Five of Swords: Clytemnestra
Clytemnestra is a villainess. Hated for millennia, she has been maligned as a disloyal, unholy, murderous wife. When her husband Agamemnon at last arrived home, victorious from the decade-long Trojan War, she welcomed him, bathed him, and then killed him. The murder was premeditated, and she conspired to place her adulterous lover on her husband’s throne.
Never mind that Agamemnon murdered her first husband and child, then forced Clytemnestra to marry him. Never mind that he left her for a decade, expecting her to remain chaste, sending spies to report on her fidelity, while at the same time taking – and forcing – lovers of his own. And never mind that the Trojan war dragged on because Agamemnon and the hero Achilles were quarreling over ownership of an enslaved woman. Or that Agamemnon, finally home, has brought another woman and their infant. After all, even the famed Victorian mythologist Robert Graves concurred that Agamemnon “does not seem to have intended any insult to Clytemnestra.”
So here she stands with a bloody axe and no sympathy from history’s storytellers, Agamemnon’s murderer, wife, and mother to four of his children. Free at last.
In Greek tragedies, however, no one is free of consequences. Clytemnestra lived in the reeling space between murders. Between the killing of her first husband by her second and her murder him. Between Agamemnon’s killing of her first child and his murderous sacrifice of their daughter. Between her murder of Agamemnon and his followers returning from Troy and her own murder at the hands of her son.
Dishonorable behavior, regardless of justification, degrades the actor, those who witness it, and those who inherit the consequences. Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s son Orestes is the tragic heir of his father’s cavalier brutality and his mother’s vengeance. Obliged by his society and gods to avenge his father’s murderer, Orestes retaliates against Clytemnestra. Then the same society and gods punish him for murdering his mother.
Clytemnestra is a dramatic example of the internecine Five of Swords, so exaggerated that we may not think her story is relevant to our lives. But what of minor retaliations? What of the nasty things we say to someone because we feel hurt? After all, he said something obnoxious first, right? What of the petty rivalries? The person we can’t stand at work or on the committee? The arguments that ruin friendships? The grudges that go on so long all we can’t shake off the bitterness?
Happy endings are forfeit when we choose malice and anger, or even their lesser children – disdain and resentment. These quarrels that include phrases like, “yeah? well, when you…” and “I hate it when you…” and “you always…” If we’re not careful, we can murder the relationship with one sweep of the emotional sword, or by a thousand cuts.
And in our minds we will be justified. Because acrimony, staves off guilt, regret, and self-reflection. We feel powerful when we win the argument, but the consequences are harsh. Sometimes it’s worse to “win,” standing alone with blood on our hands.