Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

The figure of Orestes in Greek literature

This project will study the cultural meaning of the mythological figure of Orestes within the ancient Greek imagination, as it emerges from various literary sources from the archaic and classical periods.

2011  -   2015
NWO Spinoza premie 2010 NWO Spinoza premie 2010

Orestes is one of the most fascinating and controversial figures of Greek mythology. As the son of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army in the Trojan War, he had the holy duty to avenge his father’s death by killing the ones responsible. At the same time, to fulfill this duty would involve the transgression of another sacred law – he would have to kill his own mother Clytemnestra. To honor the memory of his father, and urged on by the words of the god Apollo, Orestes commits matricide. After the deed, he is haunted by the Furies of his mother’s blood.

In the ancient Greek world, the story of Orestes provided a major source of creative inspiration for poets and thinkers. Especially his potential for the tragic stage turned out to be remarkable: in no less than a quarter of all Greek tragedies that have come down to us, Orestes appears as a character. Uniquely, the story of his revenge received adaptations by all three of the great Greek tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. What were the reasons for the enduring appeal of Orestes for Greek tragedy? How do the different depictions of his story relate to each other? This research project aims at providing an analysis of the various treatments of Orestes in Greek literature of the archaic and classical periods.

Nature and aims of the project

By comparing the different representations of the mythological figure of Orestes as they emerge from various literary sources, we can gain insight into the ways in which the ancient poets utilized their traditional material in order to address contemporary concerns of their society. It will be shown that the story of Orestes has been appropriated by the tragedians in a variety of different ways, each with their own emphases and perspectives. The mythological material provided these poets with an opportunity to reflect critically on, and to call into question, a large number of social customs, beliefs, and institutions. As a result, the function of Orestes in Greek literature changed accordingly, as different value systems and cultural contexts were explored and problematized. For us, this means that Orestes can be considered as a focal point of the ancient Greek imagination: the various dramatizations of this figure offer us a unique vantage point from which to look at several social issues that were of central importance to Greek culture as a whole.

The different literary adaptations of Orestes’ story will be studied with an eye to these larger cultural concerns, adopting an approach that is thematic rather than chronological – research will be arranged around a series of recurring thematic issues, instead of addressing the different versions one after the other. In this way, it will become clear that all of the various aspects are inherent in the basic myth of Orestes, but receive a different emphasis and articulation in each literary representation. In other words, Orestes’ story had great potential to be treated in a variety of different manners, employing a variety of different discourses. Here we have a figure that was exceptionally ‘good to think with’ for ancient Greek poets.

This research project will throw light on the central position of a mythological and literary figure within a culture, and further our understanding of the ways in which Greek tragedy attempted to deal with man’s place in a changing world on the basis of traditional material. By bringing together discussions of various literary texts within a central thematic framework, it will also address the intertextual links between different plays and playwrights, as well as their relation with the genres of Homeric epic and the choral lyric of Pindar.

Corpus of texts

Research will focus mainly on the extant tragedies in which Orestes has an important part: Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy (especially the second and third plays); Sophocles’ Electra; and Euripides’ Electra, Orestes, Iphigenia in Tauris and Andromache. In addition, other early texts treating the story of Orestes’ revenge will be included in the discussion, notably Homer’s Odyssey and Pindar’s Pythian 11, as well as several fragmentary works (e.g. the epic Nostoi and Stesichorus’ Oresteia).

The depictions of Orestes contained in these sources will not be discussed one by one, but will be approached by way of several recurring thematic issues. Throughout Greek literature, Orestes can be seen as fulfilling a number of different ‘roles’, depending on the social or cultural contexts that are invoked or emphasized. Some of these aspects will have a stronger presence in certain texts, while other aspects may be more clearly articulated in others. But this is not a matter of one-to-one correspondence. In fact, most facets of the figure of Orestes will be shown to be present, in one form or another, throughout all of the accounts discussed. The difference is mainly one of emphasis, and of the activation of different conceptual frameworks in different texts.

Originality and Relevance

In recent years, there have been several studies of the literary life of ancient mythological figures. Many of these are collections of separate essays by various contributors; as a result, they lack the central focus and unity of argument of a single-authored monograph. Others are very broad-brush overviews of an artistic tradition, ranging all the way from antiquity to the present day. These are often not written by classical scholars, and do not focus specifically on Greek texts in the original language. Unified studies of a mythological figure within a limited chronological and cultural perspective – e.g. their role in the drama of the Greek polis in the 5th c. BC – are scarce, however. For the reasons set out above, Orestes is an exceptionally suitable subject for such a study. The many different facets of his depiction in Greek literature allow for a unique entry-point into a discussion of various issues that were central to classical Greek culture.

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