AGAMEMNON’S LINE AND HOUSE
TROY had fallen. A tempest had overtaken the homeward bound Argive fleet and destroyed more than half of it. The survivors continued their journey on a calm sea and steered for their native lands. Agamemnon, whom Hera had protected from the dangers of the sea, made for the coast of the Peloponnesus. But when he was quite close to the steep promontory of Malea in Laconia, a fresh tempest rose with dark fury and drove all his ships back to the open sea. He groaned and, lifting his hands, begged the gods not to let him drown within sight of home after all the hardships he had suffered to obey the wishes of the immortals. He did not know that this new storm had been sent to him as a warning from Olympus, for it would have been better for him to live as a castaway in a distant country, among barbarians, than set foot in his own palace in Mycenae.
There was a curse on Agamemnon’s house. It went back to the days of his ancestor Tantalus, and new crimes had strengthened its intensity. The ruthless violence inherent in his line had lifted some of his forebears to power and magnificence and had hurled others to their destruction. And now Agamemnon was to be the victim of a plot conceived in his own palace. His great-grandfather Tantalus had served the gods, who had come to dine with him, a horrible dish—his own son Pelops, whom he had killed and cooked. Only a miracle had restored the boy. Pelops, who was otherwise guiltless, murdered Myrtilus, the son of Hermes, and so did his share toward keeping alive the curse hanging over his house. The story of Myrtilus was this: he was the charioteer of King Oenomaus, whose daughter Hippodamia Pelops had won by carrying off the victory in a chariot race with her father. Now this had been possible only because Pelops induced Myrtilus to remove the brazen bolts from his master’s chariot and replace them with fastenings of wax. This caused the chariot to fall apart, and so Pelops won the race and the king’s daughter. But when Myrtilus came for the reward which he had been promised, Pelops cast him into the sea because he did not want the witness of his trickery to be alive to testify against him. It was in vain that he tried to placate angry Hermes by building him a temple and heaping a high burial mound for Myrtilus. The god swore to take revenge on him and his descendants.
Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes, and they too increased the power of the curse. Atreus was king of Mycenae, while Thyestes ruled the southern part of Argolis. The elder brother had a ram with a fleece of gold which the younger coveted. He seduced Aerope, his brother’s wife, and she gave him the golden ram. When Atreus learned of his brother’s twofold crime, he did not stop to reflect. He followed his grandfather’s example; secretly he seized Tantalus and Pleisthenes, Thyestes’ two little sons, slaughtered them, and set the meat before his brother at a banquet he gave in his honor. The children’s blood he blended with wine and served the draught to their father. The sun-god, who was watching the gruesome feast, was so horrified that he guided his chariot backwards. Thyestes fled from his inhuman brother and took refuge in Epirus with King Thesprotus. The land governed by Atreus was visited with drought and famine. When the king questioned an oracle, he received the reply that his country would not prosper until the brother whom he had driven away was recalled.
Atreus himself set out to search for Thyestes and brought him and his son Aegisthus back to their old home. Aegisthus had been born in Epirus, and his father had begotten him by committing a crime. Now he swore to avenge his brothers on Atreus and his children. The first part of his vengeance he accomplished soon after Atreus and Thyestes returned to Mycenae. Their friendship was of brief duration. Atreus had Thyestes thrown into prison. Then Aegisthus went to his uncle, pretended indignation at the horrors attending his birth, and offered to murder his own father. In this way he gained admittance to the dungeon, and there he and his father made a plan. Aegisthus showed Atreus a bloody sword, and when he rejoiced over his brother’s death and made a thank offering at the shore, his nephew thrust that very blade into his body. Thyestes left his prison and seized his brother’s realm, but not for long. Agamemnon, the eldest son of Atreus, slew his uncle to avenge his father. Aegisthus was spared. The gods preserved him to carry on the curse, and he ruled his father’s kingdom in the south of Argolis.
When Agamemnon had left for Troy and his wife Clytaemnestra was at home in her palace, nursing her grief and rage at the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia, Aegisthus felt the time had come to avenge his father on the son of Atreus. He suddenly appeared in Mycenae, and Clytaemnestra’s hatred for her husband and her wish to wrong him were so great that she finally yielded to the importunities of Aegisthus, lived with him as her husband, and shared the realm with him. At that time three of Agamemnon’s children were living in the palace: Electra, nearest in age to Iphigenia, Chrysothemis, her younger sister, and Orestes, who was still a little boy. Before their very eyes, Aegisthus usurped their father’s place, both in their mother’s affections and in the country at large. As the battle for Troy approached its end, the guilty couple trembled at the thought of Agamemnon’s return and the punishment he and his warriors would mete out to them. Years ago they had stationed special watchmen on the palace ramparts, who were to report the instant a signal, given by beacon fires flashed from coast to coast, announced the fall of Troy and the king’s return. They planned to make festive preparations for Agamemnon’s reception and to lure him into a trap before he had time to discover what went on in his palace and kingdom.
At last a golden flame shot through the night. A watchman hurried down from the ramparts and reported it to his queen. Impatiently Clytaemnestra and her lover waited for the dawn. Shortly after sunrise a herald, dispatched by Agamemnon, ran toward the palace, his temples wreathed with olive sprays. The queen met him with hypocritical joy, but saw to it that he did not mingle with others. She interrupted the long flow of his speech, saying: “Do not trouble to relate the whole story. I shall hear everything from the lips of the king, my husband. Go, tell him to hasten. Tell him how overjoyed I am, how all Mycenae rejoices. I shall go to meet him myself and welcome not only my beloved and honored husband, but the splendid conqueror of a world-famous city, with the solemnity and splendor due to a hero.”
When the storm threw Agamemnon back from the promontory of Malea, the wind drove his ships to the southern coast of the land where his uncle Thyestes had once ruled and Aegisthus now held sway. He cast anchor in a safe harbor and waited for a favorable wind. The spies he had sent ahead brought back the news that Aegisthus, the king of this country, had been living in Clytaemnestra’s palace ever since her return from Aulis, and that he had been ruling Mycenae in Agamemnon’s name for a number of years. Agamemnon was glad to hear of this and suspected no evil. He thanked the gods that the ancient spirit of vengeance had vanished from his house. He himself had shed so much blood at Troy that his thirst for blood vengeance had abated, and he did not dream of punishing his father’s murderer, who, after all, had taken only a just revenge. He was, moreover, guileless enough to think that during this long interim his wife had given up her grudge against him. And so, when a fair wind rose, he weighed anchor with a light heart and sailed for his home harbor.
As soon as he had made a thank offering to the gods for having brought him safely home, he and his men followed the herald whom the queen had sent to meet him. Before the gates of Mycenae, he was met by all his people, headed by his cousin Aegisthus whom the country regarded as the king’s deputy. Then came Clytaemnestra, accompanied by her tirewomen and her children, carefully guarded. As is usual when happiness is not genuine but pretended, she received her husband with exaggerated reverence and with all possible demonstrations of delight. Instead of clasping her arms about him, she threw herself on her knees and poured out a flood of praise and congratulations. But Agamemnon lifted her to her feet with simple happiness, took her to his heart, and said: “What are you doing, daughter of Leda! You must not receive me lying in the dust, as a slave receives her barbarian lord! And why these embroidered tapestries spread beneath my feet? This is a welcome for gods, not for mortal men. Give me only such honors as the immortals may not envy!”
When he had greeted his wife and embraced his children, he turned to Aegisthus who stood a little to one side with the elders of the city. He gave him his hand in brotherly fashion and thanked him for having governed his city so carefully during his absence. Then he unbound the thongs of his sandals and walked over the costly tapestries on his bare feet until he reached the palace. In his retinue was Cassandra, the prophetic daughter of Priam, whom Agamemnon had freed from the rough hands of Ajax of Locris and brought home as part of his spoils. With bowed head, her eyes cast down, she sat on a high wagon laden with other booty. When Clytaemnestra saw her, the nobility of her appearance filled her with envy, but even more with terror, for she had heard the name of the captive and learned that the soothsaying priestess of Pallas was to live in her palace which she had desecrated by her faithlessness toward Agamemnon. She realized more than ever that it would be most dangerous to put off the execution of her plot and instantly resolved to murder the alien captive at the same time as her husband. But she carefully concealed her thoughts, and when the procession reached the palace of Mycenae, she went up to the wagon and spoke kindly to Cassandra: “Come, give up your sadness! Even Heracles, the indomitable son of Alcmene, was once forced into servitude and bent his head under the yoke of an alien mistress. Since Fate has decreed exile for you, be happy that you have come to those who have been rich and prosperous for generations. For he who has got his wealth suddenly and recently is apt to be harsh and overbearing to his servants. Be at ease! You shall have fair treatment from us, and all that is your due!”
Cassandra’s face did not change at these words. For a long time she sat motionless, and her handmaids had to urge her to dismount. Then she leaped from her place like a frightened doe. Her spirit divined all that was to happen. She was certain that nothing could be altered. And even had she been able to change the decree of Fate, she would not have wanted to save the foe of her people from the goddess of vengeance. But because he had saved her, she was not unwilling to die with Agamemnon.
The king was completely deceived by the preparations for the sumptuous banquet which Clytaemnestra had ordered for his homecoming. Her original intention had been to have him slaughtered at this feast, slaughtered like a bull at the manger by the hirelings of Aegisthus. But the arrival of the seeress moved the queen and Aegisthus to act more quickly and without taking anyone into their confidence.
Agamemnon was weary and dusty from his journey and called for a warm bath. Clytaemnestra told him she had given orders to have it ready for him. Unsuspectingly the king entered the chamber where the bath was prepared, laid aside his weapons, took off his armor and clothing, and stepped into the tub. The moment they saw him unarmed and at their mercy, Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus rushed out of hiding, threw a close-meshed net over his head, and drove their daggers into his body again and again. Since the baths were in subterranean chambers, his cries for help were not heard in the palace above. Soon afterward Cassandra, wandering alone through the dark halls, divined the murder and announced it in strange words with hidden meanings. She too was done to death.
When Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra had accomplished their twofold crime, they decided not to conceal it, for they trusted to the loyalty of their followers. The two corpses were displayed in the palace. Clytaemnestra summoned the city elders and addressed them without reserve. “Do not bear me a grudge for deceiving you up to now, my friends,” she said. “I had to do this to my deadly enemy, to the murderer of my darling child. Yes, it is true: I lured him into the net; I caught him like a fish. Three times I pierced him with my dagger in the name of Pluto, lord of the underworld. I have avenged my daughter’s death with my own hand. I have slain Agamemnon, my husband. I do not deny it. Did he not slaughter his child as if she were a sacrificial animal? Was it not my anguish, was it not a mother’s sorrow which calmed the Thracian winds for the Argive fleet? Did so ruthless a man deserve to live and rule his devout people? Is it not more just that you be governed by one whose conscience is not weighed by child murder, by Aegisthus, who by killing Atreus and his son did no more than take revenge on his father’s foes? It is only right that I should become his wife and share the palace and the throne with him who helped me dispense justice. He is the shield for my courage. As long as he and his men protect me, no one will dare take me to account for what I have done. As for that slave—” and here she pointed to Cassandra’s body, “she was the mistress of your faithless king. She had to be killed because she was an adultress, and her corpse shall be thrown to the dogs!”
The elders said nothing. To fight was out of the question. The palace was surrounded by Aegisthus’ men. The ominous clash of weapons and threatening cries broke the stillness. Agamemnon’s warriors, greatly reduced in numbers by the war of Troy, had put off their armor and scattered through the city. Now the insolent followers of Aegisthus strode through Mycenae and felled every man who dared breathe a word against the murderers of his lord.
Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus immediately did all they could to strengthen their position as rulers. They distributed important posts and military commands among their most faithful friends. They did not trouble about Agamemnon’s daughters, for they regarded them as harmless women. Later—too late—they remembered that Orestes, Agamemnon’s young son, might grow up to be his father’s avenger. Although he was not yet twelve years old, they would have liked to kill him, in order to free themselves from all fear of punishment. But his clever sister Electra had thought more quickly than the murderers. Immediately after her father’s death, she had entrusted the boy to a slave who had secretly taken him to Phanote in Phocis. Here he was received by King Strophius who had been a friend of Agamemnon’s, and brought up with Pylades, the young prince, as if he were his brother.
AGAMEMNON IS AVENGED
Electra in the meantime spent mournful days in the palace of her murdered father. She lived in the hope that when her brother had grown to manhood he would return and avenge his father. Her own mother was bitterly hostile to her. The girl had to share the palace with her father’s murderers and submit to their wishes. It was in their power to feed her or let her starve. She saw Aegisthus sit on Agamemnon’s throne, adorned in the dead king’s most magnificent robes, taken from his own storerooms. She saw him pouring libations to the gods of the house whose head he had slain. She was forced to witness the caresses her mother lavished on this usurper. Clytaemnestra passed over the horrors she had committed with a smile and ordered a splendid feast held on the anniversary of the day on which she had killed her husband. Besides this, she sacrificed many victims every month to the gods who had saved her from Agamemnon’s anger.
The girl ate out her heart in secret sorrow, for she was not even allowed to let her tears flow freely. “Why are you crying?” her mother would call to her. “Are you the only one who has lost a father? Is no one entitled to mourn except yourself? I wish your foolish griefs would be the death of you!” And when vague rumors that Orestes was alive and preparing to go against Mycenae reached her, she poured out her terror and sense of guilt on her unhappy daughter. “It would be your fault if he came!” she cried. “Did you not steal him from under my very hands? But you will not live to rejoice in the fruit of your plots! The punishment you so richly deserve will overtake you sooner than you think!” Whenever such scenes occurred, Aegisthus aided and abetted his queen, and Electra fled from them and tried to hide in the remotest chamber of the palace.
Years had passed, and still she waited for Orestes to come, for even though he had been so young when she sent him away, he had promised his sister to return as soon as he was strong enough to bear weapons. But that was long ago, and now hope was slowly dying in Electra’s heart.
Her younger sister Chrysothemis did not have her staunch, brave spirit. She could not further her plans or ease her sorrow, not because she was careless of Electra’s grief, but because she was too soft and tenderhearted. Chrysothemis obeyed her mother and constantly opposed Electra’s wishes. One day she came out of the palace carrying offerings for her dead father and utensils with which to perform sacrifice. Clytaemnestra had sent her, but when she crossed Electra’s path, her sister reproved her for her obedience and for her forgetfulness of Agamemnon. “Will you never learn to give up your useless grief?” Chrysothemis answered. “I too am hurt by what I see around me, and I give in only because I have to. But you—unless you stop lamenting, they will imprison you in a cave, far away, and you will never again see the light of day. I heard them talking about it. Remember this, and if misfortune overtakes you, do not blame me!”
“Let them do with me as they like,” said Electra coldly and proudly. “I shall be best off wherever I am farthest away from all of you. But for whom are those offerings intended, sister?”
“My mother told me to sacrifice them at the grave of our dead father.”
“For her murdered husband!” Electra cried in amazement. “Whatever put that into her head?”
“A dream,” Chrysothemis replied. “They say she saw our father in her sleep. With his hand he seized the scepter he once owned and which Aegisthus carries now. He planted the scepter in the earth, and out of it grew a tree with sturdy branches which soon cast their shade over all of Mycenae. This dream frightened her, and so today, while Aegisthus is not at home, she sent me to placate our father’s soul with these offerings.”
“Dear sister,” Electra said pleadingly, “do not let the gifts of this wicked woman touch our father’s grave! Scatter them to the winds, or bury them secretly in the sand where no smallest part can reach our father’s resting place. Do you think that the murdered man wants to receive a gift from his murderess? Throw all this away, and instead cut a few locks from your head and take my locks as well and bring these and my girdle—the only thing I possess—to our father. And when you reach his grave, throw yourself on the ground and beg him to come out of the depths of the earth to aid us against our foes and his; beg him to let the proud footsteps of his son soon sound in our ears, of Orestes, who will dispatch his murderers. Then we shall adorn his grave with rich offerings!” For the first time Chrysothemis was stirred by her sister’s words. She promised to do as she said and hastened away with the offerings her mother had given her.
She had not been gone long when Clytaemnestra came from the inner halls of the palace and began to jeer at her elder daughter as usual. “You seem quite gay today, Electra,” she said. “I suppose it is because Aegisthus, who keeps you within bounds, is away. You should be ashamed to appear in front of the door! This is not proper for a girl! But perhaps you are here to complain of me to the servants? Are you still accusing me of killing your father? I do not deny that I did this deed, but I was not unaided. The goddess of justice stood at my side, and if you had any sense, you would hasten to be her ally. Did not this father of yours, whom you weep for all the time, have the insolence to sacrifice your sister for his own advantage and the sake of Menelaus? Has such a father not forfeited all claim to reverence? If my dead daughter had the power of speech, I am sure she would say I am right. But whether you approve of me or not, foolish girl, is a matter of indifference to me.”
“Listen,” Electra replied. “You boast of having murdered my father. That is shameful enough! Whether or not the murder was justified has nothing to do with it. You did not kill him for the sake of justice! You were driven to it by the flattery, by the caresses of that man who now owns you. My father sacrificed his daughter for the Argive army, not for his personal welfare. He did it reluctantly. He did it under compulsion and only for the sake of the people of Greece. But even if he had done it for his brother and himself, is that any reason why he should die by the hand of his wife? Did you have to marry your accomplice and so let disgrace follow on the heels of crime? Or was that also included in the vengeance you think you owed your daughter?”
“Insolent girl!” screamed Clytaemnestra. “By Artemis, you shall repent your defiance as soon as Aegisthus returns! Will you stop annoying me and let me make my offerings in peace!”
Clytaemnestra turned from her daughter and went up to the altar of Apollo which stood in front of the palace, as before every Argive house, to protect the walls and the street. Her sacrifice was intended to propitiate the god of prophecy who had sent her the dream which had frightened her during the past night. And it seemed that the god wished to favor her. Hardly had she completed the rites when a stranger approached the tirewomen who had accompanied her and asked for the palace of Aegisthus. When they pointed the queen out to him, he bowed to her and said: “Hail, Clytaemnestra! I have come with welcome news for you and your husband and your friends. I am sent by King Strophius of Phanote. Orestes is dead. That is what I have been sent to tell you.”
“These words mean death to me,” moaned Electra and sank down on the steps.
“Repeat what you said!” cried Clytaemnestra, hastily leaving the altar. “Do not mind that foolish girl. Tell me everything. Tell me!”
“Your son Orestes,” said the stranger, “went to the sacred games at Delphi, for he was driven by the thirst for glory. When the herald announced the beginning of the foot races, he stepped forward, and he was so radiant that all marvelled at him. Before anyone even saw him start he had reached the goal, running like wind or lightning. He won, and the name of Argive Orestes, son of Agamemnon, conqueror of Troy, was proclaimed as the victor. This was on the first day of the games. But the strongest man cannot escape his fate if the gods choose to bewilder him. The next morning, when the chariot races were to begin at rise of sun, he was again among the contestants. They were an Achaean, a Spartan, and two men from Libya with great experience in the driving of horses. Orestes, with his four Thessalian horses, was the fifth. After him came an Aetolian with four bays. The seventh contestant in the races was from Magnesia, the eighth, with white horses, an Aenian. The ninth came from Athens, and the tenth from Boeotia. And now the judges shuffled the lots, the chariots were lined up in order, a trumpet gave the signal, and all ten stormed forward, shaking the reins and calling to their horses. The brazen chariots clanged, dust whirled from under the wheels, and no one spared the goad. Close behind every chariot were the snorting horses of the next. They had already started on the seventh round. Whenever Orestes circled the turning post he almost touched it with the axle, for he had taken the curve very close by drawing tight the rein of the left horse and leaving slack that of the right. Up to this point the chariots had all run smoothly, but now the hard-mouthed horses of the Aenian shied and ran against the chariot of one of the contestants from Libya. This one slip immediately caused the wildest confusion. Chariot crashed on chariot, and soon the field was covered with shattered cars. The Athenian was the only one wise enough to drive on the outer side of the course. He reined in his horses and left the clutter of chariots in the inner circle. Close behind him came Orestes. When he saw the tangle of men, beasts, and chariots, and realized that only the Athenian was left to compete with him, he beat his horses with the goad, and now, both standing erect, the bold pair set out to finish the race. The turning post around which they had to drive for the last time, was near. Orestes had made good progress on the long course. Overconfident in his luck, he gradually slackened the rein of the left horse too. This caused the animal to turn too soon. The axle barely grazed the post, but still the impact was so great that it broke. Orestes fell and was dragged along the ground. The moment he toppled from the chariot his horses ran over the sand in frantic flight. The spectators screamed with pity, for the Argive now trailed on the earth, now hurtled through the air. At last the other charioteers succeeded in stopping his horses and cutting him loose. But he was so disfigured and covered with blood that even his own friends would not have recognized the body. The Phocians quickly burned it on the pyre, and envoys from Phocis are on their way with an urn which contains his bones, so that these may be buried in his native earth.”
The messenger paused. Clytaemnestra was shaken with conflicting emotions. She wanted to rejoice wholeheartedly at the death of her son whose coming she had feared. But her mother’s grief tempered the feeling of relief which the message had given her. Electra, on the other hand, felt nothing but boundless sorrow. “Where shall I flee?” she cried, after Clytaemnestra had taken the stranger from Phocis into the palace. “Now I am utterly alone. Now I must go on and on serving the murderers of my father! But I cannot! I will not live under the same roof with them any longer. Rather will I leave the palace and perish miserably. And if anyone within begrudges me this slow death, let him come out and kill me at once! Life can mean nothing but grief to me. Death is more than welcome!”
Gradually she fell silent and gave herself up to dull despair. She must have been sitting on the marble steps of the palace for hours, her head bowed in her lap, when her younger sister Chrysothemis ran up to her and roused her from her brooding. “Orestes has come!” she cried. “He is just as much alive as you or I!”
Electra raised her head and stared at her sister with wide-open eyes. “Have you lost your wits, sister?” she asked. “Are you jeering at my sorrow and yours?”
“I can only report what I found,” said Chrysothemis between smiles and tears. “Listen, and I shall tell you how I discovered the truth. When I came to our father’s grave, overgrown with grass, I saw the traces of a fresh offering of milk and garlands of flowers. I looked around in terror and amazement, and when I had made sure that no one was there, I came closer. Then, at the edge of the mound, I saw a lock of hair, newly cut. And suddenly—I hardly know why—I thought of our brother Orestes, and I guessed that the lock must be his. I took it in my hand with tears of joy, and here it is! It must—I am sure it must have been cut from his head!”
Electra shook her own head doubtfully. All she had heard seemed too vague, too fantastic. “I am sorry for you because you are so credulous,” she said to her sister. “But then you do not know what I know.” And now she told her sister everything she had heard from the Phocian, and at every word Chrysothemis grew sadder and sadder, until she joined in her sister’s lament. “The lock,” said Electra, “is probably from the head of some friend who offered it up for dead Orestes at his father’s grave.” But in spite of her bitterness and unbelief, Electra had gained control of herself while she spoke to her sister, and now she proposed that since the last hope of vengeance by the hand of Orestes was gone, the two girls together should do the great deed and kill Aegisthus, the murderer. “Think well, Chrysothemis,” she said. “You cling to life and its joys. Do not imagine that Aegisthus will ever permit us to marry and bring forth children who could be future avengers of Agamemnon. But if you do as I say, you will prove your faithfulness to your father and brother, win glory, live in freedom, and be happy with a husband worthy of you and your line. For who would not be glad to court the daughter of so noble a house? And all the world will praise what we have done. At the feast and in the assembly we shall be honored for a deed brave enough for a man. Give me your help! Save me, save yourself from the joyless and humiliating life we are leading!”
But Chrysothemis regarded the plan her sister had unfolded with such passionate intensity as unwise, incautious, and unfeasible.
“What have you to rely on?” she asked. “Have you the strong arm of a man? Are you not a woman? Are you not opposed by powerful foes whose position grows more and more secure every day? It is true that our lot is hard, but if you are not careful it will become insufferable. We could, indeed, win glory, but it is far more likely that we should die a shameful death. And perhaps dying would not be the worst to befall us. There are more terrible things than death. Let me beg you, sister—do not destroy us! Curb your anger! I shall guard everything you have said and keep it secret.”
“I am not surprised to hear you say this,” Electra sighed. “I knew very well that you would reject my plan. Then I must do it alone, do it unaided. And perhaps it is better so!” Chrysothemis put her arms around her and wept. But her elder sister did not relent. “Go,” she said coldly. “Tell all you have heard to our mother.” And when her sister shook her head, she called after her: “Go, go! I shall never follow in your footsteps.”
She was still sitting motionless on the steps when two young men came toward her. They were carrying a small urn of bronze, and with them were other youths. The one with the noblest bearing turned to Electra and asked her where he might find Aegisthus. He told her that he was one of the envoys from Phocis. At that Electra sprang up and stretched out her hand for the urn. “By the gods, stranger,” she cried, “give me the urn, so that, in shedding my tears on the bones of Orestes, I can mourn my whole unhappy house.”
“Whoever she may be,” said the youth, looking at the girl attentively, “give her the urn. She cannot be a foe of the dead. She is his friend, or perhaps he was her kinsman.” Electra took the urn in both hands and pressed it to her heart again and again. And softly she moaned: “O remains of the dearest I had on earth! How great were the hopes with which I sent you away, and now you come back to me like this! I wish I had died rather than let you go to another land. Then you would have been slaughtered as your father before you, and would not have perished miserably in exile, burned on a pyre heaped by the hands of strangers. All my care of you, all my sweet pains have gone for nothing! Now that you have died, everything is dead for me, even I have died, since you are no longer alive. Our enemies exult. Our mother can give herself up entirely to her pleasures, for she has nothing more to fear. If only I could share this small urn with you!”
While the girl was uttering her bitter lament, the youth who was leading the envoys could no longer curb his tongue. “Can this be Electra?” he cried. “But how distorted by sorrow! Who has done this to her?”
Electra looked at him in surprise. “It is because I am forced to serve the murderers of my father,” she answered. “This urn means the death of my hopes.”
“Put it down!” said the youth, his voice choked with tears. And when Electra refused and only clutched it more tightly, he said: “Put it away. It is empty!”
Electra flung the urn down in despair. “Then where is his grave?” she asked pleadingly.
“Nowhere,” he answered. “The living need no grave.”
“He is alive—he lives?”
“He is alive—just as alive as you and I. I am Orestes, I am your brother. See, you can recognize me by the signet ring our father once gave me. Do you believe me now?”
“O light in the darkness!” cried Electra and threw herself into his arms.
Just then the messenger who had given Clytaemnestra the false news of her son’s death came out of the palace. He was the servant of young Orestes, the man to whom Electra herself had entrusted the child and who had accompanied him to Phocis. When he revealed himself to the girl, she greeted him and said joyfully:
“You have saved our line. What great service these faithful hands of yours have performed! But how was it possible that you were not discovered? How did you accomplish all this?”
The man did not take time to answer her impetuous questions. “The day will come,” he said, “when I can tell you at my leisure everything that happened. But now we must hurry. The hour for revenge has come. Clytaemnestra is still alone. She has no one to protect her, for Aegisthus has not yet returned. But if we hesitate even for a moment, we may have to fight the guards—more guards than we can cope with.” Orestes agreed, and with his faithful friend Pylades, son of King Strophius of Phocis, he rushed into the palace. His companions followed. Electra flung herself down at Apollo’s altar in supplication and then followed her brother.
A few minutes later Aegisthus returned. He entered the palace and immediately asked for the men from Phocis who had brought the happy news of Orestes’ death. The first to cross his path was Electra, and he put his question to her with contemptuous pride. “Well, speak!” he said. “Where are those strangers who have crushed your dearest hopes?”
Electra suppressed her true feelings and answered quietly: “They are inside. They have been taken to their dear hostess.”
“And have they really reported his death?” he continued.
“Yes,” said Electra. “Not only that, but they have brought the dead with them.”
“These are welcome words I hear from your lips,” he said jeeringly. “But look! There they come, bringing the dead!”
Joyfully he went to meet Orestes and his companions, who were carrying a shrouded corpse from the inner part of the palace into the court. “O happy sight!” cried the king, and fixed his eyes on their burden. “But hurry now and lift the covering. It is, after all, only proper that I mourn him who was my kinsman.”
Orestes replied: “Lift the covering yourself. It is fitting that you alone see and mourn what lies under this pall.”
“That is right,” said the king. “But first call Clytaemnestra, so that she too may see what she will rejoice to see.”
“Clytaemnestra is not far away,” said Orestes. And now the king raised the covering, but he recoiled with a cry of horror. For under it was not the corpse of Orestes, which he had hoped to see, but the bloodstained body of Clytaemnestra. “Into what trap have I stepped!” he cried in terror.
Orestes answered in a voice like thunder. “Did you not know that you have been talking to him you thought dead? Do you not see that Orestes, his father’s avenger, stands before you?”
“Let me explain,” gasped Aegisthus, sinking to the floor. But Electra implored her brother not to listen to him. Orestes forced Aegisthus to precede him back into the palace, and in the very same place where he had once murdered King Agamemnon, he himself now fell a victim to the sword stroke of the avenger.
ORESTES AND THE FURIES
In avenging Agamemnon by the slaying of Clytaemnestra and her lover, Orestes had done the will of the gods, for an oracle of Apollo had commanded him to do this deed. But his piety toward his father had made him the murderer of his mother. Hardly was she dead before filial love stirred in his heart, and the crime he had committed against nature made him the prey of the Erinyes or Furies, the goddesses of vengeance, whom the Greeks—to propitiate them—gave the name of Eumenides, which means “the Gracious Ones,” or “those we implore to be gracious toward us.” The Eumenides were the daughters of Night, and as dark as their mother. They were taller than any human being. Their eyes were bloodshot, their hair was a mass of writhing serpents. Holding a torch in one hand and a scourge plaited of snakes in the other, they pursued the murderer of his mother wherever he went and tormented him with the pangs of remorse.
Immediately after the deed, the Furies afflicted Orestes with madness. He left his sisters, Mycenae, and his native land in frantic flight. In a lucid moment he had betrothed his faithful friend Pylades to Electra, and now Pylades did not return to his father, Strophius, king of Phocis, but shared the wanderings of mad Orestes. He was the only mortal to stand by him in his wretchedness. But an immortal also came to his aid. Apollo, at whose command he had slain his mother, remained near him, now visible, now invisible, and fended off the raging Erinyes. The spirit of Orestes grew calmer whenever he felt the god at his side.
After long wanderings the fugitives came to Delphi, and Orestes took refuge in the temple of Apollo which the Furies were not permitted to enter. He threw himself on the floor, exhausted with weariness and terror, and the god looked at him full of compassion. Then he revived his hope and courage with the words: “Unhappy son, take comfort. I shall not betray you. Whether I am near or far, I shall guard you and never give you up to your enemies. At this very moment I have poured leaden sleep on the lids of those terrible old goddesses who rise from the depths of Tartarus and are abhorred by immortals, mortals, and even animals. For the present they are tamed and dare not approach my temple. But do not depend too much on their slumber! It will not last long, for Fate permits me only brief ascendency over these ancient deities. You must soon resume your flight, but you shall, at least, not wander without a goal. You shall go to Athens, to the stately city of my sister, Pallas Athene. There I shall see to it that you come before a just court, where you can speak and defend your cause. Do not be afraid. Though I myself must leave you now, my brother Hermes will guard you and protect you from all harm.”
So said Apollo. But before he left his temple and Orestes, the shade of Clytaemnestra had appeared to the sleeping Furies in a dream and whispered to them angrily: “Why are you asleep? Have you abandoned me so utterly that I must hover unavenged in the bleakness of Hades? My closest kin have wronged me, and no god cares that I was slain by my own son! I have poured you many libations, and you drained them all. How many offerings have I brought you by night! And now you forget all this and let your prey escape like a deer which slips from the snare! Hear me, gods of the underworld! It is I, Clytaemnestra, whom you swore to avenge, and who now troubles your dream to remind you of your oath.”
But the sinister goddesses could not shake off the magic sleep which held them spellbound. Not until they heard the words: “Orestes, the murderer of his mother, is escaping you!” did one of them rouse herself and wake the others. Like wild beasts they leaped from their lair, stormed boldly to the temple of Apollo, and set foot on the threshold of the sanctuary. “Son of Zeus,” they shouted at him, “you are a cheat! You, the younger god, tread underfoot the older goddesses, the daughters of Night, and dare withhold from our wrath this scorner of the law, this slayer of his mother! You have stolen him from us! Is it right for a god to do that?”
But Apollo drove the black Furies out of his sunlit temple. “Away with you, terrible sisters!” he cried. “Your place is in the lion’s den where beasts lap blood, you, the hounds of the Fates, not here on the site of my pure and sacred oracle.” In vain the Furies reminded him of their office, of their rights. Apollo declared that Orestes was under his protection because he had avenged Agamemnon at his and Zeus’ command. At last the Eumenides quailed before his power, backed away from the threshold, and fled.
Then Phoebus entrusted Orestes and his friend to Hermes, the protector of travellers, and returned to Olympus. The friends took the road to Athens, as Apollo had bidden them, and the Furies, fearing the golden rod of Hermes, followed only at a safe distance. But gradually they grew bolder. When the two arrived in the city of Pallas Athene, the Eumenides came close on their heels, and hardly had Orestes and Pylades entered Athene’s temple before the dark sisters rushed after them through the open gates.
Orestes had thrown himself on the ground before the image of the goddess, flung wide his arms, and prayed in wild despair: “Athene, I have come to you at Apollo’s command. Receive me mercifully, for my hands are not stained with innocent blood. I am weary of wandering and begging at the doors of strangers. Obedient to your brother’s oracle I have fled through towns and open country, and now I lie at your feet and await your judgment.”
But the Furies, who stood close behind him, raised their voices in solemn chorus. “We are on your trail, murderer!” they cried. “We have tracked your steps, dripping with blood, as the hound tracks the wounded stag. You shall find no asylum and no rest. We shall suck the red blood from your body, and when nothing is left but a living shadow, we shall take you down to Tartarus with us. Then neither Apollo nor Athene shall free you from unending torture. You are our quarry, a victim for our altar. Come, sisters, let us dance around him, and with our songs cloud his spirit with madness!”
They were just about to begin their awful chant, when a light from above flooded the temple. The image of Pallas Athene had vanished, and in its place stood the goddess herself. Her stern blue eyes gazed on those before her, and she opened her lips to speak.
“Who is disturbing the peace of my sanctuary?” she asked. “What visitors do I see here? A stranger is clasping my altar, and women who do not look like mortals throng behind him with menacing eyes. Tell me who you are and what you want!”
Orestes was speechless with fear. He trembled and could not rise. But the Erinyes did not hesitate to reply. “Daughter of Zeus,” they said, “we shall tell you everything just as it is. We are the daughters of Night and are called Erinyes.”
“I know you,” said Athene. “Word of you has come to me often. You are the avengers of perjury and of the murder of kinsman by kinsman. But what can have brought you to my temple?”
“This man, who lies at your feet and soils your altar with his presence!” they answered. “He has slain his own mother. Judge him! We shall honor your verdict, for we know that you are stern and just.”
“If I am to make judgment,” said Pallas Athene, “I must first hear what the stranger has to say. How can you defend yourself against the accusation of these goddesses? What is your country, your line? What has befallen you? You shall cleanse yourself of the crime you have been accused of. I permit this because you are lying before my altar and clasping it as a suppliant. But now answer me and be unafraid.”
At last Orestes ventured to raise his eyes. He half rose, so that he was still on his knees, and said: “Athene! You need not fear for your temple. I have not committed a murder which cannot be atoned for. I am not clasping your altar with hands that desecrate. I was born in Argos. You must have known my father. He was Agamemnon, the ruler of many peoples, the man who guided the Argive fleet to Troy and whom you helped destroy the citadel of proud Ilium. When he returned from his conquest, he did not die a natural death. My mother and her lover tangled him in a net and slew him in his bath. For a long time I lived in a foreign land, but when I returned, I avenged my father. I do not deny it. I avenged the murder of my beloved father by slaying my mother. And it was your own brother Apollo who urged me to do this deed. His oracle threatened me with unending anguish if I did not punish my father’s murderers. Now judge, O goddess, whether I have done right or wrong. I shall bow to your verdict.”
The goddess was silent and thoughtful. Finally she said: “The matter which I am to judge is so strange and involved that no law-court on earth would know what to do about it. Although I am going to choose mortal judges, it is right that you have turned to an immortal for help. For I shall summon the judges to my temple and preside over the court. If the judges find they cannot arrive at a verdict, I myself shall decide the issue. In the meantime this stranger shall live in my city unmolested. But you, you implacable goddesses, shall not taint these precincts any longer. Return to Tartarus and do not come back to this temple until the day of the trial. Both parties shall collect evidence and summon witnesses, while I call on the wisest and best men in my city to solve this difficult problem.”
When the goddess had set a day for the trial, Orestes and Pylades, as well as the Furies, were dismissed. The Eumenides obeyed Athene without demurring. They left the city and returned to the underworld. Orestes and his friend were hospitably received in Athens.
When the day of the trial dawned, a herald called those citizens whom Athene had chosen to a hill opposite the acropolis. This hill was sacred to Ares, and for this reason it was called Areopagus, or Ares-hill. The goddess was already there, and both the accusers and the accused had arrived. But a stranger had also appeared and taken his place beside the accused. When the Erinyes saw him, they cried out in alarm: “Phoebus Apollo, do not interfere with our concerns! What are you doing here?”
“This man is under my protection,” replied the god. “He came to Delphi to seek refuge in my temple. I have purified him of the blood he spilled, and so it is only right that I should help him. I have come to testify for him, and also to defend him before the court which my sister Athene has summoned. For it was I who counselled him to murder his mother and told him that in the eyes of the gods this would be a devout act and pleasing to them.”
As he spoke, the god came closer to Orestes. And now Athene opened the court and asked the Erinyes to state their accusation. “We shall be brief,” said the eldest of them, who had been chosen to speak for them all. “You, whom we accuse, answer us. First, did you or did you not murder your mother?”
“I do not deny it,” said Orestes, who had paled at the question.
“And how did you commit the crime?”
“I pierced her throat with my sword.”
“At whose advice or instigation did you do this?”
“At his who stands beside me,” said Orestes. “Apollo gave me his commands through an oracle, and he is here to confirm my words.” Orestes then went on to explain that in killing Clytaemnestra he had not thought of her as his mother, but only as the murderess of his father. Apollo seconded him in a long and eloquent speech. The Furies countered his words. The god first painted the murder of Agamemnon in dark colors, but they argued that Clytaemnestra had not killed a kinsman but only her husband, while Orestes had murdered his mother. Then the eldest said: “Now we have launched all the arrows we had in our quiver, and we shall await the verdict of the judges in silence.”
Athene had the stones for voting distributed among the judges. Each was given a black stone to indicate guilt, and a white one for innocence. The urn which was to hold the stones was set up in the middle of the fenced-off space. And now Athene rose from the raised seat she occupied as the head of the court and addressed the judges before they cast their votes. Standing erect in all her divine majesty she said: “Citizens of Athens, listen to what the founder of your city has to say to you on this first occasion you have assembled to give judgment at a murder trial. This tribunal shall remain within your walls for all time to come. Here, on the sacred hill of Ares, where the Amazons once camped when they waged war on Theseus, where they brought sacrifice to the god of war, here the Court of the Areopagus shall assemble and keep the citizens of Athens from doing wrong. I herewith establish this court, made up of the best men of this city. They shall be stern, just, and incorruptible. They shall not take bribes nor look to their profit, but protect the rights of everyone in the land. The citizens shall reverence its dignity and uphold it as a pillar of strength, such as no other people in Greece or elsewhere on earth can boast of. This is my will as to the future. And now, judges, remember that you have sworn to serve the law; put your votes into the urn, so that this issue may be decided.”
Silently the judges rose from their seats. One after another approached the urn and dropped into it a stone. When all had voted, chosen citizens, who were also under oath, counted the stones. And then it appeared that there were just as many black as white, and that the goddess, who had reserved the right of decision for herself, would have to give the verdict. Again she rose and said: “I was not borne by a mother. I, a virgin, sprang from the head of Zeus, my father, and I protect the rights of father and son against those of the mother. And so I shall not take the part of the woman who slew her husband to please her wicked lover, but cast my vote for Orestes, who killed his mother because she murdered his father.” With that she left her place, took a white stone, and added it to the rest of the white stones. “This man,” she then said solemnly, “is herewith, by a majority of votes, pronounced ‘not guilty.’ ”
When she had given the verdict, Orestes turned to her. He was deeply moved. “O Pallas Athene,” he cried, “you have saved my line and given me back my native land. All Greece will exalt you for what you have done, and say: ‘Argive Orestes is again living in the palace of his fathers, rescued by the justice of Athene and Apollo and of the Thunderer, without whose will this could not have come about.’ And now, before I start for home, I swear to this country and this people that no Argive in all time to come shall ever make war on the devout Athenians! And if, after my death, one of my countrymen should break this oath, I myself shall rise from my tomb to punish him, send misfortune to dog his footsteps, and prevent him from carrying out his cursed plans against this city. Farewell, noble protector of justice, and people of Athens. May victory and welfare attend you in war and all else you undertake.”
Then Orestes left the sacred hill of Ares, and his friend Pylades, who had never left his side during the entire court proceedings, went with him. The Furies did not venture to oppose the verdict of Athene, and besides they feared the strength of Apollo, who was prepared to see that the judgment of the court was upheld. But the eldest, who spoke for the rest, rose from the plaintiff’s seat and confronted the god and the goddess. In a deep hoarse voice, she defiantly questioned the verdict. “Woe to us!” she cried. “Younger deities have trodden underfoot the age-old laws; they have wrested the power from our hands, from us who are the elder. We are scorned. We cannot vanquish them with all our anger. But you, Athenians, shall live to regret your judgment! On this ground, where justice has been scoffed at, we shall pour out the venom seething in our hearts. Blight shall attack your fields, destruction shall overtake all that is living. With famine and plague we shall haunt this land and this city, we the offended and derided goddesses of night.”
When Apollo heard this terrible curse, he intervened and tried to appease the mighty deities. “Be gracious,” he said to them. “For you were neither defeated nor dishonored. The number of black stones and white was the same. The judges did not override you. The accused, who was forced to choose between two sacred duties, and in choosing was bound to neglect one, has been saved through the will of Zeus who guarded him. So do not vent your anger on the innocent people of this land. For in their name I promise you a worthy sanctuary in this country. The citizens of Athens shall bring you offerings year after year and revere you as the implacable goddesses of just revenge.”
Athene confirmed his words. “Believe me, majestic goddesses,” she added. “If you make your home in another country you will regret it and long for the earth you have spurned. The citizens of Athens are ready to hold you in high honor. Choruses of men and women clad in crimson robes will sing your glory. Your sanctuary shall be in the sacred cave beside the temple of King Erechtheus, and every house that does not honor you will be unblessed.”
As they listened to these promises, the Furies gradually grew calmer. They consented to remain in that country and were pleased to think that they, as well as Athene and Apollo, were to have a sanctuary in the most famous of all cities. In the end they grew so gentle that they, on their part, solemnly swore to shield the city from wild weathers, from drought and plague, to guard the herds, to bless marriages, and, with the Fates, their half sisters, to work for the welfare of the entire region. They went so far as to wish everlasting peace and prosperity to the people. Then the dark sisters left the Areopagus and the city. Athene and Apollo gave them thanks, and all the citizens of Athens accompanied them with blazing torches and chants of praise.
IPHIGENIA IN THE LAND OF THE TAURI
After leaving Athens, Orestes and Pylades again went to the oracle of Apollo in Delphi. Orestes had indeed been acquitted, but he had not recovered from his madness and asked the god what he was now to do. The priestess said that the prince would be restored to health and happiness in Mycenae, but that first he was to sail to the peninsula of the Tauri, where Artemis, Apollo’s sister, had her temple. There he was to carry off the image of the goddess, which, according to a legend of the barbarian people of that region, had fallen from heaven and had been reverenced there ever since. When he had taken it by force or ruse, he was to bring it to Athens, for the goddess had grown tired of the savage people of that alien land, and longed for gentler worshippers. As soon as this was accomplished, his madness and exile would be at an end.
Pylades did not desert his friend but accompanied him on this dangerous quest. The Tauri were in the habit of sacrificing to Artemis all the shipwrecked or other strangers who came to their shores. In war, they cut off the heads of their captured enemies, fastened them to poles, and fixed these on the roofs of their houses, as guardians to keep watch over the land.
Now the reason the oracle was sending Orestes to this cruel tribe was this. In Aulis, when Agamemnon was about to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia at the advice of Calchas, the soothsayer, a hind had appeared at the altar just as the priest brandished the blade above the girl’s throat. Artemis had removed Iphigenia from the eyes of the Argives and carried her off across the sea, through shining clouds, to her own temple in the land of the Tauri. There Thoas, the king of this barbarian people, found her and made her the priestess of Artemis. Her service required her to see to the sacrifice of every stranger who set foot in that land, and these were, for the most part, her own countrymen! It is true that she had only to consecrate the victim. It was the task of others to drag it to the altar and do the slaughtering. Still, her lot was sad and hopeless.
The girl had been performing her distasteful office for many years. The king held her in high esteem, and the people reverenced her for her charm and gentleness. So she lived, far from her home, utterly unfamiliar with the destinies of her house. But one night she dreamed she had left the land of the Tauri and was home in Argos, sleeping surrounded by her handmaids. Suddenly the earth began to tremble and heave, and she saw herself fleeing from the palace, standing outside, while the roof shook and the colonnade swayed and crashed to the ground. Only one column of her father’s house remained upright. And all at once it seemed to her that it was turning into a man. The capital became a head ringed with blond locks, and the head spoke to her in her own language, but what it said the girl had forgotten when she awoke. All she knew was that in her dream she had obeyed the demands of her priestly office. She had sprinkled the man, who was a pillar of her father’s palace, with holy water to consecrate him for death, and while she did this, she wept. When she roused herself from her dream, her cheeks were wet with tears.
On the morning after this night, Orestes and his friend Pylades landed on the shore of the Tauri, and went toward the temple of Artemis. Soon they reached the structure the barbarians had put up to the goddess. It resembled a prison rather than the dwelling of a deity, and they looked at the high and solid wall in silent amazement. Orestes was the first to speak. “My faithful friend,” he said, “you have shared the dangers of this journey with me. But what shall we do now? Shall we climb the spiral stairs around the wall? I fear that, when we reach the top, this unknown building will seem like a labyrinth to us. Undoubtedly we shall find the doors to the rooms locked with iron bolts, and if our attempts to get in rouse the guards who must be placed all around the sanctuary, they will seize us and kill us. For we have heard that much Argive blood has already spattered the altar of this implacable goddess. Would it not be wiser to return to the ship which brought us here?”
“If we did that, it would be the very first time we have taken to flight,” answered Pylades. “Let us hold sacred the oracle of Apollo. But we must, indeed, leave this place. The best thing would be to hide in a grotto on the shore, far from our ship, so that no one, seeing it, will be able to tell the cruel ruler of this country anything about its crew. But when night falls, let us venture out. We know the position of the temple. Through some ruse or other we shall get in, and once we have the image in our hands, I am sure we shall be able to get back to the shore. Brave men court danger! We have come a long way. Would it not be shameful to turn back when we are so close to the goal, and go home without the prize the god has commanded us to seize?”
“We shall do as you say,” Orestes exclaimed. “Let us hide through the day, and may night bring us success!”
The sun was high in the heavens when a herdsman came running from the shore, straight toward the priestess of Artemis, standing on the threshold of her temple. He brought her the news that two youths, welcome victims for the goddess, had landed on that coast. “Prepare for the sacred rites, priestess,” he said. “The sooner the better!”
“Where do the strangers come from?” Iphigenia asked mournfully.
“They are Argives,” answered the herdsman. “That is all we know so far, except that one of them is called Pylades. They are our captives.”
“Tell me about it,” said the priestess. “How did it happen, and where did you capture them?”
“We were just bathing our cattle in the sea. One after another we drove into the swirling waters. There is a grotto there, wave-washed, where the fishers go to collect purple snails. Here one of us saw two young men. They seemed so radiant to him that he took them for gods and wanted to throw himself on the ground before them. But another who stood near, a pert, inquisitive fellow, was not so foolish. He laughed when he saw his companion bending his knees, and said: ‘Don’t you see that these are shipwrecked strangers who have hidden in the cave because they know of our custom of sacrificing all who reach these shores?’ Most of us agreed with him, and we prepared to seize the two men. Just then, one of the strangers came out of the grotto, shook his head wildly, and flung out his arms. He groaned aloud in the throes of madness and cried: ‘Pylades, Pylades, look over there! See the dark huntress, the dragon from Hades, who wants to murder me! She is coming at me, and her head is ringed with hissing snakes. And there—another—she is breathing fire! She is carrying my own mother in her arms, and now she is threatening to hurl a rock at me! Help! She is killing me!’ But we could see nothing of all the horrors he raved about,” the herdsman continued. “He must have taken the bellowing of our cattle and the barking of the dogs for the voices of the Furies. And now we were alarmed, because the stranger drew his sword, rushed at our cows, and slashed right and left until the sea was red with their blood. At last we managed to gather our wits, blew into our conch shells to summon the peasants, and advanced on the armed stranger in a solid mass. His madness was slowly leaving him, and he fell on the ground, foaming at the mouth. We threw stones at him while his companion wiped the froth from his lips and put his own mantle around him. In another instant the youth seemed to be fully conscious of what was happening. He jumped up and defended himself and his comrade. But there were so many of us that soon the two strangers had to give up. We surrounded them and made them drop their weapons, and finally they yielded in sheer weariness. Then we captured them and took them to Thoas, our king. He had barely glanced at them when he ordered us to take them to you. O priestess, pray for many more such splendid victims, for if you sacrifice these men of Argos, Greece will atone for all the pain you were forced to suffer, and you will be avenged for their attempt to kill you as an offering for Artemis at Aulis.”
The herdsman had ended and awaited the commands of the priestess. She told him to bring her the strangers, but when she was alone, she said to herself: “I have always felt pity for my countrymen and wept whenever Argives fell into my hands. But now that a dream has given me the certainty that Orestes, my beloved brother, no longer sees the light of day, now all Achaeans who approach this coast shall find me merciless. For the unhappy are always hostile to the happy. The Argives dragged me like a lamb to the altar where my own father was willing to see me slaughtered! Never shall I forget my terror! If Zeus drove Menelaus, who urged that I be sacrificed, and Helen, who caused the siege of Troy, to these shores, I should rejoice, and—”
But here she was interrupted by the approach of the captives. “Loosen their hands,” she commanded. “The consecration they are to receive demands that they be free of all bonds. And now go into the temple and make the necessary preparations.” Then she turned to the strangers and asked: “Who is your father, your mother, your sister, if you have a sister, who is to be robbed of such strong, fine brothers? Where have you come from? You must have a long journey behind you, but now you must prepare for one still longer, for you are going to the underworld.”
Orestes answered her: “Whoever you may be, do not speak to us in so compassionate a voice. It is not fitting for the executioner to comfort his victim before he strikes him dead. If death is inevitable, then lament is useless. No tears, either from you or from us! Let Fate take her course.”
“Which of you two is Pylades? Tell me that first of all,” said the priestess.
“This is he,” said Orestes, pointing to his friend.
“Are you brothers?”
“Through friendship, not by birth,” Orestes replied.
“And what is your name?”
“Call me an exile,” he answered. “Better I die nameless, for then no one can taunt me.”
The priestess was vexed by his defiance and pressed him at least to tell her what city he came from. When she heard the name of “Argos,” she trembled and exclaimed excitedly: “By Zeus, do you really come from there?”
“Yes,” said Orestes. “I come from Mycenae, where Fortune once favored my house.”
“If you come from Argos, stranger,” cried Iphigenia with growing suspense, “you must have news of Troy. Is it true that the city lies in ruins? Did Helen return to her husband?”
“It is as you say.”
“And how is the commander of all Argives—I think his name is Agamemnon, son of Atreus?”
Orestes shuddered at her question. He turned his head from her and said: “I do not wish to speak of him, O priestess.” But she begged him in such pleading words that he gave in to her. “He is dead,” he said in a low voice. “His own wife killed him.”
The priestess of Artemis uttered a cry of distress. But she collected herself and continued questioning the stranger. “And is that woman still living?”
“She is no longer alive,” was his reply. “Her own son killed her. He took on himself the burden of avenging his father, but he is suffering for it.”
“Is any other child of Agamemnon’s alive?”
“Two daughters, Electra and Chrysothemis.”
“And what is known of his eldest daughter, of the one who was sacrificed?”
“That a hind died in her stead. She herself vanished. She must be dead long since.”
“And is the son of murdered Agamemnon still alive?” the girl asked hesitatingly.
“Yes,” said Orestes. “He is an exile, and wanders without rest through all of Greece.”
“Away with you, beguiling dream!” Iphigenia said to herself. Then she bade the servants withdraw, and when she was alone with the two youths, turned to Orestes and said in a low voice: “Listen to what will be of profit to you and me. I shall save your life if you agree to take to Mycenae, which is both your home and mine, a letter I shall write to my people.”
“I do not care to save myself unless my friend is also saved,” said Orestes. “He did not leave me in my misery, and I shall never leave him!”
“How noble and brotherly a friend!” Iphigenia exclaimed.
“If only my brother were like you! For you must know that I too have a brother, only that he is very far away. But I have not the power to save both of you. The king would never permit it. So let your friend Pylades return to Greece in your stead.”
“Who will sacrifice me to Artemis?” asked Orestes.
“I myself. Such is the command of the goddess,” Iphigenia replied.
“Will you, a frail girl, slay men?”
“No. My office is to sprinkle your hair with sacred water. The temple servants take care of the rest. Your body will be burned in a rocky gorge.”
“Oh, that my sister could bury my bones!” sighed Orestes.
“That cannot be, since she lives in far away Argos,” answered the girl, much moved. “But I myself shall quench the glowing ashes of your pyre and pour on it offerings of oil and honey. I shall adorn your grave as though I were, indeed, your sister.” With that she left them to write the letter.
When the two friends were alone—for the men who guarded them stood at some distance—Pylades could no longer restrain himself. “No!” he cried. “I cannot live if you die! Do not ask me to consent to so disgraceful a proposal. I shall follow you to death, just as I followed you across the sea. Phocis and Argos would brand me a coward. All the world would say that I betrayed and killed you to inherit your realm—and all the more so because I am to become your brother-in-law and courted Electra without asking a dowry. But aside from all this, I cannot live without you. If you die, I die!”
Orestes tried to dissuade him from his purpose, and they were still disputing when Iphigenia returned with the letter in her hand. First she made Pylades swear to deliver it and in return she gave her word to save him. Then she decided to tell him the contents, in case the letter were lost in the course of the journey, in an accident perhaps, and the bearer himself survive. “Tell Orestes, son of Agamemnon,” she said, “that Iphigenia was taken from the altar in Aulis by Artemis, that she is alive, and—”
“Where is she?” broke in Orestes. “Can the dead awaken?”
“She stands before you,” said the priestess, “but do not interrupt me.” Then she continued her message: “My dear brother shall take me home to Argos, away from these barbarians, from this altar where I am forced to murder strangers. If he does not do this, a curse shall rest on him and his house.”
The friends were speechless with amazement. At last Pylades took the letter, turned to his friend, and gave it to him with the words: “I shall immediately perform what I have sworn to carry out. Here, Orestes, take the letter your sister Iphigenia sends you!” Orestes let it fall to the ground and locked his sister in his arms. She pushed him from her, unable to believe the truth, until he told her incidents from the history of her house which only one of the family could know. Then she cried out joyously: “So you are here and mine, my only brother! How young you were when I left you in the arms of your nurse, how carefree and happy! Yes, as happy as we are now that we have found each other again!”
But Orestes’ brow had clouded. He had remembered the danger threatening him and his friend. “We are happy now,” he said. “But for how long? Are we not faced with death?”
And now Iphigenia too was seized with terror. “What can I do to save you?” she asked. “How can I send you back to Argos? How rescue you and your friend from falling as victims at the altar? Oh, that the gods would give me counsel! But quickly now—before Thoas becomes impatient at the delay in sacrificing you. Tell me, tell me everything that has happened at home.”
Orestes hastily told her the tale of horror, lightened by only one piece of good news, the betrothal of Electra to Pylades. While she listened, the girl cast about for some possibility of saving her brother. When he had ended she had found a way. “I have thought of a plan,” she said. “The madness which attacked you when you were taken captive on the shore shall serve me as a pretext. I shall tell the king what is entirely true: that you have come from Argos, where you murdered your mother; that you are unclean because you have not atoned, and are therefore not acceptable to the goddess; that you must first be purified in the sea to wash the blood of murder from your body. And I shall tell him that because you touched the image of the goddess with supplicating hands, it too is unclean and must be cleansed in the waves. Since I, the priestess, am the only one allowed to handle the image, I myself shall carry it down to the shore, and you shall both accompany me, for I shall say that Pylades is an accomplice in your crime. I must convince the king of all this with crafty words, for he is too shrewd to be deceived easily. And once we reach the shore and board your ship, you and your men must do the rest.”
They had been talking in the court of the temple, far from the servants and guards. Now the captives were again handed over to the attendants, and Iphigenia conducted them into the interior of the temple. Shortly afterwards, Thoas, the king of the Tauri, arrived with his retinue and asked for the priestess, for he could not understand why the bodies of the strangers were not already burning at the altar of the goddess. As he reached the doors of the temple, Iphigenia crossed the threshold with the image of Artemis in her arms. “What are you doing, daughter of Agamemnon?” the king exclaimed in surprise. “Why have you taken the image from its sacred pedestal? Why are you carrying it away?”
“A terrible thing has happened, O king,” said the priestess, her face drawn with emotion. “The victims who were captured near the shore are not pure. When they approached the goddess to clasp her in supplication, the image turned of itself and lowered its lids. For these two are guilty of an awful crime.” And now she told her tale which in all essentials was the truth, and asked the king’s permission to purify the image of the taint the strangers had put on it, and to cleanse the victims themselves, that they might be fit for sacrifice. To make her story seem more plausible, she had the strangers fettered again and their faces veiled from the rays of the sun, as it was customary to do with those who were unclean. She also begged the king to leave with her the slaves he had brought in his retinue, for greater security. He—so she said with shrewd forethought—was to send a messenger to the town, bidding the citizens remain within the walls until the purification was over, so that they might not be exposed to the contaminating presence of guilty men. The king himself was to stay in the temple during her absence and see to it that the entire building was filled with cleansing fumes, so that on her return she might find it ready for the sacred rites. The moment the strangers issued from the gates of the temple, the ruler was to hide his face in his robe, lest the mere sight of them should stain him. “And if I stay down at the shore for a long time, O king,” she said, “do not grow impatient. Remember that it is a very great and terrible crime which must be washed from the victims.”
The king consented to everything. He veiled his face when Orestes and Pylades were led out of the temple, and soon Iphigenia, together with the captives and some of the king’s slaves, was on her way to the sea. Thoas entered the temple and had it purified, as the priestess had demanded.
Several hours passed, and suddenly a messenger came running from the direction of the shore. He was panting. “Faithless women!” he gasped to himself, as he knocked at the closed gates. “Ho there, inside!” he cried. “Open! And tell the king that I am the bearer of bad news!”
The gates swung open, and Thoas himself stood on the threshold. “Who dares disturb the peace of these halls with such clamor?” he asked with a frown.
“Hear, O king, what I have to tell you,” the man replied. “The priestess of this temple, that Argive woman, has fled with the captives, and they have stolen the image of the revered patron goddess of our country! Her long tale of needed purification was nothing but lies!”
“What is this you say!” cried the king who could not believe his ears. “What evil spirit possessed this woman? Who are the men with whom she fled?”
“She has fled with her brother Orestes,” said the messenger. “With the very man whom she pretended to purify as a victim. Listen to the whole story, and then find a way to pursue the fugitives, for they have a long distance to go and are still within reach of your revenge! When we came to the shore, Iphigenia motioned us to halt, for we were not to stand too close to the sacred rites. She herself loosed the bonds of the strangers and bade them precede her. This in itself seemed suspicious to us, but we thought we had to obey the commands of your priestess, O king! And then it seemed that the rites of purification were really under way, for Iphigenia chanted magic spells and prayed in solemn tones and with curious words. We lay on the sand and waited. But all at once it occurred to us that the captives, who were no longer shackled, might have killed the unarmed priestess and escaped. So we jumped up and rounded the wall of rocks which had hidden Iphigenia and the victims from our sight. And then we saw an Argive ship with fifty rowers sitting at the oars! On the shore, not far from the stern, stood the strangers, no longer captive! Some of the crew weighed anchor, others coiled the ropes, and still others were letting down ladders for the two youths. We no longer hesitated. We saw through the whole web of lies and seized the woman who was still on the shore. But Orestes, loudly proclaiming his identity and purpose, defended his sister with Pylades. We could not succeed in dragging her off. Since neither we nor the strangers were armed, we fought with our fists. But in the end we were forced to retreat, for the men in the ship were launching arrows at us. At the same instant, a huge wave drove the ship still nearer the shore, and it was all but shattered. At that Orestes took the priestess in his arms—she still carrying the image—waded through the water, and quickly climbed the ladder into the ship. There he laid his sister with her sacred burden down on the deck. Pylades came close after, and when all were safely aboard, the crew broke into triumphant cries and began to row swiftly away. While the ship was crossing the bay, it glided gently through the water, but as soon as it reached the open sea, a gust of wind drove it back to the shore, in spite of the straining of the oarsmen. Then Agamemnon’s daughter rose and pleaded aloud: ‘O Artemis, daughter of Leto, you yourself, through the oracle of Apollo, your brother, demanded to return to Greece. Take me there with you, and forgive your priestess the bold deceit I practiced against the ruler of this country whom I was forced to obey for so many years. You too have a brother whom you love! Then be gracious to the mortal brother and sister who love each other!’ And when she had ended, all the crew at her command stopped rowing and sang the song of supplication which they call a paean. But the ship continued to drive toward the shore, and I hurried to tell you what had happened. If you send men to the coast at once, you will recapture them. For unless the angry sea grows quickly calm, the strangers cannot escape. Poseidon is angry. He remembers the destruction of Troy, his favorite city. He is the sworn enemy of all Argives and of the line of Atreus in particular. Unless I am very much mistaken, he will put Agamemnon’s children in your power this very day.”
Thoas had waited impatiently for the messenger to finish. The moment he had ended, the king commanded all his people to mount horses and ride to the coast. They were to take the ship as soon as the waves hurled it ashore, and with the help of offended Artemis capture the fugitives. They were to sink the ship with all the crew, but the two strangers and the priestess were to be thrown into the sea from a tall cliff, or impaled alive on a pole.
The cavalcade was already storming toward the shore when a dazzling apparition halted them. Against his will, the king reined in his horse. Pallas Athene, encircled with shining clouds, floated between heaven and earth in all her majesty and splendor and her voice sounded like thunder in the ears of the Tauri. “Where are you going, King Thoas?” she cried. “Where are you going in such breathless haste? Mark the words of a goddess. Stop your people in their hot pursuit, and let my wards leave your country unmolested. Apollo’s oracle proclaimed the will of Fate. It is the Fates who brought Orestes to these shores, so that he might be cured of his madness and take his sister back to her native land, and with her the image of Artemis who also wishes to dwell in my beloved city. For my sake, Poseidon will quiet the sea and carry the ship home. Orestes will build a new and splendid temple for the goddess in Athens, and Iphigenia will continue to be the priestess of Artemis. The daughter of Agamemnon shall die and be buried in her own country. And you, Thoas, king of the Tauri, shall not begrudge her this happiness. You shall give up your anger.”
King Thoas reverenced the gods devoutly. He threw himself on the ground before the vision and said: “O Pallas Athene, base is he who hears the will of the gods and does not obey, or even tries to resist. Your wards shall take the image of Artemis where they will and set it up in its new shrine. I lower my lance at the command of the gods.” Then he turned to his men. “Back to our city!” he ordered.
And what Athene had predicted came true. Tauric Artemis was lodged in a temple in Athens, and Iphigenia continued to be her priestess. In Mycenae, Orestes ascended the throne of his fathers. He married Hermione, the only daughter of Menelaus and Helen. She had been betrothed to Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, but Orestes slew him and was made king of Sparta. Even before that he had taken over the rule of Argos, so that he now had a greater realm than his father had ever ruled. Electra became the wife of Pylades and shared the throne of Phocis with him. Chrysothemis died unwed. Orestes himself grew very old, but in his ninetieth year the curse of the Tantalides struck once more: a serpent bit him in the heel, and he died of its venom.