Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon, Frederic Leighton c. 1869
Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon, Frederic Leighton c. 1869

Electra (/ɪˈlɛktrə/;[1] Ancient Greek: Ήλέκτρα) is one of the most popular mythological characters in tragedies.[2] She is the main character in two Greek tragedies, Electra by Sophocles and Electra by Euripides. She is also the central figure in plays by Aeschylus, Alfieri, Voltaire, Hofmannsthal, and Eugene O'Neill.[2] She is a vengeful soul in The Libation Bearers, the second play of Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy. She plans out an attack with her brother to kill their mother, Clytemnestra.

In psychology, the Electra complex is named after her.

Family

Electra's parents were King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra. Her sisters were Iphigeneia and Chrysothemis, and her brother was Orestes. In the Iliad, Homer is understood to be referring to Electra in mentioning "Laodice" as a daughter of Agamemnon.[3]

Murder of Agamemnon

Orestes, Electra and Hermes at the tomb of Agamemnon, lucanian red-figure pelike, c. 380–370 BC, Louvre (K 544)
Orestes, Electra and Hermes at the tomb of Agamemnon, lucanian red-figure pelike, c. 380–370 BC, Louvre (K 544)

Electra was absent from Mycenae when her father, King Agamemnon, returned from the Trojan War. When he came back, he brought with him his war prize, the Trojan princess Cassandra, who had already borne him twin sons. Upon their arrival, Agamemnon and Cassandra were murdered, by either Clytemnestra herself, her lover Aegisthus, or both. Clytemnestra had held a grudge against her husband for sacrificing their eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis in exchange for a fair wind so that he could set sail for Troy. In some versions of this story, Iphigenia was saved by the goddess at the last moment.

Eight years later, Electra returned home from Athens at the same time as her brother, Orestes. (Odyssey, iii. 306; X. 542). According to Pindar (Pythia, xi. 25), Orestes was saved either by his old nurse or by Electra, and was taken to Phanote on Mount Parnassus, where King Strophius took charge of him. When Orestes was twenty, the Oracle of Delphi ordered him to return home and avenge his father's death.

Murder of Clytemnestra

According to Aeschylus, Orestes recognized Electra's face before the tomb of Agamemnon, where both had gone to perform rites to the dead, and they arranged how Orestes should accomplish his revenge.[4] Orestes and his friend Pylades, son of King Strophius of Phocis and Anaxibia, killed Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (in some accounts with Electra helping).

Before her death, Clytemnestra cursed Orestes. The Erinyes or Furies, whose duty it is to punish any violation of the ties of family piety, fulfill this curse with their torment. They pursue Orestes, urging him to end his life. Electra was not hounded by the Erinyes.

In Iphigeneia in Tauris, Euripides tells the tale somewhat differently. In his version, Orestes was led by the Furies to Tauris on the Black Sea, where his sister Iphigenia was being held. The two met when Orestes and Pylades were brought to Iphigenia to be prepared for sacrifice to Artemis. Iphigeneia, Orestes, and Pylades escaped from Tauris. The Furies, appeased by the reunion of the family, abated their persecution. Electra then married Pylades.[5]

Adaptations of the Electra story

Electra and Orestes, from an 1897 Stories from the Greek Tragedians, by Alfred Church
Electra and Orestes, from an 1897 Stories from the Greek Tragedians, by Alfred Church

Plays

Opera

Films

Literature

See also

Bibliography

References

  1. ^ Wells, John C. (2000) [1990]. Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (new ed.). Harlow, England: Longman. p. 253. ISBN 978-0-582-36467-7.
  2. ^ a b Evans (1970), p. 79
  3. ^ "Agamemnon" in Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, as quoted at eNotes.com
  4. ^ Fagles (1977), p. 188
  5. ^ Luke Roman, Monica Roman, Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology, Infobase Publishing, 2010, p.143.
  6. ^ Toibin, Colm (9 May 2017). House of Names: A Novel. ISBN 9781501140211.