Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1071
When the Greek invasion force, destined for Ilium, was unable to sail from Aulis because of a lack of wind, Agamemnon, the Greek commander, appealed to Calchas, a Greek seer, for aid. Calchas said that unless Agamemnon gave Iphigenia, his oldest daughter, as a sacrifice to Artemis, the Greek fleet...
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When the Greek invasion force, destined for Ilium, was unable to sail from Aulis because of a lack of wind, Agamemnon, the Greek commander, appealed to Calchas, a Greek seer, for aid. Calchas said that unless Agamemnon gave Iphigenia, his oldest daughter, as a sacrifice to Artemis, the Greek fleet would never sail. By trickery Agamemnon succeeded in bringing Clytemnestra, his queen, and Iphigenia to Aulis, where the maiden was offered up to propitiate the goddess. At the last moment, however, Artemis substituted a calf in Iphigenia’s place and spirited the maiden off to the barbaric land of Tauris, where she is now doomed to spend the rest of her life as a priest of Artemis. One of Iphigenia’s duties is to prepare Greek captives—any Greek apprehended in Tauris is by law condemned to die—for sacrifice in the temple of the goddess.
Iphigenia has been a priest in Tauris for many years when, one night, she has a dream that she interprets to mean that her brother Orestes had met his death; now there can be no future for her family, for Orestes was the only son.
Orestes, however, is alive; in fact, he is actually in Tauris. After he and his sister Electra murdered their mother to avenge their father’s death at her hands, the Furies pursued Orestes relentlessly. Seeking relief, Orestes is told by the Oracle of Delphi that he must procure a statue of Artemis that stands in the temple of the goddess in Tauris and take it to Athens. Orestes will then be free of the Furies.
Orestes and his friend Pylades reach the temple and are appalled at the sight of the earthly remains of the many Greeks who lost their lives in the temple. They resolve, however, to carry out their mission of stealing the statue of Artemis.
Meanwhile Iphigenia, disturbed by her dream, arouses her sister priests and asks their help in mourning the loss of her brother. In her loneliness she remembers Argos and her carefree childhood. A messenger interrupts her reverie with the report that one of two young Greeks on the shore in a frenzy slaughtered Taurian cattle that were led to the sea to bathe. The slayer is Orestes, under the influence of the Furies. In the fight that followed, Orestes and Pylades held off great numbers of Taurian peasants, but at last the peasants succeeded in capturing the two youths. The Greeks were brought to Thoas, the king of Tauris.
Iphigenia, as a priest of Artemis, directs that the strangers be brought before her. Heretofore she was always gentle with the doomed Greeks and never participated in the bloody ritual of sacrifice. Now, depressed by her dream, she is determined to be cruel. Orestes and Pylades, bound, are brought before Iphigenia. Thinking of her own sorrow, she asks them if they have sisters who will be saddened by their deaths. Orestes refuses to give her any details about himself, but he answers her inquiries about Greece and about the fate of the prominent Greeks in the Trojan War. She learns to her distress that her father is dead by her mother’s treachery and that Orestes is still alive, a wanderer.
Deeply moved, Iphigenia offers to spare Orestes if he will deliver a letter for her in Argos. Orestes magnanimously gives the mission to Pylades; he himself will remain to be sacrificed. When he learns that Iphigenia will prepare him for the ritual, he wishes for the presence of his sister to cover his body after he is dead. Iphigenia, out of pity, promises to do this for him. She goes to bring the letter. Orestes and Pylades are convinced that she is a Greek. Pylades then declares that he will stay and die with his friend. Orestes, saying that he is doomed to die anyway for the murder of his mother, advises Pylades to return to Greece, marry Electra, and build a temple in his honor.
Iphigenia, returning with the letter, tells Pylades that it must be delivered to one Orestes, a Greek prince. The letter urges Orestes to come to Tauris to take Iphigenia back to her beloved Argos; it explains how she was saved at Aulis and spirited by Artemis to Tauris. Pylades, saying that he has fulfilled the mission, hands the letter to Orestes. Iphigenia, doubtful, is finally convinced of Orestes’ identity when he recalls details of their home in Argos. While she ponders escape for the three of them, Orestes explains that first it is necessary for him to take the statue of Artemis, in order to avoid destruction. He asks Iphigenia’s aid.
Receiving a promise of secrecy from the priests who are present, Iphigenia carries out her plan of escape. As Thoas, curious about the progress of the sacrifice, enters the temple, Iphigenia appears with the statue in her arms. She explains to the mystified Thoas that the statue miraculously turned away from the Greek youths because their hands were stained by domestic murder. She declares to Thoas that it is necessary for her secretly to cleanse the statue and the two young men in sea water. She commands the people of Tauris to stay in their houses lest they, too, be tainted.
When Orestes and Pylades are led from the temple in chains, Thoas and his retinue cover their eyes so that they will not be contaminated by evil. Iphigenia joins the procession and marches solemnly to the beach. There she orders the king’s guards to turn their backs on the secret cleansing rites. Fearful for Iphigenia’s safety, the guards look on. When they see the three Greeks entering a ship, they rush down to the vessel and hold it back. The Greeks beat off the Taurians and set sail. The ship, however, is caught by tidal currents and forced back into the harbor.
Thoas, angry, urges all Taurians to spare no effort in capturing the Greek ship. Then the goddess Athena appears to Thoas and directs him not to go against the will of Apollo, whose Oracle of Delphi sent Orestes to Tauris to get the statue of Artemis. Thoas complies. Iphigenia, Orestes, and Pylades return to Greece, where Orestes, having set up the image of the Taurian Artemis in Attica, is at last freed from the wrath of the Furies. Iphigenia continues, in a new temple, to be a priest of Artemis.