In Greek mythology. Electra was the daughter of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, and Clytemnestra. Years after her mother killed her father, Electra and her brother avenged their father's death.
The character Electra is not mentioned as one of Agamemnon's daughters by the earliest Greek poet, Homer (c. ninth–eighth century BCE). Instead, she makes her first dramatic appearance in the fifth century BCE in a play by Aeschylus (525–456 BCE) called Choephoroe (more popularly known as Libation Bearers), the second part of the Oresteia trilogy. From that time on the story of Electra was retold with several variations, but the essential plot never changed.
Electra was one of four children born to King Agamemnon of Mycenae and his wife, Clytemnestra. Their other children were a son, Orestes, and two more daughters, Iphigeneia and Chrysothemis. Electra's legend begins with the Trojan War. When Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta and sister of Clytemnestra, ran away to Troy with Paris, a Trojan prince, the Greeks decided to wage war on Troy and bring back Helen. Agamemnon, Menelaus's brother, was chosen as the military leader of the Greek forces. Before the Greeks set off for Troy across the sea, a soothsayer told Agamemnon he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia to the goddess Artemis in exchange for a fair wind. He did so—although in some versions Artemis spared Iphigeneia's life—and the Greek army set sail for Troy. Clytemnestra was devastated by the loss of Iphigeneia and never forgave her husband. While Agamemnon was away fighting in Troy, Clytemnestra and her husband's cousin Aegisthus became lovers, yet Electra always remained loyal to her father and longed for his return.
After 10 years of warring between the Greeks and the Trojans, Troy was finally defeated and Agamemnon came home to Mycenae, but he did not return alone. As a kind of victory trophy he had claimed Cassandra, a daughter of King Priam of Troy, as his mistress. Within hours of his arrival at the royal palace, according to some versions, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered both Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytemnestra then planned to kill Orestes, but Electra secretly arranged for her young brother to be sent to the Greek kingdom of Phocis, north of the Gulf of Corinth, where he was raised in safety.
For years thereafter, Electra mourned the death of her father and vowed to avenge his murder. When Orestes reached manhood, he heard about how his father had been killed, so he set off with his cousin and friend Pylades for Mycenae. When the two men reached the royal palace, they disguised themselves as travelers to gain entry. They also claimed to be carrying the ashes of the dead Orestes in an urn.
Some legends have it that, although Electra was upset at hearing the rumor of Orestes' death, she resolved to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus herself. Before she could act, however, Orestes and Pylades secretly revealed to her their true identities, and together they plotted their crime. First Orestes killed Clytemnestra by stabbing her, and, depending on the account told, Electra either encouraged him or helped him stab their mother a second time. They then showed Aegisthus Clytemnestra's body before executing him too. Another version has it that Orestes and Pylades killed Aegisthus before stabbing Clytemnestra to death.
Orestes rewarded Pylades for his help by giving him Electra to wed. Once married, Electra and Pylades moved to Phocis, where they had two sons, Medon and Strophius.
The ancient Greeks valued the ideals of loyalty and justice, and Electra was seen as a hero for her devotion to her father and her obsession with avenging his wrongful murder. Women were meant to be faithful and obedient to men, and Electra showed the loyalty and patience her mother should have exercised. In some ways Electra is typical of the passive role of women in ancient Greece. She felt strongly, but in some versions of the myth she did very little, waiting for her brother to commit the murders instead of doing so herself.
In ancient Greece the earliest paintings of Electra, from the the fifth century BCE, were of her presence at the killing of Aegisthus. Later in Greek art she was featured more often with Orestes at the tomb of their father.
The most important literary depictions of Electra come in the works of three Greek dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles (c. 496–406 BCE), and Euripides (c. 486–406 BCE). In Aeschylus's version of her story, Electra has little to do with the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus; yet in the versions by Sophocles and Euripides, both of which are titled Electra, she takes a more central and instrumental role. Sophocles' play puts greater emphasis on Electra's emotional torment during the years spent waiting for the return of Orestes and the agony she feels when she hears the false rumor that her brother is dead. Sophocles' Electra also encourages Orestes to stab their mother a second time. A major difference between the Sophocles and Euripides Electras is that in the latter play Electra grips the knife with Orestes and the two stab their mother together.
In the 20th century, Electa continued to inspire artists. Most famously, Electa is featured in a reworking of Oresteia by the U.S. dramatist Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953). The play, Mourning Becomes Electra, sets the drama among a New England family immediately following the Civil War. In 1908 the German composer Richard Strauss (1864–1949) wrote an opera based on Sophocles' Electra. Poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), whose own father died when she was young, wrote "Electra on Azalea Path" about her feelings for him.
See also: AGAMEMNON; ATREUS; CLYTEMNESTRA; FURIES; IPHIGENEIA; ORESTES.
- The Oresteia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. , and A. Shapiro and P. Burian, eds.
- The Complete Euripides, 5 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009–2010. , and Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, eds.
- O'Neill, Eugene. Three Plays: Desire under the Elms, Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
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