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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.


In the interval between the Odyssey and the Lyric
Cyclic epics.
age, legends connected with the house of Pelops were further developed in some of the Cyclic epics20. The Cypria21, ascribed to Stasînus of Cyprus (circ. 776 B.C.), related the immolation of Iphigeneia at Aulis,—a story unknown to Homer,—and distinguished her from the Iphianassa of the Iliad (9. 145). A new source of poetical interest was thus created, since it could now be asked (as Pindar asks22) how far Clytaemnestra was actuated by resentment for the sacrifice of her daughter. In another epic, the Nostoi23 (by Agias of Troezen, circ. 750 B.C.), Clytaemnestra aided Aegisthus in the murder, though probably in a subordinate capacity. Further, Pylades was associated with Orestes. And the name of Pylades at once points to Delphi24,—the agency by which the primitive legend of Orestes was ultimately transformed.

Influence of Delphi.


The influence of the Delphic priesthood rose and spread with the power of the Dorians. It did so, not merely because that power was an apt instrument for its propagation, but also because in Hellas at large the time was favourable. The religion of Apollo, as his Pythian interpreters set it forth, was suited to an age which had begun to reflect, but which retained a vivid faith in the older mythology. Here we are concerned with only one aspect of the Apolline cult, that which relates to blood-guiltiness. The Homeric man who has killed another may either pay a fine to the kinsfolk, or go into exile25; but in Homer there is no idea that he can be purified by a ritual. In other words, there is the notion of a debt in this respect, but hardly of a sin; of quittance, but not of absolution. It was a somewhat later stage when men began more distinctly to recognise that in cases of homicide there are kinds and degrees of moral guilt which cannot be expressed in the terms of human debtor and creditor. Clearly a man ought to do what the gods command. But what if a god tells a man to do something which most men think wrong? If the man obeys, and if his conduct is to be judged aright, the tribunal, like the instigation, must be divine. Nor is this so only when the opinion offended is that of men. A god may command a mortal to do an act by which some other god, or supernatural being, will be incensed. Suppose, for instance, that a man receives a divine mandate to slay a guilty kinsman; if he obeys, nothing can save him from angering the Erinyes, who resent every injury to kinsfolk.

For questions such as these the Pythian creed provided

Purification from bloodguilt.
an answer, or at least a mystic compromise. Apollo, the god of light, is the all-seeing arbiter of purity. A man who commits homicide displeases Apollo, who abhors every stain of blood. But Apollo can estimate the degree of guilt. And he has empowered his servants to administer rites by which, under certain conditions, a defiled person may be freed from the stain. In later days the critics of Apollo could object that he had encouraged crime by thus far alleviating its consequences. But in the age when the doctrine was first put forth, it must have been, on the whole, beneficent. It tempered the fear of capricious or vindictive deities by trust in a god who, as his priests taught, never swerved from equity, and who was always capable of clemency. At the same time it laid the unabsolved offender under a ban worse than mere out lawry, for it cut him off from the worship of the temple and of the hearth, and, indeed, from all intercourse with god-fearing men. It made his hope depend on submission to a religion representing the highest spiritual influence which ever became widely operative among the people of pagan Hellas.

The ritual of Apollo the Purifier had already a place in the Cyclic epic called the Aethiopis26, said to have been composed by Arctînus of Miletus, about 776 B.C. More than a century elapsed after that date before Lyric poetry was matured; and meanwhile the worship of the Pythian Apollo, with its ritual of purification from blood, was diffused throughout the Greek world. It was to be expected, therefore, that, when the story of Orestes began to receive lyric treatment, the influence of Delphi should be apparent. If, in avenging his father, Orestes killed Clytaemnestra as well as Aegisthus, the Pythian priesthood had a text than which they could desire none more impressive. For, according to the immemorial and general belief of Hellenes, Orestes did well to avenge Agamemnon. If, however, he slew his mother, the Erinyes were necessarily called into activity. Who, then, was to vindicate the avenger? Who was to assert, even against the Erinyes, that his deed was righteous? Who but Apollo, the supreme judge of purity? And then it was only another step to represent Apollo himself as having prescribed the vengeance. A Greek vase-painting27 portrays him in the act of doing so. The scene is in the temple at Delphi. Apollo, laurel-crowned, is sitting on the omphalos; in his left hand is a lyre; with the stem of a laurel-branch, held in his right, he is touching the sheathed sword of Orestes, who stands in a reverent attitude before him; he thus consecrates it to the work of retribution. Behind Apollo, the Pythia sits upon the tripod, holding a diadem for the brows of Orestes, when he shall have done the deed28; and near her is Pylades.


Stesichorus, of Himera in Sicily, flourished towards the
The Oresteia of Stesichorus.
close of the seventh, and in the earller part of the sixth, century B.C.29. The Choral Lyric, which Alcman had already cultivated under the Dorian inspirations of Sparta, received a new development from Stesichorus. He applied it to those heroic legends which had hitherto been the peculiar domain of Epos. In style and in dialect, no less than in choice of themes, he was here essentially an epic poet employing the lyric form30. This character, and the popularity which he won by it, are significantly attested in the words of Simonides31,—‘Thus Homer and Stesichorus sang to the people.’ One of his most celebrated poems was that in which he told the story of Orestes (“Ὀρέστεια”). It was of large compass, being divided into at least two books or cantos32. The direct sources of information concerning it are meagre, consisting only of a few small fragments (less than twelve lines altogether), gleaned from the passing allusions of later writers. But archae-
Its probable outline.
ology comes to the aid of literature. The supplementary evidence of Greek art makes it possible to reconstruct, if not with certainty, at least with high probability, a partial outline of the once famous poem. This has been done by Carl Robert, in an essay on ‘The death of Aegisthus,’—one of the series of essays, entitled Bild und Lied, in which he brings archaeological illustration to bear upon the heroic myths33. The substance of his results may be briefly given as follows.


A red-figured Attic vase34, belonging to the first half of
Evidence from art.
the fifth century B.C., depicts a scene which does not come from any extant literary source. Orestes, wearing a cuirass, has plunged his sword into the breast of Aegisthus, who is falling from his seat,—the throne that once was Agamemnon's. Meanwhile, something has startled Orestes; his face is turned away from Aegisthus; he glances over his right shoulder at a woman who hurries up behind him. This is Clytaemnestra, as an inscription certifies. She grasps the handle of an axe with both hands; she is coming to the rescue of Aegisthus. But an old man, wearing the conical hat of a herald, has overtaken her; his left hand grasps her right arm, his right, the axe; her purpose is baffled. Between her and Orestes stands a maiden whose uplifted hands express horror; this (as the artist informs us) is Chrysothemis. Vase A (as we shall call this one) must next be compared with vase B,—another red-figured Attic vase35 of the fifth century, but of later date than the other. The subject on B is fundamentally the same as on A, but it is curiously abridged, or rather mutilated. Orestes—who here is in full armour, with helmet and greaves as well as cuirass—has dealt the mortal wound to Aegisthus, and is looking straight at him. Clytaemnestra, furiously brandishing her axe, is close behind Orestes,—so close, that nothing can now save him from her blow. Electra (the name is inscribed) stands behind the dying Aegisthus; her outstretched right hand points at Clytaemnestra, her left is raised to the back of her head with a gesture of bewilderment and terror; evidently she is uttering a cry of warning to Orestes. The painter of B was led by considerations of style or convenience to omit a vital feature of A,—viz., the old man who stops Clytaemnestra at the critical moment.

Now A and B belong, as Robert shows, to a small group of vases which must have had a common archetype; and while A has preserved the meaning of the whole scene more truly than B, the latter has preserved some details which A has lost. The scene represented by the archetype was probably as follows:—Orestes, in full armour, slays Aegisthus, who falls from his throne; Clytaemnestra rushes up behind Orestes, with an axe; Electra, standing at the back of Aegisthus, cries out to warn her brother; but already the aged herald has seized Clytaemnestra, and defeated her intent. Who is this old man, the herald, who interposes so opportunely? He appears along with Orestes in another work of art, earlier than these vases,—viz., a marble relief, in the developed archaic style, found at Melos

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