The Tale of Orestes


Orestes was the son of the Mycenaean king Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra. His story is the final chapter in my collection of narratives depicting the sad lives of the descendants of Tantalus. I have chosen to begin my story of Orestes in the aftermath of the murder of his father Agamemnon.

If you would like to follow a detailed path through the events that so tragically loomed over the house of Tantalus, please read my pages dedicated to Tantalus , Pelops , Atreus and Thyestes , and Agamemnon and Menelaus .


The Murder of Agamemnon

ClytemnestraDuring the time that Agamemnon was away leading the Greek battle against the Trojans, his wife Clytemnestra became romantically involved with his young cousin Aegisthus.

You see, Clytemnestra never believed the eyewitness accounts regarding the sudden disappearance of her daughter Iphigenia and therefore held Agamemnon responsible for her death. Unable to forgive Agamemnon for the loss of their daughter, Clytemnestra swore an oath of vengeance against her wayfaring husband.

Together with her new lover, she meticulously planned for the day when Agamemnon would end his long absence and once again return to Mycenae. In order to stay abreast of the situation, the pair kept a watchman stationed atop of the road that led into the city. After a year's time had passed, the couple finally received word that Agamemnon and his entourage were making their way toward the palace gates.

Leaving his concubine Cassandra behind in his chariot, Agamemnon entered into the foyer where he was warmly greeted by Clytemnestra. He found that a magnificent feast had been laid out in pretense of the welcome celebration that was to take place in his honor.

Feigning concern for her husband's well being, Clytemnestra led Agamemnon off to soak in the warm bath that had been drawn for him. Unaware of his wife's true intentions, Agamemnon climbed into the tub and relaxed his tired body in the water.

What happened next depends entirely upon who is telling the story. According to Homer, Aegisthus, under the direction of Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon as he was resting in the bath.

However in later writings we are told that Clytemnestra successfully caused the death of her husband by first entangling his limbs within a piece of woven netting and then striking him down with an axe.


The Early Years of Orestes

 ElectraWith Agamemnon safely out of the picture, Aegisthus took his place upon the throne and established himself as the new ruler of Mycenae.

Fearing that the young Orestes would be doomed to suffer the same fate as their father, the princess Electra secretly delivered the youth into the care of their uncle Strophius, the king of Phocis.

At this point in the story I would like to take a minute to discuss a few of the discrepancies that are to be found regarding the members of Agamemnon's household.

Though it is most commonly written that Agamemnon fathered only Electra, Orestes and Iphigenia with his wife Clytemnestra, some accounts also include the princess Chrysothemis as an additional sibling.

Unlike her sister Electra, Chrysothemis chose to turn a blind eye to the murder of Agamemnon and therefore did not harbor any ill feelings against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus for their involvement in the crime.

Another paradox involves the age of Orestes at the time of Agamemnon's return home from Troy. According to some accounts he is described as a young adult, who for reasons unknown is away from the palace at the time of his father's murder.

For me personally, I tend to feel more comfortable with the presumption that Orestes had not yet reached his teenage years and was still present in the home at the time of Agamemnon's death.

With that being said, I think it is best that one reads as many variations to a particular myth as possible, as this will allow the reader to draw their own conclusions from a vast collection of varied viewpoints. Now back to our story.


Justice for Agamemnon

Delphic OracleOrestes remained in the home of his uncle Strophius for the next seven years, during which time he developed an especially close relationship with his cousin Pylades.

As he grew to manhood, Orestes dreamed of the day when he would be permitted to return to Mycenae and avenge the brutal death of Agamemnon. You see in ancient Greece it was customary for the eldest son to seek justice for any acts of villainy that were made against the father of his household.

However, because the principal offender in the crime happened to be his own mother, Orestes decided it would be best to seek the advice of the god Apollo before taking any action against her.

So it came to be that when Orestes turned twenty years of age, he together with Pylades traveled into the city of Delphi to seek guidance from the priestess of the oracle.

The message he received was short and to the point; it was imperative that he return back to his father's house and take the lives of both his mother and stepfather.

Because matricide was considered to be an unforgivable offense, Orestes was truly alarmed at the prospect of killing his mother. Nevertheless, after giving the matter a great deal of thought, the dutiful young son chose to ignore the imminent consequences and set out to seek justice for Agamemnon.

To hide their identities, Orestes and Pylades took on the guise of messengers before entering into the palace of Mycenae. With the help of Electra, who also harbored a deep hatred for Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the pair were promptly led into the heart of the fortress.

Death of ClytemnestraAs they stood before the mock king and queen, Orestes bowed his head and with great remorse sadly informed Clytemnestra that her first born son was dead.

Believing that she was finally free of any impending punishment, Clytemnestra breathed a sigh of relief and callously rejoiced at the news.

With that, Orestes swiftly pulled out his sword and after crying out the words "For my father" dispatched a set of fatal blows to both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

Once again I must tell you that there are differences in opinion as to whether or not Aegisthus and Clytemnestra were struck down together. According to Homer, Orestes killed Clytemnestra moments before leading Aegisthus to the place of Agamemnon's death.

Then in an act meant to symbolically illustrate the concept of "like deserves like," Orestes raised his sword and duly executed Aegisthus.


The Punishment of Orestes

Orestes and the FuriesThough the execution of Clytmenestra and Aegisthus were sanctioned by Apollo, in the eyes of the universe Orestes was considered guilty of the crime of matricide.

This was a very serious offense for which those deemed responsible were eternally condemned to suffer the wrath of the Furies.

Day after day Orestes wandered aimlessly as the Furies savagely plagued him with unrelenting waves of madness and torment. Desperate for some relief, Orestes returned to the temple at Delphi in hopes that Apollo could offer him a respite from his agony.

Though the god himself was powerless against the will of the Furies, he did put together a plan to help amend the situation. Apollo caused a brief sleep to fall upon the Furies as Hermes swiftly led Orestes into the city of Athens.

When the Furies awoke from their nap and found their subject missing, they followed the strong scent of Clytemnestra's blood which still lingered upon the hands of Orestes.

Finding himself to be once again surrounded by his tormentors, Orestes pulled a small statue of Athena close to his chest and loudly called out to the goddess for help.

I do not know why Athena chose to intervene on the part of Orestes. Maybe it was the tone of anguish in his voice, or it is quite possible that the goddess viewed the calculated actions of Clytemnestra far more devious than those of her son.

The Ghost of Clytemnestra of ClytemnestraWhatever the reason, Athena declared that Orestes was entitled to stand trial atop the Areopagus. The goddess then appointed eleven Athenians to join her in the jury box and with that Orestes took his seat before the court.

Athena went on to stipulate that when the trial was completed, if for any reason a unanimous decision could not be reached, Orestes would be considered completely absolved of all aspects of the crime.

Apollo spoke first, carefully presenting Orestes' case before the tribunal of judges.

During his summation he made certain to emphasize to Athena the level of importance a man's life held above that of a woman's. "Can you deny that if not for the preeminence of Zeus, you yourself could never have been born?" he posed to the goddess.

Clearly, Athena must have found some value in Apollo's analogy, for when it was time to cast her ballot she entered in a vote for acquittal.

The votes were then tallied up and the final outcome revealed. The two sides were tied, but because of Athena's prior declaration, Orestes was immediately exonerated.

However this decision did not sit well with the Furies, who would only agree to end a fragment of the young man's afflictions. Speaking on the part of Clytemnestra, the three insisted that it was only fair he continue to experience recurring bouts of delusion and lunacy.


Orestes in the Land of Tauris

Orestes and IphigeniaApollo, whose suggestions in my opinion had already caused Orestes more harm than good, stepped forward and once again offered his advice.

With the promise of regaining his sanity, the god instructed Orestes to travel to the land of Tauris, remove the wooden statue of Artemis from the temple and carry it back to Attica.

"Just be sure to use the utmost caution during your journey," Apollo charged, "For it is the custom of the Taurians to offer the lives of all strangers to the goddess."

Eager to end his suffering, Orestes agreed, and together with Pylades set out to retrieve the statue. In spite of the god's warnings, the two men approached the city and hastily passed through the massive gates.

Believing they had made it safely past the entranceway, the two quietly crept down the rocky pathway in search of the shrine of Artemis. But just as the sanctuary came into view, Orestes and Pylades were captured by the Taurians and brought before the priestess of the goddess.

As they were being prepared for sacrifice, Orestes realized that the woman standing before the altar was none other than his lost sister Iphigenia. It seems that in spite of Clytemnestra's fears, the maiden had been living amongst the Taurians ever since her mysterious disappearance from the Port of Aulis.

The two siblings recognized each other and after a tearful reunion, Iphigeneia promptly collected the wooden image and joined the two prisoners as they secretly made their way back to Orestes vessel.

When the news of the captive's escape reached King Thoas, he angrily ordered the townspeople of Tauris to aline themselves upon the shore and prevent the ship from sailing. But the goddess Athena once again spoke on the behalf of Orestes, warning Thoas that any attempt to prohibit the trio's departure would be met with dire consequences.

She then instructed the three to travel to the outskirts of Attica, where in the region known as Halai, they were to build a temple and dedicate it to the goddess Artemis Tauropolos.

Athena then commanded that the wooden image be placed inside of the newly constructed shrine, and a yearly festival be celebrated in remembrance of Orestes and the torments that he suffered.

When all of his duties were fulfilled, Orestes regained his sanity and once again returned home to Mycenae. Finding the city to be under the rule of his half-brother Aletes, Orestes assembled a large army of troops and attacked the palace.

After slaying Aletes, Orestes claimed the highly coveted throne of Mycenae for himself, allowing the kingship to once again lie within the house of Agamemnon.


The Final Years of Orestes

Electra Receiving the Ashes of OrestesAlong with Mycenae, Orestes went on to establish rulership over the cities of Argos, Messenia, and most of the region of Arcadia. As far as the details surrounding his personal life after his return from Tauris, I have once again found some inconsistencies among the texts.

It is commonly accepted that Orestes married Hermione, the daughter of Helen and Menelaus, though the timing of the event seems to change from author to author. The same can be said of his interaction with his half-sister Erigone. Some accounts state that after the death of Hermione, Orestes wed Erigone and with her produced a son named Penthilus.

In another version of the story, Orestes is said to have taken Erigone by force, thereby causing her to become pregnant against her will. It is said that she was so full of anguish after the assault that she went on to hang herself after the birth of the child.

Because he was the grandson of King Tyndareus, Orestes was chosen to inherit the throne of Sparta after the death of Menelaus. It seems that the people of Sparta much preferred his lineage to that of the two sons who were born to Menelaus by slave women.

Orestes is believed to have died after receiving a snake bite while in the city of Oresteum. He was replaced by his son Tisamenus, who was born to him during his marriage to Hermione.

Tisamenus was killed years later when Temenus and Cresphontes, two distant grandsons of Heracles invaded and conquered the city of Sparta. His death ended the Pelopid dynasty and vanquished the formidable curse that haunted them for generations.


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