Analysis of the Electra Myth

I: Introduction

The story of Electra has been one of the most popular and oft-repeated in Greek myth. All three of the great ancient Greek tragedians–Aeschylus (i.e., The Libation Bearers, part two of his Oresteia), Sophocles, and Euripides–wrote plays based on her story of avenging her father’s murder; Richard Strauss also wrote a one-act opera, Elektra, with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal that was loosely based on Sophocles’ version.

I’ll be basing this analysis more on the versions by Sophocles, Euripides, and Strauss than on Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, since Aeschylus’ is the second part of a trilogy of plays that ought to have its own, separate analysis, and since its plot is to a considerable extent repeated (and even parodied) in Euripides’ version. Besides, Aeschylus’ Electra is a supporting, rather than lead, character.

As I discuss the themes of this narrative, it should be noted that I validate Freud‘s rejection of Jung‘s term for the female version of the Oedipus complex, the “Electra complex.” Yes, Electra loves her long-dead father, Agamemnon, and of course, she hates her mother, Clytemnestra; but her love for her father is in no way incestuous–it’s purely out of filial piety and devotion. Her mother isn’t a rival to her father’s love: Electra hates her for having plotted his murder with her lover, Aegisthus.

Accordingly, as I did for the most part with my analysis of the Oedipus myth, I won’t be discussing the female Oedipus complex, or “Electra complex,” or whatever one wishes to call it. I will, however, incorporate a number of post-Freudian psychoanalytic concepts, in particular, Kleinian notions of psychological splitting.

II: Backstory

One must begin with a discussion of the backstory of the Electra myth. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, was bound by oath to help retrieve the beautiful Helen of Sparta, wife of his brother, Menelaus, after she was abducted by Paris and taken to Troy, thus starting the Trojan War. To ensure safe sailing from his home to Troy, Agamemnon was told he had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.

It is safe to assume that he took no pleasure at all in offering the girl to Artemis. As the sacrifice was being carried out, he must have been shaking, and his eyes must have been dropping apologetic tears for a daughter he so dearly loved. Still, he was bound by oath to help his brother get Helen back, and keeping one’s honour was considered more important than life in those days.

In some accounts of the story, the girl was really killed, but in other versions, she was spirited away from Aulis, by Artemis herself, just in time; and she lived from then on among the Taurians. Either way, though, it was still believed by Clytemnestra that her husband had had their daughter killed.

Added to this outrage, Clytemnestra had been without a man to share her bed for years, as the Trojan War had kept Agamemnon away from home for ten years. So she found a paramour in Aegisthus, with whom she’d plan to kill her husband when he finally returned. His having brought home a concubine, the prophetess Cassandra, did nothing to redeem him in his wife’s eyes, of course.

So when he returned from Troy with Cassandra, and took a bath–no one ever listening to her prophecies that he’d be murdered soon (Agamemnon, lines 877-1121, pages 44-55), since she was cursed never to have her accurate prophecies heeded–Clytemnestra threw a net over him, and Aegisthus hacked him up with an axe (in some versions, his wife killed him herself). Cassandra was killed, too, by Clytemnestra.

Electra’s brother, Orestes, was sent away in exile, cared for by an elderly tutor, out of fear that the boy’s mother and her new husband, usurping King Aegisthus, would have him killed to prevent him from coming of age and killing the king and queen to avenge Agamemnon. Also, while timid, boot-licking Chrysothemis, Electra’s sister, has continued to live well in the palace, spiteful Electra has lost the privileges of being a princess, and now lives no better than a peasant (In Euripides’ play, she even marries a peasant, though the marriage is never consummated.).

III: The Story Begins

Sophocles’ drama opens with the tutor and Orestes discussing the plan to trick Clytemnestra and Aegisthus into believing her feared son has been killed in a chariot race. This ruse will allow Orestes to enter the palace safely, unsuspected and anonymous.

Euripides’ play begins with Electra’s peasant husband–a kind man not only sympathetic to her plight, but also respectful of a princess’s virtue, not wanting to soil her virginity–who describes her predicament (Electra, lines 1-53, pages 237-239).

Strauss’s opera opens with the thundering leitmotif representing fallen Agamemnon, a second-inversion D-minor triad whose notes are played in succession, but with the root beginning and ending it: D-A-F…then D again. A number of servants ask where Elektra is, then mention how harsh they find her; only one servant sympathizes with her, and this servant is flogged for disagreeing with the rest of them.

We soon hear the Elektra chord, a dissonant one that combines two triads in different keys–one in E major, and the other in C-sharp major–to make up a complex polychord, an eleventh chord. The bitonality of this chord suggests Elektra’s psychological splitting, her bifurcated, black-and-white thinking regarding her parents. Agamemnon is all-good to her, while Klytaemnestra is all-bad.

It is healthy for a child to regard his or her parents as being combinations of good and bad; such is the integration seen in what Melanie Klein called the depressive position, but Elektra’s splitting is what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position–paranoid out of a fear of persecution from the hated, frustrating parent. (This persecutory anxiety will be fully developed when Orestes is hounded by the Furies at the end of the story, as I explain below.)

This splitting happens in her internal world as well as her external world, for we all make internal representations of our parents in our minds, and these internalized objects have a profound influence on how we perceive and react to the world around us. So Elektra’s grief over the murder of her father, and her rage at her mother and Aegisth spill over into her relationships with everyone–hence her nastiness to all the servants.

Elektra is one of Strauss’s most modernist and dissonant works (along with Salomé), using a chromaticism that stretches tonality to its limits. This use of dissonance reflects the tormented world in not only Elektra’s mind, but also in Klytaemnestra’s, in the queen’s guilt, bad dreams, and fear of being murdered by Orest (“Ich habe keine guten Nächte”).

IV: The Turning Point

Strauss’s opera follows Sophocles’ tragedy in having Orestes send the palace a false report of his death, whereas in Euripides’ play, there is no such ruse (in The Libation Bearers, Orestes has only those in the palace know of the ruse–his mother, his old nurse Cilissa, Aegisthus, etc., but not his sister–lines 627-629, page 96); Electra learns early on that her brother is alive and has returned to kill their mother and Aegisthus.

Having Electra temporarily believe that Orestes is dead works better in my opinion, for it raises the dramatic tension. While Euripides’ having Electra marry a peasant emphasizes her degradation to the lower classes, she’s already plenty degraded in Sophocles’ play and Strauss’s opera without the poor husband, however still living in squalor; and her lonely misery is heightened to near despair when she learns of Orestes’ ‘death.’

She desperately tries to get Chrysothemis’ help in the plot to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, even claiming (in the opera, “Wie stark du bist”) that her sister has a strength and courage she so obviously lacks; then, when Chrysothemis still timidly refuses to help, lonely Electra, despising her sister, feels her despair intensify (Electra, lines 100-1040; line 1140, pages 99-100; page102).

Then Orestes arrives.

At first, he maintains that he’s just a messenger passing on the sad news of Orestes’ death, reinforcing her sorrow; but when he realizes she is his sister–dressed in rags instead of properly adorned as a princess, and wishing to hold the urn containing his supposed ashes–he reveals his true identity to her (lines 1202-1249, page 106).

This is the peripeteia (reversal of fortune) and anagnorisis (recognition) in Sophocles’ play and Strauss’s opera, the latter of which emphasizes the shock with screaming dissonances in the music that then calm down in a decrescendo, resolving in a sweet tune rocking back and forth between a suspension fourth and a major key, up and down in waves from fourth to major third, D-flat and C.

The diametric opposition between her despair and her relief, expressed in the music between the extreme dissonance and gentle harmonic resolution described above, can be seen dialectically in the manner I often compare with the ouroboros, a phasing from the serpent’s bitten tail of despair to its biting head of relief; since the head biting the tail represents, as I interpret it, extreme opposites on a circular continuum, the ouroboros’ coiled body.

While, in Part XII of my analysis of the Oedipus myth, I discussed how there is little to be seen as different before and after the peripeteia and anagnorisis, that is, of Oedipus losing all doubt that he’s fulfilled the prophecy of patricide and incest with his mother; in the Electra myth, the despair before, and joy after, the recognition scene are truly like black and white.

This split between sorrow and joy that is made in the recognition scene is a parallel with the psychological splitting that Electra feels between the family she loves (Agamemnon and Orestes) and the family she hates and despises (her mother and sister). This splitting must be examined further.

V: The Ultimate Toxic Family

“In marriage there ought to be some safety,
but nothing is ever secure, and love can go bad
in a moment, and husbands and wives will look at each other
in utter loathing. And parents will come to despise their children
as Althaea, Meleagar’s mother, grew to hate
her son–and she threw his life’s log
onto that burning grate.” –second chorister, The Libation Bearers, lines 569-575, page 94

One interesting thing about Electra and Orestes is that, for all their loyalty and filial devotion to their father, they seem to have little, if any, regard for what he did to their sister, Iphigenia. All that matters to them is Clytemnestra taking on a lover and killing their father. She is thus the ‘bad mother’ and he the ‘good father,’ without any thought as to how she could have some good in her, and he could have some bad in him.

Clytemnestra’s marriage to Agamemnon was forced, as Robert Graves noted in his Greek Myths (112, c and h, pages 413-414). Such an unhappy marriage can easily motivate finding another lover, especially with Agamemnon away in Troy for ten years. He brought home a concubine in Cassandra, which hardly made him any less of an adulterer than Clytemnestra. If Iphigenia was taken away to the Taurians, and thus not killed in a sacrifice, no one in Mycenae seems to have known. Clytemnestra’s killing Agamemnon was no less revenge for Iphigenia than Orestes’ killing of his mother is to avenge Agamemnon. So what is Orestes’ and Electra’s problem?

In two film narratives of the Trojan War–Troy in 2004, and the TV miniseries, Helen of Troy, in 2003–Agamemnon is portrayed (by Brian Cox and Rufus Sewell, respectively) in a particularly negative light, and in the second of these, Clytemnestra (played by Katie Blake) is portrayed sympathetically in her avenging of the killing of Iphigenia. One’s perspective on who is good and who is bad, as well as how good and how bad, can vary considerably.

Still, Orestes and Electra, in the classical dramas and in Strauss’s opera, are obstinate in seeing only good in their father, and only bad in their mother, to the point of actually killing her; and this hostility is especially evident in Electra, since Orestes in Euripides’ play is hesitant about killing Clytemnestra until Electra pushes him to keep his resolve (lines 960-981; pages 280-281). In The Libation Bearers, Orestes briefly wavers, but his cousin and friend, Pylades, quickly inspires a return of his resolve (lines 797-803; page 104)

On the other hand, Orestes’ hostility to the bad mother, and to the ‘bad breast‘ part-object (as Melanie Klein called it), is symbolized in Clytemnestra’s dream of giving suck to a dragon (or serpent, depending on the translation, the animal representative of matricidal Orestes) that bites her breast and drinks her milk mixed with her blood (Aeschylus, lines 500-508, 514-522, pages 91-92; also line 830, page 106). The serpent/dragon baby bites the nipple as a hostile baby would, in its oral-sadistic/cannibalistic reaction, to the ‘bad breast’ of its mother. As a phallic serpent or dragon coming out of her womb, newborn Orestes as such, still connected to her with the uncut umbilical cord, thus makes her the phallic mother, the frightening combined parent figure that Klein wrote about.

Now, whatever splitting into absolute good and bad that goes on with regards to the external world, also goes on in the internal world, that is, in the internal objects of the ones doing the psychological splitting. As I mentioned above, we all have internal mental representations of our parents, so if we see them as all bad out there in front of us, their inner representations will also feel all bad in our minds. Electra and Orestes, in their murderous hatred of their mother, are no exception to this rule.

In Sophocles’ play, Clytemnestra is killed first (about lines 1408-1416; page 113), and at the end of the play, Aegisthus is led offstage to be killed after the play is finished (about lines 1470-1510; page 117). In Strauss’s opera, it’s understood that both parents, in the same order as given in Sophocles, have been killed offstage before the end.

In Aeschylus’ and Euripides’ plays, Aegisthus is killed first (announced by a messenger in lines 756-759; page 272 of Euripides’ Electra, and in lines 773-786, pages 102-103, announced by a servant in The Libation Bearers). Clytemnestra is killed at the climax of both plays (Aeschylus, lines 793-857, pages 104-108; Euripides, lines 1155-1161, pages 288-289). Then Orestes and Electra have to deal with the guilt over what they’ve done. Aeschylus’ Orestes has foreseen his own despairing guilt before even committing the matricide: “Let me kill her, and then end my own life.” (line 398, page 87)

In The Eumenides, part three of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Orestes will be put on trial for matricide. At the end of Euripides’ play, Castor of the Dioscuri gives Orestes guidance (lines 1228-1344, pages 292-296) as to how to deal with his upcoming predicament, being hounded by the Erinyes until they drive him mad with guilt, which brings us to the next point.

VI: Guilt

The Erinyes, or Furies, are demonesses personifying one’s guilty conscience (Graves, page 431), or vengeance for committing heinous crimes like matricide. Though generally indeterminate in number, they are often represented as a trio of female spirits, suggesting an association with the chthonic earth mother Goddess in triad (Graves, page 38, note 3), in her wrathful aspect. Looked at in this light, they can be seen to symbolize that bad mother internalized object, the frightening archaic mother, whose identification with the ego in turn lays the foundations for the guilt-tripping superego.

One can kill one’s mother in body, but the spirit of the mother in one’s mind lives there like a ghost haunting a house, and it stays there for life. This haunting in Orestes’ mind (and in the mind of Electra, who in Euripides’ play helps him kill Clytemnestra–lines 1210-1214, page 291; see also the translator’s preface, page 233) is what drives him mad with guilt.

WRD Fairbairn, in his paper, “The Repression and the Return of Bad Objects,” wrote of how these bad internalized objects are like evil spirits possessing us (Part 5, ‘The Dynamics of the Influence of Bad Objects,’ page 67). This kind of ‘possession’ (i.e., the Furies) is what’s happening to Orestes. It’s also happening to Elektra, who at the end of Strauss’s opera, dances a wild, mad dance of triumph until she falls down dead of exhaustion…and, no doubt, of unconscious guilt.

VII: A Drama of Class War?

Since at least some of the servants celebrate the killing of the king and queen (Euripides, lines 841-848, page 275; Aeschylus, lines 688-689, pages 98-99, line 927, page 110; also, at the end of Strauss’s opera), and since Electra has been demoted from princess to pauper (Euripides, lines 998-1004, page 282, this demotion being especially degrading for her in her marriage to the peasant), it is tempting to treat the story as an allegory of class war. I’m not about to do that, though: the crowning of Orestes as king, as well as the reinstating of Electra as a princess dressed in finery, would mean only that the servants have new rulers. No change in the ancient class structure of masters and slaves would occur with the regicide at the story’s climax.

Nonetheless, there is something for the proletarian to learn, in his or her revolutionary fervour, from the outcome of this regicide. Orestes and Electra plotted only the killing of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra: no thought was given as to how to rebuild life in Mycenae, to establish Orestes as the new king.

Similarly, some proletarians today think only of revolution for revolution’s sake: tearing down the hated old order, but not thinking about how to improve the lives of the people by building socialism. As a result of their nihilism, these leftists leave everything in chaos, making it easier for fascism to creep in; or if other, constructive leftists take over the state and try to build a better world, the destructive, sour-minded leftists criticize the new government and exaggerate its imperfections, demanding yet another revolution, leading to more chaos and vulnerability to fascist reaction.

The regicide that Orestes and Electra have committed can be compared to such post-revolutionary chaos in how he, instead of simply being crowned the new king, is hounded by the Erinyes; even after his trial in Athens, in which he’s acquitted of the charge of matricide, he’s still chased by those demonesses until he arrives among the Taurians and gets help from his long-lost sister, Iphigenia.

Just as there’s splitting between the all-good parent and the all-bad one, so is there splitting between the corrupt political world in its state of being (thesis) and the nihilistic world of nothing left, once revolution has destroyed the corrupt world (negation). And just as a healthy parent/child relationship is created by integrating the good and bad felt in one’s parents (the depressive position), so is there a healthy political world when it is being built out of the ashes of the old one, growing socialism in a state of becoming (sublation).

As we face the global economic collapse that the coronavirus panic has been eclipsing, we cannot–as I pointed out in my Joker analysis–just engage in wanton violence and rioting in the streets, the splitting of thesis and negation, “with joy and horror, dancing together,” as Orestes says at the end of The Libation Bearers (line 905, page 109), and with no sublation. We must rebuild our world, replacing the failed system of producing commodities for profit with a new system, producing commodities to provide for everyone. If we fail to create this new way, only fury will be following us everywhere.

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (complete edition), Penguin Books, London, 1955

Aeschylus, 1, The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1998

Sophocles (E.F. Watling, translator), Electra and Other Plays, Penguin Classics, London, 1953

Euripides, 2, Hippolytus/Suppliant Women/Helen/Electra/Cyclops, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1998

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