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In this issue:
-Orestes and Pylades, Part One
Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles wrote his play, "Electra," in 410 BC. Based upon incidents in mythology which were believed to have occurred about 800 years before, it dramatized the story of two---a daughter Electra and her brother, Orestes (Oh-RES-teez)---of the four chldren of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae in the Peloponnesus, and his wife, Queen Clytemnestra.
Clytemnestra's sister was named Helen, who had been married to the King of Sparta, another Greek city, but who was abducted by Prince Paris who spirited her away to his own city in Asia Minor, called Troy. This kidnapping led to the Trojan War. Thus did she become "Helen of Troy," a great beauty still celebrated for her "face that launched a thousand ships."
The union between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra was no love match, either. Agamemnon had killed Clytemnestra's previous husband, another king, with her assistance. She had simply wanted to be free of a husband who neglected her by spending too much time away from home fighting wars. She had not counted on Agamemnon's forcing her into marriage with him! And then, of course, HE, as an ally of her sister Helen's cuckolded husband, went away to fight the Trojan War! Essentially, she was back to "square one."
Once Agamennon had sailed away on one of those thousand warships, an old antagonist of his appeared on the scene in Mycenae to "comfort" the lonely Clytemnestra. Although she resisted at first for appearance's sake, the lady apparently could not do without a roll in the hay and eventually took Agamemnon's enemy into her bed, or, rather, HIS bed, for she gave him an imposing palace of his own.
Meanwhile, over on the battlefield at Troy, Agamemnon got horny, too, and cast his eye on a tempting High Priestess of the gods of Troy. He was so grateful when he got into her pants that he had one of his daughters (a sister of Electra's) sent out to him from home and sacrificed her to the Trojan gods in gratitude for his hot new squeeze, whose name was Cassandra.
Not to be outdone, Clytemnestra, when she heard of Agamemnon's disgraceful behavior, vowed vengeance on him for his affair with Cassandra, not to mention his sacrifice of their daughter. Her lover, who hated Agamemnon anyway, heartily approved and became her confederate in the plan. They plotted his death at the first opportunity.
When Agamemnon finally came home, with Cassandra and two of her sons from a previous relationship, he decided first to make sacrifice for his safe return and then to take a nice, hot bath before meeting his wife, Clytemnestra. His consort, Cassandra, was, however, a psychic as well as a priestess. She refused to go with him, saying she smelled blood and treachery in the air.
Sure enough, as Agamemnon stepped naked and unarmed from his bath, Clytemnestra approached him with a towel under which she had secreted a large net which she whipped out without warning and threw over him. Her lover, hiding nearby, suddenly appeared and stabbed him with a sword. As Agamemnon fell backward into a pool of his own blood, Clytemnestra lifted a sacrificial double axe and chopped off his head.
Outside in the palace grounds, word reached Agamemnon's soldiers of the events inside. Fearing for the lives of Cassandra and her sons, they made a rush for the door, but Queen Clytemnestra's lover had previously positioned his guards so they could block their entry while he took care of business for the queen. He personally beheaded Trojan High Priestess Cassandra and then killed her two sons. The way was now clear for the queen to take over the throne and rule Mycenae with her lover at her side.
Terrified for his life because he was now heir to the throne, Electra quickly sent her 10-year-old brother Orestes, who was actually being reared by his grandparents, to hide with a family of shepherds before moving him into exile with a trusted royal family a safer distance away.
Overlooking the fact that her father had sacrificed one of her sisters in behalf of screwing Cassandra at Troy, Electra resolved to stay on the scene, living quietly so as not to attract her dangerous mother's attention.
Girls were not a technical threat to the throne in Greek lines of succession. Electra would wait patiently for Orestes to grow up. It would be prophesied by the Pythian oracle that he would avenge their father's death. Electra could rest, thus assured.
This is NOT the end of the story. It is not even the point at which Sophocles begins his moving play, but this backgrounding has been necessary to understand what comes after.
Tomorrow, the curtain will rise on the Sophoclean play. Day will dawn. Three strangers will appear on the outskirts of Mycenae, the city once ruled by the unfortunate Agamemnon. One of the three will be a very old man; the others will be handsome younger men. They will bear before them a funeral urn.
In the public market of the city, the old man will proclaim the sad tale of a recent chariot race in the Pythian Games at Delphi, a beautiful city famed for its temples where prophecies are made. He will speak with sad eyes of a charioteer's being hurled from his vehicle while racing at top speed, killing him instantly. They have brought his ashes to be buried in the tomb of his royal father, for he was a prince.
His royal father? The late King Agamemnon? How awful!
Yes, this bronze urn contains the remains of Orestes, his only legitimate son. The poor, exiled boy has come home, but he is dead.
Is this true? How can it be? Has not the Pythian oracle long since foretold that Orestes would live to avenge his father's death? Oh, what dreadful news for his loving sister, Electra! The lady has ever been in mourning for her father, and now.....Ah!
Well, as we say in Mycenae when she passes by: My, doesn't she look good in black? Mourning really does become Electra!
There are no tragedies like Greek tragedies.
After the mysterious death of his sister-in-law, the accidental death of his only son, the suicide of his ex-wife, his own death, the early death of his former mistress, and the heart-attack death at 37 of his only daughter, which left his granddaughter, Tina, the world's wealthiest child at the age of four, it was said, apropos the trials of the one-time richest man in the world, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who had married Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the assassinated President of the United States: "That family is a Greek tragedy!"
From ancient times, Greek civilization has comprised a microcosm of the very worst and the very best of behavior, both human and divine, with all of the attendant consequences, dire and sublime, and the action upon it by external forces for evil or for good. The scandals and intricacies of its mythology alone can never be surpassed---even by an American soap opera!
The themes are universal and eternal. We see the murder of King Agamemnon by his wife and her lover reflected in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" when Hamlet's Uncle Claudius murders Hamlet's father after committing adultery with Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, and then marries her. When Sophocles wrote "Electra" 2000 years before Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet," the basic story was already a thousand years old.
The threads of drama weave the continuum of prior human experience into the fabric of succeeding ages. We laugh and cry at the same things as an audience in a Greek amphitheater in ancient Hellas or in the Globe Theatre in 16th-century London or onstage or on-screen today. Greek drama, in particular, may be considered timeless in other respects, as well.
Sophocles wrote "Electra" in 410 BC, about events which some say transpired 800 years before, others a thousand or more years. He refers to the Pythian games which must have antedated the Olympic games because the first Olympics were held less than 400 years before Sophocles' time. Whatever the case may be, remember that nitpicking over the dates and times leads down a garden path to nowhere. The best thing for the average reader is to recognize simply that it all took place a LONG time ago!
After the murder of the king, his daughter Electra sent her younger brother, Orestes, to safety. After seven years in exile, Orestes, by then about 17, had become the devoted lover of a man named Pylades. The age of Pylades is not known. He is sometimes described as one who became a "playmate" of Orestes' in the early days of his exile, but because of a certain event which transpired later in their lives, it may be suggested that he was older, perhaps considerably older, than Orestes, which would have been more in keeping with the standards of Greek male "friendship."
Together, they journeyed from Orestes' place of exile to Delphi, a city at the foot of Mount Parnassus.
Delphi was the site of the Pythian Games, events held every four years (the third of each Olympiad, an "Olympiad" being the four-year span between Olympic games). They included musical, literary, and athletic contests. The games honored Apollo and took their name from Pythia, a cognomen applied to the succession of priestesses of the oracle at Delphi. Delphi was also the meeting place of the Amphictyonic League, the most important association of Greek city-states, a sort of United Nations of its day.
Orestes' interest in Delphi was in making a pilgrimage to the Pythian oracle. In ancient Greek religion, an oracle was a priest or priestess who imparted the response of a god to a human questioner. The word was also used to refer to the response itself and to the shrine of a god. Every oracular shrine had a fixed method of divination. Many observed signs, such as the motion of objects dropped into a spring, the movement of birds, or the rustle of leaves. Often, dreams were interpreted. A later and popular method involved the use of entranced persons whose ecstatic cries were interpreted by attendants.
We see this latter phenomenon today in some Christian churches whose beliefs include "speaking in tongues." The term for it is "glossolalia," derived from two Greek words: glőssai, which means "tongues" or "languages," and lalien which means "to speak." It is observed in some tribal religions and within certain Christian denominations, notably Charismatics, Mormons in past times, and Pentecostals.
One source comments: "To the outsider, hearing someone speaking in tongues is like hearing so much gibberish. It is the common prayer speech heard at Pentecostal churches." A person speaking in tongues is typically in a state of religious ecstasy and is often unable to understand the words that she/he is saying.
Most Christians who speak in tongues believe that they are speaking in an existing language. However, it is not similar to any known human tongue. Many speculate that it is a "heavenly" tongue. i.e. a language spoken by angels or by God, and not similar to any human language. It was experienced rarely during the history of Christianity until the 20th century when it has become quite common.
One of my grandmothers became involved with such a movement, whose services I often attended. On several occasions I witnessed semi-literate people, seized by religious frenzy, rise in the congregation and declaim in a trance fervent messages in some unknown tongue which would then be "interpreted" by another member of the congregation, temporarily given that power by "the moving of the Spirit."
These messages were often prophecies of a personal nature, some of which were known to have come true. I saw it happen in my own family and, for a short time, was fired up enough to become a boy-wonder preacher in the backwoods of Virginia with my own congregation of devoted followers---a career scotched when they kept trying to pair me off with nubile mountain girls. I was Orestes' age. It is therefore easy for me to accept the power of his belief, and of other ancients, in oracles.
I have known many intelligent, successful people who have relied on readers of Tarot cards and palms to plot out their career moves. The modern Spiritualist movement, an offshoot of the 19th-century "raps" and seances of the Fox sisters of Arcadia, New York, offers public prophesying as part of its church services. Divining astrologers serve much the same purpose. Nancy Reagan paid "her" astrologer to map out the entire Reagan Administration, which gives his "Star Wars" program quite a different twist! Thus, we cannot sneer at the ancients. The believers are still with us today.
I speak of all this so that you may better understand that although ancient, the Greek myths and stories are not at all removed from us as human beings. Orestes was doubtless a beautiful, athletic young foxhunter with a hot body and hot Greek nature who made hot love to his Pylades, worshipped the same gods with him---gods whom they believed smiled favorably on their relationship---and made the pilgrimage to Delphi together anxious to hear from the oracle what was in store for them in the future.
After all, had it not been in even more ancient times that Thamyris had won a competition there, the same Thamyris who loved Hyacinthus, being the first mortal man to fall in love with another man? Delphi welcomed gay lovers and their sacrifices and their observances of the purifying rights making them fit for entering the Temple of Apollo. The oracle would tell them if the time was right to avenge Agamemnon, who, to judge from the gold mask of his face, was a handsome silverfox himself.
What WAS in store for Orestes? It had already been prophesied to Aegisthus, the lover of Queen Clytemnestra, BEFORE he killed Agamemnon, that if he did the deed, he would be assassinated for it by Orestes when the child came of age. Aegisthus had plenty of worries on his conscience already. He had also killed Agamemnon's father many years before in fulfillment of a Pythian prophecy ("the curse of the sea god Poseidon")!
Given the continuing modern fascination with messages from on high, is it any wonder he and the queen lived in mortal fear of the maxim which purports that "never rests easy the head that wears a crown"? They must have suffered many a sleepless night as Orestes approached the age of majority. Soon, he would be 18---a man in Greece---in the eyes of the pederasts, already "over the hill"---not to be fucked with, in more ways than one!
At Delphi, a Pythian priestess, when Orestes asks if the time is right and should he really avenge the death of his father, informs him implicitly that if he does not then he will be barred from entering any temple, afflicted with leprosy and utterly ostracized from society. As matricide is a heinous crime in the sight of the gods, the priestess, taking pity on the beautiful young man before her, also begs the goddess Athena to show favor on him during his ordeal. Athena, in turn, is supposed to have begged the Furies---three winged sisters, with serpents for hair, who were powerful divinities that personified conscience and punished crimes against kindred blood, especially matricide---to accept Orestes' obligations to avenge the death of his father even though it might mean killing his own mother.
She adds that he must do it "by stealth, without aid of arms or numbers" to "snatch the righteous vengeance of (his) hand." So he need not raise an army to invade Mycenae and seize his father's throne and spread the blood of Aegisthus on the ground! He must do it alone, and the Furies will forgive him if he must kill his mother, too.
With his beloved Pylades at his side, Orestes sets out for Mycenae. The oracle has counseled stealth, so they must devise a plan. In doing so, they realize they will need some special help. On the way, they pay a visit to an old man.
This is Paedagogus, who nurtured Orestes in the ten years of childhood the boy enjoyed at Mycenae before his older sister Electra instructed him to carry the boy away after Agamemnon's murder. All these years in exile, he has loved Orestes as his own son and has helped to guide him in all things, even, perhaps, to the moment when Orestes gave his love over to Pylades.
Here, at last, starts Sophocles' play, "Electra."
It is nearly 400 years before the Christian era begins, so the actors waiting to go on don't know that this is 410 BC. While some nervously rehearse their lines, some sneak a frivolous peek to check out the audience for size and perhaps a handsome face toward which to direct a few suggestive lines.
The spectators line rows of stone benches or smoothed rock ascending the hillside which forms a natural amphitheater giving everyone an unobstructed view of the stage below.
See? There is Sophocles, right down in front, where he can whisper cues if his actors forget a line! They say he is having an affair with one of the actors in today's play, but no one can guess which one. Behind him are several pairs of prominent male lovers, a few holding hands and touching knees. Ah! They will love this play. Everyone is fascinated by the gloomy Electra, the beautiful Prince Orestes and his Pylades, also a prince---two sons of heroic kings!
The performance begins.
The Scene: "At Mycenae, before the palace of the Pelopidae. It is morning and the new-risen sun is bright. Paedagogus enters on the left of the spectators, accompanied by the two youths, Orestes and Pylades."
Paedagogus speaks first of the lovely city which Orestes has not seen for seven years, since he was a boy, and then reminds the audience of the role he has played by pointing to "the house of the Pelopidae there, so often stained with bloodshed; whence I carried thee of yore, from the slaying of thy father, as thy kinswoman, thy sister, charged me; and saved thee, and reared thee up to manhood, to be the avenger of thy murdered sire."
The audience thrills to the stentorian tones of the noble silverfox ringing out across the hillside. The old actor is in fine voice today. In the front row, Sophocles nods his head in approval. He had chosen him above the objections of the company manager who swore "that fool of a drunk swills wine like a goat suckling its mother's tit! He'll topple off the stage in the middle of his speech!" But Sopohocles had followed his gut feeling and, by Zeus, the old fox was dead sober and just right for the part!
It is yet early in the day onstage, but Paedagogus counsels Orestes, "The time allows not of delay, but is full ripe for deeds."
Orestes, until now close-mouthed with Paedagogus about his plan informs him: "Thou must go into yonder house, when opportunity gives thee entrance, and learn all that is passing there, so that thou mayest report to us from sure knowledge. Thine age, and the lapse of time, will prevent them from recognising thee; they will never suspect who thou art, with that silvered hair. Let thy tale be that thou art a Phocian stranger, sent by Phanoteus; for he is the greatest of their allies. Tell them, and confirm it with thine oath, that Orestes hath perished by a fatal chance, hurled at the Pythian games from his rapid chariot; be that the substance of thy story."
Orestes tells Paedagogus further that, in secret, "Pylades and I, meanwhile, will first crown my father's tomb, as the god enjoined, with drink-offerings and the luxuriant tribute of severed hair; then come back, bearing in our hands an urn of shapely bronze, now hidden in the brushwood, as I think thou knowest, so to gladden them with the false tidings that this my body is no more, but has been consumed with fire and turned to ashes."
Ingenious! The old man is to enter the palace and give the good news that Orestes is dead and that two young chaps are on the way to present his ashes to the family. While Paedagogus is thus engaged, the two lovers will steal away to Agamemnon's grave and pay homage to the gods who are watching over them, then return with the funeral urn which they have hidden in the forest, and---being unrecognizable to anyone in Mycenae after the lengthy passage of time---will go into the palace and carry out their plan.
The gorgeous young actor playing Orestes, an up-and-coming Athenian cutie who has no end of male admirers that would happily pay him frontal homage on their knees, or perhaps take pleasure at the rear, next declaims his noble purpose as his character in the play. Lifting his arms skyward so that his skirt-like garment rises to reveal his manly treasures tantalizingly hidden by a soft sheepskin pouch, he says:
"O my fatherland, and ye gods of the land, receive me with good fortune in this journey, and ye also, halls of my fathers, for I come with divine mandate to cleanse you righteously; send me not dishonoured from the land, but grant that I may rule over my possessions, and restore my house!"
An audible sigh from Sophocles, accompanied by a slight lick of the lips and flicker of the eye, confirms two things to an observant young actor in the chorus, who furtively views the face of Sophocles from backstage: Now he knows whom the great playwright is fucking, and if he wants better parts, he had better shorten his skirt!
Back to the play: Suddenly, from a nearby doorway, a woman's lament is heard from within. Like a bolt of lightning, the voice strikes a lost chord in Orestes' heart.
He pauses. "Can it be the hapless Electra? Shall we stay here, and listen to her laments?"
Older and wiser, Paedagogus shakes his silver head. "No, no: before all else, let us seek to obey the command of (the oracle), and thence make a fair beginning, by pouring libations to thy sire; that brings victory within our grasp, and gives us the mastery in all that we do."
Heeding this sound advice, but with a sorrowful glance at the doorway behind which his beloved sister cries alone, Orestes goes with Pylades in comforting hand-in-hand to perform their duty at Agamemnon's tomb. Paedagogus turns toward the palace which he must enter to spread the news that Orestes has come home at last, but alas, the boy is dead!
"Exit Paedagogus on the spectators' left, Orestes and Pylades the right."
Once out of sight offstage, the sly fox who plays Paedagogus winks toward a young man waiting in the wings, who comes forward stealthily, carrying a cloth-covered goblet of wine. The old man empties the goblet in one swift gulp, then gives the pretty lad a kiss.
End of silverfoxesclub-digest V1 #206