Electra, Or The Return Of
by Alfred Church
When King Agamemnon was
slain by his wicked wife Clytæmnestra, the boy Orestes
his son had perished also by the hands of his mother,
but that his sister Electra took him and delivered him
out of the hands of them that would have slain him. And
having saved him, she sent him to the house of Strophius
the Phocian, who was a friend to the house of the King,
her father. And here Orestes abode till he was of age
and strength to fulfil the law. For the law of the land
was that, if a man should be foully slain, his son
should avenge him on him that had done this wrong. Also
the youth sought counsel of Apollo at his oracle of
Delphi, and the god answered him that he should avenge
the blood of his father even upon her that bare him.
Therefore, being now grown to manhood, he came to the
city of Argos, having disguised himself that no man
might know him. And he had with him Pylades that was the
son of Strophius. Now these two loved each other
exceedingly, so that men spake of them in after time as
famous among friends. Also there came with Orestes an
old man, a slave that had waited on him from a boy. Now
the three had devised a story wherewith they might
deceive the Queen and her husband; and being thus
prepared they came into the city at dawn.
Then the old man spake,
saying, "Son of Agamemnon, thou seest the city which
thou hast long desired to see. There is the grove of Io,
whom the gad-fly drave over the earth, and there on the
left hand the temple of Heré, which all men know, and
before us the palace of the children of Pelops, a house
of many woes, from which I carried thee forth in time
past, when thy mother would have slain thee. But now we
must take counsel and that speedily, for the sun is
risen and hath wakened the birds, and we must be ready
before that men come forth to their work."
Then Orestes made reply,
"'Tis well said, old man. Hearken then to what I
purpose. And first know that when I would hear from
Apollo at his oracle in Delphi how I should best avenge
my father, he bade me trust neither in shield nor spear,
but accomplish the deed by craft. Do thou then go when
occasion shall offer into the palace, and spy out the
things that are therein. For they will not know thee who
thou art, so changed art thou. And thou shalt tell them
such a tale about me as shall surely deceive them. And
we meanwhile will do honor to the spirit of my father at
his grave, offering hair that has been shorn from my
head and drink offerings, and afterwards will return and
accomplish what shall remain to be done."
And when he had so spoken,
he prayed, "O my country and ye gods of the land, help
me, and thou house of my father which I have come at the
bidding of the Gods to cleanse from the guilt of blood."
Then the old man said, "I
hear the voice of some one that groans." And Orestes
made answer, "Doubtless it is my sister Electra. Shall
we stay and listen to her?" "Not so," said the old man,
"let us do our business without delay." So they
And then came forth
Electra, making great lamentation for her father, and
praying that the Gods would speedily send her brother
Orestes to avenge him. And with her was a company of the
daughters of Argos, who sought to comfort her, saying
that it was idle to make such weeping and moaning for
the dead; and that others also were in like case with
her; and that she should have patience, for that time
would bring punishment on the evildoers. Also they would
have her curb her tongue, seeing how she angered those
that had the rule in her house.
And then Electra unfolded
her grief to them saying, "I pray you, daughters of
Argos, that ye think no evil of me as of one that
altogether wanteth wisdom and patience. For what woman
of the better sort would not do even as I? For think how
I am constrained to live with them that slew my father;
and that every day I see this base Ægisthus sitting upon
that which was his throne, and wearing the selfsame
robes; and how he is husband to this mother of mine, if
indeed she be a mother who can stoop to such vileness.
And know that every month on the day on which she slew
my father she maketh festival and offereth sacrifice to
the Gods. And all this am I constrained to see, weeping
in secret, for indeed it is not permitted to me publicly
to show such sorrow as my heart desireth. Ofttimes
indeed this woman mocketh me, and would know why I
sorrow more than others, seeing that others also have
lost their fathers. But sometimes, if it so chance that
she hear from some one that Orestes prepareth to come
back to this land, she is furious above measure, and
rageth as a wild beast; and her husband, this coward
that maketh war against women, stirreth up her fury
against me. And still do I look for Orestes when he
shall come; but he tarrieth long, and in the meantime I
perish with sorrow and trouble."
Then the daughters of
Argos, when they had made inquiry and heard that
Ægisthus was absent and that they could speak more
freely of these matters, would fain know whether she had
heard news of her brother Orestes, and bade her be of
good heart concerning him. But as they spake together,
the sister of Electra, Chrysothemis, came forth with
offerings for the tomb of her father in her hand, and
other maidens followed her. Now these two were different
one from the other, for Electra was full of courage, and
would have no peace with those whom she hated, and
sought not to hide what was in her heart, but
Chrysothemis was fearful, and would live peaceably with
them that she loved not, and would speak them fair. And
now, when Electra saw her sister come forth, she brake
out against her with many angry words, saying that she
did ill to choose the part of a mother who had done such
wickedness, and to forget her father; and that it was a
base thing in her to live softly and at ease, consorting
with the evildoers.
And when the Argive
maidens would have made peace between them, Chrysothemis
answered, "These words are not strange to me; nor should
I take note of them, but that I have heard of a great
trouble that is ready to fall upon my sister here, and
stay her complaints even for ever."
"Nay, what is this?" said
Electra. "Speakest thou of trouble greater than that
which I now endure?"
"Surely," the other made
reply, "for they will send thee far hence, and shut thee
up where thou shalt never more see the light of the sun,
if thou stayest not these complaints."
But Electra did not fear
one whit to hear these things, but waxed fiercer in her
anger. And, after a while, as the strife ceased not
between them, Chrysothemis would have gone on her way.
And when Electra perceived this, she asked her for what
purpose and whither she was carrying these offerings to
And Chrysothemis made
reply that she was carrying them at the bidding of her
mother to the tomb of King Agamemnon. For that the Queen
was in much fear, having seen a vision in the night
which had sorely troubled her; and that the vision was
this. The King her husband, whom she slew, seemed to
bear her company, even as he had done in time past. And
he took the sceptre which he had been wont to carry, and
which Ægisthus carried after him, and planted it in the
earth; and there sprang from it a very flourishing
branch, by which the whole land of Mycenæ was
overshadowed. "So much," she said, "I heard her say,
when she told her dream to the light of the day; but
more I know not, save that she sendeth me to make these
offerings, by reason of her fear."
Then Electra answered,
"Nay, my sister; lay not aught of these things upon our
father's tomb, for they would be an abomination to him;
but scatter them to the winds, or cover them with earth.
So let them be kept for her, when she shall die. And
surely, but that she is the most shameless of women, she
had not sought to pay this honour to him whom she slew
so foully. Thinketh she to atone in such sort for the
blood that she hath shed? Not so. Put these things away;
but thou and I will lay upon this tomb hair from thy
head and from mine; small gifts, in truth, yet what we
have. And do thou pray to our father that he will help
us even where he dwelleth below the earth, and also that
Orestes may come speedily, and set his foot upon the
necks of them that hate us."
This Chrysothemis promised
that she would do, and so departed. And in a short space
came forth the Queen Clytæmnestra, and, finding her
daughter Electra without the gate of the palace, was
very wroth, saying that King Ægisthus had forbidden her
to do this thing, and that it was not well that, he
being absent, she should take no account of her mother.
"But now," she said, "let
us reason together. Thou speakest ill of me, because I
slew thy father. 'Tis even so. I deny it not. But mark,
Justice slew him, not I only; and thou shouldest be on
the side of Justice. He slew thy sister, sacrificing her
to the Gods, as no other Greek had done. For what cause
did he slay her? 'For the sake of the Greeks,' thou wilt
say. But what had the Greeks to do with child of mine?
Or was it for the sake of King Menelaüs his brother? But
had not Menelaüs two children, and should not one of
these have the rather died, seeing of what father and
mother they came, even of those for whose sake the
Greeks waged this war? Had Death, thinkest thou, desire
for my children rather than for his? Or had this
accursed father no care for my children, but only for
the children of his brother? Surely this was the deed of
a foolish and wicked man. Aye, I say it, whatever thou
mayest think, and so would say she who died, could she
take voice and speak."
Then said Electra, "If
thou permittest, I would say somewhat for him and for
And the Queen answered,
"Say on. Didst thou always speak in such mood, thou wert
not so ill to hear."
Then Electra spake: "Thou
sayest, 'I slew thy father,' 'Tis enough. Worse thou
couldst not say, whether 'twere justly done or no. But
of justice thou hadst never a thought. 'Twas the ill
persuasion of him with whom thou now consortest that
urged thee to this deed. And as for my sister, thou
knowest well that my father slew a stag in the grove of
Artemis, and boasted himself of the deed, and that the
goddess was wroth with him, and hindered the voyage of
the Greeks; and that for this cause my father slew his
daughter, knowing that otherwise the ships could sail
neither to Troy nor homewards. Yea, he slew her, sorely
against his will, for the people's sake, and for nought
else. But consider whether this that thou sayest be not
altogether a pretence. Art thou not wife to him that was
thy fellow in this deed? Callest thou this taking
vengeance for thy daughter that was slain? And thy
children—art thou a mother to them? What ill do not I
suffer at thy hand and the hand of thy partner? And
Orestes, whom I barely saved from thy hand, liveth he
not in exile? Surely, whatsoever it be that thou
chargest against him, thou hast no cause to be ashamed
Then the two spake many
bitter words to each other; and at the last, when
Electra held her peace, the Queen prayed to the Gods,
and made her offerings to the tomb. And first she
addressed herself to Phœbus: "O Phœbus, hear that which
is in my heart; for to say the thing aloud I dare not,
seeing that I am not among friends. But of the dreams
that I saw this night past, grant that the good be
accomplished and the evil be turned away to my enemies;
and that I be not cast down from the wealth wherein I
now live; and that I may wield this sceptre of the son
of Atreus which now I have, and may have the company of
my friends, even as now, and the love of my children, if
so be that they love their mother."
And while she thus spake,
the old man came in, and would fain know whether that
which he saw was the palace of Atreus. And when he heard
that it was, he asked whether the lady whom he saw was
the Queen. And hearing this also, he spake, "Lady, I
have good tidings for thee and King Ægisthus."
"First tell me who thou
"I come from Phanoteus of
Phocis: I bring great news."
"Tell me; for the man is a
friend, and the tidings, I doubt not, good."
"I will say it in one
word—Orestes is dead."
And when Electra heard
this, she brake forth into a great cry, saying that she
was undone. But the Queen said, "What? What sayest thou?
Heed not this woman."
And the man said, "I told
thee, and tell thee yet again, that Orestes is dead."
And again Electra brake
forth into a cry; but the Queen bade her hold her peace,
and would have the stranger tell the story. And the man
"He came to Delphi,
whither the Greeks greatly resort, purposing to contend
in the games of the Pythian Apollo. And first there was
a race of runners on foot; and for this he came forward,
and passing all that ran with him so won the prize. Nor
indeed did I ever see such a man; for there was not one
contest in which he had not the pre-eminence. Very fair
was he to look upon, and his name, he said, was Orestes
of Argos, and he was the son of that Agamemnon who in
days past was captain of the host of the Greeks at Troy.
But when the Gods are minded to destroy a man, who is so
strong that he can escape? It fell out then that on the
next day at sunset there was proclaimed a race of
chariots, to which there came one man from Achaia, and
from Sparta one, and two from Barca in Africa. After
these came Orestes, being the fifth, with horses of
Thessaly. And the sixth was a man of Ætolia, with bay
horses, and the seventh a man of Magnesia in Thessaly,
and the eighth was a man of Œnea, whose horses were
white, and the ninth from Athens, a city which, they
say, was builded of Gods, and a Bœotian was the tenth.
First the heralds shook lots for each in a helmet, and
each man had his place according as his lot came forth.
And after this the trumpet sounded, and the horses leapt
forward, while the men shouted to them and shook the
reins, and spared not the goad. Great was the noise, and
the dust rose up like a cloud from the plain. And on the
backs of the charioteers and on the wheels of them that
went before came the foam from the horses that followed,
so close did they lie together. And Orestes, when he
came to the pillar where the chariots turned, drave so
that his wheel wellnigh touched it, and slackened the
rein for the right horse, and pressed on that which was
on the left. So far no mishap had befallen the chariots,
but all had fared well. But here the steeds of the man
of Œnea, being very hard to hold, brake from their
course, and drave against the side of one of the
chariots from Barca. And now they had ended six courses,
and were about to begin the seventh. But with this
beginning of trouble went all things wrong, for one
drave against another till all the plain of Crissa was
covered with broken chariots as the sea with shipwrecks.
But the man of Athens was very skilful in driving, and,
when he saw the beginning of confusion, he drew his
horses aside and held back, and so escaped without
damage. Now Orestes was the hindermost of all, trusting
to what he should do at the end; and when he saw that
only the man of Athens was left, he shouted to his
horses and made haste to come up with him. Then the two
drave together, having their chariots equal, and first
one showed somewhat in the front and then the other. And
for eleven courses of the twelve all went well with
Orestes; but as he was rounding the pillar for the last
time, he loosed the left rein and knew not that he
loosed it overmuch, and smote against the pillar and
brake his axle in the midst, and so was thrown out of
his chariot; but the reins were tangled about him and
held him. And all the people cried aloud when they saw
the young man dragged over the plain. But at last they
that had driven the other chariots hardly stayed the
horses, and loosed him. Covered with blood was he and
sorely mangled, that none could have known him. And we
burnt his body; and certain Phocians, whom the Prince
hath sent for this purpose, bring that which remaineth
of him, being but a few ashes in an urn of brass, for
all he was so tall and strong. This is a sad tale for
thee to hear; but for us who saw it never was anything
in this world more grievous."
Then the Queen said,
"Shall I say that this hath happened ill or well? or
that it is an evil thing, yet profitable to me? Surely
it is grievous that I find safety in the death of my own
"What troubleth thee,
lady, in these news?" said the false messenger.
"'Tis a dreadful thing to
be a mother. Whatever wrong she suffereth she cannot
hurt him whom she bare."
"Then," said he, "it
seemeth that I have come in vain."
"Not so," the Queen made
answer, "if thou showest proof that Orestes is dead. For
he hath long been a stranger to me, and when he departed
hence he knew me not, being very young; and of late,
accusing me of the blood of his father, he hath made
dreadful threats against me, so that I could not sleep
in peace day or night. And now this day I am quit of
this fear that wasted my very life."
Then the Queen and the
false messenger went into the palace; and when they were
gone Electra cried, saying, "See here, forsooth, a
mother that weepeth and mourneth for her son! O my
Orestes, how utterly hast thou undone me! For now all
the hope I had is gone that thou wouldst come and avenge
my father. Whither can I go, for thou and he are gone?
Must I be as a slave among them that slew my father?
This gate at least I will enter no more. If I weary
them, let them slay me, if they will; I should count it
a grace so to die."
And the maidens of Argos
bewailed the dead brother with her. But in the midst of
their lamentations came Chrysothemis in great joy,
saying, "O my sister, I bring thee good tidings that
will give thee ease from thy sorrows!"
"What ease, when they are
past all remedy?"
"Orestes is here. Know
this as surely as thou now seest me before thee."
"Surely thou art mad, and
laughest at thy woes and mine."
"Not so. By the hearth of
my fathers I swear it. Orestes is here."
"Who told thee this tale
that thou believest so strangely?"
"'Tis from proofs that I
saw with mine own eyes, and not another's, that I
believe. Listen, therefore. When I came to the tomb of
my father, I saw on the top of the pillar offerings of
milk that had been newly poured, and garlands of all
manner of flowers. And marvelling much at this, I looked
to see if any man was at hand; and seeing none, I drew
near; and on the tomb I espied a lock of hair newly cut;
and as soon as I espied it I knew that it was a token of
Orestes, dearest of men in all the world to thee and me.
And as I touched it I held my tongue from all words that
might do hurt, and my eyes were filled with tears. And
now think whose should this be but his? Who should do
this but thou or I; and I did not, nor thou, who canst
not go so far from this house; and my mother is not wont
to do such things. 'Tis Orestes surely. And now sorrow
hath passed away, and all things will be well."
"Nay," Electra made
answer, "I pity thee for thy folly.'
"Do not my tidings please
"I know not why thou
talkest so wildly."
"But may I not believe
that which I have seen with mine own eyes?"
"O my sister, he is dead!
Look not to him for help any more."
"But stay. From whom didst
thou learn this?"
"From one who was at hand
when he perished."
"Where is he? This is
passing strange. Whose then could be these offerings on
"Some one hath put them
for a remembrance of the dead Orestes."
"Woe is me, and I made
haste with the good tidings, as I thought, and knew not
what new trouble worse than the old had fallen upon us."
Then said Electra, "Hear
now what I purpose. Thou knowest that we are utterly
bereaved of friends, for Death hath devoured them all.
Now, while Orestes yet lived and was prosperous, I hoped
that he would come to avenge our father's death. But now
that he is dead, I look to thee, that thou shouldest
make common cause with me and work this vengeance on
them that slew him. Canst thou endure that we should
live deprived of the wealth that was our father's; and
also that we should grow old unmated? For know that a
husband thou shalt never have, for indeed Ægisthus is
not unwise that he should suffer children to be born of
thee or me to be a manifest damage to himself. But if
thou wilt hearken to me, first thou wilt do that which
is fitting to thy father and brother that are dead; and
next thou wilt win great renown, and be married to a
noble mate, for all men are wont to regard that which is
worthy. And surely in days to come some man, citizen or
stranger, that seeth us will say, 'Look, my friends, at
these sisters, for they wrought deliverance for the
house of their father, and spared not their own lives,
but slew their enemies in the day of their prosperity.
These must we love and reverence; these on feast days,
and when the city is gathered together, must we honour
by reason of their courage.' Wherefore, my sister, be of
good heart. Be bold for thy father's sake and for thy
brother's, for mine also and for thine, that we may be
delivered from these troubles. For to them of noble
breeding to live basely is a shame."
But Chrysothemis made
answer, "O my sister, how didst thou find such daring
purpose as this, making ready thyself as for fight, and
calling me to follow? Knowest thou not that thou art a
woman and no man, and that thou art weaker than thine
enemies, and that their good luck ever increaseth and
ours groweth less and less? And what will it profit us
if we get great renown, yet die in shameful fashion? And
yet to die I think not such loss, but to wish to die and
not attain to it, suffering torture or bonds. Keep thy
anger within bounds. What thou hast said I will count as
unsaid. Only yield to them that are stronger."
And after many words,
Electra urging her sister to this deed and the other
excusing herself, the two parted in great anger. And
Chrysothemis went into the palace, but Electra abode
where she was. And to her, after a while, came Orestes,
but disguised that no man might know him, and asked the
Argive maidens that stood by, whether the house that he
beheld was the palace of King Ægisthus, and when he
heard that it was so, he bade them tell the King that
certain Phocian strangers were come seeking him. But
when Electra heard it, she said, "Comest thou with proof
of this ill news that we have heard?"
And Orestes made answer,
"I know not what news thou speakest of, but the old man,
Strophius, the Phocian, bade me bring tidings of
"What are thy tidings,
though I tremble to hear them?"
"We are come bringing all
that remaineth of him in this urn."
And when Electra saw it
she cried that they should give the urn into her hands;
and Orestes bade them do so. And she took it and said,
"O Orestes, that wast dearer to me than all men else,
how different is this coming of thine to that which I
had hoped! Lovely wert thou when I sent thee from this
house, and now I hold thee in my hands and thou art
naught. Would to the Gods thou hadst died that day when
thy father was slain; for now thou art dead, an exile,
and in the land of strangers, and I paid thee no office
of kindness nor took thy ashes from the funeral fire;
but this did strangers for thee, and now thou comest a
handful of ashes in a little urn. Woe is me for the
wasted pains of nurture and the toil wherewith out of a
willing heart I tended thee! For thy mother loved thee
not more than I, nor was any one but I thy nurse. And
now all this hath departed. My father is dead, and thou
art dead, and my enemies laugh me to scorn, and thy
mother that is no mother is mad with joy. Let me die
with thee, for 'tis the dead alone whom I see to be quit
But while she so spake
Orestes was much troubled in heart and knew not what to
do. But at the last he said, "Is this the Princess
Electra whom I see?"
And she answered, "Even
so, and very ill she fareth."
Then he looked upon her
again and said to himself, "What a noble lady is this,
and in what ungodly fashion hath she been afflicted!"
And when Electra would
know why he was so troubled, he said, "It paineth me to
see thee excelling all women in sorrow."
"Nay," she said, "thou
seest but a small part of my sorrows."
"Hast thou, then, yet
worse to bear than these?"
"Yea, for I live with them
that are murderers."
"Whom sayest thou they
"They murdered my
father—and I am constrained to serve them."
"Who constraineth thee?"
"A mother that is no
"And is there none that
can help thee?"
"None, for him that was my
helper thou bringest in this urn. But why pitiest thou
me as doth no other man? Art thou, perchance, a
"Put down this urn and I
will tell thee."
"Nay, stranger, take this
not from me, for it holds all that is dearest to me."
"Speak not such idle
words: thy sorrow is without cause."
"Sayest thou 'without
cause' when my brother is dead?"
"Thou dost ill to speak
thus of thy brother."
"Doth the dead then think
so lightly of me?"
"No man thinketh lightly
of thee; yet with these ashes thou hast no concern."
"How so, if this is the
body of my Orestes?"
"Here is no true body,
only one that is feigned."
"Unhappy man! where, then,
is his tomb?"
"He hath none—what need
hath the living of a tomb?"
"Liveth he, then?"
"Yea, if I am alive."
"Art thou, then, he?"
"Yea; look at this my
father's seal, and say whether I speak truly."
And when she saw the seal,
she knew that it was her father's, and that this
stranger was indeed Orestes. And she cried aloud for
joy, and embraced him. Then, after the two had talked
together for a very brief space, Orestes said, "Tell me
not how ill thy mother hath done, nor how Ægisthus hath
wasted the substance of my house; but rather instruct me
in this: shall I do this thing secretly or openly? Take
heed also lest thy mother see thee bear a joyful face,
and so take warning."
And Electra made answer,
"As for this present, know that Ægisthus is absent, and
that the Queen is alone. Therefore do as thou deemest
best. And as for me, be sure that I shall not cease from
tears; for the old sorrow is inveterate in me; and also,
now that I have seen thee, I weep for joy."
But while they talked
together came the old man in haste, and rebuked them
that they so spent the time; and to Orestes he said that
no one knew him who he was, but that all deemed him
dead, and that he must make haste and do the deed; for
that now the Queen was alone, nor was there any man in
And Orestes, having prayed
to the Gods, and especially to Apollo, who indeed had
bidden him do this work, went into the palace. And at
the first Electra went with him, but afterwards hastened
out, to keep watch, lest perchance King Ægisthus should
return. So she and the woman waited without and
listened. And after a while there came a cry, "O my son,
my son, have pity on thy mother." And Electra said,
"Aye, but thou hadst no pity on him, or on the father
that begat him." And then again a cry, "Woe is me! I am
smitten." And Electra said, "Smite, if thou canst, a
double blow." And then the voice came a third time, "I
am smitten again." But Electra made reply, "Would that
Ægisthus were smitten with thee!" After this Orestes
came forth, with his sword dripping with blood. And when
the women asked him how it fared in the palace, he
answered, "All is well, if only Apollo hath spoken the
thing that is true."
But as he spake King
Ægisthus came back, asking, "Where be these strangers
from Phocis that are come, telling how Prince Orestes
hath come by his death in a chariot race?"
And Electra made answer
that they were within. Then Ægisthus cried, "Open the
gates, and let all men of Argos and of Mycenæ see the
body; and if perchance any man hath been lifted up with
vain hopes, let him look upon Orestes that he is dead,
and so submit himself to me."
Then the gate was opened,
and there appeared a dead body, lying covered with a
sheet. And Ægisthus said, "Take the covering from off
his face; for he is my kinsman, and should not miss due
mourning from me."
But Orestes answered,
"Take it thyself; for this dead body is thine, not
Then said Ægisthus, "Thou
speakest well: if the Queen be within the palace, bid
And Orestes said, "She is
near thee; look not elsewhere." And when Ægisthus lifted
the covering, lo! it was the Queen who lay dead. Then he
knew the whole matter, and turned to the stranger
saying, "Thou must be Orestes."
"'Tis even so," cried
Orestes. "And now go into the palace."
"But why slayest thou me
in darkness, if this deed be just?"
"I slay thee where thou
didst slay him that is dead."
So he drave him before him
into the palace, and slew him there. Thus the blood of
King Agamemnon was avenged.