|Iphigenia by Jacques Louis David. Public Domain|
In an earlier post, I mentioned Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia, who was lured to Aulis to be sacrificed to Artemis, to get her Dad and his army a favourable wind to Troy. There are Greek tragedies about it and a film by Michael Cacoyannis, released in 1977.
I saw that at the cinema when it came out. It was in Greek, with English sub titles, with Irene Papas as Clytemnestra. Incidentally, she also played the role of Helen in an English language film of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, along with Katherine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Genevieve Bujold, in 1971.
This one was based on Iphigenia At Aulis, also by Euripides, but changed. It is implied that it’s the priests of Artemis, not Artemis herself, who are responsible for the young woman’s death, as revenge for her father killing a sacred deer. At the end of the film, the wind starts blowing before the sacrifice. Agamemnon realises and starts running for the altar to stop it - too late.
First, though, before the sacrifice begins, Iphigenia makes a dramatic speech about how if someone has to die, it may as well be her, thinking of the mothers of all those soldiers who may die in the war. Young Achilles declares that although it was a lie about marrying him that got her there, he’d be glad to have her for a wife.
A woman sitting behind me at the cinema burst into tears during that speech and had to leave, presumably to cry it out somewhere else.
That is the story we know best, but there is another. In this other version of the story, the goddess whisks her away in a cloud just in time and takes her to Tauris, where she is appointed High Priestess of Artemis. Sounds like a happy ending, doesn’t it?
|Iphigenia At Tauris. Public Domain|
Not quite. In Tauris, they have the charming custom of sacrificing shipwrecked travellers and other arrivals to the goddess. And her High Priestess has to supervise the procedure. Poor Iphigenia is not keen on human sacrifice, but hasn’t much choice.
Back home in Greece, her brother Orestes is still being pestered by the Erynnes, who have not accepted the gods’ verdict. He is told by an oracle to head to Tauris and fetch back a rather grim wooden statue of Artemis held in the temple there, and then he will be free of those scary avengers. With his friend Pylades he follows orders. Reaching Tauris, our heroes are caught and taken to be sacrificed. Fortunately, brother and sister recognise each other in time. Iphigenia fetches the statue from its shelf and persuades the local king that these people are quite unfit for sacrifice till they and the statue are purified in the sea and that the people should stay home till it’s over, to avoid pollution. They escape in Orestes’ ship.
This is where it starts to get confusing, and more about the statue than the people. There is one scene where they arrive at an island run by the priest Chryses, whose daughter Chryseis was taken as loot by Agamemnon in the Iliad. She has a son, the younger Chryses, who thinks he is a demigod son of Apollo, but no, he’s the son of Agamemnon, as you might expect after what was done to his mother. When he realises Orestes is his half brother, he joins our heroes to fight off the pursuers from Tauris, instead of handing them over.
The statue does eventually get back to Greece, but is carried here, there and everywhere before ending up in Sparta, where it apparently received human sacrifices for a long time before a Spartan king replaced them with flogging boys for their blood. The Spartan boys turned it into a macho thing to see who could take the most blows. That, I think, is history rather than myth.
Orestes was finally free of the Erynnes and Pylades married Electra and the three siblings returned to Mycenae to reclaim their kingdom. That did rather mean getting rid of Aegisthus’s son, who was running the city, but still, it’s as happy an ending as we’re going to get here, though there were more adventures.
I’ll leave it to you to look them up.
Monday, we will be meeting Jason of Argonaut fame.