Clytemnestra is one of the most vilified characters in Greek mythology because of her adultery and murderous deeds. She took a lover while her husband, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, was away fighting at the Trojan War, and then she killed him on his return.
The story of Clytemnestra (or Klytaimestra) and the murders she committed was presented in several different versions. The earliest depiction of her, by the Greek poet Homer (c. ninth–eighth century BCE), presents her as a malleable character who was led astray by her lover, Aegisthus. However, later depictions of Clytemnestra by dramatists including Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles generally show her as a heartless character who either led or orchestrated the killings.
Clytemnestra was the daughter of Tyndareos, king of Sparta, and Leda. Her sister was Helen (and sometimes Timandra), and her brothers were Castor and Pollux. According to some sources Helen and Pollux were the immortal children of Zeus, while Clytemnestra and the others were the mortal offspring of Tyndareos. Both Zeus and Tyndareos had slept with Leda on the same night, each making her pregnant with a boy and a girl.
According to one version of the Clytemnestra story, Agamemnon was not her first husband. She was originally married to Tantalus, the son of the Greek prince Thyestes, and they had a son. Agamemnon, who was Thyestes' nephew and ruler of Mycenae, killed both Tantalus and the boy, then married Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra and Agamemnon had three daughters and a son who each featured in dramatic stories of their own, all of which involved their mother. The daughters were Iphigeneia, Chrysothemis, and Electra; the son was Orestes. (In the Iliad the daughters were named Chrysothemis, Laodike, and Iphianassa.)
The story of Clytemnestra starts when her sister Helen is abducted by Paris, the incident that began the 10-year Trojan War between Greece and Troy. Helen was married to Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother, and when the war began Agamemnon became leader of the Greek forces. In an effort to ensure strong winds for his ships' speedy journey across the sea, Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigeneia. According to Aeschylus's play Agamemnon, Clytemnestra never forgave her husband for the death of Iphigeneia. In Iphigeneia Among the Taurians, a play by Euripides, at the moment the girl's throat was about to be cut, divine intervention made her vanish and a deer appear in her place on the altar.
While Agamemnon was away fighting in Troy, Clytemnestra began an affair with Aegisthus. When Agamemnon returned victorious to Mycenae, he brought with him his new mistress, Cassandra. Cassandra was the daughter of Priam, the defeated king of Troy. She was clairvoyant but cursed that no one would ever heed her warnings. Soon after their arrival, Clytemnestra stabbed (or axed) Agamemnon and Cassandra to death. When Orestes grew up, he and his sister, Electra, avenged the death of their father by killing both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.
Clytemnestra held particular fascination for Athenian tragedians writing in the fifth and early fourth centuries BCE Aeschylus made Agamemnon's murder and its consequences the focus of his trilogy the Oresteia. In the first of the three plays, Agamemnon, the king, newly arrived home from the Trojan War, is murdered by his wife and her lover. In the second play, Choephoroe (or The Libation Bearers), Orestes returns to avenge his father by killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. He is guided by the god Apollo and encouraged by Electra, who has waited many years for Orestes' return. The title of the third play, Eumenides, is a reference to the Erinyes, or Furies, of Clytemnestra. The Erinyes were spirits that tormented those who wronged relatives, and in Aeschylus's play they drive Orestes insane because he killed his mother. With the help of the goddess Athena, however, Orestes is acquitted of murder at the court of the Areopagus in Athens, and the Erinyes are placated and given a new name, the Eumenides (Kindly Ones).
Although the major Greek dramatists represented Clytemnestra as a faithless wife and unloving mother, each characterized her differently. Aeschylus's Clytemnestra is at first a proud and regal figure, capable of masterful speech and manly deeds. Choephoroe depicts her as increasingly fearful of dreams and portents, and terrified when Orestes, whom she thought was long dead, reappears. She dies in the play while begging her son to spare her life.
The Clytemnestra of Sophocles' tragedy Electra is more openly hostile to her children, exulting over a false report of Orestes' death and berating Electra for moping about the death of her father. Euripides' Electra portrays a vain and hypocritical Clytemnestra, who is lured to her death by Electra's supposedly imminent childbirth. The relationship between the mother and daughter in the play is without love; the two women are deadly rivals.
In the early 20th century, Clytemnestra featured in two important dramatic works, Elektra (1909), an opera by the composer Richard Strauss (1864–1949), and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), a trilogy by American playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953). Strauss's opera is based on Sophocles' Electra, and O'Neill's trilogy is an adaptation of Aeschylus's Oresteia, with the drama being set in post–Civil War New England.
See also: AGAMEMNON; ATREUS; CASSANDRA; CASTOR AND POLLUX; ELECTRA; FURIES; HELEN; IPHIGENEIA; ORESTES.
- The Oresteia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. , and A. Shapiro and P. Burian, eds.
- The Complete Euripides, 5 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009–2010. , and Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, eds.
- Reclaiming Klytemnestra: Revenge or Reconciliation. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003. .
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