Iphigenia, or: The Girl From Ipinama

Sententiae Antiquae, one of the blogs I follow, publishes translations of interesting passages from Ancient Greek and Latin. This month, he has had a series of posts on the topics of Helen and Iphigenia. #MythMonth: Agamemnon’s Daughter, in particular, looks at the origins of the myth of Iphigenia. He translates a fragment from Hesiod:

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

From Agamemnon, the first play in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, first performed in 458 BC (over forty years before Euripides wrote Iphigenia in Tauris and Iphigenia at Aulis), the name “Iphigeneia” was well established, but in Hesiod we get “Iphimedê”, and in the Iliad the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is never mentioned. Agamemnon does offer Achilles a choice of his three daughters as a bride:

Three daughters are mine in my well-built halls—
Chrysothemis and Laodice and Iphianassa—
and he may lead away whichever one he likes,
with no bride-price asked, home to Peleus’ house.

Iliad 9:173-6, trans. Robert Fagles

which is a noteworthy parallel with Iphigenia being lured to Aulis with the expectation of marriage to Achilles. It’s unclear whether Iphianassa and Iphigenia are the same person. The Cypria, part of the epic cycle of poems about the Trojan War, which told the story leading up to the war and included the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, is lost to us now.

(Edit: The tale of ‘Iphigenia’ from the Cypria was summarised by Proclus, see, e.g., The Names of Agamemnon’s Daughters and the Death of Iphigenia or Summaries of the Trojan Cycle.)

In another recent Sententiae Antiquae post, Sacrifices TO Iphigenia and an Etymology for Her Name, the following etymology is translated:

“Iphigenia: Euphorion says she really is the daughter of Helen and Theseus and was secretly given to Klytemnestra. [The origin of her name] is that Helen gave birth [hupogeinato] to her after she was overcome by force [iphi] by Theseus.”

This is, of course, a fake etymology, and a rather disturbing one too. The usual etymology given these days for Iphigenia is along the lines of:

Ιφιγενεια: Derived from Greek ιφιος (iphios) “strong, stout” and γενης (genes) “born”. “Iphigenia” means “strong-born”, “born to strength”, or “she who causes the birth of strong offspring.” [Based on definitions in Behind the Name and Wikipedia.]

I confess I’m no expert, but this seems like an unlikely name for a daughter, though as an epithet for a goddess it might work, and Iphigenia was certainly worshipped as a goddess in places.

The suffix -geneia is one of a number of common name suffices. In a section on Onomastics (the study of names and naming practices) in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece (ed. Nigel Wilson, 2013), Elaine Matthews explains about theophoric names:

Theophoric names could take the adjectival or compound form. The most common of all Greek names were the adjectival forms based on Apollo (Apollonios), Dionysos (Dionysios) and Demeter (Demetrios); but a greater range was provided by compounds in which the name of the god was followed by -genes/geneia (birth), -dotos/dota and -doros/dora (giving/gift), -philos/phila (loved/loving), -kles/kleia (renown) and -phanes/phaneia (manifestation), etc.

Thus “Herakles” can perhaps be understood as “renowned of Hera”, while names like “Iphikles” and “Iphigeneia” seem to suggest a god whose name begins “Iphi-”.

Minoan Snake Goddess

Minoan Snake Goddess (also associated with bees)

The identification of the stem “iphi-” with “iphios” (“strong, stout”) is not certain either. In an article on etymologies in Current Trends in Caucasian, East European, and Inner Asian Linguistics (ed. Holisky & Tuite, 2003), John Colarusso instead suggests “snake”/“the coiling one”.

Hmm, now where would we find a goddess associated with snakes?

Okay, that’s pure and desperate speculation – but maybe there is a Minoan link. In The word I-PI-NA-MA: Blood or Honey?, Andras Zeke says:

The first part of I-PI-NA-MA is suspiciously similar to the particle ‘*iphi-’ found in a number of Greek words, most importantly personal names. Apart from Iphigeneia (the famous mythological figure), we may find Iphianassa (an archaic name with wanassa = ‘queen’) and Iphimedeia (a goddess in Mycenean-era Pylos). We can also compare them to the name of Iphis (a heroine of Ovidius), Iphicles (a half-brother to Heracles), or the ancient Greek adjective iphios = ‘strong’. The latter word has no truly convincing Indo-European etymology, so it is possible that it is an adjectival form of a borrowed Aegean word, *iph(i). …

The symbol of bees is frequently used in Minoan art, and even a Linear A sign (*39 = PI) derives from the shape of a (sitting) bee. Honey was a sacred food offered to gods (see the Pylos tablets) likely in the form of libation. We might also take the Latin word apis = ‘bee’ into the equation, since the latter has no clear etymology among Indo-European stems, and is certainly similar to *iphi. So, according to this theory, the word *iphi should originally mean ‘bee’, and I-PI-NA-MA (*iphinama) can be interpreted as an elaborate word for ‘bees’ honey’.

I am completely out of my depth on this, but my theory is that “Iphigeneia” was a girl’s name honouring the goddess Iphimedeia. At some point the worship of Iphimedeia was absorbed into the worship of Artemis, and a tale of sacrifice of a virgin girl, made immortal by Artemis, was spun. Eventually this was absorbed into the story of Agamemnon, whose daughter’s name, “Iphianassa”, may be a regal variant of “Iphigeneia”, and thus the proposed marriage to Achilles was incorporated into the tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice.

About Frank

A Sci-Fi & Fantasy author and lyrical poet with a mild obsession for vampires, succubi, goddesses and Supergirl.
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One Response to Iphigenia, or: The Girl From Ipinama

  1. Frank says:

    Note to self: In another tale (from Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women), Iphianassa, Iphinoë and Lypsippe were daughters of Proetus (son of King Akrisius of Argos) and Queen Anteia (a.k.a. Stheneboia) of Argos. Same Iphi- root.

    Death and the Maiden (Routledge Revivals): Girls’ Initiation Rites in Greek Mythology by Ken Dowden looks at Iphinoë as an eternal maiden in rituals, and in connection with the Proitids. Much to say also about Iphigeneia.

    In The Uses of Greek Mythology, discussing Iphigeneia and the deer, Ken Dowden speculates: “This looks like a partner-myth for a rite of maidens in the cult of Artemis at Aulis. … A deer-rite is in fact suggested by three inscriptions from two sites in southern Thessaly and it does seem to be preliminary to marriage: a man who on one inscription pays a ‘release-fee’ to Artemis ‘Throsia’ at Larisa for a female who has nebeu-’d (cf. nebros ‘deer’) turns up on another inscription as her husband.”

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