The story of Orestes the avenger was complete in every essential particular before it came to the earliest of those three Attic dramatists, each of whom has stamped it so strongly with the impress of his own mind.

In the Iliad there is no hint that the house of Pelops lay

The legend in Homer.
under a curse which entailed a series of crimes. The sceptre made by Hephaestus for Zeus, and brought by Hermes to Pelops, is peacefully inherited by Atreus, Thyestes and Agamemnon1. Yet the Iliad makes at least one contribution to the material which Aeschylus found ready to his hand. It is the figure of Agamemnon himself, with eyes and head like those of Zeus, in girth like Ares, in breast like Poseidon2; ‘clad in flashing bronze, all glorious, and pre-eminent amid all3.’ As Helen stands with Priam on the walls of Troy, and watches the Achaean warriors moving on the battle-field, he asks who this one may be:—‘There are others even taller by a head; but never did I behold a man so comely or so majestic (“γεραρόν”); he is like unto one that is a king4.’ This is the royal Agamemnon, “ παντόσεμνος5, who lives in the Aeschylean drama, and whose image reappears in later poetry. For the rest, the Iliad gives us just one far-off glimpse of the king's home beyond the Aegaean, where Orestes is a child in the fortress-palace at Mycenae, with three sisters, Chrysothemis, Laodicè, and Iphianassa6; children of that Clytaemnestra to whom, in the opinion of her lord at Troy, the damsel Chryseïs was ‘in no wise inferior, in beauty or in stature, in wit or in skill7.’

The Odyssey tells the story as follows. Agamemnon, before going to Troy, charged a certain minstrel (“ἀοιδός”) to watch over8 Clytaemnestra at Mycenae. The precaution implies a sense of possible danger, but not necessarily distrust of Clytaemnestra. Presently a tempter came to the lonely wife in the person of her husband's first-cousin, Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, who, while his kinsmen were fighting at Troy, dwelt ‘at peace, in the heart of Argos9.’ For some time Clytaemnestra ‘refused the shameful deed; for she had a good understanding10.’ Meanwhile the gods themselves, by their messenger Hermes, warned Aegisthus against the course of crime upon which he was entering. But Hermes spoke in vain11. Aegisthus removed the minstrel to a desert island, and there left him, a prey to dogs and birds. He then took the ‘willing’ Clytaemnestra to his home; while he sought to propitiate the gods by burnt-offerings on their altars, and by hanging up in their temples ‘many gifts of embroidery and gold12.’

Agamemnon, after a stormy voyage from Troy, landed on the coast of Argolis at a point not far from the dwelling of Aegisthus; who, apprised by a watcher, came in his chariot, and invited the king to a banquet; after which he slew him, ‘as a man slays an ox at the manger13.’

In this narrative (given by Menelaüs to Telemachus) Clytaemnestra is not even named; though Menelaüs had previously spoken of her ‘guile’ as aiding the crime14. It is only in a part of the Odyssey which is of later origin than the ‘Telemachy’ in books I—IV,—viz., the “Νέκυια” in the eleventh book,—that Clytaemnestra appears as actively sharing in the horrors of the banquet, where she slays Cassandra with her own hand. And, even there, it is by the sword of Aegisthus alone that Agamemnon is slain15.

The young Orestes fled, or was conveyed, to Athens. For seven years Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra reigned at Mycenae. In the eighth, Orestes returned, and slew Aegisthus16. Clytaemnestra died at the same time, but how, we are not told; and Orestes ‘made a funeral feast,’ for both of them, ‘to the Argives17.’

Two points distinguish this Homeric legend from later versions. First, Aegisthus is the principal criminal18. Clytaemnestra's part is altogether subordinate to that of her paramour. Secondly, the vengeance of Orestes is regarded as a simple act of retributive justice. It is not said that he slew his mother; the conjecture is left open that she may have died by her own hand. Nothing comes into the Epic view which can throw a shadow upon the merit of the avenger. The goddess Athena herself exhorts Telemachus to emulate the example and the renown of Orestes19.

1 Il. 2. 100 ff.

2 ib. 478 f.

3 ib. 578 f.

4 Il. 3. 168 ff.

5 Aesch. Eum. 637.

6 Il. 9. 142 ff.

7 Il. 1. 113 ff.

8εἴρυσθαι ἄκοιτιν”, Od. 3. 268.Nothing could better illustrate the social consideration enjoyed by the Homeric “ἀοιδός”, or the reverence felt for his office. Athenaeus (p. 14 B) conceives this guardian minstrel of Clytaemnestra as a sort of cultivated domestic chaplain, whose function was not merely to keep her mind agreeably occupied, but also to edify her with examples of female excellence (“ἀρετὰς γυναικῶν διερχόμενος”).

9 Od. 3. 263.

10 ib. 265 f. δ᾽ τοι τὸ πρὶν μὲν ἀναίνετο ἔργον ἀεικές, δῖα Κλυταιμνήστρη: φρεσὶ γὰρ κέχρητ᾽ ἀγαθῇσι.

11 Od. 1. 35—43.

12 Od. 3. 269 ff.

13 Od. 4. 514—535.

14 Od. 4. 92(Aegisthus slays Agamemnon) “λάθρῃ, ἀνωιστί, δόλῳ οὐλομένης ἀλόχοιο”.

15 Od. 11. 404—434 (the shade of Agamemnon tells the story to Odysseus).

16 Od. 3. 304—308. Orestes returns “ἂψ ἀπ᾽ Ἀθηνάων” (v. 307). Zenodotus wished to reconcile the Odyssey with the later account by writing “ἂψ ἀπὸ Φωκήων”.

17 ib. 309 f. “ τοι τὸν κτείνας δαίνυ τάφον Ἀργείοισι” | “μητρός τε στυγερῆς καὶ ἀνάλκιδος Αἰγίσθοιο”. According to the scholia in several MSS. (M, Q, R, T) these two verses were absent from some of the ancient “ἐκδόσεις”. But Aristarchus, at any rate must have thought them genuine, since he remarked (as we learn from the same source) “ὅτι διὰ τούτων παρυποφαίνεται ὅτι συναπώλετο Αἰγίσθῳ Κλυταιμνήστρα, τὸ δὲ εἰ καὶ ὑπὸ Ὀρέστον, ἄδηλον εἶναι”. The fact that the funeral feast was given ‘to the Argives’ implies that they welcomed Orestes as a deliverer, and also that (whatever had been the manner of his mother's death) they did not regard him as resting under any defilement which incapacitated him for religious acts.

18 The conception of the murder (no less than the execution) is always attributed to him in the Odyssey (3. 194 “Αἴγισθος ἐμήσατο”: 4. 529 “Αἴγ. δολίην ἐφράσσατο τέχνην”: 11. 409 “Αἴγ. τεύξας θάνατόν τε μόρον τε”).

19 Od. 1. 298 ff. Cp. Nestor's comments on the good deed of Orestes, in his speech to Telemachus, Od. 3. 196 f. “ὡς ἀγαθὸν καὶ παῖδα καταφθιμένοιο λιπέσθαι” | “ἀνδρός, κ.τ.λ.

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