What can the Ancient Greeks teach us?
Lesson 3: family can be murder as well as a dream for a Viennese psychoanalyst
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 3 August 2011
It is no surprise, given the larger-than-life, murderous entanglements of mythical Greek families, that psychotherapists have borrowed from Greek legend to illustrate the archetypes of blood relationships: Oedipus, who slays his father and marries his mother; Electra, who plots with her brother to slay her mother; the god Zeus, who, according to Freud, castrates his father, Cronus. (Freud was mistaken: according to Hesiod's poem Theogony, Zeus in fact confines his father to the depths of Tartarus, whereas it is Cronus who castrates his father, Uranus).
The heroes of Greek mythology often have a complicated family life. Take the Atreides family. To cut a long story (reasonably) short: when Thyestes stole the golden fleece, his brother Atreus took revenge by serving him a delicious meat stew. Then Atreus brought out a platter bearing the heads and feet of Thyestes' children: he had fed his brother his own offspring. It was Atreus's sons Agamemnon and Menelaus who set out to besiege Troy. In order to secure a fair wind for the voyage, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia. When he returned home to Mycenae, his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus (his cousin) murdered him.
Their son, Orestes, in turn took revenge on his mother by killing her. The cycle of violence ended only when he, pursued by avenging Furies, reached Athens, where the goddess Athena established a trial. The jury was split, but Orestes was acquitted on her casting vote.
To pacify the Furies, she transformed them into the Eumenides, the "Kindly Ones". This latter part of the story, dramatised by Aeschylus, has been interpreted as a metaphor for the rise of Athenian reason and the rule of law.