Our Head of Drama, who often directs Greek tragedy, asked me for a basic family tree of Orestes and his sisters. I gave him this one from Sir Paul Harvey’s Companion to Classical Literature*: basic, but enough for his needs and supplying him with the names that he could research if he wished.
There is a story attaching to each of the characters, and some of these we went on to talk about. What, he asked, are we to think of this family, upon whom there was allegedly a curse—in some versions originating from the action of Pelops, in bribing the charioteer Myrtilus to murder his master and then hurling him into the sea—but in another view, going back to the behaviour of Tantalus? What are we to make of this family of criminals—self-regarding egocentrics, who in the pursuit of their personal satisfaction were capable of adultery, revenge, usurpation, incest, and murder, including that of children?
The basic and more well known facts were familiar to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Plato, including the hideous behaviour of Atreus and Thyestes: and much later, with the publication of the Bibliotheca of Apollodorus, we find more and equally disgusting details. Was this the process, familiar to us from the internet, whereby once a family is ‘condemned’, then all manner of additional accusations accrete to their discredit? To look at the pages of Apollodorus (or whoever he was) is to wonder, reading such stories, how much the author has received and how much conceived. One thing is plain: vile behaviour as entertainment is not a modern institution.
However—it may be a comfort to find that first Aeschylus in Eumenides, and then Euripides in Iphigenia in Tauris brought at least literary closure to the misfortunes of this family, with the loving friendship between the cousins Orestes and Pylades and the touching figure of Iphigenia. With the help of Athene, Artemis and Apollo, the next generation have awoken from a terrible dream, and now that their elders are laid to rest, they are not going to emulate the behaviour that has brought them such misery till now.
* s.v. Pelops.
See also earlier post Iphigenia in Tauris