In honour of Mother’s Day (UK) a few of my favorite mothers from Greek tragedy

Posted: 04/03/2011 in classics


I love Clytemnestra. Not the Clytemnestra of Homer’s The Odyssey but Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra as they have different motivations. In the age of disposable daughters Clytemnestra stands out by seeking revenge on her husband, Agamemnon, for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia in order to get a change of weather so he could sail to Troy to whoop some Trojan ass. To make matters worse Agamemnon had lured his daughter to the island where his fleets were stranded on the promise of getting to marry Brad Pitt Achilles.

Clytemnestra is by no means perfect, and her fixation on Iphigenia turns her into one of those Lifetime movie mothers who neglect their living children for the dead. In her husband’s absence she takes over the palace and takes a lover, when Agamemnon returns she murders him and his slave lover, exiles her son Orestes and neglects her daughter Electra.  In my favorite scene she calls for her “man killing axe” to defend herself against her son who has returned home to take revenge on her mother for killing his father (in revenge Top Trumps father trumps sister).


On paper Medea is not a very good mother as she does killing her children (and her husband’s trophy wife-to-be and father-in-law-to-be) after a hissy fit with her husband Jason (he of Argonaut fame) however she is something of an anomaly which is intriguing. Unlike other women in Greek mythology who (accidentally or not) embark on a killing spree she does not die. There is no “honorable” suicide, or an opportunity for Jason to get his revenge she sets up her escape route prior to her murderous acts. She high tails it out of town and off to safety of Athens where she has been granted shelter and protection by the king. I am not sure if I am sympathetic to Medea’s plight (why could she have not taken her children to Athens with her or is she really that vindictive against Jason) but there is something about the traditionally powerless spouse taking control. However, horrific the outcome.


For me Hecuba’s defining characteristic is her dignity, and she retains it through her trials. By the end of the Trojan War she has lost everything is reduced to living as a slave in the Greek encampment. In Euripides’ Hecuba she is left holding out hope for remaining son, Polydorus, (exiled for his safety with a friend) and two daughters, Cassandra and Polyxena. Cassandra has been cursed by Apollo is marked as Agamemnon’s future slave lover (and is later murder by Cytemnestra), Polyxena is chosen to be sacrificed in honor of Achilles funeral and then Polydorus body washes up on shore having been murdered for his gold by the family friend who was meant to protect him. Poor old Hecuba. But she does not sit idly by she decides to take revenge on the “friend” who murdered her son (kills his children and blinds him) but first she explains the situation to Agamemnon. She is almost getting permission for her actions ahead of time, and he agrees to her course of action. This is a woman at the end of her tether but she holds it together enough to act in a rational manner. 


Tecmessa is something of a new heroine for me since I read Sophocles’ Ajax last year. I really enjoyed the play – it’s the deception and the sheep guts that get me every time. Tecmessa is Ajax’s spear bride. She has an incredibly tenuous position with in her adopted society. Without Ajax she is nothing, and when he talks of killing himself to regain his honor that is the argument that she puts to him. What will happen to her and his son when he is gone? Whilst he makes plans for his son he doesn’t leave instruction for Tecmessa (Heracles at least forced his son to marry his spear bride on his death bed), and it’s heartbreaking as she has been so loyal to him.

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