Orestes – Son of Agamemnon (Greek Mythology)

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In Greek mythology, Orestes was the son of Agamemnon, the powerful king of Mycenae. He featured in several Greek myths featuring the murder of his mother, and his subsequent madness and absolvement. Orestes is the name of a play by the Ancient Greek playwright Euripides, which details his story after he commited matricide.

Who was Orestes?

Orestes was one of three children born to Agamemnon and his wife, Clytemnestra. His siblings included Iphigenia and Electra, the eldest of the three.

According to Homer’s version of the story, Orestes was a member of the house of Atreus which descended from Niobe and Tantalus. The House of Atreus was cursed and every member of the House was doomed to die an untimely death. It was Orestes who finally ended the curse and brought peace to the House of Atreus.

The Death of Agamemnon

Orestes’ myth begins when Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus waged war against the Trojans. Their fleet couldn’t depart because they first had to appease the goddess Artemis with a human sacrifice. The person to be sacrificed was Iphigenia, Orestes’ sister. Although reluctant, Agamemnon agreed to have this done. Agamemnon then went off to fight the Trojan War, and was away for a decade.

According to some sources, Orestes’s other sister, Electra, was concerned about the safety of her younger brother since he was the true heir to the throne. She secretly took him to her King Strophius of Phocis, who had been her father’s good friend. Strophius took Orestes in and raised him with Pylades, his own son. The two boys grew up together and became very close friends.

When Agamemnon returned from war after ten years, his wife Clytemnestra had a lover called Aegisthus. Together, the pair murdered Agamemnon, since Clytemnestra wanted revenge for the murder-sacrifice of her daughter. At this time, Orestes wasn’t present in Mycenae since he had been sent away to be kept safe.

Orestes and the Oracle

When Orestes grew up, he wanted revenge for the murder of his father and so he visited the Delphi oracle to ask what he should do to achieve this. The Oracle told him that he would have to kill both his mother and her lover. Orestes and his friend Pylades disguised themselves as messengers and went to Mycenae.

The Death of Clytemnestra

Clytemnestra had a dream that her son, Orestes, would return to Mycenae to avenge his father’s death. This came to pass, as Orestes returned to Mycenae, killing his mother and her lover for the murder of his father, Agamemnon.  In most versions of this story, it was Apollo, the sun god, who guided Orestes every step of the way with Electra helping Orestes to plan the murders.

Orestes and the Erinyes

Orestes pursued by clytemnestra
Orestes pursued by the Furies – William-Adolphe Bouguereau. (Public Domain)

Since Orestes  had committed matricide which was an unforgivable crime, he was haunted by the Erinyes, also known as the Furies. The Erinyes were goddesses of vengeance who punished and tormented those who had committed crimes that were against the natural order.

They kept haunting him until they finally drove him mad. Orestes tried to seek refuge in the temple of Apollo, but it wasn’t enough to shield him from the Furies and so he pleaded to the goddess Athena for a formal trial.

Athena, the goddess of wisdom, decided to accept Orestes’ request and a trial was held before the Twelve Olympian gods, who were to be the judges, including herself. Once all the gods had voted, it came down to Athena to give the deciding vote. She voted in Orestes’ favor. The Erinyes were offered a new ritual which appeased them and they left Orestes alone. Orestes was grateful to Athena, so much so that he dedicated an altar to her.

It’s said that Orestes ended the curse on the House of Atreus by taking revenge on his mother and paying for it with his own suffering.  

Orestes and the Land of Tauris

In an alternate version of the myth told by Euripides, the Greek playwright, Apollo told Orestes to go to Tauris and recover a sacred statue of the goddess Artemis. Tauris was a land well known for being inhabited by dangerous barbarians, but it was Orestes’ only hope of being free from the Erinyes.

Orestes and Pylades traveled to Tauris but the barbarians captured them and took them to the High Priestess who happened to be Iphigenia, Orestes’ sister. Apparently, Iphigenia hadn’t been sacrificed before the Trojan War after all, since she had been saved by the goddess Artemis. She helped her brother and his friend to retrieve the statue of Artemis and once they had it, she went back home to Greece with them. 

Orestes and Hermione

Orestes returned to his home in Mycenae and fell in love with Hermione, the beautiful daughter of Helen and Menelaus. In some accounts, he was supposed to marry Hermione before the Trojan War started but things changed after he committed matricide. Hermione had been married off to Neoptolemus, the son of Deidamia and the Greek hero Achilles.

According to Euripides, Orestes killed Neoptolemus and took Hermione, after which he became the ruler of the Pelopennesus. He and Hermione had a son called Tisamenus who was later killed by a descendant of Heracles.

Orestes became the ruler of Mycenae and continued to rule until the day he was bitten by a snake in Arcadia which killed him.

Pylades and Orestes

Pylades was said to have been Orestes’ cousin and a very close friend. He appeared in many of the myths featuring Orestes and played an important role in them. Many Greek writers present the relationship between the two as a romantic one and some even describe it as a homoerotic relationship.

This is emphasised in the version of the myth where Orestes and Pylades journey to Tauris. Before Iphigenia could recognize her brother, she asked one of them to deliver a letter to Greece. Whoever went to deliver the letter would be saved and the one who remained behind would be sacrificed. Each one of them wanted to sacrifice himself for the other but thankfully, they managed to escape.

The Orestes Complex

In the field of psychoanalysis, the term Orestes Complex, which derives from the Greek myth, refers to a son’s repressed impulse to kill his mother, thereby commiting matricide.

Orestes Facts

1- Who are Orestes’ parents?

Orestes’ mother is Clytemnestra and her father is King Agamemnon.

2- Why does Orestes kill his mother?

Orestes wanted to avenge the death of his father by killing his mother and her lover.

3- Why does Orestes become insane?

The Erinyes torment and haunt Orestes for killing his mother.

4- Who does Orestes marry?

Orestes marries Hermione, daughter of Helen and Menelaus.

5- What does the name Orestes mean?

Orestes means he who stands on the mountain or one who can conquer mountains. This could be a reference to how he overcame the curse plaguing his family as well as the many hardships he went through.

6- What type of hero is Orestes?

Orestes is considered a tragic hero, whose decisions and errors in judgement lead to his downfall.

In Brief

Orestes isn’t one of the most famous characters in Greek mythology but his role is intriguing. Through his experience and suffering, he freed his House of a horrible curse and was finally absolved of his sins.