Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Deceived: Clytemnestra’s Revenge

By: E.J. Lawrence

True Crime shows are my guilty pleasure. I love a good detective mystery…the “who done it” and the reveal scenes and trying to figure out how it all happened…it’s exciting to try and put all of the pieces together to solve the mystery along with the detective. But for me, the why is always more important than the how. I find myself constantly drawn to the motive, and am most often let down when the detective looks at the camera and says, “He won’t talk, so I guess we’ll never know why he did what he did.”

In most murder mysteries, at least on the true crime shows I watch, we often get the how (Col. Mustard hit him over the head with a candlestick as he entered the ballroom), but are so often left without the why (they seemed like such good friends…what could ever drive him to murder?). That’s the beauty of fiction–it can satisfy our need to know both the how and the why. To wrap up our “women who murder” theme, I would like to turn to one of my personal favorite stories: The Oresteia by Aeschylus. This trilogy contains one of the most famous murderesses in mythology–Clytemnestra, who murders her husband Agamemnon and tries to kill her own son Orestes. But unlike those True Crime shows, we are never in the dark about why she kills…She wants revenge.

To be completely fair, Agamemnon’s entire household is cursed. His father, Atreus, murdered his own nieces and nephews then (*gag alert*) fed them in a stew to his twin brother. Cannibalism in Ancient Greece was definitely in the top “deadly sins,” so the gods put a curse on the house of Atreus, and–due to Fate–Agamemnon never stood a chance in the first place.House_of_Atreus_family_tree

But Clytemnestra’s story begins a bit later, right before the Trojan War (as all great Greek myths do). Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus has just had his wife kidnapped by some Trojan idiot named Paris, and Menelaus launches the famous thousand ships after her (we’ll definitely cover Helen another time). The problem, however, is that Agamemnon has somehow offended Artemis, and without her blessing, their ship will never make it to Troy. Her demand? The sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia.

This poses some problems in Greek mythology. After all, the Olympian gods aren’t really the human sacrifice types, and so this story generally puzzles mythologists. It also opens the door for a wide variety of interpretations of exactly what happened to Iphigenia. Perhaps she was sacrificed. Perhaps Agamemnon began the sacrifice, but Artemis swooped in at the last moment and saved her. In either case, the stories all agree on one thing: Agamemnon lied to his wife, Clytemnestra, telling her that Iphigenia was to be married off to Achilles (or some soldier), then took her daughter away where Clytemnestra never saw her again.

The winds were lifted, and Agamemnon’s ship sailed on to Troy…but Clytemnestra was left only with the rumors that her husband had sacrificed their eldest daughter just to go fight a war he had no business meddling with in the first place.

So it’s easy to understand why, with her husband gone for ten years, Clytemnestra had time to move on, find a new man, and of course, plot her revenge. The new man was Aegisthus, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, and here’s where the story gets a bit fuzzy, depending on which version of the myth you’re reading. Since I started out by mentioning The Oresteia, I’ll give you Aeschylus’s version…but it’s not entirely complete. In Ancient Greek theatre, all violence took place offstage, which means that even in Aeschylus, we don’t see anything; we only hear about it after the fact.

What we know is that when Agamemnon arrives home, he’s greeted warmly by his wife and invited inside. Then there’s some screaming, Agamemnon’s new slave-girl runs in, there’s more screaming…the guess is left to the audience. The play makes it clear that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus had planned this murder for a long time–possibly ever since Clytemnestra lost Iphigenia those ten years ago.

The_Murder_Of_Agamemnon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_14994
The Murder of Agamemnon

There’s something satisfying to me in this story that is often missed in those True Crime documentaries–we actually get the why and the how all at the same time. Clytemnestra feels justified in her actions, and gladly tells the details of how she murdered her husband and his slave-girl. When the Chorus rebukes her for being so “shameless,” she replies:

I am no shallow woman, whom ye mock.

With unconfounded heart, albeit ye know,

I speak; and whether thou wilt praise or blame,

‘Tis one to me. Lo, my right arm hath wrought

The handiwork of justice : he is dead,

My husband, Agamemnon. He is dead!1

By calling her murder “the handiwork of justice,” she makes her position as judge and jury plain. She then goes on to tell the Chorus that she didn’t recall any of them speaking out against the injustice her husband wrought when he sacrificed their daughter. Where there was no justice, she would take it for herself. She then goes back even further, stating that she did it even for the children Agamemnon’s father slew,2 arguing her case to the Chorus, who represents the interest of the audience.

The Chorus does not buy her reasoning.

Her son Orestes, eventually comes home and learns from his sister Electra what has happened. According to the custom, Orestes as the eldest son is responsible for avenging his father’s death. However, killing a blood relative was a mortal sin…it’s what got his house cursed in the first place. So, the question for the rest of the play becomes primarily one of logic: Given those two premises, what action should Orestes take? Avenge his father by killing his mother and angering the gods? Or anger the gods by not avenging his father’s death?

(Ancient Greek writers certainly took the whole “be cruel to your characters” advice to heart.)

Clytemnestra_by_John_Collier,_1882
Clytemnestra by John Collier (1882)

Orestes takes the first option, but Clytemnestra does not let him take her without a fight. Rather, as Orestes storms his mother’s room, Clytemnestra is there to meet him. Again, no onstage battle ensues except for an exchange of words and arguments, then they exit…and only Orestes returns, his mother’s blood on his hands. In some versions of the story, it’s clear she would rather fight to the death, willing to kill her own son rather than be killed–so she meets him at the door with a battle axe (I’m almost ashamed to say how awesome I find this image–her son is coming at her with a sword, and she meets him with a battle axe. Gutsy.). This was likely meant to show how cold-hearted she was, but I think it gives us another insight, as well…it shows how strongly she believed in her “cause.”

 

In any version of the tale, but perhaps especially Aeschylus’s version, Clytemnestra is intelligent and fierce. She argues with sound logic and makes a strong case that her murder is justice, rather than revenge. She is patient, waiting over ten years to exact her revenge (or justice, depending on how one looks at it), and she does not go down without a fight.

However, in spite of all of this, Clytemnestra’s tragedy is that she’s still just a pawn in the great game of Fate. Agamemnon’s house was cursed before she got there, and the only way to lift the curse was through her son, Orestes, being tormented by the Furies in retaliation for her own murder. And that only came after a lengthy (a whole play’s length, actually) courtroom scene where Orestes pleads his case before Athena. Was it justice? Or revenge? And how thin is the line between them?

And if the difference between the two is motive, then what had been Clytemnestra’s true motive? Or Agamemnon’s? Or Atreus’? No one in this family (except perhaps Iphigenia) is innocent of another family member’s blood, after all.

In those True Crime documentaries I love so well, there’s a similar theme–when a motive is discerned, it’s seldom unique. The motives of jealousy and revenge have withstood the test of time. But no one pleads that to the judge. Rather, everyone justifies themselves in their own mind. After all, justice is “an eye for an eye,” and if one feels their eye has been taken, don’t they deserve the right to enact the same on the offender? Yet, as the tragedy of the House of Atreus so well illustrates, perhaps an eye for an eye really does make the whole world blind…

-0440_Orestes_Killing_Klytaimnestra_Altes_Museum_anagoria
Orestes Killing Clytemnestra by Anagoria

 

  1. The Oresteia, https://archive.org/stream/oresteiaofaeschy00aesciala/oresteiaofaeschy00aesciala_djvu.txt, 38.
  2. Ibid, 44.

 

Set a Fire and Burn

by E.J. Lawrence

When I was younger, I remember my grandmother saying, “If everyone just listened to me, the world would be a better place.”

She said it out of frustration, and with a twinge of irony since pretty much everyone thinks this, but it’s one of those logical fallacy things–everyone may believe it, but only one person, if any, can actually be right in saying it.

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“Fear not death, for the hour of your doom is set and none may escape it.” Well…those Norse were a cheerful lot.

Which brings me to the myth I’ve chosen to cover this month: Signy and Sigurd. Because, for Signy, if everyone had just listened to her, this myth would have turned out differently. But even though they didn’t, she wasn’t the sort to sit back and say, “I told you so.” No, this Norse woman rolled her eyes and said, “all right, I’ll fix the mess you made anyway.” And she sets about constructing the most elaborate revenge plot of just about any story I’ve ever read.

If you don’t know the myth, Signy and Sigurd were twins, the eldest children of King Volsung. One day, another king visits the castle and asks for Signy’s hand in marriage. To put this in 21st century terms, Signy gets bad vibes from the guy and tells her father she’d rather not marry him. Her father ignores her, and Signy reluctantly marries King Siggeir.

Her father and brother decide to visit Signy and her new husband, and Signy warns them that her husband will betray them. Of course, they don’t listen, and her father is killed, while her brother Sigmund is captured. Signy rescues her brother from captivity, then sends her son to Sigmund to be trained, so that her son might grow up and return to avenge his grandfather’s death. However, Sigmund tells her that her son is too weak, and Signy has him killed. They repeat this process, to the same results (I guess any son of this Siggeir guy is just not brute warrior material?). Fast forward a bit, and Signy decides the only way she can have a son who’s fit for her revenge purposes is to have a son with her father’s son–also known as her twin brother (why do mythologies always resort to incest? That’s an article for another day, I suppose). With the help of a sorceress, she tricks Sigmund into sleeping with her (a reverse King Arthur conception story), and has a son, who grows up and helps Sigmund set a fire to kill Signy’s husband.

Whew. See what I mean about the elaborate revenge plot? Still, for the culture at the time, it was incumbent on the offspring to avenge their parents’ murder. A lot of these stories we know–Orestes and Hamlet probably being the most famous. So, while a female revenge plot might be unusual, it certainly isn’t unheard of.

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That looks hot.

Of course, perhaps the most intriguing part of this story is how it ends–as the fire that kills her husband rages, Signy turns to her son and tells him of his true incestuous parentage, then she walks into the fire to die with her husband.

Why? If she’s gotten her revenge, the thing she’d spent the last several decades trying for, why would she throw herself into the fire? Because she was also a woman bound by custom, and it was her duty to die with her husband, even though she never wanted to marry him in the first place, and even though he betrayed her father. The goal wasn’t living without him. The goal was revenge. Once she got that, she had nothing else left.

It might be easy to critique this and say that Signy was trapped by her duty as a woman. However, I think it’s also interesting to note that Signy shares a lot in common with Hamlet, who also dies once his revenge is completed. The major different between Signy and Hamlet, of course, is that Signy is much more active, taking measured, calculated steps toward her revenge; while Hamlet just mopes around wondering if life is even worth bothering about.

Alas,_poor_Yorick^_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1057716
Hamlet, being moody. Again.

I’m not saying revenge should be a great motivator or anything like that. But in the ancient medieval world, revenge meant justice, and justice could only be taken by those who were wronged. I suppose that’s why revenge stories fascinate me so (admittedly, Oresteia is my favorite Greek cycle, and Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play); the quest for justice, for “rightness,” for balance, is an ancient quest, and so often, we feel we are denied justice. That’s the meaning behind the phrase “if everyone listened to me, the world would be a better place”–in other words, if I were in control, everything would be right with the world. The world would be just.

That’s fantasy, not reality. But it does make for a powerful story. An empowering one, really. Though it’s also worth noting that the revenge for Orestes, Hamlet, and Signy all come at a very high cost. For Orestes, the cost is his sanity. For Hamlet and Signy, it costs them their lives. Yet, all three of them knew the cost and accepted it willingly. They set the fires that consumed them.

I’m curious–if you know of any other female revenge stories a la Hamlet or The Oresteia, please share in the comments!

 

Works Consulted:

  1. Volsunga Saga
  2. Hamlet
  3. The Oresteia
  4. Hamlet picture By Peter Church, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13754721