You are here

Clytemnestra’s Breast as a Receptacle of Memory in Aeschylus’ _Libation Bearers_

Catalina Popescu

My 20-minute paper investigates the symbolism of Clytemnestra’s breast in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers. I will analyze the function of this powerful visual signifier associated with nurture, which efficiently replaces her muted logos and provides Orestes with a special connection to her and a disconnection from the public logos of revenge. In her work, Holst-Warhaft (1992) 152, doubts that Clytemnestra nursed Orestes (see also Whallon (1958) 273-274, in opposition to Vellacott (1984) 154-155). Quoting Zeitlin, she argues that the scene rather reveals an attempt to seduce. The queen reveals the “threatening power of a woman’s weapon.” DeForest (1993) 136-137, emphasizes sight and gaze as a duel of intimidation and reduction to infancy. In her essay, she points out the relationship between the evil eye of Medusa and the breast of Clytemnestra. The queen incarnates the goddess’ classical duality of nurture and destruction (also O’Brien (1998) 39). Zeitlin (1988) 62-63, believes that Orestes needs to be later reborn in the world of the male deities (in the navel of Delphi), in order to compensate for this severed relationship with his mother and her breast (see also Passman (1993) 66).

         Using these valuable approaches, I put more emphasis on the speech/silence aspect of memory in this private duel between mother and son. Within a context involving a royal house and a relative with a heroic/warrior past, it is difficult to imagine a form of memory that does not imply public dimension. Yet, sometimes, the simplest form of Mnēmosynē—the affective one—is more precious for survival. At Orestes’ arrival in disguise, Clytemnestra faces a big test of memory (vv. 668-717). Recognizing her own blood, abiding by the rules of natural philia, was an innate and exclusively feminine privilege for a woman in ancient Greece (David Kovacs (1984) 315). Clytemnestra’s inability of anagnorisis disables her in the face of danger and also robs her of public sympathy: not having that inner call proves that one is not a worthy mother or woman. Later, when Orestes attacks her, Clytemnestra rushes to weapons (vv. 889-890) and logoi (vv. 895-926), and only afterwards does she use her body as a receptacle of memory. She counterattacks by bringing him back to the comforting memory of her loving nurture, in a way that should infantilize him. If he tries to reduce her to silence, she attempts the same, by turning him back into a nēpios, a speechless baby: ἐπίσχες, ὦ παῖ, τόνδε δ᾽ αἴδεσαι, τέκνον, /μαστόν, πρὸς ᾧ σὺ πολλὰ δὴ βρίζων ἅμα/ οὔλοισιν ἐξήμελξας εὐτραφὲς γάλα. “Wait, my son! Have pity, child, upon this breast at which many times while you slept you sucked with toothless gums the milk that nourished you.” (vv. 896-898). Her naked breast is not only a mute symbol, but a silencer as well.

        The image of her maston, puzzles Orestes and, for a few seconds, takes him back to a time without logos, politics, memory, or revenge. The naked breast is the very opposite of the genderless/androgynous ruler Clytemnestra used to embody. In this gesture, she obtains authentic memory by disrobing her body, by eliminating her royal persona. The memory of body and blood is the biological opposite of the social logos (nature vs. culture). At the same time, the body and its silent imagery represent an alternate speech (Bergren (2008) 248, Assmann (2011) 231-232, Montiglio (2000) 46-48). Facing her breast, Orestes even considers sparing her. To this speechless mercy, Pylades opposes an intense paternal logos, the Apollonian manteumata and a memory of revenge dictated from above (vv. 900-901; Vellacott (1984) 155).

      Even now, when she pretends to appeal to his most intimate childhood memory, Clytemnestra is still doing what she does best, namely inducing forgetfulness, this time not through political censorship or articulate official decrees, but through an appeal to emotions. Her removal of clothes is, paradoxically, a further instance of enwrapping and masking. Her nursing maternity is still a persona.

Session/Panel Title

Breastfeeding and Wet-Nursing in Antiquity

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy