Zeus has led us on to know, the Helmsman lays it down as law that we must suffer, suffer into truth.
The Oresteia was written by our man Aeschylus during a golden age of Athens. Art and civility began to flourish at this city upon a hill, not long after a set of ravaging wars with the Persian empire. In one sense, the city-state was ancient, but in another, it had become new again.
The tragic playwrights arose from these circumstances. They were men who put on competing shows every Spring during the Festival of Dionysus. Aeschylus was the first of these authors whose work has endured the centuries and The Oresteia is the only surviving trilogy (though still incomplete as it’s missing its fourth satyr play, Proteus, which was meant to lighten the mood after such a heavy piece). What’s lost, we may never know, but what we have in the trilogy is an amazing story of civilization rising from the ashes of barbarism.
This tripartite drama says many things, but on a superficial level:
King Agamemnon of Argos returns home from Troy a hero, ten years after sacrificing his daughter for a successful expedition. His wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, have been awaiting his return, bent on murder. They justify that murder for their own reasons: Clytemnestra seeks justice for her daughter. Aegisthus desires payback for an older, if not more heinous, crime: Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, had tricked Aegisthus’ father into eating the flesh of his own son.
Is it any wonder the house of Atreus had been cursed?
Several years after the king’s death, Orestes, exiled son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, comes back home to mourn his father and seek his own piece of vengeful justice. Collaborating with his sister, Electra, he disguises himself as a traveler with news of Orestes’ death. He is invited in to the palace of Argos where he kills both his mother and Aegisthus.
Even Stevens, right? Of course not.
Now a perpetrator of matricide, a crime long considered wicked, the blood-stained Orestes is plagued by the Furies who hunt him like hounds. He purges himself at Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi, but still, he is not yet free from the spiritual guilt and madness brought on by the Furies.
We begin to wonder, “Will it ever end?”
Finally, Orestes heads to Athena’s temple where he and the Furies plead their cases before the goddess and a jury of wise men. In the end, Orestes is cleared of manslaughter, but of course the Furies are pissed. They seethe and cry out, threatening to unleash their unchecked rage on Athens.
Again, “Will it ever end?”
Thankfully, a necessary evolution takes place. Athena is forced to advance the ways of both Heaven and Earth. She suggests another path: the Mean, temperance. Athena convinces the Furies to focus their energies on the powers of civic justice and by the end of the final play, the Furies become a force for good, the Eumenides (the Kindly Ones).
What a tale, and with so much said about the time and place where it was written. The Oresteia gives us a look at the evolution in which a new Athens stood above a barbarian world, a world which was struggling to release itself from the chains of blood vendettas and destructive tit-for-tats. It’s important to realize The Oresteia doesn’t end with the simple idea of “Right over Might.” Might was instead harnessed, redirected, to ensure Right on a grander scale. The Furies were a raw, earthly power.
To quote a passage from Athena:
“…you are set on the name of justice rather than the act.”
In becoming the Eumenides, they married that raw energy to the potential grace of the Olympian gods. They were no longer blind anger. They were swift and orderly justice which kept the peace, promoting brotherhood over strife.
As I mentioned in my review of The Iliad, mankind hasn’t changed much. The issues facing the Greeks are not much different from those facing us today. Whether Aeschylus’ vision was starry-eyed is up for debate. The play was seen as a celebration of Athens’ union with Argos, an event which would eventually arouse the armies of Sparta and end with them bivouacking in the Parthenon not long after. Maybe Aeschylus was the John Lennon of his day, a dreamer. Whatever the outcomes and motives, The Oresteia records the infancy of modern Western civilization.
Again, Robert Fagles comes through with a compelling translation. The language is rich and the intentions seem to be true to the original text. This one gets another thumbs-up from me.
Fun links to learn more:
- My highly informal, yet somehow highly formal, book notes.
- A recording of The Oresteia being performed. Seeing and hearing really do bring the plays to life.
- Some shirtless guy with a funny hat retelling the tale. Humorous, but pretty accurate.