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Who is Iphigenia?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2016
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The Greek myths concerning Iphigenia are numerous and often cause confusion. In some, Iphigenia is the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Artemis is offended by a statement made by Agamemnon and will not allow the Aegean ships to pass to Troy unless Iphigenia is sacrificed.

The sacrifice of a child is not a new concept. In fact child sacrifice figures largely in many ancient and modern religions. The near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham is meant to test Abraham’s devotion to God. In the end, God accepts a lesser sacrifice than Isaac and spares Abraham the loss of a child.

In some accounts of Iphigenia, Agamemnon is allowed to sacrifice a deer instead, and Iphigenia is spirited away to a temple by Artemis to become a priestess to the goddess. In other versions, Iphigenia is clearly killed by Agamemnon.

The death of Iphigenia is a partial explanation for Clytemnestra’s wish to kill Agamemnon when he returns from the Trojan War. This is clearly the case in AeschylusAgamemnon and his two follow-up plays The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides.

In other versions of the Iphigenia story, Iphigenia eventually becomes the goddess Hecate. Since she is the goddess of the wilderness and of childbirth, she essentially fills the same role as Artemis, suggesting the tension between the two characters.

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The worship of Hecate in some areas of Ancient Greece supplanted the worship of Artemis. Hecate is of later origin than Artemis, however. Later versions of the story may reflect the gradual popularity of Hecate above Artemis in certain areas of Greece. Thus the sacrifice of Iphigenia might be viewed as relatively symbolic. Some scholars suggest that Iphigenia may have been an earlier mother goddess of a local region, whose sacrifice makes way for the later goddess Artemis.

Since there are so many different accounts of Iphigenia’s story, it would not be at all surprising to find this last supposition by scholars to be near to the mark. Tension between gods or goddesses in mythology is often rooted in a local god being supplanted by the god of a conquering people. The gradual shift to turning Iphigenia into the goddess Hecate may be an attempt at explanation for Hecate’s later popularity that incorporates older beliefs.

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