Friday, July 22, 2022

"Iphigenia in Tauris" by Euripides - Have I not seen enough of blood?

I do not have much do say about Iphigenia in Tauris specifically, but it is an exemplar of many tendencies of Euripides in the extraordinary last decade of his life, so I will write a few notes about those.

As for the date – I used 414 BCE – it is a matter of guesswork and affinity, and as I have thought about it I now believe the play was performed in 412 BCE with Helen and the lost Andromeda, but I will defer that idea to when we get to Helen.  Regardless, it belongs somewhere in this period.

Euripides, in his last decade, became interested in plays that were only semi-tragic, or barely tragic at all, what we call in Shakespeare’s context “romances.”  A number of the late Euripides plays resemble the Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline.  They are certainly not classic Aristotelian tragedies, with tragic flaws and hubris and all of that.  I have no idea if the audience thought Euripides was breaking any rules.  Aristotle’s Poetics is still off in the future.

Orestes, still pursued by the Furies despite the events of The Eumenides, is driven to the far eastern side of the Black Sea, where he discovers his sister Iphigenia, now a barbarian priestess who makes human sacrifices to Artemis.  The murder of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon is one of the key crimes of Greek tragedy, but here she was saved by Artemis at the last minute, whisked off to the ends of the earth.  The great crime of Agamemnon that leads to his murder by his wife, and her murder by her son, was a big fake, a divine hoax.  Now, a decade later, we see things put right.  Not everything, but the remaining things, the lost sister melodramatically reunited with her tormented brother.

My understanding is that Euripides did not invent this strange alternative version of the (non-)death of Iphigenia.  Many versions of the old stories were floating around.   I guess I want to wait until I have read a few more before I interpret them too much.  There will be more, soon.  “Have I not seen enough of blood?” asks Orestes (p. 126, tr. Bynner).  Good question.

Euripides is revising the stories of the House of Atreides, The Oresteia and its adjuncts, and the Trojan War more broadly.

It was a wicked war for a wicked woman,

And all the waste that has come from it is wicked.  (145)

That’s Orestes again, and the “wicked woman” is Helen, but let’s see, in four weeks, what Euripides has to say in Helen.

Iphigenia in Tauris, like Heracles and five of the eight last Euripides plays, is among the “alphabetical” plays, which survived by chance in a single manuscript, and which I take as a random survival, although who know what the 11th century Byzantine scribe was thinking.  My idea of what Euripides was doing is radically changed by the randomly surviving plays.  But who knows what I would think if I had a few more randomly chosen plays (or one more random Sophocles play).  I wish I did.  Maybe the scholars X-raying charred scrolls form the lava-buried library of Herculaneum will find one someday.

Speaking of which, I chose as an illustration a mural from Pompeii, with the priestess Iphigenia on the left and that must be Orestes with the harp, one of many interesting images on the play’s Wikipedia page.

Next week is The Birds by Aristophanes, one of the greatest comedies ever written, in my opinion Aristophanes’s best play.  In two weeks, the play is Ion by Euripides, and I mention it early because it is worth tracking down a copy of the 1937 translation by H. D., a masterpiece in its own way, and something different than what most us of have been reading most of the time.


  1. The Bynner translation is pretty great:
    Dreams, lies, lies, dreams, — nothing but emptiness! Even the Gods with all Their name for wisdom Have only dreams and lies and lose Their course, Blinded, confused and ignorant as we.

    The play is simply amazing. It picks up threads from earlier plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus and makes something new from them (e.g. Orestes' attack on the herd while pursued by invisible Furies, echoing Ajax' slaughter of the cattle in Troy). Mostly, it's just so damned human in a way that none of Euripides' contemporaries are (at least those whose plays have survived, anyway). Remarkable.

  2. My understanding is that the Bynner, in an earlier version is a pioneering "modern" - I believe that means "non-Victorian" - translation, so a landmark in its own right.

    The humanness of the play is a paradox because it is so full of gods, but Euripides is now directly changing, or attacking, the idea of what the gods are. We will see the idea develop. The result is some form of humanism.

    Our run of remaining Euripides will be very rich.

  3. I've been doing some reading about the Dionysian festival and Greek sacrificial ritual, and I'm working on a theory (well, pulling together a couple of actual scholars' theories) that the sacrifice of a stud goat in honor of the winning playwright at the conclusion of the festival, and the Greek idea of sacrificial victims generally, were powerful influences on the idea and presentation of tragedy at the festival. One core idea of sacrificial killing was that all of the participants were guilty of the animal's death, but also that the animal itself carried a guilt for defying the gods in one way or another (bulls ritually slaughtered, for example, were first enticed to eat the grain from Zeus' altar, a crime punishable by death; in some sacrifices, she-goats were made to unearth the very knife with which they'd be killed, etc). So there was in Greek ritual an idea that one was inevitably going to commit a crime that the gods would punish by death, and sacrificial killing was a way of elevating the participants to the level of the gods in order to rid the community of the sacrilege being punished. This also implies, subconsciously at least, that the gods were guilty of murder. Euripides, in Iphigenia, is putting the focus on a different sacrificial rite, one where the priest holds the knife against the victim's throat but not killing the victim, an act of sacramental forgiveness. He moves away, at this point in time for whatever reason (tired of Athen's bloody and pointless killing of its neighbors? tired of the Dionysian focus on ritual death to appease capricious gods? who knows), from the idea that every activity is essentially moving forward to an appeasement of the gods through the spilling of our blood, to the possibility of refusing to kill, but refusing in a sacred manner pleasing to the gods. I'll be interested to see if his later plays support that not-quite-formed theory.

  4. It is curious, and perhaps even meaningful, that Euripides wrote the only surviving play that is actually about Dionysus.

    I think your theory is correct but too narrow. The critique is larger than sacrifices. But sacrifices are part of it. Euripides is fascinated by the stories of sacrifices, and what they mean.

    Iphigenia is troubled by the idea of the sacrifice of a Greek - except Helen, if only she could get her hands on Helen! These passages will take an ironic turn when we get to Helen.

  5. This one is delightful - part farce (the continual delaying of the moment Iphigenia and Orestes will recognize each other), part heist (the climactic escape with the Artemis statue), part thoughtful meditation on cycles of violence. Sometimes at the same time - one of my favorite bits was when, in the midst of Iphigenia's long questioning of Orestes, the Chorus butts in with "And what of us unhappy creatures? Are our parents alive or dead? Who can tell?" It's a pointed reminder of the fact that not everybody can get a happy reconciliation - but in context it's also quite funny, since nobody takes any notice of them.

    Other great bits of comedy that came through in Paul Roche's translation: Iphigenia's testy "Please don't interrupt" to Orestes when it dawns on him that he's looking at his sister, and her trying to think of an excuse when Thoas asks why she can't perform her ritual close to the temple: "Yes, but I must be alone... for other tasks."

    There's so much depth to Iphigenia. I loved the moment when, while plotting their escape, Orestes suggests killing the king, to which Iphigenia replies "What? Guests to destroy their host? No... I couldn't do it, though I admire your thoroughness." Very polite, but poignant given her backstory. Another plea for nonviolence in a play full of it. "I refuse to think that any god is evil", she says, and this is one of the few plays that sort of justifies such a belief.

    There's some interesting stuff with gender here, and I'm tempted to read Iphigenia as a queer heroine. Part of that's a bit where she talks to individual chorus members and tells one, "You I shall take to Hellas and you'll share my happiness." But there's also something about her leading the conspiracy with Orestes and Pylades: "three loving friends, all in the same plight" she calls them. And of course her supposed marriage to Achilles was a sham, and now she's working for the virgin goddess. I dunno, maybe I'm forcing it.