When Orestes concocts an elaborate story to fake his death in order to sneak into the palace in Mycenae and kill his mother, Clytemnestra, he claims his “charred remains” are contained in a bronze urn. The bronze urn thus symbolizes death within Sophocles’s Electra, but it is also symbolic of Orestes’s deceit and the harm it causes others. The old slave goes to the palace and tells Clytemnestra that Orestes has been killed in a chariot accident during the Pythian Games, and Orestes later approaches Electra with the urn. As Orestes is a grown man and Electra has not seen him since he was an infant, she doesn’t readily recognize him, and she has no reason to believe that her brother is not actually dead. When Electra believes Orestes to be dead, she mourns him just as fiercely as she does their father, Agamemnon, and this new loss only serves to compound her already crippling grief. She cradles the urn and wails for her lost brother, all the while standing right in front of him. For Electra, Orestes’s deceit causes considerable pain. Lying about one’s death was viewed as a bad omen during ancient times, and that indeed proves to be the case in Electra. Orestes’s deceit enables him to kill his mother, and the urn is a prominent symbol in that act as well: he sneaks up on her unaware as she is “dressing the urn.” Ironically, Orestes murders his mother as she is preparing the urn to begin officially mourning him, which also underscores Sophocles’s primary argument that people can be deceitful under any circumstance and it may be wiser not to trust anyone.
The timeline below shows where the symbol The Bronze Urn appears in Electra. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
...to know what’s going on inside. Electra tells the women that Clytemnestra is “dressing the urn,” and Orestes and the others are nearby. The women wonder why Electra has come outside,... (full context)