Prophetic Deception: The Narrative of the Chariot Race in Sophocles’ Electra

  • Michael Carroll University of St Andrews


Towards the midpoint of Sophocles’ Electra, the Paedagogus uses a speech of eighty-four lines to convince Clytemnestra and Electra that Orestes has met his death while competing in the chariot race at the Pythian games (680-763). Scholars have increasingly recognised that the length and vividness of this false narrative requires explanation; some interpretations focus on the effect of the speech on the two women, while others explore the thematic significance of the events described by the Paedagogus. The central claim of this article is that the narrative symbolically foreshadows what is to happen after Orestes kills Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, though the play itself ends with the latter still alive: the disaster in the fictional chariot race is a sign to the audience that a reversal of fortune lies in store for the real Orestes (and their first thought is likely to be of the pursuit by the Erinyes). The audience have been prepared for this possibility by Orestes’ insistence in the prologue that, though it is considered inauspicious to be spoken of as dead while still alive, in this case he has nothing to fear (59-66). When the Paedagogus later conveys the false news, further clues that point to the ominous import of the narrative include its two-part structure, with initial success in the games followed by disaster, and the intra- and intertextual resonances of the chariot race itself. Prophecy is a major theme of Electra, and in this scene the audience are challenged to identify and interpret an omen which none of the characters are in a position to perceive as such.

Keywords: Sophocles; Electra; Paedagogus; chariot race; omen; prophecy; Erinyes