Iphigenia and the Cult of the Sacrificed Child

They say that there is also a shrine of the heroine Iphigenia; for she too according to them died in Megara.

Now I have heard another account of Iphigenia that is given by Arcadians and I know that Hesiod, in his poem A Catalogue of Women, says that Iphigenia did not die, but by the will of Artemis is Hecate.

With this agrees the account of Herodotus, that the Tauri near Scythia sacrifice castaways to a maiden who they say is Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon.

Pausanius, Description of Greece, [1.43.1] XLIII

Writing in the mid-2nd Century, the Greek traveler and geographer Pausanius compiled a Description of Greece that provided detailed descriptions and thoughtful speculations on the temples and cultural practices of Greece and its eastern colonies. This Description sank into obscurity until it was rediscovered early in the 15th century and copied down in three illustrated manuscripts by scribes of dubious skill.

For centuries academics considered Pausanius an entertaining compiler of second-hand stories. But archaeological discoveries have shown that many of Pausanius’ descriptions were scrupulously accurate. Pausanius was also very good about citing his sources, some of which have survived into present times.

His description of the Iphigenia shrine at Megara (a Bronze Age kingdom that is today a western suburb of Athens) link us to the earliest days of history and the conflicts which saw Hittite Wilusa collapse to a gang of barbarian marauders who called their enemies Troians.

Iphigenia is today best remembered as the daughter of the Mycenaean king Agamemnon. After Agamemnon’s fleet was trapped onshore at the port of Aulis by becalmed winds, the king sacrificed his daughter so his army could sail to Troy.

Agamemnon is the great-grandson of Tantalus, a wealthy king who fell from grace for stealing ambrosia, revealing divine secrets, and feeding the Gods a meal made with his own son. The miasma from those deeds followed the family through generations and culminated in Agamemnon’s murder by his wife Clytemestra, who was then murdered by their son Orestes.

These tales would have been as well known to educated Greeks of the Homeric era as the Arthurian cycle was to medieval England. Just as 12th century audiences thrilled to tales that harkened back to the last days of Roman rule, Greek poets in the 8th century BC told stories of a golden era that fell in what we today call the Late Bronze Age Collapse. (1250-1150 BC).

As with the Grail legend, the Homeric compilers mixed fact with fantasy, but also preserved a great deal of information concerning those long-ago times. And as with the Grail Legend, a closer look at the Iphigenia cycle reveals hints of far earlier times.

Anselm Feuerbach, Iphigenie, 1871. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Among these, the Tauri have the following customs: all ship-wrecked men, and any Greeks whom they capture in their sea-raids, they sacrifice to the Virgin goddess as I will describe:

After the first rites of sacrifice, they strike the victim on the head with a club; according to some, they then place the head on a pole and throw the body off the cliff on which their temple stands; others agree as to the head, but say that the body is buried, not thrown off the cliff.

The Tauri themselves say that this deity to whom they sacrifice is Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia.

As for enemies whom they defeat, each cuts his enemy’s head off and carries it away to his house, where he places it on a tall pole and stands it high above the dwelling, above the smoke-vent for the most part. These heads, they say, are set up to guard the whole house. The Tauri live by plundering and war.

Herotodus, Histories, 4:104

Crimea’s indigenous population found itself sandwiched between two expansionist powers. To. their north lay the Scythians, an Indo-Iranian nomadic people. Sailing in from the west on the Black Sea were the Mycenaeans who would later become the Greeks.

The archaeological evidence found at Kibil-Koza and other Crimean sites show the indigenous Crimeans, whom the Mycenaeans called “Tauri,” were neolithic. Both the Scythians and Greeks had iron. And when stone cultures meet iron cultures, things invariably go badly for the folks with stones.

As happened in the European colonization of the Americas, the Tauri intermarried with the Scythians and were largely Scythianized. But they also retained a good deal of their original culture and religious traditions, including some their neighbors found… distasteful.

(It is also noteworthy that the Arcadians whom Pausanius cites were the indigenous residents of the mountainous Greek interior. Were the Tauri’s bloody rites a Crimean aberration or were they once practiced throughout the region before the bronze-wielding warriors came as conquerers?)

The Hesiodic Iphigenia story calls Agamemnon’s daughter by a slightly different name, Iphimede, and tells us:

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.

Hesiodic Fragment 23
Ephygenia in Aulis, Byzantine Mosaic (5th century), Antakya Archaeological Museum. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

There was some debate in the ancient world as to whether Artemis deified Agamemnon’s daughter or whether his daughter was divinely transported to Crimea while Artemis replaced her with a stag. (Shades of the nearby myth about Abraham finding a ram in the bushes before he sacrifices Isaac!)

Writing between 412 and 410 BC, Euripedes placed Iphigenia as a priestess among the Taurians in his play Iphigenia among the Taurians or Iphigenia at Tauris. There she was forced to sacrifice shipwrecked foreigners who washed up on the Crimean coast. Finally Iphigenia is rescued by her brother Orestes, whom she recognizes among the latest crop of unfortunates brought to her altar.

In his final play, Euripedes wrote a prequel, Iphigenia at Aulis. This last play takes place at Aulis, site of a shrine to Artemis. In the play Agamemnon agonizes over his decision to send for Iphigenia. Though he tries to stop the sacrifice, the soldiers assembled for war insist the sacrifice must be made. Not even Achilles, betrothed to Iphigenia, can persuade them otherwise.

Clytemestra tries desperately to dissuade Agamemnon. But ultimately her pleas are for naught as her young daughter agrees to be sacrificed, saying:

Give me wreaths to cast about me
bring them here
here are my tresses to crown
bring lustral water too.

Dance to Artemis, queen Artemis the blest,
around her shrine and altar
for by the blood of my sacrifice I will blot out the oracle, if it must be.

O mother, lady revered! I will, not give you my tear
for at the holy rites it is not fitting.

Sing with me, maidens, sing the praises of Artemis, whose temple faces Chalcis,
where angry spearmen madly chafe,
here in the narrow havens of Aulis, because of me.

O Pelasgia, land of my birth, and Mycenae, my home!

Euripedes, Iphigenia at Aulis, 1475-1499

In the final moments a messenger tells the grieving Clytemestra that her daughter disappeared at the moment the knife fell and was replaced by a deer. Agamemnon returns and confirms to Clytemestra that their child still lives, albeit “among the Gods.” But today most scholars believe those lines were interpolated and the original play by the dying Euripedes ended with Iphigenia saying

Hail to you, bright lamp of day and light of Zeus!
A different life, a different lot is henceforth mine.
Farewell I bid you, light beloved!

Tatiana Papamoschou in Ifigeneia (Greece, 1977)

Euripedes named the seer who demands Iphigenia’s sacrifice as Calchas. In his Descriptions Pausanius mentions, in an off-handed manner, “A sanctuary of Artemis was made by Agamemnon when he came to persuade Calchas, who dwelt in Megara, to accompany him to Troy.”

Hesiod deified a sacrificed princess. Homer does not mention her at all. While the 7th century BC Cypria of Stasinus, a 7th century BC work that only survives today in a few quoted lines and a prose summary, suggests Agamemnon offended the gods by bragging he was a better hunter than Artemis, other retellings suggest Agamemnon’s motivations were purely pragmatic. Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia not because he has offended Artemis but because he seeks her assistance.

Did Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter to shift the winds at the intention of a seer? Or did he sacrifice her to gain the assistance of a warlord who wanted the protection of Artemis before sailing? Either of these options are abhorrent to modern sensibilities, and would have been equally chilling to the civilized Hellenes who applauded Homer and Hesiod.

By the 8th century BC the Hellenes saw human sacrifice in general, and kin-sacrifice in particular, as atrocities. While they had no particular problem with exposing unwanted children or with slaughtering opponents wholesale, they balked at the idea that one might shed human blood to the Theoi like you were offering a goat or a horse.

There were many people in the early Iron Age, and into late Antiquity, who did not get that memo. The Phoenicians were infamous for their mulk ba’al, which has come down to us as the offering to Moloch. Romans considered the Germanic and Celtic tribes barbarians because they practiced human sacrifice. They also looked askance upon Christians for eating the flesh and blood of their sacrificed god. And the Tauri were sacrificing shipwrecked sailors to Iphigenia as late as the 4th century.

If there is an overriding theme to the saga of the house of Atreus, it would be “Do not give your children to the gods as a human sacrifice.” To us this seems self-evident. To the people just rising out of the wreckage of the Late Bronze Age collapse, it was a blurry line between the barbarism of the past and a future which became our modern world. And those brutal myths were reshaped like the Grail Legends to fit the morals and ethics of a new society.

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