Was Orestes, the Greek mythology hero mentally ill according to modern science? Hallucinations, hearing voices and wandering alone!
Myths are traditional stories that talk about early histories of man and the origins of a culture or event. The people in the myths could have been real or may not have existed; supernatural beings are often depicted in myths. It is with this note that we set to compare the myth of Orestes and how in modern day interpretation, it relates to mental illness.
The Myth of Orestes
Orestes was a Greek hero. He was the son of king of Argos, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Electra was his sister. His grandfather, Atreus was a warrior from the Trojan War. Atreus vigorously tried to prove that he was more powerful than the Greek gods. For his absurd thinking, the gods punished him by placing a curse upon him and all his descendants. When Agamemnon returned from the war with a mistress, Clytemnestra grew agitated by the curse. She along with her lover murdered Atreus and Agamemnon. The traumatized children ran away and found refuge in the temple of Apollo. During their time in hiding, Electra and Apollo urged Orestes to avenge his father’s death.
Eight years after his father was killed, Orestes returned to avenge his father’s murderers – as it was the Greek Code of Honor that a son was obliged to avenge his father’s killers. After killing his own mother and her lover, Orestes was struck by guilt – for matricide was the greatest sin according to the Greek laws. Therefore, the gods punished Orestes by having the Erinnyes affect him.
The Erinnyes were creatures that could only be seen and heard by the sinners. They tormented the guilty with their ghastly appearances and mocked them day and night. Orestes wandered the land alone in quest of atonement for his crime. He appealed to Apollo, but even Apollo could not stop the Erinnyes. Many years of suffering and torment later, Orestes requested the gods to show mercy on him. The goddess, Athena, arranged for a trial for Orestes with the Greek gods.
During the trial, the Erinnyes argued that Orestes deserved the punishment for killing his own mother. In Orestes’s defense, Apollo claimed that he had only engineered the whole situation upon which Orestes had to kill his mother and therefore, Orestes was not guilty. However, Orestes interrupted saying “It was I, not Apollo that murdered my mother!” The Gods were amazed, for never had an accused held responsibility for himself and not blamed the gods! The graceful gods not only relieved Orestes of the curse; they also transformed the Erinnyes into the Eumenides – affectionate spirits that offered wise counsel, enabling the bearer to obtain good fortune. Orestes returned to become the ruler of his kingdom.
On the outset, it is a great story with moral insights – Atreus’s pride brought curse and death, Agamemnon’s unfaithfulness got him killed, Clytemnestra’s sin got her killed and Orestes was punished for his sin – the full circle, karma. As with most mythological stories, the myth of Orestes has a moral. One has to take responsibility for his/her actions and not blame anyone else, not even the gods!
Orestes and Signs of Mental illness
Orestes may or may not have been a person who actually lived. Let’s say, Orestes indeed lived – and on the outset I say, he hallucinated (saw creatures), heard voices that criticized him and he wandered about alone – what does it sound like? For a modern day stand point, it sounds like Orestes was mad, literally. Whatever torture the Erinnyes instilled upon Orestes is the exact similar of symptoms of mental illness – developing symptoms after a life changing event and also having a traumatic childhood.
His grandfather and father also figure in this story, hinting at the possibility of mental illness being hereditary. It could be deciphered that mental illness was already running in the family, and Orestes after killing his own mother and her lover, went into depression. In due time, he started experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, as we call it today. These facts point out that Orestes and some of his family members were mentally ill.
The Transformation of Orestes and a Mentally ill person
But our ancestors have always guided us. So too, in this story. Orestes may have been schizophrenic, but they also offer a solution to his ailment. Orestes, after many years, accepted that only he was to blame for his situation and had no one else. There are many of us though, who keep pointing fingers at our family, lovers, society, gods, etc. for our misfortune. We go into a shell. Nothing works out.
Orestes also made an endearing effort to heal. He wanted to be free from the curses. Some people choose to be sick and have everyone else to blame just because it is easier that way than to work towards the demanding task of leading a healthy life. Our ancestors could be conveying to us that to overcome our illness, we have to make the necessary changes in ourselves and free us from the impact of a damaging childhood, negative ancestry and adverse situations. It took him several years; similarly it takes painstaking time for a mentally ill person to renew himself. Changing attitudes and psychotherapy that catalyze healing, take an immense amount of time.
Orestes became a transformed person with the help of Eumenides and attained good fortune. After healing, the person sees a new and different world. Just like Orestes did. Obstacles become challenges, problems convert into opportunities and abandoned thoughts become sources of direction. This leads to the person become relatively successful in his life after therapy/healing. Orestes did so with the help of Eumenides.