Civic Dialogue and Irrational Desire in Euripides’ Orestes

Euripides tells a story of the murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes, which Aeschylus had already dealt with in the Oresteia.  There are  major variations in Euripides’ telling.  In both stories Agamemnon is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra after his return from the Trojan War, their son Orestes murders her with the help of their daughter, Electra.  What Euripides most obviously adds is a story about Menelaus and Helen (of Troy).  As Homer explains in The Iliad (the story of Ilium, the Greek name for Troy which is a Roman word), the Trojan War began because the Trojan Prince Paris seduced Helen, wife of the Spartan King Menelaus, and took her to Troy.  Menelaus’ brother King of Argos (Mycenae) assembles an army of all the Greek states.  After 10 years Troy falls, Menelaus takes Helen back as his wife, and all the surviving Greek leaders and soldiers return to Greece.   Homer’s story may have a historical basis in a Greek assault, towards the end of the Bronze/Mycenaean Age, just before a Mediterranean Dark Age,  on now the ruined city in Hısarlık, western Anatolia, which is possibly the city known to the Hittites as Wilusa, but it is impossible to know this for sure.

According to Euripides, Menelaus sends Helen ahead of him by ship, at the end of the journey back from Troy, by night because she is so widely hated.  She is hated because her adultery with Paris (and adultery was a serious crime for the Ancient Greeks) lead to the deaths of thousands of Greeks.  The suggestion is that women in particular hate her because of the deaths of husbands and sons, with the implication that jealously of her famous beauty is also a factor. Orestes has murdered his mother in cooperation with Electra.  He is in a state of what we now think of as mental breakdown, though Euripides describes it as visions of the supernatural.  What Orestes sees are the Furies, the ugly looking semi-divinities which pursue revenge justice, and are understood to be female.  Orestes even mistakes Electra for one of the Furies.  Orestes comes under pressure from two directions.  Firstly, he is hated in Argos for murdering his mother.  Though Clytemnestra murdered King Agamemnon, for Orestes to kill hİs mother is to pollute himself and go against ideas of divine and Greek law.  Secondly, the return of Helen intensifies his frenzy to kill evil women.  Electra also hates Helen.  Se helps Helen to pass on a funeral offering for Clytemnestra, which includes some of Helen’s hair.  Electra is outraged by what she sees as Helen’s vanity in only cutting the end of some of her hair, so that her beauty is not impaired.  Orestes has an encounter with Tyndareos, father of both Helen and Clytemnestra.  He is deeply angry with Orestes, and condemns Menelaus for having friendly relations with Orestes despite the murder of  Clytemnestra.  Orestes and Tyndareos have an argument, which partly revolves around the idea of Orestes speaking his mind fully, which could be taken as a reference to the value of free public speaking, which Euripides emphasises in connection with Athens in The Suppliant Women (see two posts back).  The argument establishes that Tyndareos regards Orestes as a criminal, and that Orestes thinks he was right to kill his mother.  This is a moment of free speaking which does not resolve anything or lead to a political solution.

Tyndareos and the common people of Argos want Orestes executed.  Euripides represents the opinions of the common people in a negative way despite his apparent respect for free speaking citizens. There may be an implicit criticism of Athenian democracy here.  The people are shown to speak out of anger and manipulation, rather than well formed judgement.  Though the aristocratic and royal characters do not appear very rational either.  Orestes is faced with mob justice, the divine vengeance of the Furies, and the possibility of more normal forms of legal condemnation.  This drives him further into a frenzy in which he consider joint suicide with Electra, and wants to kill Helen.  He succeeds in trapping Helen and nearly kills, but she suddenly disappears.  In his continuing frenzy Orestes grabs a Phrygian man, that is a man from a people who lived in western Anatolia, who has come back with the Greeks from the Trojan War.  This results in a grotesque parody of the sort of free speaking Orestes had engaged in with Tyndareos, and which was associated with Athenian democracy.  Orestes forces the man to speak his mind, but of course the man is frightened that Orestes will kill him if he says the wrong thing.  So he says what he thinks Orestes wants to hear, denouncing Helen, and so on, and Orestes realises the mans just says what he thinks Orestes wants to hear, which makes Orestes even more frenzied.

Menelaus arrives and Orestes grabs Hermione, the daughter of Helen and Menelaus, threatening to kill her.  Since Helen just disappeared (Menelaus thins Orestes has killed her and wants the body to bury), Orestes wants to use up his anger on the nearest thing.  He wants to destroy all wicked women and seems to regard women as largely wicked.  This is an extreme version of  general Greek attitudes, according to which women were inferior, irrational, and willing to betray.  His threat to kill Hermione contains an echo of Agamemnon killing his daughter Iphigenia, to win favour from the gods.  Orestes also threatens to burn down the royal palace in Argos. The god Apollo appears suddenly in order to resolve the situation.  He reveals that Helen was swept away by divine influence from murder by Orestes, so that she can live with dead heroes in a kind of Greek heaven.  He tells Menelaus that Helen cannot continue her previous life, because her beauty is so dangerous, serving the gods as an instrument to promote war between Greeks and Trojans, something they want because they wish to reduce the number of humans.   Apollo’s argument opposes Orestes’ view that Helen is an evil woman with the view that she is just one of the victims of a beauty which surpasses that of normal humans.  Apollo tells Menelaus to find another wife and escape from the cycle of disasters associated with Helen.  Apollo  tells Orestes that he will have to go into exile in a place called Parrhasia, which is the Greek word of free speaking.  So the suggestion is that Orestes is the victim of his tendency to speak too freely, to fail to exercise moderation in his use of free speaking, and to be dominated by uncontrolled emotions.  Apollo tells Orestes that after one year, he will  have to go trial in Athen, on the Mount of Ares, the hill associated with the god of war, and with the historically real court of Areopagus.  Apollo tells Orestes he will be acquitted after the Furies have presented their case.  He will then marry Hermione (who Orestes was just threatening to kill) and become King of Argos.  He tells Menelaus that he can only be King of Sparta, and not take Argos as compensation for losing Helen.  Apollo appears to have ended the war of the gods against the House of Atreus which led to the cycle of killings.  His intervention makes Athens the centre and judge of the Greek world, and suggests that Sparta does  not have the right to dominate Greece, all very relevant to relations between Greek states in the time of Euripides.

Apollo appears in a more positive role than in Ion, where he has become the evasive dissembling and rapist god. His role as giver of order, particularly the Athenian domination of the Hellenic order is still present, and with much less unfavourable context. We seem to have a much more straight forward celebration of divinity and civic life, though based on the overcoming of very extreme tensions. Women are present in two aspects: the dangerous excess of attraction on the side of Helen; as safe women who can be married without danger. There is an implied anxiety about sexuality and desire, that it might become to dominating over a man, leading him to treat a woman as a goddess, or be bewitched by her like a sorceress, possibilities both explored by Homer in The Odyssey. Euripides ideas about proper civic dialogue seem great from the point of view of any kind of liberal, republican, or democratic theory, but are embedded in a much disturbing struggle with desires and fears, which have a nonhuman force.


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