Iphigenia (Ancient Greek: Ἰφιγένεια) was sacrificed in the Boeotian harbor of Aulis, opposite the island of Euboea, or as others say, was saved at the last moment by Artemis, who substituted for her a deer or a bull at the altar, and transported her to Tauris where she later, having met his brother Orestes, was brought by him back home.
Never forgotten sacrifice
Iphigenia is most remembered on account of her own sacrifice, whether she died on the altar or not; for she is also said to have appeared many years later in a remote land. But the deeds of her alleged father Agamemnon, who was held responsible for her plight, were neither forgotten nor forgiven, and they contributed to the downfall of this powerful king, who although victorious in a great war, was defeated within the walls of his own home.
First abduction of Helen
Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra are regarded by many as Iphigenia's parents. Yet some say that King Theseus of Athens, infatuated by the beauty of Helen, once abducted her and held her in his power somewhere in Attica. For this outrage, he was punished by the girl's brothers, the DIOSCURI, who raising an army, came looking for their precious sister, founding her at last in the city of Aphidnae, which they razed to the ground.
This was the end of Theseus' rule, and he went into exile while the Dioscuri appointed Menestheus king of Athens. After establishing in this city the kind of government that suited them, the Dioscuri returned to Sparta, bringing Helen with them, and as some say, the little daughter Iphigenia that their sister had borne to Theseus while she was his prisoner. And they add that on her return to Sparta, Helen entrusted Iphigenia to her sister Clytaemnestra, who brought her up as if she had been her own child so that Helen could pretend that she was still a virgin.
The Oath of Tyndareus
Clytaemnestra married Agamemnon, and Helen chose as husband Agamemnon's brother Menelaus among her many suitors. But as war among the Suitors of Helen was feared, they were all made to swear what is known as The Oath of Tyndareus, promising that they would defend and protect him who was chosen as Helen's husband against any wrong done against him in regard to his marriage.
Second abduction of Helen
Thanks to this oath trouble was prevented, and all kings and princes returned to their lands, except Menelaus, who remained in Sparta as king. However, for reasons known by the gods and only in part by mortals, the seducer Paris arrived to the city years later.
He enjoyed Menelaus' hospitality for some time, but when the king had to leave for Crete in order to attend the funeral of Catreus, Paris left Sparta taking with him Helen and a certain amount of Spartan property to his home town Troy. It is on account of this abduction that The Oath of Tyndareus was invoked, forcing all princes that had sworn it to join the coalition that was determined to sail to Troy in order to demand, by persuasion or by force, the restoration of Helen and the property that the seducer Paris, breaking all laws of hospitality, had stolen.
This is why the Boeotian harbor of Aulis came to witness an unprecedented naval activity; for the fleet which gathered in its narrow straits was formed by twelve hundred ships. However, when time came for the fleet to sail it could not, due to the absence of wind. This happened because Agamemnon had offended Artemis, boasting after killing a stag:
"Artemis herself could not do it better." (Agamemnon. Apollodorus, Library "Epitome" 3.21).
Or as others say, because he had, on the year of Iphigenia's birth, vowed to sacrifice to the goddess the most beautiful creature brought forth that year. Still others have said that Artemis wished Agamemnon to pay for the omission of his father Atreus, who did not sacrifice to her the golden lamb, as he should have done.
In any case, because of the goddess' wrath, the Achaean fleet was wind-bound at Aulis. It was then that the seer Calchas, eager to find a way out from a situation that caused unease in the army, conceived the bizarre idea of sacrificing a woman, so that the army could sail and fetch another woman who was at Troy. And so he declared that the fleet would neither be able to sail nor sack the city of Troy, unless the fairest among Agamemnon's daughters were sacrificed to Artemis.
Agamemnon is said to have thought of disbanding the army, for even if the ruler could accept the price, the father could not. But Menelaus, eager to be avenged and to have his wife and property restored, persuaded his brother to become the murderer of his own daughter. And so Clytaemnestra and Iphigenia, who were at Mycenae, received a deceitful letter from Agamemnon, asking them to join him in Aulis where Iphigenia, he wrote, was going to be given in marriage to Achilles. Others have said that Odysseus and Diomedes came personally to Mycenae to fetch the women, telling Clytaemnestra that her daughter was to marry Achilles.
Murder awaits Iphigenia
Achilles himself was not aware of how the king, or the two above mentioned officers, were using his name, and as the lie was only known by Agamemnon, Menelaus, Calchas, Odysseus, and Diomedes, the two women, lured by the master of their own house, came to Aulis, where murder, disguised as wedding, awaited Iphigenia. This is how Agamemnon was plunged in narrower straits than those of Aulis, since it is painful to tell lies or break promises, and like an actor, be forced to look for a mask suited to confront those who have been deceived:
"Ah, woe is me! unhappy wretch, what can I say? where shall I begin? … what am I to tell my wife? how shall I welcome her?" (Agamemnon. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 441ff.).
And whereas an actor's masks serve the purpose of revealing the characters he represents, those worn by liars are intended not to reveal but to conceal. And when the liars are at the same time public servants or rulers, they often hide behind the mask of duty, hoping that loyalty towards their official obligations will excuse or justify their crimes. That is why they might pity themselves saying things like this:
"On kings and captains weigh many a care." (Agamemnon to Iphigenia. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 645).
And feeling unable to follow a fair path, though they see it in front of them, they might complain:
"My wish is barred: there lies my grief." (Agamemnon to Iphigenia. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 657).
For they believe that their life is tyrannized by the dignity of their office, and that they are the slaves of the people, not even being allowed to weep like common men do when they feel wretched. And sometimes they are quite right; for Fortune, in giving power and position to some, also cast them in bonds of doom, encircling them with ruin in all directions, and presenting them with painful choices.
And as they attempt to choose while still hiding behind some mask, they must often be reminded that they still are, despite their responsibilities towards the state or their work, human beings, mortals, husbands, and the like. This is why Clytaemnestra, having learned Agamemnon's intentions, first through Achilles, who knew nothing about weddings, and then through a servant, appealed to him as man and husband, begging him not to murder Iphigenia:
"… suppose you sacrifice the child; what prayer will you utter, when it is done? what will the blessing be that you will invoke upon yourself as you are slaying our daughter?" (Clytaemnestra to Agamemnon. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1185).
Also Iphigenia bade for her life:
"Do not destroy me before my time, for it is sweet to look upon the light, and do not force me to visit the world below … What have I to do with the marriage of Paris and Helen? Why is his coming to prove my ruin, father? Look upon me; bestow one glance, one kiss, that this at least I may carry to my death as a memorial of you, though you do not heed my pleading." (Iphigenia to Agamemnon. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1219ff.).
… stating her view about life and death, and expressing her young heart's desire:
"… to gaze upon the light is man's most cherished gift; that life below is nothingness, and whoever longs for death is mad. Better live a life of woe than die a death of glory!" (Iphigenia to Agamemnon. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1250).
Lecture in Political Science
Yet nothing could alter Agamemnon's design. For he felt that his obligations were first towards the vastness of his naval army, which wished to sail without delay to Troy and put an end to the rape of wives that had culminated with the deed of the seducer Paris. And as fear also plays a part in this kind of circumstance, Agamemnon explained to Iphigenia that if he did not offer her according to Calchas' instructions, he himself, along with his whole family, risked to be slain by the impatient army.
Besides, he concluded, it was not Menelaus who had enslaved him, nor was he following his wish to recover Helen at whatever price, as Iphigenia probably believed. There were other reasons, higher than this; that is why he lectured his daughter in Political Science, as he understood it, saying:
"… it is Hellas, for whom I must sacrifice you whether I will or not; to this necessity I bow my head; for her freedom must be preserved …" (Agamemnon to Iphigenia. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1270).
In the meantime, the army demanded the death of Iphigenia, fearfully crying and saying that her sacrifice was necessary. And those who opposed the mob, as Achilles, put themselves in danger from the tumult. For the soldiers, with Odysseus at their head, threatened to stone to death anyone who attempted to defend Iphigenia. It was then that Iphigenia, seeing how hard it is to persist in impossibilities, changed her mind, resolving to die.
For now, she reasoned, the eyes of Hellas looked at her, and it was on her that the passage over the sea and the sack of Troy depended. Suddenly she understood that by losing her life she would gain eternal Fame for having helped to avenge the Achaeans. She would not any longer try to preserve her own life; for after all, she thought, those soldiers who now demanded her life, were the same who had prepared themselves to lose their own in the battlefield at Troy. And finally:
"If Artemis has decided to take my body, am I, a mortal, to thwart the goddess?" (Iphigenia to Clytaemnestra. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1395).
On hearing these words, Achilles, some say, expressed the desire of wedding her, wishing that Agamemnon's trick about their marriage were true. Such was his admiration for Iphigenia's nature and courage; for himself thought that:
"… a dreadful ill is death." (Achilles to Iphigenia. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1415).
Achilles offered to defend her, but Iphigenia replied:
"… be not slain yourself … nor seek to slay another on my account; but let me, if I can, save Hellas." (Iphigenia to Achilles. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1420).
This was Iphigenia's disposition at the time of her sacrifice, believing herself to be the light of Hellas, and persuaded that Fame would never desert her. She was right in that, for even now she is remembered; and when she was brought before the altar, Agamemnon, they say, turned away his face and, letting the tears burst, held his robe before them. No one knows with certainty for whom he wept, but Iphigenia addressed to him her last words:
"O my father, here I am; willingly I offer my body for my country and all Hellas, that you may lead me to the altar of the goddess and sacrifice me, since this is Heaven's ordinance. May good luck be yours for any help that I afford! and may you obtain the victor's gift and come again to the land of your fathers. So then let none of the Argives lay hands on me, for I will bravely yield my neck without a word." (Iphigenia to Agamemnon. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1555ff.).
Calchas' new wisdom
Then Calchas seized his knife, and after scanning Iphigenia's throat, dealt a blow. It was then, they say, (for extraordinary things are rarely forgotten) that Iphigenia vanished, and in her place lay upon the ground a big deer, or some say a young bull, bedewing the altar with its blood. This miracle, they say, was performed by Artemis, while the Achaean Leaders were turning away their faces to avoid seeing the bloody spectacle.
Now seers, and others like them, imagine that they know the will of the gods; that is why, at the marvellous sight, Calchas, who before had recommended Iphigenia's sacrifice, now said with his usual wisdom, referring to the goddess' will:
"This is more welcome to her by far than the maid, that she may not defile her altar by shedding noble blood." (Calchas to the Achaeans. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1555ff.).
Whichever the victim, the sacrifice was performed, and Calchas now declared that the fleet could sail away. But for those who were close to Iphigenia there was no practical difference. For in spite of the deer, Iphigenia "had flown away to the gods," as a messenger told Clytaemnestra; that is why she says:
"Which of the gods, my child, has stolen you? How am I to address you? How can I be sure that this is not an idle tale told to cheer me, to make me cease my piteous lamentation for you?" (Clytaemnestra. Iphigenia in Aulis 1615).
Tales they are. And for those who sailed to Troy the sacrifice of Iphigenia became soon a minor tale, compared to what came after it. For the Achaeans, being unable to persuade the Trojans to restore Helen and the property, had to fight ten years in that foreign land, going through all what war may diligently provide.
Yet for those who remained at home, things looked differently, and Clytaemnestra never forgot her sweet flower Iphigenia. And on account of her daughter's sacrifice, and other outrages inflicted on her by Agamemnon, she, taking the king's cousin Aegisthus as lover, awaited her victorious husband, not, as they say, with crown and garland, but with a two-edged sword. And so Agamemnon, though being the greatest conqueror of his time, was defeated and murdered in his own home by his wife and her lover, as the result of a domestic conspiracy.
Vengeance of Orestes
Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra reigned in Mycenae for seven years. But then vengeance came in the shape of Agamemnon's son Orestes, who being determined to avenge his father, murdered not only the usurper but also his own mother. For committing matricide, Orestes was prostrated and spent most of the time in bed wasted with a fierce disease, having fits of madness, and being tortured by the Erinyes, who turn painful remorse into the master of both heart and mind.
Having both escaped and wandered, Orestes came to Athens, where he was brought to trial by the Erinyes. The votes at his trial were equal, and so Orestes was acquitted, being helped by Athena, who presided the first court which tried a case of homicide. But despite the acquittal, Orestes remained insane, having fits of madness as before, and recovering his senses only now and then. And as several purifications also failed, he went to Delphi in order to inquire how he should be rid of his mental disorders; the oracle then answered that he would be rid of them if he should fetch from a temple in Tauris the statue of Artemis.
Tauris, which today is called Crimea and is a peninsula in the northern coast of the Black Sea, was a part of the realm of Scythia. In this country, called after the bull (Taurus) that appeared on the altar at Aulis, hospitality was dishonoured, and foreigners, or whatever stranger who happened to come within the Taurian borders, were systematically put to death and thrown into the sacred fire in the temple of Artemis. To such a country came Orestes, following the oracle, in the company of his friend Pylades, and soon after their arrival they were seized by the Taurians, and brought to the temple of Artemis to be sacrificed.
As it turned out, the priestess of this temple was the same Iphigenia that had been sacrificed at Aulis, little less than twenty years before. Now, if attention had been paid to Tauris, then it would be known what she did all these years. But Tauris seeming less interesting, and Iphigenia being supposed to "have flown away to the gods," attention was turned for almost two decades to the alternatives of the Trojan War, and other exciting events such as Odysseus' efforts to come home, or Agamemnon's wretched fate.
Iphigenia in Tauris
As a result not much is known about Iphigenia's life in Tauris, except that she performed the rites that were prescribed, sending strangers to the altar of Artemis where they were butchered by other attendants. For these barbarian customs she never blamed the gods, as others who do similar things would:
"… Men of this country, being murderers, impute their sordid practice to divine command. That any god is evil I do not believe." (Iphigenia. Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 390).
But whereas very little was known about Tauris and Iphigenia before the arrival of Orestes and Pylades to the country, she, on the other hand, knew enough to ask appropriate questions to a stranger coming to her remote exile, where she arrived being carried through the air by Artemis. This was not a happy exile; for she says:
"… as a stranger I live in an unfertile home on this sea that is hostile to strangers, without marriage, or children, or city, or friends …" (Iphigenia. Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 219).
Prisoners brought to priestess
The prisoners Orestes and Pylades were then brought to the priestess Iphigenia in order to be sacrificed. And when Orestes heard her sister, whom he had not yet recognized, call them "unhappy strangers," he addressed her and death, in much the same way as Iphigenia herself had confronted her own fate at Aulis:
"I do not think the one who is about to die wise, if he wishes to conquer the fear of death by wailing, nor the one who laments when Hades is near and there is no hope of safety; for so he puts together two ills out of one, incurring a charge of folly and dying all the same; we must let fate alone." (Orestes to Iphigenia. Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 485).
Before performing her rites and sending the strangers to death, Iphigenia, by questioning them, learned some news that had not reached Tauris. And when she heard that Calchas had died, she said:
" O goddess, how good that is!" (Iphigenia. Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 533).
And having learned that Odysseus was alive but had not yet returned, she exclaimed:
"May he die and never achieve a return to his country!" (Iphigenia. Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 535).
Now, in the course of this conversation Iphigenia conceived the idea to save the life of one of the prisoners so that he could carry a message to her brother Orestes in Mycenae. It was then that they understood who they were; and together they made a plan to remove the statue of Artemis, as the oracle at Delphi had recommended, and escape out of the country.
While Iphigenia was removing the statue, however, the king of the Taurians came and asked her why she was moving it from its inviolable place. She then answered that impure men, who had killed their mother, had come into the temple.
For that reason, Iphigenia said, she was taking, along with the prisoners, the statue of Artemis out under the pure heaven, to be purged of blood, and then to the beach to be cleansed by the water of the sea, which, they say, can wash clean all the foulness of mankind.
Having come to the beach, where Orestes' ship was anchored out of sight, they tricked the guards and the temple attendants, and escaped with the statue, which they brought to Athens, although some have said that the ship of Orestes was driven in a storm to Rhodes, and that in accordance with an oracle, the statue was dedicated there.
Still others say that by a favoring wind, the ship of Orestes was borne to the island of Zminthe, where the family of Chryses, priest of Apollo, lived. This Chryses is the same priest who in the last year of the Trojan War asked the Achaeans to set free his daughter Chryseis, whom they held prisoner, and had his request denied by the arrogance of Agamemnon.
Some time after, however, the girl was released in order to placate Apollo, who hearing the prayers of Chryses, had sent a plague which decimated the Achaean army. The priest's daughter was pregnant when she was set free, and later she gave birth to a boy Chryses, who was the son of Agamemnon.
Now, when Iphigenia arrived with Orestes and Pylades to Zminthe, they were seized by Chryses, who decided to return them to King Thoas and the Taurians. But having learned through his grandfather Chryses that he too was son of Agamemnon, Chryses, joining his forces to those of his half-brother Orestes, attacked the Taurians and killed their king Thoas.
Iphigenia in Delphi
In any case, Iphigenia, Orestes, and Pylades returned to Hellas. But in the meantime, some say, a messenger had come to Electra in Mycenae falsely saying that Orestes and Pylades had been sacrificed in Tauris. It was then that Aletes, son of Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra, having heard that the family of the Atrides was extinct, seized power in Mycenae.
Electra then, accompanied by the messenger, traveled to Delphi in order to inquire about her brother's death, entering the city the same day that Iphigenia and Orestes arrived. When the sisters met, the false messenger said that Iphigenia was the murderess of her brother, and Electra, having seized a burning torch from the altar, would have blinded her sister Iphigenia if Orestes had not appeared and intervened.
Having thus reunited at Delphi, they, carrying the statue of Artemis, returned to Mycenae where Orestes, after killing Aletes, became king.
Others have said that Iphigenia landed at Brauron near Marathon, leaving the image of Artemis there, and coming back home to Argos or Mycenae via Athens; but others say that the image was brought to Lacedaemon, which was the place where Orestes had his home; and others affirm that it was brought to Athens, and so on, and so on …
For the fame of that statue remained so high that the Cappadocians dwelling on the Euxine claimed to own it, as also did the Lydians. And in historical times, they say, the statue from Brauron became the booty of the Persians, who brought it to Susa; and afterwards Seleucus gave it to the Syrians of Laodicea, who kept it in their possession.
Death of Iphigenia
According to some, Iphigenia, who after flying to the gods returned home, died in Megara, by coincidence or not, the home-town of the seer Calchas. Others say that she is Hecate by the will of Artemis, and that the Taurians sacrificed castaways to a maiden called Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon.
Immortality of Iphigenia
Iphigenia, others assert, was made immortal and ageless by Artemis, and she lives, married to Achilles, in the White Isle, which is in the Black Sea near the mouths of the Danube. But Lycophron has affirmed that Iphigenia and Achilles already consummated their marriage at Aulis, and that Neoptolemus was their son.
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Epitome of the Library 3.21.
Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, ed. G. Kinkel, p. 19
Hesiod, The Catalogues, TRANS. by H. G. Evelyn-White, fragment 71
Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris
Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 27
Iphigenia at Aulis, play by Euripides
Iphigenia in Tauris, play by Euripides.
Metamorphoses, narrative poem by Ovid (books 12 and 13)
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