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Iphigenia

by Rachel Gross and Dale Grote
Iphigenia is best known as the daughter Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces at Troy, had to sacrifice in order to appease Artemis. Agamemnon, or perhaps one of the troops in the Greek force of Menelaus (the brother of Agamemnon) offended Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt either by killing one of her sacred animals and/or by boasting immoderately that his hunting skill exceeded even that of Artemis. Artemis sent a contrary wind, which held the Greek fleet in the bay of Aulis, where it had assembled before sailing to Troy. The prophet Calchas divined that the daughter of Agamemnon would have to be sacrificed to atone for the offence. Agamemnon then summoned Iphigenia from home under the ruse that she was to be married to Achilles. When the sacrifice was about to be made, however, Iphigenia is miraculously transported to Taurus, a city on the Black Sea, and an animal sent in her place.

It is interesting, and perhaps significant, that the story of Iphigenia's sacrifice is not mentioned in the Iliad or the Odyssey, despite there being ample opportunity and reason to do so. The earliest source for the story is in the report we have of the lost Homeric Cypria (which is usually thought to date one to two centuries after the Homeric epics). In the next source, Aeschylus' play The Libation Bearers (c. 460 BCE), Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon, mentioned the killing of Iphigenia as part of her justification for killing Agamemnon upon his return to Mycene after the Trojan War. The two plays of Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, and Iphigenia at Tauris, are centered on the story of Iphigenia. The story also gets minor mention in Hesiod's Catalogue of Women and Eoiae 71, which reports that she was changed into the goddess Hecate instead of being sacrificed.

The complexity of Iphigenia's story is present in many of the heroines of Greek mythology. Many of them appear either to have been goddesses in earlier times--which powers they have lost in the historical period--or are so similar to known goddesses that they appear to be hardly more than a different name for the same divinity. Iphigenia is so closely associated with Artemis, that her name is frequently seen as a mere epithet for Artemis (H.J. Rose p. 119.), which justifies the suspicion that Iphigenia might have originally been another competing virgin goddess of the hunt, whose character and functions were subsumed by Artemis.


Article details:

  • Also known as:
    Iphigeneia
  • Pronunciation:
    if-uh-juh-ny'-uh

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