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Authors: Aeschylus

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BOOK: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies
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This is a new edition of the book, and I want to thank the ones who made it possible. Primarily my editor, Will Sulkin, for his precision and concern, and the good people at Penguin Books who believe that Aeschylus should have a broad appeal. Georges Borchardt and Richard Simon poured the wine and sped the work once more. And my first hosts in England, Dieter Pevsner and Oliver Caldecott of Wildwood House - like my host in America, Alan Williams of The Viking Press - cared for this
as if it were their own. Without their kindness it might never have seen the light.
Thanks above all to Lynne, abiding thanks and more -
Princeton, New Jersey
September 1976
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., and Faber and Faber Ltd: From ‘The Dry Salvages’ and ‘East Coker’ from Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot.
Liveright Publishing Corp.: From ‘The Dance’ from
The Collected Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane
by Hart Crane. Copyright © 1933, 1958, 1966 by Liveright Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of Liveright Publishing, New York.
Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., M. B. Yeats and the Macmillan Company of London & Basingstoke, and the Macmillan Company of Canada: From ‘To Dorothy Wellesley’ from Collected Poems by William Butler Yeats. Copyright © 1940 Georgie Yeats, renewed 1968 by Bertha Georgia Yeats, Michael Butler Yeats and Anne Yeats. From ‘Two Songs from a Play’ from Collected Poems by William Butler Yeats. Copyright © 1928 by Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., renewed 1956 by Georgie Yeats.
The New American Library, Inc.: From
Lucretius: On the Nature of Things,
translated by Palmer Bovie and published by The New American Library. Reprinted by permission of The New American Library.
The Viking Press, Inc., Laurence Pollinger Limited and the Estate of Mrs Frieda Lawrence, and William Heinemann Limited: From
The Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence,
edited by Harry T. Moore. Copyright © 1962 by Angelo Ravagli and C. Montague Weekley. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
Yale University Press: From
The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture
by Vincent Scully (New Haven and London, 1962).
Now is the strong prayer folded in thine arms,
The serpent with the eagle in the boughs.
The Dance
AESCHYLUS was forty-five in 480 B.C. when the Persians sacked Athens and destroyed the shrines of the gods on the Acropolis. Soon afterwards he fought in the forces which defeated the Persians at Salamis and Plataea, as he had fought in the Greek victory at Marathon ten years before. The Greeks in general, and the Athenians in particular, because they had played the major part in the triumph of Hellas, saw these victories as a triumph of right over might, courage over fear, freedom over servitude, moderation over arrogance. After their struggle the people of Athens entered upon a spectacular era of energy and prosperity, one of the great flowering periods of Western civilization. Physically the two noblest monuments of that age were the Parthenon of Ictinos and Pheidias, and the Oresteian trilogy of Aeschylus. Paradoxically, when one considers the contrast between the durability of marble and the fragility of papyrus, the
is better preserved by far. But both were expressions of optimism as well as of artistic genius. Out of the savagery of past wars and feuds a new harmony - religious, political, and personal - might be created. Perhaps Athens would achieve what public-spirited men and women have always longed for, a peaceful, lawful community, a city of benevolent gods and beneficent men. Within fifty years of the Persian defeat the dream had faded, and before the end of the century Athens, over-extended abroad and over-confident at home, lay defeated at the mercy of her enemies, a Spartan garrison posted on the Acropolis and democracy in ruins. Much in the intervening years had been magnificent, it is true, but so it might have remained if the Athenians had heeded Aeschylus. As early as
The Persians
he had portrayed the Greek victory as a triumph over the barbarian latent in themselves, the hubris that united the invader and the native tyrant as targets of the gods. Their downfall, like the downfall of Agamemnon, called not only for exultation but for compassion and lasting self-control.
perfects this vision of warning and reward. Athenian exhilaration still ran strong in 458 when Aeschylus, at the age of sixty-seven, produced his trilogy. It breathes the buoyant spirit of his city. Its dominant symbolism is that of light after darkness. Beginning in the darkness-before-dawn of a Mycenaean citadel benighted by curses and crimes, it ends with a triumphant torchlit procession in an Athens radiant with civic faith and justice. The entire drama is one long procession, and each step brings us closer to the light. Originally the
consisted of four plays
- Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides and Proteus.
The last was a satyr-play, completing the full ‘tetralogy’ dramatists composed. It would have presented gods and heroes in a comic situation that relieved the tensions of the tragedies while illuminating them with fresh perspectives. The
has not survived, but the three tragedies form a unity in themselves, the only complete Greek trilogy we have, and its scope is as expansive as an epic. Aeschylus referred to his work as ‘slices from the banquet of Homer’, but his powers of assimilation were impressive. His trilogy sweeps from the
to the
from war to peace. Yet it was the darker events of the
Odyssey -
the murder of Agamemnon by his wife and the vengeance of his son, Orestes - that inspired Aeschylus to produce a great tale of the tribe. He deepened Homer with even older, darker legends and lifted him to a later, more enlightened stage of culture.
Let us recall the outlines of the tale. The house of Atreus is the embodiment of savagery. No other Greek family can rival it for accumulated atrocities. The founder of the line was Tantalus of Lydia, a barbarian whose spirit haunts the
He offended the gods by feasting them on his son’s flesh, and they condemned him to starve in Hades, ‘tantalized’ by the drink and luscious fruits just out of reach. But they restored his victim, Pelops, to a new, resplendent life. Later he went to western Greece, where he won the hand of Hippodameia by a ruse which killed her father - a murderous chariot race which may have been the origin of the Olympic games. Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. When Thyestes seduced his brother’s wife and contested his right to the throne, Atreus banished him and then, luring him back for a reconciliation, feasted him on his children’s flesh. Horrified, Thyestes cursed Atreus and his descendants and fled into exile once again, accompanied by his one remaining son, Aegisthus. Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, who jointly inherited the realm of Argos and married two daughters of Tyndareos, Clytaemnestra and Helen. Agamemnon became the commander-in-chief of the Greek forces that attacked Troy to avenge the seduction of Helen by Paris, son of Priam. At the outset of the expedition, however, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his and Clytaemnestra’s daughter Iphigeneia - a fact that Homer had omitted, perhaps to exonerate the king for an aristocratic audience - and so he becomes an agent of the curse upon his house.
The action of the
begins more than nine years later, just after the fall of Troy and Agamemnon’s seizure of Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and priestess of Apollo, whom he abducts to Argos as his mistress. The
describes how Clytaemnestra kills her husband for the death of their daughter and the insult of Cassandra, and establishes herself and Aegisthus, her paramour and also the avenger of his father, as rulers over Argos. It is not a case of right against wrong as it is in Homer; it demonstrates Nietzsche’s motto for Aeschylean tragedy: ‘All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both’ (in Walter Kaufmann’s translation). And its sequel erupts into a moral struggle never told by Homer. In The Libation
the only son of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, Orestes, obeys the command of Apollo and kills the murderers in revenge; but his mother’s Furies drive him mad and in the final play,
The Eumenides,
pursue him to Apollo’s shrine at Delphi. The god can purify Orestes of blood-guilt but cannot release him from the Furies and refers him to Athens and Athena for their judgement. There the goddess appoints a group of men to conduct a trial for manslaughter and so establishes the Areopagus, her famous court of law. Orestes is acquitted and restored to his fathers’ lands in Argos, while Athena persuades the Furies, the demons of the primitive vendetta-law, to become benevolent patrons, changing their names to ‘Eumenides’, the Kindly Ones of Athens. The final choruses are in the mood of Beethoven’s
Hymn to Joy:
let us rejoice, the spirit of man has triumphed over the harsher elements of life—a new order has been born.
What Aeschylus builds upon the house of Atreus is ‘a grand parable of progress’, as Richmond Lattimore has described it, that celebrates our emergence from the darkness to the light, from the tribe to the aristocracy to the democratic state. At the same time Aeschylus celebrates man’s capacity for suffering, his courage to endure hereditary guilt and ethical conflicts, his battle for freedom in the teeth of fate, and his strenuous collaboration with his gods to create a better world. The tragic burden of the
is magnified, then channelled into the battle of the
the battle to win home. Aeschylus is optimistic, but he would agree with Hardy: ‘if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.’ How had we come so far? he asks. Through struggle, and through struggle we will advance. Zeus, as the old men of Argos tell us, ‘lays it down as law/that we must suffer, suffer into truth.’ Perhaps no paradox inspired Aeschylus more than the bond that might exist between
suffering and its significance. That bond is life itself. Reflect on the house of Atreus, what’s more, on Pelops’ regeneration from the cauldron, on the rise of the Olympic games from an act of murder, on the establishment of the Areopagus in response to Orestes’ matricide, and that bond produces our achievements—pain becomes a stimulus and a gift. This commitment to suffering not only as the hallmark of the human condition but as the very stuff of human victory lends the
its perennial appeal. But it does not speak to certain later, more spiritual ages which sublimate our anguish into ‘the blest Kingdoms meek of joy and love’. Aeschylus speaks to a world more secular, to some more dangerous, more exhilarating, more real. He would say with Keats, ‘Do you not see how necessary a World of Pain and troubles is . . . ? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! . . . thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence—This appears to me a faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity.’
The suffering of Atreus and his sons is a very old and yet a very modern matter. They are less removed from us than we might like to think. They are cursed, their lives are an inherited disease, a miasma that threatens the health of their community and forces them, relentlessly, to commit their fathers’ crimes. It is as if crime were contagious - and perhaps it is - the dead pursued the living for revenge, and revenge could only breed more guilt. For such guilt is more than criminal; it is a psychological guilt that modem men have felt and tried to probe. Every crime in the house of Atreus, whether children kill their parents or parents kill their children and feed upon their flesh, is a crime against the filial bond itself. So dominant is the pattern, in fact, that E. R. Dodds and others say that such mythology reflects the pathology of a culture ridden by its guilt. This is a subject that psycho-historians may explain; we can only allude to its vaguest generalities here. What the members of that culture may have fantasized and repressed, creating a pressure of recrimination in themselves, the sons of Atreus, their surrogates, have acted out with relish and abandon. They have heard Blake’s Proverb of Hell: ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.’ Those desires rose to a fever pitch, some surmise, between Homer and the age of tragedy. Whatever conflicts caused them - the miseries of existence that might seem to set the dead against the living; or historical upheavals, the economic crisis of the seventh century that unleashed the class warfare of the sixth; or emotional tensions bred by the breaking-up of family solidarity - a people felt themselves in the grip of an angry father-god. His injustice was their fate; his judgement was the measure of their guilt.
They sought escape in the purges of Apollo, a god of self-restraint. They appealed to his opposite, Dionysus, a god of ecstasy who may have promised more. We will never be certain of his nature - what follows is sheer conjecture - but our intimations point to a god of paradox. Dionysus, son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele, was born of the earth and yet is always striving for the sky. Originally he was a god of fertility, even of life in all its contradictions, blasting us and blessing us at once. He was the menace of existence turning fruitful and, as the god of wine, leading us to joy. His spirit well might rule the house of Atreus, its atrocities and its achievements. For the rites of Dionysus could include the rending of living creatures and feeding on their flesh; yet his rites were horrible and holy too, as Dodds suggests, and through them his communicants could absorb his vital gifts. He is the god who dies, the hunter who is hunted, the render who is rent - but all to be reborn. According to one legend Hera was enraged that Semele had borne the child-god by Zeus; she commanded the Titans to tear him limb from limb and eat him raw. So they did, and Zeus consumed them with lightning and Dionysus with them. But he was restored, and from the Titans’ ashes with their residue of his blood the race of man sprang forth, part Titan and part god, rage and immortal aspiration fused.
BOOK: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies
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