Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.02.37

Poulheria Kyriakou, A Commentary on Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris. UaLG 80.   Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2006.  Pp. 504.  ISBN 978-3-11-019099-1.  $118.95.  

Reviewed by H.-C. Günther, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg im Breisgau (
Word count: 3112 words

IT had been relatively neglected until recently, probably because it used to be viewed as a romantic adventure story with a happy ending, set in an exotic location. The play presents an innovative version of the myth of Iphigeneia's fate after Aulis, and of Orestes' following the matricide, but scholars considered it mainly as a source of information about Athenian cult, especially the Choes festival and the cults of Artemis at Halae and Brauron. This situation changed recently with Cropp's commentary (2000) and Wright's book on Euripides' Escape-Tragedies (2005), which appeared too late for Kyriakou (K.) to take into account. Although there are naturally points of contact among these works, especially concerning the play's generic status and, to a lesser extent, the presentation of the characters, K.'s commentary differs considerably from its recent predecessors both in its scope and its perspective on the play.

The commentary is preceded by an introduction of 50 pp. where K. briefly gives a comprehensive interpretation of the play and its literary, mythological, cultic and historical background with up-to-date-reference to the scholarly literature. Here K. presents a succinct picture of the major aspects of the play because for a more detailed interpretation of single passages of the text K. regularly refers to her commentary, where matters of literary interest are dealt with extensively in discussions of larger sections of the text. Thus her commentary gives both: reliable information on textual, linguistic, and metrical details, building, of course, on her predecessors, whom she endeavors to acknowledge dutifully, and useful and sober remarks on general problems as well. There are occasionally more than one longer essays that precede the detailed commentary, on increasingly smaller subsections of larger units and with corresponding increasing sharpness of focus and detail. The commentary may thus be used by different categories of readers who may wish for different levels of analysis and sophistication. Thus K. has produced a book that will remain an indispensable source of information for every serious student of Euripides' poetry.

In what follows I shall focus more on points of general interest for the understanding of the play than on K.'s comments on matters of detail. Nonetheless, despite the inevitable debt of every commentator to his predecessors, there are many places where K. sheds new light on difficult passages; cf. in particular her remarks on 291b-94, 411-12, 420-21, 468b-71, 538, 576-77, 632-35, 638, 695-97a, 818-19, 852-54, 939, 949-54 (good discussion of aidos), 964-66, 1125-31, 1207-8, 1284-1326, 1321, 1366-68a, 1385b-91a, 1423-26. K. bases her commentary on Diggle's OCT and prints no text, but there are always competent discussions of the textual problems: she aptly defends Diggle's choices e.g. at 203-5a, 258-59 (interpolation that blatantly contradicts other parts of the play), 1264-65, 1477-79 (good additional argument for deleting 1479); there is a sensible discussion of the vexed problems of 1321 (I am inclined to accept Markland's meion). On 208 and 292 K. offers two conjectures of her own that well deserve consideration.

In particular, K.'s comments on the structure of the play, the development of the plot, the staging and performance of the play (for K.' attention to details of staging cf. e.g. her remarks on 1-66, 236-37, 1207-8), as well as its place within Euripides' oeuvre and the literary tradition, are quite detailed and provide welcome new insights. For instance, K. accepts the view of previous scholars that IT was conceived, in part at least, as a response to Aeschylus' Oresteia and in particular to Eumenides, but she argues against the view of Cropp that Iphigeneia's survival exposes the futility of her mother's murder of her father and Orestes' matricide. K. also points out that Euripides' portrayal of the Taurian sacrifices and Thoas' threats to execute the Greek escapees by throwing them off a cliff or impaling them are not influenced by Herodotus' account of Taurian practices (4.103). A good number of such insights are found in the comprehensive introduction.

Second, K. expresses some justified skepticism, based both on archaeological evidence and recent work in classics, about the role of cult in the play, the connections between Athenian religion and tragedy, and their function in the promotion of Athenian civic ideology. Athens and Athenian cult feature quite prominently in IT. This focus is not unique in tragedy, but it becomes noteworthy because of the play's exotic setting and the absence of Athenian characters in it. This prominence notwithstanding, there is little archaeological or literary evidence that the cults mentioned had any relation to their actual Athenian counterparts. This discrepancy, combined with the cumulative evidence from several other plays, may suggest that Euripides invented aetiologies and cults. K. subscribes to this view. She points out, though, that aitia could be invented freely for literary and/or civic purposes in the framework of Greek religion, which lacked sacred texts, fixed dogma and a priestly hierarchy with claims to exclusive, authoritative sacred knowledge.

The invention of rituals and cults cannot be easily accommodated in the explanatory mold of exploring or problematizing polis religion or civic ideology. If Euripides wished to stress the problematic or darker side of the cults of Artemis, there is no conceivable reason why invented cults would serve his purpose better than real ones, especially since he could invent aitia that would suitably highlight the aspects he wished to emphasize. Similarly, the ordeals of Orestes and Iphigeneia have been viewed as models for maturation rites for Athenian boys and girls, which took place at the sanctuaries of Halae and Brauron respectively. It has recently been suggested that the rites in question were not maturation rites at all. K. further argues that the experiences of the siblings can hardly be considered as rites of passage. It is much more plausible that Euripides included the invented aitia and cults as part of his treatment of the myth rather than in order to explore Athenian religion or to foster Athenian civic ideology. The cults may have boosted Athenian pride but they primarily foster the impression that the siblings are rehabilitated. Nevertheless, K. makes the subtle observation that Iphigeneia's failure to return to Argos and to respond to Athena's speech at the end "is the last 'reflection' of Aulis, the last unexpected reversal of expectations . . . in the play" (p. 460). Characters find their certainties reversed throughout the play and at the end the audience partake of this universal uncertainty, which extends beyond the play, because they cannot confirm or correct any view of Iphigeneia's future that they may adopt.

K. views the play as an interesting experiment in Euripides' late work. She suggests that one of the play's main innovations is the lack of emphasis on the siblings' terrible family past, with the notable exceptions of the Aulis sacrifice and Apollo's oracles to Orestes. The internecine crimes of the Pelopids are only alluded to, mentioned briefly, or altogether glossed over. Most strikingly, IT is the only Atreid play that fails to mention Aegisthus and Clytaemestra's adultery. Euripides is so consistent in his suppression of the characters' past that he also fails to mention non-criminal or beneficial events such as Orestes' escape to Phocis and growing up at the house of Strophius, or Pylades' collaboration in Orestes' matricide. K. suggests that Euripides manages, or takes care, both to suppress the past and not to deny explicitly the version of the myth the audience were familiar with, and probably took for granted, from previous literary treatments. Pelops, the only remoter ancestor mentioned repeatedly, is "purged" of any crime. He has been viewed as a model for Iphigeneia and his escape with Hippodameia as a model for the siblings' escape from the Taurian land. K. argues that there is no explicit and meaningful connection between Iphigeneia and Pelops in the play. Moreover, there are obvious differences between the two pairs of escapees, their adversaries Thoas and Oenomaus, their manner of escape, and the amount of violence involved. According to K., the choice of Pelops served a different, double function. Since the poet did not wish to dwell on the criminal family past, there had to be at least one ancestor of the siblings untainted by crime and deceit. The story of Pelops was amenable to such treatment without radical modification of the family past, which would require explanations and add precisely the sort of emphasis the poet apparently wished to avoid.

The playwright's choice to focus much less on the past than in other plays allows him to present two main characters, Iphigeneia and Orestes, relatively unburdened by the corrosive influence of their family history and emotionally sane. This contrasts with the presentation of main characters in other plays of roughly the same period and/or similar plots such as Electra, Ion, Helen and Orestes. Long-suffering and traumatized though they are, the siblings are not morally corrupt or emotionally crippled, as becomes obvious e.g. from Iphigeneia's magnanimity toward her father and refusal to harm Thoas, or from Orestes' affection for and wish to protect his sisters and Pylades. K. observes that their affection for each other and Electra is the siblings' main source of emotional strength and of their willingness to restore their house. Their relative freedom from the crushing burden of the family past and their nobility of character facilitates their presentation as figures more substantial and intriguing than mere dramatic versions of well-known mythical figures.

K. acknowledges that characterization is not one of tragedy's main concerns. Nevertheless, she argues that in IT Euripides did not neglect it because several details, such as Pylades' fear of public slander or Thoas' esteem for the priestess, are not plot-dictated, that is determined by the poet's mythical choices. Although harsh gods and corrupt mortals appear often in Euripides' plays, IT avoids casting any character, mortal or immortal, as a villain. Iphigeneia is not emotionally hardened or crippled by her sufferings, and she is certainly the most intelligent and resourceful character in the play. Nevertheless, she is similar to the other characters, including the Taurians, in one important respect. Despite her long association with Artemis, she enjoys no special insight in the workings of the divine. She is quick to draw conclusions based on equivocal evidence, exhibiting excessive confidence in her ability to interpret divine signs and behavior. She remains unchanged to the end, failing to become more circumspect even after all the radical reversals of fortune she has experienced and the proof that she had misinterpreted her dream.

In addition to Orestes and Pylades, the women of the chorus are also drawn with care and considerable sympathy. Not only are they very close and loyal to Iphigeneia but the poet also puts in their mouth the intriguing third stasimon, which presents a sober view of the divine. This gains in importance because it contrasts with the siblings' previous pronouncements about the gods and comes from a group of women who had consistently eschewed all similar pronouncements before. Thoas and the Taurians, dedicated to their man-killing cult of Artemis, are vilified as savage barbarians by the Greek characters. Iphigeneia even thinks that they project their murderous instincts upon a goddess who actually loathes polluting human sacrifices (IT 385-91). This view is not corroborated in the play, and there are indications that it is wrong. K. correctly argues that, apart from the human sacrifices, Thoas and the Taurian community do not differ from their Greek counterparts in other plays, either in technological sophistication, political organization, religion, morals or intelligence. The polarity Greek-barbarian, problematized heavily by the troubling background of the Aulis sacrifice and especially its unresolved ambiguities, is a source of irony in the play, but this is not searing and certainly not at the expense of the barbarians only. K. suggests that Iphigeneia succeeds so brilliantly in deceiving Thoas because she is more intelligent than the other characters in the play and not because she is Greek and thus by definition more intelligent than barbarians. Thoas is praised by Athena at the end for his pious readiness to comply with her requests and the Taurians are never reprimanded for their human sacrifices.

IT is much concerned with gods and religion but their role is invested with complex ambiguities. The problem of communication between humans and gods is one of the play's main themes. Although the twin gods Artemis and Apollo are the patrons of Iphigeneia and Orestes and the agents that determine their fate over many years, they do not appear onstage. Especially the behavior and wishes of Artemis remain ambiguous to the end. This ambiguity becomes evident first in the demand for the Aulis sacrifice, which long predates the dramatic time of the play, and reaches down to the final arrangements concerning the future of Iphigeneia in Greece. K. points out that Iphigeneia's attempts to rationalize Artemis' demand for the Aulis sacrifice by blaming Calchas in the prologue and the goddess' Taurian cult by blaming the Taurians in the first episode carry little weight. According to K., the persistent ambiguities surrounding Artemis undermine the view of those who suggest that the Taurian Artemis is "saved" along with Iphigeneia, tamed and civilized by means of her new cult at Halae. If the goddess endorsed her Taurian cult, then she cannot be thought to have considered it savage or otherwise undesirable, and herself in need of rescue and a new home. This is the view of Iphigeneia, but the new cult of Artemis Tauropolos includes symbolic shedding of blood meant to compensate the goddess for the loss of Orestes' sacrifice and her Taurian cult, which she presumably cherished.

Athena, the only divinity that appears onstage, does not provide explanations about the past (the Aulis sacrifice, the Taurian human sacrifices, the agent responsible for sending the wind that almost destroyed the Greeks at the end). Oracles are also uninformative, and symbolic dreams open to fallible human interpretations. Given these restrictions, humans can hardly hope to gain any insight in the workings of the divine and their own fortunes. They view their lives as subject to sudden and inscrutable variations and reversals that they attribute, faute de mieux, to chance (tyche). This is a traditional Greek belief but K. correctly observes that human helplessness is compounded in the play by the characters' readiness to reach conclusions about gods and fate. As indicated above in connection with Iphigeneia's failure to learn from her mistakes, the characters interpret confidently past, present and future, although they paradoxically also acknowledge their limitations and the inscrutable mutability of fortune.

These problems are exacerbated by the opaque relationship between gods and chance, which is never elucidated in the play. The final salvation of the siblings and their friends may be viewed as a result of a masterly divine plan, whether devised by the gods, fate, or both, which extended over several years and remained largely unintelligible to mortals until the very end. K. indicates that, if such plan existed, or, more generally, if gods are responsible for all events, then one cannot satisfactorily explain the two major setbacks suffered by the Greek characters, Orestes' continued persecution by a split group of Erinyes after his acquittal at the Areopagus trial and the wind that hindered the departure of the Greeks from the Taurian harbor. Either the gods themselves are not immune to chance events or they do not act and/or cooperate according to a plan that unfolds without obstacles or complications. In either case, the gods do not suffer, and their plans are not thwarted, because the immortals manage to achieve their goals with little extra pain. Nevertheless, the apparent inability to ensure that nothing will interfere with their plans underscores the uncertainty inherent in all things human, especially since in IT, as in most Euripidean plays, divine benevolence to humans cannot be taken for granted and divine assistance is not readily available.

The gods in IT are remote, not only because they do not appear onstage or otherwise communicate regularly with mortals but also because their motivation or involvement in various events such as the sending of the wind remains opaque to the end. The gods cooperate with each other but they also engage in rivalries and favoritism, and Artemis apparently endorsed human sacrifices. K. suggests that these negative features are mild in comparison with other plays, and the gods are also portrayed as benevolent. Their distinguishing feature in the play is that they show their goodwill, if they choose to, at their own pace, and especially without caring to explain themselves to, or to establish a close connection with, mortals. Thus human salvation or destruction appears to be a result of the interaction of known and unknown factors and agents, or of gods and chance, rather than "the result of unalloyed divine benevolence or relentless divine hostility crystallized in plans perfectly thought out in advance and magisterially executed" (p. 17).

The play dramatizes human attempts to deal with sudden reversals of fortune and the inscrutability of divine plans. To overcome obstacles and setbacks, humans need to rely primarily on their own capabilities and their emotional connections with family and friends. More importantly, not only their pride and anxieties but also their ingenuity and sensible concerns, even their attempts to avoid impiety, may bring them to the brink of disaster. For instance, Iphigeneia's and Pylades' concerns about the delivery of the letter are not only futile but dangerously delay the recognition, as does Orestes' stubborn refusal to reveal his identity in the second episode. Iphigeneia's casual request for armed escorts is the only flaw in her brilliant deception of Thoas and almost destroys the party. No character comes to grief in the play but the potential for disaster is ever-present.

K.'s commentary offers a new perspective on the play. As indicated above, the author argues that IT appears to be an interesting experiment dating from the last years of Euripides' career. None of its themes (e.g. sibling affection, friendship and loyalty, divine inscrutability) and none of the poet's dramatic choices (e.g. the combination of peripeteia, recognition and mechanema, the extensive use of messenger speeches, emphasis on Athenian cults, happy ending with appearance of deus ex machina) is unique. But their combination with the suppression of the family past and the sober presentation of characters are virtually unparalleled and distinguish IT from the contemporary plays. The play does not tone down contradictions or ambiguities and the balance achieved at the end is fragile, as important questions remain unanswered and the characters virtually unchanged. The happy ending is brought about as much by the ingenuity and noble character of mortals as by the will of agents and the influence of factors independent of them. The play clearly suggests the possibility that the very same synergy could easily lead to very different results.

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