Study Guide

Orestes, Electra, and Clytemnestra Summary

How It (Supposedly) Went Down

Brief Summary

At the urging of his sister, Electra, and the god Apollo, Orestes kills his mom, Clytemnestra, as payback for her murder of Agamemnon, Orestes' dad. Orestes' bloody deed majorly ticks off the dark-winged Furies who drive Orestes insane by torturing the crap out of him wherever he goes. Eventually, Apollo intervenes and sets up a trial in Athens, complete with a jury and Athena, goddess of wisdom, as the judge. Orestes is acquitted, the Furies are given a place of honor, and everybody does a happy dance. (Well, they're happy at least.)

Detailed Summary

  • Electra is a seriously disgruntled teenager.
  • She's beyond angry at her mom, Clytemnestra, for killing her dad, Agamemnon, and taking up with her dad's cousin Aegisthus, who now sits on Agamemnon's throne. (For the full scoop on this story, click here.)
  • Sure, Electra is a princess of the powerful city of Mycenae, but she just can't get into it.
  • In her mind, her mom's a murderous adulteress who gave her dad's kingdom away to a jerkwad.
  • For a while now, Electra has been writing to her brother Orestes for help.
  • Orestes didn't grow up in Mycenae because his nurse secreted him away to stay with a dude named King Strophius for fear that Clytemnestra would kill him too.
  • (In some versions, Electra was the one who spirited her brother away.)
  • Now that Orestes is a big boy, Electra is really hoping he'll come back to Mycenae and get revenge on their mother and her new king.
  • Orestes is stressed out about the idea of killing his own mother no matter what she did, so he goes to the Oracle of Delphi to get some advice. 
  • At the Oracle, he's told by Apollo that he's got to go back to Mycenae and give his mom the smackdown. 
  • Orestes is like, "Well, if you say so!" and strikes out for Mycenae with his best buddy Pylades, Strophius' son whom Orestes grew up with.
  • Orestes disguises himself as a messenger from Stophius who's come to tell the folks in Mycenae that "Orestes" is dead.
  • Before heading to the palace to off his mom, Orestes goes to Agamemnon's tomb to pay his respect by offering a lock of hair. 
  • Orestes and Pylades run into Electra at the tomb, and the girl is super happy to see her bro finally made it back.
  • Now, it's time for revenge. 
  • Using his messenger disguise to get into the palace, Orestes carries out the bloody deed.
  • Before you know it, Clytemnestra is dead as doornail.
  • Oh, and Orestes kills Aegisthus too. 
  • Instead of getting a reward for his gruesome deed, Orestes is suddenly attacked by the Furies
  • These dark-winged, snake-haired ladies from the Underworld are in charge of punishing wrongdoers, especially those that commit crimes against their own family.
  • (Why they haven't show up around here before now is anybody's guess.)
  • The Furies drive Orestes totally crazy.
  • They chase him all around the land, shrieking, whipping him, throwing snakes at him, you name it.
  • Eventually, Orestes takes refuge at the Oracle of Delphi, and is all like, "What's up, Apollo? You told me to do this, and now I've got these crazy ladies driving me nuts."
  • Apollo tells Orestes to chill out and go to Athens where everything will get smoothed over. 
  • When Orestes gets to Athens, Apollo sets up a trial with a jury and Athena, goddess of wisdom, as the judge.
  • Both sides argue their case.
  • The Furies say that Orestes is a terrible mother-killer.
  • Orestes says that his mother was a husband-killer and that he was ordered to do it by Apollo.
  • The jury ends up being hung, but Athena breaks the tie and acquits Orestes, saying that the cycle of bloodlust that's plagued Orestes' family needs to end. 
  • Athena appeases the furious Furies by renaming them the Eumenides (which means The Kindly Ones) and giving them a place of honor and worship in Athens.
  • Eventually, Electra marries Pylades, and Orestes marries his cousin Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen.
  • Orestes becomes a powerful king of Mycenae and takes over some more places to boot.
  • Eventually, though, he dies of snake bite. (Well, we've all got to go somehow.)

Alternate Ending

  • There are lots of spinoff versions of this myth.
  • The most popular alternate ending says that Apollo told Orestes and Pylades that if they traveled to the barbaric land of Tauris and took back a statue of Artemis that had fallen there, then the Furies would quit bugging Orestes.
  • Orestes and Pylades do just that, but they're immediately taken prisoner by the wild Taurians when they get there. 
  • Turns out, the Taurians make a habit of automatically sacrificing any Greeks that show up on their shores to Artemis. 
  • (Seems like Apollo ought to have mentioned that.)
  • When Orestes and Pylades get up to the sacrificial altar, they're in for a total shock.
  • It turns out that the priestess of Artemis is actually Orestes' long lost sister, Iphigenia.
  • He's very surprised to learn that Agamemnon never got a chance to sacrifice her, because Artemis whisked her way to Tauris at the last second and replaced her with a deer.
  • As soon as everybody recognizes each other, Iphigenia helps Orestes and Pylades escape, and the trio high tails it back to Greece.

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