Clytemnestra of Greek Mythology: Character Analysis, Overview

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Meet Clytemnestra, whose father was the king of Sparta and whose husband was King Agamemnon of Mycenae. Discover how one act of deception led to the disintegration of her entire family.

Clytemnestra, the Character

Clytemnestra was the daughter of King Tyndareus and Queen Leda of Sparta. Clytemnestra married King Agamemnon of Mycenae and they had four children: Iphigenia, Electra, Orestes, and Chrysothemis.

Painting of Clytemnestra by John Collier
Painting of Clytemnestra by John Collier

The Betrayal

When Helen, Clytemnestra's sister, left her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta, and ran away with Paris of Troy, Clytemnestra's husband Agamemnon agreed to help his brother retrieve his wayward wife. When the Greek army, led by Agamemnon, gathered at the coast to sail to Troy, the winds refused to blow. The Greeks remained stalled on the coast for weeks, until finally the prophet Calchas announced that the goddess Artemis would only allow their army to sail when Agamemnon sacrificed his most beautiful daughter to the goddess, whom he had previously offended by killing one of her sacred stags.

Agamemnon knew that his wife would never willingly allow the sacrifice of her beloved daughter, and so he sent a false message with the hero Odysseus that their daughter Iphigenia would marry the great hero Achilles and needed to be sent to the coast for the wedding. Clytemnestra sent her daughter to her father. When the young woman arrived, Agamemnon had her sacrificed at the altar of Artemis. Unbeknownst to Agamemnon, the goddess whisked the young woman away and so she was not actually killed.

When Clytemnestra discovered the true purpose her husband had in mind for her daughter, she never forgave Agamemnon. While the Greeks set sail soon after the 'sacrifice,' Clytemnestra took her husband's treacherous cousin, Aegisthus, as her lover. When Agamemnon and his brother were young, Aegisthus and his father, Thyestes had forced them out of their kingdom. After Menelaus married Helen and became the king of Sparta, he and Agamemnon had in turn defeated Aegisthus and his father and removed them from Mycenae. With Agamemnon away at war with Troy, Aegisthus with the help of Clytemnestra ruled Mycenae in his cousin's place.

When Agamemnon returned after the end of the long Trojan War, his wife and her lover plotted to remove him permanently. In the oldest retellings of the legend, Aegisthus murdered his cousin without the help of Clytemnestra. In newer renditions of the legend, Agamemnon died at the hands of his wife while in his bath. In any case, Clytemnestra got revenge for the sacrifice of her daughter.

Drawing of the murder of Agamemnon from 1879 textbook
Drawing of the murder of Agamemnon from 1879 textbook

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