In Greek mythology, Orestes was the prince who avenged the murder of his father, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, by killing his own mother, Clytemnestra. Orestes' sisters Iphigenia and Electra play important roles in his story. A number of ancient writers and artists, including Greek playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides, have been inspired by the myth of Orestes.
Orestes was still a child when Agamemnon sailed off to fight in the Trojan War*. While the king was away, Clytemnestra took a lover, Aegisthus. She may have been driven to infidelity by a desire for revenge. To obtain favorable winds to carry his ships to Troy, Agamemnon had sacrificed their young daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis*.
When Agamemnon returned to Mycenae at the end of the war, he was murdered by his wife and her lover. Aegisthus seized the throne. Electra feared that her young brother Orestes, the true heir to the throne, might be in danger, and she took him to stay with their father's old friend King Strophius of Phocis. Strophius raised Orestes with his own son Pylades, and the two boys became close friends.
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
When he grew up, Orestes visited Delphi* and asked the oracle of Apollo* what he should do to avenge his father's murder. The oracle replied that Orestes must kill his mother and her lover. So Orestes and his friend Pylades went to Mycenae disguised as messengers, and they met secretly with Electra to plan the murders. Then with the help of Electra and Pylades, Orestes killed Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, despite her pleas that a son should not kill his own mother.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
There are various versions of what happened next. In some accounts, Orestes received praise for avenging his father's murder. In others, the crime of matricide—the murder of one's mother—was seen as a great sin that deserved great punishment. In these stories, Orestes was pursued relentlessly by the Furies, female spirits of justice and vengeance who drove men mad.
In the version of the story told by Aeschylus, Orestes sought refuge from the Furies at Delphi, home of the oracle that had ordered him to avenge his father's death. Through the oracle, Apollo instructed Orestes to go to Athens and present his case to the Areopagus, an ancient court of elders. During the trial that followed, Orestes received the support of Apollo as well as that of the goddess Athena*, who cast the deciding vote in his favor. The angry Furies were eventually calmed, and they stopped pursuing Orestes.
In another version of Orestes' story, told by the Greek playwright Euripides, the verdict of the Areopagus did not soothe the Furies. Apollo told Orestes that he could put an end to their torment if he went to Tauris, a land of dangerous barbarians, and recovered a sacred statue of Artemis. Orestes and Pylades journeyed to Tauris but were captured by the barbarians. They were brought before the head priestess, who happened to be Orestes' sister Iphigenia. Iphigenia had been rescued from the sacrifice at Aulis before the Trojan War. She helped Orestes and Pylades escape with the statue, and she returned with them to Greece.
See also Agamemnon; Apollo; Athena; Clytemnestra; Electra; Furies; Greek Mythology; Iphigenia.