When they saw the signal fire blazing atop Mount Parnassus, the people of Delphi believed that the men they had watched march off to war a decade before would return from Troy within a matter of weeks. But this was not to be, for Athena and the other gods held fast in their determination to punish the Greeks for the disrespect they had shown for the laws of men and gods alike. Zeus sent a rain of thunderbolts down upon the Greek fleet on its first night at sea, just as he had promised Athena he would. Many of their ships were smashed to pieces, such that the next morning the water on which the fleet had sailed was strewn with corpses, like flowers sprouting from a meadow of blue. The fleet’s remnants were scattered across many leagues, left to straggle toward home alone in the face of Poseidon’s waves and squalls, which threatened always to blow them into the jagged reefs of one unknown shoreline or another.
So, instead of returning en masse, triumphant, the bedraggled survivors of the voyage home arrived in dribs and drabs over a period of months, looking more like the vanquished than the victors. Odysseus, the author of the trickery with the wooden horse, had particularly offended the gods. In recompense, he was forced to spend as long trying to bridge the gap between Troy and his home island of Ithaca as he had fighting in the war proper. When he did finally return, he did so alone, as a castaway; the entire crew of his ship had been killed, a few at a time, fodder for the cruel fury of the gods. Among the dead was Hecuba, the slave who had once been the queen of Troy; she at least had met the end of her suffering gladly.
But long before the story of Odysseus’s terrifying adventures reached Delphi, there came many other tales of woe involving the conquerors of Troy. One of these was carried there by an old man from the city of Argos, who arrived with distress written all over his features. When the people asked him his name, he waved the question away. “Never mind that. I must find Orestes. Can you tell me where he is?”
Orestes was the son of King Agamemnon of Argos. He had grown from boyhood into manhood while his father was away in Troy, and was staying now with one Strophius, a brother-in-law of Agamemnon; Strophius was himself the king of the entire region of Phocis, in which the town of Delphi lies. Orestes didn’t dwell in Delphi proper, but he was easy enough to call via messenger. Thus the people of Delphi sent their visitor from Argos to the town elder, who could arrange to do just that. But the elder wasn’t willing to do so without a good reason. “Please, sit,” he said to the stranger in his audience room. “Men of our age shouldn’t let ourselves get too agitated. Tell me calmly why you believe your mission is so urgent, and then we can decide together whether it warrants sending an emergency message to the young prince.”
The old man of Argos drank some of the wine the Delphi elder had set before him; this seemed to calm him somewhat. Then he started to tell his tale.
“I am indeed old. I was old already when King Agamemnon sailed for Troy, and I’m older still now. The news I bring demands a response from the hot blood of youth, not the curdled blood of age. King Agamemnon has returned to Argos at last, having braved terrible storms to reach home! That alone would be a reason to send for Orestes right away. But now that I have started, let me finish my story. For, alas, it is not to welcome his father home that Orestes is needed now.
“I was among the first of those in Argos to hear the news of the king’s arrival at the port of Tiryns from the messenger he sent ahead of him, and also among those who crowded the square outside the royal palace a few days later to witness his homecoming in his chariot of state. We saw an older man than the one who had left us, to be sure, but one whose years had hardened and tempered him rather than worn him down. All seemed as it should be then — or mostly so. Some of us were confused by the dark-haired, dark-eyed girl who rode in his chariot with him, whose enigmatic expression we found impossible to read.
“Still, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s queen and ours, greeted him effusively, with a long, formal speech of the expected sort. I won’t bore you with it. ‘Come, now, darling, step from your vehicle,’ she said at its end as she stood before the chariot, ‘but keep your feet from the ground.’ And she bade her servants to roll out a long purple carpet, reaching all the way from the chariot to the foot of the palace steps.
“King Agamemnon, as you doubtless know, doesn’t stand on ceremony. ‘The speech you’ve given suits my absence well, my dear,’ he said, ‘since both were quite extended. No need to spread cloth in my path. I’m a mortal, not a god.’ Yet he did grudgingly allow himself to be convinced, and waited while the carpet was unrolled. ‘I am subdued, my dear, and do as you order,’ he said with a twinkle in his eye. I’ve never loved my plain-spoken king more than at that instant.
“But what he said next was more unsettling. ‘Bring in this stranger with kindness,’ he said, gesturing to the strange, silent girl. ‘Her name is Cassandra, and she’s the best of all the treasures I bring back from Troy.’ The anger that flickered in Queen Clytemnestra’s eyes as he said this was brief but unmistakable. And truly, he should not have disrespected his queen that way — certainly not there before all the people. Misgivings already gripped my heart as I watched King Agamemnon pass into the palace without even deigning to embrace his wife after more than a decade away. I had heard the rumors of a violent quarrel between him and his queen before the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, but I had hoped that more than a decade apart would have cooled their anger. It seemed this was not the case. I had a premonition of evil, which I could only hope would prove false.
“For her part, Queen Clytemnestra regained her composure almost instantaneously. She treated her husband’s mistress with graceful condescension. ‘Come, get yourself inside,’ she said. ‘Don’t spend too many tears lamenting your fate. It’s plain as day that you are of royal blood yourself, but then, many high-born women have been forced to suffer the yoke of slavery. If you accept your fate, we won’t make it any harder on you than necessary.’ Yet the girl just sat there, silent, while the queen got visibly annoyed. ‘Maybe she only speaks some strange barbarian language,’ she said.
“I silently prayed that the girl would cooperate; I knew how imperiously cruel my queen could be when she felt herself to have been snubbed in some way. Queen Clytemnestra tried again, only now the honey was gone from her voice: ‘I don’t have time for this! I must prepare the homecoming feast! Do you understand me? Are you feeble-minded? Wave your hand if you won’t speak!’ But the girl just sat there, looking like a wild animal in a cage at a fair. Finally, Queen Clytemnestra humphed and went into the palace alone.
“I confess that the sight of the girl, still sitting there in the chariot while the people gawked and shouted at her, broke my heart. I walked up to her. ‘Come, poor thing,’ I said as soothingly as I could, ‘and leave the cart. Come peacefully. There’s no other choice.’
“But she wasn’t soothed at all by my words. On the contrary: she started wailing, a keening, piercing sound that unnerved me to the core. Although her barbarian accent was strange, I realized that I could understand her. She was calling to the god Apollo. ‘Apollo! Apollo! You destroyed me once, now you destroy me a second time! Where have you brought me?’
“In the absence of the god, I took up the question myself. ‘You are in the city of Argos, where Agamemnon is king and Clytemnestra is queen. Do you understand me?’
“‘A city that hates the gods, a city bent on the wicked murder of its own, a city full of nooses, a butchery soon to be splattered with blood. The queen in her palace is plotting something terrible! Yes, cruel master who enslaved me!’ she shrieked, talking to someone we couldn’t see. ‘This is your spouse, the one who shared your bed. She washes you clean in the bath now, but afterward…’
“Then came a prolonged, wordless scream that chased the blood to our hearts, leaving us white as the bleached bones of dead soldiers. ‘Look! Look!’ the girl cried, staring into empty space. ‘She’s caught him now! The bull undone by the heifer! He’s fallen into the basin. He’s met his death in the bath. More torment! One sin begets another, anguish piled upon anguish!’
“One of the other men of the town broke her spell with a snort. ‘You’re out of your mind, barbarian woman. Your ordeal has shattered your soul, filled it with spite. You’re not the prophet you’re pretending to be.’ And all of us — myself included, I admit — nodded at this seeming common sense. It was just what we most wanted to believe, after all.
“The girl stopped her wailing. In fact, her whole manner changed instantly, to one of cool calmness. But her next words brought no comfort. ‘Very well. I’ll prophesy no longer like a new bride peering out timidly beneath her veil. Clytemnestra has no grounds to protest her husband’s infidelities, for she has not slept alone either since he sailed to Troy. Now, good people… am I wrong?’
“There was stunned silence from one side of the square to the other. It was an open secret in our city that our queen had taken a lover, a feckless courtier named Aegisthus. But whence had this barbarian stranger learned of it? ‘Where does your information come from?’ I asked the girl incredulously.
“‘I am a seer, a prophet of Apollo, with a deeper insight into the tapestry of fate than even the oracle in Delphi. But I am a cursed prophet — cursed never to be believed! You stand here debating and dithering when you should be running into the palace to save your king. I tell you once again, even though it can do no good: she is about to kill him. Next she will kill me, her husband’s unwilling mistress, to complete her revenge.’ This last she said almost placidly, as if looking forward to her death.
“‘No one could speak of her own death so calmly if she really believed it to be imminent,’ some around me said. At this, the girl just shook her head.
“A guard now came out of the palace and marched up to the girl. ‘My queen’s patience has run out,’ he said. ‘You must come with me now. Do you understand?’
“The girl nodded at this, and climbed down from the chariot at last. ‘Poor mortal life!’ she whispered as she passed through the doorway into the palace.
“Suddenly a cry rang out from inside. It was unmistakably the voice of King Agamemnon, calling out in surprise and pain. Then a second cry — the voice of the strange girl Cassandra. And then silence.
“A moment passed, during which all of creation seemed to hang suspended. Then we all started talking at once. Some of us said we should all return to our homes, arm ourselves, and come back to the square to make a plan of attack on the palace; some said we must rush the palace immediately; some cautious — or timid! — souls said that the cries might not necessarily mean the king had been murdered, and we should send a delegation of just two or three to find out what had really happened before we did anything else. As it was, we just stood there shouting ineffectually at one another.
“We were still at it when Queen Clytemnestra reemerged from the palace, her beautiful dress splattered with blood. Showing a strength we never would have imagined she had in her, she dragged not one but two corpses outside by their hair: that of a man and a woman, the former wet and naked. Utterly unashamed, she stood there on the palace steps and launched into another speech — a less hospitable speech than the first one she had given to welcome her husband home. ‘People of Argos! I have been planning this day for years. My husband filled his cup on the day before he sailed for Troy, when he murdered our daughter. Today, he has drunk from it at last. Be glad of it or not, praise or blame me, as you will. But my heart right now knows only the sweet triumph of revenge.’
“This outrage finally jarred some of us from our indecision. Shouts boomed out around the square: ‘Evil thing!’ ‘Abomination!’ ‘Exile her!’ ‘Execute her!’
“But she just laughed. ‘You will exile me? You will execute me? Who is the real criminal here? I didn’t hear you protest when you learned that my husband had killed my daughter, guiltless though she was. Why do you forgive the one murder and not the other? Well, he’s dead now, and your sanctimonious protests won’t bring him back. He’s dead along with the whore who shared his bed. He thought she would be his dainty side dish — but it was I who enjoyed her in the end.’
“As she finished speaking, Aegisthus, the man who been sharing her bed for years, stepped out of the palace, looking sleek as ever. ‘At last justice has been done!’ he declaimed. ‘The gods look down and are pleased. Make no mistake, people of Argos. It was I, your new king, who plotted this revenge.’
Thus he made it clear that this was not just regicide; it was a coup. I wondered how the gods could possibly be pleased. As I understood it, it was the gods who had demanded the sacrifice of Iphigenia. If so, how could they look favorably upon this act of bloody revenge for a killing they had demanded?
But most of the other people in the square weren’t philosophizing; they were shouting. ‘You did this? You take responsibility? Think carefully what you say! Will you face our just curses, and the stones we cast at you?’ The people were getting restive. Violence was in the air.
“Yet Aegisthus just laughed at us, as his mistress had already done. ‘You bunch of useless old ninnies! You still haven’t learned the lesson of obedience to your betters?’
“‘You are shameless!’ shouted someone. ‘When our king was called away to war, to fight for Argos and all of Greece, you stayed home and defiled his marriage bed! And then, when matters came to a head, you weren’t even man enough to do your own killing. You had a woman do it for you!’
“‘It was Clytemnestra’s right to land the killing blows as payment for what he did to her daughter,’ said Aegisthus dismissively. ‘But now I rule here! It will go hard for those who don’t accept that.’
“I saw now a few dull swords and workmen’s hammers appearing in the crowd around me. Aegisthus shouted into the palace behind him, and a cordon of guards came out. I feared more violence. ‘Kill the usurper or die trying!’ someone shouted.
“‘I’m afraid it will be the latter for you,’ said Aegisthus.
“But Queen Clytemnestra stepped up and put her hand on his arm. ‘No, darling, let’s not do more damage today.’ And she turned to us. ‘Honored citizens, what we did was necessary. Now that it is done, accept it. This is a fight you cannot win. The army is on our side. They have seen the justice of our cause.’
“‘You mean you paid them off!’ someone shouted.
“‘These silly people with their silly words,’ said Aegisthus. ‘How dare they flout the man in power? They must learn to show the proper respect.’
“‘We don’t fawn on worthless men!’ came a shout.
“That plainly enraged Aegisthus, but Queen Clytemnestra touched her lover’s arm again, whispered in his ear. ‘I’ll settle with you in the days ahead,’ he said to the crowd as he turned to go back inside.
“‘Not if Orestes comes home!’ someone shouted. This prompted a chant which rang throughout the city: ‘Orestes! Orestes! Orestes!’ It thundered as Aegisthus, led still by Queen Clytemnestra, entered the palace with their guards, leaving the bodies of their victims lying there. Having vented our frustration with our shouting, we weren’t sure what else we should do about the usurpation of our city’s throne. All we could think to do was gather the bodies up, as reverently as we were able, and bury them.
“I left that very night to come here in search of Orestes. The people of Argos are furious, but they need a leader. Only Orestes, the rightful heir to our murdered king’s throne, can free our city from this tyranny that has descended upon it.”
The Delphi elder sat there silently for a moment — not because of indecision, but simply because his mind blanched at the magnitude of what he had just been told. The Orestes he knew was a callow youth, likeable but easily led. Was he up to the challenges before him? The lot of princes, the elder mused, was a privileged one, but not always an easy one for all that. Still, there was only one thing to be done. He nodded to his guest, then left the room to call for his swiftest messenger.
Orestes arrived in Delphi a few days later, whereupon he hastened to the temple of Apollo to ask the god for advice. When the oracle returned from her inner sanctum, she brought with her a clear message. She told Orestes that Apollo demanded he take revenge on his mother and her lover for the killing of Agamemnon and Cassandra. If he failed to do so, divine retribution would fall upon his own head. (The oracle, who was attuned to the god’s moods and amours, felt that some private guilt on the part of the divinity underlay his stern commandment. But, as was proper, she kept this suspicion to herself.) So, Orestes steeled himself as best he could for the task before him and set off on the road to Argos.
When he approached the city, he decided to visit first the royal burial grounds, to see if his father’s body had at least been properly entombed. He found that all here was as it should be, thanks to the intercession of the ordinary townsfolk. Next to his father’s tomb was the far more humble grave of Cassandra, but he did no more than glance at it; having been ignored in life, she was doomed to suffer the same fate in death.
The glade where the tomb stood was a lovely, peaceful place, perfect for contemplation. Orestes tarried there, mulling over the terrible duty that lay before him. Suddenly he spotted movement through the branches. Having no idea about the current mood of the city, nor any plan of action beyond trusting to the gods, he hid behind a gnarled old tree to learn what he could from these other visitors to his father’s tomb.
The ones who appeared were as gnarled as the tree. They were old women of the city, clad in black from head to toe, chanting a lament, bearing jars full of libations for the dead. Orestes gasped — for at the head of the delegation was Cilissa, his own childhood nurse, a second mother to him with whom he had in fact spent far more time than with his first mother.
Orestes stepped out from behind his tree. “Hello, old nursemaid,” he said. Cilissa seemed to shed fifty years at the sight of him. She squealed with girlish joy, causing Orestes to look around in alarm. “Steady, old one. Don’t go wild. You know how ruthless my mother is.”
So, she contented herself with throwing her arms around him while the other old women, whose joy was scarcely less than hers, looked on in wonderment. “Oh, my dear boy,” she said, “the last survivor of the royal family of Argos — for your sister and father are now dead, and your mother is or ought to be dead to us all.” The two spoke affectionately, exchanging many endearments, while Orestes explained that he knew all about the fate of his father. Then Cilissa told how Aegisthus now ruled Argos with an iron fist, even as Clytemnestra sent offerings every day to the tomb of the king they had deposed together.
“But why does my mother send these offerings?” asked Orestes. “She killed my father and left his body lying there on the street. If I understand the story correctly, the ordinary people of the town were forced to give him the burial he deserved. Why should she now start to show her husband respect?”
“I can tell you why,” answered Cilissa. “Her conscience torments her. She is miserable. She has nightmares every night — wakes up screaming from them. She hopes that sending delegations like ours to her lawful husband’s grave every day will quiet them. She tries to convince herself that she can control her bloodthirsty unlawful husband, persuade him to rule justly, like a legitimate king, and thereby live on with him as if they had never committed this foul murder. But if you ask me, what starts in evil can never end well. She and he will pay in blood for their crimes. This I have hoped at any rate — and now, seeing you here, this I believe.”
“What exactly does she dream? Do you know?”
“Why, yes. The silly woman moans about her nightmares to me. I feign sympathy to keep her talking, but really I delight in every cruel detail. She dreams that a snake is born from her own loins. She swaddles it like a baby, gives it her breast to feed upon. But it sucks blood from her instead of milk.”
“I must be the snake!” cried Orestes. “The child that will kill her for her crimes! It’s a sign from the gods!”
Cilissa nodded in grim assent.
“Come, women, let us pray together,” said Orestes. “You” — speaking to Cilissa — “intone the prayer.” And he picked up a libation jar full of grain and honey, which he poured out slowly over his father’s tomb as she spoke.
“Zeus, first among the gods, bring this to a just end,” chanted Cilissa, her eyes burning with righteous fury. “For a bloody stroke let a bloody stroke be the penalty. Let the wrongdoer suffer wrong. Let vengeance be ours for our noble king who survived ten years on the battlefield only to be cut down in his bath by the person he trusted most. Let his murderers suffer so horribly that all of Greece remembers their fate forever. We beg you, let them suffer! That is worth more to us than gold, more than any earthly or divine paradise. Send them ruin and limitless violence. Cleave their skulls with our keen rage and malignant hatred. Blood demands more blood. Havoc calls for fury. Stand with us against our enemies! Send the aid we beg. Feed our hate, thereby to satiate it and remove its oppression from our hearts.”
With the prayer finished, they fell to making practical plans for their revenge. When they were done with their plotting, Cilissa and the other old women returned to the palace as if nothing unusual had happened.
Later that evening, Orestes knocked boldly on the front door of the palace. He wore the rude, mud-splattered clothing of a long-distance traveler; he had smeared mud on his face and pulled his hood down low to obscure his familiar features. And indeed, the servant who opened the door gave no sign of recognition. Nor did Clytemnestra, who soon appeared behind her servant. “Please announce me to the king,” said Orestes levelly in his best imitation of a Phocian accent. “Tell him I bear important news from Phocis.”
Clytemnestra looked at the son she didn’t recognize suspiciously. “Stranger, we have a bed for you, and a bath and a meal, as we ought to for a guest who has obviously traveled long since his last taste of hospitality. But I cannot disturb my husband the king with trivialities. You must tell me first the nature of this news you bear.”
“I am an ordinary traveler, unused to the councils of the great,” answered Orestes. “But as I was about to leave Phocis on a commercial errand of my own, King Strophius, having learned of my travel plans, ordered me to carry some important news to Argos with me. Your son Orestes is dead, my lady. A freak disease laid him low. King Strophius has given him a fine burial, and has kept his ashes in a bronze urn. He will send them to you if you wish.”
The news rocked Clytemnestra. “Oh, more devastation!” she cried, forgetting herself for once. “Am I to be stripped of all those I love? Afflictions run riot in my house!”
“I am sorry I do not bear better news, my lady,” said Orestes carefully.
“Don’t worry,” said Clytemnestra. “I won’t blame the messenger.” Pulling herself together with a visible effort, she turned to her servant. “Show this honored guest to a suitable room, and give him whatever he needs to be comfortable.”
Word of the guest’s arrival, and of the news he bore, spread rapidly through the household. Those among the servants who weren’t privy to the meeting at Agamemnon’s tomb despaired at the expiration of their last, best hope for deliverance. Even the soldiers of the palace, who had so recently sold their loyalty to the queen and her lover, had profoundly mixed feelings, seeing that the tyrant they served now seemed destined to hold onto his power for life.
Old Cilissa, however, smiled to herself at the news, and hurried to put the next phase of the tomb-side conspirators’ plan in motion. She visited Aegisthus and Clytemnestra in the throne room, and strongly recommended to the former that he talk to the stranger himself. “Listening to go-betweens is worthless,” she said, “compared to asking questions face to face.”
“This is wise advice from a faithful servant,” said the false king to his queen. “I’ll go interrogate the stranger in person right away. Was he on-hand when the boy died, or did he only hear reports of his death? The matter is too important not to be absolutely sure where we stand.” And he left the room.
Minutes later, his death scream echoed through the halls of the palace. “What’s happening?” Clytemnestra demanded of one of the servants who scurried through the throne room in the wake of it.
“It was the king! The stranger is Orestes in disguise, and he has killed the king! Now he’s at large in the palace. Even the guards don’t know what to do. They don’t dare to cut down the son of the previous king themselves. They fear the wrath of the gods.”
When Orestes burst into the throne room an instant later, he found his mother already on her knees. “Hold back, my son,” Clytemnestra begged, and bared her breast. “You sucked the milk of life from this nipple. To snuff out my life would be as grave a sin as the one I committed in killing your father. Think hard over what you are about to do.”
Orestes suffered a moment of doubt. But, he reminded himself sternly, the god Apollo had enjoined him to do this thing, and he had promised that he would see it through. He dared not break an oath to a god. “Up on your feet!” he ordered. “Or would you prefer to die on your knees, as your lover, foul polluter of this house, has just done?”
“I brought you up,” begged the queen. “Let me live and grow old with you!”
“You killed my father, and now you think we will live together as mother and son? Ha!” His face was now pure savagery, all filial sentiment put to rest.
“Your father also took lovers.”
“For comfort, while he was away fighting a terrible war. Meanwhile you stayed at home, safe and pampered, and frolicked with another in his bed.”
“It isn’t easy to be the wife of a husband who’s away at war, my boy.”
“What rot! A husband’s hard work feeds a sheltered woman. You know nothing of hardship.”
“The Fates, those weavers of all destinies, ordained that your father’s death would come to pass,” said Clytemnestra. “I am not really to blame here.”
“Then the Fates have also ordained that you die tonight,” answered Orestes coldly.
Clytemnestra had just one tack left to try. “You don’t fear your mother cursing you as she dies?”
“No. You’re no mother to me anymore. And if I don’t kill you, I will be accountable to far greater powers than you.”
Since she still refused to raise herself from the floor, Orestes grabbed his mother roughly by the hair, pulling back her head to expose her soft white neck. “I gave this viper life and food! My nightmare really was a prophecy!” she cried. And then came the death curse, a cry of hate and terror that sent Cilissa and the other few servants still hanging around the periphery scurrying from the room. But Orestes heard only his own fury pounding in his ears. He swung his sword and parted her head from her body. His own scream of rage and triumph was in its way even more horrible than the death curse of his mother.
Orestes dragged the bodies of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra out the front door of the palace. Standing before the people who had gathered there in fear and confusion upon hearing the noises issuing from the palace, he made a victory speech. “Two tyrants and usurpers lie dead before you. Aegisthus’s fate is just. He debauched a king’s wife, then conspired to kill that king and steal his throne. As for Clytemnestra, the woman I once called ‘mother’: she too plotted hatefully against her husband. She stabbed him, noble hero that he was, in his bath, denying him any dignity in death. I have acted not on my own authority but on that of the great god Apollo. He ordered me to take my revenge.”
The crowd in the square hummed nervously. They were glad to be free of Aegisthus’s tyranny, and wanted to believe that what Orestes had done, and the bloody way in which he had done it, had indeed been just. Yet the scene before them reminded them uncomfortably of the scene of a few weeks before, when Aegisthus and Clytemnestra had stood in this same spot with two other corpses. Was this naked revenge really justice? Was the man who now intended to declare himself king really any better than the last claimant, who lay dead at his feet? How could the gods allow these things? Even assuming Orestes was telling the truth about his audience with the oracle in Delphi, was there — blasphemous though the idea was — a higher form of justice than the admonishments of Apollo?
Suddenly their new king began to scream in terror, looking up at something invisible to the rest of the people. “Furies! Hideous women!”
“What’s wrong? What’s happening?” asked the people.
“Hunting dogs, roused by my mother’s rage!” cried Orestes.
“There’s nothing! It’s just the fresh blood on your hands. Small wonder you’re confused.”
“Oh, they’re coming for me. All three of them, hatred in their eyes. Can you really not see them? Oh, I cannot stay here!”
And proud young Orestes ran away like a rabbit before a hound, harried by the unseen creatures — creatures who had sprung up from the blood of Uranus long before the time of Apollo or even Zeus, whose form of bloody vengeance was one of the elemental forces in the world. The people looked on sadly until Orestes disappeared from view, shaking their heads at it all. First Iphigenia, then Agamemnon and Cassandra, then Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Was Orestes to be the next?
They sighed and wearily climbed the palace steps. Whatever the future might hold, there were two more bodies that needed burial right now.
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(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)
13 Comments for "Chapter 10: The Revenge of the Gods"
“ I’ll prophesy no longer”
Thanks, but “to prophesy” actually is the verb form, at least in American English.
Those Greeks were so silly. Why didn’t they go back home by land when it became so obvious that the gods were making it difficult to go home by boat?
Being gods, they could presumably make it equally difficult to go home by land. 😉
True but it would be a whole lot more work for them and I think them too lazy to put that much effort into it.
I never usually comment here, but I have been enjoying this series for sure! However having recently read “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes, it gives one a rather different take on this material… I’m really interested to see how this is all going to “end”…
While I don’t buy Jaynes’s full theory, I do think there was a shift in the Greeks’ perception of themselves and their world that occurred between 1000 and 750 BC, a period which not coincidentally coincides with the shift from myth into recorded history. We’re closing in fast now on that point of transition…
That is roughly the period of the Greek Dark Ages, when Greece transitioned from Bronze Age to Iron Age. That transition, either in Greece or elsewhere, wasn’t peaceful; Iron Age people, who knew how to make iron weapons, violently conquered Bronze Age people, who only knew how to make bronze weapons which weren’t useful against iron weapons. The Greek culture that emerged afterwards was significantly changed from before, which resulted in inconsistencies in these myths when they were eventually recorded. For example, Orestes mentions above that King Strophius kept his ashes, which implies cremation of his body; however, cremations are only attested in Iron Age Greek culture, but the Trojan War (and therefore the above story) must be placed in the Bronze Age when the Greeks buried their dead, which custom is also present in the story.
That’s a really interesting observation I hadn’t made before. In the Iliad, Priam is of course desperate to *bury* his son Hector’s body. But in the Oresteia of Aeschylus, upon which this chapter is based, and which dates to perhaps 250 to 300 years after the Iliad (and which likely reflects an even older oral tradition), cremation gets anachronistically inserted as a viable way of disposing of the dead with honor. It’s not quite the sort of thing I was thinking of — I was obliquely referring to the notion of gods as real, physically present entities versus more attenuated spiritual forces — but fascinating nevertheless.
Slight complication to this: Bronze Age weapons were not useless in the face of early Iron Age weapons. For most tool and weapon applications, bronze is inferior to *steel,* but pure iron? Not necessarily so much. And the ironworkers of 800 BC or so were, as a rule, not familiar with steel-making. Iron was a relatively new commodity and techniques were still taking shape, whereas bronze working was a fully mature technology.
The trick is that iron is *everywhere,* it’s one of the most common elements in the Earth’s crust and its ores are correspondingly common. You could generally find some kind of iron deposit or other within a reasonable distance of almost any location, whereas copper and tin were so difficult to source in the ancient world that they formed major linchpins of long range international trade.
So a society that has access to iron and knows how to work it can make *lots* of weapons, anywhere, even without access to international trade networks. Whereas most nations won’t have easy access to large quantities of bronze, especially if they’re cut off from trade routes.
So the iron weapons don’t have to be better than bronze weapons, qualitatively. Even if they’re no better, or a little worse, they can still bring about the collapse of these Bronze Age civilizations… simply because you can make a lot more spearheads, blades, and body armor out of iron, and overwhelm a civilization that has only its relatively limited supply of bronze.
let’s not to do more damage today -> let‘s not do
sending delegations likes ours -> like ours