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The Girl Sacrificed to the Wind

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

Iphigenia, first child to Agamemnon of Mycenae and his wife, Clytemnestra, died to provide wind for her father's army to sail. However, was her death voluntary? Or was it murder?

"The Anger of Achilles", Jacques-Louis David


Iphigenia's name means strong-born: that she was. A healthy, beautiful baby girl; the first child of Clytemnestra and the older sister to three siblings. Agamemnon, her father, was the king of Mycenae and the famous leader of the Greeks during the Trojan War. Clytemnestra was the sister of Helen of Troy, born Spartan but married into Agamemnon’s Mycenaean dynasty.


While we have little information on Iphigenia's early life, it can be inferred that her upbringing was relatively normal (or, as normal as it could be for a royal child). When her sisters, Electra and Chrysothemis, were born, Iphigenia likely was raised alongside them by a servant or slave. The three girls would have learned to use the loom and sew, as well as growing educated in the domestic sphere. As the eldest daughter of a king, it was assumed that she would be married into another dynasty and needed to prepare to become a wife. Most depictions of Iphigenia display her as beautiful and worthy of such a marriage: with reddish-gold hair, soft features, and fair skin. She was the pinnacle of what a royal daughter was expected to be: delicate and reputable. Right before her father Agamemnon left for Troy, Iphigenia's little brother, Orestes, was born. He was the first son, a beacon of hope for the Mycenaean dynasty before Greece went to war.


That hope, ever-fleeting in a Greek tragedy, died as soon as the Greeks arrived at the port of Aulis: a stop before the long journey to Troy. There, at the port, Agamemnon hunted a stag: unknowing that it was beloved and sacred to the goddess Artemis. The instant the stag died, Artemis rebelled by stopping the wind: wind essential to carrying Greek ships to Troy. With the delay, the Greek militia would loose motivation and stamina. Both confused and angered, Agamemnon sought help. Luckily -or perhaps it had been planned- a seer, Calchas, had accompanied the army. A seer, as the Greeks believed, could predict future events and provide insight for future actions. As both a seer and a son of a priest, Calchas' word was taken as the gospel truth. He told Agamemnon that the only way Artemis would bring back the wind was if Agamemnon made a sacrifice: his eldest virgin daughter.


It has been argued that Agamemnon was reluctant at first, but convinced due to the fact that he'd already begun the journey to war with thousands of men. In order to bring Iphigenia to Aulis, though, he curated a lie. Messengers told his wife, Clytemnestra, that Iphigenia was to be wed to Achilles: a match that would ensure connections between Greek city states; a match that made sense. A warrior, the best of the century, and a princess. Clytemnestra and her daughter, unthinking and excited, travelled immediately to Aulis for the makeshift wedding.


When Iphigenia and Clytemnestra arrived at the port city, Agamemnon wasted no time. An alter was adorned, witnesses were gathered. Iphigenia, dressed in white and adorned in gold and pearls and all things feminine, delicate, and beautiful. In many depictions, a flower crown sat atop her head: white petals symbolizing purity. However, even swaddled in wedding dress, she was nothing more than a child.


As she walked down the isle, her mother watching from the side, it is not hard to imagine her excitement and fear: how a pit might have been forming in her stomach, how her hands were damp with sweat. How she fiddled with her garments and fixed her hair. How she watched Achilles, drenched in gold, waiting at the end of the aisle holding his helmet. How his hair billowed behind him- an adult, a hero, a warrior: waiting to marry a girl just shy of thirteen.


However, when she reached the end of the isle, a silver blade was brought to her throat, slitting it and killing her instantly. She dropped to the floor, white clothes stained red, as her mother screamed and wailed and cradled her lifeless body.


The wind began to blow.


It is unknown whether or not Iphigenia knew of her fate, or supported the sacrifice. The story has been told many times from both sides. Nevertheless, knowing or not, she was a child caught in the issues of grown men: a sacrifice that led to more sacrifices. A sacrifice that led to war, the terror and trauma of her mother, and the death of innocent people in Troy. A death for more death.

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