Odysseus v. Agamemnon



Woodcut illustration of the murder of Agamemnon and the revenge of Orestes. From Wikimedia Commons.

One of the undercurrents or subthemes of The Odyssey is the story of the return of Agamemnon from Troy and his (spoiler alert!) subsequent murder by his wife Clytemnestra, urged on by her lover Aegisthus, who happens to be Agamemnon’s cousin.  (And you thought your family had problems.)  The whole sad tale is of course documented in the Oreseteia trilogy by Aeschylus, which tells this tale as well as the subsequent revenge of Agamemnon’s son Orestes, after whom the trilogy is named.  Despite all the illicit sex and murder, it is actually a plea for a judicial system based on evidence and not on blind revenge.

It serves as a counterpoint to the story of Odysseus’s own nostos (return home) and the parallels and contrasts are instructive.  Unlike Penelope, Clytemnestra has not been faithful during Agamemnon’s absence and in fact has conspired to overthrow him upon his return.  Aegisthus, who is analogous to the suitors, actually is successful in seducing Clytemnestra and overthrowing the rightful king.   And Agamemnon, unlike Odysseus, returns home quickly, ego and military power in place, also with some booty from Troy: a new mistress, Cassandra.  Orestes, corresponding to Telemachus, is then put in the impossible position of avenging his father but at the same time perpetuating the cycle of violence.  So the whole situation shows what happens when the ego is allowed to be put in charge.¹

I think a parallel can also be made with the Analogy of the Cave in Book 7 of Plato’s Republic.  He describes what happens if a prisoner is introduced too quickly to the Reality behind his limited seeing rather than being habituated gradually.  As with Odysseus, time is needed to let go of the illusions about ourselves that we carry around, to prepare our eyes “to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place.”  (Republic: 7.516b)  So we need to learn patience, knowing that there is only one One, which is always there, and is the inevitable destination of our return.


¹The same forces are at work but to a lesser extent in The Odyssey.  The suitors, or limiting ideas, are killed by Odysseus and their “families” threaten revenge.  But in this case Athena steps in early (she does in the Oresteia also but not until more blood is shed) and brings peace, allowing the reunification to take place.



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