Atrides - Part Three

Agamemnon, son of Atreus, hungry for glory,

unmindful or uncaring of the curses on his family,

slaughtered his daughter, Iphegenia,

to placate the divine Artemis

whom he had heedlessly offended

by casually killing one of her sacred stags

and boasting that he had more skill in hunting

than the chaste daughter of Zeus,

the goddess of hunting, herself.

 

Agamemnon’s thirst for victory and hunger for glory

must have been strong indeed

if it had the power to induce him,

the King of Mycenae and leader of all Greeks,

to cut his daughter’s throat. He was a warrior,

success in war meant much to him,

but even so he clearly was psychotic,

as indeed was Artemis who,

in revenge for Agamemnon’s killing of a deer,

admittedly a sacred one,

demanded Agamemnon should sacrifice his child.

 

I’m sorry but I cannot let this pass.

He cut his daughter’s throat. Just for a moment

let us suspend our stupidly uncritical acceptance

of a system of belief in gods imbued

with all man’s weaknesses, but magnified,

(the greed and lust, the vanity and self-deceit

in grossly vaster forms than found in man),

set all this nonsense to one side,

and we are left with Agamemnon,

a father, prepared to take his knife

and cut his daughter’s throat because he thought

his daughter’s death a price worth paying

to improve his luck.

 

Even if we did believe in gods, would we accept

that Artemis could set such an outrageous price

on her forgiveness of Agamemnon’s insolence?

Did it not even cross the mind of Agamemnon,

that her demand alone disqualified her from divinity?

If we are going to believe in gods,

it’s not unreasonable to set a higher bar than this.

Gods should at least be better

than the average man or woman,

not far worse, for after all our faith in gods

is very much a personal decision, a choice,

and one where it makes sense to worship gods

who are creative and benign, not those

who are destructive and malevolent.

 

While Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife,

might not concur with all the thoughts above,

on one point she and we would probably agree,

that Agamemnon’s murder of their daughter

was unforgivable, so she did not forgive him.

 

In Agamemnon’s absence on his Trojan spree,

cold Clytemnestra, sister of the famous Helen,

took as her lover Aegisthus, as charismatic

and as evil as his father Thyestes.

 

And why do I call Clytemnestra cold?

Because the murder of her husband was

beyond dispute

a coldly calculated act of vengeance

which she for many years had planned

to punish Agamemnon as cruelly as possible.

‘Twas not enough that he should die.

Aegisthus was the instrument she chose

to bring about her husband’s death.

Aegisthus, son of Thyestes,

the bitter enemy of Agamemnon’s father.

 

When Agamemnon, satisfied with sacking Troy

returned to Mycenae victorious,

accompanied by his captive concubine Cassandra,

Clytemnestra still held back. She waited,

giving time for Agamemnon and Cassandra

to see their twin boys, Teledamus and Pelops,

born into a world of vengeance and of death.

Then Clytemnestra struck. Egged on by Aegisthus,

she waited till her warrior husband was in his bath,

then swaddled him in scented towels

and stabbed him through the heart.

Not satisfied with Agamemnon’s death

to show she was a match for any man

in heartless and implacable brutality,

she watched as Aegisthus cut down

the prophetess Cassandra

(who had, of course, foreseen her death)

and then murder her twin sons.

Ironically, foreknowledge of her death

was one of very few Cassandran forecasts

that was wholeheartedly believed

by the very one whose fate she had predicted.

 

How Clytemnestra felt, when driving home

the dagger into Agamemnon’s heart

cannot be known for sure.

The slitting of her daughter’s throat

was surely uppermost, but there were other factors

which could have played a part.

Iphegenia’s death left her distraught;

she may have felt that Agamemnon’s

abrupt departure on a quest

to take back Helen on behalf of brother Menelaus

was overly insensitive at such a time

but, given Agamemnon was the author of her misery,

his absence caused but one regret,

that she must wait for years to take revenge.

When he returned, accompanied by a Trojan girl,

Cassandra, she may have felt a twinge of jealousy

but its more likely that she simply saw Cassandra

as aligned with Agamemnon and therefore,

like his twin sons, doomed to die.

 

The death of Agamemnon was not the end.

 

Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, on reaching manhood,

enquired of the Delphic oracle

how he might best avenge his father’s murder.

With an untypical, unwonted disregard for ambiguity

the oracle prescribed, with indisputably pellucid clarity,

the only way to put things right

was for Orestes, son of Agamemnon,

to murder his own mother and her lover.

The fate of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus

was thus sealed.

 

And so it happened that, at one and the same time,

Orestes, inheritor of curses, became

the hero who had avenged the murder of his father,

and the greatest of all sinners, the son

who had mercilessly murdered his own mother.

 

Not surprisingly, he was tormented by the Furies,

for, after all, he had been caught

between two harsh, irreconcilable imperatives

an obvious conunmdrum

which, in passing, I might observe,

of all the many challenges that face humanity,

is, beyond a doubt, the most intractable,

and rarely capable satisfactory solution.

 

A word about the Furies, or Erynyes,

as they were called in Greek. 

three Chthonic goddesses

birthed from the blood Uranus

when Cronus cast his father’s testicles

into the wine-dark, yet, on this occasion, frothing sea.

Their task was to pursue and punish those

who had betrayed a sacred trust

and violated the essential bonds

that bind the human family together.

They represent both justice and revenge;

their work is retribution.

I’ll take a moment of your time to ponder

their significance with the Pantheon

of Ancient Greece.  First, they were female.

I find it interesting that the judicial role

of punishing offenders against the moral code

was, in a patriarchal world, ascribed to women,

albeit those blessed or cursed with immortality.

I think it also is the case, that in the anarchy

of ancient Greek Theogeny, in which

Zeus, master of Olympus and ruler of the gods,

was a capricious and lascivious entity

who in his selfishness, his self indulgence

and his self-obsession would find himself

at home within the current cult of individualism,

the Furies were the only means of forcing

those who broke the rules to take on board

the consequences of their often heinous actions.

Thus it fell to them to terrify Orestes,

to make it clear to him that matricide

was not a sin to be assuaged

by perfectly legitimate but inadequate appeals

to atavistic concepts of an honour killing.

 

In flight from his tormentors

Orestes sought sanctuary in Delphi,

where the ever-helpful oracle

suggested, with what can only be described

as the product of an egregious sense of humour,

that he should seek judicial overview

of his predicament

in Athens from the Areopagus,

the court of Athens’ elders,

an extraordinarily pedestrian and banal device

for bringing to an end

the horrific sequence of events

unfolded in this narrative.

 

In the end, it comes as no surprise,

the elders found that they could not decide,

for they, in common with all such august bodies,

tend to be more comfortable when reminiscing

about their past achievements,

inflating their own egos, or bigging up,

as we might say, in the vernacular,

the often spurious significance of their existence

than in facing and resolving

the pressing issues of the day.

 

The crimes were clear, beyond dispute,

a fact the prosecuting Furies emphasised,

but when extenuating circumstances,

the nature of the provocation,

and the cruel dilemma that Orestes faced,

were factored in, the court remained divided,

half four and half against.

 

The ever-wise Athena, was never one

for long and inconclusive meetings.

She weighed the evidence and then

because Apollo spoke on his behalf

and, if truth be told,

because she had been born full-grown,

not from a women’s womb but from the head of Zeus,

and therefore was inclined to favour men

and father’s in particular,

at the expense of women,

in this case Agamemnon over Clytemnestra

and Orestes over the Erinyes

she swiftly silenced all, brought matters to a head,

and cast her vote in favour of Orestes,

thus exorcising, once for all

the evil that had beset the House of Atreus

whom those who have been paying close attention

will recall was none other than Orestes’ grandfather,

as Tantalus was grandfather of Atreus

which is where this long

and necessarily convoluted tale

began

 

By now, I think it safe that I assume

that you, dear reader, are as convinced as I

that human nature as exemplified

by the nobility of ancient Greece

left much to be desired;

indeed the word dysfunctional

scarcely does justice to the appalling cruelty

that members of the House Atrides

wrought ruthlessly upon each other

endlessly.

 

We can, I think, reasonably forgive

the bitter Clytemnestra for her infidelity

and we can understand full well

why she would choose Thyestes’ son

for her adultery, given he had form

in callously despatching

members of the family Atreides,

to which, of course, he certainly belonged,

despite my unsupported speculation

concerning his paternity.

 

What lesson does this tale teach?

 

It surely furnished abundant evidence

of the appalling dangers faced

by womenfolk and especially

by the daughters of the heroes

of ancient Greece –

Iphigenia, sister of Orestes, murdered

and Pelopia raped -

by their respective fathers.

What kind of man would cut his daughter’s throat

merely to put wind in the sails of his marauding fleet?

What kind of man rapes his own daughter

in order to wreak vengeance on his rival?

‘though in Thyestes case
we cannot help but feel
some grudging admiration for his ability,

despite his pressing hatred of his brother,

to take the long view and thus epitomise

the saying that revenge is indisputably
a dish best served chilled,

or better still, served cold –

not that we necessarily endorse acts of revenge

but wish to indicate that if revenge is sought,

it’s best contrived and implemented

long after the stormy sea of anger has abated

and the act itself can take its proper place

in the ensuing, deeply dark and seeming placid waters

of enduring hate.

 

Although we understand the outrage of Clytemnestra,

her coldly calculated execution of her husband

gives us pause for thought. She again took time,

more than ten years, to take revenge,

delay not of her choice but one imposed

by Agamemnon’s absence on his Trojan expedition.

But when she made her move,

was Agamemnon’s murder

a coldly calculated and proportionate response

to his appalling cruelty of many years before,

or was, for Clytemnestra, her adultery

and Agamemnon’s murder

the consummation of uncontrollable emotion,

a blend of lust and loneliness,

mixed with unmitigated hatred

and unremitting grief?

 

And there is something else.

I hesitate to question the mental disposition

of the oracles so much revered

and, indeed, depended on by high and low

in ancient Greece

but, hesitation overcome, I have to say

it’s difficult to conjure up

even in the darkest precincts of imagination

a more meddling, muddling and malicious entity

than Delphi’s oracle.

Most of the oracle’s pronouncements

were masterpieces of ingenious ambiguity,

designed to torment, rather than enlighten,

those who sought its help,

with words about as useful as

an ashtray on a motorbike

or, indeed, a gallium teaspoon,

for those who feel the image of a motorbike

offends against to classic tenour of this tale,

not that images of melting spoons in cups of tea

or digging in to sticky toffee pudding

fits any better in a world of nectar and ambrosia.

 

But I digress, back to the oracle.

When, on the odd occasion, its advice was clear

as in the answer it afforded young Orestes,

it set him on a course destined to flip the lid

of any son, and stir the brains beneath the lid

into a maelstrom of unremitting guilt.

 

I struggle I confess to understand

the meaning of this chronicle of fear and hate.

What message does this baleful tale impart.

We tend to think that tales of long ago,

especially those that we revere as myths

should be excused all critical analysis,

exempt from any petty mortal reservations,

and I would be the first to challenge those

who casually impose the values of today

on those who lived in different times

in different circumstances. And yet I say

that acts of murder, rape and incest,

motives of hatred, lust for power and revenge,

the gross abuse of children by their parents

and equally of parents by their own offspring

are surely crimes against humanity

at every time in every place.

 

So on the next occasion when we read

that Zeus descended on a maid and raped her

or that some other god,

for fear his son might, when full grown, usurp him,

cuts down his son or chops him up

and cooks him in a stew for dinner guests,

then I suggest we say both to ourselves and others,

without a hint of disrespect for mythical conventions,

that most of the Greek gods and heroes,

in any world with any sense of decency,

should have been smothered at birth

(as indeed their fathers oft thought best)

or, if they had survived as, in the main, they did,

taken gently to one side, slyly anaesthetised

and then, while semi-comatose,

sectioned for all eternity.

 

So if we choose to put our faith in gods

then for the sake of heaven and humanity,

learn from this yarn at least one worthwhile lesson.

Choose wisely whom to worship

and, at the very least, ensure that those

for whom you think to bend the knee

are better than the best of us,

and not, in any way, as evil as our worst.