"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

03 April 2014

Iphigenia Among the Taurians, by Euripides



Iphigenia: If only Zeus had sent a wind
            blowing that Helen who has ruined me
            through the rocky straits of Symplegades,
            and Menelaus too,
            wouldn’t I just have had my revenge on them!
            Paid them back for Aulis with an Aulis here!
I’d punish them for the day
            the Argives hoisted me just like a calf upon the altar,
            my own father the bloody celebrant.
What a memory! I can never shake it off (293).

Orestes: the slaughter of my friend here—
            that I don’t in the least like.
I am the captain of my ship of troubles;
            he came on board just to help me.
It would be unthinkable for me to escape disaster
            by unloading it on to him.
Let’s do it another way:
            give the letter to him to take to Argos,
            just as you desired,
            while I submit to the sacrificial stroke.
For someone to save himself from ruin
            by submitting a friend to slay
            is beyond contempt (301-302).

Chorus: Blest is the man who never
Knew happiness, who nourished
            On sorrows, for he knows
The worst of pain.
            The happy made unhappy
            Feel the leaden weight of living (319).

Iphigenia Among the Taurians is basically a sequel to EuripidesIphigenia at Aulis. However, in the second play Iphigenia is a much different character than in the earlier story. Whereas in Aulis, Iphigenia is a strong and patriotic character who willingly submits herself to be sacrificed, but in the Taurians she is vindictive about being offered as a sacrifice. Of course, between the two plays, over a decade elapses, during which time Iphigenia has been kept as the temple priestess for Artemis in the barbarian land of Taurus. In that capacity, she is required to sacrifice any Greeks who land in Taurus to the goddess. I can see where a decade of human sacrifice—a custom clearly meant to symbolize barbarism—would make a Greek (i.e., the pinnacle of civilization for many Greeks) rather resentful. But Iphigenia is spiteful throughout the opening section of this play.

The other thing I find particularly interesting about this is the focus on sacrifice, which was, of course, an important component of Greek culture—though human sacrifice was largely a remnant of the bad old days by the time of Euripides. But Rene Girard argues that a sacrificial economy provides the fundamental structure of tragedy. His basic point is that tragedy works because there is something wrong in society, and through the (somewhat arbitrary) choice of a sacrificial victim upon whom the blame is settled for all societal problems. When that person is sacrificed it temporarily brings together the entire society. However, Iphigenia Among the Taurians is not a tragedy, it is a romance, which means the sacrificial economy doesn’t actually play out. Instead, what happens is that we see a renunciation of the sacrifice, or (as Slavoj Žižek might say) the ritual of sacrifice is what gets sacrificed. The renunciation of sacrifice turns out to be what Athena (and therefore the gods in general, via that patron deity of Athens) demands, which allows the heroes of the play—Orestes, Iphigenia, and Pylades—to escape the barbarous Taurians, and even recruits the Taurians to allow the Hellenes to go back to Argos.

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