Orestes: An Innocent Hero
Throughout time there has been a universal question that does not yet yield a universal answer. All people have a different view on whether or not it is right to avenge the killing of another, through the death of the killers. In America during this day and age, it is the obligation of the court system to decide whether or not a murderer should be put to death. Most of the time, the criminal is sentenced to a prison term, but when a judge decides to issue the death penalty there is usually an uproar among the people. Does the court now become a murderer along with the convicted felon or is the court an innocent body. Is it a hero who is looked upon as the hand of justice or just another bad guy? In the trilogy of ‘The Oresteia,’; we come across a similar situation. When his jealous wife Clytaemnestra and his cousin Aegisthus kill Agamemnon, the king of Argos, it is up to his long lost son Orestes, to avenge his death. To the people of Argos and the house of Atreus, Orestes was an innocent hero in yet another chess game played by the gods.
Deep into the first story of ‘The Oresteia,’; better known as ‘Agamemnon,’; Cassandra, who has been cursed by Apollo to be a seer who will never be believed, envisions the death of Agamemnon and herself. It is in this vision that she sees an avenger who will come about and bring justice to the murdered victims, ‘ We will die, but not without some honor from the gods. There will come another to avenge us, born to kill his mother, born his father’s champion. The gods have sworn a monumental oath: as his father lies upon the ground he draws him home with power like a prayer.’; ( Aeschylus. The Oresteia U.S.A.: Penguin, 1975.) This vision proves to be very important when speaking about the innocence of Orestes and his heroism as well. Before the incident even takes place, we know that the gods have destined Orestes to avenge his father’s death. During this period of time, when the gods were on your side, you were doing the right thing! Another way to prove Orestes innocence is through the god of sun, song, and prophecy, better known as Apollo.
Early on in ‘The Libation Bearers’; Orestes puts his faith in Apollo. He declares:
‘Apollo will never fail me, no, his tremendous power, his oracle charges me to see this trial through. I can still hear the god ;#8211; a high voice ringing with winters of disaster, piercing the heart within me, warm and strong, unless I hunt my father’s murderers, cut them down in their own style – ‘gore them like a bull!’ he called, ‘or pay their debt with your own life, one long career of grief.’; (Aeschylus, 191)
This statement is all but a lie, because during the trial in ‘The Eumenides’;, Apollo speaks on behalf of Zeus and admits that he was an accomplice in the murder of Clytaemnestra. As it turns out Apollo actually commanded Orestes to avenge the death of his father. We can see this clearly when Apollo literally says, ‘ I commanded him to avenge his father . . .’; (Aeschylus, 239) Orestes’ case was also helped when Apollo came forward and became his witness, and took part of the blame as well.
‘I come as a witness. This man, according to custom, this suppliant sought out my house and hearth. I am the one who purged his bloody hands. His champion too, I share responsibility for his mother’s execution. Bring on the trial. You know the rules, now turn them into justice.’; (Aeschylus, 256)
Some may ask the Question, ‘Who is Apollo to say that this man is innocent, and why does his opinion matter?’; In this case, Apollo has a huge authority over all of the other gods and for one reason only. He is a servant of Zeus, and through Orestes, he has carried out the will of the Olympian Father (Zeus). Apollo swears that ‘ This is his justice ;#8211; omnipotent, I warn you. Bend to the will of Zeus. No oath can match the power of the Father.’; (Aeschylus, 259)
It is also apparent that Clyteamnestra was evil. When the chorus states, ‘Mad with ambition, shrilling pride! – some Fury crazed with the carnage rages through your brain . . .’; (Aeschlus, 163) we can see that she is taken in and possessed by the Furies, evil beings who were in contrast with the gods. This is only an added incentive to the innocence of Orestes. Apollo who aided Orestes in this act of revenge totally despised the furies. As he points to them with his mystical finger he angrily yells out, ‘. . . these obcenities! ;#8211; I’ve caught them, beaten them down with sleep. They disgust me.’; (Aeschylus, 234)
There is also a kind of hero aspect, which is branded onto Orestes. Throughout ‘The Oresteia’;, he is envisioned to be a ‘Moses’; for the house of Atreus. This is more evident in part two of the trilogy called ‘The Libation Bearers’;, which takes place several years after Agamemnon’s death.
Now that Agamemnon is dead, the evil Clyteamnestra and Aegisthus think they have the power to control the house of Atreus, but the people still have faith in their destined avenger. To the chorus of old men and their leader, Orestes is seen as a hero or liberator. They feel that all of their hopes and their future depend on him. When Aegisthus tyrannically asserts, ‘I’ll stalk you all your days,’; (Aeschylus, 172) the leader confidently replies, ‘Not if the spirit brings Orestes home.’; (Aeschylus, 172)
As we move on in ‘The Libation Bearers’;, Electra, like the leader and his chorus, also looks to Orestes as a savior or hero. As she sits at the grave of her father Agamemnon, Electra prays to Hermes, god of the dead. She prays for ‘the one, who murders in return!’; (Aeschylus, 182) Later on in her prayers she says, ‘ Rekindle the light that saves our house!’; (Aeschylus, 183) and ‘Raise up your avenger, into the light, my father – kill the killers in return with justice.’; (Aeschylus, 183) All of these prayerful statements refer to one; Orestes. As the trilogy comes to a climax, Orestes finally acts out his revenge and it is not until the end of his trial that his destiny is fulfilled.
At the end of the trilogy, the jury was split fifty fifty, and in another proof of innocence the tie breaking lot thrown by Athena was in favor of Orestes. He was officially proven innocent. Once more in Greek mythology, human beings were used as pawns in a godly game of chess; but at least this is one of those times when an innocent hero emerged.