Contemporizing the Classics: A Guessing Game

If I told you a story with the following plot-lines:

  1. once upon a time, there was a royal brother and sister who were long separated from each other
  2. with the help of a male friend, the brother escaped from death and went on a distant journey
  3. the sister became the guardian of an object of special importance
  4. the sister was trapped in an ominous center of death
  5. the brother and male friend were captured and brought to that place of death
  6. the siblings were thus finally reunited, but they still did not recognize each other
  7. the siblings and their friend were joined together in a common mission under supernatural guidance
  8. the siblings and their friend narrowly escaped death after being pursued by an evil ruler

…would you say that you know the story? The author? Are you sure?

And if I told you another story with these plot-lines:

  1. once upon a time, there was a man and his faithful male companion who fled from danger and embarked on an adventure
  2. their quest took them on a distant journey to find and steal a sacred artifact
  3. that sacred artifact was kept in an ominous temple devoted to the god of death where gruesome human sacrifices were done
  4. the two male travelers were unexpectedly joined by a female on their adventure
  5. the adventurers were captured and were on the verge of being sacrificed
  6. the group of three together escaped the temple with the sacred artifact
  7. the evil ruler pursued them, but they miraculously got away and survived
  8. they returned the sacred artifact to its rightful home and returned home themselves

…would you say that you know the story? The author? Are you sure?

If you seek answers, you’ll find them below the fold

If you guessed George Lucas’ Star Wars and Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom, you’d be correct, but only partly correct.

These intertwined plot sequences appeared over 2400 years ago in a play called Iphigenia among the Taurians written by the Athenian playwright Euripides.

As Anna Lefteratou has shown in her extensive research, the stories of Iphigenia, connected together with the stories of her brother Orestes and his friend Pylades, were some of the most popular and frequently retold in ancient Greco-Roman novelistic fiction in the 1st through 4th centuries AD/CE. As our forthcoming Harvard Theological Review article shows, these retellings even made their way into the Acts of the Apostles and thus became part of the New Testament.

Since then, these mythical story-lines have been recycled again and again through the centuries.

Thanks to the research and influence of Joseph Campbell, a few decades ago George Lucas recycled them yet again as foundational mythical-structures supporting both of his major movie franchises.

So the next time you’re watching a Star Wars or Indiana Jones movie, remember you’re not so different from theater-goers in ancient Athens and around the Greek and Roman empires.

Hat tip to Edith Hall, who draws some of these ancient-to-contemporary connections in her excellent book, Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris: A Cultural History of Euripides’ Black Sea Tragedy (Oxford: OUP, 2013).