ESSAY / Sophocles' Elektra asks the question: what happens to a person who fails to formulate for himself who her revenge is directed at and why? Is it the need for revenge that drives us, the urge to punish someone who has ruined for us? And what about young, religious terrorists today who, out of love for the "ruler," perform cruel rituals and rites?


One fall my husband and I were on the Greek island of Sifnos, one day I heard a young lady shout, "Elektra!" A little girl of five or six years answered a flimsy "yes" a little further up the road. She was squeezed up against a car. The cry made me think of the literary Elektra, that she is shaped so vividly by Sophocles in the drama that she could have stood there in a Greek everyday life. The chef in the restaurant where we ate was called Aristotle. He had goats, and perhaps part of his flock was constantly crossing the road, meandering around the island in steep slopes. Past and present, myth and everyday life, and the idea of ​​how they lived there, then and now, mixed together. How did this little Elektra live in his family, perhaps on a hillside, in a much smaller house than the literary Elektra? I stood there hoping that this little girl lived in a good atmosphere, in an open family. What kind of underlying powers did she live in, were they good, and how did her parents cope with each other when it dawned on her? Little Elektra looked like she wanted to hide, make herself invisible, for a while. Electronics from Sifnos became my entrance to Elektra in the Greek drama.

The need for revenge

In the play has king Agamemnon went to war against Troy, a kingdom on the coast of present-day Turkey, for the beautiful Helena, the wife of the king's brother, has been abducted by the Trojan prince Paris. It says about Greek honor and about the honor of the Atrev family. The fleet is summoned, but there is a reef in the sea: King Agamemnon has shot a sacred deer in the sacred grove of the hunting goddess Artemis, and then boasted that he was a better hunter than the goddess. He has been guilty of hubris. The gods punish him by letting it be quiet. His fleet does not come off the spot. A soothsayer advises Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Ifigeneia to the gods, to appease them. When he does, the wind comes. The war lasts a long time. Aigistos, the king's trusted friend, seduces his queen, Clytaimnestra, while the king is gone. When King Agamemnon returns home victorious from Troy, there will be a great feast. The honor is restored. In his carriage sits the beautiful king's daughter Kassandra. Clytaimnestra and Aegistos kill King Agamemnon, and Aigistos takes his place. The king's daughters react differently to the father's murder. Krystotemis adapts, while Elektra resists. She wants to avenge the murder of her father.

Sophocles' Elektra asks the question: What is the basis of our legal consciousness? Is it the need for revenge that drives us, the urge to punish someone who has ruined for us? Is it central to find a set of rules to judge by, so as not to end up in unsolvable dilemmas? For example, who is most guilty of two killers? Is it the one who physically killed the victim, the one who was most eager to get the victim killed, or are both equally guilty? The tragedy writer Sophocles has put the character Elektra in an insoluble conflict: How should she live and act in a home where both her father and mother are murderers? What applies in such a home? Why would the playwright discuss this question? Did he want the spectators to be purged of his vengeance? For everyone who has been degraded, one knows the right to it, whether they have been bullied at school, hung out on social media, in the press or in books, rejected at home or exposed to other violence. Was it the honor killings Sophocles wanted to shed light on?

Having to choose between mother and father, without knowing it, is known to the Elektra I.
even know.

The plot begins with Elektra's brother, Orestes, standing in front of the palace. He grew up in another city-state. Elektra had him smuggled out when her father was killed, and so she saved his life. Orestes will avenge the murder of his father. He has consulted with an oracle, who has given him the answer: Do the deed alone! As he goes to sacrifice on his father's grave, he sends his servant into the palace to tell him that Orestes is dead, thrown out of his chariot during a horse race in Delphi. When Orestes hears Elektra crying over his death, he realizes that she is on his side with him. As Matias Skaard writes in the preface to his retelling of Elektra: "Both two hours they only after the day when they could avenge their father – from the Greek point of view it was their holy duty." Blood revenge is the rule of law of the day. Orestes enters the palace and kills his mother and then his father's killer, Aigistos, in the same place where his father was killed. The killings are planned in detail and carried out in a cynical manner.

Sophocles' version is the ugliest of the three playwrights who have dealt with the subject. Euripides lets the two feel remorse and remorse, Aeschylus lets the citizens' court in Athens judge Orestes, while Sophocles, the version I have taken as a starting point, lets Elektra and Orestes be morally ruined first and foremost.

My Electra

Having to choose between mother and father, without knowing it, is known to the Elektra I know myself. The house she lived in constantly became a war zone, driven by her father's jealousy. He cast doubt that Elektra was his child. The mother, who believed in God's mercy, turned the other cheek, while the father's supreme body was a politically just order. When the parents quarreled, they forgot that the child was there. Elektra could not stand to see her mother and father in the scenes of violence, she just stood there shivering. At school she enjoyed herself, because there she learned to forget, and there were rules that created peace. The school language, she realized, she could use to denote and to argue with, but it said nothing about what she lived in. The school language was a surface language. Like the literary Elektra, she wanted to get away from the home of violence. When she moved to a boarding school at the age of fourteen, she rarely visited her parents. She would forget and move on. Images of her father's aggression and her mother's despair often crossed her mind. Every time she saw a helpless, speechless person, she felt a stab in the heart. They were her people. She would come to experience that in oblivion were left remnants, which pressed on.

In the archaic family structure, the father is the leader of the family, whether it is on Sifnos or in Norway. He supports his family, is called up in the war, can become a politician and, more rarely, an artist. This pater familias has all the power, if he manages to take part in society, do his duties and govern well. If he manages his lot, the family members will share in his dignity. Women and daughters gain identity through him or through their own beauty. If he is wise, the daughters will have a reasonably good marriage, a good life. If, on the other hand, he makes a mistake, the reputation of sons and daughters in society falls. The ancient society, like the Norwegian one in the 1950s, was and is built around the family. The top leaders left the management of the family to the father, and cared little about what happened in the homes. The family was therefore largely a closed system. The laws applied outside the home. Women had few rights, and mothers and daughters were considered part of the inventory. They could control the kitchen, but the financial and legal was in charge of the father. Therefore, there are many small Elektras in Greek and Norwegian society, who will be able to recognize themselves in the violent mind of the main character in the play Elektra. And is not the basic structure of the family in many ways the same today? It gives security to be led by a wise father, but what happens when the family leader instead of providing security creates an unpredictable, closed space, where the child has to come to terms with being severely controlled, to see psychological violence, to feel fear – and being refused to tell about it to other adults?

Elektra loses her grip

How many children in today's divorced families do not feel this feeling that an unknown person has taken their father's place? They may have an underlying childlike hatred for this person, but cannot express it, because they are addicted to the new one that mom has fallen in love with. Or the new mom, a completely unknown person, becomes one they must like, whether they will or not.

Elektra in the play does not accept his new stepfather, because he has killed his father: «Like the bird from which the kid was robbed; / I complain for all this burdensome sorrow, / here outside the gate to the ancestral castle. The choir of women advises Elektra to put the wrath in Zeus' hands. By all gods, control Dive! / Try no tongue, take care of yourself. » Elektra hears, but is too depressed to accept advice. "In my father's home I gang a poor girl / whom everyone can dog with insults and blows, / and seemingly in dress a rushing fente / and fears for food from day to day." She stands abruptly lower than the servants in the house. She sees that Aigistos is hypocritical. He holds grand celebrations in honor of his father, the man he has killed in cold blood. This double attitude becomes intolerable for Elektra to live in, and she asks the choir leader in the drama: «How do you think you know it best when I see / Aigistos sits wide in his father's throne / and brisk himself with the bunad he took from father; / and so – as husband – poured out the sacrificial drink / at the same year where he once murdered him. "

The mind rumbles in her. We follow Elektra through the process from being a young innocent girl – a young girl is innocent – to becoming a fierce avenger. Sophocles shows that Elektra loses her grip because she is too proud to take on a new reality. We hear her cry over her brother, who she thinks is dead, see her joy when she hears that he is still alive, until she loses her humanity in the sense that she no longer wants to "know herself", and urges her brother to take the life of the mother and the mother's lover Aigistos. The fall is triggered when Orestes drives the sword into his mother and Elektra shouts: "Chop again as true as you can!" As Aigistos, the mother's lover, asks Orestes to say a few words before he dies, Elektra breaks in: “No, kill him immediately! Throw the corpse out for a hawk and a ram, / so he will come to earth as it pleases. "

Jealousy has gained strength, revenge is complete. Elektra is forced into freedom, but what kind of freedom? What right has she been given? The conditions she lives under have distorted her personality and her natural instincts as to what is right and wrong. Idet Orestes and Elektra has had her murderers killed, her mother and Aigistos, and should celebrate that they have done the deed, the morale that had maintained them falls to the ground. They create a short community by gathering around a common selfish goal, to kill their father's killers, but what they have inflicted on themselves is a common fault for two new murders. They do not get to share the murder as a triumph. The suspicion has already crept in between them. Who is the other person who kills his own mother? Sophocles points out that humans are untrustworthy. They can change their minds and are quickly controlled by their emotions. Are not well thought out laws better to abide by?

The character Elektra is set in a screwdriver. Her stepfather Aigistos and her mother have all the power over her. The shame of lost honor, that others see her as poor, bothers her. Only the dead father is pure, he is the one who stands for a just world. Every time she tries to understand herself, it ends with accusations about what others are doing to her. She sees herself as a ridiculed person. Those who once admired her now look down on her. She wants to show them that she is energetic, wants out of powerlessness, which feels like a prison. It is a before and after humiliation. Everything that was good before, has value for the child, what came after the father's death is worthless. She will crush the opponent, the enemies, get redress, be as strong and free as she felt before the fall. Elektra is ostracized, and people enjoy watching the rich boy in the house Atrevs, which they have previously felt oppressed by, fall.

Sophocles allows Elektra to close off all possibilities other than revenge. She is drawn into a deadly force, it says about her life. Who can help a lonely child with its interior? Can siblings help? As we see, the siblings are different, one has become a pragmatist, one is a royal subject, and Elektra is passionate about injustice. Love is a germ of conflict between children. Who got the most? What important words did the dead father say to whom? The easiest thing is to stand together on something negative. Elektra remembers his father's screams when he was stabbed to death at the victory party and fell over, so that his blood ran down the boulders. Having to carry an inner picture of the murder of the father becomes crucial for Elektra. It becomes too violent for her, it eats up reason and language.

The orphanage in ruins

To what extent are we in our society liberated from the drives that destroy human unity? Are we, like the literary Elektra, governed by emotions? How strong is reason and the will to good?

In the drama Electronics shows Sophocles what happens when a powerless children takes revenge. Orestes, the Crown Prince, is absolutely clear, it is his right and duty to avenge the murder of his father. Elektra's sad condition strengthens him in that it is right to do so. Sister Krysotemis is a pragmatist, she wants to live, while Elektra sees it so that if her mother and lover are not punished for the murder of their father, it is out with human reverence, and with respect for the law. Elektra accuses her mother of infecting her with malicious and shameless behavior. Ugly breeds ugly, as it says. The mother, for her part, does not tolerate hearing Elektra mourn and complain. She wants to get rid of the problem child, bury her alive in a cave outside the city limits. Why does she want it? The mother constantly dreams that Agamemnon rises from the grave and lies down in the bed they previously shared, and the sight of Elektra invokes these pangs of conscience. It is an inner weathering that takes place in the house Atrevs. Revenge drives through the family and leaves everything desolate.

Jealousy has gained strength, revenge is complete. Elektra is forced into freedom, but what kind

For my Elektra, the years went by. One rainy night, the parents' home was in ruins. The father had shot his mother and seen himself. He had lost his temper, accused himself inside the woods for a couple of hours, and then sentenced himself to self-destruction. They found the tracks of his father in the autumn forest and leaves in the hallway, where he was shot, with the stock exchange facing him. Elektra trembled again and lost the heat. The language became a few repetitive sentences. The crying came, over the killer, who had seen the mother as an object he could deal with, over the mother, who did not get away from him, over the father's suicide, and over the fact that she was the daughter. Elektra became dizzy and sleepless.

One day as she was flipping through a pile of sources for a university thesis, some notes caught her attention. They were tucked in between the white sheets. It was her handwriting, but they seemed completely foreign. The words that stood there were filled with experience and pain. Have I written this? She asked the young daughter to read it, and she told Mom, it was fine. Slowly, the language of oblivion grew. Elektra felt the power of the negative, but asked herself, if she had wanted to avenge the suffering she had suffered, to whom should she perform that act of revenge? Her father had taken revenge on himself, taking away the language of violence from her as well, before he left. The destructive universe she had lived in had come to the surface.

The law of tragedy

Jealousy, effect og love can be a dangerous brew. Lust can easily move from one to the other, can even be nurtured by rejection, but a deep relationship, characterized by addiction, has other laws. When the mother tears the relationships in the house to shreds and chooses the children away for a new husband, everything is put into play. Elektra can tolerate the mother inciting the murder of her father, but not that the killer has taken his father's place. She wants to restore balance in the house. That others see her as a loser, she does not tolerate. As the rules of the family were broken, the princess became ordinary, and this princess will not be. When family laws are put into play, the whole house is ruled by mimetic desire. Elektra can not logically defend that the father sacrificed his sister, she just says that the gods demanded it and that they are above the law. The playwright points out that there is nothing that stagnates the destructive drive in the family when the first murder is committed. None of the family members survive morally, not even the passive Chrysotemis, who will not be tainted by the events. That the hero, Elektra's father, is acting wrong, leads to everyone's downfall. It is the law of tragedy. Elektra ends up as a murderer, defending the right to kill to restore family honor.

The playwright Sofokles' goal is that the spectators, after seeing the drama, will go home and discuss society's need for general laws. Should society make laws that apply to everyone, or should the individual family take the law into their own hands?

Sophocles' tragedy shows in several ways that it becomes impossible for Elektra, who is seeking the truth, to look at the murderers she lives with, as dear fellow human beings and family members. She cools down, begins to look at them as objects she can trade with. The goal is good, she wants to restore a moral standard, but because she is stuck in her feelings, she does not look beyond her own hatred, and the just punishment she dreams of becomes impossible. She wants to act, but can only urge her brother to act. She copies the family's underlying destructive universe by her inflammatory language, but does not see that this is how she is destroyed as a human being. She wants to be associated with the powerful, victorious warlord, the father, who restored the Greek glory, but this is where the playwright lets the character Elektra make a mistake: The father is no longer strong, it is her memory of him that is strong. The father is defeated, killed, as a result of his arrogance towards the goddess of hunting, and since then he makes the mistakes, sacrifices the daughter, degrades the queen, which leads to his downfall. He wins on the battlefield, gets a short-lived honor, and then the law of tragedy is that the hero must pay with his life. Elektra is completely incapable of restoring the hero's honor and thereby his own. Times have changed, the regime is already different. Her sense of justice does not match that of the ruler of the state, now ruled by Aigistos.

To purify oneself of the need for revenge

In the same way that our courtrooms are permeated by an underlying need to restore balance, that the murderer, the thief, should be punished in the hearing of all, the literature deals with the same questions.

A poetic work reflects the time in which it was written. The Greek playwrights got the audience talking by asking questions that concerned them. The dramatization of a theme on stage could be discussed and evaluated together with others. The playwrights used the family, the structure everyone lived in, as Shakespeare and Ibsen later do, to reflect society. In works such as Orestien, the reader and the spectator are meant to recognize their need for revenge, and to purify themselves of them. As society changed, so did the gods. The ancient goddesses of revenge were given a new role in the transition to the rule of law, they became symbols of guarding the law.

In the Roman Empire, defamatory forged poems were cultivated. They intended to degrade a named politician, a girlfriend, a group, about whom the poet would have said something bad, in order to show the structure of society in a small format, as Juvenalis, Horats and Catullus do. The optimal success of the Roman mock poets would be if the object committed suicide, a punishment the rulers at the time could sentence a human being to. Was harsh degradation a method of punishment?

Dante's need for revenge

I The divine comedy av Dante Alighieri Alighieri names the author his political opponents from power struggles in Florence, whom he has placed in hell for betrayal he believes they have committed. Dante wanders around those he has condemned, along with the poet Vergil, who is Dante's guide in ten circles down there, and he enjoys seeing his enemies there tormented in the worst way. He asks them about their family background and place of residence, to make sure they are the right ones, as if he is the judge of their lives, they must stand up for him, the author, those who hindered his political progress in the city-state of Florence, who he was banished from. Dante's need for revenge has a prehistory. The ones he deals with The divine comedy hell, are those who were his opponents in the political power struggles in Florence. Opponents not only prevented him from winning, but also sentenced him to death for betrayal and deception. The pain before the absolute need for revenge is not mentioned in The Divine Comedy. The disappointment, the feeling of defeat, finally having to give up the politician's dream, the loss of their own and their family's honor, and not least a lasting separation from them after the exile, is unsaid, but everything is there as an underlying force. It is the others who prevent Dante from advancing as a politician, and who eventually send him into exile and make him a writer, because that is where, in exile, he writes his masterpiece. Hell is the earthly life, even if it is staged after this life, the earthly life, where he fights with beaks and claws, to regain the feeling of power. Purgatory is the reflection on the vile deeds he has done, and for which he will be cleansed, and paradise is the longing for a state in which all evil is abolished, in which there is a good, controlling power, and in which there is love and beauty. Beatrice, his muse in the celestial spheres, he finally gets to see up there and hear the voice, by the way a strict lady, but everything is portrayed as an unreal dream. It is revenge and purgatory, the need for purification, we remember in the work.

Young, religious terrorists

The loyalty of the literary Elektra to an abstract god-like father figure who rules over the law of family and society is similar to the state of young, religious terrorists today may be in. Love of father, the ruler, becomes an absolute regressive demand, to which they commit. They perform the rituals and rites as if father were observing them, they are doing what they think he would do. Because they suffer like this, they disconnect from the struggle, the reality, and give their love, obey the abstract god they themselves have created. The thought of God's, father's law is sufficient, for one like Elektra, like them. Today's religious fanatics also follow the law of the old patriarch. They are willing to annihilate other people to satisfy theirs God. Their job is to sustain him, to cleanse the world malice and sinful deeds. Killing in the name of God becomes logical for them. That is something that needs to happen. The gods of antiquity stood above the people, were unreliable like the people, they were powerful enough to destroy what they wanted. But the gods were also witnesses, and they could cast a curse on those who swore falsely.

Elektra tries to rise above powerlessness with the help of the deceased father's previous status as king and victorious army commander. For whom should she stay in when society says she is worthless?

Putting your trust in someone is important for everyone, but if you do not have any good helpers when you feel rejected, do not have a language for that feeling, then who can save you from self-destruction? All of Sophocles' drama is about loneliness, about the weakness of the individual, even if they are filled with a strong energy. The more the characters become emotional, in sorrows and joys, the more dependent they become on others. Elektra lives in an ideal memory, because in her consciousness only her father protects her, but he can no longer enter the palace door, arrange for her and seize her enemies. In the name of goodness, she will purify herself by taking the most cruel revenge, but then she is already on the other side of the law of life.

Everyone has felt degradation on the body, big or small. Love, jealousy, betrayal can drive a person insane, but most people bite it, swallow their defeats, try to understand, without pursuing a private vendetta against the one who inflicted the defeat on them. A civilized human being will seek justice through the law. Christianity's advice is to turn the other cheek. But what happens to a person who fails to formulate for himself who her revenge is directed at and why? The defeats and losses have been too many, or one loss too striking. She can channel her unspoken revenge into a death-worshiping ideology, into a destructive view of humanity, where other victims become random objects. That the revenge is a strong rightful force is shown by the tragedy Elektra. As the choir sings in this tragedy: «With feet of copper and iron-hard hand / lies the vengeance lurking and comes suddenly like a fire / infuses the two who glowed with lust, / morality and right under their feet believed, / and tie their criminal love band. » Revenge is the end of a process, as a court of law is. In Elektra, Sophocles sheds light on the inner destruction of the avenger.

Language and experience. Essays
By Karin Haugane, Gyldendal 2020, Norway
Reproduced in its entirety, and printed with permission from the author and publisher.

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