With Oedipus as our primary example, let’s consider how Greek myth imagined three other young male heroes and the routes they took to manhood: Orestes, Pentheus, and Telemachus. All three boys were the only sons of heroic kings, yet none of them knew their fathers. Pentheus’ father Echion was absent or dead. Agamemnon, Orestes’s father, was gone ten years at Troy and murdered immediately upon his return. And Odysseus, father of Telemachus, wandered for ten more years before returning. But seen with a mythopoetic eye, each son underwent a more – or less – successful separation from his mother.
Orestes inherited a barbarous and extended family curse of crimes and reprisals. As in many families, we can identify the heritage of the father gods of the sky in this story. Agammenon carried the yoke of both Kronos and Ouranos. To Orestes (as well as Pentheus and Telemachus), his father was the classic absent father, gone to war ten years and then deceased. But to Orestes’ sister Iphigenia, Agammenon enacted the family’s child-killing history that extended back two generations.
The legacy of the House of Atreus culminated with an impossible choice: Apollo demanded that Orestes murder his mother Clytemnestra to avenge her own murder of his father. Clytemnestra was one of the ultimate bad mothers of world literature. She did, of course love Iphigenia. But in her obsession with vengeance – and her adultery – she disregarded her other children.
But she was still his mother – she bared her breast to him just as he lifted his sword (a near-universal symbol of the ability to discriminate between truth and illusion) to her. Refusing the terrible task meant lifelong exile, Apollo’s hatred and no possibility of ever claiming his inheritance. In indigenous terms, it meant refusing initiation and a lifetime wasted as a child who would never know himself or give his innate gifts to his community.
Obeying Apollo, Orestes committed the murder. And yet, the price of obedience was madness: tormented by guilt and the vengeful furies, he went insane. Years of wandering, grief and purification passed before he was healed.
Feminists rightly criticize the best-known version of this story, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, as an allegory of the shift from indigenous goddess-worship to patriarchal religion. But this explanation doesn’t account for the emotional impact of Orestes’ tragic situation.
Men – and perhaps mothers – sense that he made the only possible choice. The classicist Robert Fagles argues that Clytemnestra represents the Great Mother as well as the bad mother. When she tells Orestes, “I see murder in your eyes, my child – mother’s murder,” she is stating both “a horrified accusation and a challenge.” Her “death-cry is a birth-cry too, for she brings forth the destiny of her son; she turns his innocence into power.”
The murder of the bad mother – as mother complex – was an act that he had to accomplish before knowing his own masculine nobility. Yet only after his years of grief and atonement would Athena and the elders of Athens judge him as sufficiently transformed to be admitted to the community of mature adults, the polis. In one variant of the story he bit off a finger, sacrificing it to the Furies. Perhaps the finger symbolizes not phallic potency but the brittle masculine armoring that actually veils the fear of those who haven’t cut the maternal chord.
Orestes survived the symbolic death of his old self. He was willing to experience the descent into madness, and his grief was not merely for himself but for his criminal ancestors. In killing the bad mother (rather than marrying her), he also killed the family curse. In refusing to pass it on to further generations, he embodied the truth repeatedly sung in the Oresteia: “Sing sorrow, sorrow, but good wins out in the end.”
Does the killing of the mother in myth serve as a model for misogynistic treatment of actual women? For some men, absolutely. But we miss an opportunity when we take mythic images literally. These are symbolic murders that become literalized only when a person or (in our case) an entire culture loses the capacity for metaphorical thinking. Jung writes, “To the logos, unconsciousness is the primal sin, evil itself. Therefore, its creative act of liberation is matricide.” But there is a price: Orestes must grieve and repent his action, even if a god demanded it.
Here is the real tragedy: the man who cannot “kill” his mother complex turns his depression, his dissatisfaction and his rage onto real women and perpetuates the conditions of patriarchy. He must, as Rilke says, change your life. And Rumi says, If you don’t become a rebirth, you won’t understand what real life is. Men who cannot experience initiatory transformation can’t realize their purpose, and they can’t love a real woman. And both nature and women, the symbols of the feminine in our world, take the blame.