In a Greek play titled The Libation Bearers, a young man named Orestes wants to avenge his father’s murder because he was killed in the hands of his mother and her lover. He works out a plan to get into her home and then bring revenge back down on her.
The Greeks had a whole different system of justice than we do today. Justice was a synonym for revenge in their culture. In our society, we have a court system complete with punishments for the offenders and prison time for those who are found guilty.
The Greeks didn’t have any sort of court or justice system. They believed that the gods would provide punishments to those who deserved to be penalized. Their practice was to determine on their own what an offenders punishment should be and then exact their own judgement with the help of the gods.
So, what would be Orestes proper course of action in today’s society? He probably would have pressed charges against his mother for murder and then she would be tried in a court. If she was found guilty, the penalty would either be life imprisonment or a death sentence.
In the play, Orestes disguises himself as a traveler from another city and asks for shelter in his mother’s house. He tells his mother Clytemnestra, that he has a very important message to deliver. Orestes lies to her, saying that her son had died in another city. Clytemnestra feigns sadness and pretends to be grieved by the news. In reality, she is overjoyed because she thinks that the only person left who could avenge her is now dead.
Orestes waits until Clytemnestra and her lover are completely off guard and no longer afraid of someone coming after them, to reveal himself. He then kills both his mother and her accomplice.
Now, you might think that Orestes is free to take control of his father’s house and live in perfect happiness for the rest of his life. That is not true. Because he killed his mother, the ancient spirits called furies are awakened. These furies hunt down and kill anyone who murders a family member to avenge their dead spirit.
Now, you might think that Orestes should have considered this repercussion before taking justice into his own hands and that he reaps what he sows. It is not that simple. You see, before he had decided to avenge his father’s death, the greek god Apollo came and talked to him. Apollo warned Orestes that if he did not kill Clytemnestra and her accomplice, then he would be an outcast forever from his hometown and the gods would bring vengeance down on his head.
Poor Orestes! As you can see, he was stuck between choosing the lesser of two evils. No matter what his decision, something bad comes out of it.
The Greek system of justice was completely messed up. There were too many gods involved in everything they did. Often times, the gods would be divided in a particular matter, and the humans were stuck in the middle. Thankfully, justice in our day is a lot more organized and less chaotic.