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The meaning of the wave in the final scene of Euripides’s Iphigenia taurica: between traditional cult and innovative human ethics

Marco Duranti

University of Verona

My paper offers a new interpretation of a much-debated element of the finale of Euripides’s Iphigenia taurica (1391 ff.): the wave which prevents the Greek ship from leaving the Taurian land and pushes it back to the shore, thus making it necessary for the goddess Athena to intervene, in order to prevent the Taurians from capturing Orestes and Iphigenia. As regards the wave, secondary literature has divided into two interpretative trends: some scholars argue that it is a mere dramaturgical device aimed at arousing suspense in the audience (e.g. Matthiessen 1964: 57 n. 4, Dunn 1996: 138), or at providing a pretext for Athena’s intervention, thus enabling the play to end with a focus on religion (Spira 1960: 120, Lesky 1983: 306). Other scholars have argued for a more ‘profound’ explanation of the wave: Strohm (1949: 25) regards it as the demonstration of men’s inability to determine their own fate without divine help, whereas Burnett (1971: 65-9) contends that the wave proves the power of chaos, which is superior to man, but can be easily defeated by the gods.

As I shall explain in the first part of my paper (about 8 minutes), my contention is that the wave is neither a mere dramaturgical device, nor a demonstration of the power of chaos. In fact, the wave is the consequence of the sacrilege which the Greeks are committing by stealing Artemis’ statue from the Taurian temple: this is also proven by the fact that Iphigenia reacts to the wave by praying Artemis to forgive her theft (IT 1400). Several parallels in Greek literature show that storm and shipwreck were considered as the normal punishment for a sacrilegious act, and the concept itself is expressed by a number of sources (e.g. Hes. Op. 247, Xen. Cyr. 8.1.25).

In the second part of my paper (about 12 minutes), I shall point out how this new interpretation of the wave influences the overall interpretation of the play. After acknowledging the link between the wave and the sacrilege, it is possible to compare IT with Aeschylus’ Eumenides, as the stories of these two tragedies have the same tripartite structure: a) sacrilegious act (in Aeschylus, matricide; in Euripides, the theft of Artemis’s statue), b) threat of punishment by the damaged divine power (by the Erinyes and by Artemis), c) compensation of the damaged divine power (in both tragedies, thanks to Athena’s intercession). But in comparison with Aeschylus, Euripides has an unprecedented accent on human ethics and feelings. In this respect, my paper shall build on the remarks on the importance of the value of love and affection (philia) in IT made by Maria Serena Mirto (1994). Feeling philia toward her brother, Iphigenia firmly believes that this value is shared by the gods: in fact, she appeals to philia when she begs Artemis to forgive her for stealing the statue, arguing that her own love for Orestes may be compared to Artemis’s love for her brother Apollo.

By forgiving Iphigenia, the goddess may demonstrate that the divine world is able to evolve, valuing the ethic and affective principles more than rite and cult. However, although Athena does make use of words related to the familial sphere (IT 1440, 1489), the finale of the play disappoints the mortals’ hopes, as the traditional rules of cult are scrupulously respected: the theft needs compensation, and this will consist in new cults in Attica (the above-mentioned moment c); Iphigenia will still serve Artemis as priestess, now in Brauron. This outcome contrasts with Iphigenia’s desire to come back to Argos and live the normal life of an aristocratic maiden, made of wedding and children. Thus, in the end the gods are not fully converted to Iphigenia’s new religion based on human ethics. A permanent divinely sent ‘wave’ prevents the mortal from living in full accordance with their morality and their desires.

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Forms of Drama

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