Clytemnestra: Twilight of the Matriarch

Bust of Clytemnestra

As any self-respecting Greek hero knows, sacking a city and raping its female inhabitants is hard work. So it is no wonder that after Agamemnon returned from the decade-long Trojan war where he slew their males, captured their prize princess and ultimately set their kingdom ablaze, the king of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks was expecting a hero’s warm welcome home. His wife, however, had other plans. After drawing a bath for the weary warrior, Clytemnestra wrapped Agamemnon in robes then hacked him to death. Murder, however, was not her only crime. Known for her intelligence, duplicity and ambition, as an archetypal matriarch, Clytemnestra is one of the most reviled of all female characters in Greek literature. More to the point, she struck fear in the hearts of Greek men by turning the dominant paradigm on its head. In Agamemnon’s absence, not only did she take command and replace her husband on the throne, she replaced him—with his estranged cousin Aegisthus—in her bed as well. Unaccountable to anyone, Clytemnestra displayed the reckless and swaggering independence of a fearless Greek hero. Clearly, she was a woman who did not know her place. For her trouble, she has long been regarded as a demon but was it ambition alone that induced her to kill Agamemnon? Moreover, how did her role as matriarch precipitate her downward trajectory?


It must have come as no surprise to the Greeks that Clytemnestra was of Spartan origin. Indeed, she was the mortal half twin of the semi-divine Helen. Known for their fierce independence, Spartan women were in direct contrast to the ideal subordinate females found throughout the rest of the Greek world. Martial to its core, women ruled while their men were off on one military campaign after another. So it was with Clytemnestra, in the decade-long Trojan war, the trailblazing Clytemnestra took the power that was hers as queen and went one better. In light of this, perhaps unsurprisingly, Clytemnestra is ushered into Greek literature by way of an insult. With characteristic disregard for his wife, in the Iliad, Agamemnon announces to all and any that he prefers the company of his concubine over that of Clytemnestra. Alas, his predilection toward concubines would become legendary and almost lead to the Greeks’ defeat: “…a daughter of Chryses. I have set my heart on keeping her in my own house. I love her better even than my own wife, Clytemnestra.” The next time Clytemnestra emerges is in the Odyssey when from the underworld Agamemnon recounts his cruel homecoming to Odysseus. But this time the chief perpetrator of the crime was Aegisthus, who slays Agamemnon while at the dinner table. According to Homer, Clytemnestra merely plays the supporting role of willing accomplice to her lover. In the telling, Clytemnestra acts as a foil to Penelope– Odysseus’s wife–who faithfully stitches away the years as her husband embarks on one adventure—often erotic—after another. Agamemnon, however, gets the last word when he says about his wife: “A song of loathing will be Clytemnestra’s among men, to make evil the reputation of all womankind, even for those whose acts are virtuous.” Never a friend to women, regrettably, Agamemnon’s departing words censure them all, even those, like Penelope, who are seemingly irreproachable.

Although she plays a bit part in the Odyssey, Clytemnestra’s strident voice comes through loudest in The Oresteia Trilogy. Considered one of the greatest achievements of Greek literature, it was penned by the father of Greek tragedy– Aeschylus in 458 BCE–and is the only surviving example of a Greek tragic trilogy. Epic in scale, the three plays chronicle the curse on the house of Atreus notorious for kin-murder with an unfortunate proclivity toward filicide—thankfully quelled by the end of the trilogy. While Clytemnestra’s presence is felt in all three plays, it is the first play, Agamemnon, where she most fully resides. Even before brutally slaying the noble Agamemnon, leadership qualities considered virtuous in a man are viewed as monstrous in her. Playing the role of matriarch Clytemnestra is often rebuked by the chorus for having ambition and “thinking like a man.” Yet, it may have been more than ambition that induced her to kill her valorous husband. Some speculate that it was the final insult of bringing his unwilling concubine, the Trojan princess-cum-slave, Cassandra, into their home which sent Clytemnestra over the edge. Poor Cassandra! To be caught in a tug-of-wills between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra–a worse fate cannot be imagined. Once Clytemnestra slaughtered her husband, the hapless prophetess was unceremoniously dispatched–an end she had in truth foreseen. With calumny heaped upon Clytemnestra throughout the ages, forgotten is the fact that ten years prior, this villain was once herself victim.

Cymon and Iphigenia

In fact, if not for the ambition of Agamemnon, their daughter, Iphigenia, might have lived to see old age. The grievous tale begins with Agamemnon’s calculated promise of a betrothal for Iphigenia to the most eligible bachelor of the Greek world; the demi-god and war-hero, Achilles. This seemed credible enough, since it was not unusual in ancient Greece for the father to bargain with his future son-in-law without the knowledge or consent of either mother or daughter. The betrothal lured Iphigenia and her mother to Aulis where Agamemnon and the Argive fleet were stuck at port. But unbeknownst to the women, the marriage was a ruse. On account of Agamemnon’s swaggering boast that he was a better hunter than Artemis—goddess of the hunt—the furious divinity quelled the winds so that the Greeks were stranded at the bay of Aulis and stymied from launching their offensive on Troy. But that was not the end of it, as a pre-condition of victory against the Trojans, Artemis would only release the winds if in her honor, Agamemnon sacrificed his eldest daughter–the virginal Iphigenia. Faced with the choice of certain defeat or filicide—a choice which would give most fathers pause– the ever-vainglorious Agamemnon, straightaway, elected to sacrifice his daughter— her life the price for victory.

The sacrifice of Iphigenia

Dressed in the flowing saffron vestment robes of a Greek bride, Iphigenia walked down the aisle with the hopes and expectations of a newlywed eagerly anticipating her betrothed at the altar. Imagine her horror, when at the altar instead of Achilles, a wild-eyed axe-wielding Agamemnon lay in wait. “‘My father, father!’” she cried while he bellowed to his henchmen: “‘Hoist her over the altar like a yearling, give it all your strength, she’s fainting–lift her, sweep her robes around her….here, gag her hard, a sound will curse the house’…the bridle chokes her voice…..her saffron robes pouring out over the sand.” Taking no more regard for her than he would a goat, alas, Iphigenia was even prohibited from screaming lest another curse fall on the house of Atreus. Barbarous and cruel, Agamemnon took more care in safeguarding his name than in protecting his child. What follows next is unspoken. Incapable of reporting her savage execution, the sheer brutality of the act renders the chorus speechless. Eager to put the gruesome episode to rest, Agamemnon removes all traces of Iphigenia affording her no funeral rites as she quietly slips away from the story–unlike her mother’s wrath.


Clytemnestra waking the Furies/Erinyes

The savage slaying of her daughter unhinges Clytemnestra who vows maternal revenge against her heroic husband. Representing the matriarch–domineering and unyielding– she is Demeter-like harking back to a bygone era before marriage when the mother-daughter dyad was the primary bond and the interference of males an unwelcome invasion. Like Demeter, Clytemnestra is a fierce protector of her daughter. As old as the earth, Demeter’s story is worth reviewing and distinguished among Greek myths for being a woman’s tale. Before joining the Olympian pantheon, Demeter–goddess of the harvest– was once a chthonic earth goddess and pre-dated Zeus by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The oldest rendition of her myth comes from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter believed to have been composed in the eighth century BCE with aspects of its narrative recalling a time long before that. It was called Homeric, not because it was written by Homer, but because it was written in the same meter used in the epics. In the myth, unbeknownst to both mother and daughter, Zeus arranges with Hades, lord of the underworld, to kidnap, that is to say, to marry his daughter, Persephone.

The kidnap or rape is the event which spurs the action of the myth and it was this kidnapping-cum-marriage which resonated with women in ancient Greece whose marriages were likewise made in this fashion. Prior to her violent abduction into the underworld, the contrast between the carefree playfulness Persephone exhibits in a meadow beforehand speaks manifestly about women’s loss of independence from leading a largely autonomous life to one yoked by marriage. Although initially inconsolable at the loss of their daughters, both Demeter and Clytemnestra become enraged, finally taking matters into their own hands. As earth-mother, in an effort to bring Persephone back from the land of the dead, Demeter stops the seasons. Likewise, Clytemnestra, ultimately, made Agamemnon pay for his horrific crime. Not that she needed another reason to kill him, but in a version of a myth recalled by Euripides, Clytemnestra’s first husband and young son were both slain by Agamemnon. Slaughtering her family, however, was not enough for the hero, Agamemnon would go on to rape Clytemnestra forcing her to be his wife. Indeed, when it came to his characteristic cruelty, even his own daughter was not immune. In direct contrast to the anguish suffered by the two matriarchs, in the myths, the fathers are dark forces whose careless actions impel the horrendous events. Yet once their daughters are dispatched, they are indifferent to their loss. Unwilling to see the planet he shepherds wither away, it is only after the earth becomes a barren wasteland that Zeus intercedes with Hades on behalf of Demeter. As for Agamemnon, even from the underworld, he remains insensible to the error of his ways.


The legends of powerful matriarchs from which these myths sprang are emblematic of another era before patriarchy became the law of the land. The Late Bronze age or Mycenaean era (1600 BCE-1100 BCE) was a time marked by the upheaval of the Indo-European invasions. While there is still much debate about the period, literary and archeological evidence suggests that antecedent to the Mycenaean civilization women led lives of relative autonomy. Although matriarchal rule is believed by many to be more mythological than historical, in all likelihood, early societies were matrilineal–meaning kinship was traced from the maternal line passing down from mother to daughter where lineage is more, in fact, confirmable. During this time, the notion of patriarchal marriage did not exist, hence the mother-daughter relationship was primal. Recalling a time before marriage, the matriarch viewed her child as a possession while the father figure was largely a nonentity.

Bringing an end to life with her mother on earth was a common enough event for women of ancient Greece whose marriages were patrilocal, meaning that the bride had to live with her new husband’s family sometimes miles away from her natal home. Because of this, mothers and daughters could be separated sometimes forever hence marriage could be a sort of death. Never to see her mother or the light of her mother’s earthly domain, the newlywed Persephone is as dead as any goddess can be. Likewise, with her bridal vestments doubling as her winding sheet, Iphigenia’s sacrifice is itself a parody of marriage. For the Greek maiden, marriage and death went hand in hand. It is useful to note that most brides were between twelve and fourteen years of age, while the grooms were at least twice or thrice that age. Because of their tender ages, it was not uncommon for adolescent wives to die in childbirth. So perhaps it is no coincidence that the marriage rites for women in the Greek world were eerily reminiscent of their funereal rites. Common for both were garlands, ritual absolutions, the shearing of hair, the dedicating of songs, a feast, and the focus on the transition from home to grave or from natal home to husband’s home. Moreover, the thinking by some is that the marriage-death parallels evoke the feminine opposition to marriage; mourning women’s loss of autonomy hallmark in the era before the Mycenaean invasions. After the invasions, Greek culture became stridently patriarchal as illustrated by the Homeric epics with a paternalism which would eventually become deeply layered into all of Greek literature.

The murdered Clytemnestra and Aegistus

This androcentrism is keenly felt in The Oresteia. Although the focus is on the troubles of one family, the trilogy is culturally expansive. as it traces the path of justice from the primordial code of blood vengeance, ostensibly characteristic of early matriarchal societies who revered the earth mother or chthonic religion, to an impartial court of law engendered under the patriarchal rule of the Olympian pantheon. Blood-vengeance defines the first two plays of the trilogy. In the first play, Agamemnon, the sacrifice of Iphigenia spurs Clytemnestra to murder her husband—the crime of mariticide; whereas in the second play Libation Bearers, his father’s slaying goads Orestes to kill his mother in retaliation– the crime of matricide. In the final play of the trilogy, Eumenides, the main characters are chthonic female deities known as the Furies who punish men for crimes against the natural order. More closely resembling Macbeth’s witches than the modern notion of divinities–the Furies harass Orestes for committing matricide by driving him out of the palace and relentlessly pursuing him to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. There he is offered sanctuary by Apollo–the god of reason and harmony–who had originally commanded Orestes to avenge his father’s death.


Clytemnestra and Agamemnon

While the Furies and Apollo square off one against the other over the fate of Orestes, steely-eyed Athena materializes in full regalia and arbitrates between them by creating a tribunal where citizen jurors hold forth in cases of homicide. Even as Agamemnon is memorialized by Apollo “for a noble man to die, covered with praise, his sceptre the gift of god–murdered at that by a woman’s hand…” the justice behind his murder is squelched as over and over again. Clytemnestra is considered monstrous and depraved for killing her heroic husband, seemingly for no other reason than a lust for power. As they harangue and harass Orestes over matricide, even the Furies don’t defend Clytemnestra’s maternal revenge against her husband. Aside from the first play, Agamemnon, Iphigenia’s story is rubbed out and vanishes altogether in the remaining narrative.

Maternity herself is on trial when it is Apollo’s turn to make his case—and she is found wanting. The god of reason submits a revisionist theory which damns motherhood for all time: “Here is the truth…the woman you call the mother of the child is not the parent, just the nurse to the seed, the new-sown seed that grows and swells inside her. The man is the source of life—the one who mounts. She, like a stranger for a stranger keeps the shoot alive unless god hurts the roots. I give you proof that all I say is true. The father can father forth without a mother. Here she stands our living witness look”….indicating Athena. “Child sprung full-blown from Olympian Zeus, never bred in the darkness of the womb but such a stock no goddess could conceive!!” In Apollo’s counterfactual screed, not only do fathers have parthenogenetic abilities, but mothers are incidental to reproduction, a mere incubator to the all-important seed the father provides. By marginalizing maternity, what crime is matricide?

The Furies attacked Orestes

When the all-male jury comes back deadlocked, unsurprisingly, no-mother-borne-Athena casts her lot with paternity by saying: “…I am entirely my father’s child. And this is why the killing of a woman who killed her husband, guardian of the house, can have no overriding claim on me. Orestes wins, even if the votes be equal.” Time and again the audience is reminded of how far greater a crime it is for a wife to kill her husband than for a son to kill his mother. Like Athena, Orestes is entirely his father’s child, after all. In this patriarchal world order, the mother, whose inherent role was once unparalleled now plays a supporting role to the all-important father. What’s more, the natural bond of mother to child is subordinated to the constructed bond of matrimony with the ancillary wife living squarely under her husband’s patriarchal thumb.

From matriarch to handmaiden, using Clytemnestra as exemplar, Aeschylus paints a portrait of the “fortunate fall” of the matriarch. But it was not enough that Clytemnestra is cast for all time as outlaw, Aeschylus uses her narrative to question the biological imperative of motherhood itself. There can be no fierce matriarch if the essential maternal is removed. The truth is Greek men were weary of autonomous women for challenging the uneven status quo. After all, where would patriarchy be if the subjugated half became empowered? As for Clytemnestra, for her clever duplicity, she is often referred to as the female Odysseus. In virtue of being dominant, resolute, fierce and vengeful, Clytemnestra shares all the attributes of Greek heroes–while enjoying none of their accolades. From the primordial gloom of antiquity, the reason behind her maternal outrage is often forgotten but even with the odds stacked squarely against her, the indomitable Clytemnestra may best be remembered for having no regrets and making no apologies.

Classical Wisdom January 2021

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