Orestes, Pylades, and an old slave enter and look toward the palace of Mycenae. The old slave points out that this is the place Orestes has always dreamed of returning to, noting that the palace of Atreus is “rich in blood.” It was here, many years ago, that Orestes’s sister, Electra, gave Orestes over to the old slave’s care after the murder of their father, Agamemnon. The old slave recalls how he raised Orestes as if he were his own son and made sure he knew that he would one day have to avenge Agamemnon’s death.
Revenge is immediately situated as central to the plot and to Greek society, as the old slave has taken it upon himself to instill revenge into Orestes. This passage also introduces the curse that plagues the house of Atreus, Agamemnon’s father and the King of Mycenae, which is a major stronghold in the ancient city of Argos. Sophocles refers to this curse several times throughout the play, and it is represented here by the palace, which is “rich in blood.”
The old slave encourages Orestes and his friend Pylades to put their plan into action now that a new day has dawned, saying that the time for talking is over. Orestes agrees, remarking that the old slave is a strong and loyal compatriot. Then, Orestes tells the old slave and Pylades that he recently when to see the Delphic oracle to find out how he ought to get revenge on the people who murdered his father.
Deception and falsehoods abound in Electra, and so Sophocles often places an emphasis on actions, as words are often untrue. While actions are at times deceptive as well, Sophocles seems to suggest that actions can be trusted far more than mere words. Here, that theme comes up in the old slave insistence that it’s time to act rather than talk.
Orestes explains that the Delphic oracle told him that he would be victorious in revenge through using deceit and trickery. Accordingly, Orestes orders the old slave to enter the palace, because the way his appearance has changed with age will keep the people there from recognizing him. The old slave is to tell those at the palace that he is “a stranger from Phocis” and that Orestes has been killed after falling from a chariot during the Pythian Games.
Orestes interprets the oracle’s prophecy as an order to kill Clytemnestra by using deception, and his confidence in his plan suggests that he believes he’ll be successful in tricking her. This moment is an early indication that deceit will be everywhere in the play, and that none of its characters—even devious ones like Clytemnestra—will be immune to it.
For now, Orestes says, they will “pour libations” onto Agamemnon’s grave, and place lock of hair from Orestes’s own head on it. The bronze urn that they will claim holds Orestes’s ashes is hidden in the bushes nearby. “What harm does it do me / To say I’m dead?” Orestes asks, and then answers his own question by claiming that there’s no reason not to lie if doing so leads to “real salvation and […] a glorious prize.”
Orestes’s question here is rhetorical; Sophocles is actually implying that great harm can come from deceit, even though Orestes says the opposite. Faking one’s own death was incredibly taboo in Greek society and was viewed as a bad omen, so audiences in ancient Greece would have been suspicious of Orestes’s confidence here. Additionally, Orestes’s plan to leave hair at Agamemnon’s grave is an allusion to ancient Greek literature more generally. Locks of hair were a token of mourning during ancient times, and in Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, Orestes knows his sister, Electra, from the locks of hair she places on their father’s grave.
Orestes asks the gods to “welcome [him] home” and make his mission successful, claiming that he’s doing it in the name of justice. He turns to the old slave and tells him to be on his way to the palace. Suddenly, they hear a cry from within the palace. Noting how miserable the voice sounds, the old slave suggests that the person crying out might be Electra and wonders if they should stay and listen to her. But Orestes refuses, saying that they have to do as Apollo orders and start by visiting Agamemnon’s grave.
Because the Delphic oracle is said to speak the words of the god Apollo, Orestes takes the oracle’s prophecy as a direct order from the gods. To Orestes, killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus is morally right and just, and since revenge was ordered by Apollo, Orestes considers it obligatory as well. Similarly, Electra will later claim that Agamemnon considered Iphigenia’s sacrifice “compulsory” as well, which, Electra argues, therefore makes Iphigenia’s murder just. This scene begins Sophocles’s exploration of the way that revenge, though considered normal and even moral in this context, often leads only to more unnecessary death.