Clytemnestra – Greek Mythology

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Clytemnestra was the daughter of Tyndareus and Leda, rulers of Sparta, and the sister of Castor, Polydeuces and the famous Helen of Troy. She was the wife of Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek army in the Trojan War and the king of Mycenae.

Clytemnestra’s story is tragic and full of death and deceit. She was responsible for the murder of Agamemnon and although she herself was murdered, as a ghost she was still able to take revenge on Orestes, her killer and son.  Here’s her story.

The Unusual Birth of Clytemnestra

Born in Sparta, Clytemnestra was one of the four children of Leda and Tyndareus, the king and queen of Sparta. According to the myth, Zeus slept with Leda in the form of a swan and she then became pregnant, laying two eggs.

Each egg had two children – Castor and Clytemnestra were born from one egg, fathered by Tyndareus while Helen and Polydeuces were fathered by Zeus. Thus, although they were siblings, they had completely different parentages.

Clytemnestra and Agamemnon

The most popular account tells of Agamemnon and Menelaus’ arrival in Sparta where they found sanctuary in King Tyndareus’ court. Tyndareus’ became so fond of Agamemnon that he gave his daughter Clytemnestra as his bride. 

However, some sources say that Clytemnestra was already married to a man called Tantalus and had a son by him, long before she met Agamemnon. Agamemnon saw Clytemnestra and decided that he wanted her to become his wife, so he killed her husband and her son and took her for himself.

Tyndareus wanted to have Agamemnon killed, but when he came to confront him, he found Agamemnon kneeling and praying to the gods. surprised at Agamemnon’s piety, he decided not to kill him. Instead, he gave him Clytemnestra’s hand in marriage.

Clytemnestra and Agamemnon had four children: a son, Orestes, and three daughters, Chrysothemis, Electra and Iphigenia, who was Clytemnestra’s favorite.

The Trojan War and the Sacrifice

The story began with Paris who abducted Helen, wife of Menelaus and twin sister of Clytemnestra. Agamemnon, who was then the most powerful king, decided to help his enraged brother bring back his wife and waged war against Troy.

However, although he had an army and 1000 ships, they were unable to embark on their journey due to stormy weather.  Upon consulting a seer, Agamemnon was told that he would have to sacrifice his own daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. This would ensure success in the war so Agamemnon agreed and sent a note to Clytemnestra, deceiving her by asking her to bring Iphigenia to Aulis to be married to Achilles.

The Death of Iphigenia

Some say that when Clytemnestra and Iphigenia arrived in Aulis, Agamemnon told his wife what was to happen and terrified, she pleaded with Agamemnon for the life of her favorite daughter. Other sources say that Iphigenia was sacrificed in secret before Clytemnestra learned of her husband’s plans. As soon as Iphigenia was killed, favorable winds arose, making it possible for Agamemnon to leave for Troy with his army. Clytemnestra returned to Mycenae.

Clytemnestra and Aegisthus

With Agamemnon away fighting in the Trojan War for ten years, Clytemnestra began a secret affair with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin. She had reason to be angry at Agamemnon, as he had sacrificed their daughter. She may also have been angry at him because Agamemnon had slain her first husband and brought her to live with him by force. Together with Aegisthus, she began to plot revenge against her husband.

Agamemnon’s Death

When Agamemnon returned to Troy, some sources say that Clytemnestra gave him a hearty welcome and when he tried to take a bath, she threw a large net over him and stabbed him with a knife.

In other accounts, Aegisthus inflicted killing blows on Agamemnon and both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra committed regicide, meaning the killing of a king.

Death of Clytemnestra

Orestes pursued by clytemnestra
Orestes pursued by the Furies – William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Source.

After the death of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus were officially married and ruled Mycenae for seven years until Orestes, who had been smuggled out of the city previously, returned to Mycenae, seeking revenge on those who had killed his father. He killed Aegisthus and Clytemnestra even though she prayed and pleaded for her life.

Although she was killed, Clytemnestra’s ghost convinced the Erinyes, three goddesses known as avenging spirits, to persecute Orestes, which they then did.

Wrapping Up

Clytemnestra was one of the strongest and aggressive characters in Greek mythology. According to the legends, her anger, although understandable, led to unfortunate consequences which affected the lives of everyone around her. While some say that she’s an unworthy role model, there are many who consider her a symbol of strength and power. Today, she remains one of the most famous tragic heroes in Greek mythology.