Fractal Myth

Classical Greek Tragedy.

[Michelle Chapman ©1997]

Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides weave individual tragedies around the polluted inheritance of Electra and Orestes, the children of the multiply-cursed House of Atreus. The flexibility of a story where the characters seem familiar to a contemporary audience allows the tragedians opportunity to bring dramatic significance to diverse thematic concerns. An overall picture emerges, suggesting notions about crime, justice, honour and duty, and their importance to the ideal of family, house or oikos. This theme extends to cover the respective responsibilities of human and divine avengers, and the effect on an individual's character of constant self-negation in pursuit of these ideals.

Aeschylus first transmitted the Electra myth in his Orestia trilogy. The central drama, The Libation Bearers deals with the achievements of siblings, Orestes and Electra. Aeschylus' concerns are dynastic, concentrating on the characters' reciprocal accountability to their oikos. This encompasses past, present and future family members, local citizens, the household's slaves, livestock and possessions. Aeschylus uses Agamemnon's spiritual presence symbolically to embody the House of Atreus' oikos. Sophocles, in his Electra, also features filial piety as a major theme. His focus is on the personal honour of his characters, and the subjugation of self demanded by the quest for 'Justice'. In Euripides' Electra, the characterisation of Agamemnon's inheritors is less idealistic, depicting Orestes and Electra's fragile humanity. Satisfying a personal need for revenge, and suffering traumatic remorse, they question the paradoxical nature of their situation more than their counterparts in the other plays.

Aeschylus' title, The Libation Bearers, signifies his restrained role for Electra. She is Orestes' sister and supporter, her character completely dedicated outside herself to the needs of her family, personified by her father's tomb. An idealised noblewoman, she is hesitant when independent action is required: "If you know of any better course than mine, tell me."(1) The Chorus of slave women calls more aggressively for revenge than she, and even reminds her to pray for Orestes' return. Through Electra's prayers, and the device of Orestes' tokens on Agamemnon's tomb, Aeschylus gives us indight into her agitated emotions: "Oh, this / is torment, and my wits are going."(2) It is their disinheritance, the loss of oikos, that upsets Electra most, combined with her fear of inheriting her mother's disruptive nature. She relies on Orestes, her nearest living male relative, for rescue.

Now I am what a slave is, and Orestes lives
Outcast from his great properties, while they go proud
in the high style and luxury of what you worked
to win. By some good fortune let Orestes come
back home. Such is my prayer, my father. Hear me; hear.

And for myself, grant that I be more temperate
of heart than my mother; that I act with purer hand.(3)

Electra's prayers for vengeance turn on the question of 'right', befitting her integrity of spirit: "I can say this, and not be wrong in the gods' eyes?"(4) She does not wish to inadvertently increase her family's doom. This Electra demonstrates an awareness of the cyclical nature of destiny, and she yearns to see her family regain its former glory. The image of Orestes, as a seed that will regrow the household, is her definition of success.

The gods know, and we call upon the gods; they know
how we are spun in circles like seafarers, in
what storms. But if we are to win, and our ship live,
from one small seed could burgeon an enormous tree.(5)

The reunion between Electra and Orestes is subdued. Their lives have been dedicated to a single purpose since Agamemnon's death: "control yourself, and do not lose your head for joy. / I know those nearest to us hate us bitterly."(6) The need to celebrate Agamemnon's long-neglected funereal rites is foremost in their hearts. Electra exhorts her father and the cthonic powers to aid their just endeavour. "There has been wrong done. I ask for right. / Hear me, Earth. Hear me, grandeurs of Darkness."(7) She mentions her own sufferings and the cruelty of Clytemnestra not for sympathy, but to spur Orestes' determination. Soon after, she vanishes from the story, leaving Orestes to fulfill his destiny.

You tell of how my father was murdered. Meanwhile I
stood apart, dishonoured, nothing worth,
in the dark corner, as you would kennel a vicious dog,
and burst in an outrush of tears, that came that day
where smiles would not, and hid the streaming of my grief.

Hear such, and carve the letters of it on your heart.(8)

Sophocles' Electra performs a more involved role. The play emphasises her obsessive dedication to vengeance for Agamemnon, and justice for herself and Orestes. In contrast, society and the Chorus continuously counsel restraint. Electra's awareness and acceptance of her suffering is compellingly poignant. She is the hero of Sophocles' play, and it is "the nature of the hero to sacrifice everything, even life, to the pursuit of a noble design."(9) In her speeches, Electra emphasises what she has lost in a life spent waiting for revenge, and expresses her longing need for Orestes. The implication is that he is free to move, while she remains in helpless torment.

I have awaited him always
sadly, unweariedly,
till I'm past childbearing,
till I'm past marriage,
always to my own ruin.
But he has forgotten
what he has suffered, what he has known.
What message comes from him to me
that is not again belied?
Yes, he is always longing to come,
but he does not choose to come, for all his longing.(10)

This Electra, as an agent of vengeance in her own right, has carried on a war of attrition since Agamemnon's death. She constantly reminds her mother that Justice, in the form of Orestes, is inevitable, as she unceasingly laments her murdered father - for "how else would any well-bred girl behave?"(11) Electra's loneliness is complete. No-one shares her burden of mistreatment by her mother, and her oppressive state of mind isolates her from her friends: "suffer me my madness, / I entreat you."(12) Chrysothemis is a possible confidant, but even she renounces honour in favour of the comfortable safe, consensus existence. Her sister's complacent cowardice contrasts completely with Electra's noble dedication, especially when it appears that Orestes is dead, and Electra undertakes to avenge Agamemnon herself. The Chorus, despite their counsels of moderation, cannot restrain their admiration at her filial duty: "Was there ever one so noble / born of a noble house?"(13) When Orestes reveals himself to Electra, she properly places herself under his guidance as head of the family. This Electra becomes an accomplice to the murders, keeping watch while they kill Clytemnestra, and lulling Aegisthus' suspicions until he is in their trap.

For me your coming is a miracle,
so that if my father should come back to life
I would think it no wonder but believe
I saw him. Since your coming is such for me,
lead as you will. Had I been all alone,

I would not have failed to win one of two things,
a good deliverance or a good death for me.(14)

The Electra of Euripides is independent, outspoken and psychologically complex. The unnaturalness of her situation appears more extreme than either of the other Electra's. She is a married virgin, whose husband is nobly born and of noble spirit: "I have not touched her and the love-god Cypris knows it."(15) His mortifying poverty is an ultimate insult to this princess of the Pelopidae. Electra's dignified self-obsessions make her constantly aware of the disparity between her life as it is, and as it should be.

Dear friends, not for shimmering robes,
not for twisted bracelets of gold
does my heart take wing in delight.
I am too sad, I cannot stand
in choral joy with the maidens
or beat the tune with my whirling foot;
rather with tears by night
and tears by day shall I fill my soul
shaking in grief and fear.
Look! think! would my filthy locks
and robe all torn into slavish rags
do public honour to Agamemnon's
daughter, the princess?
honour to Troy which will never forget
my conquering father?(16)

In her expanded complaint to Orestes, we see her pain as wounded vanity, combined with a noble regard for propriety. Her suffering is personal, and so is her need for revenge: "Tell him gladly how I would die in Mother's blood."(17) Electra's stubborn humanity is emphasised by her belief in Orestes' eventual glorious return, and consequent refusal to accept the eager evidence and convenient tokens of the Old Man.

... if you really think my brother, who is bright and bold,
would come to our land in hiding, frightened by Aegisthus.
Besides, how could a lock of his hair match with mine?
one from a man with rugged training in the ring
and games, one combed and girlish? It is not possible.(18)

Euripides' Electra does not hide her feelings about revenge, and she does not meekly give place to her brother on his return. Her first comment after Orestes' identification is to take responsibility for Clytemnestra's murder: "I will be the one to plan my mother's death."(19) This Electras has little faith in anything except herself, and she cannot wait complacently for Orestes' victory. She pessimistically prepares to commit suicide at the first hint of failure: "Even in defeat I shall not grant those I hate / the right to violate my living flesh."(20) Euripides repeatedly brings out the extremes of Electra's unbalanced mentality, as she refuses to believe the messenger's news, then demands the gory details of Aegisthus' death. Orestes understands her requirement personally to participate. He encourages her to avenge her suffering on Aegisthus' corpse, as she could not when he was alive and in power.

I have here in my hands the man himself, though dead.
You may want to display him for the beasts to eat
or as a toy for carrion birds born of bright air
or stick his head upon a stake.(21)

However, Electra's most calculated recrimination is reserved for her mother. She damns Clytemnestra for adultery, for Agamemnon's murder, and for mistreatment of her children: "Mother who bore me, how I wish your mind were healthy."(22) When Orestes falters in mid-murder, overcome by filial feelings, Electra's hand encourages the final blow. Her salvation is personal, for she has revenged herself. The immediate outpouring of remorse that follows the murder expresses her regret for the years of bitterness that made her capable of such an action.

Weep greatly for me, my brother, I am guilty.
A girl flaming in hurt I marched against the mother who bore me.(23)

STILL IN PROGRESS - sorry, haven't had time to finish typing this in yet... will get to it soon!


1. Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers [105].
2. Ibid [210-211].
3. Ibid [135-141].
4. Ibid [122].
5. Ibid [201-204].
6. Ibid [233-234].
7. Ibid [398-399].
8. Ibid [445-450].
9. Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles: An interpretation, 240.
10. Sophocles, Electra [164-172].
11. Ibid [257].
12. Ibid [136-137].
13. Ibid [1080-1081].
14. Ibid [1315-1321].
15. Euripides, Electra [43].
16. Ibid [175-189]
17. Ibid [281]
18. Ibid [525-529]
19. Ibid [647]
20. Ibid [697-698]
21. Ibid [895-898]
22. Ibid [1061]
23. Ibid [1182-1184]


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