| Stories from the Greek Tragedians|
|by Alfred J. Church|
|Thirteen strong, interesting tales from Greek tragedy, admirably retold by Alfred J. Church and retaining remarkably well the spirit of the originals. Includes the stories of Alcestis, Medea, Antigone, Philoctetes, Agamemnon, Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes among others. Ages 11-14 |
STORY OF ELECTRA, OR THE RETURN OF ORESTES
 WHEN King Agamemnon was slain by his wicked wife
Clytæmnestra, the boy Orestes his son had perished also
by the hands of his mother, but that his sister Electra
took him and delivered him out of the hands of them
that would have slain him. And having saved him, she
sent him to the house of Strophius the Phocian, who was
a friend to the house of the King, her father. And here
Orestes abode till he was of age and strength to fulfil
the law. For the law of the land was that, if a man
should be foully slain, his son should avenge him on
him that had done this wrong. Also the youth sought
counsel of Apollo at his oracle of Delphi, and the god
answered him that he should avenge the blood of his
father even upon her
 that bare him. Therefore, being now grown to manhood,
he came to the city of Argos, having disguised himself
that no man might know him. And he had with him Pylades
that was the son of Strophius. Now these two loved each
other exceedingly, so that men spake of them in after
time as famous among friends. Also there came with
Orestes an old man, a slave that had waited on him from
a boy. Now the three had devised a story wherewith they
might deceive the Queen and her husband; and being thus
prepared they came into the city at dawn.
ELECTRA AND ORESTES.
Then the old man spake, saying, "Son of Agamemnon, thou
seest the city which thou hast long desired to see.
There is the grove of Io, whom the gad-fly drave over
the earth, and there on the left hand the temple of
Heré, which all men know, and before us the palace of
the children of Pelops, a house of many woes, from
which I carried thee forth in time past, when thy
mother would have slain thee. But now we must take
counsel and that speedily, for the sun is risen and
hath wakened the birds, and we must be ready before
that men come forth to their work."
 Then Orestes made reply, " 'Tis well said, old man.
Hearken then to what I purpose. And first know that
when I would hear from Apollo at his oracle in Delphi
how I should best avenge my father, he bade me trust
neither in shield nor spear, but accomplish the deed by
craft. Do thou then go when occasion shall offer into
the palace, and spy out the things that are therein.
For they will not know thee who thou art, so changed
art thou. And thou shalt tell them such a tale about me
as shall surely deceive them. And we meanwhile will do
honor to the spirit of my father at his grave, offering
hair that has been shorn from my head and drink
offerings, and afterwards will return and accomplish
what shall remain to be done."
ORESTES AT THE TOMB OF HIS FATHER.
And when he had so spoken, he prayed, "O my country and
ye gods of the land, help me, and thou house of my
father which I have come at the bidding of the Gods to
cleanse from the guilt of blood."
Then the old man said, "I hear the voice of some one
that groans." And Orestes made answer, "Doubtless it is
my sister Electra. Shall we stay and listen to her?"
 said the old man, "let us do our business without
delay." So they departed.
And then came forth Electra, making great lamentation
for her father, and praying that the Gods would
speedily send her brother Orestes to avenge him. And
with her was a company of the daughters of Argos, who
sought to comfort her, saying that it was idle to make
such weeping and moaning for the dead; and that others
also were in like case with her; and that she should
have patience, for that time would bring punishment on
the evildoers. Also they would have her curb her
tongue, seeing how she angered those that had the rule
in her house.
And then Electra unfolded her grief to them saying, "I
pray you, daughters of Argos, that ye think no evil of
me as of one that altogether wanteth wisdom and
patience. For what woman of the better sort would not
do even as I? For think how I am constrained to live
with them that slew my father; and that every day I see
this base Ægisthus sitting upon that which was his
throne, and wearing the selfsame robes; and how he is
husband to this mother of mine, if indeed she be a
mother who can stoop to such
 vileness. And know that every month on the day on which
she slew my father she maketh festival and offereth
sacrifice to the Gods. And all this am I constrained to
see, weeping in secret, for indeed it is not permitted
to me publicly to show such sorrow as my heart
desireth. Ofttimes indeed this woman mocketh me, and
would know why I sorrow more than others, seeing that
others also have lost their fathers. But sometimes, if
it so chance that she hear from some one that Orestes
prepareth to come back to this land, she is furious
above measure, and rageth as a wild beast; and her
husband, this coward that maketh war against women,
stirreth up her fury against me. And still do I look
for Orestes when he shall come; but he tarrieth long,
and in the meantime I perish with sorrow and trouble."
Then the daughters of Argos, when they had made inquiry
and heard that Ægisthus was absent and that they could
speak more freely of these matters, would fain know
whether she had heard news of her brother Orestes, and
bade her be of good heart concerning him. But as they
spake together, the sister of Electra,
 Chrysothemis, came forth with offerings for the tomb of
her father in her hand, and other maidens followed her.
Now these two were different one from the other, for
Electra was full of courage, and would have no peace
with those whom she hated, and sought not to hide what
was in her heart, but Chrysothemis was fearful, and
would live peaceably with them that she loved not, and
would speak them fair. And now, when Electra saw her
sister come forth, she brake out against her with many
angry words, saying that she did ill to choose the part
of a mother who had done such wickedness, and to forget
her father; and that it was a base thing in her to live
softly and at ease, consorting with the evildoers.
And when the Argive maidens would have made peace
between them, Chrysothemis answered, "These words are
not strange to me; nor should I take note of them, but
that I have heard of a great trouble that is ready to
fall upon my sister here, and stay her complaints even
"Nay, what is this?" said Electra. "Speakest thou of
trouble greater than that which I now endure?"
 "Surely," the other made reply, "for they will send
thee far hence, and shut thee up where thou shalt never
more see the light of the sun, if thou stayest not
"But Electra did not fear one whit to hear these
things, but waxed fiercer in her anger. And, after a
while, as the strife ceased not between them,
Chrysothemis would have gone on her way. And when
Electra perceived this, she asked her for what purpose
and whither she was carrying these offerings to the
And Chrysothemis made reply that she was carrying them
at the bidding of her mother to the tomb of King
Agamemnon. For that the Queen was in much fear, having
seen a vision in the night which had sorely troubled
her; and that the vision was this. The King her
husband, whom she slew, seemed to bear her company,
even as he had done in time past. And he took the
sceptre which he had been wont to carry, and which
Ægisthus carried after him, and planted it in the
earth; and there sprang from it a very flourishing
branch, by which the whole land of Mycenæ was
overshadowed. "So much," she said, "I
 heard her say, when she told her dream to the light of
the day; but more I know not, save that she sendeth me
to make these offerings, by reason of her fear."
Then Electra answered, "Nay, my sister; lay not aught
of these things upon our father's tomb, for they would
be an abomination to him; but scatter them to the
winds, or cover them with earth. So let them be kept
for her, when she shall die. And surely, but that she
is the most shameless of women, she had not sought to
pay this honour to him whom she slew so foully.
Thinketh she to atone in such sort for the blood that
she hath shed? Not so. Put these things away; but thou
and I will lay upon this tomb hair from thy head and
from mine; small gifts, in truth, yet what we have. And
do thou pray to our father that he will help us even
where he dwelleth below the earth, and also that
Orestes may come speedily, and set his foot upon the
necks of them that hate us."
This Chrysothemis promised that she would do, and so
departed. And in a short space came forth the Queen
find-  ing her daughter Electra without the gate of the palace,
was very wroth, saying that King Ægisthus had forbidden
her to do this thing, and that it was not well that, he
being absent, she should take no account of her mother.
"But now," she said, "let us reason together. Thou
speakest ill of me, because I slew thy father. 'Tis even
so. I deny it not. But mark, Justice slew him, not I
only; and thou shouldest be on the side of Justice. He
slew thy sister, sacrificing her to the Gods, as no
other Greek had done. For what cause did he slay her?
'For the sake of the Greeks,' thou wilt say. But what had
the Greeks to do with child of mine? Or was it for the
sake of King Menelaüs his brother? But had not Menelaüs
two children, and should not one of these have the
rather died, seeing of what father and mother they
came, even of those for whose sake the Greeks waged
this war? Had Death, thinkest thou, desire for my
children rather than for his? Or had this accursed
father no care for my children, but only for the
children of his brother? Surely this was the deed of a
foolish and wicked man. Aye, I say
 it, whatever thou mayest think, and so would say she
who died, could she take voice and speak."
Then said Electra, "If thou permittest, I would say
somewhat for him and for her."
And the Queen answered, "Say on. Didst thou always
speak in such mood, thou wert not so ill to hear."
Then Electra spake: "Thou sayest, 'I slew thy father.'
'Tis enough. Worse thou couldst not say, whether 'twere
justly done or no. But of justice thou hadst never a
thought. 'Twas the ill persuasion of him with whom thou
now consortest that urged thee to this deed. And as for
my sister, thou knowest well that my father slew a stag
in the grove of Artemis, and boasted himself of the
deed, and that the goddess was wroth with him, and
hindered the voyage of the Greeks; and that for this
cause my father slew his daughter, knowing that
otherwise the ships could sail neither to Troy nor
homewards. Yea, he slew her, sorely against his will,
for the people's sake, and for nought else. But
consider whether this that thou sayest be not
altogether a pretence. Art thou
 not wife to him that was thy fellow in this deed?
Callest thou this taking vengeance for thy daughter
that was slain? And thy children—art thou a mother to
them? What ill do not I suffer at thy hand and the hand
of thy partner? And Orestes, whom I barely saved from
thy hand, liveth he not in exile? Surely, whatsoever it
be that thou chargest against him, thou hast no cause
to be ashamed of me."
Then the two spake many bitter words to each other; and
at the last, when Electra held her peace, the Queen
prayed to the Gods, and made her offerings to the tomb.
And first she addressed herself to Phœbus: "O Phœbus,
hear that which is in my heart; for to say the thing
aloud I dare not, seeing that I am not among friends.
But of the dreams that I saw this night past, grant
that the good be accomplished and the evil be turned
away to my enemies; and that I be not cast down from
the wealth wherein I now live; and that I may wield
this sceptre of the son of Atreus which now I have, and
may have the company of my friends, even as now, and
the love of my children, if so be that they love their
 And while she thus spake, the old man came in, and
would fain know whether that which he saw was the
palace of Atreus. And when he heard that it was, he
asked whether the lady whom he saw was the Queen. And
hearing this also, he spake, "Lady, I have good tidings
for thee and King Ægisthus."
"First tell me who thou art."
"I come from Phanoteus of Phocis: I bring great news."
"Tell me; for the man is a friend, and the tidings, I
doubt not, good."
"I will say it in one word—Orestes is dead."
And when Electra heard this, she brake forth into a
great cry, saying that she was undone. But the Queen
said, "What? What sayest thou? Heed not this woman."
And the man said, "I told thee, and tell thee yet
again, that Orestes is dead."
And again Electra brake forth into a cry; but the Queen
bade her hold her peace, and would have the stranger
tell the story. And the man said—
"He came to Delphi, whither the Greeks greatly resort,
purposing to contend in the
 games of the Pythian Apollo. And first there was a race
of runners on foot; and for this he came forward, and
passing all that ran with him so won the prize. Nor
indeed did I ever see such a man; for there was not one
contest in which he had not the pre-eminence. Very fair
was he to look upon, and his name, he said, was Orestes
of Argos, and he was the son of that Agamemnon who in
days past was captain of the host of the Greeks at
Troy. But when the Gods are minded to destroy a man,
who is so strong that he can escape? It fell out then
that on the next day at sunrise there was proclaimed a
race of chariots, to which there came one man from
Achaia, and from Sparta one, and two from Barca in
Africa. After these came Orestes, being the fifth, with
horses of Thessaly. And the sixth was a man of Ætolia,
with bay horses, and the seventh a man of Magnesia in
Thessaly, and the eighth was a man of Œnea, whose
horses were white, and the ninth from Athens, a city
which, they say, was builded of Gods, and a Bœotian was
the tenth. First the heralds shook lots for each in a
helmet, and each man had his place
accord-  ing as his lot came forth. And after this the trumpet
sounded, and the horses leapt forward, while the men
shouted to them and shook the reins, and spared not the
goad. Great was the noise, and the dust rose up like a
cloud from the plain. And on the backs of the
charioteers and on the wheels of them that went before
came the foam from the horses that followed, so close
did they lie together. And Orestes, when he came to the
pillar where the chariots turned, drave so that his
wheel wellnigh touched it, and slackened the rein for
the right horse, and pressed on that which was on the
left. So far no mishap had befallen the chariots, but
all had fared well. But here the steeds of the man of
Œnea, being very hard to hold, brake from their course,
and drave against the side of one of the chariots from
Barca. And now they had ended six courses, and were
about to begin the seventh. But with this beginning of
trouble went all things wrong, for one drave against
another till all the plain of Crissa was covered with
broken chariots as the sea with shipwrecks. But the man
of Athens was very skilful in driving, and, when he saw
begin-  ning of confusion, he drew his horses aside and held back,
and so escaped without damage. Now Orestes was the
hindermost of all, trusting to what he should do at
the end; and when he saw that only the man of Athens
was left, he shouted to his horses and made haste to
come up with him. Then the two drave together, having
their chariots equal, and first one showed somewhat in
the front and then the other. And for eleven courses of
the twelve all went well with Orestes; but as he was
rounding the pillar for the last time, he loosed the
left rein and knew not that he loosed it overmuch, and
smote against the pillar and brake his axle in the
midst, and so was thrown out of his chariot; but the
reins were tangled about him and held him. And all the
people cried aloud when they saw the young man dragged
over the plain. But at last they that had driven the
other chariots hardly stayed the horses, and loosed
him. Covered with blood was he and sorely mangled, that
none could have known him. And we burnt his body; and
certain Phocians, whom the Prince hath sent for this
purpose, bring that which remaineth of him,
 being but a few ashes in an urn of brass, for all he
was so tall and strong. This is a sad tale for thee to
hear; but for us who saw it never was anything in this
world more grievous."
THE CHARIOT RACE.
Then the Queen said, "Shall I say that this hath
happened ill or well? or that it is an evil thing, yet
profitable to me? Surely it is grievous that I find
safety in the death of my own kindred."
"What troubleth thee, lady, in these news?" said the
" 'Tis a dreadful thing to be a mother. Whatever wrong
she suffereth she cannot hurt him whom she bare."
"Then," said he, "it seemeth that I have come in vain."
"Not so," the Queen made answer, "if thou showest proof
that Orestes is dead. For he hath long been a stranger
to me, and when he departed hence he knew me not, being
very young; and of late, accusing me of the blood of
his father, he hath made dreadful threats against me,
so that I could not sleep in peace day or night. And
now this day I am quit of this fear that wasted my very
 Then the Queen and the false messenger went into the
palace; and when they were gone Electra cried, saying,
"See here, forsooth, a mother that weepeth and mourneth
for her son! O my Orestes, how utterly hast thou undone
me! For now all the hope I had is gone that thou
wouldst come and avenge my father. Whither can I go,
for thou and he are gone? Must I be as a slave among
them that slew my father? This gate at least I will
enter no more. If I weary them, let them slay me, if
they will; I should count it a grace so to die."
And the maidens of Argos bewailed the dead brother with
her. But in the midst of their lamentations came
Chrysothemis in great joy, saying, "O my sister, I
bring thee good tidings that will give thee ease from
"What ease, when they are past all remedy?"
"Orestes is here. Know this as surely as thou now seest
me before thee."
"Surely thou art mad, and laughest at thy woes and
"Not so. By the hearth of my fathers I swear it.
Orestes is here."
 "Who told thee this tale that thou believest so
" 'Tis from proofs that I saw with mine own eyes, and
not another's, that I believe. Listen, therefore. When
I came to the tomb of my father, I saw on the top of
the pillar offerings of milk that had been newly
poured, and garlands of all manner of flowers. And
marvelling much at this, I looked to see if any man was
at hand; and seeing none, I drew near; and on the tomb
I espied a lock of hair newly cut; and as soon as I
espied it I knew that it was a token of Orestes,
dearest of men in all the world to thee and me. And as
I touched it I held my tongue from all words that might
do hurt, and my eyes were filled with tears. And now
think whose should this be but his? Who should do this
but thou or I; and I did not, nor thou, who canst not
go so far from this house; and my mother is not wont to
do such things. 'Tis Orestes surely. And now sorrow
hath passed away, and all things will be well."
"Nay," Electra made answer, "I pity thee for thy
"Do not my tidings please thee?"
 "I know not why thou talkest so wildly."
"But may I not believe that which I have seen with mine
"O my sister, he is dead! Look not to him for help any
"But stay. From whom didst thou learn this?"
"From one who was at hand when he perished."
"Where is he? This is passing strange. Whose then could
be these offerings on the tomb?"
"Some one hath put them for a remembrance of the dead
"Woe is me, and I made haste with the good tidings, as
I thought, and knew not what new trouble worse than the
old had fallen upon us."
Then said Electra, "Hear now what I purpose. Thou
knowest that we are utterly bereaved of friends, for
Death hath devoured them all. Now, while Orestes yet
lived and was prosperous, I hoped that he would come to
avenge our father's death. But now that he is dead, I
look to thee, that thou shouldest make common cause
with me and work this vengeance on them that slew
 him. Canst thou endure that we should live deprived of
the wealth that was our father's; and also that we
should grow old unmated? For know that a husband thou
shalt never have, for indeed Ægisthus is not unwise
that he should suffer children to be born of thee or me
to be a manifest damage to himself. But if thou wilt
hearken to me, first thou wilt do that which is fitting
to thy father and brother that are dead; and next thou
wilt win great renown, and be married to a noble mate,
for all men are wont to regard that which is worthy.
And surely in days to come some man, citizen or
stranger, that seeth us will say, 'Look, my friends, at
these sisters, for they wrought deliverance for the
house of their father, and spared not their own lives,
but slew their enemies in the day of their prosperity.
These must we love and reverence; these on feast days,
and when the city is gathered together, must we honour
by reason of their courage.' Wherefore, my sister, be
of good heart. Be bold for thy father's sake and for
thy brother's, for mine also and for thine, that we may
be delivered from these troubles. For to them of noble
breeding to live basely is a shame."
 But Chrysothemis made answer, "O my sister, how didst
thou find such daring purpose as this, making ready
thyself as for fight, and calling me to follow? Knowest
thou not that thou art a woman and no man, and that
thou art weaker than thine enemies, and that their good
luck ever increaseth and ours groweth less and less?
And what will it profit us if we get great renown, yet
die in shameful fashion? And yet to die I think not
such loss, but to wish to die and not attain to it,
suffering torture or bonds. Keep thy anger within
bounds. What thou hast said I will count as unsaid.
Only yield to them that are stronger."
And after many words, Electra urging her sister to this
deed and the other excusing herself, the two parted in
great anger. And Chrysothemis went into the palace, but
Electra abode where she was. And to her, after a while,
came Orestes, but disguised that no man might know him,
and asked the Argive maidens that stood by, whether the
house that he beheld was the palace of King Ægisthus,
and when he heard that it was so, he bade them tell
the King that certain Phocian strangers were come
 him. But when Electra heard it, she said, "Comest thou
with proof of this ill news that we have heard?"
And Orestes made answer, "I know not what news thou
speakest of, but the old man, Strophius, the Phocian,
bade me bring tidings of Orestes."
"What are thy tidings, though I tremble to hear them?"
"We are come bringing all that remaineth of him in this
And when Electra saw it she cried that they should give
the urn into her hands; and Orestes bade them do so.
And she took it and said, "O Orestes, that wast dearer
to me than all men else, how different is this coming
of thine to that which I had hoped! Lovely wert thou
when I sent thee from this house, and now I hold thee
in my hands and thou art naught. Would to the Gods thou
hadst died that day when thy father was slain; for now
thou art dead, an exile, and in the land of strangers,
and I paid thee no office of kindness nor took thy
ashes from the funeral fire; but this did strangers for
thee, and now thou comest a handful of ashes in a
 urn. Woe is me for the wasted pains of nurture and the
toil wherewith out of a willing heart I tended thee!
For thy mother loved thee not more than I, nor was any
one but I thy nurse. And now all this hath departed. My
father is dead, and thou art dead, and my enemies laugh
me to scorn, and thy mother that is no mother is mad
with joy. Let me die with thee, for 'tis the dead alone
whom I see to be quit of pain."
But while she so spake Orestes was much troubled in
heart and knew not what to do. But at the last he said,
"Is this the Princess Electra whom I see?"
And she answered, "Even so, and very ill she fareth."
Then he looked upon her again and said to himself,
"What a noble lady is this, and in what ungodly fashion
hath she been afflicted!"
And when Electra would know why he was so troubled, he
said, "It paineth me to see thee excelling all women in
"Nay," she said, "thou seest but a small part of my
"Hast thou, then, yet worse to bear than these?"
 "Yea, for I live with them that are murderers."
"Whom sayest thou they murdered?"
"They murdered my father—and I am constrained to serve
"Who constraineth thee?"
"A mother that is no mother."
"And is there none that can help thee?"
"None, for him that was my helper thou bringest in this
urn. But why pitiest thou me as doth no other man? Art
thou, perchance, a kinsman?"
"Put down this urn and I will tell thee."
"Nay, stranger, take this not from me, for it holds all
that is dearest to me."
"Speak not such idle words: thy sorrow is without
"Sayest thou 'without cause' when my brother is dead?"
"Thou dost ill to speak thus of thy brother."
"Doth the dead then think so lightly of me?"
"No man thinketh lightly of thee; yet with these ashes
thou hast no concern."
"How so, if this is the body of my Orestes?"
"Here is no true body, only one that is feigned."
 "Unhappy man! where, then, is his tomb?"
none—what need hath the living of a tomb?"
"Liveth he, then?"
"Yea, if I am alive."
"Art thou, then, he?"
"Yea; look at this my father's seal, and say whether I
And when she saw the seal, she knew that it was her
father's, and that this stranger was indeed Orestes.
And she cried aloud for joy, and embraced him. Then,
after the two had talked together for a very brief
space, Orestes said, "Tell me not how ill thy mother
hath done, nor how Ægisthus hath wasted the substance
of my house; but rather instruct me in this: shall I do
this thing secretly or openly? Take heed also lest thy
mother see thee bear a joyful face, and so take
And Electra made answer, "As for this present, know
that Ægisthus is absent, and that the Queen is alone.
Therefore do as thou deemest best. And as for me, be
sure that I shall not cease from tears; for the old
 inveterate in me; and also, now that I have seen thee,
I weep for joy."
But while they talked together came the old man in
haste, and rebuked them that they so spent the time;
and to Orestes he said that no one knew him who he was,
but that all deemed him dead, and that he must make
haste and do the deed; for that now the Queen was
alone, nor was there any man in the palace.
And Orestes, having prayed to the Gods, and especially
to Apollo, who indeed had bidden him do this work, went
into the palace. And at the first Electra went with
him, but afterwards hastened out, to keep watch, lest
perchance King Ægisthus should return. So she and the
woman waited without and listened. And after a while
there came a cry, "O my son, my son, have pity on thy
mother." And Electra said, "Aye, but thou hadst no pity
on him, or on the father that begat him." And then
again a cry, "Woe is me! I am smitten." And Electra
said, "Smite, if thou canst, a double blow." And then
the voice came a third time, "I am smitten again." But
Electra made reply, "Would that Ægisthus were smitten
 with thee!" After this Orestes came forth, with his
sword dripping with blood. And when the women asked him
how it fared in the palace, he answered, "All is well,
if only Apollo hath spoken the thing that is true."
But as he spake King Ægisthus came back, asking, "Where
be these strangers from Phocis that are come, telling
how Prince Orestes hath come by his death in a chariot
And Electra made answer that they were within. Then
Ægisthus cried, "Open the gates, and let all men of
Argos and of Mycenæ see the body; and if perchance any
man hath been lifted up with vain hopes, let him look
upon Orestes that he is dead, and so submit himself to
Then the gate was opened, and there appeared a dead
body, lying covered with a sheet. And Ægisthus said,
"Take the covering from off his face; for he is my
kinsman, and should not miss due mourning from me."
But Orestes answered, "Take it thyself; for this dead
body is thine, not mine."
Then said Ægisthus, "Thou speakest well: if the Queen
be within the palace, bid her come."
 And Orestes said, "She is near thee; look not
elsewhere." And when Ægisthus lifted the covering, lo!
it was the Queen who lay dead. Then he knew the whole
matter, and turned to the stranger saying, "Thou must
" 'Tis even so," cried Orestes. "And now go into the
"But why slayest thou me in darkness, if this deed be
"I slay thee where thou didst slay him that is dead."
So he drave him before him into the palace, and slew
him there. Thus the blood of King Agamemnon was
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