Clytemnestra (Dreaming and Waking)


Ancient Greek quotations are taken from:

A. H. Sommerstein, Aeschylus II: Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, Eumenides, Loeb Classical Library 146, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, and London 2008.

H. Lloyd-Jones (1994), Sophocles I: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus, Loeb Classical Library 20, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London 1994.

Quotations from Charalambides are from D. Connolly’s translation, Kyriakos Charalambides, Myths and History, Minneapolis 2010.


The poem focuses on Clytemnestra and revolves around the polar masculine-feminine. Here the ‘manly woman’ of Aeschylus is depicted, though, in a different way and a less masculine aspect of her character comes to the fore.  

Line 1

Clytemnestra was woken by a mauve (μαβή) noise

The ‘mauve’ noise that wakes Clytemnestra up brings to mind the notorious ‘carpet scene’ in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and more particularly the ‘purple’ carpet that Clytemnestra orders her servants to lay down for her husband to tread on; see, e.g. Aesch. Ag. 910 (πορφυρόστρωτος πόρος) and 957, 959 (πορφύρας). The deathly connotations evoked by this colour in the very first line prepare the reader for the poem’s ‘dark’ overtones.


Lines 5-9

A Shocking* Dream (Ὄνειρος)

(she just managed to catch a glimpse of it

leaving through the window)

shattered, she said, her face’s glass pane.

Ah fate! Or better, O ill-fated mother Hera,

 *‘Shocking’ instead of Connolly’s ‘Unknown’. As Petrides (forthcoming) points out, ‘shocking’ is more appropriate in this context due to the dream’s disturbing qualities.

The Dream that visits Clytemnestra is personified and is treated as a masculine, even though the term is neuter in Modern Greek (note, however, that it was also used as a masculine in Ancient Greek). The ‘masculinization’ of the Dream is, of course, deliberate and squares well with the poem’s subject-matter, that is the female’s struggle to liberate itself from patriarchal omnipotence. 

The Oresteia is replete with dreams and references to dreams − both real and fabricated. The ‘Shocking Dream’ that ‘intrudes’ twice into Clytemnestra’s sleep brings to mind the two dreams that trouble and distress Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Choephori and Sophocles’ Electra respectively.

In the Choephori Clytemnestra dreams that she gives birth to a snake, which she then wraps in swaddling clothes. When she attempts to feed the snake, this tears her breast and sucks blood along with the milk (32-41, 523-38). The dream is, of course, prophetic, as the ‘snake’ proves to be Orestes, who subsequently commits matricide. In this case the focus is clearly on Clytemnestra as a mother, an association that is echoed in Charalambides through Clytemnestra’s terrified appeal to Hera, whom she calls the ‘ill-fated mother’. For the second visit of the Ὄνειρος and its association with Clytemnestra’s dream in Sophocles’ Electra see below.


Lines 10-14

the guardian (φύλακας) scribe

commissioned to linearly inscribe

the events (in historical ledgers

that swallow up myths) on tablets

is engulfed in the beacon’s glow!

A clear allusion to the Watchman (Φύλαξ) that features at the opening of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Unlike Aeschylus’ guard, though, who can read the starry sky and knows by heart the patterns of the stars due to the sleepless and, consequently, dream-less nights that he spends eagerly waiting for the beacon light to appear, Charalambides’ guard is a scribe commissioned to inscribe the events on tablets in a linear way. As can be observed, Charalambides cleverly substitutes the cyclical cosmic time evoked through the movements of the stars in the tragic play with the linear time of history.

The reference to the glow of the beacon serves as an allusion to the fire-signal that Aeschylus’ guard observes in the opening lines of the play and which manifests the Greek victory over the Trojans and, therefore, Agamemnon’s imminent return to Argos.


Lines 15-20

The growl

in the depths of my figure-eight body

sires and bears a great racket.

My rattling resounds, to hide the hell-fire

of my passionate love.

Clytemnestra’s portrayal in these lines is attuned with her tragic profile. Of particular importance is the juxtaposition of the verbs “sire” and “bear”, in so far as these two verbs are typically attributed the former to a man, the latter to a woman (but note that this association is pedantic and does not apply to classical Greek). Here Clytemnestra is presented to be the agent of both actions; she is both the man and the woman. This image cannot but bring to mind the ‘manly’ Clytemnestra of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon; see, e.g. Aesch. Ag. 11 (γυναικὸς ἀνδρόβουλον κέαρ). A similar remark could be made about the hell-fire that burns inside her. At the same time, though, Charalambides also brings to the fore another dimension of Clytemnestra, not so prevalent in the tragic plays, that is her femininity, here evoked through the reference to her ‘figure-eight’ body.


Lines 20-26

And Aegisthus

Aegisthus is sleeping.


So neither the stars’ snoring

nor the roar of the sea that inundates

our bed two cubits deep can

raise him from his slumbering corpse −

unless he is murdered, by me or others.

Here Clytemnestra talks about Aegisthus in a derogatory tone, which is at odds with the stance she adopts towards him in Aeschylus; see, e.g. Ag. 1431-37: [to the Chorus] ‘You will now also hear this righteous oath I swear: by the fulfilled Justice that was due for my child, by Ruin and by the Fury, through whose aid I slew this man, no fearful apprehension stalks my house, so long as the fire upon my hearth is kindled by Aegisthus and he remains loyal to me as hitherto; for he is an ample shield of confidence for me.’ In Charalambides her attitude rather aligns with the way in which Aegisthus is perceived through the other characters of the play (e.g. the Chorus). Charalambides’ Clytemnestra feels nothing but disgust for her supposed ‘lover’, and she even considers his murder.

Aegisthus is depicted being entirely inactive and inert in his bed; even though he is just sleeping, he hardly differs from a dead body. Charalambides’ description glosses Aegisthus’ effeminate nature; he is merely an εἴδωλον ἀνδρός, so to speak, that cannot and does not satisfy Clytemnestra’s unrestrained passion. Aegisthus’ close association with his bed ironically echoes Aesch. Ag. 1224, where Clytemnestra’s illicit lover is figuratively depicted ‘tumbling in his bed’ (ἐν λέχει στρωφώμενον’), an image that serves to stress this indolence rather than his adultery.


Line 27

You see, old man, that I have other things in mind

It is difficult to pin down the identity of the anonymous and unidentified old man −a notional presence− to whom Clytemnestra seeks support in her distress. One possibility would be that this γέρων stands metonymically for the Chorus of the old men (γέροντες) in the Agamemnon. Even though in the tragic play Clytemnestra’s relationship with the Chorus is tense, here she is presented addressing the old man as if he were her confidant.


Lines 33-34

that dragged me to the glistening fish that tow

my coveted bath.

The reference to the bath brings to mind Agamemnon’s deathly bath and murder in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. See, e.g., 1107-11, 1128-29, 1540-41. Akin is the reference to the fish, in so far as the net is a recurrent image in Aeschylus, closely associated with Agamemnon’s death; see, e.g., 1115-16, 1380-83.


Lines 35-40

I only just manage

to tie my hair, to don the armor

of my silver despondency, to embody a bull,

ill-fashioned and borrowed,

that in its contusion fights to save

the idol of the goddess.

The reference to the bull serves as yet another reference to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where animalistic imagery prevails. In Cassandra’s vision about Agamemnon’s murder the great general is compared to a bull, while Clytemnestra to a cow (Ag. 1125-26: ἄπεχε τᾶς βοὸς / τὸν ταῦρον − Κeep the bull away from the cow!). In light of this Charalambides’ remark that Clytemnestra needs to embody an ill-fashioned and borrowed bull could be understood as a reference to the masculine role that she needs to perform exactly because of her effeminate lover Aegisthus, who, being nothing but an inert body, cannot act in a masculine way and quench Clytemnestra’s fire of passion.


Lines 43-48

All is calm

as before; the children are asleep in their cradles,

early in the morning your master drives his cart

to sow trees and hills, to sow stars and heavens

and whatever the mind’s harvest and palace couldn’t hold.

This forms part of the lullaby that the Ὄνειρος sings to Clytemnestra during its second visit. The image of sowing conjured up here is an allusion to Clytemnestra’s dream in Sophocles’ Electra, described by Chrysothemis to her sister in lines 417−25. In this case Clytemnestra dreams that her dead husband Agamemnon returns back and that he plants his royal staff beside the hearth. From the staff grows up a fruitful bough, which overshadows all the Mycenaean land. Ιn this vision Agamemnon’s sceptre serves as a symbol of both his phallus and his power, while the hearth symbolizes both the vagina and the earth subject to his masculine power. The bough that sprouts is clearly Orestes, who will return as an avenger in order to take revenge for his father’s murder and restore order in his palace. In Charalambides Clytemnestra has a similar dream, even though unlike her Sophoclean counterpart, she is not troubled or distressed by it. Of course, in Charalambides’ case the dream evokes an image of normalcy − the children are quietly sleeping in their beds, while the master of the house goes out in order to sow and plant. Moreover, the reference also conjures up a life where humans can still make dreams.


Lines 53-57

Twelve cubits of sky hung above her;

at Thetis’ command Agamemnon had brought it

with him, that her voice might carry further

when the horrid and impious arch-sacrificer would slaughter her.

The play ends in a rather ambiguous way. The arch-sacrificer seems to indicate Orestes, who is here identified with his father (see Aesch. Ag. 224 where Agamemnon is called a sacrificer (θυτήρ) of his daughter Iphigeneia). The puzzling closing remark that the sky, which Agamemnon brought back to Argos on the command of Thetis, would carry Clytemnestra’s voice further during the time of her murder stands in stark contrast to Aesch. Ag. 228-38, where the Chorus sings of Agamemnon’s attempts to block Iphigeneia’s mouth and restrain her voice during the moment of her sacrifice: “Her pleas, her cries of “father!”, / and her maiden years, were set at naught / by the war-loving chieftains. After a prayer, her father told his attendants to lift her right up over the altar / with all their strength, like a yearling goat, / face down, so that her robes fell around her, / and by putting a guard /on her fair face and lips to restrain / speech that might lay a curse on his house – / by force, by the silencing power of a bridle”.



Κλυταιμνήστρα: Κατ’ ὄναρ καὶ καθ’ ὕπαρ

In Aeschylus the word ὄναρ is used twice in relation to Clytemnestra: Eum. 116, 131; see also Αg. 82: ὄναρ ἡμερόφαντον ἀλιαίνει (a dream-vision wandering through the day).


Line 14

περιτυλίγεται τὴ φρυκτωρία!

The word φρυκτωρία is an allusion to the opening of Aeschylus Agamemnon, where the same word is used: “I proclaim plainly to the wife of Agamemnon that she should raise herself from her bed, as quickly as may be, and on behalf of the house raise a shrill, auspicious cry of triumph over this beacon, if indeed the city of Ilium has been taken as the fire-signal (φρυκτός) vividly declares. And I will dance a prelude myself [skipping about in delight]: I shall take advantage of the dice that have fallen well for my masters − this beacon-watch (φρυκτωρίας) has thrown me a triple six! (26-33).

Τhe word is used two more times in the Agamemnon: 490, 590.



Aegisthus (lines 19 & 20)

Agamemnon (line 52 and passim through implicit allusions to Aeschylus)

Orestes (implicitly through  the reference to the ‘impious arch-sacrificer’ in the last line of the poem)


L. Christodoulidou, 2011. “Η αρχετυπική πάλη αρσενικού/θηλυκού στην ‘Κλυταιμνήστρα’ του Κ. Χαραλαμπίδη”, Τέταρτο Συνέδριο της Ευρωπαϊκής Εταιρείας Νεοελληνικών Σπουδών (Πανεπιστήμιο Γρανάδας, 9-12 Σεπτεμβρίου 2010) : Ταυτότητες στον ελληνικό κόσμο (από το 1204 έως σήμερα)/Identities in the Greek world (from 1204 to the present day): 329-342.  [Read the article here]


Leave a reply