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The Story of Iphigenia in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 31, 2016

The story of Iphigenia is a tale from Greek mythology that links in with that of many famous tales, including the Trojan War, the House of Atreus and Orestes, and yet Iphigenia’s story is all but forgotten.

Iphigenia’s story is a complex, for she was written about by many different writers in antiquity, although notably not by Homer in the Iliad, and the story would change depending upon the audience being written for.

Iphigenia Daughter of Agamemnon

The story of Iphigenia begins in Mycenae where she was born into the royal family, for her father was King Agamemnon, and her mother was Clytemnestra, daughter of Tyndareus the former king of Sparta. Iphigenia had a number of siblings including Orestes, Electra and Chrysothemis.

Iphigenia

Iphigenia - Anselm Feuerbach (1829–1880) - PD-art-100
Iphigenia - Anselm Feuerbach (1829–1880) - PD-art-100 | Source

Sacrifice Called For

When Iphigenia’s aunt, Helen, was abducted by Paris and taken to Troy, her father was made commander of the forces of Greece assembled to retrieve the wife of Menelaus. The assembled forces gathered at Aulis, but there an ill wind meant that they could not set sail for Troy.

The seer Calchas proclaimed that the ill wind came about because the Greek goddess Artemis had been angered by one amongst the Achaean forces. Calchas also proclaimed that the only way to appease the goddess was to make a human sacrifice, and the only suitable sacrifice being the beautiful daughter of Agamemnon, Iphigenia.

Iphegnia Sacrificed

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia - Leonaert Bramer (1596–1674) - PD-art-100
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia - Leonaert Bramer (1596–1674) - PD-art-100 | Source

Iphigenia Sacrificed

Now as to whether Agamemnon entertained the idea of sacrificing his daughter depends on the ancient source being studied. Some say that Agamemnon was prepared to call off the whole expedition rather than sacrifice Iphigenia, whilst others stated that the King of Mycenae saw it as his duty, as commander of the Achaeans.

Of course, no matter how willing Agamemnon was to sacrifice his daughter, his wife, Clytemnestra, wouldn’t be; deception was therefore called for, and Odysseus and Diomedes were dispatched to Mycenae, on the pretence that Iphigenia was to marry Achilles.

As a result, Clytemnestra and Iphigenia arrived at Aulis, mother and daughter were soon separated though, and the sacrificial alter was prepared. Some sources state that when Iphigenia realised her fate, she went willingly to be sacrificed, believing that her death was in a heroic cause.

Few of the Achaean leaders could watch the sacrifice, but the seer Calchas raised his knife to give the killing strike.

Iphigenia Saved

The idea of human sacrifice is an unpalatable one today, and even in antiquity it was not an overly common one, although of course it did occur in the case of Theseus and the Minotaur. As such, the story of Iphigenia probably evolved over time, so that the daughter of Agamemnon wasn’t actually sacrificed.

As Calchas brought down his knife, Artemis was said to have spirited Iphigenia away, replacing the daughter of Agamemnon on the sacrificial alter with a deer, but the substitution seemingly went unnoticed by Agamemnon and the other Achaeans.

The ill winds that had kept the Greek ships at anchor suddenly abated and the gathered ships were now free to travel on to Troy.

The sacrifice, or believed sacrifice, of Iphigenia would have deadly consequences for Agamemnon. After many years of fighting at Troy, a victorious Agamemnon would return to Mycenae. In his absence though, Clytemnestra had taken herself a lover, the cousin of Agamemnon, Aegisthus.

Agamemnon though was initially welcomed home, but when he took a bath, Clytemnestra ensnared him in a net, and then stabbed him to death, possibly with the help of Aegisthus. One of the reasons given for this murder was the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

Iphigenia Saved

Iphigenia Substitued - Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1724–1796) - PD-art-100
Iphigenia Substitued - Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1724–1796) - PD-art-100 | Source

Brother and Sister Reunited

Orestes would of course avenge his father, and in stories where Iphigenia was not sacrificed, the paths of brother and sister would cross.

In the stories where Iphigenia is not sacrificed, Artemis is said to have transported the young girl to Tauris or Taurica, modern day Crimea. There, Iphigenia was installed as a priestess within the Temple of Artemis.

Having just escaped the sacrificial alter, Iphigenia was now in charge of human sacrifices herself, for the Tauri would sacrifice strangers who unwittingly crossed their land.

Orestes and his companion Pylades would come to Tauris, and were subsequently captured; Orestes would bravely go to the sacrificial alter, but in the knick of time brother and sister recognised each other, and the sacrifice was halted. Iphigenia quickly arranged for her brother to escape his chains, and then she joined her brother on his anchored ship. Iphigenia would take a statue of Artemis from the temple of Tauris, and brother and sister would successfully escape.

Iphigenia Back in Greece

News of the supposed death of Orestes at Tauris preceded the fleeing siblings, and as a result Electra believed that she was the only child of Agamemnon left alive. The news also saw Aletes son of Aegisthus seize the throne of Mycenae.

Iphigenia and Orestes would arrive in Delphi at the same time as Electra also visited the town, and Iphigenia was pointed out to Electra as the killer of Orestes. Electra, of course not recognising her sister, was about to attack Iphigenia but then Orestes appeared and stayed his sister’s hand.

The three offspring of Agamemnon would return to Mycenae, and Orestes would vanquish Aletes, taking the throne which had once been his father’s.

The tale of Iphigenia then fades away, although some reports tell of her death in Megara, and some tales also tell of her marriage to Achilles in the afterlife, where she and Achilles would spend eternity on the Fortunate Isles.

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