To be born is to be weighed down with strange gifts of the soul, with enigmas and an inextinguishable sense of exile. – Ben Okri
… wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance, long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself from the endless repetition of the mistake, which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify. – D. H. Lawrence
Like all the great myths, this story generated countless variants. The Athenians claimed that their ancestors had shunned the tormented Orestes, forcing him to do his drinking alone. Much later, they incorporated this memory into the celebration of their Anthesteria festival, as if to imply that even after the verdict of innocence, the Furies still followed him.
This aspect of public ritual seems to fit the massive paradox of a civilization – not unlike our own – that praised individual freedom, equality and philosophical enquiry but was in fact a brutal empire that couldn’t function without slave labor.
In another story, Orestes killed Aletes, son of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, took the throne of Mycenae and married their daughter Erigone, who bore a son named Penthilus. Some say the child was killed by wolves, and that his father established a festival of mourning, the Penthilia, in his honor. Others say he (the ninth generation) survived, founded a city and became the ancestor to another dynasty of kings. Others assert that Erigone brought Orestes to another trial for the murder of her mother and hanged herself when he was acquitted.
Still others said that Menelaus and Helen’s daughter Hermione (“Harmony”) had been betrothed to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus. Orestes killed him and married Hermione, who bore him a son, Tisamenus (another member of the ninth generation). Orestes then gave Electra as wife to Pylades, and both couples lived in peace. In this version, Orestes lived to a very old age and died, curiously, of a snakebite (on his heel, like Achilles). Bly notes another tale:
…Orestes, while being pursued by the Furious Invisible Women, after he murdered his mother, bit off a finger and threw it at them; when they saw that, some of them turned white, and left him alone.
Perhaps the finger symbolizes not phallic potency but the brittle masculine armoring that veils the insecurities of those who haven’t cut the maternal chord. Finally, writes Calasso,
…years later, people came to look for his bones, for much the same reason that had prompted other people to look for the bones of his grandfather Pelops.
Grief , Suffering and Redemption
We recall Jung’s statement that all neurosis is but a substitute for legitimate suffering. Cutting past neurotic suffering (our vast arrays of compulsions, addictions, and dysfunctional styles) to legitimate, or authentic suffering, we open to the possibility of attaining knowledge, and we are back to Aeschylus: “Justice so moves that those only learn who suffer.” And what moves us from neurotic suffering to legitimate suffering to knowledge is the active decision to open up to grief.
Just as there are two forms of suffering, there are two forms of grief. In the first, we grieve what has happened to us, what we have lost, never had or know we will lose in the future. Francis Weller, in The Wild Edge of Sorrow, writes that any of us can enter the great communal hall of grief through any of five gates:
1 – Everything We Love, We Will Lose
2 – The Places That Have Not Known Love
3 – The Sorrows of the World
4 – What We Expected and Did Not Receive
5 – Ancestral Grief
If we can learn to walk the fine line between numbness and acting out, if we can withstand the temptation to pass the energy onward to others, our grief can lead to healing. The emotion associated with this form of grief is shame. Initiation into adulthood offers the possibility of transmuting this shame into self-esteem.
With the one exception of Niobe, none of Orestes’ ancestors grieved their personal losses or pain. No one cried out that their parents “ate” their individuality, abused them, neglected them, or used them as surrogate spouses. Since children believe that their pain was their own fault, perhaps this is the original cause of neurotic suffering.
The second major form of grief rises from guilt for the harm we have done. We grieve the consequences of our (or our group’s, community’s, nation’s, race’s, etc.) actions upon others (exterior or interior). We accept that we did something wrong, not that we are something wrong. We have acted wrongly, we admit the guilt, and we grieve. Theologically, we have sinned, and hope for redemption through repentance. So, to simplify, we grieve that others have sinned against us, or we grieve because we have sinned against others. And no one in the Oresteia or any of its preceding generations has accepted the terrible burden of either of these griefs until we meet Orestes and Electra.
These two forms of grief meet in the murder of Clytemnestra. The mother-complex will keep a man from experiencing his original wounds, what happened to him. Ideally, cutting through to that core (work facilitated by the male initiators) releases the bound up energy that leads to both painful knowledge and healing.
But separation from the mother risks separation from the feminine in its positive aspects as well. It really is a choice of the lesser of two evils. The major part of Orestes’ grief is the second kind, an acknowledgement of guilt, a cry of remorse for what he had to do.
Bly taught that there is a component of grief in the male psyche which is not present to the same degree in the female. Perhaps this is what he meant: men, to grow up, must give up their deepest emotional attachment, the most important thing they have. And for this reason, they must endure a guilt, and a grief, that women, for all their sorrows, don’t know, because they generally do identify with their mothers. In time, men may re-establish a relationship to that inner feminine, but that is a different initiation and calls for different stories. Perhaps the fact that Athena is the arbiter of Orestes’ fate indicates that his healing path will ultimately achieve a balance between the feminine and the masculine.
We also note that the Athenians had a word for those who refused to participate in public life: idiota. Perhaps Aeschylus was also describing the condition of those who act in the realm of politics, who must continually compromise between evils, where the perfect too often is the enemy of the good.
I’ve quoted Bly often to emphasize that participants in the men’s conferences that he began have confronted these issues for two generations. He always insisted on the active nature of grief. After spending lifetimes searching for pleasure and avoiding pain, at some point we must decide to go down into grief. Bly distinguished grief from depression using an image from the old story Iron John: if we refuse the imperative to descend, a hand may come up from the water, grab us, and pull us down, perhaps for good. That, said Bly, is depression. If we choose to go down, however, we retain the option of someday choosing to come back up. In this spirit, Orestes chose one kind of death so that his real life could begin.
Bly emphasized that the development of male consciousness is a spiral movement, as men go through the various stages of initiation incompletely, sometimes embodying several stages at once. In this continual returning, the mother complex is not murdered in a single stroke of a sword:
For Hamlet it meant giving up the immortality or the safe life promised to the faithful mother’s son, and accepting the risk of death always imminent in the father’s realm…When a man has reclaimed his grief and investigated his wound, he may find that they resemble the grief and the wound his father had, and the reclaiming puts him in touch with his father’s soul…Moving to the father’s world does not necessarily mean rejecting the mother or shouting at her – Hamlet is off in that respect – but rather the movement involves convincing the naive boy…to die. Other interior boys remain alive; this one dies…But independence from the mother’s womb world goes in agonizingly slow motion for developing men. One wants to run, but the legs will not move. We wake exhausted.
However, concludes Alice Miller,
That probably greatest of narcissistic wounds – not to have been loved just as one truly was – cannot heal without the work of mourning…When the patient, in the course of his analysis, has consciously repeatedly experienced (and not only learned from the analyst’s interpretations) how the whole process of his bringing-up did manipulate him in his childhood, and what desires for revenge this has left him with, then he will see through manipulation quicker than before and will himself have less need to manipulate others. Such a person will be able to join groups without again becoming helplessly dependent or bound…in less danger of idealizing people or systems…a person who has consciously worked through the whole tragedy of his own fate will recognize another’s suffering more clearly and quickly…He will not be scornful of another’s feelings, whatever their nature, because he can take his own feelings seriously. He surely will not help to keep the vicious circle of contempt turning.
This is our dual condition, as told in the myths: It’s always been this way – and healing is possible. The bad news is that the old initiation rituals are nearly gone. More than ever, the most powerful people are deeply wounded, desperate to deny their pain by passing it on to others, and willing to destroy all life in the process.
The good news is that we have never lost the ability to imagine, and that we have greater access to old wisdom than our parents had. Anthropologist Angeles Arrien used to teach a guided meditation from her Basque tradition:
Imagine seven generations of your male ancestors emerging from the underworld to stand behind your right shoulder. Imagine seven generations of your female ancestors behind your left shoulder. Imagine that as you enter the fire of initiation, they are speaking with great excitement to each other:
Oh, may this be the one who will bring forward the good, true and beautiful in our family lineage. Will this be the one to break the harmful family or cultural patterns? Oh may this be the one to break the curse! May it be so!