Clytemnestra Is a Fiercely Feminist New Take on One of Greek Mythology’s Most Wicked Women

Books Reviews Costanza Casati
Clytemnestra Is a Fiercely Feminist New Take on One of Greek Mythology’s Most Wicked Women

One of the most satisfying trends in publishing over the past few years has been the rise of the feminist mythological retelling, stories explicitly aimed at reevaluating and reassessing some of Western literature’s most famous foundational stories by putting oft-ignored or allegedly villainous women at their centers. Clytemnestra is perhaps one of Greek mythology’s most frequently revisited (and reviled) figures—she appears in ancient works ranging from Homer to Aeschylus to Sophocles and is a woman whose motives and impact we’re still trying to unpack in contemporary works today. 

Authors like Jennifer Saint (Elektra) and Natalie Haynes (A Thousand Ships) have included her as a perspective character in their recent novels, but Costanza Casti’s Clytemnestra is the first to put the Spartan princess (and future Mycenaen queen) and her story front and center. But the trick of this novel, and what ultimately makes it such a compelling read, is its determination to depict its titular character as a complete and fully realized woman, a figure who is more than her worst deeds and whose story is worth telling in its own right.

Casati’s debut spends less than a quarter of its length on the events that most people associate with the name “Clytemnestra”—the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia in the name of a fair wind for Greece’s soldiers, her violent plot to take revenge against her husband for his involvement in her child’s murder, and her lengthy rule over the kingdom of Mycenae while Agamemnon is at war in Troy. The reason we are all fairly familiar with that part of her story is, of course, that it’s a bloody tale of a bad woman who kills a supposedly heroic man, and which casts a mother’s rage and grief over the death of her child as somehow less than a king’s right to glory and conquest. But, intriguingly, that’s not the part of her story that Casati’s terribly interested in exploring. We’ve seen it before, after all. 

Instead, Clytemnestra spends much of its time on its titular character’s origins, and in doing so, it manages to make the essential plot beats of a story we all know the ending to feel fresh and new. The grim conclusion of her life is given a sweeping, tragic, and painfully personal feel by making it part of a larger pattern of suffering and survival, and Clytemnestra’s desire for revenge and control of her fate is presented as something that’s been building throughout her story.

We initially meet Clytemnestra as a young woman growing up and learning to fight as a warrior in her own right in Sparta. She is fierce and uncompromising, secure in herself in a way that her twin sister Helen is not, despite her famed beauty.  Her relationships with her parents, Tyndareus and Leda, are complicated, but her closeness with Helen is apparent. Several of her other influential siblings also play critical roles in the story, including Castor, Polydeuces (more commonly known as Pollux), and Timandra, and Casati spends time building Clytemnestra’s unique bonds with each of them. The book also deftly weaves in several critical references to other well-known mythological tales like Jason’s voyage with the Argonauts, Theseus’ kidnapping of Helen, and the stories that claim Leda was once raped by Zeus in the form of a swan (Although here, it’s merely Helen who is likely godspawn.) 

One of the more welcome narrative expansions in the story is the introduction of Clytemnestra’s cousin Penelope, who meets her husband Odysseus at the infamous gathering of suitors that vie for Helene’s hand. Charming and forthright, she and Clytemnestra become fast friends, and their relationship, as well as the bond that forms between Odysseus and both women, is a prime example of the rich and necessary deepening of relationships that are so often ignored in the original Greek myth. (It also adds another layer of betrayal and tragedy to Odysseus’ later involvement in Iphigenia’s murder.)

Themes of survival and struggle abound, as we follow Clytemnestra’s journey from princess to queen several times over, roles that sound powerful but still offer her few choices or agency within her own life. We meet her first husband, kKingTantalus of Maeonia, who is only referenced in passing in various original texts but is brought fully to life here, in a way that makes his murder at the hands of Agamemnon—and the complicity of Clytemnestra’s parents in his death, as well as the murder of their months-old grandchild—all the more horrifying. Yet, even as the grim tale rockets toward the conclusion we all know must happen, it’s difficult not to wish for a different fate for this bold survivor, who deserves a better ending than the established myths grants her. Interestingly enough, the novel chooses to leave out much of the aftermath of Agamemnon’s murder, and fades to black before Clytemnestra’s children Elektra and Orestes plot against her, allowing the story to end on a moment of triumph we all know to be false—but one that, in its way, feels like a welcome relief.

Clytemnestra is available now

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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