Trial of Orestes at Chicago Museum

By Anthe Mitrakos  

CHICAGO, IL – Following a successful retrial of Socrates before an audience of nearly 1,000, the National Hellenic Museum is this month poised to host the Trial of Orestes, as former prosecutors Patrick Fitzgerald and Patrick Collins once again take on the hearing. Referring to the ancient playwright Aeschylus’s Oresteia, which is comprised of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides, this trilogy demonstrates a deep study of crime and punishment in Greek society. Most notably, the Oresteia presents itself as a testament to the burdens of a culture that imposes the lex talionis model of “an eye for an eye,” serving as a fundamental literary work examining the crucial role of a jury trial and court of law in civilization. Torn between avenging his father’s murder and sparing his mother, the murderess, Orestes, the subject at trial, is drowned and tormented with guilt. Eventually deciding to kill his mother, Orestes is plagued with even more guilt, chased and blamed by the Furies, then tried in court for matricide. “This is the first-known trial in the Western World that seeks to answer the question ‘what is justice?’” Museum Director Connie Mourtoupalas told TNH. “There are attempts in humanity to establish an order that takes you away from the primitive and that is why this case is definitive in much the same way that the trial of Socrates was definitive in establishing the freedom of speech,” she added. In a modern twist to the story, the museum’s panel of distinguished justices this January 29th at the University of Illinois Forum will revisit the story of Orestes in detail, and pass judgment as they did last year for Socrates. New to the bench this year is the Honorable Judge Kocoras, who was instrumental in gathering the esteemed group of prosecutors for last year’s Trial of Socrates. The “unexpected” number of attendees, and the measurable feedback from around the world that followed last year’s event encouraged the museum to host a second trial, this time one based on a mythology. The Trial of Socrates was the center of a lively forum where a jury of Chicago politicians, business leaders, and notable members of the media cast their votes, finding Socrates guilty, but sparing him the death sentence. With the successful turnout of the inaugural event, the Trial Series is here to stay, as the museum plans on making this an annual event. “It’s a very interesting way to engage people in reading these important Greek texts because they ask perennial questions that we can never answer completely in a satisfactory manner,” Mourtoupalas said. THE TRIAL OF ORESTES In Greek mythology, Orestes, was the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and the main character of several ancient plays and texts by Homer, Pindar, Sophocles, Aeschylus (525-456 BC), and Euripides. Born in the doomed house of Atreus known for its long history of violence, and raised away from his father’s kingdom of Mycenae, Orestes suffered many misfortunes in his life. King Agamemnon had sacrificed Orestes’s sister Iphigenia to attain favorable winds from the gods during his army’s voyage to Troy to aid his brother Menelaus in retrieving his beautiful wife Helen. Upon his return, Agamemnon brought home the Trojan Princess Cassandra as his concubine. In retribution for the sacrifice of their daughter, and the adulterous lifestyle he lived, Clytemnestra stabbed Agamemnon to death, with the help of her young lover and nephew Aegisthus. “It’s like Jerry Springer,” said Mourtoupalas, describing the condemned house of Atrius. When Orestes returned, he was burdened with the dilemma of whether he should avenge his father’s death or not, since that meant he had to kill his own mother. For Orestes, this proved to be a double-edged sword, as the gods on one hand expected men to avenge their father, and at the same time, forbade the murder of one’s own mother. Guilt-ridden, Orestes decided to go through with it using the help of his sister Electra, slaying both his mother and her lover. Orestes is eventually hounded down by the Eumenides, also known as the Furies, who were asking the gods to sentence him to death for killing his mother. Under the wing of the Apollo, Orestes received a trial in court, and with the help of Athena who coaxed the Eumenides to abort their plan, was set free and returned to Argos as king. “This case marks humanity’s shift from the law of ‘an eye for an eye,’ to the establishment of the court of higher law in Athens,” Mourtoupalas said. “Athens was a democracy and put order in the unruly and primitive ways of dealing with issues that we face every day,” she added. WHAT TO EXPECT The trial is expected to be a heated debate bringing up several questions and conflicts. An ancient piece, the Oresteia itself probes the irresolvable issues of ethics, conflicts between love and duty, the torments of moral decision-making, and examines the loyalty to one’s religion, society, and family, the nature of justice, and consequences of choices made. Thoughts from Mourtoupalas: “We have to ask: did Clytemnestra really kill Agamemnon because he sacrificed their daughter, or was it because she was power hungry? She didn’t really care about her other daughter, and she had a boyfriend. You can also argue in her favor. Was Clytemnestra an abused woman? She was married into a family with a history of violence and she was humiliated when her husband came home with a concubine. “On the other hand, you may not like Agamemnon because he sacrificed his own daughter, but did he really have a choice? What would you do in a situation where your nation’s fate is at stake? Would you put your family over your country? Maybe Agamemnon as a leader was forced to take these actions. The bottom line is that this kid [Orestes] is faced with an impossible choice. The primitive law of the gods says avenge your father’s death, and on the other hand do not kill your mother. “We have many cases today where we have to ask the same questions. When do you stop listening to God, and when do you take men’s laws into account? Are you going to justify that same argument when today you have people who are suicide bombers or using the excuse or reason to say ‘I had no choice, I had to bomb the World Trade Center because God told me?’ At some point you have to make your own choices. The question is, ‘do you always follow God’s Law, or the laws established by men?’” EVENT DETAILS The honorable judges to be present at the event include Richard A. Posner, Charles P. Kocoras, and William J. Bauer. Serving as counsel for the defense will be Robert A. Clifford, and Dan K. Webb. Serving as counsel for the prosecution will be Patrick J. Fitzgerald, and Patrick M. Collins. The Trial of Orestes will be held January 29th at 6:30 PM at the University of Illinois UIC Forum at 725 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Chicago. A reception will immediately follow the trial. General admission tickets are $100, while student and teacher tickets are $50. Parking will be available on-site for $10. A DVD of the Trial of Socrates will be available for purchase at the National Hellenic Museum at 333 S. Halsted St, in Chicago. To secure tickets to the Trial of Orestes, visit www.nationalhellenicmuseum.org.