Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides was first performed in 414 BCE. Euripides and the Greeks considered it a tragedy even though these days literary folk like to argue otherwise. But no one dies! There is no blood and keening, no eye gouging! It kind of has a happy ending! What ancient Greeks considered a tragedy is quite different from our modern day definition and it seems completely pointless and silly to waste ink arguing over how to classify this play. But I guess scholars need something to do and it is harmless in the scheme of things.
If you recall your Greek stories, Iphigenia is the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Agamemnon sacrificed her in order bring the winds that would get the Greek fleet to Troy where the dastardly Paris had absconded with Helen, his brother’s wife. That’s Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus, not Paris’s brother, Hector. Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon on his victorious return from Troy ten years later in part as revenge for him murdering her daughter. Orestes, Cly and Agie’s son, eventually shows up and kills his mother and her new husband in revenge for his father’s murder. As punishment for the matricide, the Furies are set loose on Orestes. Well and so.
Iphigenia, however, according to some, was not actually sacrificed. At the last moment Artemis saved her by substituting a pig/lamb/calf (take your pick) and whisked Iphigenia away to her Temple among the Taurians somewhere on the Black Sea (there was never an actual country called Tauris yet the people were called Taurians but I can’t for the life of me find out what their country was called, if it was even real so if you know, please enlighten me). Euripides chooses to go with this version of the story. Obvs.
So for all these years Iphigenia has been the High Priestess in the Temple of Artemis among the Taurians who think that human sacrifice is a pretty awesome thing. They especially like to capture strangers who are driven to shore by the freak tides and dangerous waters around their country and offer them up to Artemis. In spite of the excitement sacrificing humans must be, especially when you yourself were at one time supposed to be a human sacrifice, Iphigenia seems rather bored. She spends quite a lot of time missing Greece and wishing she could go home (she has apparently forgiven her father for his attempted sacrifice of her). If she knew all that had been going on, she might change her mind, but she doesn’t because no one from Greece has set foot on Taurian shores in all the years Iphigenia has been there.
Two young Greeks land their boat on the shore and then hide it and themselves because they don’t know how friendly these barbarians are. On a side note, when you come across anything in ancient Greek stories that talk about barbarians, it usually isn’t referring to specific barbarians (like Conan for instance or even Cohen and Nijel the Destroyer for that matter), but to anyone who is not Greek. The Greeks thought very highly of themselves and if you were not Greek, you were a barbarian which goes a long way towards explaining quite a lot of ancient Greek history.
Anywho, these stealthy Greeks had been sent by Artemis to “recover” something from the Temple, an icon made of wood. They are none other than Orestes and his best bud Pylades. Even though he is on this mission for Artemis he is still also being chased by the Furies. Since Artemis knows that Iphigenia is at this temple and she and Orestes are siblings, one can’t help but think this an elaborate ruse to get them to meet. The pair of icon thieves are captured by Taurian guards even before they get to reconnoiter because Orestes has a crazy Furies moment and starts yelling and waving his arms about on the beach in front of everyone. So much for stealthy.
The Taurians are delighted to have prime Greek humans to sacrifice. They are brought before Iphigenia. No, she does not recognize Orestes because he was just a boy when he was fostered out elsewhere for his own protection. Before getting to the sacrificing bit, Iphigenia starts pumping them for information about what’s been going on in Greece all these years. She realizes pretty soon that these two are actually from her hometown and the more questions she asks, the more evasive Orestes gets. He has no idea he’s talking to his sister. Round and round they go.
Finally in desperation, Iphigenia strikes a deal. She’ll only sacrifice one of them if the other one will carry a message back home for her, letting the family know she is actually alive and hoping that maybe someone will come for her. This bargaining is all carried out without once mentioning family names. But the men agree and then the pair proceed to argue over who is going to be the one sacrificed. Orestes thinks being killed would be pretty okay, it would, after all, rid him of the Furies. Pylades, says no, I love you too much, let me be killed so I can die happy knowing you are still alive even if the Furies are chasing you. After many declarations of love and bickering over whose life is worthier, Orestes gives in and Pylades is thrilled that he gets to die for him.
Since Iphigenia doesn’t know how to read or write, she has to tell Orestes the message for her family at which point Orestes and Pylades gawp at her because they realize who she is. Orestes reveals himself as her brother but Iphigenia makes him prove it which he does by telling her something only a family member would know. Happy reunion scene ensues followed by a what-do-we-do-now conference since Iphigenia is supposed to kill them.
But they work it out as only the children of Agamemnon can. All three escape from Tauris and Orestes and Pylades even get the icon they came for. The king is about to send his navy after the three but Athena appears and tells him that it wouldn’t be prudent. The king knows which side his bread is buttered on, calls off his men, and places a help wanted ad in the local paper for a new High Priestess for the Temple. Meanwhile, Orestes, Pylades and Iphigenia sail off into the sunset.
You can see why scholars are into arguing how to classify this play. It’s also not the most exciting or interesting Euripides play ever. There is lots of longing for home from both Iphigenia and Orestes, and how that homesickness can really drag on a person. The play sets up a scenario where you could really dig into the psychology of longing and exile and the meaning of home, but this being a Greek tragedy, it only flits around the edges, psychology not having been invented yet.
One more thing, it’s really hard to type “Pylades” over and over and not “Pilates.” I’ve never done Pilates but I am sure there are plenty of people in the world who have and wouldn’t mind seeing Pilates sacrificed in the Temple of Artemis. But then that would be an entirely different story.