the offering of the Virgin

The sacrifice of Iphigeneia, the first-born daughter of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, to Artemis, is a myth as old as that of the Trojan War, sung by Archaic epic poetry. Iphigeneia herself, however, first acquires the tragic dimension of the suffering heroine at the hands of Euripides. The Iphigeneia at Aulis records, in an unforgettable manner, the feelings of the sacrificial victim towards the sacrificer.

The Greeks are assembled at Aulis, ready for the campaign. The wind fails to blow, however, and the ships are unable to set sail. Artemis demands the first-born daughter of the commander-in-chief. Clytaemnestra comes from Argos, bringing Iphigeneia for a wedding that will never take place. The army leaders demand the sacrifice. Agamemnon hesitates, Clytaemnestra curses and Iphigeneia, singing of the joy of life, most movingly beseeches her father and sacrificer to save her:

    'Suppliant will I twine about thy knees
    My body, which this mother bore to thee.
    Ah, slay me not untimely.
    Sweet, passing sweet, is light for men to see,
    Death is but nothingness! Who prays to die
    Is mad. Ill life o'erpasseth glorious death.'
       Euripides, Iphigeneia at Aulis 1216-1218, 1250-1252 (Loeb edition)
At the critical moment, however, the heroine is won over. The intervention of Achilles who, a false suitor, proves himself a true protector, and the threat of general slaughter, make her accept death in order to avert the pointless shedding of further blood.
    'Worthier than ten thousand women one man is to look on light.
    Lo, if Artemis hath willed to claim my body as her right,
    What, shall 1, a helpless mortal woman, thwart the will divine?
    Nay it cannot be. My body unto Hellas I resign.
    Sacrifice me, raze ye Troy; for this through all the ages is
    My memorial: children, marriage, glory - all are mine in this!'
       Euripides, Iphigeneia at Aulis 1394-1399 (Loeb edition)

Alone, of her own free will, the maiden walks to the altar. Her noble response exalts her, makes her an offering worthy of the enterprise that is commencing. Liberated from the tension of guilt, the men gave themselves up to emotion and admiration. Just as the sacrificer's knife is approaching her throat, however, Iphigeneia vanishes. She is taken away by Artemis and in her place a hind twitches convulsively on the altar.

Now devoted for ever to the goddess, the Virgin, at once her victim and her vehicle, became the priestess of her cult. The myth has it that Artemis took Iphigeneia to the far-off land of Tauris, where she became the sacrificer, offering up foreigners on the goddess's altar, until Orestes arrived, pursued by the Furies for the act of matricide. Through Iphigeneia's ruse, brother and sister deceived the barbarian queen and returned to Greece,taking with them the sacred wooden image of the goddess.

Iphigeneia lived the rest of her life in Attica as priestess of Brauronian Artemis. When she died, she was honoured as a heroine and it became the custom for the clothes of women who died in childbirth to be dedicated to her.


Index Back Top of page Next
From Medea to Sappho - Radical Women in Ancient Greece
Athens, National Archaeological Museum - 20 March - 30 June 1995