Virgin Sacrifice in Euripides’ Hecuba and Iphigenia at Aulis

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Title: Virgin Sacrifice in Euripides’ Hecuba and Iphigenia at Aulis
Author: Walker, Abbe Lind
Type: Thesis
Issue Date: 2011
Abstract: Death was no stranger to the ancient Athenian audience of tragedy. Especially during the period of the Peloponnesian War, they faced the stark realities and consequences of plague, starvation, and near constant debilitating warfare. The ancient Greeks also regularly experienced the ritual slaughter of animals. Such an experience is completely absent for the members of a modern audience, but its quotidian nature for the Greeks made it a natural motif for the ancient dramatist to exploit. The common experience of animal sacrifice combined with their concurrent experience of warfare and illness could be manipulated by the tragedians to create another experience of death, more extraordinary and provocative than what they experienced everyday: tragic death. Though raw violence was never enacted onstage, allusions to violence and death were regular elements of the dramatic spectacle. Among these violent themes, Euripides in particular exploited the motif of voluntary self-sacrifice. Perhaps most disturbing of these dramatic deaths, especially for the modern audience, are the voluntary sacrifices of young women in times of crisis. During this period, Euripides returned to the theme at least six times, perhaps most famously in his Iphigenia at Aulis (c. 405 BCE) and Hecuba (c.424 BCE).1 Though almost two decades separate their productions, the complementary nature of their mythological contexts and the common features of the portrayal of their protagonists’ deaths make them a natural pair. In these two plays, a virgin is willingly sacrificed for the sake of an army in a situation of crisis. The sacrifice is portrayed as an act of piety, a response to the command of a supernatural being. Though initially resistant, both girls eventually decide to participate willingly in their sacrifices amid the protests of their respective mothers. In both cases, the sacrifice is described in terms both of an animal sacrifice and a heroic death. These deaths are complicated by their dramatic contexts, which pose particular problems for the interpretation of the fundamental act ... In each play, we will see how efforts are made to deny the violence of the sacrifice through manipulation of ritual. In IA, the pervasive use of marriage imagery effectively achieves this end, while in Hecuba, Polyxena’s rejection of marriage imagery and the contradictory strategies of denial employed by the army make a refutation of the violence and a satisfactory resolution impossible. Although no modern theory will consistently reflect and elucidate actual ritual, I argue that by using these modern theories we can find layers of meaning, both positive and negative, that bring us closer to the core meanings in Euripides’ two depictions of virgin sacrifice. Throughout, the contrast between Euripides’ two treatments of the theme in each play will come to the fore. We will see how Euripides, a poet of versatility and skill, was able to emphasize different aspects of such similar myths in order to explore, complicate, and problematize some of the many facets of the fascinating phenomenon that is sacrifice.
Subject: Ritual
Subject: Human sacrifice
Subject: Sacrifice of virgins
Subject: Euripides
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Walker, Abbe Lind. "Virgin Sacrifice in Euripides’ Hecuba and Iphigenia at Aulis". 2011. Available electronically from

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