Sunday, March 28, 2021

Orestes and Iphigenia

In Euripides' play, Iphigenia in Tauris, the story takes place after the purported sacrifice of Iphigenia, and after Orestes has killed Clytemnestra and Aegisthus for killing his father, King Agamemnon. Apollo orders Orestes—to escape persecution by the Erinyes (the furies) for killing his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover—to go to Tauris. While in Tauris, Orestes is to carry off the xoanon (carved wooden cult image) of Artemis, which had fallen from heaven, and bring it to Athens. When Orestes arrives at Tauris with Pylades, son of Strophius and intimate friend of Orestes, the pair are immediately captured by the Tauri, who have a custom of sacrificing all Greek strangers to Artemis. Iphigenia, not dead but spared and whisked away by the gods, is the priestess of Artemis, and it is her duty to perform the sacrifice. Iphigenia and Orestes don't recognize each other (Iphigenia thinks her brother is dead—a key point). Iphigenia finds out from Orestes, who is still concealing his identity, that Orestes is alive.

Iphigenia then offers to release Orestes if he will carry home a letter from her to Greece. Orestes refuses to go, but bids Pylades to take the letter while Orestes will honorably stay to be slain. After a conflict of mutual affection, Pylades at last yields, but the letter makes brother and sister recognize each other, and all three escape together, carrying with them the image of Artemis.

Some scholars think Euripedes modified the original myth of Iphigenia's sacrifice to make the story more palatable for audiences and to allow sequels using the same characters. The original version, however, is thought to be the inspiration for the Taurians' sacrifice of bulls and virgins in honor of Artemis.  Rather than sacrificing virgins, the Spartans would whip a male victim in front of a sacred image of Artemis. Iphigenia's sacrifice was most popular in Etruria, especially in Perusia.  In the second and first centuries BCE the Etruscans adorned their cremation urns with scenes from the sacrifice. The most common scene was Iphigenia depicted as a little girl, held over the altar by Odysseus while Agamemnon performs the aparchai. Clytemnestra stands beside Agamemnon and Achilles beside Odysseus and each one begs for the life of Iphigenia. This version is closest to the myth as the Romans told it.


Modern relief of Orestes and Iphigéneia stealing the statue of Diana (Artemis) Taurique in the Diana Room of The Louvre courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Tangopaso.

Roman mosaic of Iphigenia and Orestes from the Horti Maecenatiani found in the area near the auditorium, 2nd - 3rd century CE, that I photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy

Fresco of Iphigenia as a priestess of Artemis in Tauris sets out to greet prisoners, amongst which are her brother Orestes and his friend Pylades, from Pompeii, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, italy, courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen 

Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia, 1766, by Bejamin West, now in the Tate Britain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the Google Art Project.

Roman silver cup depicting Orestes, Iphigeneia and Pylades on the island of Sminthe, may be illustrating a lost play by Sophocles. Silver cup with repoussé decoration, Roman artwork, ca. 20 BCE/CE, Said to be from Asia Minor, now in the British Museum, courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Orestes at Delphi, Paestan red-figured bell-krater, ca. 330 BCE, now in the British Museum, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen

Orestes and Pylades attributed to the Roman Pasiteles School, late Republican Period, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Disdero.

Fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii depicting Iphigeneia carried to the sacrifice (centre) while the seer Calchas (on the right) watches on and Agamemnon (on the left) covers his head in sign of deploration. In the sky, Artemis appears with a hind (deer) which will be substituted for the young girl. This fresco is in an alcove viewable by those approaching or leaving the triclinium. When studying the frescoes of this structure, I proposed that this image is meant to remind the pater familias that sacrificing family for ambition always ends in dire consequences. See my 2014 post, "The House of the Tragic Poet: What's Love Got To Do With It?" at
If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

No comments: