Two Acts of Troy
The Tales of Aquarius, Aquila and Gemini

Chapter 8: Guilt and Forgiveness

A soft gust of wind brushed aside a curtain. Behind it was a beautiful, but wild-eyed, woman dressed in rags. "Come with me to the theater of blood," she said seductively. Orestes reached out for her hand, but grasped only air. He followed her through a hallway lined with men and women; some stoic, some in tears, but all were in agony.

To his left a young woman dressed in wedding robes cried as Orestes saw his father command guards to carry her away. Orestes felt the winds shift and smelled the stench of rotting animal flesh. It made him gag. He saw the orange glow of flames from a burning city. His father emerged from the burning city and grabbed the woman in rags. Orestes followed his father and the woman as they approached the palace of Mycenae. Orestes' mother and a man he did not recognize stood guard at the door. They held knives and smiled as the man slit Agamemnon's throat and Clytemnestra stabbed the wild-eyed woman. Orestes looked down at his feet. He was standing in a pool of blood, and from it his sister Electra arose. "Join me brother," she pleaded. Orestes awakened, cold and wet with sweat. The next morning Orestes and his friend, Prince Pylades of Crisa, left for Delphi to ask the oracle the meaning of the dream.

"Your dream," began the oracle as Orestes and Pylades sat before the flames in the temple of Delphi, "was sent by Apollo himself. He has told me to relay this message, 'Avenge your father's death or live as an outcast to Mycenae.' There is no other message for you."

Betray his father or murder his mother, these were his choices! Orestes decided to travel to Mycenae where he would make his decision.

The tomb appeared gray in the dark pre-dawn hour when Orestes and Pylades approached the royal graves of Mycenae. Orestes read the names on the tombs: "Atreus", "Thyestes", "Pelopia". A thick mat of flowers blanketed the ground in all but a single place. There the earth was dark with freshly turned earth. In the middle sat a young woman who wept as she dug holes with her bare hands and planted flowering vines. Though her tears had turned the dirt on her face to mud, Orestes immediately recognized his sister.

"Electra," he called to her, "don't be frightened. I know of father's death and I've come home." He kneeled down to join her and, in his embrace, her tears came harder still as she told him of the plot of their mother and their father's enemy, Aegistheus, and of how she was a prisoner in her own household. He made his decision: he would avenge their father.

"Mother, there are messengers from the town of Phocis at the door," Electra said. "King Strophius has sent them. They have news of Orestes. Please hurry!"

But Clytemnestra was in no hurry as she sorted out the conflicting thoughts racing through her brain. Surely it was a grave matter or the king would not have sent messengers. Orestes was probably dead. She felt tears well up in her eyes as she thought of the loss of yet another child. She passed his childhood portrait as she walked toward the door. Her breathing tightened as she thought about recent events. If Orestes were dead, she and Aegistheus would be safe. Her chest relaxed and her breathing once again eased. She opened the door.

"King Strophius entrusted me with the unhappy task of bringing you the news of your son Orestes' death," Pylades solemnly announced.

Hidden by his disguise and the shadow of his friend, Orestes watched his mother. He saw her solemn and regal bearing crumble as she trembled with tears. "What acting, mother," he thought. "Murderers don't have delicate feelings. Save your show."

Clytemnestra braced herself against the door. "Please come in," she said with short breaths. "You've had a long journey and must be very hungry and tired. Please follow me." They followed her to a comfortable room where sunshine streamed over plants and cushions. She brought them before a man who was lounging there. "These young men bring word of Orestes' death," she announced to him. "Please give them some wine and make them comfortable. I will be back shortly," she excused herself and left to dry her tears and regain her composure.

"How did Orestes die?" asked Aegistheus as he poured goblets of wine for the visitors. Pylades kept up a running chatter about a rivalry that Orestes had been victim to. He maintained Aegistheus' complete attention as Orestes pretended to absently wander around the room. Finally Orestes stood behind the preoccupied Aegistheus. Drawing his sword, he ran it through his unsuspecting victim.

Clytemnestra had been returning to the room when she heard Aegistheus cry out. She understood immediately what had happened. In her memory the faces of the messengers registered and she realized that the young man in the shadows was Orestes. She went to the room where Agamemnon had kept his weapons and she grabbed an axe, but then changed her mind and put it back before going to the garden where she knew Orestes would come to look for her. It wasn't long before he arrived, carrying a sword stained with Aegistheus' blood. He approached her, sword first and his eyes were glazed in hate. "Now it's your turn!" he said.

Clytemnestra didn't flinch as he positioned the tip of the sword at her breast, instead she smiled and shook her head. "Oh, my son, how can you understand my agony when your father killed my daughter, your sister Iphigenia, just so he could lead Greek troops in an unjust war against an innocent enemy. The real enemy was my sister Helen, but now she is back home in Sparta with Menelaus, as though nothing happened, while an entire nation was destroyed as a victim of her whim.

"Oh, dear son, how can you understand my heartbreak and grief when your father killed my true husband so he could marry me after he was cast aside by my sister Helen. Aegistheus, too, lost everything to your father, for my father gave Agamemnon troops to take Mycenae, thinking that Helen would then marry him. My father was a fool. They have all been pawns to Helen, and to Zeus.

"I made peace with all of that, for I loved my children more than my life. But I could not make peace with your father's murder of Iphigenia. My children are precious to me. This body carried each of you on your journeys into life, and painfully brought you here. This breast nourished each of you and this heart has loved you always. Tell me son, can I be blamed for planning the destruction of my enemy, the murderer of my children? Would I be a better person to allow my children to be struck down at the hand of a megalomaniac to whom even his own children were not sacred? I could not. If you feel that is a corruption and weakness on my part, sink your sword where you used to sink your head to suck," Clytemnestra bared her breast and looked at Orestes softly, yet defiantly.

Pylades had followed Orestes to the garden and sat nearby throughout the exchange. In confusion, Orestes lay down his sword and looked to his friend. "Remember what the oracle said," declared Pylades, "'avenge your father's death or live as an outcast'." Orestes nodded. Silently, averting his mother's eyes, he placed the tip of the sword again at her breast and, with all his might, he pushed the long and bloody blade into her heart.

Orestes saw the sky blacken as wings of screeching demons rustled above him, blotting out the sun. "Matricide," they shrieked, "the most heinous of mortal sins, and you shall suffer throughout eternity for this." They circled him and pecked at his back and his head.

"Who are you?" Orestes screamed out, flailing as would one who is blind.

"We are the Furies," they responded. "We are here to torment you as you should torment yourself for your monstrous act," they taunted, diving straight for his eyes and laughing hysterically as he flinched and tried to dodge them and protect himself.

"What can I do to appease you?" he whimpered.

"Nothing!" one cackled back. "We are your companions forever." Orestes cried as he curled up in a ball on the ground.

To Pylades, the Furies were invisible. He watched in pity as his friend went mad before his eyes. Pylades reached down to stroke him. Orestes stiffened like a rock. "Don't worry, my friend," Pylades comforted, "we will find a cure for your madness. We will go to Delphi."

"Orestes is being punished by the Furies for killing his mother," the oracle said. Pylades watched his friend writhing on the floor, as though he were experiencing never-ending pain. "He must endure this in exile for a year, then he may go to Athena's temple in Athens and there the gods themselves will determine his fate." Pylades led Orestes away from Delphi and together they endured the long year of exile. When at last it was over, they entered the temple of Athena in Athens. The gods were already there.

"I still don't think he should have done it," Hera said while the gods nibbled ambrosia and sipped nectar. "He must be punished!"

"His family has suffered long enough," Apollo said. "He was defending his father's honor, for that is how things have always been. Athena, what do you think?"

"Justice cannot be obtained without first uncovering all the evidence," Athena responded. "We know the history of his family. Is there any additional testimony?"

"He killed his mother, there is nothing else to know," the Furies declared. "For that, he must be tortured forever."

"And you, Orestes; what evidence do you give in your own defense? Why did you commit this crime?" Athena asked the defendant.

"I cannot blame any god or mortal. I alone am responsible for my actions. I have been plagued with guilt and I deserve it, even if it lasts until I die or extends beyond the grave. What I did I thought I must do, although I know it was wrong. I alone did it." Orestes turned his eyes to the floor and away from Athena's icy blue penetrating gaze.

"We have witnessed the history of the House of Atreus," Athena said to the gods. "Their deeds were motivated by power, greed and lust and their revenge was always in blood. Yet within this infamous family, this one man, who committed the ultimate crime of matricide, experienced guilt. Unlike his ancestors, he took the blame and responsibility for his act and for this, he is superior to those who came before him. If we wish the world to be a better place, we should remember this young man's uncles, Castor and Pollux. Castor made a mistake, yet Pollux so loved his mortal brother that he gave half his immortality to him. Like Pollux and Castor, let us live by a new law of justice, mercy and forgiveness and acquit Orestes for through guilt he has already paid for his crime."

As Athena sat down, the Furies were the first to speak. "We agree to acquit him," they said, "and we will forever banish evil spirits from the House of Atreus."

"We agree," answered the gods.

After that the Furies became known as the Eumenides, who are the protectors of all those who ask forgiveness for their acts. And, from that time forward, the old law of vengeance was replaced by the laws of justice and mercy, while on earth humans evolved to a level closer to the gods.

The curtain came down upon the final act of Troy and Zeus pointed to Ganymede, already in the stars. "He is Aquarius and will refresh our endless thirsts," he said. Then he placed the bodies of Castor and Pollux in the sky, calling them Gemini. "Gemini shall remind us of the divine nature of love and brotherhood," Zeus said as their stars gleamed brightly overhead. Finally he placed in the sky his own form as the eagle Aquila, the one who made everything happen. As they all watched Aquila descend across the Milky Way while chasing Cygnus, the swan, toward Lyra, the music of life, Zeus whispered, "What appears as fate is but the show."

Chapter 7: Agamemnon's Return | Myth Index

Tales of the Immortal Night ©2003, J.J. Kuhl


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