The sacrifice of Iphigenia is a pivotal moment in the tale of the House of Atreus—it motivates Agamemnon’s murder and in turn the matricide of Orestes—and the Trojan War, functioning as it does as a strange sacrifice of a virgin daughter of Klytemnestra in exchange for passage for a fleet to regain the adulteress Helen, Iphigeneia’s aunt by both her father and mother. The account is famous in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the plays Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians by Euripides. Its earliest accounts, however, provide some interesting variations:
Hes. Fr. 23.13-30
“Agamemnon, lord of men, because of her beauty,
Married the dark-eyed daughter of Tyndareus, Klytemnestra.
She gave birth to fair-ankled Iphimede in her home
And Elektra who rivaled the goddesses in beauty.
But the well-greaved Achaeans butchered Iphimede
on the altar of thundering, golden-arrowed Artemis
on that day when they sailed with ships to Ilium
in order to exact payment for fair-ankled Argive woman—
they butchered a ghost. But the deer-shooting arrow-mistress
easily rescued her and anointed her head
with lovely ambrosia so that her flesh would be enduring—
She made her immortal and ageless for all days.
Now the races of men upon the earth call her
Artemis of the roads, the servant of the famous arrow-mistress.
Last in her home, dark-eyed Klytemnestra gave birth
after being impregnated by Agamemnon to Orestes,
who, once he reached maturity, paid back the murderer of his father
and killed his mother as well with pitiless bronze.”
γ̣ῆμ̣[ε δ’ ἑὸν διὰ κάλλος ἄναξ ἀνδρ]ῶν ᾿Αγαμέμνων
κού[ρην Τυνδαρέοιο Κλυταιμήσ]τρην κυανῶπ[ιν•
ἣ̣ τ̣[έκεν ᾿Ιφιμέδην καλλίσφυ]ρον ἐν μεγάρο[ισιν
᾿Ηλέκτρην θ’ ἣ εἶδος ἐρήριστ’ ἀ[θανά]τηισιν.
᾿Ιφιμέδην μὲν σφάξαν ἐυκνή[μ]ιδες ᾿Αχαιοὶ
βωμῶ[ι ἔπ’ ᾿Αρτέμιδος χρυσηλακ]ά̣τ[ου] κελαδεινῆς,
ἤματ[ι τῶι ὅτε νηυσὶν ἀνέπλ]εον̣ ῎Ιλιον ε̣[ἴσω
ποινὴ[ν τεισόμενοι καλλισ]φύρου ᾿Αργειώ̣[νη]ς̣,
εἴδω[λον• αὐτὴν δ’ ἐλαφηβό]λο̣ς ἰοχέαιρα
ῥεῖα μάλ’ ἐξεσά[ωσε, καὶ ἀμβροσ]ίην [ἐρ]ατ̣ε̣[ινὴν
στάξε κατὰ κρῆ[θεν, ἵνα οἱ χ]ρ̣ὼς̣ [ἔ]μ̣πε[δ]ο̣[ς] ε̣[ἴη,
θῆκεν δ’ ἀθάνατο[ν καὶ ἀγήρ]αον ἤμα[τα πάντα.
τὴν δὴ νῦν καλέο[υσιν ἐπὶ χ]θ̣ονὶ φῦλ’ ἀν̣[θρώπων
῎Αρτεμιν εἰνοδί[ην, πρόπολον κλυ]τοῦ ἰ[ο]χ[ε]αίρ[ης.
λοῖσθον δ’ ἐν μεγά[ροισι Κλυτ]αιμ̣ή̣στρη κυα[νῶπις
γείναθ’ ὑποδμηθ[εῖσ’ ᾿Αγαμέμν]ον[ι δῖ]ον ᾿Ορέ[στην,
ὅς ῥα καὶ ἡβήσας ἀπε̣[τείσατο π]ατροφο[ν]ῆα,
κτεῖνε δὲ μητέρα [ἣν ὑπερήν]ορα νηλέι [χαλκῶι.
This fragment presents what is possibly the earliest account of the tale of Iphigenia and contains the major elements: the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter is tied to vengeance against Helen; the daughter is rescued by Artemis, made immortal and made her servant. [In some traditions she is either made immortal or made into a priestess of Artemis at Tauris]. Orestes kills the murderer of his father and his mother.
Note that several details are not spelled out, but assumed: namely, Agamemnon’s agency in the death of his daughter (either in angering the goddess or in arranging her sacrifice) and the murder of Agamemnon. Note as well, the name is different: here we have Iphimedê instead of Iphigeneia. Of course, the situation gets stranger: according to Pausanias (1.43.1) Artemis turned Iphigeneia into Hekate. According to Proclus (in his Chrestomathia, “useful knowledge”; 135-143), the story was told in the Kypria as follows:
“When the fleet gathered a second time at Aulis, Agamemnon struck a deer while hunting and claimed he had surpassed Artemis. The goddess, enraged, kept them from sailing by sending storms. When Kalkhas explained the origin of the goddess’s anger and called for Iphigeneia to be sacrificed to Artemis, they attempted to complete the sacrifice by sending for her with the pretext of a marriage to Achilles. But Artemis snatched her away and settled her among the Taurians and made her immortal; she put a deer in place of the girl on the altar.”
καὶ τὸ δεύτερον ἠθροισμένου τοῦ στόλου ἐν Αὐλίδι ᾿Αγαμέμνων ἐπὶ θηρῶν βαλὼν ἔλαφον ὑπερβάλλειν ἔφησε καὶ τὴν ῎Αρτεμιν. μηνίσασα δὲ ἡ θεὸς ἐπέσχεν αὐτοὺς τοῦ πλοῦ χειμῶνας ἐπιπέμπουσα. Κάλχαντος δὲ εἰπόντος τὴν τῆς θεοῦ μῆνιν καὶ ᾿Ιφιγένειαν κελεύσαντος θύειν τῇ ᾿Αρτέμιδι, ὡς ἐπὶ γάμον αὐτὴν ᾿Αχιλλεῖ μεταπεμψάμενοι θύειν ἐπιχειροῦσιν. ῎Αρτεμις δὲ αὐτὴν ἐξαρπάσασα εἰς Ταύρους μετακομίζει καὶ ἀθάνατον ποιεῖ, ἔλαφον δὲ ἀντὶ τῆς κόρης παρίστησι τῷ βωμῷ.
In the fifth century, the story becomes a little more consistent: Aeschylus’ account is probably the best known (Agamemnon, 229-249) but Pindar discusses it too (Pyth. 11.22-28)
“Was it the fact that Iphigeneia
was butchered far from her homeland at Euripos
that incited [Klytemnestra’s] heavy-handed rage?
Or did nocturnal sex, breaking her to another’s bed,
lead her astray? That is most hateful
and intractable in young wives—but it is impossible to hide
because of other people’s tongues:
Townsfolk are gossip-mongers.”
… πότερόν νιν ἄρ’ ᾿Ιφιγένει’ ἐπ’ Εὐρίπῳ
σφαχθεῖσα τῆλε πάτρας
ἔκνισεν βαρυπάλαμον ὄρσαι χόλον;
ἢ ἑτέρῳ λέχεϊ δαμαζομέναν
ἔννυχοι πάραγον κοῖται; τὸ δὲ νέαις ἀλόχοις
ἔχθιστον ἀμπλάκιον καλύψαι τ’ ἀμάχανον
κακολόγοι δὲ πολῖται.
Sophokles, who also wrote an Iphigeneia (lost), has Elektra defend her father’s decision by portraying him as accidentally killing the deer and having no choice in the killing of his daughter (Elektra, 563-576).
The situation with the naming of the daughters of Agamemnon is a bit knotty. In the Iliad he declares: “I have three daughters in my well-made home / Khrysothemis, Laodikê, and Iphianassa” (τρεῖς δέ μοί εἰσι θύγατρες ἐνὶ μεγάρῳ εὐπήκτῳ / Χρυσόθεμις καὶ Λαοδίκη καὶ ᾿Ιφιάνασσα, 9.144-145) whereas the Hesiodic fragment cited above lists only two (Elektra and Iphimedê). Some scholars have assumed that Homer suppresses the sacrifice of Iphigeneia (although the events of the epic’s first book seem to rely on that tension). According to Aelian the name Elektra was a pejorative nickname for Laodikê (Varia Historia, 4.26):
“Xanthus the lyric poet—the one who was older than Stesikhoros—says that the daughter of Agamemnon Elektra did not have that name at first, but instead was Laodikê. After Agamemnon was killed and Aigisthos married Klytemnestra and was king, because she was “unbedded” (a-lektron) and was growing old as a virgin, the Argives called her Elektra because she didn’t have a husband and had no experience of a marriage bed.”
Ξάνθος ὁ ποιητὴς τῶν μελῶν (ἐγένετο δὲ οὗτος πρεσβύτερος Στησιχόρου τοῦ ῾Ιμεραίου) λέγει τὴν ᾿Ηλέκτραν τοῦ ᾿Αγαμέμνονος οὐ τοῦτο ἔχειν τοὔνομα πρῶτον ἀλλὰ Λαοδίκην. ἐπεὶ δὲ ᾿Αγαμέμνων ἀνῃρέθη, τὴν δὲ Κλυταιμνήστραν ὁ Αἴγισθος ἔγημε καὶ ἐβασίλευσεν, ἄλεκτρον οὖσαν καὶ καταγηρῶσαν παρθένον ᾿Αργεῖοι ᾿Ηλέκτραν ἐκάλεσαν διὰ τὸ ἀμοιρεῖν ἀνδρὸς καὶ μὴ πεπειρᾶσθαι λέκτρου.
Aeschylus in his Libation-Bearers gives Agamemnon only Elektra. Sophokles and Euripides preserve Khrysothemis. Strangely, according to one scholion, the lost Kypria named both Iphigeneia and Iphianassa as Agamemnon’s daughters. West (2013, 110) concludes that in this tradition (following Homer’s Iliad, Agamemnon once had four daughters).
Timothy Gantz. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. Baltimore, 1993.
Bryan Hainsworth. The Iliad: A Commentary. III: books 9-12. Cambridge, 1993.
R. Merkelbach and M. L. West. Hesiodea Fragmenta. Oxford, 1967.
Glenn Most. Hesiod: The Shield, Catalogue of Women, Other Fragments. Cambridge, 2003.
M. L. West. The Epic Cycle. Oxford, 2013.