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Goethe's (and Euripides') Iphigenia in Tauris and Kleist's Penthesilea

The ancient tradition of Troy stories generally blames a woman, Helen of Troy, for being the direct cause of the war, whether she ran off with Paris willingly, or was taken away by force.

It is not surprising that the story of Iphigenia involves sacrificing an innocent young woman, so that her father Agamemnon can sail off to Troy to recover Helen, the wife of his brother Menelaus.

In some variants, Iphigenia is rescued from the altar by the goddess Artemis and whisked away to the land of Tauris to serve as Artemis' priestess.

graphicIn the fifth century BCE, Euripides wrote Iphigenia in Tauris, telling of Iphigenia's bitter life as a priestess in the land of Tauris, where she was required to sacrifice any passing strangers at the orders of Thoas, King of Tauris. After many years, two strangers landed on the shore. Unknown to Iphigenia, one of them was her brother, Orestes, who had been driven mad by the Furies to punish him for killing his mother Clytemnestra. The other stranger was Pylades, cousin to Orestes. Once they and Iphigenia recognized one another, they devised a successful plot to deceive the King and escape from Tauris.

Goethe took this play and reworked it into a rather amazing celebration of how one pure woman could heal the insanity and evils of the pagan past, symbolized by the dysfunctional House of Atreus as well as by King Thoas, whose notion of hospitality was to sacrifice passing strangers to his god. Goethe's Iphigenia is a woman of such noble high-mindedness that she refuses to deceive the King. Instead, she tells him the truth, even though that truth risks the lives of her brother and cousin. Iphigenia persuades King Thoas to release the two prisoners instead of sacrificing them, and to let all three of them return to Greece with his blessing.

Because it offers such an intriguing contrast to Goethe's idealistic enlightenment approach, I am adding some material about another German Troy drama which might be considered the anti-Iphigenia, the intensely romantic and bizarre Penthesilea by Heinrich von Kleist. Penthesilea was the queen of the Amazons who fought and died at Troy. If you are interested, you may want to read the text and/or explore some of the links.

Goethe's Iphigenia Activities Goethe's Iphigenia Bibliography
Explore the links below

BOOKS TO PURCHASE  (These  books may be hard to find, so I suggest referring to the list of Online Booksellers if you can't find a copy locally.) Note the English etext of Goethe's Iphigenia under Etexts below.

  • Goethe Volume 8: Verse Plays and Epic. Includes Iphigenia. Edited by Cyrus Hamlin and Frank Ryder
    Translated by Michael Hamburger, Hunter Hannum, and David Luke.
  • Penthesilea: by Heinrich von Kleist, translated and introduced by Joel Agee, pictures by Maurice Sendak. Harper Collins, 1998. (The link goes to Amazon, where I recently bought a copy of this play.)


  • Faust I by Goethe: Translated by Anna Swanwick.
  • The House of Atreus: Breaking Free from Family Curse and Conditioning." This psychoanalytically oriented essay by Tracy Marks offers an interesting contrast to the "solution" to the curse proposed by Goethe.
  • Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides: Translated by Gilbert Murray. From Project Gutenberg.
  • Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides: Translated by Robert Potter. E-text with discussion forum, search engine and links to book purchases. From MIT.
  • Iphigenia in Tauris: by Goethe; translated by Anna Swanwick; a Project Gutenberg etext. Free download.
  • Iphigenia in Tauris: by Goethe; translated by Edward Seymour. This site offers to sell the play script quite inexpensively. It includes much (but not all) of the text.
  • J. W. von Goethe: A list of links to several etexts by Goethe in English on Bartleby.
  • Penthesilea: by Kleist; text in German.



  • Athena and Iphigenia: This site narrates the story of how Artemis rescued Iphigenia and took her to Tauris, as well as how Athena later rescued Iphigenia from Tauris. This is part of an Encyclopedia of the Goddess Athena site which is full of images and stories about her and her temples, rituals, etc.
  • "Iphigenia: from Carlos Parada's Greek Mythology Link; All sorts of hyperlinked information about the myth.



  • Tauris: Click on the tiny map of the Eastern Mediterranean to see a large, clear map of the area, including Tauris; some information about Tauris, including a link to Herodotus writing about Tauris. This is part of an interesting site containing maps of the ancient Greek world.



  • "Be Still. The Hanging Gardens were a Dream": by Trumbull Stickney (1874-1904); the past, including Troy, was only dreams
  • "The Lotos-eaters": by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892); based on an incident in the Odyssey
  • "The New Helen": by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900); adulation of a contemporary actress Lillie Langtry, mistress of the Prince of Wales and others, as the "new Helen."
  • "Palladium: by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). The statue of Pallas Athena being fought over during the Trojan War 
  • "The Strayed Reveller to Ulysses": by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). Circe and Ulysses
  • "Ulysses": by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892); Ulysses in hell (where Dante placed him) is still striving to sail onwards and discover new wonders.

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© Diane Thompson: 8/25/1998; updated: 8/7/2017