Through Dionysus, in other words, men might be restored, not by escaping their nature but by embracing it, not by expiating their guilt but by exercising it constructively. Here was a father, an authority who challenged us to challenge him. Only by acting out our fantasies against him - by ritualistically dismembering his body and partaking of his strength - could we become ourselves, human, seasoned, strong. Perhaps that is why he lashed a guilty age into a dance of life as irresistible as St Vitus’ dance in time of plague. He was health and more; his euphoria led to better realms of being. By the time of Aeschylus, some believe, Dionysus had become the god of the senses straining towards a religious affirmation. His worship was a return to nature led by sensible, sophisticated men who reached for the world in its primitive aspect - its innocence, its terror, its powers of renewal - not as a cue for madness but as an incentive for their culture. The ecstasy of Dionysus became ennobling. He became Olympian; he shared Apollo’s shrine at Delphi. The suffering god was transformed into a saviour, but not in the way of later martyrs who reject this life. Dying into life, into more coherent, vibrant forms of life was the way of Dionysus and his people.
They communed through tragedy, ‘a terrible sacrament of the god’, as Yeats imagined it. Tragedy was created for Dionysus’ rites of spring in Athens and was performed in his theatre on the southern slopes of the Acropolis. The ritual origins of tragedy are totally in doubt, often hotly contested. We will merely suggest how certain rites may still exist within the Oresteia, not as rituals in themselves, religiously observed, but freely adapted to the point of sacred parody, re-created and recast by Aeschylus’ distinctive tragic vision. For while these rituals may reflect the growth of Dionysus from a spirit of the year to the spirit of human culture, they dramatize, continually, his tragic spirit of suffering and regeneration. Throughout the trilogy we may feel the sunrise breaking from the night or the seasons wheeling in their rounds, the winter yielding to the spring that leads again to harvest. Even more deeply, we may sense what the early tribe inferred from the making of the year: the making of a man, his rites of passage. Such rituals are ordeals, painful strides from loss to gain that mark a person at the crises of his life - puberty, marriage, death - and unite him with a larger set of values, his mate, his society, the ancestral dead. Yet the Oresteia far exceeds the customary trilogy of tribal rites of passage. The
is like the rite of separation; the king is cut off from his society. The Libation Bearers is like the rite of transition; the son is at the threshold of maturity. But
the rite of aggregation, celebrates Orestes’ initiation into Argos and our initiation into Athens.
The Oresteia is our rite of passage from savagery to civilization. What strengthens this impression are the specific rituals that may stir within the trilogy. In debates about the origins of tragedy, they are among the main contenders: the rituals of the dying god, the hero cult and the legal trial. Consider each in turn. The Athenians who gathered in the Theatre of Dionysus may have assembled for a passion play, as a congregation assembles at Easter, to worship the god whose death releases vital energies; to see, in Yeats’s words,
a staring virgin stand
Where holy Dionysus died,
And tear the heart out of his side,
And lay the heart upon her hand
And bear that beating heart away;
And then did all the Muses sing
Of Magnus Annus at the spring,
As though God’s death were but a play.
And the Athenians may have come as patriots to honour his incarnation in a more historical hero, in
achievements and their heavy moral price. And when they watched his acquittal before his judges, they may have renewed their dedication to Athenian justice as they witnessed its creation by Athena. Or they may have beheld one rite emerging from another in one continuous drama, from the trial at the altar to the trial at the oracle and the hearth, to the trial at the high tribunal. Like Dionysus struggling into higher forms of life, the trilogy bodies forth each form of trial in turn. More than a rite of passage unrefined, the Oresteia dramatizes our growth from primitive ritual itself to civilized institution.
Aeschylus transforms ritual into art, a symbolic action at once more individual and universal. ‘All human actions which are worked out to the end,’ as Francis Fergusson observes, ‘passing through the unforeseeable contingencies of a “world we never made,” follow a similar course: the conscious purpose with which they start is redefined after each unforeseen contingency is suffered; and at the end, in the light of hindsight, we see the truth of what we have been doing.’ The way is hard but bracing. Aeschylus presents our lives not only as a painful series of recognitions but as an initiation into stronger states of consciousness. Perhaps most great tragedy conveys this double thrust of shattering and confirmation. Tragedy is a challenge and a trap, a vehicle for our character and our fate. It was Apollo, as Oedipus tells his friends, who multiplied his pains, ‘but the hand that struck my eyes was mine and mine alone’ (in the Bernard Knox translation). The momentum of tragedy threatens to crush us - it is some terrible engine of the gods, yet it also summons the insurgence of the human will, the power of the proud and self-aware.
In the work of Aeschylus, moreover, our self-awareness may revise the ‘world we never made’. Through the Oresteia we may recognize a god within ourselves, transform Dionysus into a spirit of morality and say, ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend with thee.’ For only if we contend with Dionysus will he stimulate our hopes for human victory; and Aeschylus, his celebrant, translates those hopes into clear dramatic forms. He would personify the god in many guises, from a king dismembered physically, to his son, whose mind disintegrates as he strains to reform society. Dionysus is a god; Orestes is a revolutionary hero. He labours under his father’s curse, he must re-enact its cruelty, but his conscience spurs a sense of responsibility to his people, and he leads them to the city of the rights. His guilt becomes the basis of Athens’ greatness. His story, the
resounds with national purpose. It is the concerted triumph of all that Peisistratos envisioned a hundred years before, when he instituted the Festival of Dionysus, the public recitations of Homer and the competitions of the tragic poets. The genius of that protodemocratic tyrant saw that if ritual, epic and tragedy could fuse - if tragedy could harness the collective force of Dionysus to the wilfulness of Homer’s heroes, all might be enlarged. The chorus might support the leader, the leader steer the chorus, and the drama urge a nation onward, potent in unity and individual freedom. Tragedy, in Aeschylus’ hands, might empower the young democracy.
The Oresteia revolutionizes the archaic world. Homer and Hesiod had an earlier parable of progress. Hesiod in his
traced the gods themselves from savagery to civilization, or rather to a peak of absolute control. The
is a story less of succession than of suppression, of fantasies acted out in filial brutality. Kronos suppressed his father, Ouranos, by castrating him. Zeus suppressed his father, Kronos, blasted him and the Titans with lightning and shackled them in Tartarus. Zeus ruled on high, not because he was good but because he was beyond good and evil, too strong for the law of retaliation that consumed his forebears. He was the invincible masculine will, the Father who triumphed over Mother Earth. His justice, his
was the way of Might Makes Right. His way towards men was the way things are - not in the golden age when men and gods were equal but in this iron age where we grind out a subsistence, sons and fathers at each others’ necks, belaboured by the gods with massing hardships. Such was Zeus’s reign in the third generation of his house, and Aeschylus compares him with Orestes in the third generation of his house, not only to buttress Orestes’ victory but to humanize the gods. Aeschylus reopens the
not on a battleground but on a moral plane, the rocky and rewarding soil of the guilt-culture itself: Here Zeus’s lightning bolts are of little value. He must use the forces of recrimination he had suppressed, the matriarchal Furies, yet he must contend with them as well, and he plays with a fire somehow equal to himself. The Furies will help to temper Zeus, and
will be tempered in the process.
must evolve from the blood vendetta of the tribe to the social justice of our hopes. Potentially
is the force of right and orderly relations, but because of acts of recklessness it has remained a force of vengeance, cursing offenders and their heirs with endless acts of violence - the punishments of the Furies. Paris’ rape of Helen is an international violation of
that deploys the Greeks against the Trojans, with Agamemnon as the minister of Zeus’s Fury. But to accomplish his mission he must violate
on an internecine level, sacrifice his daughter and arouse Clytaemnestra in return. The Fury of the Father collides in Argos with the Fury of the Mother, and the Mother wins a battle to the death. But these forces reappear and concentrate within the son, Orestes; they begin to wage a dialectical struggle, straining towards a crucial resolution. Civilization, as Aeschylus sees it, hangs on their success. This
is a battle on which the house of Atreus, the house of the gods, and all our houses stand or fall. Aeschylus insists that each generation create a new alliance between the forces in contention for its world; and he presents their conflict in a range of ways, from cosmic to intensely personal. From a theological conflict between Will and Necessity, or Zeus and the Fates - the gods of the Sky and the powers of the Earth; to a social, political conflict between the state with its patriarchal bias and the family with its matriarchal roots; to a psychological conflict between our intellect and our hunger for release, our darker, vengeful drives that can invigorate our dreams of ideality, equity and balance. For while these forces strive against each other, they are ultimately allies as well. They are as complementary as Dionysus and Apollo, or their partisans who strive to explain the tragic vision - Nietzsche versus Hegel, Cambridge anthropologists versus literary historians, ritualists versus rationalists, fatalists versus spokesmen for the tragic flaw. Like Dionysus in Nietzsche’s final vision of him, the
would invite the adversaries to embrace. The trilogy ends with a union of energy and order, the way of nature and the way of man. The shackles of the primitive vendetta lend their rigour to the lasting bonds of law. Society takes what Freud has called ‘the decisive step of civilization’ -
turns to justice.
Many powers work towards this end, but none is more essential than the Furies. As they evolve in the Oresteia, so they may have evolved in Greek religion, progressing from curses to righteous causes, the ministers of justice who, as Heracleitos saw them, would detect the sun if it should overstep its limits. The Furies are a paradox of violence and potential. Snakes in their hair and black robes swarming, they represent a real, objective law - blood will have blood - yet that is a law of human nature, too, and the Furies become the pangs of conscience that can lead to self-fulfilment. This is a paradox that modern psychology has prepared us to accept, especially the psychology of aggression that discovers ties between our powers of destruction and our powers of survival. Their symbiosis, in fact, may have given rise to the Furies if, as legend tells, they sprang to life from the blood of Ouranos’ genitals when Kronos lopped and flung them in the sea. For the Furies are the spirits of the avenging dead that can also bring regeneration. They are the paradox of woman, Clytaemnestra first of all, murderous in defence of those she nurtures. They are the potency of creation, now consuming, now empowering, and so their transformation into the kind Eumenides may have been latent in their nature from the start. To another age they would seem the archetype of evil - ‘these wasteful Furies’, in Milton’s words. But Aeschylus saw them as the force of love-in-hate that impels our rude beginnings towards our latter-day achievements.
The fire of the Furies is Promethean. ‘The former age of the Titans [is] brought back from Tartarus once more, restored to the light of day,’ as Nietzsche says, yet the new divinity that Aeschylus confers upon them is both primordial and perfected, too, a merger of the Furies and Athena. And the closing scene of theAGAMEMNON
rings with joy as well as tumult. A final procession forms, vivid with red cloaks and bright with torches, to escort the Furies to their new homes. The bloody robes of Agamemnon and his murderers have become the robes of law-abiding citizens and their guests. The torches that heralded assassination blaze in honour of a harmonious settlement of ancient wrongs. Athens has suffered; Athens will now go forward under the guidance of her goddess who embodies justice and compassion, the equity of Heaven and the energies of the Earth.
First the king must die. It is Argos, the tenth year of the Trojan War, the year the prophets say that Troy will fall. A watchman has been posted on the roofs, waiting for a beacon that will signal Agamemnon’s victory and alert Clytaemnestra for his assassination. The second meaning, unknown to the servant, is reflected in his moods. Despite the impending triumph he is restless, he wavers between sleep and wakefulness, love for his master and servitude to his queen, devotion to the gods - the stately patriarchal stars - and dread of the shooting star this mannish woman may release. Things are moving towards some strange eruption. Suddenly the beacon flames from a nearby mountaintop. He cries for joy, to welcome the king and rouse the queen, and the note of foreboding rushes back. The rhythm of the trilogy has been set. We begin in dark suspense: we are waiting for the light, and it no sooner dispels anxiety than a shadow falls again. The light and the darkness, hope and fear, triumph and defeat contend in all three plays, and the light will not prevail until the last. The day of Athens’ glory begins in the ‘dawn of the darkness’, the warlord in eclipse. The very stones of the house would cry it out, but terror chokes the watchman into silence. His closing words - ‘I speak to those who know; to those who don’t/my mind’s a blank’ - are the watchword for the play.
speaks to those who sense the secrets of the house. That façade with its history of cannibalism, adultery and murder soon will rise and tell its story.