The Woes of Revenge: ‘Orestes Pursued by the Furies’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
April 18, 2021 Updated: April 18, 2021

We sometimes come across people in our lives who cause us pain. It can be tempting to want to make them pay for the pain they cause us, but William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” may provide visual insight as to why it’s better to forgive.

The Vengeance of Orestes

In Greek legend, Orestes was the son of King Agamemnon, who is best known as a military leader who guided the Greeks during their war with the Trojans.

After being exiled to Sparta by Aegisthus, Agamemnon married Clytemnestra with whom he had three daughters and a son, Orestes. 

Agamemnon, however, angered the goddess Artemis when he killed one of her sacred deer and claimed to be a better hunter than she was. 

To appease Artemis, he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. Some versions of the story state that Artemis saved Iphigenia at the last moment by replacing her with a deer. Other versions state that Agamemnon brutally sacrificed his daughter, who was still a child.

In sacrificing his daughter, Agamemnon provoked the hatred of his wife. Thus, while he was off fighting the Trojans, Clytemnestra had an affair with the very man who had exiled him, Aegisthus. Together, the lovers conspired to kill Agamemnon when he returned.

When Agamemnon returned home after defeating the Trojans, his wife and her lover carried out their brutal plan. Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, a child at the time, vowed to avenge his father’s death and kill his mother and Aegisthus. 

After eight years, Orestes, now an adult, took his revenge and killed them both. For the crime of matricide, Orestes was haunted by the Furies, who were goddesses from the underworld and haunted people for their wickedness. 

The Furies came in threes, and were often named Unceasing Anger, Avenger of Murder, and Jealousy. Orestes would spend the next part of his life trying to free himself from their wrath.

“Orestes Pursued by the Furies,” 1862, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Oil on Canvas, 91 inches by 109 ⅝ inches. Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Va. (Public Domain)
“Orestes Pursued by the Furies,” 1862, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Oil on canvas, 91 inches by 109 ⅝ inches. Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Va. (Public Domain)

Orestes Suffers for His Vengeance

The 19th-century, French Academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau skillfully painted the moment that Orestes stabs his mother, and the Furies instantly come to haunt him.

The focal point is Orestes, who is painted in a field of darkness in front of the other figures. He wears a white cloth that partially covers him. His facial expression is one of anguish, and he puts his hands to his ears to try to stop the Furies from causing him any more pain.

The three Furies are behind Orestes. They are identified by the lifeless color of their skin, the snakes in their hair, and the anger on their faces as they taunt Orestes. The Fury to the right holds a torch in her hand, while the Fury immediately to her left holds a snake in hers.

The Fury to the far left, however, supports Orestes’s dying mother with one arm. All three Furies point at the knife lodged in Clytemnestra’s chest. Even Clytemnestra uses the strength she has left to reach her hands toward the knife. With so many hands pointing toward the knife, it becomes a secondary focal point.

Avoiding the Wrath of the Furies

Let’s take a close look at this painting to see what moral lessons we might derive from it.

Bouguereau depicted Orestes in the middle of the painting surrounded by the Furies and the darkness of his deed. He’s fulfilled the revenge he sought on his mother by taking her life. His success, however, brings him no joy; it instead brings him more pain.

Sometimes, revenge seems like the only course of action when we feel we’ve been wronged. We want revenge because we think it will make right the suffering we’ve endured. We want to cause pain to those who caused us pain in the hope that we will feel better afterward and that justice will be served. 

But revenge does not make Orestes feel better; he feels worse. He tries to cover his ears to stop the Furies, and his body is positioned in such a way as to suggest that he wants to run from the pain. 

But Orestes is unable to escape because the Furies are goddesses from the underworld. As goddesses, their power exists in their ability to spiritually haunt him wherever he goes. 

That is, Orestes will be unable to avoid the pain no matter how he tries because he now suffers spiritual pain for taking revenge. Pointing at the knife and shrieking at Orestes, the Furies serve as a constant reminder of his deed, a deed that heightened his suffering instead of alleviating it.

Is it the case that seeking revenge only causes us more suffering? Does it ever really bring any satisfaction that makes it a worthwhile endeavor? 

Could Orestes have approached this situation in a way that resolved the issues he had with his mother and prevented him from having to endure the wrath of the Furies? What could Orestes have done that potentially would have alleviated suffering instead of causing it?

Is forgiveness a better course of action? Both Clytemnestra and Orestes sought revenge because of their suffering, yet their revenge only begot more suffering. Would forgiveness have prevented all the pain caused by both Clytemnestra and Orestes, a pain that they both caused themselves by way of their acts? 

A Broader Perspective

Outside of revenge, I find another layer of interpretation when I look at this painting as separate from the myth. 

Orestes is the young man representing a new generation, with its own thoughts and beliefs. Clytemnestra, as Orestes’s mother, represents the older generation which has its thoughts, beliefs, and traditions. From this viewpoint, Orestes’s act is one of destroying tradition in favor of a new way of thinking: Out with the old and in with new. 

Orestes’s unwillingness to learn from the past and build from it causes suffering he wasn’t able to foretell. The Furies represent the resulting pain that occurs in society when tradition is wholly destroyed for the novelty of youth.  

Even if traditions contain within them unhealthy thoughts and beliefs, destroying them completely only furthers the unhealthy practice of destruction itself. Unwilling to learn from the past, Orestes risks bringing the most dangerous elements of the past into the future.

Is there a way that the generations can work together to learn from and build upon positive traditions rather than resist them? Is it possible to build cultures and traditions around forgiveness so that we may potentially avoid the wrath of the Furies?

The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).