Electra and Clytemnestra

Photo: Fig. 1. Shield (Band; Relief; Bronze), 5th Century. Church of San Vitale

Electra and Clytemnestra: Foils in the Liminal Realm

By Ashley Koca



The relationship between the characterizations of Clytemnestra and Electra in Aeschylus’ Oresteia can be visually synthesized through an Archaic shield dating back to 570 B.C. (see fig. 1). The shield itself embodies a combination of period appropriate and Classical artistic styles, as it represents the moment of Clytemnestra’s death in The Libation Bearers. The transitional nature of this piece reflects the equally transitional nature of womanly rites of passage and women as characters—primarily occupying a liminal space in between consciousness and unconsciousness, life and death, as well as girlhood and marriage. Such rites of passage are intertwined throughout The Libation Bearers, as each theme associated with either Clytemnestra or Electra could just as well be associated with the other. While seemingly contradictory, rites associated with life—such as those of marriage, sex, and birth—are indivisible with those associated with death—such as sacrifice. This contradiction unifies the conception of liminality, a word that symbolizes the threshold “separating an old phase from the new (Bremmer),” and in doing so, captures the intermediary nature and tension between them. The primary women of The Libation Bearers exist exclusively in association with transition, which is shown, visually, on the shield by veiled Electra and dying Clytemnestra—each representing stages of life and death, respectively. Thus, the transitional nature of the Archaic shield’s artistic style reflects the liminal state of the primary women in Aesychlus’ Oresteia—as the rites of passage they experience act as foils both in literature and art. 


The Archaic and Classical Styles

The center of the bronze relief shield outlines the Aeschylean story. The action of the scene occurs at the center of the shield, curating a focal point that draws the eye to Clytemnestra at the moment of her death. Flanking her right, Clytemnestra’s husband Aegisthus can be seen fleeing up a flight of stairs. To the far left, Electra can be found revealing herself from under a veil behind her brother Orestes. From a distance, the shield appears Archaic. When further inspected, one can differentiate the deviances in period appropriate style. Naturalistic elements such as the muscle definition seen on Aegisthus’ leg or the rounded knees of Clytemnestra challenge the traditionally rigid nature of the Archaic style. Most strikingly, a line emanating from the legs of Clytemnestra serves to convey movement—an artistic choice that breathes a bit of life into the unanimated relief. Archaic artworks are typically characterized by the type of subjects they illustrate, shown with “both feet flat on the ground creating a fundamentally immobile appearance; the head, like the whole of the statue, strictly frontal, staring into space” while Classical representations “interact with the viewers and share their space in a way which their Archaic counterparts refuse” (Tanner 257). While situated firmly within the Archaic period, the Archaic elements of the shield are found only in the rigidity of Orestes and Electra, whose movements are more mechanical in nature. The figures of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra engage in a more fluid manner, their bodies’ curvature leading the viewer’s eye through a path delineated by this motion. This intermingling of Archaic and Classical styles indicates that this shield is an exception, existing in-between the two artistic movements. Through understanding the subjects depicted by such a shield, one can better understand what is meant by the liminality of the shield itself.


Liminality and the Dream State

The central women of The Libation Bearers, Clytemnestra and Electra, are related beyond their familial ties. Visually, they mirror one another on the bronze relief, but, theatrically, their relatedness extends to their shared experiences as women and their constrained existence in the text. Prior to their differentiation as embodiments of the rites of womanhood vs. the rites of death, the mother and daughter pair are both associated with states of dreaming. After expressing that she would have preferred her father to have been slain on the battlefield, or better yet his murderers to have been killed before him, the Chorus tells Electra that she is “dreaming, and dreaming is a light pastime, of fortune more golden than gold” (The Libation Bearers 372-373). Here, Electra’s ‘dreaming’ is associated with frivolity, false prophecy, and wishful thinking. Electra’s fallacy of fantasy is contrasted with the nightmares that plague Electra’s mother, Clytemnestra, as she is tormented by “terror, the dream diviner of this house” (The Libation Bearers 32-33). 

The association between their dreams serves as a point of reflection and comparison between the two foils. In this case, the text opens with these two women bound by a common motif, yet such a motif also acts as a reflective distortion in which the women have contrasting experiences—hence the comparison between Electra’s night-reverie and Clytemnestra’s nightmare. On top of this, dreaming is a condition in which those afflicted are neither conscious nor totally unconscious, and, in a way, neither alive nor dead. For instance, sleep and death are personified as the brothers Hypnos and Thanatos in Greek mythology, emphasizing the shared nature as well as kinship between the two states (Hanfmann). Sleeping forces the dreamer into a purgatorial domain that is similar to the liminal realms in which Electra and her mother are both immortalized in bronze. While this shared sleep motif is not illustrated by the shield, it is an important connection that establishes the metaphorical relationship between the two women early on in the text—which provides the basis for the story told by the shield. The state of dreaming serves to bridge their experiences as women in The Libation Bearers and also functions as the first foil between them. Their dreams foreshadow the contrasting, yet related, liminal states they will come to be associated with. In a way, the women’s affiliation with the state of dreaming contextualizes their place in The Libation Bearers, specifically, as they experience the action of the story instead of assuming the role of actors themselves. 


Initiation: A Matter of Life or Death

In regards to the central action of both the text and shield, it is Orestes who enacts the murder while Clytemnestra experiences the result of it. As she is stabbed, she is shown to rock backwards, portraying movement. This motion is crucial to understanding the importance of the way her death is depicted—Clytemnestra is still alive as Orestes plunges his sword into her chest. Therefore, when the “Pythian-steered exile drove home to the hilt vengeance, moving strongly in guidance sent by the god,” the ‘moving’ of the sword did not halt the ‘moving’ of her body—failing to kill Clytemnestra right away (Libation Bearers 938-940). Sophocles, a contemporary of Aeschylus, authored an interpretation in which Electra condemns the oracle that called for the murder of her mother (Gilbert 161). In this condemnation, the verb used by Electra to reference the death of Clytemnestra “directly evokes the moment of slaughter (especially throat-slitting) in sacrifice” (Gilbert 167). In referencing “the moment of slaughter,” the verb implies that Clytemnestra was at the cusp of death—indicating that she was alive throughout the duration of her sacrifice to Apollo, the god who ordered her own murder (Gilbert 159). In later interpretations, her transitory survival can be understood through Plato’s contemplation on life and its relationship with motion in his Phaedrus as “what moves, and is moved by, something else stops living when it stops moving” (245c 6-7). Thus, in this moment Clytemnestra is reduced to a purgatorial state of ‘in between-ness’ that outlines her characterization in the text as a liminal being in the midst of completing the death rite. 

Female slaughter is a major theme throughout the Oresteia, weaving together the symbolism shared between mother and daughter. In fact, this slaughter can be thought of as the root of conflict in the Oresteia as it originates prior to the first book, Agamemnon, with the primary sacrifice of Clytemnestra’s eldest daughter Iphigenia. In her moment of sacrifice, Agamemnon refers to Iphigenia as both his “child” and, in some translations, “ornament of [his] house,” effectively objectifying her while she exists both as a person and an object made for offering (Scodel 114). In this way, sacrificial virgins were seen as liminal beings “simultaneously inessential and precious” as well as ephemeral—existing in a fleeting period between girlhood and womanhood, as a parthenos (Scodel 113-114). Because the virgin’s value was contingent on her purity during this period, her physical concealment was necessary—except in the case of sacrifice. At the altar of the virgin’s death, she would be put on naked display in a manner that “foreshadowed the moment of the unveiling. . . where the bride was revealed not only to the bridegroom but to the guests” (Scodel 114). So, by the parthenos existing on the cusp of womanhood while simultaneously walking the line between life and death, her sacrifice combines the two separate rites portrayed by Electra and Clytemnestra. Thus, the later sacrifice of Clytemnestra herself is reminiscent of the death of one daughter and calls back to the shield’s depiction of the other—as a virgin unveiled. The tradition of sacrifice is a multilayered motif that solidifies the mirror-like nature of Clytemnestra and her daughter; in which initiation rites serve as the mirror.

Beyond serving as a metaphorical sacrifice, Clytemnestra’s death by sword reflects the traditionally feminine death by noose. Hanging, in particular, relates to Clytemnestra through the motion of swinging. While not hung, Clytemnestra is shown to sway in her moment of death as she rocks backward in reaction to Orestes’ sword. As she swings, she further detaches herself from the ground below—yet is never fully removed as her heels remain as a final point of contact. The divorce of the woman from mother earth is incredibly symbolic in the interpretation of hanging as a female death, as women in the Western world have characteristically been associated with the earth (Cantarella 98). The continued contact between Clytemnestra and the piece of earth below her supports the suggestion that she is not yet deceased. In the text, her intermediate existence is stressed as Orestes’ “sword edges near [her] lungs. It stabs deep, bittersharp, and Right drives it. For that which had no right lies not yet stamped into the ground” (The Libation Bearers 639-645). Thus, this evidence further supports the shield’s interpretation of Clytemnestra’s murder as she is not entirely removed from, nor entirely grounded by, the earth. By delaying her physical removal from the ground, she, in turn, delays the spiritual removal of her soul from her body and exists instead in a liminal realm as she experiences this rite of passage.

The separation of earth and the body can also be interpreted as an initiation into womanhood. For instance, in the myth of the marriage between Hades and Persephone—as Persephone’s abduction serves as a signifier for the death of the girl and the birth of the woman. (Cantarella 96). Persephone represents a range of womanly initiation rites, especially those associated with the Oresteia. In the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” Hades “ took [Persephone] away under the earth in his golden chariot. It was very much against [her] will” (432-33). In snatching the reluctant young goddess, it can be inferred that Hades had assaulted Persephone and that her journey “under the earth” is a metaphor for the loss of her virginity—given that she is earlier referred to as “his duly acquired bedmate” (344). Persephone, as the parthenos, or kore, was thus transformed from a child to a woman by her assailant (Lincoln 227). The second rite, the presence of Persephone in the underworld, further encourages this motif of transition and transformation, as “the initiated is believed to experience literal or figurative death and rebirth” as well as “expected to visit all the cosmic realms, including the underworld” (Lincoln 228). In the Oresteia, the woman born from death is exemplified by Electra. Her entrance into the scene serves as a symbolic birth as she is revealed from underneath a veil, facing the active murder of her mother, Clytemnestra. Beyond the superficial connection between entrance and birth, the way in which Electra reveals herself is closely knit to this idea of being ‘born’ into womanhood. As previously argued, the veil held by Electra can be interpreted as a marriage veil, a physical manifestation of space between girlhood and womanhood. Electra’s removal of her veil is reminiscent of a bride in a wedding ceremony as she is put on display for the first time, re-entering the world as a fully fledged woman. In interpreting this form of female death in Aeschylean terms, through the juxtaposition of Electra and her mother, one could understand the figures shown on the shield to be echoes of one another. This mirroring serves as a physical reminder of not only the interconnectedness between their relationship, but the relationship between the initiation rites of womanhood and death. 

The way that Electra is portrayed on the shield highlights the significance of veil-like objects throughout the Oresteia and their connection to liminality. The veil weaves together the demise of the House of Atreus through the deaths of both Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. In order to slay her husband, Clytemnestra trapped him in the same manner as “fishermen” with “their huge circling nets,” describing the cloth as “rich robes” (Agamemnon 1382-1383). In this way, the cloth adorning her husband’s corpse behaved as a weapon as well as a death shroud. After Clytemnestra’s own death, Orestes places the same kind of veil over his mothers corpse, debating whether to call it a “trap for an animal or winding sheet for a dead man? Or bath curtain? Since it is a net, robe you could call it, to entangle a man’s feet” (Libation Bearers 998-1000). In describing this sort of shroud, veil, or robe as a “net” and “trap,” Aeschylus alludes to the fabric acting in a manner similar to a fisherman’s net or a spider’s web—insinuating that this trap is one that allows for the possibility of escape (Davis 23). The meaning behind this interpretation can be further deepened by the understanding of Clytemnestra as a widow who weaved the web that entangled her husband, trapping him in their marriage. Thus, this fabric simultaneously represents a marriage veil and a death shroud.Throughout their ill-fated misalliance, Agamemnon existed as a deadman walking, a proleptic corpse living on borrowed time. Thus, Clytemnestra’s web finally manifests at the time of her husband’s death as a veil. Consequently, this fabric, too, is a liminal object. Interpreted three ways, the fabric serves as the trap that separates man from life and death, the shroud that separates the dead from the living, and, finally, the veil that separates the virgin from the woman. The veil functions as an ultimate symbol for the fall of the house of Atreus as it is present at the deaths of both the King and Queen and represented artistically by the veil of their daughter, Electra.


The Shield as a Threshold

The symbolism behind the moment of Clytemnestra’s murder goes beyond enhancing the observer’s interpretation of the relationship between Clytemnestra and Electra, instead epitomizing the existence and usage of the shield itself. The shield, like the net, is possessed by such a proleptic corpse. As armor, this object acts as the last separation of man from death as he is about to enter battle. The necessity of armor is best exemplified Hesiod’s poem, “The Shield of Heracles,” in which Heracles is protected by his heavenly endowed shield while exploiting the unshielded flesh of his opponent, Cycnus. This opponent, “struck upon [Heracles’] shield with a brazen spear, but did not break the bronze; and the gift of the god saved his foe” but Heracles, “with his long spear struck Cycnus violently in the neck beneath the chin, where it was unguarded between helm and shield” (413-16). Here, the survival of Heracles is contingent on the armament’s presence and the demise of Cycnus depends on its absence, physically and metaphorically separating the fates of the characters. As the material barrier between life and death, the shield grounds the metaphysical concept of liminality in the tangible world. 

The decorative similarities between the Archaic shield and that of Heracles draw further lines of comparison, suggesting an apotropaic element to both. The two shields of interest both include scenes pertinent to the function of the shield itself. In the case of Heracles, his armament was ornamented with striking animals and a myriad of “deathless gods” (201). The description of the shield’s visual qualities indicate that its images served an apotropaic function, to evoke fear in its beholder and, potentially, ward off death through the inclusion of these immortal deities. The Archaic shield, in the other case, outlines a scene that defies the traditional notion of death being an absolute process, instead highlighting a moment of limbo. In order to enhance the Archaic shield’s protective powers, its decoration represents an attempt to prolong the wearer’s own impending death, to exist in the same purgatorial state as Clytemnestra. 

Existing not only as a decorative work, but as a tool of warfare and partner of the sword, the shield’s association with manhood and battle should not be overlooked. The armament represents the last barrier between immaturity and maturity in the same way that Electra’s veil represents the separation between girlhood and womanhood. In the Odyssey, Telemachus undergoes a parallel transformation, from boy to man, through this medium of battle, chaperoned under the goddess Athena. The goddess asserts “for thou art no child, nor longer may’st sport like one,” and continues to question “hast thou not the proud report heard, how Orestes hath renown acquired with all mankind, his father’s murtherer Ægisthus slaying, the deceiver base who slaughter’d Agamemnon” (1.373-78). Athena’s speech associates manhood (i.e. no longer ‘sporting’ as a child) with vengeance and warfare—one can assume that for a boy to carry a shield, it is for the purpose of conducting warfare. Therefore, out of this combat, the boy emerges as a man. It is also notable that Athena uses Orestes as her point of reference, which directly parallels the discussion of liminality in the Oresteia, hinting at a discussion of transition in terms of Orestes as a character as well. This nod to the Oresteia bolsters the notion that the shield, standing in for warfare at large, is also a symbol of transition—a piece of armor possibly wielded by an individual like Telemachus, on the cusp of manhood.



Because of its duality, the shield itself knits the narrative it depicts—that the liminal states one must endure in undergoing a rite of passage are demonstrated by the women of the Oresteia, the artistic style of the reliefs, and the utility of the medium. The unifying nature of each aspect of the shield speaks to the intentionality of its creation. This can be justified through the relief’s deviation from the text: the presence of Electra emerging from underneath a veil at this moment of her mother’s murder was a choice of the later artist, not of the original author. The artist chose to take this scene and to represent it in this way in order to tell a story that goes beyond the text itself, to use these characters not as individuals but as motifs. While the artist could not have predicted the later Classical style, the shield’s deviation from the confines of the Archaic style was an informed decision that worked to reinforce the allegorical element of Clytemnestra, the central focus of the shield’s decoration. Thus, in understanding how to alter the narrative of the Oresteia to support the tension between Clytemnesra and Electra undergoing separate rites of passage, the artist curates notions of nuance that bleed into each aspect of the art. In this way, the shield’s self awareness as a liminal object is self-reinforcing—each element strengthens another to ultimately give the object an apotropaic quality, warding off the eventual downfall of its wielder through prolonging a state of in-betweenness.


Ashley Koca is a sophomore at Cornell University studying Art History, Classical Civilization, and Near Eastern Studies. She is an intern with the Herbert F. Johnson Museum and writes for the Cornell Daily Sun.



Works Cited

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