According to an old account, Iphigenia was killed because one of the wild animals Artemis loved had been slain by the Greeks and the guilty hunt win back the Goddess's favor only by the death of a young girl. But to the Greeks this was to slander Artemis. Never would such a demand have been made by the lovely lady of the woodland and the forest, who was especially the protector of little helpless creatures.
So gentle is she, Artemis the holy,
So the story had another ending. When the Greek soldiers at Aulis came to get Iphigenia where she was waiting for the summons to death, her mother beside her, she forbade Clytemnestra to go with her to the altar. "It is better so for me as well as for you," she said. The mother was left alone. At last she saw a man approaching. He was running and she wondered why anyone should hasten to bring her the tidings he must bear. But he cried out to her, "Wonderful news!" Her daughter had not been sacrificed, he said. That was certain, but exactly what had happened to her no one knew. As the priest was about to strike her, anguish troubled every man there and all bowed their heads. But a cry came from the priest and they looked up to see a marvel hardly to be believed. The girl had vanished, but on the ground beside the altar lay a deer, its throat cut. "This is Artemis' doing," the priest proclaimed. "She will not have her altar stained with human blood. She has herself furnished the victim and she receives the sacrifice." "I tell you, O Queen," the messenger said, "I was there and the thing happened thus. Clearly your child has been borne away to the Gods."
But Iphigenia had not been carried to heaven. Artemis had taken her to the land of the Taurians (today the Crimea) on the shore of the Unfriendly Sea - a fierce people whose savage custom it was to sacrifice to the Goddess any Greek found in the country. Artemis took care that Iphigenia should be safe; she made her priestess of her temple. But as such it was her terrible task to conduct the sacrifices, not actually herself kill her countrymen, but consecrate them by long-established rites and deliver them over to those who would kill them.
She had been serving the Goddess thus for many years when a Greek galley put in at that inhospitable shore, not under stern necessity, storm-driven, but voluntarily. And yet it was known everywhere what the Taurians did to the Greeks they captured. An overwhelmingly strong motive made the ship anchor there. From it in the early dawn two young men came and stealthily found their way to the temple. Both were clearly of exalted birth; they looked like the sons of kings, but the face of one was deeply marked with lines of pain. It was he who whispered to his friend, "Don't you think this is the temple, Pylades?" "Yes, Orestes," the other answered. "It must be that bloodstained spot."
Orestes here and his faithful friend? What were they doing in a country so perilous to Greeks? Did this happen before or after Orestes had been absolved of the guilt of his mother's murder? It was some time after. Although Athena had pronounced him clear of guilt, in this story all the Erinyes had not accepted the verdict. Some of them continued to pursue him, or else Orestes thought that they did. Even the acquittal pronounced by Athena had not restored to him his peace of mind. His pursuers were fewer, but they were still with him.
In his despair he went to Delphi. If he could not find help there, in the holiest place of Greece, he could find it nowhere. Apollo's oracle gave him hope, but only at the risk of his life. He must go to the Taurian country, the Delphic priestess said, and bring away the sacred image of Artemis from her temple. When he had set it up in Athens he would at last be healed and at peace. He would never again see terrible forms haunting him. It was a most perilous enterprise, but every-thing for him depended on it. At whatever cost he was bound to make the attempt and Pylades would not let him make it alone.
When the two reached the temple they saw at once that they must wait for the night before doing anything. There was no chance by day of getting into the place unseen. They retreated to keep under cover in some dark lonely spot.
Iphigenia, sorrowful as always, was going through her round of duties to the Goddess when she was interrupted by a messenger who told her that two young men, Greeks, had been taken prisoners and were to be sacrificed at once. He had been sent on to bid her make all ready for the sacred rites. The horror which she had felt so often seized her again. She shuddered at the thought, terribly familiar though it was, of the hideous bloodshed, of the agony of the victims. But this time a new thought came as well. She asked herself, "Would a Goddess command such things? Would she take pleasure in sacrificial murder? I do not believe it," she told herself. "It is the men of this land who are bloodthirsty and they lay their own guilt on the Gods."
As she stood thus, deep in meditation, the captives were led in. She sent the attendants into the temple to make ready for them, and when the three were alone together she spoke to the young men. Where was their home, she asked, the home which they would never see again? She could not keep her tears back and they wondered to see her so compassionate. Orestes told her gently not to grieve for them. When they came to the land they had faced what might befall them. But she continued questioning. Were they brothers? Yes, in love, Orestes replied, but not by birth. What were their names "Why ask that of a man about, to die?" Orestes said.
"Will you not even tell me what your city is?" she asked.
"I come from Mycenae," Orestes answered, "that city once so prosperous."
"The King of it was certainly prosperous," Iphigenia said. "His name was Agamemnon."
"I do not know about him," Orestes said abruptly. "Let us end this talk."
"No - no. Tell me of him," she begged.
"Dead," said Orestes. "His own wife killed him. Ask me no more."
"One thing more," she cried. "Is she - the wife - alive?"
"No," Orestes told her. "Her son killed her."
The three looked at each other in silence.
"It was just," Iphigenia whispered shuddering; "just - yet evil, horrible." She tried to collect herself. Then she asked, "Do they ever speak of the daughter who was sacrificed?"
"Only as one speaks of the dead," Orestes said. Iphigenia's face changed. She looked eager, alert.
"I have thought of a plan to help both you and me," she said. "Would you be willing to carry a letter to my friends in Mycenae if I can save you?"
"No, not I," Orestes said. "But my friend will. He came here only for my sake. Give him your letter and kill me."
"So be it," Iphigenia answered. "Wait while I fetch the letter." She hurried away and Pylades turned to Orestes.
"I will not leave you here to die alone," he told him. "All will call me a coward if I do so. No. I love you - and I fear what men may say."
"I gave my sister to you to protect," Orestes said. "Electra is your wife. You cannot abandon her. As for me - it is no misfortune for me to die." As they spoke to each other in hurried whispers, Iphigenia entered with a letter in her hand. "I will persuade the King. He will let my messenger go, I am sure. But first -" she turned to Pylades - "I will tell you what is in the letter so that even if through some mischance you lose your belongings, you will carry my message in your memory and bear it to my friends."
"A good plan," Pylades said. "To whom am I to bear it?"
"To Orestes," Iphigenia said. "Agamemnon's son."
She was looking away; her thoughts were in Mycenae. She did not see the startled gaze the two men fixed on her.
"You must say to him," she went on, "that she who was sacrificed at Aulis sends this message. She is not dead - "
"Can the dead return to life?" Orestes cried.
"Be still," Iphigenia said with anger. "The time is short. Say to him, ‘Brother, bring me back home. Free me from this murderous priesthood, this barbarous land.’ Mark well, young man, the name is Orestes."
"O God, God," Orestes groaned. "It is not credible."
"I am speaking to you, not to him," Iphigenia said to Pylades. "You will remember the name?"
"Yes," Pylades answered, "but it will not take me long to deliver your message. Orestes, here is a letter. I bring it from your sister."
"And I accept it," Orestes said, "with a happiness words cannot utter."
The next moment he held Iphigenia in his arms. But she freed herself.
"I do not know," she cried. "How can I know? What proof is there?"
"Do you remember the last bit of embroidery you did before you went to Aulis?" Orestes asked. "I will describe it to you. Do you remember your chamber in the palace? I will tell you what was there."
He convinced her and she threw herself into his arms. She sobbed out, "Dearest! You are my dearest, my darling, my dear one. A baby, a little baby, when I left you. More than marvelous is this thing that has come to me."
"Poor girl," Orestes said, "mated to sorrow, as I have been. And you might have killed your own brother."
"Oh, horrible," Iphigenia cried. "But I have brought myself to do horrible things. These hands might have slain you. And even now - how can I save you? What God, what man, will help us?" Pylades had been waiting in silence, sympathetic, but impatient. He thought the hour for action had emphatically arrived. "We can talk," he reminded the brother and sister, "when once we are out of this dreadful place."
"Suppose we kill the King," Orestes proposed eagerly, but Iphigenia rejected the idea with indignation. King Thoas had been kind to her. She would not harm him. At that moment a plan flashed into her mind, perfect, down to the least detail. Hurriedly she explained it and the young men agreed at once. All three then entered the temple.
After a few moments Iphigenia came out bearing an image in her arms. A man was just stepping across the threshold of the temple enclosure. Iphigenia cried out, "O King, halt. Stay where you are." In astonishment he asked her what was happening. She told him that the two men he had sent her for the Goddess were not pure. They were tainted, vile; they had killed their mother, and Artemis was angry.
"I am taking the image to the seashore to purify it," she said. "And there too I will cleanse the men from their pollution. Only after that can the sacrifice be made. All that I do must be done in solitude. Let the captives be brought forth and proclaim to the city that no one may draw near to me."
"Do as you wish," Thoas answered, "and take all the time you need." He watched the procession move off, Iphigenia leading with the image, Orestes and Pylades following, and attendants carrying vessels for the purifying rite. Iphigenia was praying aloud: "Maiden and Queen, daughter of Zeus and Leto, you shall dwell where purity is, and we shall be happy." They passed out of sight on their way to the inlet where Orestes' ship lay. It seemed as if Iphigenia's plan could not fail.
And yet it did. She was able indeed to make the attendants leave her alone with her brother and Pylades before they reached the sea. They stood in awe of her and they did just what she bade them. Then the three made all haste and boarded the ship and the crew pushed it off. But at the mouth of the harbor where it opened out to the sea a heavy wind blowing landward struck them and they could make no headway against it. They were driven back in spite of all they could do. The vessel seemed rushing on the rocks. The men of the country by now were aroused to what was being done. Some watched to seize the ship when it was stranded; others ran with the news to King Thoas. Furious with anger, he was hurrying from the temple to capture and put to death the impious strangers and the treacherous priestess, when suddenly above him in the air a radiant form appeared manifestly a Goddess. The King started back and awe checked his steps.
"Stop, O King," the Presence said. "I am Athena. This is my word to you. Let the ship go. Even now Poseidon is calming the winds and waves to give it a safe passage. Iphigenia and the others are acting under divine guidance. Dismiss your anger."
Thoas answered submissively, "Whatever
is your pleasure, Goddess, shall be done." And the watchers on the shore
saw the wind shift, the waves subside, and the Greek ship leave the harbor,
flying under full sail to the sea beyond.
Adapted from Mythology,
Copyright ©1998-2001 Roy George