While Greek myth is fascinating and compelling to a variety of audiences, a lot of this fascination comes from its shocking horror and violence. One of the most compelling Greek myths is the story of Agamemnon. His life was full of war, deceit, blood, and death. But it didn’t stop with him: his family continued the cycle of blood and revenge. Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Iphigenia — members of Agamemnon’s family — all had their fair share of blood spilled on them or were the ones to spill it.
Agamemnon was a descendant of a cursed line, stemming from the legendary Pelops. Pelops’ sons had brought about a blood curse on their descendants because they murdered their step-brother. Their descendants were cursed to continually murder — through accidents and revenge — members of their own family tree. The family line became one of the greatest complexities in Greek myth.
Atreus was the father of Agamemnon and the King of Mycenae. The curse caused Atreus to kill one of his sons by accident, not knowing his identity. In a complex to and fro of revenge sequences, Atreus was eventually deposed by his own brother, Thyestes, who then took the Mycenaean throne.
At the time of Atreus’ death, he had two surviving sons: Agamemnon and Menelaus. The sons of Atreus are collectively referred to and known as the Atredai in ancient Greek, or Atreides in English. When their father was murdered, they took refuge with King Tyndareus of Sparta.
Refuge and Marriages
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Under the protection of King Tyndareus, the brothers fared well. King Tyndareus married two of his daughters to the brothers. Agamemnon was married to the strong-willed and remarkable Clytemnestra, who had a fierce soul to match Agamemnon’s. Meanwhile, Menelaus was lucky to win the contest for Helen’s hand.
Helen was so famous throughout Greece for her beauty that she had around 45 suitors vying for her. Her father Tyndareus arranged that all the suitors should take an oath to protect whoever was the victor. In the end, Menelaus proved the victor, and so he was married to Helen. The Oath of Tyndareus would later be enacted, causing the Trojan War.
After the marriages, Agamemnon decided on returning to his hometown and taking it back from his uncle. Like many of his peers, Agamemnon was driven by the prospect of glory and fame. He longed for prestige and renown in war. As the son of the famous Atreus, he had a family reputation to live up to. Taking back his home would empower him and his new wife, giving them the titles of King and Queen.
Agamemnon, with the help of Tyndareus (who proved to be a trusted ally after all this time), attacked Mycenae and defeated the usurper. Agamemnon’s rightful throne was restored, and with it came many powers including a huge army and a great amount of land. Around the same time, Menelaus succeeded Tyndareus as King of Sparta.
Back in Mycenae
After returning to Mycenae, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon appeared to have a happy marriage at the beginning. They had many children together: Orestes was their only son, and they had three daughters named Iphigenia, Electra, and Chrysothemis.
Agamemnon expanded his kingdom to an even greater size by successively attacking and conquering nearby lands and cities. He became one of the most powerful kings in Greece, and this later led to his title of “King of Kings” among the Greeks. His symbol became the lion, and above the gate to his kingdom, two lions were carved. While Agamemnon’s strength and power were growing in Mycenae, his brother Menelaus in Sparta was approaching one of the greatest events of Greek history.
Menelaus had invited the Trojans to Sparta for talks on trade and peace. The young prince Paris, however, fell in love with Helen. The Trojan Prince rashly decided to take her with him back to Troy, to become his own wife. When the betrayal was realized, Menelaus asked his brother for help, and also invoked the Oath of Tyndareus. This oath was a promise that the suitors would help Menelaus, as the husband of Helen, in a time of need. He summoned the Kings and Princes of Greece along with their armies to attack Troy.
Before sailing to Troy, the armies of Greece gathered together at the port of Aulis. The port of Aulis was situated on the Eastern coast of Greece, and faced the Aegean sea. On the other side of the Aegean sea, was the land of the Trojans.
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia
Now, when the fleet of a thousand ships had gathered, they could not yet set sail. The goddess Artemis was angry at Agamemnon, and so had caused the wind to stop. Without the wind, the ships could not sail to Troy. Agamemnon had killed a deer that was sacred to Artemis, and so Artemis in retaliation demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice one of his dearest daughters to him.
“CHORUS: But you, Iphigeneia, on your
lovely hair the Argives will set
a wreath, as on the brows
of a spotted heifer, led down
from caves in the mountains
to the sacrifice,
and the knife will open the throat
and let the blood of a girl.
Oh where is the noble face
of modesty, or the strength of virtue, now
that blasphemy is in power
and men have put justice
behind them, and there is no law but lawlessness,
and none join in fear of the gods?”
(Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis)
In the version of this myth envisioned by Euripides, Agamemnon is emotionally distraught. His ambition for power and glory warred with his love for his daughter. However, his ambition eventually won and he summoned Iphigenia to Aulis.
Agamemnon did not tell Iphigenia nor her accompanying mother of her fate, but rather he invited Iphigenia to Aulis under the pretence of marrying her to the greatest warrior of their generation: Achilles. Iphigenia and Clytemnestra were thrilled at the match, and excitedly traveled in a wonderful bridal train to Aulis. Iphigenia was brought to her father, in her wedding gown, and then sacrificed with a knife across the throat.
Clytemnestra never forgot the horrific, violent betrayal. For years and years, she plotted Agamemnon’s demise, by her own hand, in revenge for the murder of her daughter. She claimed that the curse on Atreus’ house, as well as her right to vengeance, justified the murder of Agamemnon:
“And what of the doom of craft that first
He planted, making the House accurst?
What of the blossom, from this root riven,
Iphigenîa, the unforgiven?
Even as the wrong was, so is the pain:
He shall not laugh in the House of the slain,
When the count is scored;
He hath but spoiled and paid again
The due of the sword.” — Clytemnestra on her right to kill Agamemnon
Clytemnestra arranged that bonfire torches should be placed all along the way from Mycenae to Troy. They would be lit when Agamemnon began his return home. Agamemnon interpreted this as a loving wife wishing to know when he was going to return, but for Clytemnestra, it was a warning for his return so that her plan should be put into action.
Clytemnestra’s Revenge: II
Agamemnon was away at Troy for about ten years. He did not know how life in Mycenae had changed so greatly in that time. Clytemnestra had been Queen and sole ruler for a long time, and she had taken up a new lover named Aegisthus who helped her plot her revenge.
When Agamemnon finally returned, Clytemnestra laid a blood-red carpet from the entrance of the great city walls to the doors of their home. Stepping on this carpet was taboo because it indicated pride. The very same pride which had led him to the murder of Agamemnon’s own daughter.
Clytemnestra invited her husband to take a bath after his long journey, and he readily agreed. When relaxed and soaking in the bath, Clytemnestra laid heavy robes down on top of him so that he could not move under the weight. As the robes collected water, it was even harder to move. Clytemnestra then used an ax to murder him.
The Concubine and Agamemnon’s Pride
To add insult to injury, Agamemnon had brought a new concubine from Troy. Clytemnestra’s love and attraction to Agamemnon had long since dissipated, but the insult could not be left unpunished. And so, Cassandra was killed, too.
In some versions, not just Cassandra, but Agamemnon’s whole returning party were killed by Clytemnestra and her accomplices in a gigantic show of revenge and justice for the murder of Iphigenia. Only through this did Clytemnestra believe her beloved daughter could be avenged.
All of Agamemnon’s efforts to win the war and attain glory, stemming from the sacrifice of his daughter, were completely eradicated. Agamemnon was never able to taste the fruits of his victory in his hometown after ten years at war, and so his sacrifice became his greatest mistake. Pride or hubris had led Agamemnon to his doom.
Many playwrights have recaptured the myth about Agamemnon’s family, but the Oresteia by Aeschylus is a trilogy of plays that runs from the murder of Agamemnon to the trial of Orestes. Agamemnon vividly brings to life Clytemnestra’s plot and murder of Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers is the next episode, in which Orestes, the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, plots and carries out the death of his mother in revenge for this father’s murder. The final play of the three, called the Eumenides, is about Orestes being hunted by the Furies, who are the underworld goddesses of justice.
Orestes and Electra were horrified at the murder of their father, and less sympathetic to their mother’s case. Together they plotted the death of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The gods were even more enraged by this return to violence and bloodshed within the family. The Furies were sent to haunt Orestes for killing his mother.
The play ends with the formation of the first court of justice, heralded by the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena. Orestes was put to trial and found not guilty. The curse of Atreus’ House was brought to an end, and the justice system of Athens was founded.
The myths of Agamemnon’s family draw attention to the terms and classifications of justice and revenge. Who was in the right? And who was in the wrong? Are things ever so black and white?