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The scene described above, in which Talthybius once
Literary evidence.
more saves Orestes by foiling the armed Clytaemnestra, must have been taken from some familiar literary source. It was essential for a vase-painter's purpose that his version of a story should be popularly known. What, then, was this source? Certainly not Aeschylus. Vase A is assigned on grounds of style to an earlier date than 458 B.C., the year of the Aeschylean Oresteia1. But, even apart from this fact, it is evident that the scene has not been suggested by anything in the Choephori. Clytaemnestra there calls, indeed, for an axe, when she hears that Orestes has slain Aegisthus (v. 889):

δοίη τις ἀνδροκμῆτα πέλεκυν ὡς τάχος: εἰδῶμεν νικῶμεν νικώμεθα”.

But there is no time for her to obtain the weapon; at that moment Orestes confronts her. Her futile cry rather indicates that Aeschylus had in mind some earlier version which actually armed her with an axe at a similar crisis. And in Sophocles, too, we find that the axe is prominent. The murder of Agamemnon by the guilty pair is thus described (v. 99): “σχίζουσι κάρα φονίῳ πελέκει”. Still more significant is the passage in which Sophocles describes the axe itself as resenting the deed of which it was made the instrument (482 ff.):—

οὐ γάρ ποτ᾽ ἀμναστεῖ γ᾽ φύσας σ᾽ Ἑλλάνων ἄναξ, οὐδ᾽ παλαιὰ χαλκόπλακτος ἀμφάκης γένυς, νιν κατέπεφνεν αἰσχίσταις ἐν αἰκίαις”.

Some Roman sarcophagi2, on which the story of Orestes is treated, show three Erinyes sleeping at the tomb of Agamemnon. Among them lies the axe of Clytaemnestra,—a symbol, as with Sophocles, of the crime which calls for vengeance.

The Oresteia of Stesichorus was popular at Athens in the fifth century B.C. There is a striking proof of this. Aristophanes, in the Peace(775 ff.), has adopted some verses from the beginning of that Oresteia3, without naming Stesichorus. He could reckon on his playful allusion to so famous a poem being at once recognised by an Athenian audience. Between the Odyssey and Aeschylus, no other handling of the subject seems to have rivalled the work of Stesichorus in celebrity. In the epic Nostoi, where the deed of Orestes was only one of many episodes, it would be treated, one may suppose, on a relatively small scale.

Now it is known that Stesichorus made Clytaemnestra kill her husband by wounds on the head,—probably, therefore, with the axe, as Sophocles describes in the passages quoted above. This appears from the nature of the dream which terrified the Clytaemnestra of Stesichorus just before the retribution. A serpent approached her with gore upon its head, and then changed into Agamemnon:—

τᾷ δὲ δράκων ἐδόκησε μολεῖν κάρα βεβροτωμένος ἄκρον: ἐκ δ᾽ ἄρα τοῦ βασιλεὺς Πλεισθενίδας ἐφάνη4.

Such a dream would necessarily (according to Greek ideas) act upon her mind in the manner described by the Attic dramatists. In the Oresteia of Stesichorus, just as in the Choephori and in the Sophoclean Electra, the guilty and terrified woman must have sent propitiatory offerings to the grave of her murdered husband. But, like the dramatists again, the lyric poet would make her send them by the hands of some one else; even her hardihood could not dispense with an intermediary in this case. Whom did Stesichorus choose as her emissary? It is a notable fact that Electra, who is unknown to Homer,

First mention of Electra.
appears in the fifth century B.C. as a central personage of the story. And it seems that Aeschylus was not the first poet who had spoken of her. The earliest writer recorded as mentioning her is a lyric poet named Xanthus, who said that her original name was Laodicè, and that she was called Electra because she was so long unmarried (“ἄλεκτρος”); an etymology which points to a Dorian source (“Ἀλέκτρα”)5. Stesi
chorus, we are told, mentioned Xanthus as a lyric predecessor, and adapted much from him. The Oresteia is especially named as a work in which Stesichorus was thus indebted to Xanthus6. How far, and in what sense, that statement is true, cannot now be known; but it is at least certain that Xanthus remained wholly obscure, while Stesichorus was widely popular. The introduction of Electra may be one of the points in which the Stesichorean Oresteia was indebted to Xanthus: and the fact of her figuring in that poem would fully explain her later prominence. Let us suppose, then, that Stesichorus, like Aeschylus, sent Electra with Clytaemnestra's offerings to Agamemnon's tomb. Orestes, on his return, would hasten to make his offerings there—as is assumed by all the three Attic dramatists. At the tomb the brother and sister would meet and recognise each other, as they do in Aeschylus. We know that Stesichorus brought in the nurse, whom he called Laodameia7. Pindar makes a nurse save Orestes from the hands of Clytaemnestra, but he does not say that she carried him out of Argolis8. The Laodameia of Stesichorus may have done likewise—giving Orestes to the trusty Talthybius, who carried him forth, and in due time came back with him9. After the recognition of Orestes by Electra at the tomb, Stesichorus may have related the vengeance in the manner depicted on the Attic vases above mentioned. We know that Euripides was following Stesichorus in representing Orestes as defending himself against the Erinyes with the bow and arrows given by Apollo10. And the fact that the Stesichorean Orestes was pursued by the Erinyes shows that he slew Clytaemnestra as well as Aegisthus.

1 Robert, Bild und Lied, p. 160.

2 Robert, Bild und Lied, p. 177, n. 23. One of these sarcophagi, that in the Museo Pio-Clementino in the Vatican, is reproduced (from Visconti, Mus. Pio-Clem. v. 22) in Baumeister's Denkmäler, p. 1115. The three sleeping Erinyes, with the axe, occupy the left part of a relief of which the centre represents the slaying of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. Michaelis (Arch. Zeit. 1875, p. 107) was the first to point out that these Erinyes form a separate scene.

3 The scholiast on Ar. Pax 775 and 800 informs us that the quotations are from Stesichorus, and in 797 refers to the “Ὀρέστεια”. They are fragments 31—34 in Bergk.

4 Frag. 42 (ed. Bergk), preserved by De sera Numinis vindicta, c. 10. Robert (Bild u. Lied, p. 171) thinks that these two verses give only the first part of the dream as imagined by Stesichorus, and that the rest may be inferred from Aeschylus. When the serpent changed into Agamemnon, the offspring of his renewed union with Clytaemnestra was the serpent who, as she dreams in the Choephori, drew blood in sucking her breast. It has struck me that the missing link between the Stesichorean and the Aeschylean dream—viz., the renewed conjugal union—may be traced, as a reminiscence, in the language of Sophocles, where Chrysothemis describes her mother's vision (417 f.):— “λόγος τις αὐτήν ἐστιν εἰσιδεῖν πατρὸς” | “τοῦ σοῦ τε κἀμοῦ δευτέραν ὁμιλίαν” | “ἐλθόντος εἰς φῶς”.

5 Aelian Var. Hist. 4. 26 “Ξάνθος ποιητὴς τῶν μελῶν, ἐγένετο γὰρ οὖτος πρεσβύτερος Στησιχόρου τοῦ Ἱμεραίου, λέγει τὴν Ἠλέκτραν τοῦ Ἀγαμέμνονος οὐ τοῦτο ἔχειν τοὔνομα πρῶτον, ἀλλὰ Λαοδίκην. ἐπεὶ γὰρ Ἀγαμέμνων ἀνῃρέθη, τὴν γὰρ Κλυταιμνήστραν Αἴγισθος ἔγημε καὶ ἐβασίλευσεν, ἄλεκτρον οὖσαν καὶ καταγηρῶσαν παρθένον Ἀργεῖοι Ἠλέκτραν ἐκάλεσαν διὰ τὸ ἀμοιρεῖν ἀνδρὸς καὶ μὴ πεπειρᾶσθαι λέκτρου”.

6 Athen. 12. p. 513 A (quoting from Megacleides, who wrote “περὶ Ὁμήρου”, and was, as some think, a peripatetic): “καὶ Ξάνθος δ᾽ μελοποιός, πρεσβύτερος ὢν Στησιχόρου, ὡς καὶ αὐτὸς Στησίχορος μαρτυρεῖ, ὥς φησιν Μεγακλείδης, οὐ ταύτην αὐτῷ” (Heracles) “περιτίθησι τὴν στολήν, ἀλλὰ τὴν Ὁμηρικήν, πολλὰ δὲ τῶν Ξάνθου παραπεποίηκεν Στησίχορος, ὥσπερ καὶ τὴν Ὀρεστείαν καλουμένην”. The meaning of “παραπεποίηκεν” seems to be ‘adapted.’ It certainly need not mean ‘spoiled in copying,’ as Schweighäuser takes it (‘dum mutuatus est, mutavit et corrupit’). Robert, Bild und Lied, p. 174 f. thinks that Megacleides was the source of Aelian also (see last note), and thus is our sole authority for the existence of this Xanthus. That Stesichorus mentioned some one named Xanthus cannot be doubted; but whether his debt to an earlier lyric poet of that name was such as Megacleides affirms, is (the critic thinks) very questionable. It is certainly strange that, if Xanthus was so important a source to Stesichorus, absolutely nothing should have come down to us concerning him, beyond the two meagre notices above quoted.

7 Schol. on Aesch. Cho. 733.

8 Pyth. 11. 17.

9 The relief from Melos has already been noticed, in which Talthybius and Orestes find Electra and the nurse at the tomb (p. xvii). The period indicated by the style of that work is the latter part of the sixth century B.C., when the Oresteia of Stesichorus was already well-known; and nothing is more likely than that the artist of the relief was indebted to that source.

10 Schol. on Eur. Or. 268δὸς τόξα μοι κερουλκά, δῶρα Λοξίου”.

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hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (3):
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 733
    • Aristophanes, Peace, 775
    • Euripides, Orestes, 268
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