dea-ex-machina) appears. Athena orders Thoas to keep, since everything follows a divine plan. He obeys and lets the three Greeks sail back to Greece. That is the end of the tragedy – quite un tragically with a happy ending. The Greeks reach Greece, brother and sister are reunited. The Tauride king lives in the conscience that he has fulfilled divine will. Orestes has been freed from his madness … in short: All’s well that ends well.
1. Euripides, by tnarik (Eduardo), via flickr.com. License: CC BY-SA 2.0. Link .
2. Erinia (WABouguereau), from zambomba (Mario), via flickr.com. License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Link .
3. Pallas-Athene-Brunnen – Parliament, by webertho (Thomas Weber), via flickr.com. License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Link .