When they were children, Clytemnestra used to hate her sister Helen. Not because of her beauty, and not because of the sweetness of her personality, but because Helen stole their father's affection.
Helen was Zeus' bastard, yet Tyndareus doted on her. A man should consider his sons above his daughters, for daughters were good only for marriage, but Tyndareus delighted in Helen. He brought gifts to her cradle: a mirror, so she could see how her beauty grew each day; a small wooden horse, symbol of wealth and nobility; a puff of raw cotton, soft and white like her skin.
Even though her cradle was set beside Helen's, Tyndareus ignored Clytemnestra, his own flesh and blood.
The wet nurse who suckled both princesses preferred Helen, who took the breast without fuss and thrived. Clytemnestra refused to suck. She bit. She spat out the milk and screamed. The nurse fed her from a bottle with a clay teat in the shape of a poppy-head. For years afterwards, Clytemnestra could recall the taste of opium and the deadening of her senses. She blamed the wet nurse and the drug for both her lack of emotion and her ability to feel too much.
Their mother Leda did not speak of the circumstances of their birth, but there were always servants who would gossip, especially as the children grew older and began to display the traits of their sires. Four children from two fathers, hatched from two eggs - Castor and Clytemnestra in one, Helen and Pollux in the other.
The servants whispered that Zeus the Thunderer had lain with Leda in the shape of a swan. Clytemnestra sidled into the kitchens and listened from the shadows while the cook, a garrulous man who sang songs and wove tales as he seasoned and spiced and carved the food for the royal table, told tales of a great white bird and parted white thighs.
Though Clytemnestra didn't understand everything the cook said, she observed the reactions around her. The male servants would thump their fists and whistle their appreciation, and the maids would blush and giggle. From this, Clytemnestra understood that her mother was perceived as an object - not as a queen, as was her due, but as a woman to be desired, pitied, and scorned.
Whenever they walked by the river, Clytemnestra would hold Helen's arm tight. The servants following after them would nod and murmur their approval of such sisterly devotion. Clytemnestra liked to point at the swans. "There's your father," she would say in an undertone, indicating the large mute bird with its graceful long neck and its elegant snowy wings.
Helen never replied. She kept her eyes downcast, a blush mantling her cheeks. She even managed to make humiliation beautiful.
The polished bronze mirrors showed Clytemnestra that she was attractive in an ordinary way, but what good was ordinary beauty when Helen claimed a shimmering, Olympian-given beauty? Clytemnestra was as dark as Helen was fair, yet few people seemed to notice her black hair, pansy-dark eyes and smooth golden skin.
Occasionally, traders and bards from the east passed through Sparta. Clytemnestra and Castor always took their place near the hearth first, and their dark good looks often provoked favourable comment from the easterners. "Like the goddess Astarte!" one man cried, his gaze admiring as he looked at Clytemnestra.
She preened, pleased with the compliment, until Helen and Pollux entered the room and the man clutched his breast and sighed, staring at Helen. "A vision of perfection! Truly, Aphrodite is come amongst us!"
Astarte and Aphrodite: one goddess, two names. Though she knew the trader had been in his cups and was probably seeking the best way to praise the royal daughters, Clytemnestra wondered if the compliments had deeper meaning.
She puzzled over this for days.
The girls were on the cusp of womanhood; Helen slower to fill out her curves, Clytemnestra the first to wear the bundled cloth to soak up her menstrual blood. Clytemnestra began casting bold looks at the youths gathered at her father's court. Though they professed devotion to the beautiful Helen, their expressions held only a wistful hope, bland and insipid. When they met Clytemnestra's challenging gaze, they sent her scorching, assessing glances, and Clytemnestra knew she would have power over men.
Her certainty strengthened on the day Helen was abducted by Theseus of Athens and his Lapith companion Pirithous. Clytemnestra's jealousy vanished, melted like wax in the sun, as she watched her family weep and rage. She shed no tears, felt no anger. Instead she realised that Helen's beauty was a passive thing, a poisonous thing. Though still so young, Helen was made aware of her looks every day, and was taught to fear the effects of time. Now her beauty had made her an object of desire.
Theseus didn't want Helen for her dowry or political alliance, or for her skill at weaving or her sweet nature. He wanted her because she, like him, was a child of Zeus, and because she was beautiful.
Clytemnestra realised that, if handled carefully, beauty could be a weapon. But Helen's beauty made her weak, a victim of man's lust - just as their mother Leda became a victim of Zeus' lust.
While she waited for her brothers to rescue her sister, Clytemnestra swore by the dark goddess Nemesis that she would never allow herself to be the victim of any man. Instead of jealousy, she felt a fierce love for her pitiful sister. From then on, Clytemnestra would not be judged against Helen. Helen would be judged against Clytemnestra.
When Helen returned, she brought with her Theseus' mother, Queen Aethra, who attested that Helen had not been violated during her abduction. The word of a queen was not enough for Tyndareus, who ordered doctors and midwives to examine his precious daughter.
Clytemnestra sat beside her sister and held Helen's hand while the examination took place. Helen wept, and so Clytemnestra leaned close, letting her hair down to shield her sister's face from the curious gaze of the servants.
Later, her virginity declared intact, Helen was welcomed back to her father's table with great ceremony. Afterwards, their bellies full and their tongues loosened by wine, the sisters lay on the bed in the room they shared and whispered to one another beneath the light of the full moon. Clytemnestra had grown accustomed to sleeping alone and had come to think of the room as hers, but she put aside her selfishness in order to listen to Helen's tale.
"Men rape a woman and call it marriage," Clytemnestra said, careful to keep her voice neutral after Helen had poured out the story. She'd heard the frantic whispered conversation between the doctors and midwives and knew her sister was no virgin despite what Tyndareus had been told.
"I love him," Helen said, and snuffled into her sister's shoulder. "Theseus is the most handsome man I've ever seen. I love him. I'll die without him."
Clytemnestra patted Helen's hair. "You won't die."
A month later, their father announced that Clytemnestra's marriage would take place within three days. The news shocked her, but Helen clapped her hands in delight.
"They're only marrying me off to drive up the bidding on you," Clytemnestra told her. "Father adds to your list of potential suitors daily. By announcing my wedding, he's signalling that your marriage is almost imminent."
Helen's excited expression slid into consternation. "I still think of Theseus," she said, but her tone suggested otherwise.
Clytemnestra married Tantalus, king of Pisa, an ordinary man from the extraordinary house of Atreus. Her new husband spent the wedding feast staring at Helen. When they went to bed, Clytemnestra made certain he knew which sister he'd wedded. Her deflowering was painful, and she bled as if he'd wounded her with a sea-lance. In retaliation, she scratched and bit and gave Tantalus a black eye.
A petty war broke out between Pisa and Mycenae. Tantalus, puffed up with importance, went out to defend his city. Clytemnestra took charge in his absence, enjoying the taste of authority. Certain that the women, children and elderly were safe within the walls and that the city was well provisioned in case of a siege, she sat at a window overlooking the plain and watched the plumes of dust in the distance.
As evening fell, she saw a lone horseman break from the dust and ride towards the city. Unafraid of whatever news he brought, she sat at her table and was writing to her sister when she heard that her husband was dead.
"Murdered, Highness," the messenger cried, sweat cutting rivulets through the dust masking his face. "Cut down by Agamemnon of Mycenae. I have orders for you, Highness, the last command of your husband. He begged you to flee before Agamemnon seizes the city. Flee to your father and beg for his support."
Clytemnestra considered the messenger's words. "Agamemnon, you said? He is distant cousin to my husband."
"Yes, Highness. He offends against the gods with this unholy act. Blood-guilt will be upon him." The messenger shifted, obviously impatient at her lack of urgency. "But hurry, gather your jewels and your women, you must flee!"
She smiled and remained where she sat, deaf to the messenger's pleas. When she heard the thunder of horses' hooves and the clank of bronze armour outside the city walls, she stood and walked through the courtyard. Her people called to her for protection, and she promised all would be well.
Clytemnestra opened the gates and faced her husband's murderer. Agamemnon was not handsome. He was rough and brutish, with a thick black beard. Yet when he saw her, his expression softened and he looked at her with desire.
"Welcome to Pisa, my lord." She dipped her head to acknowledge him, then turned her back and walked away, leaving behind her a stunned silence. Only when she reached the steps of the great hall did Agamemnon call out to her.
"Lady, under what terms do you surrender this city?"
She looked over her shoulder. "Today I lost my husband. Tomorrow, I will take another. Marry me, Agamemnon of Mycenae, and Pisa is yours."
Agamemnon shouted with laughter. "Clytemnestra, you are a woman without peer. I will marry you, and make you Queen of Mycenae and Pisa."
Clytemnestra continued her letter to Helen later that night, after her first coupling with Agamemnon. His wildness had excited her; she rode him astride, both of them laughing, both of them falling in love.
Not that she would tell Helen of such things in so direct a manner, but she felt she had to communicate her joy somehow. For the first time in her life, she wanted Helen to share her feelings. She wanted Helen to enjoy the pleasure of a powerful man rather than the inept fumblings of a pretty princeling.
The house of Atreus calls to us and commands us, she wrote. Use your influence with Father. Insist upon Menelaus as your husband. Two sisters wedded to two strong brothers! How perfect it will be.