This is a taboo subject. It is hardly ever spoken, in India anyway. After ransacking every nook and corner of my memory regarding this matter in the Hindu religious books I can remember only one instance of this heinous crime. Yes you have guessed it. It is the story of Parasuram. Parasuram had killed his mother on the command of his father with an axe, ‘Parasu’ in Sanskrit, and hence his name. But there was no stigma attached to it, as redemption was quick to follow. Being pleased with his son’s obedience, his father offered him a boon of his choice to which Parasuram quickly prayed for his mother’s resurrection, which was promptly granted.
Matricide is a heinous crime abhorrent to all. The Hindus have glorified motherhood beyond all recognition. They have stretched imagination very thin and long and even worship the humble cow as a mother. To willfully do away with a mother is obnoxious to the psyche, but a slow and pathetic torture is not unheard of as the media frequently reminds us. There are umpteen cases in the courts of Kolkata where the judge has to castigate the wayward sons to look after their aging mothers or face the wrath of law.
So speaking of matricide I have to take you to the age of Golden Greece and tell a tale of the heroes after their homecoming following the sack of Troy. It is a well-known story; the first poem of western Civilisation and Homer is indeed a household name in Europe. However this is not from the Iliad but from Eskilos’ [Aeschylus in Latin] trilogy of ‘the Atreids’.
So let’s start from the beginning. The Greek warriors, under the commander-in-chief Agamemnon, had assembled at Aulis to sail for Troy in their thousand ships. But a strong wind kept them harbourbound for a long time and the soldiers were loosing heart. Calchas, the soothsayer, opined that Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia and placate the Gods if he desired a favorable wind. The general of the Greeks had no choice but to call his Queen Clytemenstra and his daughter Iphigenia to Aulis on the pretext of getting his daughter married to the great hero Achilles and then putting his unsuspecting daughter to the sword. Such was the beginning, the ominous beginning, of the voyage of the Greeks to Troy.
Clytemenstra was a woman of no small parts. She did not take kindly to this affront of her husband. She was previously married to another man whom Agamemnon had killed. She bore Agamemnon three children: the two daughters, Iphigenia and Electra, and one son Orestes who was one year old when the Greeks sailed for Troy.
The Trojan War took all of ten years. The Greeks were no strangers to looting or what is called the collection of war booties. There were frequent marauding parties who raided the outlying cities and villages for food and gold. And women. The bounties were distributed among the various chieftains. Agamemnon received a woman called Breisis and Achilles had one called Chreisis. Breisis’ father was a priest of Apollo and when he came to the Greek camp as a supplicant begging for the return of his daughter all the assembled dignitaries recommended her return. The spiteful Agamemnon, the supremo of the Greeks, was peeved and he vowed to take Chreisis from Achilles. Achilles reluctantly agreed and refused to take any further part in the war. It was this refusal of Achilles, angered by Agamemnon’s outrageous act, which made the war to linger for ten years and many were the Greeks slain on the beaches of Troy.
Later on, after the sack of Troy, King Priam’s daughter Cassandra was given to Agamemnon as his prize. The virgin Cassandra was a prophetess and she sailed with Agamemnon as his consort and concubine to Mycenae where his palace stood. Eskilos’ drama ‘Agamemnon’ begins on his return to the palace. Clytemenestra welcomes her husband with all ceremony and pomp. The temple bells of the city are made to ring. The women of the royal household ululate. The route from the ship to the palace is draped in a crimson carpet.
To cap it all Clytemenstra gives a longish speech welcoming her husband and entreating him to walk on the carpet. She affirms that during the period of his absence from Mycenae she has constantly prayed for his safety and longed for his presence. Her body and soul, her flesh and spirit have remained true to him. Now she requests him to disembark and enter the antechamber of his palace where she will help him with his bath. Such devotion to her husband is indeed laudable and ought to be praised in the best possible terms.
I thought I understood what is meant by the term ‘brazen perfidy’; but reading this drama of Eskilos and studying this character of a woman I got a different dimension to the term. Make no mistake; although she makes a public display of her chastity, all these ten years of her lord Agamemnon’s absence she was having a clandestine and torrid sex affair with her husband’s cousin, Agesthus. Now she was all set to murder her husband after first gaining his trust by guile. She led him to the bath and after disrobing him made him wash himself in the tub. When he got up and asked for a towel she threw a fine wire net over him and then cut of his head with an axe, aided by Agesthus. She did not spare Cassandra either, who had a premonition of the tragedy about to enfold. The ten years old child, Orestes, was whisked away by a faithful nurse and was entrusted to a distant royal household. Following this nefarious act she again delivers a verbose speech to the assembled citizens of Mycenae vindicating her bloody deed. She sites the killing of her beloved daughter Iphigenia to placate the Gods and the rampant whoring of Agamemnon with women such as Breisis, Chreises and Cassandra on the plains of Troy.
Thus Clytemenstra has gone down in mythology as an adulteress and a murderess, one of the most vicious of all women known to humankind. It was now time for Agesthus to occupy the throne of Mycenae, ably supported by Clytemenestra who married him and is reported to have bore him three children. Agamemnon’s body was not given a decent burial and was shabbily buried in a nondescript sarcophagus. By royal decree no one was allowed to mourn over the grave. Agamemnon’s daughter Electra however refused to obey and she frequently paid her respect to her departed father by laying flowers on his tomb. If Agesthus had his way Electra would have been killed, but Clytemenstra was against any further bloodshed.
Orestes meanwhile grew up to manhood in the royal house of Crisa and his close friend and playmate was Pylades, the Prince. He was keen to avenge the death of his father but was afraid to commit the heinous crime of matricide. He approached the temple at Delphi and asked the proper course of action and Apollo replied that he had to kill the royal couple of Mycenae as filial duty but he also had to face the wrath of the Erinnyes afterwards. The Errinyes were the dark bat-like creatures of the underworld that would constantly hound and torment any one guilty of murder and the crime of matricide would call for special retribution.
Orestes was undeterred by the thought of persecution by the Erinnyes. Disguised as a humble shepherd from a distant land he returned to Mycenae and made for his father’s grave. There he offered a clipping of his hair as a mark of respect to the departed soul. Electra meanwhile was nearby and seeing the hair, which resembled her’s remarkably, quickly guessed the truth. A short while later brother and sister were united and the both vowed vengeance on the Royal couple. Their plan was very simple: that Oretses should seek ingress to the palace as a forlorn traveller and seek to destroy Agesthus first and then kill Clytemenstra and Electra would assist him
At noon of the very same day Orestes approached the palace gate claiming to come from Crisa with news of Orestes death in a chariot mishap. The Queen of Crisa had kept the ashes of Orestes in an urn and wished to send the urn to the palace at Mycenae. Clytemenstra was in the palace and hearing the news of Orestes’ death approached the stranger and ushered him in. Meanwhile Pylades, also in disguise, came bearing an urn and proclaimed that it contained the ashes of Orestes which the Queen of Crisa had asked him to carry to Mycenae. Agesthus, who was in a nearby temple, heard of this pleasing news and rushed to the palace. Eager to interview the stranger, he called for him and Orestes seizing his chance stabbed him with a kitchen knife. That was the end of Agesthus. Clytemenstra hearing the commotion ran to the scene and at last recognized her son Orestes who had now come to seek revenge. He dashed toward Clytemenstra who pleaded for mercy by exposing her breast but Orestes dispatched her with a fatal blow. She fell on the body of her lover Agesthus in a fatal embrace.
What happened to Orestes afterwards is altogether a different story. Thus ended the life of Clytemenstra, who was hoisted with her own petard. She is the very epitome of evil: obnoxious, unchaste and a scheming, cold hearted murderess. Such perversity suited her well; not for her any moral dilemma of right or wrong plaguing her conscience. There is no hesitation in carrying out her design and her son Orestes scarcely remembers his mother’s breasts, those that he had suckled as a child. One crime begat another and slowly but relentlessly the golden age of Mycenae, the greatest civilization on the Mediterranean in her day, passed into oblivion. Only the saga, the unhappy fate of the famed house of Agamemnon, remains.