|Greek and Roman Mythology > Agamemnon, Orestes, and Electra
Agamemnon, Orestes, and Electra
Menelaus, who had been drawn into the quarrel to avenge another's
wrongs, was not so fortunate in the issue as his brother. During
his absence his wife Clytemnestra had been false to him, and when
his return was expected, she, with her paramour, AEgisthus, laid
a plan for his destruction, and at the banquet given to celebrate
his return, murdered him.
The conspirators intended also to slay his son Orestes, a lad not
yet old enough to be an object of apprehension, but from whom, if
he should be suffered to grow up, there might be danger.
Electra, the sister of Orestes, saved her brother's life by
sending him secretly away to his uncle Strophius, king of Phocis.
In the palace of Strophius, Orestes grew up with the king's son,
Pylades, and formed with him that ardent friendship which has
become proverbial. Electra frequently reminded her brother hy
messengers of the duty of avenging his father's death, and when
grown up he consulted the oracle of Delphi, which confirmed him
in his design. He therefore repaired in disguise to Argos,
pretending to he a messenger from Strophius, who had come to
announce the death of Orestes, and brought the ashes of the
deceased in a funeral urn. After visiting his father's tomb and
sacrificing upon it, according to the rites of the ancients, he
made himself known to his sister Electra, and soon after slew
both AEgisthus and Clytemnestra.
This revolting act, the slaughter of a mother by her son, though
alleviated by the guilt of the victim and the express command of
the gods, did not fail to awaken in the breasts of the ancients
the same abhorrence that it does in ours. The Eumenides,
avenging deities, seized upon Orestes, and drove him frantic from
land to land. Pylades accompanied him in his wanderings, and
watched over him. At length in answer to a second appeal to the
oracle, he was directed to go to Tauris in Scythia, and to bring
thence a statue of Diana which was believed to have fallen from
heaven. Accordingly Orestes and Pylades went to Tauris, where
the barbarous people were accustomed to sacrifice to the goddess
all strangers who fell into their hands. The two friends were
seized and carried bound to the temple to be made victims. But
the priestess of Diana was no other than Iphigenia, the sister of
Orestes, who, our readers will remember, was snatched away by
Diana, at the moment when she was about to be sacrificed.
Ascertaining from the prisoners who they were, Iphigenia
disclosed herself to them, and the three made their escape with
the statue of the goddess, and returned to Mycenae.
But Orestes was not yet relieved from the vengeance of the
Erinnyes. At length he took refuge with Minerva at Athens. The
goddess afforded him protection, and appointed the court of
Areopagus to decide his fate. The Erinnyes brought forward their
accusation, and Orestes made the command of the Delphic oracle
his excuse. When the court voted and the voices were equally
divided, Orestes was acquitted by the command of Minerva.
Byron, in Childe Harold, Canto IV, alludes to the story of
"O thou who never yet of human wrong
Left the unbalanced scale, great Nemesis!
Thou who didst call the Furies from the abyss,
And round Orestes bade them howl and hiss,
For that unnatural retribution, just,
Had it but been from hands less near, in this,
Thy former realm, I call thee from the dust!"
One of the most pathetic scenes in the ancient drama is that in
which Sophocles represents the meeting of Orestes and Electra, on
his return from Phocis. Orestes, mistaking Electra for one of
the domestics, and desirous of keeping his arrival a secret till
the hour of vengeance should arrive, produces the urn in which
his ashes are supposed to rest. Electra, believing him to be
really dead, takes the urn, and embracing it, pours forth her
grief in language full of tenderness and despair.
Milton, in one of his sonnets, says:
"The repeated air
Of sad Electra's poet had the power
To save the Athenian walls from ruin bare."
This alludes to the story that when, on one occasion, the city of
Athens was at the mercy of her Spartan foes, and it was proposed
to destroy it, the thought was rejected upon the accidental
quotation, by some one, of a chorus of Euripides.
After hearing so much about the city of Troy and its heroes, the
reader will perhaps be surprised to learn that the exact site of
that famous city is still a matter of dispute. There are some
vestiges of tombs on the plain which most nearly answers to the
description given by Homer and the ancient geographers, but no
other evidence of the former existence of a great city. Byron
thus describes the present appearance of the scene:
"The winds are high, and Helle's tide
Rolls darkly heaving to the main;
And night's descending shadows hide
That field with blood bedewed in vain,
The desert of old Priam's pride,
The tombs, sole relics of his reign,
All save immortal dreams that could beguile
The blind old man of Scio's rocky isle."
Bride of Abydos.