According to the most common tradition, a daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra,1 but, according to others, a daughter of Theseus and Helen, and brought up by Clytemnestra only as a foster-child.2
Agamemnon had once killed a stag in the grove of Artemis, or had boasted that the goddess herself could not hit better, or, according to another story, in the year in which Iphigeneia was born, he had vowed to sacrifice the most beautiful thing which that year might produce, but had afterwards neglected to fulfill his vow. Either of these circumstances is said to have been the cause of the calm which detained the Greek fleet in the port of Aulis, when the Greeks wanted to sail against Troy. The seer Calchas, or, according to others, the Delphic oracle, declared that the sacrifice of Iphigeneia was the only means of propitiating Artemis.
Agamemnon at first resisted the command, but the entreaties of Menelaus at length prevailed upon him to give way, and he consented to Iphigeneia being fetched by Odysseus and Diomedes, under the pretext that she was to be married to Achilles. When Iphigeneia had arrived, and was on the point of being sacrificed, Artemis carried her in a cloud to Tauris, where she was made to serve the goddess as her priestess, while a stag, or, according to others, a she-bear, a ball, or an old woman, was substituted in her place and sacrificed.3
According to Dictys Cretensis,4 Iphigeneia was saved in a peal of thunder by the voice of Artemis and the interference of Achilles, who had been gained over by Clytemnestra, and sent Iphigeneia to Scythia. Tzetzes5 even states that Achilles was actually married to her, and became by her the father of Pyrrhus.
While Iphigeneia was serving Artemis as priestess in Tauris, her brother Orestes, on the advice of an oracle, formed the plan of fetching the image of Artemis in Tauris, which was believed once to have fallen from heaven, and of carrying it to Attica.6 When Orestes, accompanied by Pylades, arrived in Tauris, he was, according to the custom of the country, to be sacrificed in the temple of the goddess. But Iphigeneia recognized her brother, and fled with him and the statue of the goddess. Some say that Thoas, king of Tauris, was previously murdered by the fugitives.7
In the meantime Electra, another sister of Orestes, had heard that he had been sacrificed in Tauris by the priestess of Artemis, and, in order to ascertain the truth of the report, she traveled to Delphi, where she met Iphigeneia, and was informed that she had murdered Orestes. Electra therefore resolved on putting Iphigeneia's eyes out, but was prevented by the interference of Orestes, and a scene of recognition took place. All now returned to Mycenae; but Iphigeneia carried the statue of Artemis to the Attic town of Brauron near Marathon. She there died as priestess of the goddess.
As a daughter of Theseus she was connected with the heroic families of Attica, and after her death the veils and most costly garments which had been worn by women who had died in childbirth were offered up to her.8 Pausanias,9 however, speaks of her tomb and heroum at Megara, whereas other traditions stated that Iphigeneia had not died at all, but had been changed by Artemis into Hecate, or that she was endowed by the goddess with immortality and eternal youth, and under the name of Oreilochia she became the wife of Achilles in the island of Leuce.10 The Lacedaemonians, on the other hand, maintained that the carved image of Artemis, which Iphigeneia and Orestes had carried away from Tauris, existed at Sparta, and was worshiped there in Limnaeon under the name of Artemis Orthia.11
The worship of this goddess in Attica and Lacedaemon is of great importance. At Sparta her image was said to have been found in a bush, and to have thrown the beholders into a state of madness; and once, as at the celebration of her festival, a quarrel arose which ended in bloodshed, an oracle commanded that in future human sacrifices should be offered to her. Lycurgus, however, is said to have abolished these sacrifices, and to have introduced in their stead the scourging of youths.12 That in Attica, also, human sacrifices were offered to her, at least in early times, may be inferred from the fact of its being customary to shed some human blood in the worship instituted there in honor of Orestes.13
Now, as regards the explanation of the mythus of Iphigeneia, we are informed by Pausanias14 that Artemis had a temple at Hermione, under the surname of Iphigeneia; and the same author15 and Herodotus16 tell us, that the Taurians considered the goddess to whom they offered sacrifices, to be Iphigeneia, the daughter of Agamemnon. From these and other circumstances, it has been inferred that Iphigeneia was originally not only a priestess of Artemis, or a heroine, but an attribute of Artemis, or Artemis herself.
The sacrifice of Iphigeneia is frequently depicted on murals. She appears as a young woman, calm and resigned in her role as sacrifice, such as at the Casa del Poeta Tragico in Pompeii and on a sarcophagus relief at Rome. As priestess she appears, together with Orestes and Pylades, on various Pompeian frescoes, such as in the Casa Citarista, Casa di Marco Olconio, and the Casa di Pinario Ceriale. The theme has been used by painters such as Ricci, Pittoni, Bencovich, and Tiepolo.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 98.
- Antoninus Liberalis, 27; Tzetzes on Lycophron, 183.
- Euripides. Iphigeneia in Tauris, 10-30, 783; Iphigeneia in Aulis, 1540 ff.; Welcker. Die Aeschylus Trilogie, 408. ff.; Suidas, s.v. Πενθερός.
- i, 19 ff.
- Euripides. Iphigeneia in Tauris, 79 ff.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 121; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid ii, 116.
- Euripides. Iphigeneia in Tauris, 1464; Diodorus Siculus, iv, 44 ff.; Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 33.
- i, 43.
- Antoninus Liberalis, 27.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece iii, 16.
- ibid. iii, 16.6; Dictionary of Antiquities, s.v. Diamastigosis.
- Euripides. Iphigeneia in Tauris, 1446 ff.
- Description of Greece ii, 35.2.
- ibid. vii, 26.
- iv, 103
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.