The Story of Electra, or the Return of Orestes

When King Agamemnon was slain by his wicked wife Clytæmnestra, the boy Orestes his son had perished also by the hands of his mother, but that his sister Electra took him and delivered him out of the hands of them that would have slain him. And having saved him, she sent him to the house of Strophius the Phocian, who was a friend to the house of the King, her father. And here Orestes abode till he was of age and strength to fulfil the law. For the law of the land was that, if a man should be foully slain, his son should avenge him on him that had done this wrong. Also the youth sought counsel of Apollo at his oracle of Delphi, and the god answered him that he should avenge the blood of his father even upon her that bare him. Therefore, being now grown to manhood, he came to the city of Argos, having disguised himself that no man might know him. And he had with him Pylades that was the son of Strophius. Now these two loved each other exceedingly, so that men spake of them in after time as famous among friends. Also there came with Orestes an old man, a slave that had waited on him from a boy. Now the three had devised a story wherewith they might deceive the Queen and her husband; and being thus prepared they came into the city at dawn.

Then the old man spake, saying, “Son of Agamemnon, thou seest the city which thou hast long desired to see. There is the grove of Io, whom the gad-fly drave over the earth, and there on the left hand the temple of Heré, which all men know, and before us the palace of the children of Pelops, a house of many woes, from which I carried thee forth in time past, when thy mother would have slain thee. But now we must take counsel and that speedily, for the sun is risen and hath wakened the birds, and we must be ready before that men come forth to their work.”

Then Orestes made reply, “‘Tis well said, old man. Hearken then to what I purpose. And first know that when I would hear from Apollo at his oracle in Delphi how I should best avenge my father, he bade me trust neither in shield nor spear, but accomplish the deed by craft. Do thou then go when occasion shall offer into the palace, and spy out the things that are therein. For they will not know thee who thou art, so changed art thou. And thou shalt tell them such a tale about me as shall surely deceive them. And we meanwhile will do honor to the spirit of my father at his grave, offering hair that has been shorn from my head and drink offerings, and afterwards will return and accomplish what shall remain to be done.”

And when he had so spoken, he prayed, “O my country and ye gods of the land, help me, and thou house of my father which I have come at the bidding of the Gods to cleanse from the guilt of blood.”

Then the old man said, “I hear the voice of some one that groans.” And Orestes made answer, “Doubtless it is my sister Electra. Shall we stay and listen to her?” “Not so,” said the old man, “let us do our business without delay.” So they departed.

And then came forth Electra, making great lamentation for her father, and praying that the Gods would speedily send her brother Orestes to avenge him. And with her was a company of the daughters of Argos, who sought to comfort her, saying that it was idle to make such weeping and moaning for the dead; and that others also were in like case with her; and that she should have patience, for that time would bring punishment on the evildoers. Also they would have her curb her tongue, seeing how she angered those that had the rule in her house.

And then Electra unfolded her grief to them saying, “I pray you, daughters of Argos, that ye think no evil of me as of one that altogether wanteth wisdom and patience. For what woman of the better sort would not do even as I? For think how I am constrained to live with them that slew my father; and that every day I see this base Ægisthus sitting upon that which was his throne, and wearing the selfsame robes; and how he is husband to this mother of mine, if indeed she be a mother who can stoop to such vileness. And know that every month on the day on which she slew my father she maketh festival and offereth sacrifice to the Gods. And all this am I constrained to see, weeping in secret, for indeed it is not permitted to me publicly to show such sorrow as my heart desireth. Ofttimes indeed this woman mocketh me, and would know why I sorrow more than others, seeing that others also have lost their fathers. But sometimes, if it so chance that she hear from some one that Orestes prepareth to come back to this land, she is furious above measure, and rageth as a wild beast; and her husband, this coward that maketh war against women, stirreth up her fury against me. And still do I look for Orestes when he shall come; but he tarrieth long, and in the meantime I perish with sorrow and trouble.”

Then the daughters of Argos, when they had made inquiry and heard that Ægisthus was absent and that they could speak more freely of these matters, would fain know whether she had heard news of her brother Orestes, and bade her be of good heart concerning him. But as they spake together, the sister of Electra, Chrysothemis, came forth with offerings for the tomb of her father in her hand, and other maidens followed her. Now these two were different one from the other, for Electra was full of courage, and would have no peace with those whom she hated, and sought not to hide what was in her heart, but Chrysothemis was fearful, and would live peaceably with them that she loved not, and would speak them fair. And now, when Electra saw her sister come forth, she brake out against her with many angry words, saying that she did ill to choose the part of a mother who had done such wickedness, and to forget her father; and that it was a base thing in her to live softly and at ease, consorting with the evildoers.

And when the Argive maidens would have made peace between them, Chrysothemis answered, “These words are not strange to me; nor should I take note of them, but that I have heard of a great trouble that is ready to fall upon my sister here, and stay her complaints even for ever.”

“Nay, what is this?” said Electra. “Speakest thou of trouble greater than that which I now endure?”

“Surely,” the other made reply, “for they will send thee far hence, and shut thee up where thou shalt never more see the light of the sun, if thou stayest not these complaints.”

But Electra did not fear one whit to hear these things, but waxed fiercer in her anger. And, after a while, as the strife ceased not between them, Chrysothemis would have gone on her way. And when Electra perceived this, she asked her for what purpose and whither she was carrying these offerings to the dead.

And Chrysothemis made reply that she was carrying them at the bidding of her mother to the tomb of King Agamemnon. For that the Queen was in much fear, having seen a vision in the night which had sorely troubled her; and that the vision was this. The King her husband, whom she slew, seemed to bear her company, even as he had done in time past. And he took the sceptre which he had been wont to carry, and which Ægisthus carried after him, and planted it in the earth; and there sprang from it a very flourishing branch, by which the whole land of Mycenæ was overshadowed. “So much,” she said, “I heard her say, when she told her dream to the light of the day; but more I know not, save that she sendeth me to make these offerings, by reason of her fear.”

Then Electra answered, “Nay, my sister; lay not aught of these things upon our father’s tomb, for they would be an abomination to him; but scatter them to the winds, or cover them with earth. So let them be kept for her, when she shall die. And surely, but that she is the most shameless of women, she had not sought to pay this honour to him whom she slew so foully. Thinketh she to atone in such sort for the blood that she hath shed? Not so. Put these things away; but thou and I will lay upon this tomb hair from thy head and from mine; small gifts, in truth, yet what we have. And do thou pray to our father that he will help us even where he dwelleth below the earth, and also that Orestes may come speedily, and set his foot upon the necks of them that hate us.”

This Chrysothemis promised that she would do, and so departed. And in a short space came forth the Queen Clytæmnestra, and, finding her daughter Electra without the gate of the palace, was very wroth, saying that King Ægisthus had forbidden her to do this thing, and that it was not well that, he being absent, she should take no account of her mother.

“But now,” she said, “let us reason together. Thou speakest ill of me, because I slew thy father. ‘Tis even so. I deny it not. But mark, Justice slew him, not I only; and thou shouldest be on the side of Justice. He slew thy sister, sacrificing her to the Gods, as no other Greek had done. For what cause did he slay her? ‘For the sake of the Greeks,’ thou wilt say. But what had the Greeks to do with child of mine? Or was it for the sake of King Menelaüs his brother? But had not Menelaüs two children, and should not one of these have the rather died, seeing of what father and mother they came, even of those for whose sake the Greeks waged this war? Had Death, thinkest thou, desire for my children rather than for his? Or had this accursed father no care for my children, but only for the children of his brother? Surely this was the deed of a foolish and wicked man. Aye, I say it, whatever thou mayest think, and so would say she who died, could she take voice and speak.”

Then said Electra, “If thou permittest, I would say somewhat for him and for her.”

And the Queen answered, “Say on. Didst thou always speak in such mood, thou wert not so ill to hear.”

Then Electra spake: “Thou sayest, ‘I slew thy father,’ ‘Tis enough. Worse thou couldst not say, whether ’twere justly done or no. But of justice thou hadst never a thought. ‘Twas the ill persuasion of him with whom thou now consortest that urged thee to this deed. And as for my sister, thou knowest well that my father slew a stag in the grove of Artemis, and boasted himself of the deed, and that the goddess was wroth with him, and hindered the voyage of the Greeks; and that for this cause my father slew his daughter, knowing that otherwise the ships could sail neither to Troy nor homewards. Yea, he slew her, sorely against his will, for the people’s sake, and for nought else. But consider whether this that thou sayest be not altogether a pretence. Art thou not wife to him that was thy fellow in this deed? Callest thou this taking vengeance for thy daughter that was slain? And thy children—art thou a mother to them? What ill do not I suffer at thy hand and the hand of thy partner? And Orestes, whom I barely saved from thy hand, liveth he not in exile? Surely, whatsoever it be that thou chargest against him, thou hast no cause to be ashamed of me.”

Then the two spake many bitter words to each other; and at the last, when Electra held her peace, the Queen prayed to the Gods, and made her offerings to the tomb. And first she addressed herself to Phœbus: “O Phœbus, hear that which is in my heart; for to say the thing aloud I dare not, seeing that I am not among friends. But of the dreams that I saw this night past, grant that the good be accomplished and the evil be turned away to my enemies; and that I be not cast down from the wealth wherein I now live; and that I may wield this sceptre of the son of Atreus which now I have, and may have the company of my friends, even as now, and the love of my children, if so be that they love their mother.”

And while she thus spake, the old man came in, and would fain know whether that which he saw was the palace of Atreus. And when he heard that it was, he asked whether the lady whom he saw was the Queen. And hearing this also, he spake, “Lady, I have good tidings for thee and King Ægisthus.”

“First tell me who thou art.”

“I come from Phanoteus of Phocis: I bring great news.”

“Tell me; for the man is a friend, and the tidings, I doubt not, good.”

“I will say it in one word—Orestes is dead.”

And when Electra heard this, she brake forth into a great cry, saying that she was undone. But the Queen said, “What? What sayest thou? Heed not this woman.”

And the man said, “I told thee, and tell thee yet again, that Orestes is dead.”

And again Electra brake forth into a cry; but the Queen bade her hold her peace, and would have the stranger tell the story. And the man said—

“He came to Delphi, whither the Greeks greatly resort, purposing to contend in the games of the Pythian Apollo. And first there was a race of runners on foot; and for this he came forward, and passing all that ran with him so won the prize. Nor indeed did I ever see such a man; for there was not one contest in which he had not the pre-eminence. Very fair was he to look upon, and his name, he said, was Orestes of Argos, and he was the son of that Agamemnon who in days past was captain of the host of the Greeks at Troy. But when the Gods are minded to destroy a man, who is so strong that he can escape? It fell out then that on the next day at sunset there was proclaimed a race of chariots, to which there came one man from Achaia, and from Sparta one, and two from Barca in Africa. After these came Orestes, being the fifth, with horses of Thessaly. And the sixth was a man of Ætolia, with bay horses, and the seventh a man of Magnesia in Thessaly, and the eighth was a man of Œnea, whose horses were white, and the ninth from Athens, a city which, they say, was builded of Gods, and a Bœotian was the tenth. First the heralds shook lots for each in a helmet, and each man had his place according as his lot came forth. And after this the trumpet sounded, and the horses leapt forward, while the men shouted to them and shook the reins, and spared not the goad. Great was the noise, and the dust rose up like a cloud from the plain. And on the backs of the charioteers and on the wheels of them that went before came the foam from the horses that followed, so close did they lie together. And Orestes, when he came to the pillar where the chariots turned, drave so that his wheel wellnigh touched it, and slackened the rein for the right horse, and pressed on that which was on the left. So far no mishap had befallen the chariots, but all had fared well. But here the steeds of the man of Œnea, being very hard to hold, brake from their course, and drave against the side of one of the chariots from Barca. And now they had ended six courses, and were about to begin the seventh. But with this beginning of trouble went all things wrong, for one drave against another till all the plain of Crissa was covered with broken chariots as the sea with shipwrecks. But the man of Athens was very skilful in driving, and, when he saw the beginning of confusion, he drew his horses aside and held back, and so escaped without damage. Now Orestes was the hindermost of all, trusting to what he should do at the end; and when he saw that only the man of Athens was left, he shouted to his horses and made haste to come up with him. Then the two drave together, having their chariots equal, and first one showed somewhat in the front and then the other. And for eleven courses of the twelve all went well with Orestes; but as he was rounding the pillar for the last time, he loosed the left rein and knew not that he loosed it overmuch, and smote against the pillar and brake his axle in the midst, and so was thrown out of his chariot; but the reins were tangled about him and held him. And all the people cried aloud when they saw the young man dragged over the plain. But at last they that had driven the other chariots hardly stayed the horses, and loosed him. Covered with blood was he and sorely mangled, that none could have known him. And we burnt his body; and certain Phocians, whom the Prince hath sent for this purpose, bring that which remaineth of him, being but a few ashes in an urn of brass, for all he was so tall and strong. This is a sad tale for thee to hear; but for us who saw it never was anything in this world more grievous.”

Then the Queen said, “Shall I say that this hath happened ill or well? or that it is an evil thing, yet profitable to me? Surely it is grievous that I find safety in the death of my own kindred.”

“What troubleth thee, lady, in these news?” said the false messenger.

“‘Tis a dreadful thing to be a mother. Whatever wrong she suffereth she cannot hurt him whom she bare.”

“Then,” said he, “it seemeth that I have come in vain.”

“Not so,” the Queen made answer, “if thou showest proof that Orestes is dead. For he hath long been a stranger to me, and when he departed hence he knew me not, being very young; and of late, accusing me of the blood of his father, he hath made dreadful threats against me, so that I could not sleep in peace day or night. And now this day I am quit of this fear that wasted my very life.”

Then the Queen and the false messenger went into the palace; and when they were gone Electra cried, saying, “See here, forsooth, a mother that weepeth and mourneth for her son! O my Orestes, how utterly hast thou undone me! For now all the hope I had is gone that thou wouldst come and avenge my father. Whither can I go, for thou and he are gone? Must I be as a slave among them that slew my father? This gate at least I will enter no more. If I weary them, let them slay me, if they will; I should count it a grace so to die.”

And the maidens of Argos bewailed the dead brother with her. But in the midst of their lamentations came Chrysothemis in great joy, saying, “O my sister, I bring thee good tidings that will give thee ease from thy sorrows!”

“What ease, when they are past all remedy?”

“Orestes is here. Know this as surely as thou now seest me before thee.”

“Surely thou art mad, and laughest at thy woes and mine.”

“Not so. By the hearth of my fathers I swear it. Orestes is here.”

“Who told thee this tale that thou believest so strangely?”

“‘Tis from proofs that I saw with mine own eyes, and not another’s, that I believe. Listen, therefore. When I came to the tomb of my father, I saw on the top of the pillar offerings of milk that had been newly poured, and garlands of all manner of flowers. And marvelling much at this, I looked to see if any man was at hand; and seeing none, I drew near; and on the tomb I espied a lock of hair newly cut; and as soon as I espied it I knew that it was a token of Orestes, dearest of men in all the world to thee and me. And as I touched it I held my tongue from all words that might do hurt, and my eyes were filled with tears. And now think whose should this be but his? Who should do this but thou or I; and I did not, nor thou, who canst not go so far from this house; and my mother is not wont to do such things. ‘Tis Orestes surely. And now sorrow hath passed away, and all things will be well.”

“Nay,” Electra made answer, “I pity thee for thy folly.’

“Do not my tidings please thee?”

“I know not why thou talkest so wildly.”

“But may I not believe that which I have seen with mine own eyes?”

“O my sister, he is dead! Look not to him for help any more.”

“But stay. From whom didst thou learn this?”

“From one who was at hand when he perished.”

“Where is he? This is passing strange. Whose then could be these offerings on the tomb?”

“Some one hath put them for a remembrance of the dead Orestes.”

“Woe is me, and I made haste with the good tidings, as I thought, and knew not what new trouble worse than the old had fallen upon us.”

Then said Electra, “Hear now what I purpose. Thou knowest that we are utterly bereaved of friends, for Death hath devoured them all. Now, while Orestes yet lived and was prosperous, I hoped that he would come to avenge our father’s death. But now that he is dead, I look to thee, that thou shouldest make common cause with me and work this vengeance on them that slew him. Canst thou endure that we should live deprived of the wealth that was our father’s; and also that we should grow old unmated? For know that a husband thou shalt never have, for indeed Ægisthus is not unwise that he should suffer children to be born of thee or me to be a manifest damage to himself. But if thou wilt hearken to me, first thou wilt do that which is fitting to thy father and brother that are dead; and next thou wilt win great renown, and be married to a noble mate, for all men are wont to regard that which is worthy. And surely in days to come some man, citizen or stranger, that seeth us will say, ‘Look, my friends, at these sisters, for they wrought deliverance for the house of their father, and spared not their own lives, but slew their enemies in the day of their prosperity. These must we love and reverence; these on feast days, and when the city is gathered together, must we honour by reason of their courage.’ Wherefore, my sister, be of good heart. Be bold for thy father’s sake and for thy brother’s, for mine also and for thine, that we may be delivered from these troubles. For to them of noble breeding to live basely is a shame.”

But Chrysothemis made answer, “O my sister, how didst thou find such daring purpose as this, making ready thyself as for fight, and calling me to follow? Knowest thou not that thou art a woman and no man, and that thou art weaker than thine enemies, and that their good luck ever increaseth and ours groweth less and less? And what will it profit us if we get great renown, yet die in shameful fashion? And yet to die I think not such loss, but to wish to die and not attain to it, suffering torture or bonds. Keep thy anger within bounds. What thou hast said I will count as unsaid. Only yield to them that are stronger.”

And after many words, Electra urging her sister to this deed and the other excusing herself, the two parted in great anger. And Chrysothemis went into the palace, but Electra abode where she was. And to her, after a while, came Orestes, but disguised that no man might know him, and asked the Argive maidens that stood by, whether the house that he beheld was the palace of King Ægisthus, and when he heard that it was so, he bade them tell the King that certain Phocian strangers were come seeking him. But when Electra heard it, she said, “Comest thou with proof of this ill news that we have heard?”

And Orestes made answer, “I know not what news thou speakest of, but the old man, Strophius, the Phocian, bade me bring tidings of Orestes.”

“What are thy tidings, though I tremble to hear them?”

“We are come bringing all that remaineth of him in this urn.”

And when Electra saw it she cried that they should give the urn into her hands; and Orestes bade them do so. And she took it and said, “O Orestes, that wast dearer to me than all men else, how different is this coming of thine to that which I had hoped! Lovely wert thou when I sent thee from this house, and now I hold thee in my hands and thou art naught. Would to the Gods thou hadst died that day when thy father was slain; for now thou art dead, an exile, and in the land of strangers, and I paid thee no office of kindness nor took thy ashes from the funeral fire; but this did strangers for thee, and now thou comest a handful of ashes in a little urn. Woe is me for the wasted pains of nurture and the toil wherewith out of a willing heart I tended thee! For thy mother loved thee not more than I, nor was any one but I thy nurse. And now all this hath departed. My father is dead, and thou art dead, and my enemies laugh me to scorn, and thy mother that is no mother is mad with joy. Let me die with thee, for ’tis the dead alone whom I see to be quit of pain.”

But while she so spake Orestes was much troubled in heart and knew not what to do. But at the last he said, “Is this the Princess Electra whom I see?”

And she answered, “Even so, and very ill she fareth.”

Then he looked upon her again and said to himself, “What a noble lady is this, and in what ungodly fashion hath she been afflicted!”

And when Electra would know why he was so troubled, he said, “It paineth me to see thee excelling all women in sorrow.”

“Nay,” she said, “thou seest but a small part of my sorrows.”

“Hast thou, then, yet worse to bear than these?”

“Yea, for I live with them that are murderers.”

“Whom sayest thou they murdered?”

“They murdered my father—and I am constrained to serve them.”

“Who constraineth thee?”

“A mother that is no mother.”

“And is there none that can help thee?”

“None, for him that was my helper thou bringest in this urn. But why pitiest thou me as doth no other man? Art thou, perchance, a kinsman?”

“Put down this urn and I will tell thee.”

“Nay, stranger, take this not from me, for it holds all that is dearest to me.”

“Speak not such idle words: thy sorrow is without cause.”

“Sayest thou ‘without cause’ when my brother is dead?”

“Thou dost ill to speak thus of thy brother.”

“Doth the dead then think so lightly of me?”

“No man thinketh lightly of thee; yet with these ashes thou hast no concern.”

“How so, if this is the body of my Orestes?”

“Here is no true body, only one that is feigned.”

“Unhappy man! where, then, is his tomb?”

“He hath none—what need hath the living of a tomb?”

“Liveth he, then?”

“Yea, if I am alive.”

“Art thou, then, he?”

“Yea; look at this my father’s seal, and say whether I speak truly.”

And when she saw the seal, she knew that it was her father’s, and that this stranger was indeed Orestes. And she cried aloud for joy, and embraced him. Then, after the two had talked together for a very brief space, Orestes said, “Tell me not how ill thy mother hath done, nor how Ægisthus hath wasted the substance of my house; but rather instruct me in this: shall I do this thing secretly or openly? Take heed also lest thy mother see thee bear a joyful face, and so take warning.”

And Electra made answer, “As for this present, know that Ægisthus is absent, and that the Queen is alone. Therefore do as thou deemest best. And as for me, be sure that I shall not cease from tears; for the old sorrow is inveterate in me; and also, now that I have seen thee, I weep for joy.”

But while they talked together came the old man in haste, and rebuked them that they so spent the time; and to Orestes he said that no one knew him who he was, but that all deemed him dead, and that he must make haste and do the deed; for that now the Queen was alone, nor was there any man in the palace.

And Orestes, having prayed to the Gods, and especially to Apollo, who indeed had bidden him do this work, went into the palace. And at the first Electra went with him, but afterwards hastened out, to keep watch, lest perchance King Ægisthus should return. So she and the woman waited without and listened. And after a while there came a cry, “O my son, my son, have pity on thy mother.” And Electra said, “Aye, but thou hadst no pity on him, or on the father that begat him.” And then again a cry, “Woe is me! I am smitten.” And Electra said, “Smite, if thou canst, a double blow.” And then the voice came a third time, “I am smitten again.” But Electra made reply, “Would that Ægisthus were smitten with thee!” After this Orestes came forth, with his sword dripping with blood. And when the women asked him how it fared in the palace, he answered, “All is well, if only Apollo hath spoken the thing that is true.”

But as he spake King Ægisthus came back, asking, “Where be these strangers from Phocis that are come, telling how Prince Orestes hath come by his death in a chariot race?”

And Electra made answer that they were within. Then Ægisthus cried, “Open the gates, and let all men of Argos and of Mycenæ see the body; and if perchance any man hath been lifted up with vain hopes, let him look upon Orestes that he is dead, and so submit himself to me.”

Then the gate was opened, and there appeared a dead body, lying covered with a sheet. And Ægisthus said, “Take the covering from off his face; for he is my kinsman, and should not miss due mourning from me.”

But Orestes answered, “Take it thyself; for this dead body is thine, not mine.”

Then said Ægisthus, “Thou speakest well: if the Queen be within the palace, bid her come.”

And Orestes said, “She is near thee; look not elsewhere.” And when Ægisthus lifted the covering, lo! it was the Queen who lay dead. Then he knew the whole matter, and turned to the stranger saying, “Thou must be Orestes.”

“‘Tis even so,” cried Orestes. “And now go into the palace.”

“But why slayest thou me in darkness, if this deed be just?”

“I slay thee where thou didst slay him that is dead.”

So he drave him before him into the palace, and slew him there. Thus the blood of King Agamemnon was avenged.

Try aiPDF, our new AI assistant for students and researchers