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"Our Heroic Debate with the Eumenides": » Greek Tragedy and the Poetics and Politics of Identity in Modern Greek Poetry and Theatre. » “Orestes”



Ancient Greek quotations are taken from:

A. H. Sommerstein (2008), Aeschylus II: Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, Eumenides [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, and London.

H. Lloyd-Jones (1994), Sophocles I: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London.

D. Kovacs (1998), Euripides ΙΙ: Suppliant Women, Electra, Heracles [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, and London.  

_________ (2002), Euripides V: Helen, Phoenician Women, Orestes [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London.

 Quotations  from  Ritsos’ Orestes are from P. Green and B. Bardsley’s translation of the Fourth Dimension (Princeton N.J, 1993), unless otherwise stated.



In this poem Ritsos retells the myth of Orestes, as attested in four tragic plays: Aeschylus’ Choephori, Sophocles’ Electra and (to a lesser degree) Euripides’ Electra and Orestes. The main plot of the myth remains the same: Orestes, along with his friend Pylades, returns home in order to take revenge for his father’s murder by Clytemnestra. Ritsos, however, diverges from his ancient sources on many occasions. First of all, whereas the recognition scene between Electra and Orestes, and the act of matricide constitute climactic moments in the ancient plays, Ritsos dismisses both scenes and focuses his attention on Orestes’ tortured oscillation between matricide and the repudiation of it. Moreover, notably Ritsos makes no reference to Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover, whom Orestes kills along with his mother in classical tragedy.


Page 65

Listen –  it hasn’t stopped yet, she hasn’t gotten tired. Intolerable

Electra’s prolonged and continuous mourning, repeatedly mentioned in the poem, is reminiscent mainly of Sophocles’ Electra, where the heroine firmly proclaims that she will never stop lamenting for her father: Soph. El. 103-9, 142-52, 231-2, 123; see especially 1085, where her dirges are prolonged into a ‘lifetime of tears’; see also Eur. El. 144-9, 181-3.

Orestes’ opening remark regarding his sister reflects the stance that he adopts towards her mourning throughout the poem.

From the very beginning, Ritsos’ Orestes appears to be quite detached from his sister. His detachment is eloquently expressed by the fact that he twice refers to her, rather peremptorily, as a ‘woman’ (pp. 66 and 68). In the tragic plays the relationship between Orestes and his sister is very close and their encounter brings immeasurable joy to both (Aesch. Cho. 183-263; Soph. El. 1224-86; Eur. El. 577-98). Moreover, Orestes shows great sympathy towards Electra’s ongoing misery. In Ritsos this sympathy is turned into contempt.


Page 66

Listen to her – her voice covers her like a resonating vault*

and she herself is suspended in her voice

like the clapper of a bell, and is struck by and strikes the bell,

though there is neither feast nor funeral, only the immaculate solitude  of the rocks

and, below, the humble quiet of the fields—underlining

this unvindicated frenzy…* 

*Substitution for Green and Bardsley’s ‘her voice spreads over her like a deep-arched vault’ and ‘unjustifiable passion’.

The ritual abnormality of Electra’s lament implied here (it is neither communal nor prompted by a ritual occasion) is already present in Sophocles, where Electra is said to perform her dirges ‘by herself and to herself’ (Soph. El. 285 αὐτὴ πρὸς αὐτήν).


Page 66

Let’s move a little away from here, so the woman’s voice won’t reach us.

Orestes’ resentment of Electra’s woes contrasts Aeschylus’ Choephori (20ff) and Euripides’ Electra (107ff), where, by contrast, he overhears his sister’s words.


Page 66

Let’s stand further down; no, not at the ancestral tombs; 

no libations tonight. I don’t want

   to cut my hair –  

Orestes’ refusal to cut a lock of hair or pour libations at Agamemnon’s tomb is in contrast to his eagerness to do so in the relevant Greek tragedies. Moreover, it delays or perhaps even forestalls the recognition scene, which in the ancient tragedies is incited through one or both of these ritual gestures: Aesch. Cho. 6-7 (only the offering of the lock is mentioned); Soph. El. 50-2, 893-901 (reference to libations and the hair lock); Eur. El. 90-1, 513-5 (shorn hair and a sacrificed lamb).


Page 67

How is it that with the smallest threads of a few of our moments they weave for us

our whole time , harsh and dark, thrown

                       like a veil from our head to our feet, covering 

Our faces and hands completely, where they’ve placed*

 an unknown knife –  

* Substitution for Green and Bardsley’s more fanciful ‘secreted’

The veil mentioned by Orestes brings to mind the ‘net’ that enveloped and killed his father. Agamemnon is trapped in a garment with no holes for the head or the arms – a garment visualised figuratively as a net (see Aesch. Ag. 1115, 1382, Cho. 492-3, Eum. 634-5). Here Orestes compares the fatal net with the fate that has fallen upon his own shoulders.


Page 67

                        And how does it happen

that our own fate accepts it, stands back

and watches, like a stranger, ourselves and our alien fate*,

dumb, austere, resigned, aloof,

not even with the air of magnanimity* or stoicism,

without even disappearing, without dying,

so that we may remain, at least, prey to a foreign fate,*

but to one only –  not in two minds and divided. Look at it, still there,

as though drowsy –  one eye closed, the other dilated,

letting us see it watching us and discerning

our endless hesitation, with neither approval nor disapproval.

Two opposing forces seem to pull equally on our legs

and one force moves far further away than the other,

stretching the stride of our legs to the point of dismemberment

*The Green/Bardsley translation has been modified on several points. We substitute

‘alien fate’  for ‘strange fate’

‘the air of magnanimity’ for ‘the dignity of magnanimity’

‘so that we may remain, at least, prey to a foreign fate’ for ‘and that we remain, prey, it may be, to a different fate’

Orestes’ reference to his divided mind and the two opposing forces that ‘seem to pull equally on our legs’ could be an allusion to Eur. El. 94-9, where Orestes chooses to stay close to the border of Argos and not set foot (οὐ βαίνω πόδα) inside the walls, because he experiences an inner struggle (ἅμιλλαν) and oscillates between two non-complementary motives: either to escape (ἵν’ ἐκβάλω πόδα / ἄλλην ἐπ’ αἶαν) οr to find his sister.


Pages 69-71

                    Did you see her

this afternoon in the garden? –  how beautiful she still is – she hasn’t

aged at all,


And Mother’s voice, how contemporary, everyday, correct’* – 

she can make the biggest words seem natural,


 Thus Mother always found her most precise movement and stillness

precisely at the moment of her absence – we were always afraid

she would vanish before our very eyes, be taken up, rather –  whenever

   she bent

to tie her sandal, which left uncovered her marvellous,

painted, curved toenails, or whenever she arranged

her hair in front of the big mirror

with a movement of her hands so graceful, youthful, and light,


and at the same time strong, commanding, and unfathomable  

*Substitution for Green and Bardsley’s less accurate ‘real, ordinary, precise’ 

Whereas in Greek tragedy Orestes shows no affection for his mother, in Ritsos he adopts a completely different stance. He refers to Clytemnestra by calling her ‘Mother’ (no less than ten times), he admires and praises her for her manners and high spirits. There is nostalgia and tenderness in his contemplation of her, even though his description allows a glimpse (albeit a fleeting one) to her tragic persona as well (‘Mother was so simple and persuasive / and at the same time strong, commanding, and unfathomable’, p.71). The only time he explicitly calls her a ‘murderess’ he hastens to add that he sympathises with her (p. 73), and that his return to Argos has helped him to realise ‘the innocence of all usurpers’ (p. 73). Further down (p. 76), he firmly declares that it was not his mother who wove the fatal ‘net’ that killed his mother.


Page 68

                                                                                                                             at noon

 as we were coming here, a cloud-shadow passed across the plain

covering wheatfields, vines, olive trees,

horses, birds, leaves – a transparent sketch

of a distant landscape of the infinite, here upon the ground;

and the peasant who was trudging along at the far end of the field

seemed to be holding, thrust under his left armpit,

the whole shadow of the cloud, like a huge cloak –

majestic, yet simple as his sheep.

The image of the anonymous farmer being wondrously at one with his natural surroundings may be an implicit echo from Euripides Electra, where a humble farmer is introduced as Electra’s husband (31-9), or an implicit echo from Sartre’s The Flies, where Electra confronts the Argives’ remorseful self-pitying with ‘that humble contentment of the farmer who walks on his field and says “A fine day”’ (see Les Mouches, Act 2, sc. 3: ‘…cet humble contentement du paysan qui marche sur sa terre et qui dit « Il fait beau »’).


Page 69

And she persists in preparing hydromel and food for the dead

who no longer thirst or drink, no longer have mouths

or dream of restoration or revenge.

Orestes’ remark comes into contrast with Aesch. Cho. 324ff and 400ff, where the Chorus imagine the soul of Agamemnon as dwelling within his tomb, still angry with his murderers and eager for revenge. 


Page 71

Perhaps that was what my sister never forgave her —her eternal youth—

that old woman of a child, cautious by contrast, given to denial

of beauty and delight – ascetic, odious in her moderation,

solitary and detached.  

Electra’s sexual jealousy against her mother implied here is also evidenced in Eur. El. 1062-3, 1070-1: ‘as for your beauty and Helen’s, it is worthy of praise … as soon as your husband had set out from home, you started primping the tresses of your blond hair in front of the mirror’.

Both in Sophocles (El. 164-5, 187-8, 962) and in Euripides (El. 43-53) Electra is unwed and childless (although married to a farmer, Euripides’ Electra retains her virginity). In fact, in Sophocles she claims for herself a man-like virtue that she terms ἀνδρεία, or ‘manliness’.


Page 71

                                             Even her clothes,

stubbornly old-womanish, baggy, tattered, old,

and the cord at her waist limp, worn out

The description of Electra’s appearance echoes her portrait in the tragic plays, where she appears with dirty hair and tattered clothing (Eur. El. 184-5, 303-8; Soph. El. 191-2, 450-2).


Page 71

she keeps a stern eye on Mother, is continually


whenever Mother puts a flower in her hair or her bosom,

whenever she walks down the corridor with her confident, lilting steps,

when she tilts her head, in melancholy relaxation, a little to one side,

letting fall a small drop of sound, charged with meaning, from her long

earring onto her shoulder,

that she alone bears — her own sweet prerogative. And she, the Other, is


Electra’s attitude towards her mother reflects their tense relationship in tragedy: see Soph. El. 515-659, 766-822; Eur. El. 998-1147.


Page 72

Let’s leave this land of Mycenae behind us once again – how the earth

here smells

of bronze-rust and black blood. Attica’s lighter. Isn’t it?  

This statement contrasts the tragic plays, where Orestes comes to Argos from Phocis, where he had been staying in the house of Strophios (cf. Eur. Or. 765). It recalls, however, Sartre’s The Flies where Orestes comes to Argos from Athens (cf. Act 2, sc. 4), though pretending to be from Corinth.  Ritsos’ ‘Attica’s lighter’ also corresponds to his Tutor’s nostalgic reference to the ‘untainted lightness’ of evenings at Corinth and at Athens (Act 3, sc. 5).


Page 73

                                                          Not vengeance —

what could it bring back from the dead, one death more,

and that a violent one— what could it add to life?

The above statement in a way challenges the Chorus’ remark in Aesch. Cho. 400-4: ‘Well, it is certainly the law that when drops of gore / flow to the ground, they demand other / blood; for slaughter cries out for a Fury / who comes from those who perished before to bring / further ruin upon ruin’; cf. Cho. 306-14.


Page 73

And she sees — she sees the inexhaustible, the unattainable, and the


Orestes’ remark about his mother, could be an allusion to Clytemnestra’s well-known words in the red-fabric scene (Aesch. Ag. 958-60) regarding the inexhaustible purple: ‘There is a sea —who will ever dry it up?—  / which breeds an ever-renewed ooze of abundant purple…’


 Page 73

Oh my dear, how particularly you share in all

 these strange, foolish undertakings. 

Orestes’ address to Pylades brings to the fore their affectionate relationship, already hinted at in the opening stage-directions (note the use of the adverb ‘affectionately’, p. 65). Their relationship, as presented here, reminds us mainly of Euripides’ Electra (82-7) and Orestes. In Aeschylus’ Choephori and Sophocles’ Electra, this affection is not evident.


Page 76

Perhaps it is huge masks thrust into a precipice,* metal buckles,

and the sandals of the dead, warped from the damp,

moving all by themselves, as though walking without feet – but they

       don’t walk;

and that great net in the bath —who wove it?—

knot upon knot* – unloosable – black – it was not Mother who wove it.  

 *Substitution of Green and Bardsley’s ‘destroyed’ and adaptation of  ‘the knot, the knot’

The reference to the ‘sandals of the dead’ (in conjunction with the net and the bath) serves as an allusion to the red-fabric scene in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (944-9). There the king has his sandals taken off, so that he may tread on the purple fabrics spread out by Clytemnestra. Notably, Aeschylus boldly terms the sandals ‘πρόδουλον ἔμβασιν ποδός’, or ‘slaves for the feet to tread on’. Ritsos reverses that image, in so far as the sandals here acquire a life of their own and move ‘all by themselves, as though walking without feet’. The prominence of sandals evokes the sense of impending doom that dominates the corresponding Aeschylean scene.

The references to the net in the bath also allude to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, where the robe by which Agamemnon is covered during his bath is compared to a net (1114-5, 1611). The reference to the fatal robe (visualised as net) by which Agamemnon was trapped, and Orestes’ remark that it was not woven by his mother may allude to the end of Choephori, when, after the matricide, Orestes questions (albeit for a moment) his deed, wondering whether his mother was, in fact, the one who ensnared Agamemnon: ‘Did she do it or did she not?’ (1010).


Page 77

That wretched woman is still quiet. In the midst of her silence I seem to 

    hear the justice of her claim — 

she is so vulnerable in her fury, so wronged,

with her bitter hair fallen about her shoulders like grass on a tomb

The description of Electra’s hair is in contrast to her description in Sophocles (El. 451) and Euripides (El. 148-150, 241,335), where she is portrayed with her hair cut short in mourning. 


Page 79

Let us now lift up this funeral urn with my purported ashes — 

the recognition scene will begin in a moment.

This remark comes into contrast with Sophocles’ Electra 54-8, 757-60, 1113-25, 1142, where the ashes contained in the funeral urn are supposed to deceive Orestes’ opponents. A reference to an urn supposedly containing Orestes’ ashes occurs also in Cho. 686-7, where however the object itself is not brought onstage: it is purportedly in Phocis, and it is up to Orestes’ family to decide whether they will repatriate his ashes or have them buried in a foreign land. In Ritsos the urn is said to contain Orestes real ashes.

The mention of the urn, in conjunction with the reference to the recognition scene, alludes primarily to Sophocles’ Electra (1097-1235), where Electra’s mournful reaction to the fake news of Orestes death and to the sight of the urn supposedly containing her brother ashes lead to the recognition of the two siblings. The recognition scene also brings to mind Choephori 168-232, where Electra recognizes her brother on the basis of several tokens (a lock of hair, footprints, a piece of cloth),


Page 80

Let’s go. The appointed hour

has already come. Why are you smiling? Do you agree?

Was it this that you knew already yet never said?

This is the right ending – isn’t it? – after the most righteous of fights?

The reference to Pylades’ smile of consent alludes to Aesch. Cho. 899-902, where at the exact moment of the matricide Orestes’ resolution falters, and he seeks Pylades’ advice. Pylades reminds him of Apollo’s oracle, thus encouraging him to murder Clytemnestra.  



Page 67

How is it that with the smallest threads

of a few of our moments they weave for us

our whole time, harsh and dark, thrown

like a veil (καλύπτρα) from our head to our feet (ὣς τὰ πόδια μας), covering 

οur faces and hands completely, where they’ve placed  

 an unknown knife

The description of the robe alludes to Aesch. Cho. 997-1000, where the fatal robe is said to have covered Agamemnon’s  whole body from top to toe: ‘What should I call it to hit on the apt word?  Something to catch a hunted beast, or a drape to cover a corpse in its coffin, feet (νεκροῦ ποδένδυτον) and all? No, you should call it a net, a snare, a hobbling-robe (ποδιστῆρας πέπλους)’.

The use of the term καλύπτρα brings to mind Cho. 807-11, where the idea of Orestes’ freedom is again at stake: ‘And you who dwell at the great, well-built / portal [sic. Apollo], let the man’s house raise its head in happiness, / and let it, with friendly eyes, / behold in him the brilliant light / of freedom, after long being veiled in darkness (ἐκ δνοφερᾶς καλύπτρας)’.


Page 70

perhaps because she watches over time and enacts (ἐποπτεύει) it

every moment—

*A substitution for Green and Bardsley’s less accurate ‘she watches time and manages it’. 

Although perhaps coincidental, the use of ἐποπτεύει cannot but recall the beginning of Aeschylus’ Choephori: Ἑρμῆ χθόνιε, πατρῷ’ ἐποπτεύων κράτη (‘Hermes of the Underworld, you who watch over my father’s power’).


Page 71

That old woman of a child (αὐτὴ ἡ γριὰ παιδίσκη)

This characterisation echoes the way in which the Erinyes are described in Aesch. Eum. 68-9: κόραι / γραῖαι παλαιαὶ παῖδες (‘these old maidens, these aged virgins’). Through this verbal allusion Electra is visualised as an embodiment of the Erinyes, and the points of contact between her and the avenging Furies now emerge more clearly:  both combine, in a fashion deemed as repellent, elderliness and maidenhood; and both are agents of vengeance for intrafamilial crimes.


 Page 72

What do they want from me? ‘Vengeance (ἐκδίκηση), vengeance (ἐκδίκηση)’, they cry.  

Orestes’ words allude to the Erinyes’ double invocation to ‘Vengeance’ in Eumenides 785 and 815: ‘ὦ Δίκα, Δίκα’.


Mythic Characters

Οrestes’ myth is dealt with in a number of ancient Greek tragedies, e.g. Aeschylus’ Choephori, Sophocles’ Electra, Euripides’ Electra, Orestes, Iphigenia in Tauris. The dramatis personae in these plays are usually Orestes, Electra, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Pylades and the Chorus. Ritsos keeps only three characters: Orestes (the only speaking part), Pylades (a mute person), and Electra, who remains off-stage throughout the poem.  



Just like his tragic counterpart, Ritsos’ Orestes returns to his native Argos in order to avenge his father’s murder by Clytemnestra. However, whereas in tragedy Orestes’ decision to murder his mother is dictated by a nexus of factors (i.e. Apollo’s oracle, the vengeance demanded by the dead Agamemnon, and/or Orestes’ own will – cf. Aesch. Cho. 269ff, 900-902, 953ff, 124ff, 306ff, 269ff; Soph. El. 32-8, 70, 1264; Eur. El. 87-9; 971), Ritsos’ Orestes questions the duty imposed upon him by others, and his entire monologue revolves around his doubts and reservations vis-à-vis the act of matricide. At the end he decides to proceed; yet, his decision is a conscious one and totally his own (‘And I, the faithless one, choose this faith (the others do not choose me) / yet in full personal knowledge’, p. 80). 



Orestes’ monologue is addressed to a young man of his age, who ‘remains affectionately silent and attentive ‘like Pylades’ (p. 65). Even though the Greek here is ambivalent, Orestes’ companion could be identified with his mythic friend Pylades, although he is at the same time a fully contemporary character. Pylades’ is a non-speaking part, just as he is a persona muta in the Electras of Euripides and Sophocles. In the Choephori Pylades utters merely three lines (900-2), which are, however, of immense importance for the plot. In Euripides’ Orestes the role of Pylades is clearly more active and has a considerable number of spoken lines (Eur. Or.729-803; 1074; 1236; 1089-90). 



Ritsos’ Electra is fiercely faithful to her dead father and wholeheartedly devoted to the idea of revenge, just like her counterpart in Aeschylus, Euripides, and especially Sophocles. Despite the similarities though, Ritsos’ Electra lacks the strength and recklessness of the Sophoclean and Euripidean heroines respectively. The tragic Electra is less passive and constitutes the driving force behind the revenge (Eur. El. 967-87; Soph. El. 1019-20). In Ritsos, Electra is reduced merely to a ‘tedious’ voice.



Ritsos’ Clytemnestra is described as ‘youthful’, ‘charming’, ‘graceful’, even ‘poetic’ (pp. 69-71). Nothing of what Orestes says about her reminds us of the tragic Clytemnestra, who is typically presented as a cruel, ‘manly’ and villainous woman, especially by Aeschylus (Agamemnon and Choephori) and Sophocles (Electra). Ritsos’ Clytemnestra rather shares more similarities with Euripides’ Clytemnestra, who is portrayed as more humane and vulnerable.



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