Clytemnestra in Greek mythology

Clytemnestra is a significant figure in Greek mythology, known primarily for her role in the tragic story of the House of Atreus. She was the daughter of Tyndareus, the king of Sparta, and Leda. She is best remembered for her marriage to Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, and her subsequent involvement in his murder.

Clytemnestra stands out in Greek mythology as a strong, determined woman who takes matters into her own hands. Her actions, driven by a mixture of personal grievances and passions, bring her both power and a tragic end, emphasizing the cyclical nature of revenge and the perils of unchecked ambition. Image: Clytemnestra by English painter John Collier, 1882

Here’s a breakdown of her character and her story:

Marriage to Agamemnon

Clytemnestra was initially married to Tantalus, with whom she had a son. However, Agamemnon killed Tantalus and took Clytemnestra as his wife. Together, they had four children: Iphigenia, Electra (or Chrysothemis), Orestes, and Chrysothemis (or Laodice).

Depiction of King Agamemnon of Mycenae from the late fifth century BC

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

As the Greek fleet prepared to sail to Troy to retrieve Helen (Clytemnestra’s half-sister), they were becalmed. A seer proclaimed that the winds would rise only if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis. Agamemnon tricked Clytemnestra into sending Iphigenia to him by promising her a marriage to Achilles. Upon her arrival, Iphigenia was sacrificed, causing deep resentment and anger in Clytemnestra towards her husband.

Le sacrifice d’Iphigénie by French painter Charles de La Fosse

Affair with Aegisthus

While Agamemnon was away during the ten-year-long Trojan War, Clytemnestra began an affair with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin and a member of the cursed House of Atreus. Together, they plotted to murder Agamemnon upon his return.

Murder of Agamemnon

When Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War, bringing with him the war-prize Cassandra (a Trojan princess and prophetess), Clytemnestra feigned happiness. However, soon after his arrival, she and Aegisthus killed him. In some versions of the story, Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon herself, while in others, Aegisthus did the deed.

Murder of Agamemnon, painting by French painter Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1817)

Orestes’ Revenge

Clytemnestra’s actions set the stage for another chapter of tragedy in the House of Atreus. Orestes, her son, was tormented by the need to avenge his father’s death. Urged on by his sister Electra and guided by the god Apollo, Orestes killed both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. However, this matricide haunted Orestes, who was pursued by the Erinyes (Furies) until he was purified.

Orestes slaying Clytemnestra

Interpretation and Symoblism

Clytemnestra is a central figure in a trilogy of plays by the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, known collectively as the “Oresteia.” The plays are “Agamemnon,” “The Libation Bearers,” and “The Eumenides.” Her character and story have been explored, adapted, and analyzed in various other works of literature and performance through the ages.

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