Iphigenia

Cymon and Iphigenia, by Frederic Leighton. 1884 Image from Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iphigenia.jpg

The Trojan War cycle of Greek mythology has given our culture many notable tragic heroes and heroines. One whose story has continued to resonate is the princess Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. According to myth Iphigenia’s father, the Greek leader Agamemnon, was ordered to sacrifice his daughter in order to appease the Artemis before the goddess would allow the Greek ships the winds they needed to sail for Troy.

The character Iphigenia is not mentioned in either of Homer’s epics, The Iliad or The Odyssey.
Two early references in Classical literature to of the death of Iphigenia occur in two dramas by the 5th century Athenian playwright Euripides’, Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia at Tauris.¬†In Iphigenia at Tauris, the title character barely avoids being killed as a sacrifice by Agamemnon when the goddess Artemis intervened and replaced her with an animal, and brought her to Tauris to become her priestess. In contrast, in the tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia, her mother Clytemnestra, and the hero Achilles believe that Iphigenia is being brought to Achilles for marriage. They are all horrified to discover Agamemnon‚Äôs true intentions to sacrifice her, but after trying to persuade her father to change his mind Iphigenia ultimately goes willingly to the altar to support the Greek cause (at the end of this play there is also reference to a switch being made by Artemis, but scholars are unsure if this is part of the original text).

As with many prominent figures in Greek myth, there are many variations to the story of Iphigenia. Some sources claim she was actually the daughter of Theseus and Helen of Troy herself, and the adopted daughter of Clytemnestra, others that she was transformed by Artemis into the goddess Hecate, and still others that she and Achilles were eventually immortalized and married.

The story of Iphigenia has inspired novels, poetry, operas, art, comic books, film, and plays including the the contemporary dramas¬†Iphigenia 2.0, and Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable),¬†and the cantata ‚ÄúIphigenia in Brooklyn,‚Äù by P. D. Q. Bach (a fictitious composer invented by musical satirist “Professor” Peter Schickele). In popular culture, the tragic story of an innocent princess sacrificed by her father was referenced in the Season 5 Game of Thrones episode, “The Dance with Dragons.” Some modern tellings of the Iphigenia story are even given a feminist twist, such as Iphigenia and Other Daughters.

Whether heroically embracing her fate or continuing on to new adventures, the story of the tragic princess Iphigenia will continue to inspire new generations of artists and storytellers.

-Emily Holm
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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