Orestes was the son of Agamemnon, from the blighted house of Atreus. Agamemnon was a warrior and the king of Argos, and he had a very important quest. He had to get to Troy with his cohort of the finest warriors, to face off in noble battle.
But he couldn’t get there; the wind wouldn’t blow, so the ships couldn’t sail.
So he brought his daughter, Iphigenia, and offered her up as a sacrifice.
In some tellings Iphigenia dies; in others, the gods take pity on her in her pain, and she is snatched up into the heavens. She’s lost to Orestes either way.
Agamemnon wins the Trojan war. He returns home with the cursed prophetess Cassandra as a trophy of war. Cassandra has been a trophy before; the god Apollo desired her, and so he gave her the power of prophecy. When he discovered that his feelings were not reciprocated, he cursed the former object of his affections—she could see the future, but no one would ever believe her.
A god’s prerogative: to give and take away as he pleases. To inflict suffering on the object of his desires if she desires to follow her own.
Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, had taken a lover in his absence. His name was Aegisthus, although as an independent person, he’s not really important to the story. What matters is that Clytemnestra has him kill Agamemnon.
Why she does this varies with the telling. She could be jealous that he’d brought Cassandra home. She might be more pleased with her lover—doesn’t want her husband back. Treacherous woman personified.
It may have been grief over the senseless loss of her daughter.
Whatever her reasons, Clytemnestra is ultimately responsible for the death of Agamemnon.
This puts Orestes in an impossible position. To leave his father unavenged was an unpardonable dereliction of filial duty. To kill his mother was an unpardonable filial sin.
The curse of the house of Atreus: Damned if he does; damned if he doesn’t.
(The house of Atreus had always been marred by intrafamily violence, ever since its founder, Tantalus, murdered his own son and served his body to the gods at a feast in a demented bid to prove his own power: a repellent assertion that his was the ultimate authority, that he could trick the gods into committing vile crimes, if he so desired.
He was wrong. Hence the curse.)
Orestes does what he must—follows his duty, as bitter and lonely as it is. He avenges his father by killing his mother and her lover. And then he wanders the known world alone, pursued ever by the Erinyes, the Furies, goddesses of vengeance themselves, whose solemn duty it is to punish offences against familial ties.
This isn’t the end of the story of Orestes. Eventually, after years of wandering and suffering, he finally comes to Athens where its patroness, the goddess of wisdom, Athena, intervenes on his behalf. She arranges a rational, civilized trial. And after a fair hearing of all the evidence, all the complicating factors, in acknowledgement of his suffering and his sorrow, Orestes is acquitted. Mercy prevails over revenge; the endless cycle of blood and violence is at an end.
The Furies themselves are changed by the verdict. They become the Eumenides, the Benignant Ones. Protectors of justice.
It’s a nice story, anyway—that vengeance tempered by wisdom can evolve into justice.
Fox Mulder doesn’t believe in vengeance. Not really.
He has always believed in justice. Or wanted to, at least.
But there’s no clamoring host of gods demanding impossible choices from him; no metaphysical glory to be found in violent revenge. He believes in stories and traditions, in human experience passed down through the ages, but he doesn’t believe in gods. (Although he’s more of an agnostic now than the acerbic atheist of the past.)
There’s a twisted thread of Oedipal inversion running through his life: The man attracted to his father’s murderer; the man whose natural father raped his wife.
It’s a flash through him. White hot fury, leaving cold nausea in its wake.
He doesn’t know if he actually believes it. The world is a large and strange place; there are far more probable ways to get pregnant (even if it’s supposedly impossible), and he has the distinct recollection of participating in a fair few of them around the necessary time. The ultimate source of this new and repulsive information is hardly trustworthy. It’s plausible enough to feel it, though, the violation.
She’s tense and silent for awhile. And then she weeps.
He tells her it doesn’t matter, softly, but that’s the wrong thing to say. She shakes her head, shakes all over, and he realizes. It does matter—not in how he feels about her (not in how he feels about their son), but it does. A child born of the improbable, profound love between his parents. Or one who was forcibly created by the same cruel experiment, the same cruel obsession, the same violating violence that created and then summarily disposed of her daughter.
He won’t invalidate her pain or her right to it.
He holds her in his arms, covers her in kisses imbued with all the tenderness and love that he has in him. Tries to soothe her while she heals. Tells her over and over that he loves her, that he’ll always love her, that her children always were and always will be his children.
This is what will help her; he knows this, he does. Not his own self-centered campaign of retaliatory violence.
Fox Mulder doesn’t believe in vengeance. Not really.
But filial duty? Well.
Letting the man live as long as he already has seems to be an unpardonable sin.