Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BCE) and Euripides (c. 485-406 BCE), as ancient Greek playwrights often did, covered many of the same mythical topics within the poetic plays that they produced. One such saga of myth that they both wrote about was the Oresteian tales, centering around the tumultuous family of King Agamemnon. In brief, the Oresteian myths tell that Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, before sailing off to lead the Greeks in the famous Trojan War. Iphigenia’s siblings, Orestes and Electra, apparently coped with the loss of their sister, but Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, harbored a bitter grudge over the sacrifice of her daughter, and she found new love with a man named Aegisthus. Consequentially, when Agamemnon eventually sailed home victorious from the Trojan War, Clytemnestra had no emotions left for her long-absent husband except for hate. Rather than give Agamemnon a warm welcome home, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus instead killed the newly returned king. The murderous couple maintained power after the killing, but Clytemnestra’s slaying of Agamemnon ended up ruining her relationship with her children. Orestes and Electra, who had forgiven their father’s controversial actions, now felt duty-bound to avenge their father’s death, even if it meant killing their own mother. This premise sets up the Oresteian myths, which narrate Orestes’ quest to seek vengeance against his murderous mother, Clytemnestra, as well as her lover, Aegisthus. The Oresteian myths also cover the complicated consequences of Orestes’ success in his quest, and tell of his efforts to ritualistically clean himself and clear his name after committing the taboo crime of matricide. It is this storyline that Aeschylus and Euripides both shared in some of their plays, each adding their own characteristic twists, turns, and special insights to the plot.
Euripides, Aeschylus’ junior contemporary, was able to consume and critique the older playwrights works as he composed his own plays. Ancient Greeks were sometimes known to give shoutouts or take jabs at contemporary figures in their written works, and Euripides took the opportunity in his play, Electra, to offer a curious stab against one particular scene from one of Aeschylus’ Oresteian plays called The Libation Bearers (aka the Choephoroe). Both plays, Euripides’ Electra and Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, cover the story of Orestes (who for most of his youth was raised abroad by a guardian) finally returning to his homeland to seek revenge against his mother. According to Aeschylus’ account of the myth, Electra was tipped off to her brother’s return when she noticed a lock of hair and sets of footprints at the site of Agamemnon’s tomb. In Aeschylus’ mind, Orestes must have had small feet or Electra’s were large, for when Electra put her foot on top of the print, it was a perfect match (as was the color and curl of the hair). The hair aside, it seemed to be the foot experiment in Aeschylus’ tale that acted as the definitive evidence needed by Electra to convince herself that Orestes had returned. Speaking as Electra, Aeschylus wrote:
“A new sign to tell us more.
Footmarks…pairs of them, like mine.
Two outlines, two prints, his own, and there,
a fellow traveller’s. The heel of the arch
like twins. Step by step, my step in his…we meet—
Oh the pain, like pangs of labour—this is madness!”
(Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, approximately lines 206-211)
Euripides evidently thought that this idea of Orestes and Electra having identical foot sizes made for a silly scene, and he decided to directly rebuke the idea in his own Electra play. In his narrative, Euripides sets up a conversation in which someone tells Electra that strangers had paid a visit to Agamemnon’s tomb and left a lock of hair. The speaker asks if Electra could identify the visitors to the tomb by inspecting the hair or footprints. To the hair question, Euripides had Electra answer, “[H]ow can locks of hair be compared when one has been grown by a noble man in the wrestling schools, while the other comes from a woman who uses a comb? It’s impossible” (Euripides, Electra, approximately between lines 520-530). As the banter continued, Euripides’ Electra eventually addressed the idea of footprints at the tomb of Agamemnon. She quipped, “How could there be a footprint in a rocky stretch of land? And if there is one, how could the foot of a brother and sister be the same size? The man’s is bigger” (Euripides, Electra, approximately between lines 530-540). After these witty challenges to Aeschylus’ scene, Euripides moved on with his narrative of Orestes and Electra’s revenge-killing of their mother.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration labeled “Daniël onthult het bedrog van Bels priesters, Philips Galle, after Maarten van Heemskerck, 1565,” [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum.jpg).
- Electra by Euripides, translated by James Morwood in Euripides: Medea and Other Plays. Oxford University Press, 1997, 1998, 2008.
- Aeschylus, The Orestia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides), translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 1979.