Home » Greek and Roman Mythology » Aeschylus’s trilogy, The Oresteia

Aeschylus’s trilogy, The Oresteia

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The two course that I am doing on Ancient Greek follow the same readings at the moment. I have known the tales of the Greek gods through legend and film for many years but never really studied them. I am finding it fascinating. What is especially interesting is how all the stories that we have now were so dispersed in ancient times. The stories weren’t complete when they were told or performed and it is only through reading these different texts that the whole story, the whole picture emerges.

Here I continue my notes on Peter Struck’s lectures on Greek and Roman Mythology.

Introducing Agamemnon.


Agamemnon arrives with Cassandra Credit:4.bp

The Agamemnon is one of those tragedies with this very compressed action. His story is quite straight-forward and relatively easy to tell. In the opening scene there’s a watchman sitting on a roof, and wondering what’s about to happen. He’s trying to see a beacon, a beacon set on a mountain that’s as far away from Argos as this watchman is able to see. The mountain has a fire and is as far away from another mountain top as a person is able to see sitting on that mountain top, and so on, and so forth. These mountain tops lead all the way back to Troy. When Troy was burning, the first man stationed at the signal fire, light a fire on his mountain and so on, all the way around the Agean Sea, until the fire from Troy literally leaked out and came over to Argos, to Mycenae, Agamemnon’s home town. The fire from Troy came and visited them. This technology of a signal beacon was really extraordinary. Clytaemnestra got word right away that her husband had conquered Troy. Looking out for that signal if you were operating from an Odysseus and Penelope stand point, would be a hope to find out when their loved one was be home so they could have a nice reunion. Indeed the words that Clytemnestra uses suggest that she is planning a warm reunion.

“So now why should you rehearse to me the account at length? From the king himself I shall hear the whole tale; [600] but I should hasten to welcome my honored husband best on his return. For what joy is sweeter in a woman’s eyes than to unbar the gates for her husband when God has spared him to return from war? Give this message to my husband: [605] let him come with all speed, his country’s fond desire, come to find at home his wife faithful, even as he left her, a watchdog of his house, loyal to him, a foe to those who wish him ill; yes, for the rest, unchanged in every part; [610] in all this length of time never having broken any seal. Of pleasure from any other man or of scandalous repute I know no more than of dyeing bronze.”

credit ; athenadr.wordpress.com

But Clytemnestra wants to find out when her loved one is coming home because she set up things to kill him. That extra technology of the beacon signal is being used to work out her internal nastiness that works in this family. After some toing and froing Clytemnestra appears and she has back and forth with the chorus, talking to them about what’s been going on. The herald then appears and has a back and forth with the chorus as we are getting ready to see Agamemnon come and then, boom, Agamemnon arrives right near the beginning of the play. Agamemnon arrives, and we have a long back and forth discussion between Agamemnon and his wife, Clytemnestra. Their greeting is a far cry from a warm welcome after ten years. It’s a back and forth verbal test of wills, not openly, but they’re subtly taking each other’s measure, such that Clytemnestra is making sure that she’ll be able to kill him. Agamemnon is trying to make his way into his own house again and figure out where things stand, not very clever. Agamemnon is not held up in the mythical Greek myth as being a clever man. He’s an extremely strong man, but he’s brutish. Another indicator of that, he comes back with his prize from wartime, his concubine new wife, Cassandra he rides in with her on a chariot with his retinue.

Ajax taking Cassandra (Credit : Wikimedia)

Having multiple sexual dalliances, as we know from Odysseus, just happens and Greek men exonerated themselves from thinking of that as a bad thing. But, there clearly is a line that Agamemnon crossed here. He’s being a bit brutish about it, and rubbing it in Clytemnestra’s face, he was not subtle. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have this verbal battle then, Agamemnon takes the invitation to trample on the Crimson path that she has prepared. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra disappear behind the door. Cassandra is then is invited in. Clytemnestra comes back out and says,

“Get inside, you too, Cassandra; since not unkindly has Zeus appointed you to share the holy water of a house where you may take your stand, with many another slave, at the altar of the god who guards its wealth. Get down from the car and do not be too proud; [1040] for even Alcmene’s son2, men say, once endured to be sold and eat the bread of slavery. But if such fortune should of necessity fall to the lot of any, there is good cause for thankfulness in having masters of ancient wealth; for they who, beyond their hope, have reaped a rich harvest of possessions, [1045] are cruel to their slaves in every way, even exceeding due measure. You have from us such usage as custom warrants. »

Cassandra has a long slow march toward the door, and as she’s doing it, she prophesies her own death. She has some intuition and an apparition of what will happen behind that door, and it involves her, and it’s very ugly. She wails to Apollo. Then, awful things happen behind the door, we hear of what is happening through Cassandra. We hear Agamemnon cry out that he is struck.

Aegisthus comes out and we have a back and forth with the chorus as we try to figure out what just happened and how we’re supposed to value that. It’s a complex situation. This scene is famous, depicted in lots of different representations graphically. It’s something that Greeks clearly spent some time thinking about it, arresting the imagination.

credit ; zoom.mfa.org

The story of Agamemnon here is emerging from his bath. You can see he still has his robes around him. This image again picks up the theme of cleansing which when attempted in Agamemnon’s family line turns into a murder; a bath becomes a blood bath. Aegisthus then thrusts the sword into him.

Credit ; zoom.mfa.org

This bowl has a whole series of vignettes, aspects of the story of Agamemnon’s house, all in a giant circle. At one piece, we have Aegisthus taking out Agamemnon. Clytemnestra is nearby and here she’s carrying her double ax, while she’s aiming her double axe at her own son who’s involved in killing her with the daughter Electra nearby. The sons, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, all of them are just on top of each other. The sparse action of this particular part of the story in the Agamemnon leads us to this one, a very dense close up look at one part of the story: Agamemnon’s killing. It helps us to look forward to the nasty things that happen later in the Oresteia, and backward to the things that led up to this, including the story of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia.

Agamemnon Themes

As the story unfolds there are a lot of themes to tie into. The story has sparseness of plot and in terms of the set decoration and the presentation in antiquity. There’s also sparseness in terms of the thematic elements. There are a few really important themes that are worked and re-worked in lots of different guises to help us unfold the details about what’s behind our story.

Nets and webs.

There are a lot of references in the story to nets and webs, contrasting with Homer’s Odyssey, where Penelope, was weaving and un-weaving, that action thematically fitted into the larger story. Penelope was staling people that were trying to break into her connection with Odysseus, using the weaving and un-weaving as a way of keeping people away. Nets, such as they appear in this story are nets that trap those nearby you. The nets, webs, entanglements, all these interweaving’s. In the Odyssey, the closeness of interweaving was a symbol of connection. Both Odysseus and Penelope together were plot weavers. Here, the plots and connection and ‘nettedness’ is a sign of too much closeness, nasty closeness, actual violence that gets brought between the groups.

The Crimson Tapestry itself is a prominent example of the theme, theme of ‘nettedness’ and knots that gets turned into a net. Clytemnestra asks Agamemnon to step onto the beautiful cloth that she had woven for his return. The scene is quite loaded with bitterness. Clytemnestra invites Agamemnon to step on the tapestry and comments to her assistants as if to say that he is just the person who would trample over such a fine thing. It’s as though she has been carefully nurturing her own bitterness over the years, as she’s weaving this thing thinking, oh, I bet he’ll step on it, I bet he’ll step on it, I bet he’ll step on it. Indeed he does, he steps off his chariot and steps on it, and this reinforces her idea of what a clod he is and how he does trample on fine things.

Credit ;screenplaystv.files.wordpress.com

The color of this tapestry is not coincidental; the deep rich purple dye that colors it is a color that has a connection with blood, that’s clear and obvious in our story. It also, which might not be obvious a close connection with royalty. The color purple was very hard to get. It came from seashells off on the far eastern side of the Mediterranean. Huge numbers of seashells were required to make small bits of this dye so purple was associated with royalty from quite far back. To have an exotic beautiful tapestry here, died purple makes it even more valuable and also interestingly, more a sign of Agamemnon’s grandeur. He’s being invited basically to trample on and muck up his own grandeur. The closeness that gets shown up in these connections with ‘nettedness’ and the crimson path, all these show the dark side of intimacy.

Closeness can become inward turning and nasty; not supportive and mutually beneficial. We have references to nets that are all over the place as represented by these line numbers. There’s a fishing net, Cassandra talks about herself as fenced in by fatal nets, there is mention of a spiders web and talk of cords of justice. Aeschylus seems to be going out of his way, to use imagery of ‘cordedness’ and of ‘nettedness’ to talk about lots of different things in this story.

Secrecy and medicine

pharmakon-by-michael-rinella (credit :psypressuk.com)

In the Odyssey secrecy had a way of creating intimacy. There were secrets that were kept between people, away from other people, and help them maintain a connection. Here, the secrecy is working to produce connections that are not being authorized by the normal course of events. Agamemnon is outside the secrets that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus hold; he doesn’t know what’s happening. The secrecy becomes a divisive instrument not a connecting instrument. There is an example of this in the fire beacon at the beginning, everyone understands that. When Agamemnon shows up, he doesn’t necessarily know that there was a signal to announce his arrival ahead of time so that his wife can now betray him. The meaning of that signal is not at all clear to anyone else except Clytaemnestra.

Then is a set of meditations on the theme of medicine and drugs. In Greek, the term ‘pharmakon’, interestingly indicates a drug. Like the English, it has ambivalence to it. It could mean poison, in the sense of a drug that drugs a person to death, it could also, mean a cure, a drug in the sense of a medicine. The term ‘pharmakon’ shows up in this double sensed way in the story. Here are some examples.

Agamemnon  Where all goes well, we must take counsel so that it may long endure; but whenever there is need of healing remedy, we will by kind appliance of cautery or the knife [850] endeavor to avert the mischief of the disease.

Cassandra– This two-footed lioness, who mates with a wolf in the absence of the noble lion, [1260] will slay me, miserable as I am. Brewing as it were a drug, she vows that with her wrath she will mix requital for me too, while she whets her sword against her husband, to take murderous vengeance for bringing me here.

Cassandra tells us that there’s no God of healing, as she’s making her final walk into the into Clytemnestra’s palace.. It’s not possible to find healing here. Again, as she’s walking in, “Clytemnestra intends to shred me in a bowl.” This might not sound like an obvious connection to medicine, but in antiquity this was the normal way that drugs were delivered. Roots or other herbs would be shred into a bowl and mixed to make a potion. It would have been a clear and direct reference to medicine. Clytemnestra is making this death into a medicine to exorcise her own guilt. At each turn in the development of the story, another generation treats what they need to do as a medicine that’s the cure for the nastiness that’s in this family.

Sacrifice of Iphigenea Credit : Library.thinkquest.org

When Agamemnon is out on his awful campaign and is lead, we find out by the Choral Ode, is led to this terrible event of having to kill his own daughter, Iphigenia. He’s told he must kill Iphigenia for the winds to get corrected and he does it. The killing of Iphigenia is referred to as a ‘pharmakon’. As if she cures things in this story, she heals the winds and fixes everything, the journey can start and the war launched, but no, she’s not a cure, she is actually a poison. When she is killed, this event is what’s absolutely poison to Agememnon’s household. Clytemnestra turns this against him which she obviously has every right to do.


Agamemnon makes contact with a lot of themes of purification. This harkens back to some of the events from earlier in the tale of The House of Atreus, but definitely brought home here in Aeschylus’s version of the story. Clytemnestra wants Agamemnon to come into the house and she suggests a bath to purify, to clean him of all the nasty stuff that went on in the war. This bath becomes a blood bath.

That purification actually lead to pollution and is at yet another addition to our string of themes in which something thing is meant to cure or purify or fix things, also has the unintended side effect of undoing things, making them impure making them diseased.

Nets that are supposed to keep us together drive us apart. Secrecy that’s supposed to create intimacy actually creates wedges between us. The Agamemnon shows the inversion of a lot of, very common themes of connection. We get to see the utter and complete nastiness the dark side of intimacy. In this way, it’s a mirror of what we saw with Odysseus and Penelope where we saw the good sides of intimacy; here we get to see all the dark sides of it.

Ideas of Justice


The theme of justice entered into in The Agamemnon and the problems bouncing back and forth inside of Agamemnon’s family tree in the House of Atreus. We have prior past generations that have committed horrible crimes that require revenge, but that revenge itself spurs further retribution. There is a curse or evil that’s stuck in the family tree with no obvious way to be free of it.

To see how justice can be achieved we need to look at some Greek concepts circling around the idea of justice. This becomes especially apparent when we compare how Homer treated the story of Orestes with how Aeschylus treats the story of Orestes. Homer used justice as a way to help nudge Telemachus into action. Saying, listen, even when things are really tough and you have to take revenge against your own mother, Orestes, in this case, it’s time for action. It is treated very different with Aeschylus. Instead, what we have this awful thing that’s happening to this family. The story that courses around Orestes in The Agamemnon is the first installment… The second part of his story is in the Libation Bearers  and the final installment the Eumenides or the Furies. In all these three plays, ideas of justice are what is at the center.

Orestes is faced with this incredibly difficult problem of trying to right the wrongs that are in his family without perpetuating the cycle of revenge that’s built into this set of events. The problem of justice here is a knotty one. It’s famously difficult of how to unravel the problem in the house of Atreus without committing more crimes and provoke even more retribution. It is incumbent upon Orestes to kill his father’s murderer. That would be widely understood in antiquity. If family members just decided not to avenge that, it would not only be sad, but a great source of shame for the family. Orestes is forced into a position of taking revenge against his father’s murder. But what happens when the act of revenge is itself a crime against the family? Orestes has to kill his own mother to try avenge the murder of his father.

There are a couple of different ways to think about Justice. The balance is often thought to be core. On the one side of the scales of justice there is a gavel indicating regular courtroom justice. On the other side there is a gun, taking justice into your own hands. For the Greeks at that time it might be possible to take this sort of thing to a tribunal or a court. This story actually moves toward a concept of justice that more recognizable from the modern frame than the one we’ve been talking about up till’ now.

Another really important ancient concept relevant to this story is ‘miasma’, an outsized and hugely important concept in this story. Miasma is a Greek term that means a cloud of pollution, and a miasma would hover around a corpse. Someone that was killed, someone who had a violent death, their corpse would be surrounded by this cloud of nasty of toxic stuff. If someone was responsible for that killing, they would have this miasma stuck on them, they would be impure. The guilt would stick to them like a stain and it would be very clear who it was that committed the crime. Because they have that nastiness on them, they are indeed guilty and subject to retribution and punishment.

Someone who had nothing to do with the murder, but just happens by that corpse and comes in contact with the cloud of miasma that surrounds it, and they get stained by it. A person who had even a part of a stain on them would now become subject to retribution and subject to revenge even though they hadn’t done anything. The Greeks imagined that this revenge was triggered by elemental forces, with physical manifestations built into the environment around us. For the cases of murder, those forces would lead toward retribution that was clearly built into the actions that the person had taken. But, for someone who just happened across it and guiltlessly ran into a polluted corpse, revenge would also be visited upon them, and they would suffer greatly. It wouldn’t be clear what actions they had done to provoke this.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon
Picture credit : Wesleyan.edu

The concept of miasma doesn’t equate to ideas of justice. It gives us background to try to think about how they imagined justice might take place. The theory that surrounds miasma gives us a window into how people make explanations when bad things start happening to good people. Those of us who think that you get just desserts, those who commit crimes get punished for those crimes, imagine that if they’re getting punished, there’s probably good reason, they probably committed a crime and now bad things are happen to them. The Greeks have a very different central notion. If someone’s getting punished, it means that they have pollution. That pollution always raises the possibility that, they were engaged in some nasty action, and therefore were polluted, because they touched a corpse, but it also raises the possibility that someone, through no fault of their own, just happened by there and got polluted. They’re having revenge acted against them even though they didn’t deserve it. The Greek concept of miasma builds in just retribution as well as retribution that don’t seem very just. It’s part and parcel of how they understand all of revenge. It’s connected to this nasty pollution that gets visited upon people. All the things that get connected with miasma: evil, guilt, stain, pollution, similarly, also toxic-ness; drugs that might kill you, in other words, some awfulness that could be visited upon your inability to wash out a stain, attempts at purification that don’t get worked out. All these are coursing around themes that are anchored to this Greek idea of miasma. Agamemnon is working with a sense of justice that’s built around ideas of revenge. Miasma built into the blood, and all these things connect together through this concept.

As Aeschylus wrote this he portrayed an idea of justice that would have been anchored in ancient mythic times. At that time there were other ideas of justice starting to come around that, weren’t necessarily just based on personal familial revenge anchored around this concept of miasma and floating guilt that might be connected to someone who deserves it and someone who doesn’t.

There is a connection to blood in this concept. The blood of the corpse causes an awful stench around it, and that stench can cling to people. It has an elemental, tactile feel to it marking when ‘just desserts’ are visited upon someone even when unjust. Pollution here is anchored to a notion of blood. Blood as with blood ties within families, an idea of a connection between people that can be supportive, when family can be that way but can also be quite nasty. When the blood itself becomes polluted and diseased, then inside the family, a polluted miasma of disease is being sent down from generation to generation. Just as they share blood, they also share this pollution. Aeschylus presents a completely different idea of justice that’s based on some brand new concepts that are emerging in the classical period. It helps us solve what in mythic times classical Greeks found to be a very hard thing to solve. It’s a knotty problem in the family of the House of Atreus. The solution will be revealed in one of Aeschylus’s theories a play called Humanities.

Libation Bearers

Aeschylus’s Agamemnon is the first in a sequence of three plays that survives in entirety from antiquity. Tragedies in antiquity came in groups of three. You would go and watch a trilogy being performed, and there would be plays in the beginning and end of that in different genres. But the tragedy itself came in three parts. Of the pieces that survive, only one of them has all three parts in place and this is the Oresteia. Libation Bearers is the middle of the three pieces.

In the center of the story Orestes takes action. He moves into this place that leaves him in the sad state that he’s in at the beginning of the last play of the trilogy. In The Libation Bearers, we have this new generation of Orestes and Electra that are infected by this miasma. There is a nasty curse that is stuck inside this family and what’s happen to it. At each turn, people engaged in the action try to make the curse go away.

Clytemnestra thought that by doing away with her husband, justice was now done and the end was here, and we finally had done right by the world. But things get a little bit ugly, she faces retribution from her own son, Orestes.

Picture credit : Wesleyan.edu

We see here a beautiful depiction on a piece of the ancient pottery with Orestes and Electra on either side of the pillar. They are representing the tomb of their father, and Orestes’ friend, Pylades next to him. The three of them are engaged in the action that winds up in Clytemnestra’s death. The play is again sparse and spare in its action, as are all these ancient tragedies. Orestes returns to Argos, he and Electra get together and decide to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Orestes and Electra conduct what is basically a séance, they go to their father’s grave, and they pour over libations and pray to earthly powers. The large forces that are percolating underneath the earth, including the earth itself, these powers are something that in the long scheme of understanding where the Greek world comes from.

As we know from reading Hesiod, these are powers that were defeated by Zeus and buried underground and under his control. Yet humans when they need extra help, when they are in terrible situations that they can’t solve themselves, they appeal to these buried chthonic powers to try to gain purchase on their situation that they otherwise couldn’t get by appealing to the gods of the daytime. Orestes and Electra are in a desperate situation and appeal to the earthly powers. They then pray to Agamemnon’s shade, and different early divinities that we saw mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony. They want permission to carry out these murders. They basically get it, they’re authorized to do this which sends them, then off into the terrible set of actions.

Orestes and his friend Pylades disguised themselves as foreigners. They then kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, but not before Orestes and Clytemnestra have a long, drawn out face to face. Clytemnestra is good at verbal tests of will. We saw her do that in the Agamemnon. She does that with her son when he is about to kill her, and telling her why it’s okay that he is about to kill her. She argues the point and they have a long, drawn out test of face to face argument and battle. Orestes then drags her behind the door, we know things happen back there, kills her, we spring the door open, see that she’s dead. Orestes reappears and he’s happy at this stage at the end of The Libation Bearers, that everything’s finally over.

The Furies

He has now exacted revenge for his father’s murder and everything is okay. But, we would probably by now surmise, that’s not the case. Up pops a new breed of nasty divinities, things called the Furies. The Furies play a critical part of the next part of the story. They start to swoop around, and now that Orestes has blood-guilt on his hands, they come after him. We see them hovering around in the background. They’re agents of justice in this older order of things based on blood. We saw a mention of The Furies in Hesiod’s Theogony. There’s a connection with the severed genitals of The Sky after Cronus cuts off Sky’s genitals, he tossed them into the sea and from there, Aphrodite rose up. From the drops of blood that drip into the earth, nasty things came out including these Furies. They were born from the drips of blood of the severed genitals of the Sky. This background, tied to blood and to awful, internal family crimes, really helps specify what they are all about in the story, and the role that they’re playing in The Oresteia. They’re like blood scenting hounds, they pursue a criminal as long as they smell blood-guilt on that person’s hands, and they pursue the criminal relentlessly. There are no exceptions to the rules, no room for persuasion, the punishment is fixed.

In The Eumenides, the last in the trilogy Aeschylus turns from this older order of justice, based on revenge, blood-guilt, the Furies as enforcers, he turns from that to a new totally different idea of justice.

Introduction to the Eumenides

The Furies (Credit : anotheramerica.org)

In The Humanities we see the aftermath of Orestes’ action; killing his mother and her lover and trying to bring justice to his family by the old order of things.

In Homer the story was portrayed differently, Homer held up Orestes as example of a young man that takes action even, when it is difficult. He does that, but the focus that Aeschylus gives to the story is something quite different. We can’t embrace Orestes and say we should all be like that watching Aeshcylus’ play. It is a more awful, savage situation to be in.

Orestes, at the very beginning of the play as, we meet him is hugging the omphalos. He’s stuck there at Delphi trying to attach himself to it to make sure that he has some protection. That hugging of the omphalos is in connection with what we saw earlier in Homer’s story, that getting hold of someone’s knees; the contact that was involved there was thought to be protective. Hugging the knees was something where, someone actually owed you now hospitality, as a suppliant in their eyes. Orestes now has protection. The Furies are unable to get at him.

Picture credit : theoi.com

In the depiction on this vase (below) they are laying around on the ground; they can’t get to him, because he’s in a safe position, having making contact with that stone, the omphalos. That stone came from Hesiod, the story, the stone that Cronus swallowed instead of Zeus. Orestes is being haunted by Clytemnestra’s ghost. Apollo and Athena are hovering around, trying to keep an eye on the situation, and figure out what to do next. We have the very top people in the universe keeping an eye on this situation and trying to solve things.

The Furies and Apollo begin with a debate over justice and what counts as justice. They have different ideas about it. There’s a long interlude by the Furies as they slither around and give us their own strong, vociferous statements about how justice works, according to blood. Then the scene switches to Athens and a pretty straightforward court case. Athena comes in and addresses The Furies. The court case starts. There are witnesses and cross-examinations. There are some statements by Aeschylus that help us to understand how the court case is supposed to unfold. He gives directions as to who goes on and how we count the votes etc. After the court case the jury decides, but they’re deadlocked so, Athena has to solve the deadlock. She decides in favors of Orestes.

The Furies are upset because the court case is not decided in their favor and they threaten to scorch the earth, but the Olympians smartly figure out a way to give the Furies their due. They create a place of honor underneath the court, in the ground underneath it, and the play ends with a procession in honor of the Furies as they’re marched into their new home, under the Athenian Acropolis.

At stake in this play is a set of ideas about justice. Two systems are being placed next to each other, the older order system of justice and a new one that Athenians and classical Athenians watching this play are rightly proud of, a new system of justice that we see emerging in our own democratic society. This is something that Aeschylus brings in to his play. Ideas of justice that are just emerging around the time he’s writing this play, are written into the play as a character built into the story.

The old order of justice, based on concepts like miasma, contact with evil blood makes evil rub off on you, if you have contact with that evil blood the Furies come to get you. The strengths of that system are, that it’s very clear, justice is done according to ties of blood. If someone does have blood on their hands, then they’re punished. Aeschylus talks about this with respect to this contact. It is a system that’s based on contagion, contact, and blood. This is what makes this old system work and it is thoroughly associated by Aeschylus with these Chthonic deities. Chthonic deities are those that are attached to the earth, all of those older order gods, including the Earth herself, the pre-Zeus, pre-Olympian layers of divine powers. Throughout the play, Aeschylus lines up this older order of justice with these Chthonic divinities. He talks about them consistently as being involved in it, being pulled out to enforce it. When Orestes and Electra are trying to figure out what to do in The Libation Bearer they appealed to these Chthonic divinities. The Furies themselves are representative of this older order of divinities, and when they speak, they consistently place the  justice that they’re after, which is based on contagion and contact, and blood, against the Olympian order or the different orders of justice that are  show up in this newer world. So the old order and the old system of justice make a counterpart to Olympian justice. This happens in other places too, where the older order of things that the Chthonic gods lined up, with the idea of justice built into contact, contagion of blood, and all of that opposed to what the Olympians are up to.

For example The Fury speaking here as the chorus.

“Since you, a young god, would ride down my elder age, I must stay here and listen to how the trial goes, being yet uncertain to loose my anger on the state.”

That’s the statement of an old established divinity to a new young one, The Olympians, trying to say that what you all decide here has an effect on me, but it’s a system that this person, the Furies, speaking as a collective, are not quite ready to say they belong to or that belongs to them at all.

After the Furies have the court case decided against them, just as in the case of Hesiod, when the Olympian gods overthrow the old order and Zeus pushes them all under the Earth and closes them up down there. So, also at the end of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the older gods, here the Furies, are actually interred, put under the earth, and put into a temple, where we  give them honor and worship. This is slightly different than Hesiod locking them down in a jail, but it is Aeschylus finding a place, in the new order for the old order gods to have a role. The old system of justice enforced by the Furies had no way of dealing with the problems that showed up in Agamemnon’s family. The House of Atreus was just stuck according to this older system of justice. It consistently put on the family irreconcilable obligations. Orestes is the focus figure of the trilogy he did what he had to, and this was counted as being just by the laws of justice. Killing his mother was an awful obligation and he knows, as well as anyone does, that this is a terrible act. The old system of justice had no way of getting out of this cycle of retributive justice back and forth. Instead, what we had was a system that just closed in on itself.

When we turn to the trial set in Athens overseen by the Olympian deities, we open up a discussion of a new justice that is possible. Aeshcylus very cleverly portrays events and cultural forms that classical Athenians had seen emerging. A crime that was so troublesome, so difficult for ancient ideas of justice to take care of are solved by a contemporary institution of classical Athens.

Measuring Evil

To get into the details of how this new problem of justice is settled, we have to get in the minds of what’s happening in the trial. There are some strange twists and turns.

The Olympians are on the side of the new system, and this new system is expressed in a courtroom. The old order is the chthonic divinities lined up with the Furies and their side of things. In the end of course, the Olympians don’t win, but what gets us there is this back and forth court case.

We could appeal to one of our universal laws, number four that came up in a previous lecture – every decision a leader has to make his, never between one very good thing and one very bad thing. It’s always between either two bad things or two good things. It’s also true that every choice, not just in a context of leadership, but every really tough choice a person faces is between two bad things or between two good things. This definitely happens in the case of Orestes’s trial.

There are two bad things that being considered. They argue over whose murder counts most. Each side makes an attempt to talk about the murder, and one of these murders as being more significant than the other, in trying to either exonerate Orestes or convict him. The question boils down to a question of whether the wife murdering the husband is worse, or the son murdering the mother. Apollo and the Furies are on opposite sides. Apollo downplays the mother/son relationship.  line 657 and forward. According to the popular concept that the mother is just a vessel for a man’s seed and that she is not that important in the production of the offspring. Strange line of argument, but what he’s trying to get at there is that the connection between the mother and the son is not all that important. He’s downplaying that connection. So, in his eyes, what he’s trying to say is that, when the son kills the mother, it’s not as though some connection there is being terribly violated. That needs them to if we understand that, then Orestes’s crime becomes less important because the connection between mother and son here is being severed, to say it’s not so important. That’s Apollo’s line of argument.

The Furies, on the other hand, as seen below, argue that blood relations are what’s most important.

But why did you not drive her into exile, while she lived?

She was not related by blood to the man she killed. [605]

Then am I my mother’s kin by blood?

How else could she have nurtured you, murderer, beneath her belt? Do you reject the nearest kinship, that of a mother?

Apollo, give your testimony now. Explain, on my behalf, whether I was justified in killing her. [610] For I do not deny that I did it, as it is done. But decide whether this bloodshed was, to your mind, just or not, so that I may inform the court.

For them the link between a husband and a wife, there’s no blood involved. When a husband kills a wife or a wife kills a husband in this case, the problem is not so difficult. The connection that’s being violated is not so close, there is no blood connection. On the other hand, the Furies say, when a son kills a mother, that’s a violation of a blood connection, that crime, that murder, is worse. The argument boils down to which one you value most and for the Furies, it’s the connection based on blood, and for the Olympians it’s something else, it’s a connection based on something different.


This debate has to be understood looking at the historical background. The ancient Athenians watched Aeschylus’s drama of this mythically insoluble problem within this family. An institution that they, as classical Athenians, knew well solved this famously insolvable problem.

As they watched the in the theater they could see the action on the stage. Above them they could also see one of the main features of what the play is supposed to be about.

Picture credit : Media.web.britannica

There’s the Acropolis right there, and it is magnificent to see. In the theater of ancient Athens and they’d be very close and could see the court that’s being talked about in Aeschylus’ place. The stage is a very short distance away from the court itself so that at the end of the play, when the Furies get marched underneath the Acropolis and put into a temple, right underneath the Earth, they could’ve marched right off the stage and gone right down there.

Important themes were emerging in classical Athens at that time. This is the birthplace of democracy and a new system of rule was being instituted here when Aeschylus’s play was first being performed in 458, the institutions of democracy were not many decades old. In the year 510 B.C a group of people that were known as the tyrants were eventually kicked out. Nowadays, the English term tyrant mostly is synonymous with a terrible leader, but then it was a one man, one rule system, some of them were worse than others, and for many, for centuries they had ruled ancient Athens. With the advent of democracy, they were kicked out and the new system put into place. This new system has obvious strengths to it. The benefits of the system has constantly being tested over history, but at the time was just forming in ancient Athens as a new form of ways of doing things, and it needed to have an argument built into the play for it. We can see in Aeschylus’ treatment of this new system of justice a reference to what’s happening in the democratic society around him.

Athena at line 696, endorses this new form,

Neither anarchy nor tyranny—this I counsel my citizens to support and respect, and not to drive fear wholly out of the city. For who among mortals, if he fears nothing, is righteous? Stand in just awe of such majesty, [700] and you will have a defense for your land and salvation of your city, such as no man has, either among the Scythians or in Pelops’ realm. I establish this tribunal, untouched by greed, worthy of reverence, quick to anger, awake on behalf of those who sleep, a guardian of the land. [705]

She says ‘Thus, I advise my citizens to govern’ telling them it’s time for the citizens to be governing , and part of governing is  be taking over questions of justice in a citizenry-based place of arbitration. They needed to remove what had been the purview of these ancient beasts, The Furies following the blood and attacking and counterattacking and revenge, and develop a court of justice that’s run by a group of people.

In order to talk about the virtues of this way of making things work, and Aeschylus surely does that, we also have to understand some of what was different about this system and with new and different things, there’s always some threat. The old order, for example, had a strong basis in traditional ties. Ties of family and clan were what were thought to be most important. But the new system was based on the law, the state, the city, a new institution working on a complicated network of voting districts. These were things that started to claim people’s allegiance and sometimes, these would run parallel to family interests. Sometimes they would run at cross-purposes to what family interests are.

The old system had certain kinds of benefits, it was based on a tradition of family ties that was clear, and it was easy to understand. All of us would endorse family ties as being an important thing. It seemed as though with this new system of justice, we have to give some things up. Imagine that there is a situation where a son does something wrong, a father punishes the son. If a father decided to punish a son the son would just have to take it even if he disagrees. A father has a right to punish his son, it just goes with the territory. The son might disagree with what’s happening, might resist, might struggle, might toss up his hands, but in the end knows that this is something that he just  understands, it’s just way things are. If the same son walked past some stranger and the stranger said: ‘you’ve done something bad now I’m going to punish you’, and started to effect a punishment. What right would a stranger have to punish him? He would have no position of authority to be in a position of doling out punishment.

If we imagine the thing that’s being punished is something of great consequence and great import, for example, a murder, and imagine that the punishment is hugely consequential and may result in the depriving of a person of their fortune, of their family, their family fortune, or depriving them of their freedom, to lock them up for years and years. Could be even to depriving them of their own life, they could get a punishment that takes their own life. The Greeks had to adopt this new system in which strangers, who were their peers and who all of a sudden, had the power to mete out justice. Total strangers, who were just ordinary people, were now to judge issues, a judgment against the person that has real teeth. Within a family people would know your strengths and weaknesses, they would surely know what contexts there are and would give you the benefit of the doubt the best they can. There’s some advantage having people that know you well trying to make a judgment about you, rather than having strangers.

This new system had to figure out a way to justify itself to a group of people who may be uncomfortable being judged and punished by their peers, strangers, as opposed to people they’re use to having connections with. In the new system there’s no blood relation, there is abstractions, a law that we’re supposed to follow and we have, peers and strangers who mete out authority. Aeschylus chooses to dramatize the Oresteia using this new justice system. It’s not obvious that someone has to tell the Oresteia story this way, Aeschylus makes it a story that overall is about the proper way of meting out justice. This old crime that the old system had no way of solving turned into a cycle of retribution out of which there was no escape, The house of Atreus famously turning in on itself by this old system of justice. Aeschylus tells the ancient Athenians that the newly created system is able to solve this most knotty of all problems.

The climatic moment is when the court comes to a decision that counts as being just. Those in the audience, presumably thought there was some justice being done here. We might disagree over the details of the argumentation, but we’ve got a system that’s being sewn up and the play shows that there is some promise to this new system. It can even solve this old crime or this old question of justice. Even more important, it takes the old system of justice based on the Furies and blood, and it gives them a new role. It builds a temple for them, puts them underneath in the chthonic area, as the ‘business end’ of this human court centered at the Areopagus. It now becomes a harsh side, the violence behind what courts have a capacity to do, institutionalized violence, thoroughly controlled and regulated by human institution. All of this in the end gets authorized by Apollo and Athena, the Olympian gods oversee the whole process. The Athenians watched their court being shaped and solving something that even in mythic times people were not wise enough to solve.

Functionalist and structuralist readings of the Oresteia

Functionalism says that myths are told, in order to legitimize certain social and cultural forms. The take Peter Struck gave us on the Oresteia is that what Aeschylus is up to here is telling a myth in a certain historical context. He’s telling a myth that is justifying and legitimizing a social norm of a new scheme of justice. As iterated in this court of the Areopagus, a long and deeply held traditional court in Athens and talking about it as being important along these new democratic lines. That is very much straight forward functionalism. There are many others that are possible of what Oresteia is all about. But the vision that our professor offers is that Aeschylus has a purpose to this telling of this story. The purpose or what is makes it so attractive and appealing to the audience that’s seeing it, is that it is for them legitimizing a social cultural norm, this importance of their institution of justice in the form of these courts.

A structuralist reading was raised by one of Prof. Struck’s previous students. He suggested that it’s possible that the Oresteia is a meditation on a binary opposition between two ways of imagining the most important social connections that are made between human beings. On the one hand, we have social connection based on blood ties and on the other hand, we have social connections based on voluntary associations. Those two means of trying to figure out how humans are supposed to be connected to one another, sometimes come into conflict and when they do, we’ve got difficulty and an urgency to try to figure out what’s happening.

Structuralists look for binaries that underlie the stories that they’re talking about. In this particular reading, on the one side with the blood ties connection, we’ve got the Furies, we’ve got the idea of Miasma, the chthonic deities that have blood tie connections. We’ve got the relationship between Atreus and his off-spring, and Agamemnon and his son, and Orestes and his mother. All these connections based on blood ties and all the difficulties that rise out of that.

On the other side, the thing that Aeschylus is considering here is the new way of understanding how human society is organized around voluntary associations. Here blood ties are not so important. Remember Apollo’s argument, playing down the connection between, in his case, the mother and the son, but between, otherwise what one would think of as having very strong blood relationship. Instead the kinds of associations that Apollo holds up and venerates are ones based on voluntary associations in particular here, the, association between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. So volunteer associations taking on a stronger role and the back and forth between them though, is never fully resolved. Aeschylus is working on the tension between the two to provide the energy that propels the story forward. So a structuralist reading could suggest that what we have here is a hidden binary that’s pushing the story forward between raising and organizing a human society on the one hand, by blood relations, on the other hand by voluntary associations.



  1. Stella says:

    This is great! I’ve been thinking of studying Anciient Greek myself, and now I’m even more keen!

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