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T. III, Vol. 1

Article by E. Decharme in

Daremberg & Saglio,
Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines,
Librairie Hachette et Cie., Paris, 1877‑1919.

translation and © William P. Thayer

Iphigenia (Ἰφιγένεια). — There is no trace in Homer of the legend of Iphigenia.​1 The poet merely mentions in passing a daughter of Agamemnon named Iphianassa​2 who, according to the author of the Cypriaca,​3 was not the same person as Iphigenia; the Iphigone in Euripides​4 and the Iphis of the Alexandrians​5 are on the other hand identical. She was generally considered the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. But another tradition, originating in Argolis, and followed first by Stesichorus then by the poets Euphorion of Chalcis, Alexander the Aetolian,​6 Nicander,​7 and the historian Duris of Samos,​8 was current about her parents: Iphigenia was born to Theseus and Helen. In Argos in Pausanias' time,​9 a sanctuary of Eilithyia was shown which had, it was said, been consecrated by Helen when she gave birth to Iphigenia, whom she gave to Clytemnestra to raise; the latter adopted her and passed her off as her own child. The Argive tradition was erased by the one made popular in Greece by the tragic poets, for whom​10 Iphigenia's mother and father are definitely Clytemnestra and Agamemnon.

The first and most important act of her legend, is her sacrifice at Aulis. It was ascribed to various causes. A tale recounted by Euripides was that the king of Mycenae had once made an unthinking vow, shortly before the birth of his daughter, which proved fatal to both of them: he had promised to sacrifice to Artemis "whatever the year produced that was the most beautiful."​11 Barely born, Iphigenia, a virgin of marvelous beauty, was already condemned to die. The seer Calchas interpreted the language of the vow in that sense and reminded Agamemnon of his old promise and forced him to implement it, for the salvation of the Greeks. The reason more widely given for the sacrifice, however, was the ire of Artemis against Agamemnon. According to Aeschylus,​12 the goddess was already irritated long before the expedition left. According to the Cypriaca13 and Sophocles' Electra,​14 the head of the Greeks, having landed at Aulis on the coast of Euboea, went hunting in a forest consecrated to the goddess: he killed a stag there,​15 and boasted after doing so that he had excelled Artemis herself in skill.​16 The goddess immediately caused northern winds to blow "from Strymon",​17 preventing the ships from proceeding on their way. The seer is consulted: Calchas replies that Artemis must be appeased, and to do so, Iphigenia, a daughter of the king, must be immolated on her altar, "as compensation for the murder of the stag."​18 Agamemnon rebels and long resists Calchas' opinion. Ulysses succeeds in overcoming his resistance; he is sent with Diomedes to Mycenae, to bring Iphigenia to the camp. He gives Clytemnestra the pretext that Agamemnon had resolved to marry his daughter to Achilles.​19 This matrimonial project, which is probably an invention of the author of the Cypriaca, supplied the tragic poets with a dramatic element they did not fail to make use of: from then on it will be an essential component of the legend of Iphigenia. It will be insisted on later, it being stated that the marriage was truly consummated, and that from this union Neoptolemus was born, who was then given by his father to Deidamia.​20 The sacrifice resolved upon, however, is to be performed. Iphigenia is brought near the altar, in the presence of the Greek army; Agamemnon groans, turns his head away, sobs, and veils his face in the folds of his mantle so as not to see anything.​21 Immediately the cult servants seize the young girl, "as they would have seized a goat," and laid her on the altar, wrapped in her veils, her head hanging down. The sacrificer strikes the throat of the victim; blood flows and reddens the ground.​22 But, lo! this blood is not that of the virgin, who has disappeared: in her stead a tremulous doe now lies on the altar. The seer Calchas declares to the leaders of the Greeks that Iphigenia is not dead; that the goddess wished to save her.​23 This marvelous substitution of an animal victim for the human one, brought about by a divine hand at the very moment of the sacrifice, is found in all versions of the legend of Iphigenia. These versions only differ as to the species of animal, which is a stag or a doe only in the oldest and most widespread tradition. A writer by the name of Menyllus,24  p571 who had written of the antiquities of Boeotia, and Nicander of Colophon​25 said that Artemis had substituted for Iphigenia a heifer or a young bull: they meant no doubt thus to explain the relation­ship of Agamemnon's daughter with the goddess Tauropolos. Others, like the historian Phanodemus, said that it was a she-bear (ἄρκτος) whose blood was spilt at Aulis.​26 The idea was suggested to them by the ἀρκτεία ceremony celebrated by the young girls of Attica at Brauron, where Iphigenia was honored.

What happened to the virgin stolen away by Artemis from the sacrificer's knife? She had taken her thru the sky to Tauris, where she made her her priestess.​27 For several years, Iphigenia was thus made to serve the bloody cult of the goddess Tauropolos and to sacrifice to her, according to usage, strangers who landed on the shores of this country or were thrown there by a storm.​28 This cruel situation ended with the arrival of Orestes, whom the god of Delphi had ordered to remove from Tauris and take to Attica the ancient idol of Artemis that had fallen from the sky.​29 Thanks to the complicity of his sister to whom he made himself known,​30 Orestes succeeded in his enterprise, and the two fugitives sailed in haste to Greece. They did not get there easily. An incident of their trip provided Sophocles the material for a play titled Chryses, which was imitated by Pacuvius,​31 and of which Hyginus​32 seems to give the subject, as follows. Orestes and his sister, arresting their flight for a moment, land on the shores of the Troad, where they receive the hospitality of Chryses, priest of Apollo; he turns out to be, without knowing it, a son of Agamemnon and Chryseis. Thereupon king Thoas appears, who was pursuing those who had stolen the divine image, and lays claim to them. Chryses is about to hand them over, when his ancestor, apprised that Iphigenia and Orestes are children of Agamemnon, reveals to him the secret of his birth, and that he is the brother of the fugitives. Chryses helps Orestes who, thanks to him, gets rid of Thoas by putting him to death; and brother and sister, continuing on their way, arrive safely in Mycenae with the statue of the goddess of Tauris.

Several places in Greece claimed to have once had, or even still to have, the precious idol. According to Athenian tradition, as met with in Euripides, Orestes had first arrived in Athens with his sister; he had then deposited the idol in a sanctuary that he consecrated to her at Halae Araphenidae, a small port of Attica, across from Carystus in Euboea.​33 According to Callimachus, it is at this very place that he had disembarked on arriving from Scythia.​34 The sanctuary of the goddess Tauropolos at Brauron, not far from there — unless it is to be seen as identical with that of Halae​35 — would thus be less ancient than the latter. It is from Brauron itself, according to other stories, that Iphigenia had left for Athens, and then for Argos.​36 But in Laconia the story was told differently. There was, near Sparta, in the town of Limnae, a sanctuary of Artemis Orthia [Diana, T. II, p136], with an ancient xoanon of the goddess. The Lacedaemonians claimed that it was the very same one that Orestes and Iphigenia had taken from Tauris.​37 It would thus have been in Laconia, and not in Attica, that they landed with the sacred image.

It is not known at what point of her return to Greece Iphigenia's stay in Delphi should be placed, to which place she brought her brother back who had originally left from there for Scythia at the behest of Apollo. This episode of her life was the subject of Sophocles' Aletes. Electra, to whom a messenger had falsely announced that her brother Orestes had been sacrificed to the Taurian Artemis, came to consult the oracle of Delphi as to the truth of the news. There, by accident, she meets Iphigenia and Orestes who had just landed. The same messenger who had already hoodwinked her points to Iphigenia as the murderess of her brother. Infuriated, Electra takes a firebrand from the sacrificial altar and is about to put her sister's eyes out, when Orestes makes himself known.38

According to Euripides, Iphigenia died as priestess of Artemis at Brauron, where she was buried.​39 The people of Megara maintained that she had died in their country.40

At Megara, Iphigenia was merely a heroine: elsewhere, she was considered a real goddess. The author of the Cypriaca says that Artemis "made her immortal"; Hesiod, in his Catalogue of Women, that "by the will of Artemis she became Hecate."​41 Herodotus states that the Scythians of Tauris sacrificed shipwrecked persons to a divinity they call "the Virgin," whom they themselves identified as Iphigenia.​42 On the shores of the Black Sea, her immortality was later associated with that of Achilles, who had once come looking for her to the area where the Ἀχιλλεῖος δρόμος commemorated his errant flight;​43 in the island of Leuce, she was thenceforth the divine spouse of the hero.44

As Otfried Müller long ago established,​45 there is no doubt that the word Ἰφιγένεια originally designated a goddess, later confused with the daughter of Agamemnon who, in the cyclic poets, bore the same name; and, not to mention the assimilation to Hecate referred to above, many facts demonstrate that this goddess was of the same nature as Artemis, or was merely Artemis herself under another name. First the legend of Iphigenia has certain analogies to that told in relation to the cult of Artemis Μουνυχία in Attica. It was said that a tame she-bear consecrated to the goddess having been killed at the  p572 Piraeus, plague broke out in Athens. The oracle consulted promised that the scourge would cease if a virgin was sacrificed. An Athenian by the name of Embaros offered his daughter as the victim. But at the very moment of the sacrifice, he wrapped a goat in the clothes of his child, and it is the animal's blood that reddens the altar.​46 Other reasons are even more conclusive. At Hermione, a sanctuary could be seen dedicated to Artemis-Iphigeneia.​47 On the coast of Achaea, at Aegira, Pausanias visited a temple of Artemis that housed a statue of Iphigenia: the archaic character of this image seemed to indicate to him that it was in the latter's honor that the temple had first been built.​48 At Brauron, finally, it was to Iphigenia that the clothing of women who had died in the pangs of childbirth was consecrated: a type of offering that can only suit a goddess of childbirth, such as Artemis Lochia.49

The goddess Iphigeneia, once confused with the daughter of Agamemnon, was bound to lose her heavenly rank, become a mere heroine, and so be distinguished from Artemis. She became either her priestess or a young girl sacrificed to her, and these two traditions were adopted together and blended in her legend. Among the elements composing it, two appear to be taken from reality. The first is the fact that human sacrifices were once offered to a lunar divinity, the Scythian "Virgin," whom the Greek settlers on the shores of the Black Sea and the people of the northern coast of Attica knew as the Taurian goddess, or Tauropolos, from her place of origin; in Sparta, she will be Artemis Orthia or Orthosia. Historical times had not yet seen the memory of the savagery of her cult erased. At Halae, according to Euripides, the priest, "in order to redeem the sacrifice from which Iphigenia had been saved, brought the point of the dagger near a bare neck and made it bleed":​50 only a few drops, surely, a mere simulacrum of the human sacrifices of yore, but which seemed to be enough to honor and appease the cruel goddess. The second fact is the translation, from Scythia to Attica and Laconia, of one or two of the ancient idols of the lunar goddess.

The pathos of the legend of Iphigenia provided Hellenic art with several interesting motifs. The sacrifice scene especially had been depicted by Timanthes of Cythnos in a famous painting, frequently mentioned by ancient art critics: they admired the happy invention of the artist who, having exhausted the range of dejection and grief in their portrayal of Calchas, Ulysses, Ajax and Menelaus, felt there was no better way for him to render her father's anguish than by veiling his head.​51 But the idea was not properly Timanthes': Pliny and Quintilian seem to forget that it had been suggested to him by Euripides,​52 who also inspired the artist of a well-known painting from Pompeii (fig. 4088); it does not seem to be an exact copy of Timanthes' painting.​53 Other monuments relate to the Taurian sojourn of Agamemnon's daughter. Vase paintings and the bas-reliefs of several sarcophagi (fig. 4089) show us Orestes and Pylades chained to each other, brought to Iphigenia before the altar where the sacrificial fire is already burning.​54 On a painted vase from Apulia, we see Iphigenia in front of the temple whose priestess she is, giving to Pylades, in the presence of Orestes, the letter she wishes to send to Mycenae.​55 The two plays of Euripides are the source of these various depictions.

[image ALT: A woodcut of a complex and at first glance bizarre scene. In the center, a naked woman is being carried by two half-naked men; she is recumbent, as if she were reclining on a couch and had raised herself up somewhat, to gesture toward something with her raised right hand, palm up. She is being carried to the right of our tableau, even if the men seems to have halted briefly; and to the right, a heavily robed man crowned with leaves holds a dagger in his right hand, with which he also strokes his chin with a pensive air; he stands by a waist-high column. On the left of the scene, a shoulder-high column topped with a small statue of a female raising in either hand what appear to be torches; at her feet on either side, what appear to be eagles or maybe small camels. In front of that column, turning their back to it and away from the main scene, a human figure, veiled from head to foot and hiding their face. In the heavens above all this, a woman flies thru the air on a stag from the left, toward a man flying thru the air on, or trailed by, a cloud; he carries a bow. It is a depiction of the Sacrifice of Iphigenia, discussed in the text of this webpage.]

Fig. 4088. — The Sacrifice of Iphigenia.

[image ALT: A woodcut of a complex scene. Two naked men, chained together, followed by an old man wearing a blouse and pantaloons and cradling a quiver upside down in his left arm, are being led to the left by a robed woman, to a stylized tempietto — twisted columns and a pediment — under which, on a low circular pedestal, a half-life-size statue of a woman missing her right arm. Various objects are scattered in and around the tempietto, among which can be recognized an ornate tripod with something burning on it, two carved heads falling from the pediment, a bucranion with a sword, a tablet, maybe a laurel wreath. It is a depiction of Orestes and Pylades being brought to Iphigenia, discussed in the text of this webpage.]

Fig. 4089. — Iphigenia in Aulis.

P. Decharme.

The Author's Notes:

1 Noted by the scholiast, Il. IX.144.

2 Il. IX.145; 247.

3 Frag. 12; Lucretius (I.79) confuses Iphianassa and Iphigenia.

4 Electr. 1023.

5 Tzetz. ad Lycophr. 323; 324; Etym. Magn. 480.8, ἶφις.

6 Paus. II.26.7.

7 Antonius Liberalis, 27.

8 Tzetz. ad Lycophr. 183. From these diverse data, Mr. Wilamowitz has attempted a conjectural reconstruction of the myth, which would be from Attic Diacria and Rhamnus (Hermes, XVIII, pp262‑263).

9 Loc. cit.

10 Not only in the passages of Agamemnon and Electra relating to her, but also no doubt in the lost plays of which she was the heroine. Of Aeschylus' Iphigenia only a few words are extant. Sophocles' play may be summarized by Hyginus, Fab. 98. Cf. Welcker, Griech. Trag. I, 107; Nauck, Trag. gr. fragm. 2d ed., p197.

11 Iph. T. 20 ff. Lycophron, V.329, alludes to this vow: τὸ πρωτόσφακτον ὅρκιον σχάσας.

12 Agam. 135.

13 In the summary drawn from Proclus' Chrestomathy (Epic. gr. fr. Kinkel, p19).

14 V. 566 ff.

15 According to Hyginus, Fab. 261, Agamemnon commits this mistake unwittingly.

16 Tzetzes, ad Lyc. 183 (Chr. G. Müller, ed., I, p463) gives the actual words he spoke: οὐδὲ ἡ Ἄρτεμις.

17 Aesch. Agam. 192.

18 Soph. Electr. 571.

19 Epic. gr. fr., loc. cit.; Soph. Frag. 284, Nauck. According to Euripides's Electra, v. 1020, Agamemnon himself took his daughter away to marry her to Achilles. But in his Iphigenia in Aulis, v. 100 and passim, the poet follows the common tradition. The rôle of Ulysses in this episode was no doubt imagined by the tragic poets.

20 Tzetzes sets aside this story, ad Lyc. 183; 223.

21 Eur. Iph. A. 1543‑1550.

22 Aesch. Agam. 228‑235.

23 Cypr. loc. cit.; Iph. A. 1580; Iph. T. 27; Paus. IX.19.6.

24 Plut. Mor. 309B, Parall. 14; 26. The last passage shows that we should read Μένυλλος rather than Μέρυλλος as written in the others.º

25 Antonius Liberalis, 27; Tzetz. ad Lyc.º 183.

26 Tzetz. ibid. p463, Chr. Müller.

27 Iph. T. 30‑34; Hyg. Fab. 98.

28 Iph. T. 38; Diod. IV.45; Tzetz. ad Lyc. 194.

29 Iph. T. 85‑91; 1438‑1442; Hyg. Fab. 120, 261.

30 The details of how they recognized each other, which we forgo here, fall under dramatic poetry rather than legend.

31 Cf. Ribbeck, Röm. Trag. 248.

32 Fab. 121.

33 Iph. T. 1449 ff.

34 Hymn. Dian. 173.

35 Strabo, IX.1.22, p399,º clearly distinguishes the temple of the goddess Tauropolos of Halae from that of Artemis Brauronia.

36 Paus. I.33.1. Elsewhere, III.16.7, Pausanias finds this tradition unlikely: he does not understand why Iphigenia would have left the sacred image at Brauron, then to go away.

37 Pausanias, ibid. According to Hyginus, Fab. 261, the idol was first transported to Aricia in Italy, and only came later to Laconia. It was also said that Orestes and Iphigenia had brought the cult of the Taurian Artemis to Comana in Cappadocia (Strabo, XII, p535).

38 Hyg. Fab. 122; cf. Welcker, Griech. Trag. 215.

39 Iph. T. 1462. According to Euphorion (Schol. Aristoph. Lysistr. 645), the sacrifice of Iphigenia occurred at Brauron, not in Aulis. Furthermore, Brauron supposedly only had the virgin's cenotaph.

40 Paus. I.43.1. From the text that follows, it appears that there was another account of Iphigenia, that told by the Arcadians. But since Pausanias in his chapter on Arcadia refers to no legend of this kind, we are reduced to supposing that Ἀργείων is to be read rather than Ἀρκαδων.º Wilamowitz, Hermes, XVIII, p252, n. 2, gives this as an example of the "blunders" of Pausanias. Might this mistake not be laid to the copyists instead?

41 Ap. Paus. I.43.1; cf. Philod. περὶ εὐσεβ. 52, Gomperzy.

42 IV.103; cf. Pausanias, loc. cit.

43 Eustath. ad Dionys. Perieg. 306. Lycophron, 201, says that Achilles stayed five years in Scythia looking for his fiancée and bemoaning her loss.

44 Nicander ap. Antonius Liberalis, 27.

45 Dorier, I2, p384.

46 Eustath. Il. p331, 26; Paroemiogr. Gr. v. Leutsch. p462; Suidas, s.v. Ἔμβαρος.

47 Paus. II.35; Hesych. s.v. Ἰφιγένεια.

48 Paus. VII.26.5.

49 Eur. Iph. T. 1465. According to Nicander, loc. cit., Iphigenia, having become immortal by the grace of Artemis, took the name Ὀρσιλοχία, a word which also seems to relate to the idea of childbearing. It is true that Welcker, Griech. Götterlehre, II, 401, believes we should follow a Paris MS. and read the text of Antonius Liberalis as Ὀρειλοχία, which would then be an epithet of the hunter goddess. In either case, Iphigenia is the same as Artemis.

50 Iph. T. 1458‑1461.

51 Plin. H. N. XXXV.73; Quintilian, Inst. Orat. II.13; Val. Max. VIII.11.

52 Iph. A. 1550, ὀμμάτων πέπλον προθείς.

53 Raoul-Rochette, Mon. inéd. pl. 27; Mus. Borb. IV, 3; Helbig, Wandgem, no. 1304. Cf. H. Brunn, Griech. Künstler, II, 121.

54 Zoega, Bassiril. ant. di Roma, II, tav. 56. For the sarcophagi, see C. Robert, Die ant. Sarkophagsrel., Berlin, 1890, II, taf. 57, no. 168, and since then, Niemann, Petersen, Lanckoronski, Pamphylie et Pisidie, II, pp48, 49, fig. 5. For the vases, Robert, Homerische Becher, p51; and 25cs Winckelmansprogr. p1 ff.

55 Archaeol. Zeitung, 1849, taf. 12; Baumeister, Denkm. fig. 808.

Bibliography. Welcker, Griech. Götterlehre, I, 571 (Artemis Brauronia); II, 401‑403; Wecklein, Preface to his edition of Iphigenia in Tauris, Leipzig, 1876; Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Hermes, XVII (1883), pp249‑263.

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