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
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
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
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.