The Orestiad: Epiphany
Bright, white, boring, and hideously feminine. No one prepared me for that part of death. If they had, I never would’ve been so on board with the “glorified deaths are the height of honor” mantra and I certainly would never have entered into anything liable to send me to this monotonous, ladies’ perfume-scented hellhole any sooner than the date I actually arrived here. Of course, I knew about the Asphodel beforehand. Who didn’t? But I never really thought about ever being completely surrounded by the ghastly stuff, let alone being surrounded by it for all eternity.
Yes, eternity. A large word for a large concept. It makes me laugh when I remember how the living used to complain of people or things taking an “eternity” to be completed or to do something. They have no idea. No one has any idea of eternity until they have died and are forced to exist, bodiless, amidst this sea of whiteness. And still, the dead know only a fraction of what eternity truly is unless they, like me, are forced to wear their regrets like chains for the rest of it.
Two and a half millennia later and I feel as if it’s been at least ten times that, but in the reality of my situation, it’s been less than a millisecond compared with what’s to come. Perhaps it is the insignificance this knowledge brings me that has made me realize that emotion is petty. Perhaps it is the mere fact of those two and a half millennia, for surely nothing that happened then can affect me now. And perhaps I’ve just realized it’s about time I apologized.
Ha! How she would love to hear me utter those words! The triumph it would bring her! But no, even two and a half thousand years later I still will not give that bitch the satisfaction of knowing I give in. No, I will never progress beyond musing over them in my head, wondering if perhaps they are true. “I’m sorry”, the two most hideous and weak words of any language, shall never escape my lips. Not in this dreary excuse for an existence, nor in any to follow. And especially not to a woman.
I sense some discomfort at that statement. What is it, world? Have you solved all your equality issues in those two and a half thousand years? How expert of you. I was sure it would take you at least twice the time to even begin. What’s that? Improper? Propriety! Why bother with propriety now? You know it to be true. We all know it to be true. Right down to the babe who died of the croup yesterday. The living may delude themselves into believing that they have improved themselves since our times, the times of the noble pirate-kings and all-knowing gods, but they have not. They could not be farther from that goal in reality.
There’s no point in lying to anyone down here. It won’t do anyone any good. Women are the weaker sex. Always have been. Always will. My advice to you, gentlemen: take her to bed and leave her there the next morning. Let her get one toe into your affairs and you’re screwed for eternity (need I remind you what that means?). No, better to enrage the gods all your life than trust a woman. Believe me, I know.
The woman in question, however, was my sister, Electra. No wild nights for me, at least, not yet. I was hardly one year old at the start of all this. Too young for anything at night at all and too young to sail off with my father to fight in the Trojan War. The Trojan War. The root of everyone’s troubles.
Of course I’m not the only one able to blame that harlot Helen for the beginning of all their misfortunes. If anyone ever decided to compile a list of all those whose lives she destroyed I’d want to know about it—so I could laugh at their foolish belief that they would ever finish. Helen, that delicious concubine, that scarlet woman, that queen of fools, ran off with Paris, creating the spark that would set of the explosion in all of our lives.
I was too young to realize what had happened at the time. I didn’t know why my father had suddenly left, and why one of my sisters disappeared with him. My one year old brain couldn’t process such things. And certainly couldn’t make the connection between that and my mother spending her days crying her eyes out over her loom. Those are my earliest memories of my mother. Weeping. Always weeping. Crying a river of tears which would flow down into the ocean where my sister’s body had come to rest.
For of course, Iphigeneia was dead, as I later learned. Sacrificed to the gods in order to obtain favorable winds on the journey to Troy. Killed by her father, mourned by her mother, and forgotten by her siblings. What a way to welcome a child into the world! Just think, if I had known what was taking place around me, my first year of life would have been something along the lines of: Orestes! Heir to your father’s throne! Now this is your sister, Electra and that girl over there, the one your father’s in the process of murdering, she’s your other sister, Iphigeneia. Now, we’ll never let any harm come to you, will we? The scene could only be more perfect if Electra were standing by mouthing “You’ll be next!” at me.
However, the truth of Electra could not be more different, or more confusing. Father and sister gone, mother crying herself half to death and likely foggy as to the existence of her other two children (she never did like Electra and me; it’s always made me wonder if there was some prophecy surrounding my birth. Even now, in death, I have no idea whether there was, but long talks with my distant cousin, Penelope, have convinced me that I’m merely creating justification for my mother in order to make myself feel better.), Electra was all I had. Being quite a few years older than me, she took over looking after me and I came to think of her more my mother than Clytemnestra.
I’m not sure at what age it was, certainly by eight, but I realized that I had been abandoned. No, not by my father, though he was the one physically absent from my life, but by my mother. She sat by, watching my sister raise me, never raising a finger to do anything for or against me. When I spoke to her, she did not look at me, instead she stared at a point slightly above my shoulder or head and replied as if to a wall. And, as befitted comments made to bits of architecture, these replies were completely devoid of all emotion. It was this apathy, I discovered, that was abandonment. Following this upsetting realization, I locked myself in my room for days on end, sulking and crying and ignoring everyone else.
Now, I appreciate the irony of such behavior. For those few weeks where I allowed myself to lie in bitter apathy, cloistered in my room, I turned into my mother, the very reason for my distress. Remembering this, I can’t help but laugh. I see myself, an unusually good-looking lad and tall for my eight years, sitting on my bed, staring at the opposite wall, arms crossed, and bottom lip jutting out far enough to serve as a perch for any bird.
But it didn’t last. As with all my moods, Electra was able to recall me within a few weeks. And then life continued on as it had before my realization. That is, it did until my tenth year.
I’ll never forget that night. The night Electra saved my life.
She woke me in the dead of night without a sound. I remember starting up as she gently shook me to see her white face, illuminated by the covered oil lamp in her slightly shaking hand.
“Wha—?” I began to ask before her hand was covering my mouth, clamping it shut. Without a word, she pulled my blankets back and threw my thickest cloak at me. Silently, I stepped out of bed and began strapping on my sandals. I could see she was impatient from her tense stance as she stood by the door, obviously listening. I know that that should have made me hurry in my work. But I was ten years old. And more importantly, I was a younger brother and she was my elder sister, impatient because of me. Idiot that I was, I took an excruciatingly long time strapping my sandals on and then donning my cloak. I’m lucky that those few moments did not cost me my life. Not that I knew that they might’ve, of course.
When I was ready, Electra grabbed my hand and began leading me silently through the halls of our palace. I think it was somewhere around there that I must have realized that my sister was not just playing a joke on her kid brother. Something really was wrong. Very wrong. And Electra wasn’t telling me. She continued pulling me along as my heart began to beat faster than a hummingbird’s wings in summer.
“Electr—” again she cut me off, stifling me with her hand, and again I fell silent. This time, I didn’t say anything until we were out of my parent’s palace and all the way down at the harbor. Now, I couldn’t resist. And we had to be safe from prying eyes and open ears. I was preparing to speak, when I noticed something. Something both spectacular and ominous. My father’s ship. The ship he had sailed to Troy in. That trim, fast vessel which I had never seen, and yet knew so well.
“Agamemnon!” This time it was my own hands that flew to my mouth to stifle the noise. I was terrified someone had heard my half-shout, now certain that greater things than I had ever imagined were afoot. Electra was ignoring me however. She left me staring at the great ship, and, hiking up her skirts, ran over to a smaller, but no less grand, ship. She was met by whom I assumed was the captain as she reached it and they immediately engaged in rapid conversation.
My sister had lost all of her calm now; she appeared completely frantic. The man she was speaking with seemed to be attempting to reassure her in some way, but I’m not so sure how well it worked, for when she called me over again, it was with fear in her eyes and a tremor in her voice. I will never forget her sugarcoated words. “Orestes—dear—we’re leaving for awhile. Alright? Father’s home and there are a few things he and mother need to settle before either of them sees you again. And, m-mother—” she stopped, considering whether to tell me more. Whatever it was, she decided I did not need to know for all the rest that I learned that night came from my tutor, whom I discovered was accompanying us to Phanote on Mount Parnassus, my home for the next ten years of my life.
So it was that I was not present at the homecoming of my father which mainly consisted of my mother brutally murdering him in his bath. I learned of this a few days later when I had the entire episode explained to me. Electra had discovered the arrival of our father and knowing of our mother’s continued grief over Iphigeneia and her hatred for the murderer she had made the quickest arrangements possible to get me out of the way. “Why?” I asked over and over again. “Why did I need to leave? What danger was I in?”
I did not understand that my mother had also wished to kill me. I could not believe such a thing. I knew that my mother did not like me, but hating me to the point of wishing my death at her own hands? Strictly impossible. Not me, Agamemnon the hero’s son. But therein lay the problem. Agamemnon was my father. I was his heir. My mother hated him, and me by extension.
And why did my mother hate my father? New reasons were constantly emerging. There was of course his sacrifice or murder of my sister. Call it what you will, it amounted to the same thing: her disappearance, as I called it in my head. The Disappearance. Then, my father had not been faithful to my mother. Doubtless he had slept with many women on his journeys, but upon his return home, my father brought a Trojan princess—Cassandra—as a captive mistress. I later found out that my mother had murdered her the same night she had killed my father.
My mother’s stupidity in this matter still astounds me. Did she seriously expect my father to be faithful to her? Faith is a weak trait, one reserved for women, not men. Why on earth should a man be denied pleasure while he is out fighting for State (and of course the family)? It makes absolutely no sense and the majority of women understand this. Just look at the famous Odysseus and his wife Penelope! He was gone twenty years and was she ever unfaithful? No! And she had dozens of suitors clamoring for her hand (and body) in marriage! And Odysseus? He slept with the goddess Calypso for seven straight years and Penelope never said a word upon his return! Why is it that my mother was so naïve? So hopeful? So stupid?
I was nearly fifteen when I discovered the greatest piece of information, however. Before I found out about Aegisthus, I was a small child attempting to build an immense jigsaw puzzle, with all the edge pieces missing. But once I discovered that my mother herself had been unfaithful, my future was settled: avenge my father’s death. I would kill the filthy hypocrite who had at one time masqueraded as my mother. I would commit the taboo of matricide and avenge my brave, heroic father’s death.
At least, that was how I saw it then. Now I know that that was the point where I should’ve begun to notice Electra’s influence over me. She has always hated our mother with a passion. Even when we were little, she had helped me understand the ways in which our mother neglected us. She was the one who triggered my realization about our abandonment. She had saved me from our mother. And she was the one who constantly urged me toward revenge from the time I was eleven. But it took the discovery of why Aegisthus was always hanging around our palace in my early years to push me to make the decision to exact revenge.
But I never realized how much my sister influenced me. I never questioned that all my information came through her. I never dreamed that my ideas were not my own. I’m not sure how much difference it made, in the long run. I probably would’ve arrived at the same conclusion myself, if a few years later. What I resent is that a woman was virtually controlling my life until my twentieth year.
That year, I decided to carry out my plan for revenge. With the help of Pylades, the prince of Phanote and my best friend, I planned an elaborate scheme which involved faking my death in order to arrive in Mycenae unquestioned. We sent my old tutor on ahead to spread the news of my supposed death, and then Pylades and I followed. In Mycenae, I was glad to find that everyone had already heard of my death, however I was only more enraged to discover that with this news, my mother planned to marry Aegisthus and set him up as Mycenae’s king.
I won’t describe the murders of these two; suffice to say that I wasted no time in performing them and that they were bloody.
It is the aftermath that I am more concerned with. Electra returned to Mycenae, happy to be rid of our horrible mother and ready to accept the credit which she was sure I’d give her for the deed. We both knew she deserved it. But she underestimated the fame it would bring me.
All across the Greek world I was held up as an example of a good son. A loyal son (to his father of course). A son willing to take matters into his own hands. A bold son. A brave son. A son to be desired (of course it is the orphaned son who is held up as the desired model). I was noticed by the gods and compared to Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, the wimp who waited around as those damned suitors ate up his inheritance. I was given fame. Glory. Honor. Everything that any sane Greek young man wants. That any sane man wants, really.
There was no way in Olympus or Hades that I was going to give up any of it. Especially not to my sister, who, though she was the reason I gained it, was a woman. And to give her credit would have been to admit that she had been useful, smart, brave. All the things a woman is not. I could not admit to owing a woman, relying on her, gaining anything more than an heir by her. And it was with that that I discovered that it is not only young men who want fame and honor and glory, but young women too. And Electra especially. She had thought she had it made, a place in the world,—in history, even—carved out for herself, and then in one fell swoop I took it all away, dashed all her hopes and dreams. I can assure you she hated me for it. I virtually destroyed her life. We never spoke again. Not from the day she returned to stand at my side as I made a speech to the Myceneans about the unfortunate decease of their queen to this.
I didn’t regret it either, not for the longest time, at least. I enjoyed being free of the encroaching influences of women for once in my life. I enjoyed being free, period. And, though I could never have admitted it any sooner that now, two and a half thousand years later, I was too much of a coward to admit to the world that Electra, a woman, was amazing, was powerful, was smart, deserved fame.
So here it is, Electra. I said I wouldn’t do it, but there’s no way out now. I’ve been a coward too long.