Barry’s Blog # 394: The Family Curse, Part Seven of Nine

…we live in an age of Moms, for the culture is secular and the ordinary mortal must carry archetypal loads without help from the gods. The mothers must support our survival without support themselves, having to become like Goddesses, everything too much, and they sacrifice us to their frustration as we in turn…sacrifice our children to the same civilization. – James Hillman

I am pregnant with murder. The pains are coming faster now, and not all your anesthetics nor even my own screams can stop them. – Robin Morgan 

The Eighth Generation

Sacrifice of Iphigenia

The curse appeared in the form of a tragic dilemma at the port of Aulis. The north wind blew continually, preventing the ships from embarking for Troy and provoking discontent among the troops. Agamemnon learned that he’d offended Artemis by killing one of her favorite animals. There was only one way to appease her and change the winds: his daughter Iphigenia must be sacrificed.

Making the fatal choice for fame and against family, he convinced Clytemnestra to send the girl, believing that she would be married to Achilles. Instead, the men murdered her at the ritual alter. The winds ceased and the fleet – stained by guilt – sailed for Troy. Jean Bolen comments:

They sacrifice the possibility of closeness to their children to their jobs, their roles. And they also sacrifice their own “inner child”, the playful, spontaneous, trusting, emotionally expressive part of themselves…Agamemnon was thus another father (like Abraham) who was rewarded by his willingness to kill his child…the father who violates the trust of a daughter and destroys her innocence, destroys a corresponding part of himself.

Murder of Agamemnon

His reward did not last. During the years that Agamemnon was at Troy, Aegisthus returned and seduced Clytemnestra. They sent Orestes out of the country, neglected Electra and plotted against Agamemnon. When he returned, they killed him and his concubine Cassandra in the narrative we know best from the first play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, Agamemnon.

For lack of time, we limit our attention to three aspects of the play. The first is the repetition of the lament, Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end…Justice so moves that those only learn who suffer, which sums up the necessity of grieving.

The second is how the citizens of Argos waited eagerly for news of the return of the king. Agamemnon was a narcissist and a war criminal and a terrible father. He’d been an Ouranos father to Orestes and Electra, by abandoning them to his heroic quests, and he’d been a Kronos to Iphigenia, literally killing her. But to his people, he represented the Sacred King, a figure that embodies order, fertility and blessing. The longing for the Return of the King is an archetypal theme that appears everywhere, especially in Hebrew and Christian mythology, with significant political implications in modern America.

Despite his personal failings, Agamemnon also represented an initiated, male to Orestes, who desired a positive connection with him in life or death. Joseph Campbell wrote:

The finding of the father has to do with finding your own character and destiny. There’s a notion that the character is inherited from the father, and the body and very often the mind from the mother. But it’s your character that is the mystery, and your character is your destiny. So it is the discovery of your destiny that is symbolized by the father quest.

Third, Clytemnestra had long nursed a mother’s fury for his crimes and, despite her royal privileges, carried the collective resentment of hundreds of generations of oppressed women. She was convinced that she was meant to be the agent of his fate and needed no prodding from any god: “We could not do otherwise than we did.”

Seven years later (in the second play, The Libation Bearers), Electra hated her mother and desired only revenge. She carried the set of emotional obsessions that Freud, searching for a parallel to the Oedipus Complex, would later term the “Electra Complex.”

Orestes secretly returned with his cousin Pylades, having been directed by Apollo to be the agent of vengeance – in contrast to Clytemnestra’s usurping of that role. If this tale were focusing on Electra alone, we might well see continuation of the violence into the next generation. But Orestes, faced with the terrible task of having to kill his mother to avenge his father, appealed to higher powers: Hermes, Zeus and especially Apollo:

For he charged me to win through this hazard, with divination of much, and speech articulate, the winters of disaster under the warm heart were I to fail against my father’s murderers; told me to cut them down in their own fashion, turn to the bull’s fury in the loss of my estates. He said that else I must myself pay penalty with my own life, and suffer much sad punishment…

We can think of Apollo as an inner voice that offers Orestes the means to attain initiation to a new life that will not be predetermined by his family history. He can connect to the king-father’s realm only through a brutal separation from the mother’s realm. The quest for the father, according to Campbell, “…begins not with any initiative of his own but with a call.”

Orestes heard that Clytemnestra had dreamed that she’d given birth to a snake which had torn her nipple and drawn blood along with milk:

…it fellows then, that as she nursed this hideous thing of prophecy, she must be cruelly murdered. I turn snake to kill her.

References to snakes, serpents and vipers appear continually in the trilogy, generally with negative connotations. But here the snake has a positive tone. Campbell wrote:

The wonderful ability of the serpent to slough its skin and so renew its youth has earned for it throughout the world the character of the master of the mystery of rebirth.

Bly adds: “Initiation asks the son to move his love energy away from the attractive mother to the relatively unattractive serpent father.”

Orestes and Pylades quickly killed Aegisthus, but when they came face to face with Clytemnestra, she warned:

Your mother’s curse, like dogs, will drag you down.

At the initiatory moment Orestes was immobilized by indecision. But Pylades reminded him:

What then becomes thereafter of the oracles declared by Loxias (Apollo) at Pytho? What of sworn oaths? Count all men hateful to you rather than the gods.

Orestes fulfilled Apollo’s command and murdered his mother as savagely as she’d killed his father.

But we have to ask, what (rather than whom) did he kill? When the father is absent, with no masculine energy in the household, the archetypal Great Mother can overlap with and get confused with the human mother in a boy’s mind. Jung wrote that the mother archetype can be “terrifying and inescapable like fate.” For men it becomes mixed with projections of the anima, and statements of men about the mother “are always emotionally prejudiced…showing ‘animosity.’” The bad mother in myth or the subconscious is a man’s mother complex: that flawed relationship with the feminine part of his own soul, which, as Robert Johnson wrote:

… would like to return to a dependency on his mother and be a child again…a man’s wish to fail, his defeatist capacity, his subterranean fascination with death or accident, his demand to be taken care of.

This symbolic, inner figure determines how a man sees all relationships. The real tragedy is that if he who cannot “kill” his mother complex, he may turn his depression or misdirected rage onto actual women, perpetuating the conditions of patriarchy. Such a man can’t experience initiatory transformation, can’t realize his purpose and can’t love a real woman, or anyone else. But he will force both nature and women to take the blame that might be better directed at his father.

Still, Clytemnestra’s rage speaks for all women throughout time. Who can blame women who strike back at abusive spouses?  And yet her murder may well have served as a model for men to continue the abuse. We acknowledge the complexity of this issue, and we tread delicately.

But we miss a great opportunity when we take mythic images literally. These are symbolic murders that we perceive as literal only if we have lost the capacity for metaphorical thinking. Hillman wrote: “The way to ‘solve the mother complex’ would be not to cut from Mom, but to cut the antagonism that makes me heroic and her negative.”

And let’s be very clear about this once more: We are not blaming actual, living, human mothers here. If anyone is to blame it is patriarchy itself.

Orestes knew the consequences of his actions, and the appropriate human response:

I grieve for the thing done, the death, and all our race. I have won; but my victory is soiled and has no pride.

By the end, he was alone with the the horrible vision of the dog-faced Furies:

…they come like gorgons, they wear robes of black, and they are wreathed in a tangle of snakes. I can no longer stay…the bloodhounds of my mother’s hate. Ah, Lord Apollo, how they grow and multiply, repulsive for the blood drops of their dripping eyes…You cannot see them, but I see them. I am driven from this place…

The act of separation from the mother does not imply an instantaneous resolution, only the beginning of a long healing process. Orestes had to grieve the loss of both parents and a sister and also face intense guilt, symbolized by the Furies. Pursued by the hideous apparitions, he hoped to find sanctuary at Apollo’s shrine.

But we find the possibility of healing in the differences between Orestes’ actions and Clytemnestra’s. Each committed a horrible crime. The third part of the trilogy involves much legalistic hair-splitting over which crime is worse. But our interest lies in two other areas, motive and response. The difference in response is simple: Orestes lamented and Clytemnestra didn’t. Indeed, none of their ancestors but Niobe had grieved the consequences of their actions.

The difference in response is due to the difference in motive. Orestes acted because of a call from Apollo, whom he couldn’t refuse. She, on the other hand, acted without any call from a god, but purely out of her own rage and hatred. Her excuse had been that she’d been an agent of fate. In reality, she had usurped the role of the god. She was inflated, according to Edinger:

It is a state in which something small (the ego) has arrogated to itself the qualities of something larger (the Self) and hence is blown up beyond the limits of its proper size…We can identify a state of inflation whenever we see someone (including ourselves) living out an attribute of deity, i.e., whenever one is transcending proper human limits…The urge to vengeance is also identification with deity. At such times one might recall the injunction, “’Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord,” i.e., not yours. The whole body of Greek tragedy depicts the fatal consequences when man takes the vengeance of God into his own hands.

We act “shamelessly” (including rage, arrogance, criticism, perfectionism, patronizing and other modes) to deny the felt sense of toxic shame. In contrast, Bradshaw defined natural, “healthy” shame as:

…the emotion which gives us permission to be human…Our shame tells us we are not God. Healthy shame is the psychological foundation of humility. lt is the source of spirituality.

The Furies attacked Orestes and no one else in the long story. The implication is that he was the only person to allow them in. He chose to go down into grief. They didn’t attack Clytemnestra because she felt no remorse. She was shameless. Her story ended with her de-flation.

Orestes’ action, however, was justified by the call from Apollo. Edinger speaks of “necessary crimes” in dreams and mythology:

What is a crime at one stage of psychological development is lawful at another and one cannot reach a new stage…without daring to challenge the code of the old…Hence, every new step is experienced as a crime and is accompanied by guilt, because the old standards, the old way of being, have not yet been transcended…The acquisition of consciousness is a crime, an act of hybris against the powers-that-be; but it is a necessary crime, leading to a necessary alienation from the natural unconscious state of wholeness…in order to emerge at all, the ego is obliged to set itself against the unconscious out of which it came and assert its relative autonomy by an inflated act…Any step in individuation is experienced as a crime against the collective.

Campbell notes that rites of passage

…are distinguished by formal, and usually very severe, exercises of severance, whereby the mind is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.

Orestes had spent most of his youth at the court of his uncle Strophius, king of Phocis. He had been educated along with Pylades, and they had become close friends. Though Strophius does not appear in the play, and Pylades has but one, though crucial, line, the legend may be implying that Orestes’ initiatory process had already begun among the older men at Phocis.

Bly, once again, cautions us not to blame the mother but the absent father:

We must repeat that it isn’t the personal mother who imprisons the son…lt is the possessive or primitive side of the Great Mother that keeps him locked up…One needs to be able to say these truths without laying a lot of blame on the mother, for Freud has already singled her out, wrongly, for the main responsibility. The whole initiatory tradition, of which Freud knew very little, lays the primary responsibility on men, particularly on the older men and the ritual elders. They are to call the boys away. When they don’t do that, the possessive side of the Great Mother will start its imprisonment…

Orestes’ momentous act of cutting the chord between him and his mother was but one step in a lifelong process of grief and reconciliation. However, his path to initiation is not the only one we find in Greek myth. In two other essays, The Spell of the Mother and Male Initiation and the Mother in Greek Myth, I compare him to his cousin Telemachus and other figures, including Dionysus, Herakles, Oedipus, Hephaestus and Pentheus.

Read Part Eight here.

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