The Oresteia is a monument to the advent of law and order over primitive cycles of vengeance. The three-play cycle (the only complete Greek trilogy we have) was first performed at the Dionysia festival in Athens in 458 BCE and won first prize. It was understandably a crowd pleaser, as it celebrates the recently established democratic institutions of Athens and the development of civilized order out of ferocious chthonic nature, represented here as the younger generation killing the older, but also as the formation of a patriarchal society and the divine sanctioning of an act of matricide. It remains a work of uncanny power and terrifying intensity.
After the Trojan War, the victorious king Agamemnon returns home to Argos. He and his men have been through hell, but among the victory celebrations he is apprehensive about giving in to the thrill of victory, fearing hubris, that paramount Greek flaw. Aeschylus reminds us repeatedly that this war turned the world upside down and destroyed many lives simply to reclaim unfaithful Helen; there would be something inappropriate about crowing over an abattoir. In contrast to the Iliad, where Agamemnon’s pissing contest with Achilles nearly destroys the Greek army, here he is subdued and even timid, reluctant to enter his own palace with his loving wife Clytemnestra.
His humility is, no doubt, caused in part by the public knowledge that Agamemnon took the life of his own daughter Iphigenia. Caught in a storm that threatened to wreck the fleet, he took the advice of religious prophets and sacrificed his daughter to appease the gods. Facing an impossible choice, he picked poorly and now bears the guilt; Voltaire, memorably, saw Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia as a model example of the damage caused by religious superstition.
Agamemnon also has foreboding thoughts about entering the palace. The prophetess Cassandra, who he has brought with him as a concubine, is certainly terrified, although cursed by Apollo to never be taken seriously. We the audience know, as did the Greek audience, that Clytemnestra has taken a lover in his absence and will kill both Agamemnon and Cassandra. In fairness, he did kill her daughter. But Clytemnestra, who tries to lure Agamemnon to hubris in entering the palace, is driven to something like hubris by her grief; vengeance akin to madness. Note that Cassandra is given divine sight by suffering and wisdom; suffering without wisdom is implacable and can create monsters. Herotodus tells us in his Histories that, “all excess in revenge draws down upon men the anger of the gods.” As Clytemnestra crows over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, we sense that her “masculine cruelty” has perpetuated a cycle of vengeance into the future.
Choephoroi (The Libation Bearers)
Vengeance begets vengeance. Here, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, returns to Argos to avenge his father’s murder by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. He has been blessed in this mission by Apollo, whose presence hangs over this play as much the previous one. Nietzsche described the “Apollonian” as clean, neat lines; as clarity and order; he would sense the irony in Apollo as the hero of the play that won at the Dionysia. I take Apollo here as Athenian law and order asserting itself over the more barbarous old gods, “justice” as opposed to “revenge”.
In this case, Orestes is killing his mother; but he’s also trying to escape his fate by cutting his bloodline. The house of Atreus is cursed. The patriarch Atreus cruelly served Aegisthus’s father Thyestus his (other) children at a banquet of the cruel king Atreus. Now, Clytemnestra has killed Agamemnon and lives with Aegisthus, his cousin. Her’s will be the third murder and hopefully right the house and exorcise the Furies, the daemonic earth spirits that haunt the house, associated with sparagmos: ritual dismemberment, and brought forth by the pollution of a violent death. This is something quite like a disease passed from parent to child. In a sense, Orestes is cutting the disease out of himself.
The idea of bloodline curses seems unnecessarily cruel now. It’s hard not to wonder if Oedipus, for instance, deserved anything he got. But, in a world in which the cruel and oppressive often lived quite well, the bloodline curse gives a sense of retributive justice; eventually, one of your line, if not many of them, will pay for your misdeeds. Orestes is the vehicle of the avenging spirits unleashed by violent death, often portrayed in early Greek myth as snakes slithering up from beneath the ground after burial, an image evoked here by Clytemnestra’s dream of giving birth to and suckling a viper; the angry spirit tied to her avenging son.
The Libation Bearers, in fact, seems very close to the sort of religious rituals that Greek drama developed out of. The murder of Clytemnestra, in which Orestes is “possessed” by Agamemnon and driven onwards by the chanting of the Chorus, plays as a blood sacrifice, atoning for one murder with another. The play hurtles inevitably to its conclusion- a double murder. This bloody ritual that begins the establishment of the Athenian order. Nevertheless, at the end of the ritual, Orestes has committed matricide and must go, literally, underground.
From religious ritual to courtroom drama, the trilogy comes to a close. Orestes has fled to Apollo’s temple. The vengeful chorus of female Furies (the Erinyes) pursues him in vengeance for Clytemnestra’s death, crying “Flesh is the food of the earth’s justice.” They argue that Clytemnestra’s murder was not an offense because it was not between blood kin. Besides, she has certainly paid for her offense. But her murder has not been avenged. They represent the bloody old laws of kith and kin.
Apollo instead argues that the marriage contract is the most sacred agreement between men. Orestes was sanctioned in his murder and has been cleansed with the blood of sacrificial animals at the temple of Apollo. Justice has thus been served. These are two different visions of justice: the Furies as vengeful earth demons, Apollo as a sky god of rational justice and prophetic truth. The older, barbaric world is imagined here as ruled by hideous and vengeful females.
Athena is called to settle the score. She decides to let a jury of twelve Athenians decide the matter. Here, the play depicts the founding of the Athenian legal system. From this time forth, juries will decide all homicides in the city. From the Furies to Athena, we go from the vendetta to legal justice. According to Athena, the fear of the law will establish the social order. Now men will be given the authority to translate the laws of heaven into the order of society. Aeschylus understands this as the replacement of brute force with reasoned persuasion, and the play is downright triumphalist in its exultation of the new Athenian order. Aeschylus has been described as a “progressive”; for him, this new Athenian innovation is the founding of a higher form of human civilization, a “dawn glow in the East”. The march of civilization leads onwards and upwards. Step with us now, into the future! Remember that this generation fought off the Persian invaders not so long ago.
But, the jury comes to a tie. To break the deadlock, Athena votes for Orestes, in support of the prerogative of the father. Put simply, the murder of a father and husband is a greater offense than the murder of a wife and mother; by Aeschylus’s reckoning, the Goddess of Divine Wisdom casts the deciding vote for patriarchy. The Furies are furious; but Athena talks them down by promising that the old gods will be honored in the new Athenian society, which will be the envy of the world. The play ends with the sort of chest-beating boosterism that some would argue we need more of today.
How to understand this outcome? Luce Irigaray has argued that Western Civilization is founded by a matricide. Camille Paglia describes the Oresteia as revealing the misogyny at the founding of Athenian civilization. The truth is, as always, more complex than this. I sympathize with “Jaybird’s” unease towards simplistic cliches about “how awful ancient men treated ancient women”. Certainly, Aeschylus is not simply mouthing the consensus view; Euripides, for one, comes to very different conclusions on similar topics.
And yet, I also think it would also be a mistake to see Athens as more utopian or egalitarian than it really was; after all, no women acted in the 458 production and none would have been allowed to sit in the audience. And, indeed, I think at least one Athenian- Aeschylus- really does understand “progress” as the replacement of irrational feminine fury with judicious patriarchal rationality.
1. The Penguin Classics edition of the Oresteia is quite good- I like the Robert Fagles translation. My favorite edition, however, is the Ted Hughes translation, which truly brings out the great poetic strength of the plays.