First produced sometime between 414 and 411 BC, Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris (or more correctly, Iphigenia Among the Taurians) is one of the two surviving plays by the author to feature Iphigenia as the protagonist. Even though it was, by all means, written almost a decade before the other one, it works as a sort of sequel to Iphigenia at Aulis, and it has much in common with Helen and the lost Andromeda: though ostensibly tragedies, these three plays are often described as melodramas or romances by literary scholars and are grouped together under the title “Euripides’ escape plays.” In the prologue of the play, Iphigenia reveals to the audience that she didn’t actually die at Aulis but instead was saved by the goddess Artemis who had taken her to a temple of hers located in today’s Crimea, among the Taurians. It is now the job of Iphigenia to prepare for sacrifice any Greek male who might arrive in the land of the Taurians. After relating to the audience a dream of hers that she interprets as signifying the death of her brother Orestes, Iphigenia enters the temple to prepare libations for Orestes. Ironically, it is at that very moment that Orestes, followed by his faithful friend Pylades, appears on the stage. We learn that just after being saved by Athena from the immediate wrath of the Erinyes, Orestes was assigned by Apollo to bring back to Greece the statue of Artemis—the one, last thing he has to do so that he is left alone for good by the avenging goddesses (who still visit him in his dreams). Soon after, Iphigenia is informed by a messenger that two Greeks have been captured on the shore, and, in line with the customs of the land, Orestes and Pylades are afterward brought before her so that she can prepare them for sacrifice. However, this leads to the brother and sister recognizing each other and results in them planning the theft of Artemis’ statue together. After devising the plan, Iphigenia informs Thoas, the ruler of the Taurians, that one of the Greeks had murdered his mother and that he has now polluted the statue of Artemis by touching it with his blood-stained hands. Iphigenia is allowed to take the statue from the temple and wash it in the sea—but that is, of course, not the only thing she does. As a messenger informs Thoas soon after, Iphigenia has in fact smuggled the statue from the temple for her brother Orestes and now is with him on his ship, attempting to escape. The Taurians prepare to pursue and recapture the siblings, but the goddess Athena suddenly appears and prevents them, predicting a peaceful future for both Iphigenia and Orestes.
Date and Historical Background
Even though this play is generally known in English as Iphigenia in Tauris, this is, in fact, its Latin title which should be properly translated as Iphigenia Among the Taurians. There is no place called Tauris in this tragedy (parallel to Aulis of Iphigenia at Aulis) or anywhere in Ancient Greek literature; in Herodotus, the place where the Taurians live is referred to as Taurica.
Even though there is no external evidence for the date of Iphigenia in Tauris, on the basis of metrical evidence, the play is usually dated to 414–411. Some scholars think that the play served as a model for the later Helen (412), which should all but fix the date of the play to 414. Others think that Helen was produced with Iphigenia in Tauris and the lost Andromeda as part of a tragic trilogy: the plays are, indeed, thematically linked by the subject of escape. However, no evidence—other than conjectures and literary interpretations—exists to support such grouping.
Characters and Setting
• Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, sister of Orestes, and priestess of Artemis
• Orestes, son of Agamemnon, brother of Iphigenia
• Pylades, cousin of Orestes and Iphigenia, a loyal friend of Orestes
• Herdsman, the first messenger
• Thoas, king of the Taurians
• Messenger, servant of Thoas
• Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare, savior of Orestes
• Chorus of Greek captive maidens, temple servants and attendants of Iphigenia
The play is set in front of the temple of Artemis among the Taurians (in what is today the Crimea on the northern coast of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe).
Summary of Iphigenia in Tauris
The prologue of Iphigenia in Tauris, as is almost customary in Euripides, starts with a brief genealogy of the protagonist. After outlining her line of descent from Tantalus through Pelops and Atreus to Agamemnon in just a few verses, Iphigenia tells the story of how she had been “sacrificed” by her father to Artemis “for Helen’s sake.” Namely, believing that he will never be allowed to sail away to Troy by the gods if he doesn’t sacrifice his virgin-daughter—encouraged by the prophet Calchas and helped by Odysseus—Agamemnon lured Iphigenia to Aulis by promising her a marriage to Achilles; instead, soon after arriving, he ordered the Greeks to tie her to the altar. Fortunately, as she was about to be murdered there, Artemis stole Iphigenia and gave the Greeks a deer in exchange; nobody knows that Iphigenia has survived the ordeal and that she was subsequently brought by Artemis among the Taurians, where her duty is to now oversee the ritualistic preparation of human sacrifices in the temple of the goddess. The story of her past is not the reason why, as she says, she “talks to the air”; it is, instead, to find some relief from a dream that visited her the preceding night, which, in her interpretation, had as its object the death of her brother Orestes. “Now I wish to give libations to my brother, though he is absent from me,” says Iphigenia and enters the temple to relate this to her Greek attendants.
In a nice and somewhat unexpected juxtaposition, soon after Iphigenia enters the temple, none other than Orestes and his loyal friend Pylades arrive before it. The two discuss the setting (the “unknown, inhospitable land”) and, before too long, Orestes reveals the reason why the two are here in the first place. Namely, they have been sent on a mission by Apollo to retrieve a statue of his sister Artemis, which is said to have fallen to the temple from heaven; by giving it back to the Athenian land, Orestes can earn some rest from his labors and finally end his torment by the Erinyes (though appeased by Athena, not all of them have abandoned his visions and hallucinations in the meantime). After speculating a bit on their plan of action, Orestes and Pylades decide to return to the seashore to wait for nightfall.
Parodos (Entrance Song)
A Chorus of twelve maidens exits the temple. They identify themselves as Greek captives and attendants to Iphigenia, who comes out of the temple soon after them. They ask her why they are needed and Iphigenia tells them about the supposed death of her brother. While she pours libations in his honor, they all lament Orestes’ fate and the unfortunate end of the house of Agamemnon. Iphigenia joins in with a lament for her own “bloody fate,” that made her “a stranger… in an unfertile home that is hostile to strangers, without marriage, or children, or city, or friends.” Or even gods.
The Chorus interrupts Iphigenia’s lament to inform her that a herdsman has arrived to bring her some new message. “Two young men have come to this land,” he says after being welcomed, “an offering and sacrifice pleasing to the goddess Artemis. Be quick to prepare the purifications and the first offerings.” Iphigenia interrogates the Herdsman about their identity, and he tells her that he knows the name of only one of them (Pylades) because the other, seized by a fit of madness and hallucinating “hell’s dragons,” had called for his help. Afraid and angry, this unnamed youth even drew his sword and rushed like a lion into the midst of the cattle, “thinking in this way to ward off the Furies.” At first too few to face them, in time, the Taurians completed their numbers and overcame the foreigners. “Very well,” replies Iphigenia after hearing out the full story. “You go and bring the strangers here; the holy rites will be my concern.” The herdsman leaves and this gives Iphigenia the chance to carry on with her previous lament, cursing the gods for her fate and for not sending Helen to her shores – for of all the Greeks she is the one most deserving of punishment.
In the first stasimon (second choral song), the Chorus expresses hope that Iphigenia’s wish comes true in the recent future. The only thing better than seeing Helen’s throat cut by the hands of their mistress, they sing, is welcoming some Greek sailor brave enough to put an end to their wretched slavery and take them back to their homes.
Soon after, with tightly bound hands, the two Greek prisoners are brought before Iphigenia. Even though she resolves to be merciless before her attendants, for some reason, she feels an immediate kinship with the foreigners: “Unhappy strangers, where have you come from?” she asks them, lamenting their unknown parents and siblings ahead of time. Orestes thinks there’s no point in him answering anything since he is about to die either way, but when asked “Are you brothers, from one mother?” he does reply with the touching “By friendship, yes; we are not brothers by birth, lady.” However, soon after he unintentionally reveals his hometown as well—and since it is the same as Iphigenia’s—a longer discussion between the two follows, during which Iphigenia enquires about the fates of various Greeks under Troy (Helen, Odysseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra) and finds out that both of her parents are dead, her sister Electra the only one now living in the house.
“And does the dead father's son live at Argos?” she asks worriedly. “He lives, the miserable one, both nowhere and everywhere,” answers Orestes. Relieved to hear that her dreams were false and desperate to contact her brother, Iphigenia comes up with an interesting idea: she offers to spare the life of Orestes if he agrees to take back to Argos a letter supposedly written for her by an earlier victim. Orestes accepts the offer but with one important adjustment: he would be the one to remain and be sacrificed, and Pylades the one to leave and pass on the letter. “It is most shameful for anyone to save himself by hurling his friends' affairs into catastrophe,” Orestes says. “That man is my friend, and I wish him to live, no less than myself.” As Iphigenia goes inside the temple to retrieve the letter, Pylades objects to this new arrangement, but he is eventually convinced by Orestes to accept it. Iphigenia comes back with the tablets that comprise the letter and both she and Pylades swear to respect their parts of the oath: one to save the other, and the other to give the letter to the friend of the maiden’s choice. As soon as this is said and done, Iphigenia gives the letter to Pylades and reveals to him to whom it should be relayed: “Report to Orestes, the son of Agamemnon,” she says, “that the one slain at Aulis sends you this, Iphigenia, who is alive…” “I will not take much time to carry out the oath I swore,” says the overwhelmed and astounded Pylades. “See, Orestes, I bring you a tablet from your sister here, and give it to you.”
Iphigenia doesn’t realize what’s going on immediately, so Orestes has to explicitly reveal himself. “My dearest sister,” he says, embracing her, “with what astonishment and delight I hold you in my unbelieving arms, after learning these marvels!” Reunited against all odds, Iphigenia and Orestes can’t contain their happiness, but their tears of joy quickly give way to tears of sorrow, as the two start jointly lamenting their past losses and sharing their anxieties for the future.
Pylades interrupts the emotional scene with a wake-up call: “We must leave off wailing and turn to other matters: how we shall get the glorious name of safety and leave the foreign land.” Together the three start devising strategies for their escape, not forgetting the original mission of Orestes as well: the theft of the statue of Artemis. They finally settle on this plan: Iphigenia will ask for permission to remove the statue of Artemis from the temple for purification, on the premise that it has been polluted by Orestes’ hands, still stained with his mother’s blood. Because of the same reason, she should probably be allowed to wash Orestes as well in seawater, since she can only sacrifice what’s pure, as the unclean can “frighten what’s sacred.” Once the three are on the seashore, however, they will quickly make for Orestes’ ship and take the prized statue of Artemis with them.
In the second Stasimon, the maidens of the Chorus take up this theme of escape and express their longing to return to Greece so they can visit, once again, the places where they spent their girlhoods.
Wondering whether the first rites have been performed over the strangers, Thoas, the king of the Taurians, arrives before the temple and is amazed to see Iphigenia lifting the statue of Artemis up in her arms and moving it from its pedestal. Iphigenia explains her reasons: the moment the foreigners entered the temple, the statue moved by itself and even closed its eyes to indicate their uncleanliness. Thoas wants to know what kind of sin the Greeks are guilty of and Iphigenia tells him: “They killed their mother together with their swords.” “Apollo!” shrieks he in disgust. “No barbarian would have ever dared this!” Suspecting nothing, Thoas allows the admirably pious Iphigenia to take the strangers and the statue to the seashore and cleanse them all—the former from the pollution, the latter from their sins. As she leaves followed by Orestes and Pylades, Iphigenia instructs Thoas to take as much time as he can to purify Artemis’ temple with fire; in addition, she tells him to send someone to the city to tell the other Taurians to remain indoors so as not to be polluted.
In the third stasimon, the Chorus sings a somewhat unrelated ode in celebration of Artemis’ brother, Apollo, retelling the story of his acquisition of the Delphic oracle from Themis and Gaea’s monstrous children.
Exodos (Exit Song)
One of Thoas’ servants arrives before the temple to relay some urgent news to the king: “the girl who presided at this altar,” he says hurriedly, “has left the country with the strangers, and has taken with her the holy statue of the goddess.” The purification was an elaborate ruse: the strangers are, in fact, Iphigenia’s brother Orestes, and his dear friend Pylades. The Taurians tried stopping the three, but, though outnumbered, the foreigners eventually prevailed. Fortunately, soon after leaving the harbor, their ship’s progress was halted by stormy winds and driven almost all the way back to the shore. Thoas calls upon the citizens of his land to immediately head there and capture it, but, just a moment later, the goddess Athena appears above him and immediately calms him down: “Where, where are you carrying this pursuit, lord Thoas?” she asks him rhetorically, before explaining that it is for her love that Orestes has escaped with his sister and Artemis’ statue. In addition, she orders him to set free Iphigenia’s attendants as well because they only acted in good will. Thoas, unwilling to disobey the wishes of a goddess, agrees to Athena’s demands. The Chorus rejoices, promising eternal gratitude and reverence to Athena.
A Brief Analysis
Iphigenia in Tauris is one of several late plays by Euripides—Ion, Helen, Orestes being the others—that seem to have been more interesting to scholars in terms of their genre, rather than their content. Because of their light touch, the complexity of their intrigue plots, and their essentially happy endings, these plays are often labeled as romances, romantic tragedies, romantic thrillers, melodramas, tragicomedies, and even comedies (Cecelia A.E. Luschnig). It’s strange to think that a similar evolution can be observed in William Shakespeare as well, not only in relation to the nature of the plots (more mystical and less gory, mercy supplanting justice and leading to happy endings), but also with regard to the themes (salvation and fellowship), the technique (looser metrical patterns) and the type of productions (more spectacle and dream settings); however, it is not an exaggeration to say that Euripides’ late plays have been reassessed anachronistically from the viewpoint of genre, mostly because of a concurrent genre reidentification of Shakespeare’s late plays that started in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The truth is that—proportionately—too few ancient plays have survived to this day (even in the case of Euripides) to make these kinds of judgments. Moreover, in his Poetics, Aristotle suggests a tragic subgenre in which the characters’ fortune goes from bad to good—and, despite a few dissenting voices—Iphigenia in Tauris evidently belongs in this grouping.
Genre aside, Iphigenia in Tauris works not only as a sequel to Euripides’ later play, Iphigenia at Aulis, but also as a sequel to Aeschylus’ Oresteia as well: at the end of the Eumenides, it is clear that not all of the Erinyes acquiesce in the verdict of Athena, and it is because of this that Orestes is sent on another mission by Apollo here. The mission itself offers an interesting brother-sister parallel that Euripides certainly intended: Orestes is sent by Apollo to return his sister Artemis’ sacred image back to Greece, and inadvertently ends up returning his birth sister, Iphigenia, as well. Moreover, Orestes’ mission is to save Apollo’s sister, just as it was Apollo’s to save Orestes during his trial; just as well, Iphigenia was saved by Artemis at Aulis, and now wants to return the favor by saving Artemis from the Taurians. Reciprocal closeness in Iphigenia in Tauris is explored even more in the theme of interhuman connection, whether kinship or friendship: Orestes, Pylades, and Iphigenia—even before the recognition-scene—are willing to risk their lives and reputation for each other, and Orestes even explicitly suggests that him and Pylades are brothers by affection, even if they are not brothers by mother.
Even so, ever the provocateur, Euripides doesn’t shy away from parenthetically undermining parts of this interpretation and subverting some stereotypical interpretations of the world prevalent among the Greeks. Namely, by making Thoas react to the news of one of the captives being a murderer of his mother with the chilling thought that “no barbarian would have ever dared this,” Euripides conceivably attempts to blur the line between the “civilized” and the “barbaric,” and even between “friendship” and “kinship.” True, Thoas presides over a nation that sacrifices foreigners by custom, but even so—to what extent can one be dedicated to their kin if they have murdered the closest by relation?
There are many translations of Iphigenia in Tauris available online, both in verse and in prose; if you are a fan of the latter, you can read E. P. Coleridge’s translation for Loeb Classical Library here. If, however, you prefer poetry, feel free to delve into Arthur S. Way blank verse adaptation here.