There is another biblical parallel to the tale of the sacrifice of Iphigenia—the story of Jephthah and his unfortunate daughter, as told in the Book of Judges. Prior to entering into battle with the Ammonites, Jephthah vows to the Lord that in return for victory, he will sacrifice “whatever comes out of the door of [his] house to meet [him]” when he reaches his home (Judges 11:30–31).

This resembles the equally rash vow made by Agamemnon in promising the goddess Artemis to sacrifice the fairest thing brought forth in the year of his daughter’s birth, never suspecting that this “fairest thing” would prove to be his daughter, Iphigenia.1

Jephthah’s vow has similar heartbreaking consequences: The first thing that comes out of his door upon his safe return is his own beloved daughter, an only child whom the Bible does not name.

With the singular difference that Jephthah’s daughter is eventually sacrificed and Iphigenia is not—at least not in the account by Euripides2—the stories of the two obedient daughters echo one another in many important respects. Although Iphigenia initially pleads for her life (“Pity me and do not kill me”3), both women finally offer themselves for sacrifice to assure the victories of their fathers and peoples over their enemies. In so doing, both bear the consequences of their fathers’ rash and imprudent pronouncements.

Much is made of the virginity of both women. Indeed, Jephthah’s daughter asks only one thing of her father, namely a stay of two months during which she and her companions may go among the mountains “to bewail [her] virginity.” (In the illumination above, published in Paris about 1250 A.D. and showing scenes from the Hebrew Bible, Jephthah is greeted by his daughter [upper left], the daughter laments her virginity [upper right] and Jephthah sacrifices his daughter [lower left].) Pointedly, the Bible notes that she died without ever having “known a man.” In memory of her noble sacrifice, “there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the maidens of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite” (Judges 11:37–40).

Iphigenia, too, is memorialized by her people as a prototype of virginity and the unfulfilled feminine life. She too has never known a man. She says that the victory of the Greeks at Troy, which her sacrifice is intended to facilitate, will serve as her monument, her marriage and her children. Miraculously saved in Euripides’s account, the rest of her life is spent in lonely spinsterhood, “I have no husband, no child, no city, no friend.”4 She is denied the opportunity to make offerings to Hera, the patroness of marriage. In Euripides’s account, the garments of women who die in childbirth are consecrated to her.5 She endures in the thoughts of the Greeks as one who gave up all feminine prerogatives for the sake of her people but who, even more than Jephthah’s daughter, lamented the need to do so.