Iphigenia, the Heroines and Hecate

Those of us who know Iphigenia only from Euripides’ tragedies (Iphigenia in Tauris, Iphigenia at Aulis) may be surprised to know that she also had a presence in Greek religion, with temples or shrines at various sites where she received prayers and offerings.

Heroine cults

The Greeks had many hero cults, honouring mortals whose exceptional strength, bravery, or endurance led to them being honoured after their deaths. (Sometime they were the founders of cities, along with heroines such as Antinoë, who founded Mantinea.)

Heroines, or heroissae, were the female equivalents, and many we think of as literary heroines, such as Penelope, Ariadne, and Alcmene received worship, along with unnamed ones associated with particular sites. All of these cults sprang up spontaneously, rather like saints’ cult in Christianity, usually meeting a local need. If they took off, the city or town might adopt them into a more official, public cult with annual offerings.

Iphigenia as a priestess in Tauris. Fresco from Pompeii, Wikimedia.

Cult sites across Greece

One type of heroine was the sacrificial virgin, a young woman who either killed herself for the public good (Aglauros), or who was sacrificed by others to appease a deity. Iphigenia falls into the second category, since she was sacrificed to Artemis by her father Agamemnon, whose men had offended the goddess. Only them would Artemis allow them to sail to Troy to fight the Trojan War.

Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis covers this part of the story, but there’s a twist in the tale: while one version of the myth says that Iphigenia was sacrificed to Artemis, others say that she was reprieved at the last minute, with a deer put in her place. (Another says that Artemis made her immortal after her death, or that she became the goddess Hekate.)

Euripides’ other play, Iphigenia in Tauris, takes on the tangled history of the heroine and her family. Her brother Orestes, fleeing from justice after killing Clytemenestra, meets her at Tauris on the Black Sea, where she has become the priestess of bloody cult of Artemis. She escapes with her brother, who also take the statue of Artemis from the temple and deposits it at Halae Araphenidae, a small port in Attica.

Brauron, a major cult centre for Artemis, was not far away, and the story may account for the cult of Artemis Tauropolos there. Iphigenia served as a priestess at Brauron until her death, after which she was honoured as a heroine. (One version of Iphigenia’s story says Artemis left a bear in her place, since Artemis Brauronia‘s festival was the Arketia, and the girls who participated were arktos, she-bears.)

Iphigenia’s cult lay in central Greece. Pausanias lists a sanctuary of Artemis Iphigenia at Hermoine in Argos, a heroön in Megara commemorating her death there, and an image of Iphigenia in the temple of Artemis at Aigeira in Achaea among Iphigenia’s cult centers. (Pausanias says that the temple at Aigeria must have been a temple of Iphigenia originally, since the most ancient statue there was of Iphegnia and not Artemis.)

However, Pausanias and Euripides both say that Iphigenia and Artemis were worshipped at Tauris, so perhaps Iphigenia’s cult was more widespread. Herodotus especially says that the Taurians made their offerings to Iphigenia, although this is likely a Greek name for their own deity. (Budin: 123) For more on the cult of Artemis Tauropolos and the Crimean Parthenos, see my last post.

Ruins of a hero-shrine at Sagalassos, Turkey. Wikimedia.

Was Iphigenia a Goddess?

So it seems that Iphigenia was a heroine whose cult was swept up in that of the goddess Artemis. However, there is some evidence that Iphigenia may have been a minor goddess, like the Cretan Eileithyia, who was absorbed by Artemis as time went on.

Whoever wrote the Catalogue of Women may have known that there was a Mycenean goddess called i-pe-me-(da)-ja or Iphimedê, Strong in Counsel. We know of her from a list of offerings at the sanctuaries of Diwia and Iphimedeia, at Pylos:

and X offers sacrifice at the shrine of Pe-re-*82, of Iphimedeia, and of Diwia
and carries gifts and takes Y for the carrying: to Pe-re-*82 1 GOLD *213-BOWL [and] 1 WOMAN
to Iphimedeia 1 GOLD *213-BOWL; to Diwia 1 GOLD *213-BOWL [and] 1 WOMAN
(Pylos Tablet Tn 316)

Diwia seems to be a female equivalent to Zeus, who also had a sanctuary there, as well as Poseidon and an unknown deity called pe-re-*82. (Palamia 182) Iphimedeia may have been Poseidon’s consort, making two divine couples. There may be a memory of this in the Odyssey and several other sources, where a mortal Iphimedeia had children with Poseidon. Her tomb and that of her sons were on display at Anthedon in Boetia.

Stephanie Budin (122) connects this goddess to Iphigenia, Strong in Birth, and a minor figure in the Illiad, Iphianassa, Strong Queen. (Iphianassa, was a sister/variant of Iphigenia in the Iliad (II.9.145).) Other Iphianassas are Nereids, daughters of the sea-god Nereus.

Others, like Hollinshead, see no more than a coincidence of names, since “strong” is a pretty generic element for a name. (Hollinshead: 421)

Iphigenia about to be sacrificed, with Artemis at the top riding to the rescue. Theoi.com

Apotheosis and Hecate

So Iphigenia may have come from a Mycenean goddess, but according to pseudo-Hesiod she managed to become one again thanks to the intervention of Artemis, who turned her into Hekate:

I know that Hesiod in the Catalogue of Women represented that Iphigeneia was not killed but, by the will of Artemis, became Hekate. (Theoi.com)

The actual Hesiod, who wrote the Theogony, seems to have had a particular devotion to Hekate. She was an Anatolian deity, and his father came from Kymê in western Anatolia, so the devotion probably ran in the family.

It’s unclear if the “other” Hesiod who wrote the Catalogue of Women was a fellow-devotee or simply felt that giving Hekate a boost was a Hesiodic thing to do, but it did tie Iphigenia into the Artemis cult again. The actual Hesiod lived in Boeotia, and we have seen that Iphigenia’s cult was strong in central Greece, so perhaps the author was a devotee of Iphigenia, or felt her cult needed justification. (Budin: 123)

Pausanias mentions the idea that Iphigenia became Hekate, saying the Arcadians also believed it:

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.
(Pausanias, Description of Greece I.43.1)

While in Stesichorus’s Orestia (now lost) Iphigenia was also identified with Hekate, although he seems to have been influenced by Hesiod.

I can’t help but think that since Hekate came “from the east” (although Turkey’s a bit nearer than the Crimea) and Iphigenia went to Tauris, it may have seemed logical to link them, since both are also connected to Artemis. (Bekah Evie Bel mentions a few, unusual, stories of a mortal Hekate that place her in Tauris as well.)

Giving Iphigenia an apotheosis, deifying her, must have seemed like an elegant solution to the question of how to classify a figure who seems to oscillate between human and divine, and who could certainly have been said to suffered enough to deserve divinization. Perhaps it seemed like a proper reward for the pitiful figure of a the trusting young woman betrayed by her father, and rescued by the goddess.

References and Links

Bremmer,  Jan N. 2013: “Human Sacrifice in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris: Greek and Barbarian,” in Human Sacrifice: Cross-Cultural Perspectives and Representations, eds. Pierre Bonnechere and Renaud Gagné, Press Universitaire de Liège.
Budin, Stephanie Lynn 2015: Artemis, Routledge. (Google Books)
Hollinshead, Mary B. 1985: “Iphigenia’s Adyton in Three Mainland Temples,” American Journal of Archaeology 89/3 (Jul 1985: 419-40.
Palamia, Thomas G. 2004: “Sacrifical Feasting in the Linear B Documents,” Hesperia: the Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 73/2 (Apr-Jun 2004): 217-46.

Interview with Jennifer Larson on heroine cults
LacusCurtius on Iphigenia
Theoi.com on Hekate and Iphigenia
preview of Greek Heroine Cults
Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World – Heroine Cults entry
Iphigenia – the Human Origins of Hekate
Naming Agamemnon’s Daughters
The Wikipedia article

9 thoughts on “Iphigenia, the Heroines and Hecate

    1. solsdottir Post author

      That surprised me, too, because they don’t seem to have much in common apart from the connection with Artemis. Both come from the East, and the hero/ine cults were considered chthonic, which could be considered links.


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  2. Audrey Driscoll

    I find the apparent fluidity of deities fascinating. The names change, the degree of divinity changes, even the sex can shift. I noticed this when I was looking up information on Egyptian mythology while writing my latest novel. And Iphigenia’s story sounds like it could inspire some really good fiction, if treated well.


    1. solsdottir Post author

      There’s your next novel!. Deities are very protean beings, which is what I like about them. They change and renew themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

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