Definitions

Clytemnestra

Clytemnestra

[klahy-tuhm-nes-truh]
Clytemnestra, in Greek mythology, the daughter of Leda and Tyndareus. Homer described her as the noble-minded wife of Agamemnon, persuaded to infidelity by the tyrant Aegisthus. However, the Greek tragedians, most specifically Aeschylus, depicted her as remorseless and vengeful. She was the mother by Agamemnon of Orestes, Electra, and Iphigenia. She conspired with Aegisthus to murder Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War, giving various justifications, most notably the sacrifice of Iphigenia by Agamemnon at the onset of the war. Orestes, who had been living in exile, returned and revenged the death of his father by killing his mother and Aegisthus.

Clytemnestra (or Clytaemnestra) (Eng. /klaɪtəm'nɛstɹə/ Greek: Κλυταιμνήστρα Klytaimnéstra, "famed for her suitors") was the wife of Agamemnon, king of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Mycenae or Argos. In the Oresteia by Aeschylus, she was a femme fatale who murdered her husband, Agamemnon—said by Euripides to be her second husband—and his concubine Cassandra. However, in Homer's Odyssey, her role in Agamemnon's death is unclear and her character is significantly more subdued.

Background

Clytemnestra was the daughter of Tyndareus and Leda and mother of Iphigeneia, Orestes, Chrysothemis and Electra. According to the myth, Zeus appeared to Leda in the form of a swan, raping and impregnating her. Leda produced four offspring from two eggs; Castor and Polydeuces from one egg, and Helen and Clytemnestra from the other. Castor and Clytemnestra were fathered by Tyndareus whereas Pollux and Helen were fathered by Zeus. In Euripides' Iphigeneia in Tauris, Clytemnestra's first husband was Tantalus, who was slain by Agamemnon, King of Pisa (in the western Peloponnese), who then made Clytemnestra his wife.

Mythology

Agamemnon was leading Greek forces in the Trojan War in Troy, when consistently weak winds were preventing his ships from sailing. Through a subplot involving the gods, he was told that the winds would return if he sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia to the goddess Artemis. He persuaded Clytemnestra to send Iphigeneia by deceptively telling her that the purpose of his daughter's visit was to marry her to Achilles. When Iphigeneia arrived, she was sacrificed. This betrayal was a partial motive for his eventual murder.

Also during this period of his absence, Clytemnestra began a love affair with Aegisthus, her husband's cousin (they produced a daughter; Erigone). Whether Clytemnestra was seduced into the affair or entered it independently is debated. Nevertheless, together they plotted the murder of Agamemnon.

When Agamemnon returned from Troy, he brought the princess Cassandra as his concubine, thus Clytemnestra's jealousy was another partial motive for his murder. Upon his arrival, he entered the palace for a banquet while Cassandra remained in the chariot. It is at this point that Clytemnestra (or Aegisthus, see "Controversy") fulfilled her plan by initially seducing him into a vulnerable position, then entangling him in cloth and finally murdering him.

Meanwhile, Cassandra, who had the gift of always true prophecy, saw visions of Agamemnon's murder and her own. Her attempts to elicit help failed (she had been cursed by Apollo; no one would believe her prophecies) and when she realized she was fated to die, she ran into the palace and was also killed by Clytemnestra. After the murders, Aegisthus replaced Agamemnon and ruled with Clytemnestra. She was eventually killed by her son Orestes, who was the reluctant avenger of his father's death.

Controversy

  • Different versions of the myth vary in their depiction of the murder; some suggest that Clytemnestra alone killed Agamemnon, others suggest that it was a joint effort with Aegisthus or Aegisthus entirely.
  • According to some scholars, Cassandra was not murdered along with Agamemnon, but left Mycenae unharmed.
  • Clytemnestra's personality differs between tellings, as weak and submissive (Homer's Clytemnestra), or ruthless and manipulative (Aeschylus' Clytemnestra). This affects her role in the affair with Agamemnon.

Clytemnestra in the arts

Clytemnestra has been the subject of many artistic works.

  • Most notably, Aeschylus' play Agamemnon was the first piece to bring her to light.
  • The American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham created a two-hour ballet, Clytemnestra (1958), about the queen.
  • Most recently, playwright/actor Corey Allen wrote a contemporary adaptation of Aeschylus' earlier work entitled Clytemnestra.
  • The story has also been adapted into an opera; Cromwell Everson a South African composer wrote the first Afrikaans opera, "Klutaimnestra", in 1967. It is an opera in four acts and premiered on November 7, 1967 in Biesenbach Hall, Worcester, Western Cape, South Africa.
  • Clytemnetra Sutpen was the daughter of Thomas Sutpen and his negro slave in William Faulkner's work Absalom, Absalom.

References

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