The Iphigenia in Tauris
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Iphigenia in Tauris is a drama by the playwright Euripides, written between 414 BC and 412 BC. The play begins with Iphigenia reflecting on her brother's death. She recounts her "sacrifice" at the hands of Agamemnon, and how she was saved by Artemis and made priestess in this temple.

The Iphigenia in Tauris


Translated by Gilbert Murray

The Iphigenia in Tauris


The Iphigenia in Tauris is not in the modern sense a tragedy; it is a romantic play, beginning in a tragic atmosphere and moving through perils and escapes to a happy end. To the archaeologist the cause of this lies in the ritual on which the play is based. All Greek tragedies that we know have as their nucleus something which the Greeks called an Aition — a cause or origin. They all explain some ritual or observance or commemorate some great event. Nearly all, as a matter of fact, have for this Aition a Tomb Ritual, as, for instance, the Hippolytus has the worship paid by the Trozenian Maidens at that hero’s grave. The use of this Tomb Ritual may well explain both the intense shadow of death that normally hangs over the Greek tragedies, and also perhaps the feeling of the Fatality, which is, rightly or wrongly, supposed to be prominent in them. For if you are actually engaged in commemorating your hero’s funeral, it follows that all through the story, however bright his prospects may seem, you feel that he is bound to die; he cannot escape. A good many tragedies, however, are built not on Tomb Rituals but on other sacred Aitia: on the foundation of a city, like the Aetnae, the ritual of the torch- race, like the Prometheus; on some great legendary succouring of the oppressed, like the Suppliant Women of Aeschylus and Euripides. And the rite on which the Iphigenia is based is essentially one in which a man is brought to the verge of death but just does not die.

The rite is explained in 11. 1450 ff. of the play. On a certain festival at Halae in Attica a human victim was led to the altar of Artemis Tauropolos, touched on the throat with a sword and then set free: very much what happened to Orestes among the Tauri, and exactly what happened to Iphigenia at Aulis. Both legends have doubtless grown out of the same ritual.

Like all the great Greek legends, the Iphigenia myths take many varying forms. They are all of them, in their essence, conjectural restorations, by poets or other ‘wise men,’ of supposed early history. According to the present play, Agamemnon, when just about to sail with all the powers of Greece against Troy, was bound by weather at Aulis. The medicine-man Calchas explained that Artemis demanded the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, who was then at home with her mother, Clytemnestra. Odysseus and Agamemnon sent for the maiden on the pretext that she was to be married to the famous young hero, Achilles; she was brought to Aulis and treacherously slaughtered — or, at least, so people thought.

There is a subject for tragedy there; and it was brilliantly treated in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, which was probably left unfinished at his death. But our play chooses a later moment of the story.

In reality Artemis at the last moment saved Iphigenia, rapt her away from mortal eyes and set her down in the land of the Tauri to be her priestess. (In Tauris is only the Latin for “among the Tauri.”) These Tauri possessed an image of Artemis which had fallen from heaven, and kept up a savage rite of sacrificing to it all strangers who were cast on their shores. Iphigenia, obedient to her goddess, and held by “the spell of the altar,” had to consecrate the victims as they went in to be slain. So far only barbarian strangers had come: she waited half in horror, half in a rage of revenge, for the day when she should have to sacrifice a Greek. The first Greek that came was her own brother, Orestes, who had been sent by Apollo to take the image of Artemis and bear it to Attica, where it should no more be stained with human sacrifice.

If we try to turn from these myths to the historical facts that underlay them, we may conjecture that there were three goddesses of the common Aegean type, worshipped in different places. At Brauron and elsewhere there was Iphigenia (‘Birth-mighty’); at Halae there was the Tauropolos (‘the Bull-rider,’ like Europa, who rode on the horned Moon); among the savage and scarcely known Tauri there was some goddess to whom shipwrecked strangers were sacrificed. Lastly there came in the Olympian Artemis. Now all these goddesses (except possibly the Taurian, of whom we know little) were associated with the Moon and with child-birth, and with rites for sacrificing or redeeming the first-born. Naturally enough, therefore, they were all gradually absorbed by the prevailing worship of Artemis. Tauropolis became an epithet of Artemis, Iphigenia became her priestess and ‘Keybearer.’ And the word ‘Tauropolis,’ which had become obscure, was explained as a reference to the Tauri. The old rude image of Tauropolis had come from the Tauri, and the strange ritual was descended from their bloody rites. So the Taurian goddess must be Artemis too. The tendency of ancient polytheism, when it met with some alien religion, was not to treat the alien gods as entirely new persons, but assuming the real and obvious existence of their own gods, to inquire by what names and with what ritual the strangers worshipped them.

As usual in Euripides, the central character of this play is a woman, and a woman most unsparingly yet lovingly studied. Iphigenia is no mere ‘sympathetic heroine.’ She is a worthy member of her great but sinister house; a haggard and exiled woman, eating out her heart in two conflicting emotions: intense longing for home and all that she had loved in childhood, and bitter self-pitying rage against ‘her murderers.’ The altar of Aulis is constantly in her thoughts. She does not know whether to hate her father, but at least she can with a clear conscience hate all the rest of those implicated, Calchas, Odysseus, Menelaus, and most fiercely, though somewhat unjustly, Helen. All the good women in Euripides go wild at the name of Helen. Iphigenia broods on her wrongs till she can see nothing else; she feels as if she hated all Greeks, and lived only for revenge, for the hope of some day slaughtering Greeks at her altar, as pitilessly as they slaughtered her at Aulis. She knows how horrible this state of mind is, but she is now “turned to stone, and has no pity left in her.” Then the Greeks come; and even before she knows who they really are, the hard shell of her bitterness slowly yields. Her heart goes out to them; she draws Orestes against his will into talk; she insists on pitying him, insists on his pitying her; and eventually determines, come what may, that she will save at least the one stranger that she has talked with most. Presently comes the discovery who the strangers are; and she is at once ready to die with them or for them.

As for the scene in which Iphigenia befools Thoas, my moral feelings may be obtuse, but I certainly cannot feel the slightest compunction or shock at the heavy lying. Which of us would not expect at least as much from his own sister, if it lay with her to save him from the altars of Benin or Ashanti? I suspect that the good people who lament over “the low standard of truthfulness shown by even the most enlightened pagans” have either forgotten the days when they read stories of adventure, or else have not, in reading this scene, realised properly the strain of hairbreadth peril that lies behind the comedy of it. A single slip in Iphigenia’s tissue of desperate improvisations would mean death, and not to herself alone. One feels rather sorry for Thoas, certainly, and he is a very fine fellow in his way; but a person who insists on slaughtering strangers cannot expect those strangers or their friends to treat him with any approach to candour.

The two young men come nearer to mere ideal heroes de roman than any other characters in Euripides. They are surprisingly handsome and brave and unselfish and everything that they should be; and they stand out like heroes against the mob of cowardly little Taurians in the Herdsman’s speech. Yet they have none of the unreality that is usual in such figures. The shadow of madness and guilt hanging over Orestes makes a difference. At his first entrance, when danger is still far off, he is a mass of broken nerves; he depends absolutely on Pylades. In the later scenes, when they are face to face with death, the underlying strength of the son of the Great King asserts itself and makes one understand why, for all his madness, Orestes is the chief, and Pylades only the devoted follower.

Romantic plays with happy endings are almost of necessity inferior in artistic value to true tragedies. Not, one would hope, simply because they end happily; happiness in itself is certainly not less beautiful than grief; but because a tragedy in its great moments can generally afford to be sincere, while romantic plays live in an atmosphere of ingenuity and make-believe. The Iphigenia is not of the same order as The Trojan Women. Yet it is a delightful play; subtle, ever-changing, full of movement and poignancy. The recognition scene became to Aristotle a model of what such a scene should be; and the long passage before it, from the entrance of the two princes onward, seems to me one of the most skilful and fascinating in Greek drama.

And after all the adventure of Euripides is not quite like that of the average romantic writer. It is shot through by reflection, by reality and by sadness. There is a shadow that broods over the Iphigenia, though it is not the shadow of death. It is exile, homesickness. Iphigenia, Orestes, the Women of the Chorus, are all exiles, all away from their heart’s home, among savage people and cruel gods. They wait on the shore while the sea-birds take wing for Hellas, out beyond the barrier of the Dark-Blue Rocks and the great stretches of magical and ‘unfriended’ sea. Nearly all the lyrics are full of sea-light and the clash of waters, and the lyrics are usually the very soul of Euripidean tragedy.

G. M.

Characters of the Play

IPHIGENIA, eldest daughter of Agamemnon, King of Argos; supposed to have been sacrificed by him to Artemis at Aulis.

ORESTES, her brother; pursued by Furies for killing his mother,
Clytemnestra, who had murdered Agamemnon.

PYLADES, Prince of Phocis, friend to Orestes.

THOAS, King of Tauris, a savage country beyond the Symplegades.



CHORUS of Captive Greek Women, handmaids to Iphigenia.


The play was first performed between the years 414 and 412 B.C.

The Iphigenia In Tauris

[The Scene shows a great and barbaric Temple on a desolate sea-coast. An altar is visible stained with blood. There are spoils of slain men hanging from the roof. Iphigenia, in the dress of a Priestess, comes out from the Temple.]


Child of the man of torment and of pride
Tantalid Pelops bore a royal bride
On flying steeds from Pisa. Thence did spring
Atreus: from Atreus, linked king with king,
Menelaus, Agamemnon. His am I
And Clytemnestra’s child: whom cruelly
At Aulis, where the strait of shifting blue
Frets with quick winds, for Helen’s sake he slew,
Or thinks to have slain; such sacrifice he swore
To Artemis on that deep-bosomed shore.
For there Lord Agamemnon, hot with joy
To win for Greece the crown of conquered Troy,
For Menelaus’ sake through all distress
Pursuing Helen’s vanished loveliness,
Gathered his thousand ships from every coast
Of Hellas: when there fell on that great host
Storms and despair of sailing. Then the King
Sought signs of fire, and Calchas answering

Spake thus: “O Lord of Hellas, from this shore
No ship of thine may move for evermore,
Till Artemis receive in gift of blood
Thy child, Iphigenia. Long hath stood
Thy vow, to pay to Her that bringeth light
Whatever birth most fair by day or night
The year should bring. That year thy queen did bear
A child — whom here I name of all most fair.
See that she die.”

So from my mother’s side
By lies Odysseus won me, to be bride
In Aulis to Achilles. When I came,
They took me and above the altar flame
Held, and the sword was swinging to the gash,
When, lo, out of their vision in a flash
Artemis rapt me, leaving in my place
A deer to bleed; and on through a great space
Of shining sky upbore and in this town
Of Tauris the Unfriended set me down;
Where o’er a savage people savagely
King Thoas rules. This is her sanctuary
And I her priestess. Therefore, by the rite
Of worship here, wherein she hath delight —
Though fair in naught but name.... But Artemis
Is near; I speak no further. Mine it is
To consecrate and touch the victim’s hair;
Doings of blood unspoken are the care
Of others, where her inmost chambers lie.
Ah me!
But what dark dreams, thou clear and morning sky,
I have to tell thee, can that bring them ease!
Meseemed in sleep, far over distant seas,
I lay in Argos, and about me slept
My maids: and, lo, the level earth was swept
With quaking like the sea. Out, out I fled,
And, turning, saw the cornice overhead
Reel, and the beams and mighty door-trees down
In blocks of ruin round me overthrown.
One single oaken pillar, so I dreamed,
Stood of my father’s house; and hair, meseemed,
Waved from its head all brown: and suddenly
A human voice it had, and spoke. And I,
Fulfilling this mine office, built on blood
Of unknown men, before that pillar stood,
And washed him clean for death, mine eyes astream
With weeping.

And this way I read my dream.
Orestes is no more: on him did fall
My cleansing drops. — The pillar of the hall
Must be the man first-born; and they, on whom
My cleansing falls, their way is to the tomb.
Therefore to my dead brother will I pour
Such sacrifice, I on this bitter shore
And he beyond great seas, as still I may,
With all those maids whom Thoas bore away
In war from Greece and gave me for mine own.
But wherefore come they not? I must be gone
And wait them in the temple, where I dwell.

[She goes into the Temple.]

Did some one cross the pathway? Guard thee well.

I am watching. Every side I turn mine eye.

(Enter ORESTES and PYLADES. Their dress shows they are travellers ORESTES is shaken and distraught.)

How, brother? And is this the sanctuary
At last, for which we sailed from Argolis?

For sure, Orestes. Seest thou not it is?

The altar, too, where Hellene blood is shed.

How like long hair those blood-stains, tawny red!

And spoils of slaughtered men — there by the thatch.

Aye, first-fruits of the harvest, when they catch
Their strangers! — ‘Tis a place to search with care

[He searches, while ORESTES sits.]

O God, where hast thou brought me? What new snare
Is this? — I slew my mother; I avenged
My father at thy bidding; I have ranged
A homeless world, hunted by shapes of pain,
And circling trod in mine own steps again.
At last I stood once more before thy throne
And cried thee question, what thing should be done
To end these miseries, wherein I reel
Through Hellas, mad, lashed like a burning wheel;
And thou didst bid me seek... what land but this
Of Tauri, where thy sister Artemis
Her altar hath, and seize on that divine
Image which fell, men say, into this shrine
From heaven. This I must seize by chance or plot
Or peril — clearer word was uttered not —
And bear to Attic earth. If this be done,
I should have peace from all my malison.

Lo, I have done thy will. I have pierced the seas
Where no Greek man may live. — Ho, Pylades,
Sole sharer of my quest: hast seen it all?
What can we next? Thou seest this circuit wall
Enormous? Must we climb the public stair,
With all men watching? Shall we seek somewhere
Some lock to pick, some secret bolt or bar —
Of all which we know nothing? Where we are,
If one man mark us, if they see us prize
The gate, or think of entrance anywise,
‘Tis death. — We still have time to fly for home:
Back to the galley quick, ere worse things come!

To fly we dare not, brother. ‘Twere a thing
Not of our custom; and ill work, to bring
God’s word to such reviling. — Let us leave
The temple now, and gather in some cave
Where glooms the cool sea ripple. But not where
The ship lies; men might chance to see her there
And tell some chief; then certain were our doom.
But when the fringed eye of Night be come
Then we must dare, by all ways foul or fine,
To thieve that wondrous Image from its shrine.
Ah, see; far up, between each pair of beams
A hollow one might creep through! Danger gleams
Like sunshine to a brave man’s eyes, and fear
Of what may be is no help anywhere.

Aye; we have never braved these leagues of way
To falter at the end. See, I obey
Thy words. They are ever wise. Let us go mark
Some cavern, to lie hid till fall of dark.
God will not suffer that bad things be stirred
To mar us now, and bring to naught the word
Himself hath spoke. Aye, and no peril brings
Pardon for turning back to sons of kings.

[They go out towards the shore. After they are gone, enter gradually the women]


Peace! Peace upon all who dwell
By the Sister Rocks that clash in the swell
Of the Friendless Seas.

O Child of Leto, thou,
Dictynna mountain-born,
To the cornice gold-inlaid
To the pillared sanctities,
We come in the cold of morn,
We come with virgin brow,
Pure as our oath was sworn,
Handmaids of thine handmaid
Who holdeth the stainless keys,

From Hellas, that once was ours,
We come before thy gate,
From the land of the western seas,
The horses and the towers,
The wells and the garden trees,
And the seats where our fathers sate.

What tidings, ho? With what intent
Hast called me to thy shrine and thee,
O child of him who crossed the sea
To Troy with that great armament,
The thousand prows, the myriad swords?
I come, O child of Atreid Lords.

[IPHIGENIA, followed by ATTENDANTS, comes from the Temple.]

Alas, O maidens mine,
I am filled full of tears:
My heart filled with the beat
Of tears, as of dancing feet,
A lyreless joyless line,
And music meet for the dead.

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