In this episode of
Literary Tales we introduce the greatest of the Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, and his magisterial tripartite play: The Oresteia. In covering the Oresteia we provide some background to the Greek literary and cosmological world before Aeschylus and then proceed to see how Aeschylus moves the pathological cosmos of love (from Homer) to include justice.
Pierre-Narcisse Guerin, “The Murder of Agamemnon,” 1817. Clytemnestra, scorned by Agamemnon’s callousness and sacrifice of Iphigenia, was spurred on by her illicit lover Aegisthus (at left) to murder Agamemnon and seize the throne. The murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra sets off a chain of events leading to more murder, exile, but eventual reconciliation and restoration through the intervention of the goddess Athena in Eumenides. The tripartite movement of the Oresteia cycle is considered the classical world’s equivalent to the medieval world’s Divine Comedy by Dante. The cycle starts “in hell” and “death,” proceeds to “exile” and “purgation”, and ends with peace in a new “heaven.”
John Collier, “Clytemnestra,” 1882. Clytemnestra is one of the most famous women of antiquity and a frequent character in Greek tragedies. She is something of an early archetype of the “women scorned.” Feeling betrayed by Agamemnon during his campaign against Troy, Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon (and Cassandra) in revenge for her scorning. She, in turn, is then murdered by Orestes out of his fidelity to the gods (namely, Apollo) and father (Agamemnon). The murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are a window into the psychological traumas of the rite of revenge and moral conscience and the demands for justice, peace, and love.
Jean Francois Ferdinand Lematte, “Orestes and the Furies.”
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “Orestes Pursued by the Furies,” 1862. The most famous painting of the infamous artistry of Orestes being hounded by the Furies after his murder of Clytemnestra. Wrecked by his moral conscience over the murder of his mother, Orestes leaves his ancestral home and ends up journeying to Athens where Athena adjudicates the case between Orestes and the Furies in the grandest metamorphosis and allegory of political mythology and moral judicial legalism in classical literature.
Rembrandt, “Pallas Athene,” 1665. Athena is the adjudicating goddess at the end of the play in the Eumenides. The Furies demand justice, meaning that Orestes must pay for his crime with blood. Athena calms the Furies by claiming that while the ancestral demand of “blood for blood” is understandable, it is not, in actuality, just since it results in further violence. Athena’s intervention breaks the cycle and violence and in ruling in favor of Orestes, Athena links loving fidelity to justice and establishes a new norm of Greek society to follow. The Furies are transformed from vengeance-seeking spirits into beautiful new spirits who sing and dance with Athena; this transformation of the Furies into the Eumenides also ties ancestral desires with the new regime of legal justice. The Court Scene between Athena and the Furies marks the end of blood feuds and the rise of the rule of law. As it was in Homer’s Odyssey, Athena is the goddess of justice and, more importantly, peace. The ending of the Oresteia trilogy, the Eumenides, is also a grand work of political propaganda and mythology implicitly promoting the supposed values and virtues of Athens.