The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

François Perrier's "The Sacrifice of Iphigenia" (17th century), depicting Agamemnon's murder of his daughter Iphigenia.

Iphigenia (pronounced: /ɪfɨdʒɨˈnaɪ.ə/; Ancient Greek: Ἰφιγένεια, Iphigeneia) is a daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in Greek mythology.[1] In Attic accounts,[2] her name means "strong-born", "born to strength", or "she who causes the birth of strong offspring."[3]

Post-Homeric Greek myth

Artemis punished Agamemnon after he killed a deer in a sacred grove and boasted he was the better hunter. On their way to Troy to participate in the Trojan War, Agamemnon's ships were suddenly motionless, as Artemis stopped the wind in Aulis. The soothsayer, Calchas, revealed an oracle that appeased Artemis, so that the Achaean fleet could sail. This much is in Homer, who does not discuss the aspect of this episode in which other writers explain that the only way to appease Artemis was to sacrifice Iphigenia to her. According to the earliest versions he did so, but other sources claim that Iphigenia was taken by Artemis to Tauris in Crimea to prepare others for sacrifice, and that the goddess left a deer[4] or a goat (the god Pan transformed) in her place. The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women called her Iphimede (Ἰφιμέδη)[5] and told that Artemis transformed her into the goddess Hecate.[6] Antoninus Liberalis said that Iphigenia was transported to the island of Leuke, where she was wedded to immortalized Achilles under the name of Orsilochia.

Feuerbach Iphigenie1

Iphigenie (1862) by Anselm Feuerbach.

Euripides has two stories about Iphigenia. In Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, Agamemnon is told by Calchas that in order for the winds to allow him to sail to Troy, Agamemnon must sacrifice Iphigenia to Artemis. Agamemnon fools Clytemnestra into bringing Iphigenia to Aulis by sending a letter to Clytemnestra telling her that Iphigenia will be married to Achilles. There is one moment in the play where Agamemnon regrets his decision and tries to send another letter telling them not to come, however Menelaus intercepts the letter. After Agamemnon and Menelaus have an argument, Clytemnestra arrives at Aulis with Iphigenia and Orestes. Agamemnon tries to convince Clytemnestra to go back to Argos while he marries Iphigenia to Achilles. Clytemnestra refuses to leave and plans on marrying off her daughter the proper way. When Clytemnestra sees Achilles she brings up the marriage, however Achilles doesn’t know what she is talking about and slowly the truth comes out about Agamemnon’s true plan. Achilles vows to help prevent the murder of Iphigenia even after the Greeks throw stones at him. After Iphigenia and Clytemnestra mourn together, Iphigenia makes the noble decision to die in honor and by her own will and asks Achilles not to stop the men. When Iphigenia is brought to the altar to be slain she willingly allows herself to be sacrificed. As Iphigenia is about to be slain a deer is put in her place.

Euripides’ character of Iphigenia holds many complex meanings that stem from her decision to willingly sacrifice herself. There are several possible reasons for Iphigenia’s decision. The first is that Iphigenia wants to please her father and protect the family name. Not only does Iphigenia want to please her father, but she also forgives him for making the decision to sacrifice her. The second reason is that Iphigenia sees this as a patriotic cause. Iphigenia realizes that if she dies, then the men can sail to Troy and win and protect their own women. If the men did not get to Troy to defeat the Trojans then all the Greek women would be raped and possibly killed. Thus, Iphigenia sees her death as saving hundreds of women. A third reason for Iphigenia’s choice could be a more selfish reason. Iphigenia wants to be remembered with honor through her self-sacrifice, unlike how Helen of Troy is viewed. While the concept of glory is mostly seen in the men who fight, here it is seen in Iphigenia. A final possible reason is that Iphigenia sees bad in her father and now has nothing to live for.

In Euripides’ other story about Iphigenia, Iphigenia in Tauris, the play takes place after the sacrifice and after Orestes has killed Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. In order for Orestes to escape the persecutions of the Erinyes for killing his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Orestes has been ordered by Apollo to go to Tauris.[7] While in Tauris Orestes is to carry off the xoanon (carved wooden cult image) of Artemis which had fallen from heaven, and bring it to Athens. When Orestes arrives at Tauris with Pylades, son of Strophius and intimate friend of Orestes, the pair are at once captured by the Tauri, among whom the custom is to sacrifice all Greek strangers to Artemis. The priestess of Artemis is Iphigenia, and it is her duty to perform the sacrifice. Iphigenia and Orestes don’t recognize each other. Iphigenia finds out from Orestes, who is still concealing his identity, that Orestes is alive. Iphigenia then offers to release Orestes if he will carry home a letter from her to Greece. Orestes refuses to go, but bids Pylades to take the letter while Orestes will stay to be slain. After a conflict of mutual affection, Pylades at last yields, but the letter brings about recognition between brother and sister, and all three escape together, carrying with them the image of Artemis. After their return to Greece, and having been saved from dangers by Athena, she orders Orestes to take the Xoanon to the town of Halae where he is to build a temple for Artemis Tauropolos and let a man be sacrificed there during every festival in atonement for his own sacrifice. Iphigenia is by Athena sent to the sanctuary of Artemis in Brauron where she is to be the priestess until she dies there. According to the Spartans, however, the image of Artemis was transported by them to Laconia, where the goddess was worshipped as Artemis Orthia.

These close identifications of Iphigenia with Artemis have encouraged some scholars to believe that she was originally a hunting goddess whose cult was subsumed by the Olympian Artemis.

Among the Taurians

The people of Tauris/Taurica facing the Euxine Sea[8] worshipped the maiden goddess Artemis. Some very early Greek sources in the Epic Cycle affirmed that Artemis rescued Iphigenia from the human sacrifice her father was about to perform, for instance in the lost epic Cypria, which survives in a summary by Proclus:[9] "Artemis, however, snatched her away and transported her to the Tauroi, making her immortal, and put a stag in place of the girl upon the altar." The goddess swept the young princess off to Tauris where she became a priestess at the Temple of Artemis.

The earliest known accounts of the death of Iphigenia are included in Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris, both Athenian tragedies of the fifth century BCE set in the Heroic Age. In the dramatist's version, the Taurians worshipped both Artemis and Iphigenia in the Temple of Artemis at Tauris.

Other variations of the death of Iphigenia include her being rescued at her sacrifice by Artemis and transformed into the goddess Hecate.[10] Another example includes Iphigenia’s brother, Orestes, discovering her identity and helping him steal an image of Artemis.[11] The reason for many discrepancies in the telling of the myth is because playwrights such as Euripides modified the stories about Iphigenia to make them more palatable for the audiences and make sequels using the same characters.

Many traditions arose from the sacrifice of Iphigenia. One prominent version is credited to the Spartans. Rather than sacrificing virgins, they would whip the male victim in front of a sacred image of Artemis, until an erotic reaction occurred and he ejaculated, fertilizing the land with blood and semen. However, most tributes to Artemis inspired by her sacrifice, were more traditional. Taurians especially performed sacrifices of bulls and virgins in honour of Artemis.[12]


Iphianassa (Ἰφιάνασσα) is the name of one of Agamemnon's three daughters in Homer's Iliad (ix.145, 287)[13] The name Iphianassa may be simply an older variant of the name Iphigenia. "Not all poets took Iphigenia and Iphianassa to be two names for the same heroine," Kerenyi remarks,[14] "though it is certain that to begin with they served indifferently to address the same divine being, who had not belonged from all time to the family of Agamemnon."

Cymon and Iphigenia


Cymon and Iphigenia c. 1884 by Frederic Leighton.

The episode of Iphigenia and Cymon that inspired such painters as Benjamin West (1773), John Everett Millais (1848) and Frederic Leighton (1884) is not a Greek myth, but a novella taken from Boccaccio's Decameron and developed later by the poet and dramatist John Dryden.

The tale intended to demonstrate the power of love. As Iphigenia sleeps in a grove by the sea, a noble, but coarse and unlettered Cypriot youth, Cymon, seeing Iphigenia's beauty, falls in love with her. Cymon, by the power of love, becomes an educated and polished courtier.

Modern interpretations

In sacrifice, the second volume of Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze comic book series, the substitution of a deer for Iphigenia is a pious lie invented by Odysseus to comfort the grieving Clymenstra. However, it does not work and Clymenstra angrily curses the whole Achaean army, wishing they all die in the war[15]

Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country contains a similar idea, with a play named Iphigenia at Ilium running through the novel as a leitmotif. Within the novel, the ghost of Iphigenia tells Achilles that all the poets lied. Iphigenia says that she did not die willingly, nor was a hind sent to take her place. Iphigenia also realizes that these myths no longer have any power over her. Achilles then attempts to claim her as his wife, however, she reminds him that "women are no good to you dead".

In Glyn Iliffe's Gates of Troy, Iphigenia is in fact the daughter of Eperitus, a friend and bodyguard of Odysseus, who slept with Clytemnestra during the courtship of Helen.

There is also speculation that Iphigenia was actually the daughter of Helen and Theseus.[1]

In Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, Iphigenia comes to Aulis under the belief that she is to marry Achilles. Instead she is unwillingly sacrificed to appease Artemis.

Adaptations of the Iphigenia story

  • Cymon and Iphigenia, a solo cantata by Thomas Arne (1753)
  • Iphigenia at Aulis, play by Euripides
    • Iphigenie en Aulide, play by Jean Racine
    • Iphigenie en Aulide, opera by Christoph Willbald Gluck
    • Iphigenia, film by Michael Cacoyannis
    • The songs of the Kings, novel by Barry Unsworth
    • Iphigenia, play by Mircea Eliade
    • Iphigenia at Aulis, play by Ellen McLaughlin (part of Iphigenia and Other Daughters)
    • Ifgeneia, a rewrite of the play by Finn Iunker
    • Iphigenia at Aulis, the first part of The Greeks trilogy, adapted and directed by John Barton for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980
    • Iphigenia 2.0, modern adaptation of the play by Charles L. Mee
    • Iph..., adapted by Colin Teevan
  • Iphigenia in Tauris, play by Euripides
    • Iphigenia auf Tauris, play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
    • Iphigenie en Tauride, opera by Christoph Willbald Gluck
    • Iphigenia at Tauris, play by Ellen McLaughlin (part of Iphigenia and Other Daughters)
  • Iphigenia in Brooklyn, solo cantata by Peter Schickele under the pseudonym of P.D.Q. Bach
  • Iphigenia, ballet by Charles Le Picq
  • Iphigenia, play by samuel Coster
  • Iphigenia in Orem, part of Bash: Latter-Day Plays, a collection of three plays by Neil LaBute
  • A Memory of the Wind, story by Rachel Swirsky
  • Agamemnon's Daughter, novel by Ismail kadare


  1. 1.0 1.1 By Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 27 (online text) Iphigenia is called a daughter of Theseus and Helen, raised by Clytemnestra.
  2. Pausanias, 2.21.6; a scholium on Aristophanes' Lysistrata l.645, asserts that it was not at Aulis but at Brauron in Attica that she was apparently sacrificed (noted in Karl Kerenyi, The Heroes of the Greeks 1959:238 and note 599).
  3. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. "Iphigenia" and Rush Rehm, The Play of Space (2002, 188). Karl Kerenyi, aware of Iphigenia's obscure pre-history as an autonomous goddess rather than a mere marriageable girl in the house of Agamemnon, renders her name "she who governs births mightily" (Kerenyi 1959:331).
  4. "When his wife had sent Iphigenia, Agamemnon placed her on the altar and was about to sacrifice her when Artemis spirited her off to the Taurians, where she set her up as her own priestess; she put a deer on the altar in the girl’s place. In addition, according to some, she made Iphigenia immortal." Pseudo-Apollodorus, Epitome of the Library 3.21.
  5. This fragmentary passage (fr. 23(a)17–26), found among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, has been restored to its proper place in the Ehoeae, the Hesiodic Catalogue, in modern times; the awkward insertion of eidolon — the image of Iphimede — and lines where Artemis saves her are considered a later interpolation by Friedrich Solmsen, "The Sacrifice of Agamemnon's Daughter in Hesiod's' Ehoeae" The American Journal of Philology 102.4 (Winter 1981), pp. 353-358.
  6. this doesn't appear in any of the surviving passages of the Hesiodic catalogue but is attested for it by Pausanias, 1.43.1.
  7. Tauris is now the Crimea.
  8. Taurica (Greek: Ταυρίς, Ταυρίδα, Latin: Taurica) also known as the Tauric Chersonese and Chersonesus Taurica, was the name of Crimea in Antiquity.
  9. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, ed. G. Kinkel, p. 19
  10. Hesiod, The Catalogues, TRANS. by H. G. Evelyn-White, fragment 71
  11. Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris
  12. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, London: Penguin, 1955; Baltimore: Penguin pgs 73-75: “Iphigenia Among the Taurians”
  13. The three are Chrysothemis, Laodice (the double of Electra) and Iphianassa. In Iliad ix, the embassy to Achilles is empowered to offer him one of Agamemnon's three daughters, implying that Iphianassa/Iphigenia is still living, as Friedrich Solmsen 1981:353 points out.
  14. Kerenyi 1959:331, noting Sophocles, Elektra 157. Kerenyi clearly distinguishes between parallel accounts of Iphigenia. "It is possible in the Cypria Agamemnon was given four daughters, Iphigenia being distinguished from Iphianassa", Friedrich Solmsen remarks, (Solmsen 1981:353 note 1) also noting the scholium on Elektra 157.
  15. Eric Shanower (2004) Age of Bronze: Sacrifice, Image Comics, berkley, California ISBN 1-58240-399-6

Modern sources

  • Bonnard, A. (1945) Iphigénie à Aulis. Tragique et Poesie. Basel, Museum Helveticum, v. 2, p. 87-107
  • Croisille, J.-M. (1963) Le sacrifice d’Iphigénie dans l’art romain et la littérature latine. Brussels, Latomus, v. 22, p. 209-225
  • Decharme, P. "Iphigenia." In: c. d'Aremberg, and E Saglio, Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines, v. 3 (1ère partie), p. 570-572, (1877–1919)
  • Graves, Robert (1955), The Greek Myths, London, Penguin, pp 73-75
  • Jouan, F. (1966) "Le Rassemblement d’Aulis et le Sacrifice d´Iphigénie." In: _______, Euripide et les Légendes des Chants Cypriens. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, pp 259–298
  • Kahil, L. (1991) "Le sacrifice d’Iphigénie." In: 'Mélanges de l’École Française de Rome'. Antiquité, Rome, v. 103, p. 183-196
  • Kerenyi, Karl (1959) The Heroes of the Greeks (New York/London:Thames and Hudson) 1959, pp 331–36 et passim
  • Kjellberg, L. (1916) "Iphigenia." In: A.F. Pauly and G. Wissowa Real-Encyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, v. 9, pp. 2588–2622.
  • Lloyd-Jones, H. (1983) '"Artemis and Iphigenia" Journal of Hellenic Studies 103 pp 87–102.
  • Peck, Harry. (1898) "Iphigenia.' in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. New York: Harper and Brothers
  • Séchen, L. (1931) "Le Sacrifice d’Iphigénie" Révue des Études Grecques, Paris, pp 368–426
  • West, M.L. (1985) The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women. Oxford: Clarendon Press

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Iphigenia. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.