This painting, by an unidentified 18th-century artist, re-creates a myth from an early part of the Trojan War saga. In terms of chronology, the scene took place after the abduction of Helen, but before the Greek fleet set sail to wage war against the Trojans. As the story goes, King Agamemnon of Mycenae (commander-in-chief of the Greek allies) had called together the forces of the Greeks at the port town of Aulis. The coalition was ready to depart on their long campaign across the Aegean, but the gods—especially Artemis—refused to grant the Greeks a favorable wind until a sacrifice was performed. She did not want an offering of wine, grain, or livestock, but instead requested a human sacrifice, and according to Agamemnon’s seer Calchas, the goddess would only be appeased by the sacrifice of King Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigeneia.
Although Agamemnon was conflicted and disturbed by Calchas’ advice, he ultimately decided to go through with the sacrifice. It was a choice that was bitterly opposed by Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, yet she was powerless to stop her husband from allowing the seer to do his gruesome work. Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BCE), an Eleusinian playwright, described the sacrifice of Iphigeneia in a play called Agamemnon:
“Her father called his henchmen on,
on with a prayer,
‘Hoist her over the altar
like a yearling, give it all your strength!
She’s fainting—lift her,
sweep her robes around her,
but slip the strap in her gentle curving lips…
here, gag her hard, a sound will curse the house’—
and the bridle chokes her voice…her saffron robes
pouring over the sand
her glance like arrows showering
wounding every murderer through with pity
clear as a picture, live,
she strains to call their names…
What comes next? I cannot see it, cannot say.
The strong techniques of Calchas do their work.”
(Aeschylus, Agamemnon, approximately lines 230-250)
Special attention should be given to Aeschylus’ line about not being able to see or say how Iphigeneia’s sacrifice concluded. The question of ‘What comes next?’ was very real, for there were two ancient versions of the story. Aeschylus’ preferred tradition assumed that Iphigeneia was indeed killed during the sacrificial ceremony. In contrast, Euripides (c. 484-406 BCE), a junior contemporary of Aeschylus, followed an alternative narrative that claimed that Artemis swooped in to save Iphigeneia at the last moment, exchanging the young girl for a deer. Euripides wrote:
“Each one of us distinctly heard the sound of a blow, but none saw the spot where the maiden vanished. The priest cried out, and all the army took up the cry at the sight of a marvel all unlooked for, due to some god’s agency, and passing all belief, although it was seen; for there upon the ground lay a deer of immense size, magnificent to see, gasping out her life, with whose blood the altar of the goddess was thoroughly bedewed“ (Euripides, Iphigeneia at Aulis, approximately lines 1580-1590).
Such, then, are the stories that inspired the painting. It seems to follow Euripides’ version, as Artemis can be seen hovering in the sky, waiting to whisk Iphigeneia away and leave behind a substitute sacrifice in her place. Whatever the case, regardless of if the Greek princess was sacrificed or saved, Iphigeneia’s parents never saw their daughter again.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Aeschylus, The Orestia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides), translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 1979.
- [Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0108%3Acard%3D1578