Orestes

This is a post for my March book challenge, #marchmonthofmythology.

You might know Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek armies in the Trojan war. You might also know he had a son called Orestes, in which case you probably know the entire story I’m about to tell you, in which case I’m sorry if you get bored (but I’m not forcing you to read this). In fact, Agamemnon’s family situation was a lot more complicated than just having a son. You see, he came from one of Greek mythology’s most famous cursed families.

The curse of the Tantalids

Now, this post is about Orestes, so I am not going to explain everything about this cursed family. That would be a whole post onto itself (which I’m definitely going to write some time). For now, suffice it to say: Orestes’ and Agamemnon’s ancestor Tantalus ruined it for everyone. Most recently, Agamemnon’s father Atreus had been in a long and complicated feud with his brother concerning the throne of Mycene, in which Atreus came out on top, leaving the throne to his eldest son Agamemnon. Agamemnon and his brother Menelaos luckily had a pretty good relationship, with no fights about thrones or anything. So you’d think that was a win, right? Maybe the curse was only supposed to last a few generations?

Wrong…

Agamemnon’s marital problems

Before the Trojan war, all the Greek ships met at an island from where they would sail to Troy together. The only problem was, the wind wasn’t working along. It turned out that Agamemnon had angered Artemis by shooting a holy deer, and now Artemis would only allow them to sail away on one condition: Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter to her.

He wasn’t a fan of the idea at first, and probably never became one, but when you’re stuck on an island with several armies who rely on you to be able to leave, there’s not much you can do. So he sent for his daughter Iphigeneia under the pretext of her marrying Achilles. The sacrifice commenced and just before the blade came down, Artemis transported Iphigeneia away to become her priestess, replacing the girl with a deer. Soon, a favourable wind started to blow. The only problem: no one knew Iphigeneia wasn’t actually dead, and Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, was pissed.

This family is complicated

Clytaemnestra had plenty of time to plot her revenge; the siege of Troy would last ten years, and that didn’t even include the way home. During the absence of her husband, she got a lover named Aegisthus. He was the son of Agamemnon’s uncle Thyestes (and I’m sorry to say his mother was Thyestes daughter… a Greek cursed family isn’t a cursed family if there’s no incest), and also wanted revenge on Agamemnon. (Because of their fathers’ feud I mentioned above – I told you this family was complicated.)

Details aside, it ended in Agamemnon getting murdered as soon as he got home, either at the dinner table or in a bath. Which finally brings us to what this post is actually about: Orestes’ impossible choice.

Every decision is a wrong decision

As a son, it was Orestes duty to avenge his father’s murder. But, also as a son, it would be a great crime to kill his mother. Either way, he would violate divine law. So which was more important? On the one hand, he’d barely known his father; on the other, his mother had committed cold-blooded murder and her boyfriend Aegisthus was a terrible person. In the end, urged on by his sister Elektra, he decided he had to avenge his father.

Violating divine law, even if you were doing it to avoid violating another divine law, could not go unpunished. After killing his mother, Orestes was followed around by three vengeful spirits called Furies or Erinyes. He travelled far and wide to flee from them. In the end he was able to escape their torment with the help of Athena, who organised a trial supervised by her and twelve Athenian judges. The court decided that Orestes had done the right thing, but from then on there would be no personal vengeance anymore: guilt and punishment would be decided in a court of law.

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Orestes – moral dilemma

The A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin is full of moral dilemmas – deadly ones. And the worst thing is, it’s often the right choice that gets you killed. Or you’ll die whatever you do and your choice doesn’t seem to matter at all. I’ve heard this series being compared to Greek tragedy, and I can definitely see that in this case. We’ll just have to wait and see whether these books end like a tragedy as well… (Though Orestes’ story is one of the few tragedies that do have a happy ending.)

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