Artemis, Iphigenia, and the Liminal Space
Many Westerners ascribe a singular, unified image to each god of the Greek pantheon. Hera is motherly, but stern and crafty. Zeus is promiscuous, but strong. Demeter is passionate and powerful, but gentle. When grappling with a myth rooted in Iphigenia’s salvation at the hands of Artemis, these same Westerners might be inclined to think of the deity as a chaste and gentle huntress, with a passion for protection and a strong sense of misandry.
But these folks are making a big mistake. Imagine Artemis as if built from a mold, and you miss out — out on the blood, the gore, and the guts that make her a huntress; out on the danger of worshipping a god; and out on the dynamic creation of a goddess from the bits and pieces of the other goddesses who came before her. The myth that inspired Iphigenia Among the Taurians, the Euripides work on which Iphigenia 3.0 is based, requires a gentle Artemis who cares for the innocent in need of a protector. But Artemis is so much more than that. According to Michael Walbank, in “Artemis Bear-Leader,” literature about Artemis shows her closest followers as Amazonians and as young women, in various states of servitude, who are known as her “bears.” Brian carries this theme through to 3.0, ensuring that that traces of the original, Greek story follow through to modern times, while capitalizing on the capacity of theater to illustrate a metaphor more than text alone ever could. But his acquiescence to this aspect of the goddess comes at odds with the Artemis who saved Iphigenia in the first place, right?
In short, no. “But this understanding of mythos makes it difficult for a theater company or a playwright to earnestly engage with a work grounded in the characters’ worship of any one particular god,” you might say, followed by “How do you choose where to start, when the starting line of understanding shifts with each generation? Is it best to stick to Euripides’ understanding of Artemis, or is it possible that even his original audience would understand her differently?”. In a more likely scenario, Euripides understands the pluralistic nature of deity worship — in his essay “Artemis and Iphigeneia,” Hugh Lloyd-Jones suggests that the tragedian clearly displays disparate understandings of reverence for the gods in different locales — and this chaos serves as an adequate starting line in its own rite. We can think of Artemis, then, as an amalgam, a fluid construction whose power and influence stems from the difficulty those who know her have in pinning her down.
More evidence abounds for the importance of plurality in Euripides’ work. As a broader example, consider that some scholars say that Iphigenia might not exist. Her presence in mythos relies on oral tradition and unreliable written records, some of which neglect to mention Iphigenia at all but do recommend Iphianassa as one of the Atreides, at least according to Lloyd-Jones. This, yet again, draws to mind Brian’s decision to position the titular character of 3.0 in the truest of limbos, stuck between life and death. When modern audiences, classists, and tragedians have no means to understand the existence of such a central figure — one whose death brings about the suspense and terror of The Oresteia, Aeschylus’ famous theatrical trilogy — how can we even begin to situate her in a modern retelling?
Perhaps the best answer to this uncertainty is to embrace it. Some uniquely warm strength comes from this act. And, to be fair, we have every reason to believe that Iphigenia existed, given, at the very least, Euripides’ interest in her as a recurring element of his tragedy. We also can readily think of Artemis as gentle, but still ruthless and impersonal, as she appears in her myriad forms across the fields of art, history, and mythology. Accepting that our knowledge is and will always be incomplete allows us to comfortably inhabit a space of cognitive dissonance that art facilitates oh-so-well. Here, the world of the play can exist beyond or even within the “real,” without stepping on its toes. Here, also, we can allow incongruity to usher meaning into art. That space of misalignment is productive. It is also the source material for many of the most interesting, elaborate, even absurd stories.
At the same time, we as responsible artists must remember that this liminal space does not grant us free reign to create art without concern for context. The spaces in-between show us that defined and discrete boundaries can do much more than contract, corner, and coerce. Rather, the bits and pieces we can bring together, as artists, help to string along the themes and ideas we see playing out over and over in particular stories and to amplify them, to make them vocal. This ties back to my Cosmic Connection from ages ago, at the start of our online foray into 3.0. The glamour and imminence of death present in both the Fitzgerald and the Luhrmann versions of Gatsby form a foundation for understanding the work, the art, in relation to the culture whirling around it. Here, the blood and guts and globalism of Artemis and Iphigenia beg answers to a few central questions. Among them are these: What does this mean for the ruthless, purposeless killing that takes place in Iphigenia 3.0? How can we think of murder in a context of ritual sacrifice? And, finally, what does the space between life and death offer, and who lives there in this piece?
For more information, I recommend seeking out some of the articles I sought out while assembling this Cosmic Connection. They include, in no particular order, “Euripides and the Iphigenia Legend” by A.O. Hulton, “Artemis Bear-Leader” by Michael B. Walbank, and “Artemis and Iphigenia” by Hugh Lloyd-Jones. That being said, create your own liminal space! Seek out your own incongruities in this storyline, and dig deeper. There are so many texts and articles and books out there, waiting to be engaged. You're the right one to engage them.