In Greek mythology Orestes is usually described as the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, mythical king and queen of the ancient city of Mycenae, although in some accounts they are said to have come from nearby Argos, in Laconia. Orestes' life was blighted by the curse that his great-grandfather Pelops had brought on himself and all succeeding generations of his family.
The roots of the tragedy of Orestes can be traced back two generations before he was born. Pelops, founder of the Pelopid dynasty of Mycenae, wanted to marry Hippodameia. Hippodameia's father, Oenomaus, king of Pisa in Elis, would allow the union only if Pelops could beat him in a chariot race. Pelops won the contest by driving winged horses given to him by the sea god Poseidon and by offering a bribe to Myrtilus, Oenomaus's charioteer, to remove pins from his master's chariot. Oenomaus was killed, but Pelops drowned Myrtilus to avoid paying the bribe. As he was dying, Myrtilus cursed Pelops and his descendants. The numerous misfortunes that subsequently befell the house of Atreus, Pelops's son, are all attributed to this curse. Agamemnon was Atreus's son, and Orestes the son of Agamemnon.
When Orestes was a baby, his father Agamemnon left home to lead the Greek armies in the Trojan War, leaving his wife, Clytemnestra, in charge of Mycenae. The campaign took a long time to prepare, and the war itself lasted 10 years, so Orestes was in his early teens by the time his father returned.
The Trojan War had not even begun when Agamemnon provoked the anger of the gods. While the Greeks were still gathering their fleet at the port of Aulis in readiness to transport their army to Troy, Agamemnon boasted that he was a better hunter than the goddess Artemis. To punish Agamemnon's hubris (pride), Artemis angrily stilled the winds so that the Greek ships could not set sail. A soothsayer told Agamemnon that the winds would return only if he sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia to the offended goddess. With great sadness and reluctance, Agamemnon did his penance and had Iphigeneia killed on Artemis's altar. Clytemnestra never forgave her husband for allowing their daughter to be sacrificed and sought ways to avenge her death. Before long she joined forces with her cousin, Aegisthus, who hated Agamemnon as a consequence of an earlier conflict between their fathers, Thyestes and Atreus, respectively.
Clytemnestra was at first reluctant to conspire with Aegisthus, but they later became lovers and she yielded to her desire for revenge and power. With Agamemnon away at Troy, the pair began to rule Mycenae as king and queen and made plans to kill Agamemnon when he returned. They forced Clytemnestra's surviving daughters to accept the new regime, but one of them, Electra, sent Orestes for safety to Agamemnon's ally Strophius, king of Phocis. That saved Orestes, for Aegisthus would not have allowed the heir to the throne to live.
When Agamemnon returned home to Mycenae with a mistress, the Trojan princess Cassandra, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered the pair of them. They then ruled Mycenae for seven years. Orestes remained with Strophius, whose son Pylades became his close friend. When they reached manhood, they resolved to reclaim Orestes' birthright and avenge Agamemnon's death. They consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, and Orestes was told to slay the killers of his father. The friends then proceeded to Mycenae and entered the city in secret. They made contact with Electra, who in one version had been compelled to marry a farmer so that her children would be ineligible to inherit the kingdom. Electra idolized her dead father and hated her mother and stepfather. She was therefore willing to help her brother. Together, the three young people managed to kill Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.
Although Orestes had acted with Apollo's approval, he was still guilty of matricide (killing one's mother), so he was vulnerable to attack by the Erinyes (Furies), goddesses of vengeance who tormented all criminals. These hideous demons pursued Orestes across Greece until he at last came to Athens. There a group of citizens assembled to hear his case, which Apollo defended since he originally supported Orestes' cause. The prosecution was presented according to some accounts by the Erinyes, in others by Clytemnestra's father, Tyndareos, or by Erigone, daughter of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. The jury was divided, so Athena, the city's patron goddess, cast the deciding vote. Since Athena herself was born directly from Zeus and had no mother, she sympathized with Agamemnon as a father figure. She ruled that Orestes' revenge was justifiable homicide. After she delivered her verdict the Erinyes agreed to become patrons of Athens, and were renamed the Eumenides ("Kindly Ones").
Despite his acquittal, Orestes' mind was still disturbed by all that had happened, so he and Pylades went in search of a cure for his madness. On the instructions of an oracle, they went to retrieve a sacred wooden image of Artemis from the Taurians, a savage northern people who were known to kill strangers on sight. Orestes and Pylades secretly entered the temple where the image was kept, but they were discovered and sent by the Taurian king Thoas to be sacrificed by the priestess of Artemis. The priestess, however, turned out to be Iphigeneia. She had not after all died at Aulis, but had been spirited away to serve Artemis in Tauris. Iphigeneia helped her brother, and she, Orestes, and Pylades escaped together. They fled with the sacred image—in some versions of the story, they took it to Athens, in others to the island of Rhodes.
Pylades then married Electra, and they seem to have lived happily ever after. Orestes, however, was less fortunate. In one version of events, he was due to wed his cousin Hermione, daughter of Agamemnon's brother Menelaus, but during one of his fits of madness she was carried off by Pyrrhus (also known as Neoptolemus), a distinguished Trojan war veteran. Orestes pursued them and killed Pyrrhus in Apollo's temple at Delphi.
Most accounts agree, however, that Orestes finally did marry Hermione, and had a son, Tisamenus, who later ruled Achaea. However, Orestes did not remain with his family for long. As an additional reparation for killing his mother, or perhaps as a penance for killing Pyrrhus on ground that was sacred to Apollo, he had to endure a year's exile in Arcadia, a region of the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece. There he was bitten by a snake and died. He was buried near the city of Tegea.
The curse upon the house of Atreus was so strong that, even in death, Orestes did not find a permanent resting place. A Spartan, acting on instructions from an oracle, later dug up his bones and brought them to Sparta. The Spartans believed that once they were in possession of these relics, they would vanquish their neighbors and perpetual enemies the Tegeans. This seems to have been no more than wishful thinking, for in reality the Tegeans continued to be formidable opponents in battle, and it was diplomacy, rather than war, that finally brought them into the great Hellenic military alliance known as the League of Sparta.
See also: AGAMEMNON; ARTEMIS; ATHENA; ATREUS; CLYTEMNESTRA; FURIES; IPHIGENEIA; PELOPS.
- The Oresteia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. , and A. Shapiro and P. Burian, eds.
- The Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 2009. , and Robert Fagles, trans.
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