Electra by Jeffrey Peter Clarke

EXTRACT FOR
Electra

(Jeffrey Peter Clarke)


Electra

Prologue

 

What might the grey, part tumbled Cyclopean stones of Mycenae, a city said once to be rich in gold, tell us of her past if they could speak? The great wall surrounding the city, standing proud to keep out her enemies some three and a half thousand years ago, today proclaims in silence the depredations of men and of time. Through her famed Lion Gate, above which the rampant beasts of carved stone remain standing, once passed worthies, emissaries and traders from the Peloponnese and much of Greece beyond. Her alleyways, her squares, then alive with calls and chatter, with careering, pestering children and yapping dogs, offer now only gaping emptiness to birds wheeling darkly in the sky above.

The palace, once looking down upon the city, once a centre of power and wealth, of vibrant columns, richly frescoed walls, proudly displayed bronze armour, weapons and trophies, lies open and desolate. Long forgotten are the finely attired courtiers who spiced the air with talk and laughter. It was here the bard played and sang of great deeds, here beyond memory the rulers and their coterie gathered and contrived the fate of others.

The gods of old are gone but could those walls speak through the sighing breezes of night they would surely have dark tales to tell; tales of deceit, of intrigue and of murder. They might even now weep blood.


 

Chapter 1 - The Voice of Electra

 

That I, Electra, a daughter of the one-time great and victorious Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, hero of the Trojan war, am here to speak as I do is a blessing bestowed by the gods who have seen fit to preserve me until this day in a world of dark and devious scheming. To understand why my life has taken the path it has means your knowing the history of my family, of events that took place well before I was born, of what I have witnessed and what I have been a part of through my tender years and beyond. Somewhat involved, I have to say, but I must here occupy myself in relating it, though this bizarre tide of events will manifest itself also through the voices of others.

I sit by the window in the comfort of what is now my occasional retreat from the busy court below. These modest rooms used to be my living area and were for long my prison. They are located above the palace which rises above all other buildings at the south of the town, its parapets lined with those stylised, stone bullsí horns common throughout the larger cities of Greece and those of her islands. Within the palace is the great hall, what we refer to as the megaron, the social heart of the palace where the court is held. Here stands the royal throne Ė the throne from where, long ago, Agamemnon ruled. The palace is quite out of keeping with the rugged stone and timber buildings that occupy most of Mycenae though all are designed to resist those occasional earthquakes from which our land suffers. For the palace of Mycenae, as with those of many other cities throughout Greece, an attempt has been made to emulate the style if not the grandeur of the great and famous palace of Knossos on Crete; witnessed by some but little more than hearsay to others. Should you be familiar with Knossos then you surely will know what I mean.

Anyone visiting the ruler of Mycenae would enter via a flagstoned portico whose great stone lintel is supported by a pair of russet coloured, downward tapering columns. On passing through a frescoed anteroom they first would be confronted by the large, ceremonial circular hearth where much of the day burns a lively fire from which smoke rises to small windows above. The hearth is flanked by four great columns, these colourfully painted and rising to a profusely decorated, coffered ceiling. A few steps beyond this hearth rests the royal throne of scalloped-edge, alabaster, draped with lavish coverings and a soft cushion for the comfort of its occupant. A few steps from the throne, seated by a column as I well recall, was once to be found pale-gowned, white-bearded old Leucon. There he played his lyre and recited the deeds of heroes. His fund of heroes was considerable and their deeds grew ever more impressive with the passing years. Displayed about the walls are the weapons of violence, swords, spears and axes of gleaming bronze. There, too, the heavy, man-covering, figure-of-eight shields and their smaller, lighter companions better suited in close combat for the forward, brutal push. Portrayed about the flat, plastered walls between these clusters of objects are colourfully painted armed warriors frozen in prancing postures of aggression.

The modest walls of my incense-laden retreat are brightly painted with images more pleasing to my eye; swooping birds and the wild creatures of nature. In a room next to this there stands that greatest of luxuries in Mycenae, a private bath with hot water dispensed from a valve set into the wall. Yes, hot water. There is an odd-smelling soap made from the fat of slaughtered animals, this cooked together with wood ashes, but it serves its purpose well enough. The water is drawn from an adjacent chamber, not accessible from my bathroom, by braziers heating a tank that also feeds two other sets of rooms similar to my own, these once occupied by others we are soon to meet. Close to me a polished bronze mirror stands upon an elegantly carved wooden table together with my gold and silver inlaid ivory comb and my perfumed oils in small, decorated pots. There, too lie the jewelled and bodily adornments of gold and even more precious silver, these of a kind so valued by others but, I often feel, of lesser worth to me. Further back stands the loom, now sad and abandoned. This I made much use of when held here against my will.

I gaze into the mirror. I see long hair, hair the colour of ripening corn, cascade freely about my white-gowned shoulders. My blue eyes are bright, my cheeks unblemished. I offer the mirror a smile, just a little smile, and I think upon what has been and what might have been of my life. A warm, gentle breeze touches my cheek. My fingers embrace a gilded goblet and I drink honeyed wine poured for me from an amphora by Melia, a young woman, once a slave of the palace, now my personal attendant. Yes, she is dedicated to my worldly pleasures when, after my bath, she caresses my body with those perfumed oils and so delicately massages my flesh. Oh, what a comfort she is, and was in this blighted city when most of our best men were gone to fight at Troy. Yes, Troy. Memories of Troy, a theatre of heroism and death, will echo through ages beyond our imagination. Perhaps what happened there will change the whole world.

I look out now beyond the mighty cyclopean wall that circles all about to protect our city from invasion, though as you will learn, that same wall has served also to contain many evils. I peer down to the land below where olive groves and orchards bask in the clear morning light of a newly risen sun. I see where cattle, pigs and sheep are gathered together or are free to roam, and further still I gaze to where woodlands and farms spread way into the hilly distance. All is peaceful now throughout the Peloponnese though conflict has never seemed far away. These have been violent times throughout much of Greece and beyond but nowhere has it been more manifest than here at Mycenae in what people refer to still as the House of Atreus; a house cursed by the gods. And because Atreus once ruled this city as a powerful king it is his afflicted tale I must first relate for that curse was to be handed down through generations. I ask now for your patience.

In their earlier days Atreus and his brother Thyestes were nobles of Elis, a town in the north-west Peloponnese. They fled from their city with a small number of followers after murdering their half-brother in a family squabble. By all accounts Atreus was a big man, course in manner, long-bearded and aggressive, whereas his brother, inclined more to the refined life of the court, was less assertive. Thyestes three legitimate sons also joined their father so as to avoid the vengeance of others of that town falling upon them, though his wife chose to remain there, as did those sons of his by a woman of the court. It is related how, some time before the murder, an oracle within one of Elisí temples had prophesied one of the brothers would become king. King of where, and which of them it might be was never made clear, though at the time it seemed to them of scant importance. But then oracles are oracles; if they prove true they are usually remembered and when they do not they are easily forgotten.

The brothers travelled eastward to Mycenae, then at war with Athens. There, finding her king, Eurystheus, and his only son had recently been killed in battle and the court in turmoil, Atreus, on recalling the words of the Elian oracle, seized the throne of Mycenae. Thyestes, never given an opportunity to discuss the matter with his brother, was incensed and claimed the throne ought to have been his through his greater familiarity with court affairs. The bombastic Atreus, his position quickly assured, was not inclined to argue over this so, for the time being, the resentful Thyestes occupied himself in hunting and the pleasures of the court. Pleasures of the Mycenaean court being mainly its wine and its women who dressed then, as now, in the commonly followed Cretan palace fashion of long, flounced and colourful dresses with short-sleeved bodices that left their breasts exposed. Also in the Cretan style, real or imagined, they wore diadems and beads twisted in their hair, bracelets, necklaces, precious rings and on occasion, large gold or silver hooped earrings. Yes, many of the great cities of Greece vied to affect the image of Knossos.

Now established as king of a wealthy and powerful city, Atreus married Airope, a renowned beauty and daughter of the dead Eurystheus, an act that would help secure his position as ruler. By her he had two sons; firstly Agamemnon, a year later Menelaus, then a girl who did not for long survive. All might have been well for Atreus and for Mycenae except that Airope, more a free spirit than Atreus would have wished, had all along preferred the more refined company of Thyestes. This she enjoyed in full on those occasions when the king himself was out hunting. Through this torrid relationship Thyestes perceived a means of getting back at his brother, though how this was to be achieved in the long run could not have been clear to him at the time.

Atreus became increasingly suspicious of his brotherís reluctance to accompany him when away from the city and decided, as Thyestes was reluctant to account for his activities, he must be busy plotting mischief within the palace. A bid, perhaps, for the throne. Consequently, Atreus ordered him banished from Mycenae together with his sons.

Thyestesí affair with Airope however, had been impossible to keep secret. All the court, aware of what had been going on, gossiped as people are prone to do, but dared say nothing to the king. And, yes, as you may have guessed, Atreus, though last to know, did hear of it shortly after his brotherís departure; informed by one of his female attendants who Thyestes had abused and insulted when drunk. Atreus, on realising heíd been made a fool of throughout palace and perhaps all the city, was possessed by a vengeful rage that, helped by surfeit of wine, turned his mind away from reason. He ordered members of the palace guard to conduct a protesting Airope out of the city and to the coast where it was rumoured she was thrown into the sea and drowned. That same day he appointed an envoy to set off and locate Thyestes with a message of forgiveness, of reconciliation and assurance that he would be welcomed back to Mycenae and appointed joint ruler as should have been the case all along.

The envoy returned, accompanied by Thyestes with his three sons. All were warmly greeted by Atreus who declared a banquet would be held for Thyestes the following day. Sensing deceit and wary of his brotherís motives, Thyestes insisted his sons go to and remain in the temple of Zeus where their safety, as custom demanded, would be assured. Atreus, however, was of no mind to observe customs. The promised banquet was held next evening in the megaron. It was a lavish affair by all accounts with entertainers, singing and wine in abundance. Iím told what then happened by one of the male court attendants who was witness there, one now an aged acolyte at our temple of Zeus.

When the dining and entertainment was ended, Atreus called in two of the palace guards who laid upon the table before Thyestes a number of personal items lately possessed by his three sons, including the daggers each had worn at his belt. He then informed Thyestes that the boys had been executed and that the meat their father had just eaten was not that of a sheep but the flesh, specially prepared and cooked for him, from one of his sonís severed limbs. Thyestes, believing in full what heíd been told, leaped from the table to flee in stark horror from the megaron and into the night before anyone could stop him.

Since hearing this I have wondered often to what depths some men will stoop when blinded by vengeance. It was later learned Thyestes had somehow avoided capture and made his way to Sicyon, a coastal town to the north of Mycenae and somewhat closer to Corinth. There he entered the temple of Apollo, one renowned for punishing the wicked, there sacrificed to the god and laid the curse upon Atreus and all of Mycenae for what her king, his own brother, had done. Apollo, evidently, was listening and was sympathetic, and so too was mighty Zeus. Perhaps for a time Atreus was satisfied with the appalling act he had committed but his contentment was destined not to last and others, too, would suffer because of it.

Also in Sicyon, quite by chance, for surely the gods would not have planned it, was a daughter of Thyestes. She had, when still a child, been sent there by her mother to avoid the family troubles in Elis and, now a young woman, she served at the temple of Athena.

It is said what had happened at Mycenae had afflicted Thyestesí mind and driven him to consume an excess of wine, something he was anyway not adverse to. Having squandered much of one day at an inn, he wandered after dark into the temple of Athena where, in a drunken act of lust, he attacked Pelopia as she made sacrifice at the altar and raped her without knowing or caring who she was. He had thrown aside his sword while there and having forgotten to retrieve it, was unable when awakening next day to recall where heíd been and all but nothing of the vile act that heíd committed. Pelopia did of course recognise the sword as that belonging to her attacker and was tempted through an onset of shame to fall upon it and end her own life. She did not, but decided in future to ensure the company of one or more of those serving at the temple when not in her private rooms. There was no one she felt she could turn to and disclose what had happened Ė not even grey-bearded Thesprotus, the aging king of Sicyon who, though treating Pelopia very much as his own daughter was, so most people considered, somewhat ineffectual as a ruler.

Within a month of Thyestesí fleeing Mycenae his curse in the form of a pestilence had descended upon the city. Thought by many to be the onset of plague, it was feared this would soon affect the entire population within and without the city wall. The priests of Zeusí temple were quick to point out that this was indeed punishment for the murder of Thyestes three sons at the very altar of their god and only an appropriate sacrifice would counter the affliction. Sacrifice at the altar of Zeus is what Atreus undertook in person; not simply goats or pigs but three young male slaves falsely accused of offenses; one for each of the murdered youths. After this sanctified butchering he also offered a number of gold vessels and to his amazement as well as to that of the priests, the pestilence, if indeed thatís what it was, receded almost as quickly as it had taken hold.

On consulting one of the priests who claimed oracular powers, Atreus was advised to seek out his brother and return him to Mycenae. Atreus, it was said, concluded that this could mean dead or alive and set out at once to Sicyon with an armed party. With them were gifts for the king, Thesprotus, as custom required, for Sicyon was at the time on reasonably good terms with Mycenae. Thyestes, however, on hearing of his dear brotherís arrival with armed men, had understandably taken refuge some distance away from the town.

It was when in discussion with Thesprotus that Atreus spotted Pelopia with her female companions. Like the women of Thesprotusí court who dressed in the Cretan manner, by which I mean with their breasts revealed, Pelopia, a woman of great beauty, was likewise attired in keeping with her priestly status. She struck Atreus as most desirable and the king, in noting his attention, seems to have conceived certain possibilities. Thesprotus had doubtless conducted formalities with Atreus when he ordered wine to be brought and summoned Pelopia to join them. As Pelopia had never been to Mycenae she had only distant memories of Atreus, her uncle. The now deceptively calm-faced and on this occasion well behaved Atreus she found most appealing in spite of his less than cultivated appearance, his table manners, and his greater age. Iím sure you will agree, there is at times no accounting for female taste. Thesprotus, so it is told, noted her attraction, introduced her as his daughter and had Atreus thinking the King of Sicyon meant his true rather than his make-believe daughter. Pelopia said nothing to cast doubt upon this casual deception and so it was maintained.

Atreus stayed at Sicyon for many days during which he spent much time with Pelopia, encouraged all along by her assumed father who entertained them together as often as possible. Thesprotus may have been somewhat ineffectual as a ruler but in desiring to maintain his alliance with Mycenae he was anxious to see a bond develop between the two. Had Pelopia known of Atreusí past deeds and in particular the fate of Airope, things would have been very different but soon enough he asked Thesprotus for her hand in marriage. With this the king was eager to agree and offered arrangements for the ceremony there at Sicyon. Apart from his acquiring a beautiful wife, Atreus saw this marriage as maintaining Sicyon as a dependent ally after Thesprotusí death. Pelopia feared Thyestes might return after Atreusí departure and dreaded encountering this otherwise unknown man who had so brutally defiled her. The court of Mycenae, so she imagined, ought to be a better proposition. Such are the misconceptions people may at times have.

After the wedding, a relatively quiet affair, arrangements for Pelopia to transfer to Mycenae with her attendant girls and her possessions were undertaken but by this time Pelopia had discovered she was pregnant and realised it would soon be impossible to conceal the fact. Atreus decided no more time should be wasted before returning to Mycenae in case it was to there Thyestes had gone, hoping to take advantage of his brotherís absence. Pelopia begged for more time to have her affairs put into order before she would be escorted from Sicyon to take her place by his side and to this Atreus, with a rare show of condescension, agreed.

After his departure Pelopia retired to the privacy of the rooms allocated to her at the palace by Thesprotus where she was visited only by her most trusted attendants. Messengers eventually arrived from Mycenae wanting to know when she was to leave Sicyon and join her new husband. They were told she had much yet to attend to because of her position as priestess at Athenaís temple but would shortly set out to join the increasingly impatient Atreus. When the child was born an envoy was sent to Mycenae to inform Atreus that Pelopia was at last on her way to him. Pelopiaís male child, together with his fatherís, her fatherís sword, accompanied the party when early one morning they set off to Mycenae, hidden from view inside a covered wagon.