Aeschylus’s Oresteia: Part 2, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides

I managed to resume my reading of the rest of the Oresteia trilogy this week after previously having read and wrote about Agamemnon, the first play in the series. I finished reading each play in less than an hour. Both plays are shorter than Agamemnon, and they share similar characteristics: concise, direct action in a clear succession of events, a single storyline, and the importance of the use of the chorus. In the first play, the chorus were the elders of the city. In The Libation Bearers, they are slaves, and in The Eumenides, they are a fantastical, angry group of furries called the Erinyes. The changing role of the chorus is interesting in itself: it seems to be inverted relative to the evolution of the plays. The Oresteia is primarily about a seemingly endless cycle of revenge which is broken by the intervention of justice in the third play – a positive progression from passion and chaos to lawfulness. But the role of the chorus curiously degrades: in the first play, they are the wise elders, who are generally on the side of Agamemnon, the voice of order and reason, such as in Cassandra’s mad scene where they form a hesitant counterpoint against her passionate outbursts. In the second, they are passive slaves, subject to the whims of characters in the play, but they nevertheless participate wholeheartedly in the famous scene where Orestes, Elektra, and the slaves chant a ritual attempting to invoke the spirit of the dead Agamemnon to help them in their murder of Clytemnestra. Finally, in the third play, they are the chaotic, uncontrollable furries, an ever-lurking menace that constantly threatens to destroy the order that Athena and the judges are trying to establish. I don’t know if this observation is merely a coincidence, but in the Dionysia festival the audience would presumably have seen these plays back-to-back, putting them in a prime position to observe this evolution of the chorus’ role.

What do I make of the main “arguments” of the play? The logic of divine justice in Ancient Greece is interesting. In The Eumenides, Orestes is put on trial for the murder of his mother that he committed in The Libation Bearers. Apollo acts as his lawyer, arguing to the judge Athena that he was justified in holding his father’s death as more serious than his mother’s, because

Not the true parent is the woman’s womb
That bears the child; she doth but nurse the seed
New-sown: the male is parent; she for him
As stranger for a stranger, hoards the germ
Of life, unless the god its promise blight.

The Eumenides, Loc. 596-612 (Moorshead translation)

In support of this contention, Apollos offers the evidence that Athena was born from Zeus’ forehead without a mother, showing that a mother was unimportant, merely a vessel for the seed of the father. (This was a common belief before we scientifically investigated human reproduction in the 19th century. It’s interesting to compare this with the prominent existence of the reverse phenomenon in Christianity: Jesus is born without a human father.) This explanation, which basically boils down to “men are more important than women”, is disappointing and forced, as if Aeschylus had to resolve the conflict somehow to drag the plot to its conclusion. The Erinyes also have interesting points to make: earlier, they point out that while Zeus held patricide to be the most serious of crimes, he himself imprisoned Cronus, his own father. Apollo retorts simply that “He that hath bound may loose.” Of course, one could simply proclaim the trilogy’s point as the triumph of misogyny and male primacy instead of any concept of true “justice.” But despite these seeming weaknesses of elements of the plot (both literary and morally), the play shows that nevertheless, justice (even based on spurious reasons) is preferable to the uncontrollable cycle of violence that comes from unadulterated passion.

Indeed, the entire Oresteia seems to be based on this notion: one of the striking points in The Libation Bearers is when Orestes is about to kill Clytemnestra. He experiences hesitation at having to kill his own mother, and asks for advice from his cousin Pylades. Pylades speaks his only lines in the entire play:

Orestes
Can I my mother spare? Speak, Pylades.

Pylades
Where then would fall the hest Apollo gave
At Delphi, where the solemn compact sworn?
Choose thou the hate of all men; not of gods.

The Libation Bearers, Loc. 830-847

And choosing the “hate of all men,” Orestes proceeds with the deed. By portraying the absurdity of having to choose between avenging one’s dead father or not committing matricide, a theme that is present throughout these last two plays (especially in the voice of the Erinyes, who ceaselessly denounce Orestes throughout The Eumenides as simply a matricide), Aeschylus is drawing attention to the absurdity of the lawless, eye-for-an-eye mentality that forced those choices to be made in the first place. In other words, this old, primitive morality is logically inconsistent, despite being motivated by instincts that “feel” right (the passion for revenge).

When Athenian justice finally comes through in the third play, it appears surprisingly merciful: Orestes is completely spared of any punishment after a split vote on his guilt. After the trial, Athena turns to convince the Erinyes to drop their case – not through force, but persuasion, that they will be honored as Athena makes sure that “No house shall prosper without grace of thine.” The ending is a joyous chorus where all join together in praise of Athens. It becomes obvious then that ultimately, the Oresteia is a happy story of redemption and deliverance through order and justice – not just of Orestes, but of the whole house of Agamemnon.

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