As a traditional and ancient society Argos has many festivals and rituals that keep the people connected to the gods. The sick state of the land is shown by the perversion in the religious rituals. Rituals of mourning include proper burial, which Aegisthus refuses to Agamemnon’s body. This is a sign of disrespect but also makes the soul of the departed restless in the underworld. Both Electra and Orestes do their best to conform to the ritual standards for death by cutting their hair off, and Orestes gives a blood offering on the tomb of Agamemnon. The act makes the tutor suspect Orestes has returned, since it was the son’s duty to perform this sacrifice. Electra speaks of tearing her cheeks with her fingernails as a sign of mourning, and also she hopes her loud cries of distress will reach her father in the underworld, as was the custom, so the departed would feel the family’s sorrow.
The Chorus approaches Electra with news of a happier ritual, the maidens’ dances to Hera, goddess of marriage. This is an equally important rite for Mycenae because Hera is the patron goddess of the city. They cannot slight her, the Chorus warns. They will find Electra the gown and jewels she needs. Electra finally refuses on the ground that she is already wed, though she is a virgin bride, a sign, like the lack of burial rites for Agamemnon, that something is amiss in the land. She is a virgin but married against her rank and her will.
Rituals are so important in the society that they become the means to kill Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. The rite for a newborn and the cleansing of the mother on the tenth day is the one Electra uses to trap her mother. Electra knows her mother will come if she says she has given birth. This is a false message, for Electra is still a virgin, but if it had been true, it would be another ritual illustrating that the country was not in tune with divine law, for Electra would have been the mother of a peasant child, forced to destroy her bloodlines. Finally, Aegisthus is fooled when he must invite the strangers (Orestes and Pylades) to a ritual outside the city walls. He wants to pray to the Nymphs to curse his enemies but instead he is killed himself, a sign from the gods that he is a usurper and his time is over. The disturbance of rituals thus highlights the crimes of Aegisthus.
Blood and Water Baths
Cleansing baths are part of ritual. Water and blood are often cleansing agents in rituals, as in the case when Orestes kills a sheep and offers the blood at Agamemnon’s tomb. A similar attempt is made when Aegisthus tries to kill a bull for a blood sacrifice. He lets the stranger (Orestes) kill the bull, who instead uses the sacred instrument to kill and sacrifice Aegisthus at the altar, thus cleansing the city of its tyrant with his own blood, “blood for blood” (l. 850).
Electra is first seen at dawn with a water jug on her head. She has been to the springs, like any common slave. She speaks of the water in the last bath of Agamemnon, as he was killed coming out of his bath, thus turning the clear water red. Similarly, she mingles tears with the blood on her cheeks as a sign of mourning. She laments the blood stains on the palace floors where Clytemnestra lives in luxury. Instead of offering Agamemnon the proper funeral drink at his grave, her mother drinks wine. Blood and water can also be dirty. The bloody bodies of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra are displayed as “the grievous sacrifice” due to Agamemnon’s house (l. 1164)
Snares and traps along with hunting imagery convey the treachery of the family members towards one another. Electra compares herself to a wild swan crying out when its father (Agamemnon) is caught in a snare. He was killed by an axe. Orestes tells Electra he is her champion now “if I can snare the prey I’m after” (l. 577). He has clearly come hunting for Aegisthus and traps him at the festival sacrifice. The Chorus sings of how Thyestes “snared” the heart of Atreus’s wife along with the golden lamb (l. 716). Clytemnestra charges Agamemnon with luring their daughter to her death by promising marriage to Achilles. She herself is accused by the Chorus of snaring Agamemnon, the mighty commander killed by her adultery. They predict her death by treachery, and she becomes trapped when she enters the farmer’s house, never to emerge alive. Finally, Orestes is trapped by his vow to Apollo to avenge his father’s death, which includes the sin of killing his mother. Only the gods are able to get him into and out of that trap.
Shields and Swords; War and Justice
The family feud and the Trojan War are constant references in the play. There is much warfare and bloodshed in Argive history.
The shield and sword of Achilles become a central metaphor in an ode by the Chorus to the glory of Greek victory. The arms of Achilles, the greatest Greek champion who killed the greatest Trojan warrior, Hector, were made of gold and forged by the god, Hephaestus. Achilles’s shield is adorned with images to frighten the Trojans, such as that of the legendary hero, Perseus, founder of Mycenae, holding the head of a monster, the Gorgon Medusa, in one hand, and in the other, his sword dripping blood. There were three sister Gorgons, monsters who were half woman, half bird, with snakes for hair. Their glance turned men to stone. Perseus was able to kill Medusa by seeing her reflected in the shield given to him by Athena. Hermes, the herald of Zeus, is also pictured on the shield of Achilles, proclaiming the righteousness and favor of the Greeks with the gods. In the center of the shield is the Sun in a chariot with stars around it. All this imagery flashed into “Hector’s shocked eyes” (l. 468) during battle and made him run with fear from the sword of Achilles, “the black whirlwind” (l. 475).
Shields and weapons were described at great length in ancient epics, with their symbols, heraldry, and magic spells of the gods. This passage describes the heritage of Orestes, the last heir of the house of Agamemnon, whom Electra crowns like a champion after he kills Aegisthus. As punishment for killing his mother Orestes will be pursued by the “Serpent-writhing Furies,” (l. 1246) goddesses of divine vengeance, pictured as evil snakes, like the monster Medusa with her snaky hair. He must go to Athens and bow to the goddess Athena whose shield is a “Gorgon shield” (l. 1247) that will protect him. Though Athena is a goddess of war, she is also a goddess of wisdom and justice. Just as the dead monster Gorgon turns into a symbol of protection on the shield of Perseus, so is it on the shield of Athena, who will hold her shield over the head of Orestes. The Furies are now transformed into the Eumenides (kindly ones) to show the curse is over, and the feared monster Gorgon is transformed into a symbol of justice.