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Alex Claman

While devouring N. K. Jemisin’s Hugo-sweeping Broken Earth trilogy, I enjoyed trying to pick out real-world inspirations for the story’s elements: the similarities of stonelore to Japanese tsunami warning stones, the clear Greek influence in the word “orogene”: ὄρος (mountain), and γένεσις (creation), and the Latin-style ending of “sessapinae,” the sense organ that gives orogenes their abilities.[1] As I continued pondering the series, I began to notice certain similarities between Essun, Jemisin’s protagonist, and Clytemnestra, the character from Ancient Greek drama and myth infamous for killing her husband Agamemnon to avenge his sacrifice of their daughter. This story is best told in a trilogy called the Oresteia written by Aeschylus, composed of the Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.[2] Clytemnestra and Essun are cursed. Both women are mothers; both have a child killed by their husbands, and each subsequently embarks on a mission of revenge which results in her death. Examining these two stories together gives important insight into each character, and the reasons why she succeeds or fails.

Both Essun and Clytemnestra are portrayed as wrathful, avenging women—each in her own way embodies the Furies, the vengeance deities of Greek myth—who are propelled by a potent combination of grief and rage. Each character’s actions—and death—are informed by her understanding or lack of understanding of her own trauma. Essun is partially aware of the potential repercussions even as she acts, while Clytemnestra is mostly unable to see the repercussions until it is too late. The same contrast can be seen in the two narratives’ treatment of the women’s deaths. Aeschylus frames Clytemnestra’s death as necessary but societally divisive; through it, some measure of order is restored but the repercussions of the curse continue. Essun’s death is framed as a sacrifice, a choice, that restores the natural order and ends the cycle of violence. The key difference lies in each character’s awareness, and acceptance, of her own trauma.

Clytemnestra and Essun are both introduced to the violence of their respective societies early in their lives, when they are forcibly removed from their families. Clytemnestra, as a woman in an oppressive, patriarchal society, is viewed and treated as an object to be traded or won.[3] She is unwillingly brought under the sway of the Curse of the House of Atreus, a pervasive miasma (a Greek term that essentially means a spiritual/metaphysical stain) caused by generations of kin-killing. She is expected to remain faithful to her husband/abductor, raising their children and keeping his household in order, while attempting to adjust to an entirely new life in Argos away from everyone she’s ever known (in many ways paralleling the life of her sister Helen).

Essun is born into a society that has systematized use of, and violence against, orogenes—people who can manipulate and draw power from the earth. When her powers manifest for the first time, her family rejects her and summons Schaffa, an older male Guardian (a select group of people who guide and control orogenes). He tells her, “If we pick you up, hone you to sharpness, treat you with the care and respect you deserve, then you become valuable. But if we just leave you lying about, you’ll cut to the bone the first person who blunders across you. Or worse—you’ll shatter, and hurt many.” He very deliberately suggests that she is dangerous to others, and that it is entirely her own fault if anything happens. Schaffa abducts Essun, physically hurting her and promising worse if she resists: “Never say no to me…Orogenes have no right to say no…I will break every bone in your hand, every bone in your body, if I deem it necessary to make the world safe from you.” To him, she is not a person, but an orogene, something so dangerous that it can have no rights and must be ruthlessly controlled. In this quote, Schaffa positions Essun (and by extension all other orogenes) as threats to the world at large, and sets himself and the Guardians up as judges, juries, and executioners. He takes Essun to a new place, the Fulcrum, where she is imprisoned and forced to become a living weapon. The Guardians are wielded by the ruling class as its instruments to subjugate orogenes’ power, and to create an environment of internalized submission through instruction at the Fulcrum.[4]

The structures of Clytemnestra and Essun’s societies are built upon a foundation of subjugation and control of people like them: women and orogenes, respectively. Ancient Greek society (both in myth and fact) depended on ensuring patrilineal descent through strict control of women. Essun’s world ruthlessly polices orogenes in an effort to control their power, in part through a program of forced breeding.[5]

Both women suffer an extreme trauma at the hands of their husbands: each mother loses one of her children due to social pressure on her husband. Agamemnon and the entire Greek army were stuck at Aulis with no wind, waiting to sail to Troy. After consulting an oracle, he decides to sacrifice Iphigenia, his daughter with Clytemnestra. He makes this decision without consulting his wife. According to social law and custom, this was his right. Extrapolating from the available texts, mother and daughter had a close bond, possibly the closest of the three children, especially since Iphigenia is of marriageable age. Clytemnestra is essentially broken by the ordeal. She is grief-stricken and intensely depressed. Furthermore, she has no opportunity to confront her husband: Iphigenia’s death brings back the winds, and Agamemnon sets sail for Troy, not to return for ten years.

Essun’s husband also flees after killing Uche, their son, believing it to be necessary since Uche is an orogene. As he flees, he kidnaps their daughter Nassun. Uche’s murder is actually the second death of a child that Essun has experienced. She herself killed her first child, a product of the forced breeding program, to save him from a tortured and controlled existence (as hers had been). The loss of her first son shakes her, but it is the combined killing/abduction of Uche and Nassun that breaks her. Uche and Nassun are the two children who she has had time to nurture, to raise, and to secretly train as orogenes. In this training, Essun unintentionally yet inevitably replicates and perpetuates aspects of the violence committed against her by her society. As an instructor, she is harsh, uncompromising, and overbearing. In The Obelisk Gate we see that she succeeds primarily in pushing her daughter away and reinforcing Nassun’s fear of her own powers:

[the] lie…had been Mama’s command, along with all the others: Don’t reach, don’t ice, I’m going to make the earth move and you’d better not react, didn’t I tell you not to react, even listening is reacting, normal people don’t listen like that, are you listening to me, rusting stop, for Earth’s sake can’t you do anything right, stop crying, now do it again. Endless commands. Endless displeasure. Occasionally the slap of ice in threat, the slap of a hand, the sickening inversion of Nassun’s torus, the jerk of a hand on her upper arm. Mama has said occasionally that she loves Nassun, but Nassun has never seen any proof of it.

In the series’ conclusion, Essun’s mindset is stated bluntly: “you so wanted to make a better world for Nassun. But more than anything else, you want this last child of yours to live.” Her sense of loss (when Uche is killed and Nassun abducted) is compounded by her feelings of separation from her daughter. However, it is important to keep in mind that Essun’s situation differs from Clytemnestra’s: she loses a son, but her daughter survives.[6]

In response to their trauma, both women transform; they become embodiments of rage, reminiscent of the Furies. In Greek mythology, the Furies are goddesses of vengeance. Furthermore, they are very specifically chthonic deities. In other words, they are linked to the earth, viewed as almost a part of it; indeed, in Greek mythology, almost all female deities have aspects of earth goddesses. Essun’s abilities, the ones that give her power and make her feared, are also tied to the earth: through it, she can exert her will.

Clytemnestra frames herself as, and is explicitly compared to, a Fury. She has been in Argos for ten years, burning with rage and grief. “I brooded on this trial, this ancient blood feud / year by year. At last my hour came.” She begins to transgress the societally circumscribed boundaries of womanhood as she plans her revenge, culminating in her murder of her husband.[7] With this violent act, she carves out a place for herself in the Ancient Greek practice of blood debt, forcibly claiming a strongly masculine-coded behavior.[8] Clytemnestra begins to embody aspects of the Furies as she cuts a bloody path to political power of her own. Her actions fulfill the current cycle of the House’s curse, setting the stage for her own demise.

Essun is angry for most her life. She has been angry since she first understood what her birth family had done by rejecting her, what Schaffa and his fellow Guardians represented, and how she has been and continues to be used. There are few outlets for this rage, but she learns to harness it, to use it to push herself to learn and develop greater control of her abilities in the hope that she will eventually free herself. For a time she is able to live outside of the society that controls her, but all too soon the Guardians find her again. This is when and why she kills her firstborn son: “[she] will keep him safe. She will not let them take him, enslave him, turn his body into a tool and his mind into a weapon and his life into a travesty of freedom.” Following her escape from her pursuers, Essun manages to hide her anger, letting it simmer for years, before it rises back to the surface because of her husband’s actions. The all-encompassing nature of her anger is described as Essun leaves the house after finding Uche’s body: “The surge of absolute, grinding, head-pounding rage catches you by surprise. You have to stop in the doorway of your home, bracing your hand against the door frame and sucking in deep breaths so that you don’t start screaming, or perhaps stabbing someone (yourself?) with that damn skinning knife” [emphasis added].

Essun, through her anger, latches onto one thought to sustain her: Nassun is alive. Wrapping this kernel of hope in rage and grief, she sets out to find her daughter, traveling across a landscape that is coming undone under geological and environmental devastation. As she embarks on her journey of vengeance, she is forcing her way into a new territory. According to both the customs and laws of the lands through which she’s moving, she should not exist. Not only is she an orogene, she is a highly skilled, trained orogene without a handler. She is free. According to the society that raised her, she is a dangerous, uncontrolled aberration. Essun reshapes herself during her travels, and is reshaped by the people she encounters. She manages to make her way to a settlement where orogenes and non-orogenes live in relative harmony, where she is able, however briefly, to rest and recover among a community that understands and welcomes her.

Clytemnestra by John Collier

Clytemnestra does not experience such a warm reception among the people of Argos. She loudly and proudly proclaims the justice of her actions. Immediately after stabbing and killing Agamemnon, gloating at her triumph, she has an extended exchange with her husband’s court in which she lays out her justification. As noted previously, she declares a place for herself in the practice of blood-revenge, arguing that it is her right to avenge her daughter’s death. Primarily due to the socially transgressive nature of this claim, the men remain unconvinced, and retreat in horror, explicitly citing the Furies. They rebuke her, saying, “Mad with ambition, / shrilling pride! - some Fury / crazed with carnage rages through your brain - / I can see the flecks of blood inflame your eyes!”, and again, “you empower the sisters, Fury’s twins / whose power tears the heart!” Clytemnestra tries the same tactic with Orestes (her son), appealing to his familial loyalty to his mother and sister. After her increasingly emotional efforts fail, she curses him, expressly invoking her rage: “Watch out—the hounds of a mother’s curse will hunt you down.” Orestes still kills her and later he sees the Furies themselves: “No dreams, these torments, / not to me, they’re clear, real – the hounds / of mother’s hate.” In so doing, he perpetuates the effects of the family curse, sets the stage for yet another blood debt, and forecloses any possibility of reconciliation.

This blood debt fuels all of the action of the trilogy’s third play. Although her death occurs at the end of the second play, Clytemnestra does not disappear; she appears onstage in the third play as a ghost. In death, she has essentially become a Fury. In this guise, she has finally been completely consumed by her rage. She harangues the Furies, demanding that they constantly chase and threaten Orestes. Clytemnestra in ghost-form rouses the Furies from their slumber, urging them on: “I suffered too, terribly, from dear ones, / and none of my spirits rage to avenge me./ I was slaughtered by his matricidal hand.” Orestes must receive divine judgement to clear him of the miasma of killing his mother. Clytemnestra’s spirit presumably dissipates when this happens, and the Furies are settled in a cave: returned to the earth and civilized.[9]

In The Stone Sky, the last book in the Broken Earth trilogy, Essun is killed by her daughter, Nassun. Essun’s death satisfies her own quest to find and save her daughter, while Nassun is able to fulfill her mother’s last request, and simultaneously give and receive forgiveness. And that, in my opinion, is the most important difference between Clytemnestra and Essun’s deaths: forgiveness, and its reciprocation. Both women are enraged, and Essun wields her rage as a tool to propel herself on her search, but is able to maintain her self-awareness and an understanding of repercussions. In the end, this is what saves Nassun, because Essun chooses to sacrifice herself in Nassun’s place, recognizing that either she or her daughter must die to save the world. Essun dies by her daughter’s hand, but she has already offered forgiveness: “the world took and took and took from you [Essun], too, after all. [Nassun] knows this. And yet, for some reason that she does not think she’ll ever understand…even as you died, you were reaching for the Moon. And for her” [emphasis added].

Reading these two texts side-by-side allows for more nuanced understandings of both characters, as well as prompting important questions about how such stories are received and understood. Clytemnestra, struggling against the framework of a patriarchal society, attempts to avenge the death of her daughter by killing her husband. Essun, struggling within the confines of a society that fears and oppresses her because of her abilities, attempts to avenge the death of her son and the abduction of her daughter by killing her husband. Clytemnestra pushes against societally circumscribed boundaries, taking explicitly and implicitly gendered actions, only to be crushed when those boundaries prove stronger than her will. Essun succeeds (in some sense of the word) because her journey takes place against a backdrop of societal upheaval. She is successful in her journey because the world is changing both around and with her.

For Athenian audiences, Clytemnestra’s tale was a cautionary one. The Oresteia was a story about the consequences of a woman running amok, transgressing the boundaries of acceptable behavior. It also provided a convenient explanation for the contemporary Athenian judicial system as a more “civilized” alternative to the previous practice of blood-revenge. One of the reasons why we keep returning to ancient myths and legends is due to their timelessness.[10] Questions of what constitutes acceptable behavior, who is allowed be angry, and who is allowed to grieve (and how) necessarily persist into the modern day. The Broken Earth series is just one of the many ways of interfacing and interacting with these issues.

[1] If I may indulge in a bit of speculative etymology: orogene is a fairly straightforward word, since it’s barely a neologism—just a light retooling of the real-world geological term orogeny. Sessapinae is more difficult to deconstruct. In Latin, sessa is a form of the perfect passive participle of the verb sedeo, which can mean simply “sit,” but also has connotations that something is fixed, immovable, or established—fitting for an orogene. Pinae is trickier, and there’s an extremely high likelihood that I am entirely inventing the derivation myself. It’s possibly from the rare word pina, for a sea-urchin or mussel, itself a corruption of pinna (πἰννα), meaning “feather,” thus carrying strong connotations of flight. Given some of the descriptions of what it feels like to wield orogeny, the connections seem apt.

[2] Throughout this article, I have been dealing with Clytemnestra primarily as she is portrayed within Aeschylus’ trilogy. As a character in Greek legend, however, her story has been treated by multiple authors; for a well-sourced overview of those representations and their evolution, see Wolfe (2009).

[3] Depending on the story, she is either given to Agamemnon by her father, or Agamemnon abducts her to be his wife after killing her first husband and child. The latter is an addition by Euripides in Iphigeneia at Aulis.

[4] The exact governance structure of the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation is never made clear, but it is probable that there is some form of centralized authority in Sanze, with members of the Leadership caste installed as city and regional administrators in the rest of its territory.

[5] In a deliberate parallel of real-world societies built on slave labor.

[6] In Clytemnestra’s case, this means that due to the societal construction of masculinity, she and Orestes are unable to communicate effectively. Essun and Nassun, as I’ve discussed later in the paper, are ultimately able to reconnect.

[7] Early in the Agamemnon, the chorus leader says to her, “Spoken like a man, my lady, loyal, / full of self-command”

[8] Blood-revenge usually did not impart miasma to the one carrying out the act.

[9] Orestes is acquitted by Athena, who decides that although he committed matricide, he was avenging the unjust killing of his father. Casting her vote in favor of Orestes, she says, “No mother gave me birth. / I honor the male, in all things but marriage…I cannot set more store by the woman’s death– / she killed her husband, guardian of their house”

[10] I leave the question of whether that timelessness is real or only perceived up to the reader.

Bibliography

Wolfe, Rachel M. E. 2009, “Woman, Tyrant, Mother, Murderess: an Exploration of the Mythic Character of Clytemnestra in All Her Forms.” Women’s Studies 38 (6). Routledge: 692–719.



Alex Claman (he/they) is currently in graduate school for classical archaeology and geography. He may eventually write his own stories, but until then will enjoy reading as many books as possible. He's also happy to talk your ear(s) off about classics, archaeology, SFF, and all the intersections thereof.
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