ORESTES

In Greek mythology, Orestes was the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and Argos and commander of the allied Greek forces in the Trojan War. According to Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, Orestes killed his mother’s lover, Aegisthus, who had murdered Agamemnon. Homer implies that Orestes killed Clytemnestra as well. Several Greek playwrights, including Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote versions of the story. These were most likely based on a work by the playwright Stesichorus titled Oresteia, which has been lost.

In each of the surviving plays, Orestes, following his father’s murder, is taken in by Strophius (the king of Phocis and Agamemnon’s brother-inlaw). Orestes is raised along with Strophius’s son, Pylades. A strong friendship develops between the two young men. Several years elapse, and the fully grown Orestes must decide what to do about his father’s murder. He consults the oracle* at Delphi and is instructed to avenge the murder. Accompanied by Pylades, Orestes returns home, where Aegisthus has reigned during his absence. He is met by his sister, Electra, whom Aegisthus has married to a peasant in order to degrade her. Electra agrees to support her brother and assists in the killing of Aegisthus and maybe even in that of their mother.

In the versions by Homer and Sophocles, Orestes’ actions are completely justified, even honorable, and they gain him great respect. Aeschylus and Euripides, on the other hand, report that Orestes was tormented by the Furies for his deeds. The Furies were spirits who punished wrongdoers. In these versions of the tale, Orestes is driven mad by the Furies until he agrees to stand trial at Athens for the killings. The vote of the Athenian jury is evenly split between guilt and innocence, but Orestes is finally acquitted when Athena casts the deciding vote in his favor. (See also Drama, Greek; Literature, Greek; Myths, Greek.)

* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made

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