In the story, Agamemnon offends the goddess Artemis on his way to the Trojan War by hunting and killing one of Artemis' sacred stags. She retaliates by preventing the Greek troops from reaching Troy unless Agamemnon kills his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, at Aulis as a human sacrifice. In some versions, Iphigenia dies at Aulis, and in others, Artemis rescues her. In the version where she is saved, she goes to the Taurians and meets her brother Orestes.
"Iphigenia" means "strong-born," "born to strength," or "she who causes the birth of strong offspring."
Iphianassa (Ἰφιάνασσα) is the name of one of Agamemnon's three daughters in Homer's Iliad (ix.145, 287) The name Iphianassa may be simply an older variant of the name Iphigenia. "Not all poets took Iphigenia and Iphianassa to be two names for the same heroine," Kerenyi remarks, "though it is certain that to begin with they served indifferently to address the same divine being, who had not belonged from all time to the family of Agamemnon."
In Greek mythology, Iphigenia appears as the Greek fleet gathers in Aulis to prepare for war against Troy. Here, Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, hunts and then kills a deer in a grove sacred to the goddess Artemis. Artemis punishes Agamemnon by acting upon the winds, so that Agamemnon's fleet cannot sail to Troy. Calchas the seer tells Agamemnon that to appease Artemis, he must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. At first he refuses but, pressured by the other commanders, agrees.
Iphigenia and her mother Clytemnestra are brought to Aulis, under the pretext that Achilles will marry the girl. They discover the truth. In some versions of the story, Iphigenia remains unaware of her imminent sacrifice until the last moment. She believes until the moment of her death that she is being led to the altar to be married.
In some versions, such as Hyginus' Fabulae, Iphigenia is not sacrificed. Some sources claim that Iphigenia was taken by Artemis to Tauris (in Crimea) at the moment of the sacrifice, the goddess having left a deer in her stead, or else a goat (actually the god Pan) in her place. The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women called her Iphimede (Ἰφιμέδη) and told that Artemis transformed her into the goddess Hecate. Antoninus Liberalis said that Iphigenia was transported to the island of Leuke, where she was wedded to immortalized Achilles under the name Orsilochia.
In Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, it is Menelaus who convinces Agamemnon to heed the seer Calchas's advice. After Agamemnon sends a message to Clytemnestra informing her of Iphigenia's supposed marriage, he immediately regrets his decision and tries to send another letter telling them not to come. Menelaus intercepts the letter and he and Agamemnon argue. Menelaus insists that it is Agamemnon's duty to do all he can to aid the Greeks. Clytemnestra arrives at Aulis with Iphigenia and the infant Orestes. Agamemnon tries to convince Clytemnestra to go back to Argos, but Clytemnestra insists on staying for the wedding. When she sees Achilles, Clytemnestra mentions the marriage; Achilles, however, appears to be unaware of it, and she and Iphigenia gradually learn the truth. Achilles, angry that Agamemnon has used him in his plot, vows to help prevent the murder of Iphigenia. Iphigenia and Clytemnestra plead with Agamemnon to spare his daughter's life. Achilles informs them that the Greek army, eager for war, has learned of the seer's advice and now demand that Iphigenia be sacrificed. If Agamemnon refuses, it is likely they will turn on him and kill him and his family. Iphigenia, knowing she is doomed, decides to be sacrificed willingly, reasoning that as a mere mortal, she cannot go against the will of a goddess. She also believes that her death will be heroic, as it is for the good of all Greeks. Iphigenia exits, and the sacrifice takes place offstage. Later, Clytemnestra is told of her daughter's purported death—and how at the last moment, the gods spared Iphigenia and whisked her away, replacing her with a deer.
Euripides’ other play about Iphigenia, Iphigenia in Tauris, takes place after the sacrifice, and after Orestes has killed Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Apollo orders Orestes—to escape persecution by the Erinyes for killing his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover—to go to Tauris. While in Tauris, Orestes is to carry off the xoanon (carved wooden cult image) of Artemis, which had fallen from heaven, and bring it to Athens. When Orestes arrives at Tauris with Pylades, son of Strophius and intimate friend of Orestes, the pair are immediately captured by the Tauri, who have a custom of sacrificing all Greek strangers to Artemis. Iphigenia is the priestess of Artemis, and it is her duty to perform the sacrifice. Iphigenia and Orestes don't recognize each other (Iphigenia thinks her brother is dead—a key point). Iphigenia finds out from Orestes, who is still concealing his identity, that Orestes is alive.
Iphigenia then offers to release Orestes if he will carry home a letter from her to Greece. Orestes refuses to go, and bids Pylades to take the letter while Orestes will stay to be slain. After a conflict of mutual affection, Pylades at last yields, and the letter makes brother and sister recognize each other, and all three escape together, carrying with them the image of Artemis. After they return to Greece—having been saved from dangers by Athena along the way—Athena orders Orestes to take the Xoanon to the town of Halae, where he is to build a temple for Artemis Tauropolos. At the annual festival held there, in honor of Artemis, a single drop of blood must be drawn from the throat of a man to commemorate Orestes's near-sacrifice. Athena sends Iphigenia to the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron where she is to be the priestess until she dies. According to the Spartans, however, they carried the image of Artemis to Laconia, where the goddess was worshipped as Artemis Orthia.
These close identifications of Iphigenia with Artemis encourage some scholars to believe that she was originally a hunting goddess, whose cult was subsumed by the Olympian Artemis.
The people of Tauris/Taurica facing the Euxine Sea worshipped the maiden goddess Artemis. Some very early Greek sources in the Epic Cycle affirmed that Artemis rescued Iphigenia from the human sacrifice her father was about to perform, for instance in the lost epic Cypria, which survives in a summary by Proclus: "Artemis ... snatched her away and transported her to the Tauroi, making her immortal, and put a stag in place of the girl [Iphigenia] upon the altar." The goddess swept the young princess off to Tauris where she became a priestess at the Temple of Artemis.
The earliest known accounts of the purported death of Iphigenia are included in Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris, both Athenian tragedies of the fifth century BC set in the Heroic Age. In the dramatist's version, the Taurians worshipped both Artemis and Iphigenia in the Temple of Artemis at Tauris. Other variants include her being rescued at her sacrifice by Artemis and transformed into the goddess Hecate. Another example includes Iphigenia's brother, Orestes, discovering her identity and helping him steal an image of Artemis. Possible reasons for key discrepancies in the telling of the myth by playwrights such as Euripides are to make the story more palatable for audiences and to allow sequels using the same characters.
Many traditions arose from the sacrifice of Iphigenia. One prominent version is cred to the Spartans. Rather than sacrificing virgins, they would whip a male victim in front of a sacred image of Artemis. However, most tributes to Artemis inspired by the sacrifice were more traditional. Taurians especially performed sacrifices of bulls and virgins in honour of Artemis.[unreliable source?]
The myth was retold in classical Greece and Italy, and it became most popular in Etruria, especially in Perusia. In the second and first centuries BC the Etruscans adorned their cremation-urns with scenes from the sacrifice. The most common scene: "Iphigenia, a little girl, is held over the altar by Odysseus while Agamemnon performs the aparchai. Clytemnestra stands beside Agamemnon and Achilles beside Odysseus and each one begs for the life of Iphigenia." This version is closest to the myth as the Romans told it.
The sacrifice of Iphigenia is not explicitly mentioned by Homer, although scholars argue that it is presupposed by Agamemnon's criticism of Calchas at Iliad 1.105-108; Nelson has developed this suggestion further by arguing that the story of Iphigenia's sacrifice lies allusively behind the opening scenes of the Iliad: "both the debate over Chryseis and her eventual return to her father replay and rework the sacrifice story." He has highlighted six key elements that are shared by each story:
The sacrifice of Iphigenia appears in the ancient Roman didactic poem De rerum natura by Lucretius as a criticism of religion. Anticipating that his poem will seem sacrilegious, Lucretius attacks the virtue of religion by recounting the story of Iphigenia, which he considers a cruel story of a parent "making his child a sacrificial beast" on her wedding day. Lucretius concludes "such are the crimes to which Religion leads."
This section possibly contains original research. (May 2016)
The Atlantic speculates that Shireen Baratheon, a young girl from the TV series Game of Thrones who was sacrificed to a god by her father, was based on Iphigenia. Slate similarly writes: "Every beat of the Greek myth is the same as Stannis's story: The troops are stuck and starving and the general, Agamemnon, must sacrifice his own daughter to turn the fates to their favor. The mother begging for mercy, the disapproving second-in-command who can do nothing to stop it, the daughter who says she will do whatever it takes to help—it's all a clear echo."
In Sacrifice, the second volume of Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze comic book series, the substitution of a deer for Iphigenia is a pious lie invented by Odysseus to comfort the grieving Clytemnestra. However, it does not work and Clytemnestra angrily curses the whole Achaean army, wishing they all die in the war.
Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country contains a similar idea, with a play named Iphigenia at Ilium running through the novel as a leitmotif. Within the novel, the ghost of Iphigenia tells Achilles that all the poets lied. Iphigenia says that she did not die willingly, nor was a hind sent to take her place. Iphigenia also realizes that these myths no longer have any power over her. Achilles then attempts to claim her as his wife, but she reminds him that "women are no good to you dead".
In the television show Downton Abbey, Season 2, Episode 6, Lord Robert Crawley compares Lavinia Swire to Iphigenia in her being used by Cora Crawley to marry Matthew Crawley as a means to avoid complications for Lady Mary Crawley.
There is also speculation that Iphigenia was actually the daughter of Helen and Theseus.