In Greek mythology, Iphigeneia was taken by her father, Agamemnon, to be sacrificed to the goddess Artemis. In most versions of the story, Artemis saves her life at the last moment and makes her into a priestess. In one account, however, Iphigeneia has her throat cut on the altar.
Iphigeneia was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and the sister of Orestes, Electra, and, in some accounts, Chrysothemis and Laodice (although that is possibly another name for Electra). Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae or Argos; his brother was Menelaus; they were both sons of Atreus. The royal house of Atreus was doomed to a series of tragic misfortunes by a curse placed on it as a result of the deeds of Atreus's father, Pelops, and his grandfather, Tantalus.
In one of the most famous of all Greek legends, Iphigeneia was offered up for sacrifice by her own father Agamemnon. After the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen of Sparta, a Greek fleet assembled at Aulis ready to attack Troy. Agamemnon, brother of Helen's husband Menelaus, was commander of the Greeks. For a long time, however, the warships were unable to set sail because Artemis was making the winds blow either in the wrong direction or not at all. The goddess did this because she had a grudge against Agamemnon. There are various accounts of why she was so angry. One is that Agamemnon had shot a stag, possibly in Artemis's sacred grove, and then boasted that he was a better hunter than the goddess. This is an example of hubris (pride), which in Greek mythology always invites nemesis (an act of vengeance against the proud person). According to other accounts, Agamemnon had traditionally sacrificed to Artemis the most beautiful creature born each year, but in the year of Iphigeneia's birth, this was the princess herself, and Agamemnon dishonestly withheld his daughter. Another version is that Agamemnon's father, Atreus, had promised Artemis the finest animals in his flocks, and then withheld a golden lamb.
Whatever the reason, the soothsayer Calchas told Agamemnon that the only way he could appease Artemis was to sacrifice his virgin daughter. So Agamemnon sent word to his queen, Clytemnestra, that she should bring Iphigeneia to Aulis so that she could be betrothed to Achilles. When mother and daughter arrived, however, he offered the princess up for sacrifice. The winds blew, the fleet sailed, and the Trojan War began.
In most versions of the story, Artemis substituted a deer for Iphigeneia on the altar, snatching the girl away at the very last moment as the knife went to her throat. Iphigeneia then became a priestess in the land of the Taurians (today part of the Crimea on the Black Sea).
Agamemnon's daughter has inspired artists and writers throughout history. She is the subject of two great plays by Euripides (c. 486–c. 406 BCE). Iphigeneia at Aulis has political overtones, because the heroine is portrayed as an idealistic young woman willing to die for a unified Greece. When the play was first performed (408-406 BCE), Athens and Sparta had been locked in the Peloponnesian War for more than 20 years, and the concept of Greece as a single, unified nation was still wishful thinking, not a practical possibility.
An earlier (and less political) play by Euripides, Iphigeneia among the Taurians, tells the rest of the story. Iphigeneia has arrived on the Black Sea coast of the Crimea and become a priestess of Artemis. The cult there was unusually bloodthirsty, requiring the sacrifice of all foreigners who were shipwrecked in the vicinity. The action begins when Iphigeneia encounters a castaway Greek who turns out to be her own brother, Orestes. Having discovered his true identity in the nick of time, Iphigeneia hatches a plot to allow them both to escape with the image of Artemis and return to Greece. The play ends with the appearance of the goddess Athena, who decrees that Iphigeneia will serve as priestess to Artemis at the shrine of Brauron in Attica, where young girls served the goddess. Artemis will no longer receive human sacrifices, and must henceforth be satisfied by a symbolic spilling of a tiny amount of blood at her sanctuary in Aulis, where Orestes is commanded to found a temple.
In Catalogue of Heroines, a fragmentary work usually attributed to the Greek poet Hesiod (fl. 800 BCE), Agamemnon's daughter, here called Iphimede, is rescued by Artemis and becomes the goddess Einodia. This version was later recalled by Pausanias (143–176 CE), according to whom the princess became Hecate, a better-known goddess who, like Einodia, is sometimes treated as an aspect of Artemis and at other times as a distinct divinity.
In Agamemnon, the first play of the Oresteia (458 BCE)—a dramatic trilogy by Aeschylus (525–456 BCE) that also comprises Choephoroe (Libation Bearers) and Eumenides—the eponymous king returns in triumph from Troy to Argos with a captive, the Trojan prophetess Cassandra. The pair are then murdered by Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The queen is inspired to commit this crime, not by Agamemnon's adultery—she has also been unfaithful—but by his earlier sacrifice of their daughter Iphigeneia. In this version there is no reference to a last-minute substitution at the altar: the princess dies painfully.
The tragic figure of the young Iphigeneia, sacrificed for her father's ambitions, continued to inspire later writers. Roman poet Ennius (239–169 BCE) wrote an Iphigeneia that survives only in fragments. For Lucretius (c. 100–c. 53 BCE) in De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), the story of Iphigeneia's sacrifice was an indication of the evils that religion could cause.
Iphigeneia's story has remained a popular subject throughout history. French playwright Jean Racine (1639–1699) wrote Iphigénie (1674). German composer Christoph Gluck (1714–1787) wrote two operas—Iphigeneia in Aulis (1772) and Iphigeneia in Tauris (1779)—the first of which was inspired by Racine's play. In the 19th century Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797–1828) set to music the poem "Iphigeneia" by Johann Mayrhofer. German Nobel laureate Gerhart Hauptmann (1862–1946) wrote Iphigenie in Delphi (1941) and Iphigenie in Aulis (1944), the first two plays in his Die Atridentetralogie, a series of four works that gave an account of the ancient myth in the context of World War II (1939–1945).
The story continues to inspire reinterpretation. In 1977, Greek director Michalis Kakoyannis filmed a highly influential Iphigeneia in Aulis. In the 1990s American composer and satirist Peter Schickele wrote the cantata Iphigeneia in Brooklyn under the pseudonym P. D. Q. Bach, a mythical son of J. S. Bach. The Songs of the Kings (2002), a novel by Barry Unsworth, is another modern reworking of the myth of Iphigeneia.
To commemorate Iphigeneia's role as a priestess, some young Greek women were chosen to spend time in seclusion at the temples of Artemis. The girls were known as arktoi (bears), and their time there was known as the arkteia. Small vases found at these sanctuaries show girls taking part in races and other games, and there are statues of girls holding animals, presumably symbolic offerings to Artemis, who protected the young of all species.
In Lysistrata, a comedy by Greek playwright Aristophanes (c. 450–c. 388 BCE), this ritual is said to have been carried out by all Athenian girls before marriage. Yet the weight of evidence suggests rather that only a small number of girls from elite families were selected to perform this service on behalf of all girls. Unlike the widely practiced custom of dedicating toys to Artemis before marriage, the arkteia seems to have been carried out only by very young girls, and thus its connection to marriage remains unclear.
See also: AGAMEMNON; ARTEMIS; ATREUS; ELECTRA; HECATE; HELEN; ORESTES; PARIS; PELOPS; TANTALUS.
- Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006. .
- The Complete Euripides, 5 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009–2010. , and Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, eds.
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