Progress Ancient and Modern: The Oresteia

The Furies and Orestes

It is a modern conceit that ours is a morally progressed age when compared to the world of the ancients. At least that is the impression one gets from reading books such as Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, or Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. Both Pinker and Wright, each in their own very different ways, give us insight into the brutality that was such a common, indeed daily, part of the lives of our premodern forebears- although they might quibble as to when our moral ascent away from this brutality and primitiveness began- with Pinker thinking it gained traction in the Enlightenment, and Wright pushing it further back to the appearance of the world religions.

There is also a tendency to see ourselves as more theologically or philosophically sophisticated than the ancients. How, for example, could the Greeks actually believe in those anthropomorphic gods who were thought to “live” on Mount Olympus and seemed to fill the Greeks with the twin illnesses of near continuous anxiety and misplaced hope.

I only wish that Pinker or Wright, or those who understand prayer to the gods as a version of “please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me, you’re so big, you’re so big” (@24 min) as the science fiction writer David Brin did in a recent talk,  had read and wrestled with the Greek playwright Aeschylus. For what we find in Aeschylus are tales that push human consciousness in the direction of the confrontation between values which inspire social reflection and change. The end result being something we should very much call moral progress. We also find the whole concept of the “gods” at its deepest with divinities used to personify and bring into conflict the often opposing values and existential conditions that are found in human life. This is perhaps nowhere better on display than in Aeschylus’ tragedy- The Oresteia.

The Oresteia is a trilogy: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides that deals with the issues of love and hatred justice and revenge order and chaos. There would have been a fourth part to the Oresteia, a satyr play, but it is lost. The three surviving plays tell the story of the cursed and at the same time blest (because through them comes the expansion of the human moral imagination) family of the King of Argos -Agamemnon.

Upon returning home from victory in the Trojan War Agamemnon faces a coup plotted by his wife Clytemnestra in an adulterous alliance with his cousin Aegisthus. Both Clytemnestra’s and Aegisthus’ actions are driven by the most primitive manifestation of the human desire for justice- primal revenge. Clytemnestra seeks revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter as “payment” to the gods for safe passage to Troy. Aegisthus is vengeful for other reasons; indeed, he is a human being created for the purpose of revenge itself, sired in incest, with his destiny to kill Agamemnon’s father Atreus for the cannibalistic murder of  his brothers.

It might seem strange to state this way, but the desire for revenge is perhaps the first rung on the long ladder of the human moral imagination (though it is not a step solely limited to humans for you can find it in other social animals as well). The idea of revenge, especially revenge for the harm inflicted on those close to us, demands that we take the rule violated or person harmed to be almost as important as ourselves for revenge comes with mortal risks to those that seek it.

In the Agamemnon revenge or “blood justice” has its due and the king of Argos is murdered by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. But the characters here are, like those in Homer, mere puppets on a string their whole soul and character propelled to preserving the moral order of the cosmos which demands, in the Greek view, that murder, whether accidental or purposeful needs to be repaid with murder. A life exchanged for a life balances the moral scale that bounds mortal existence.

This is the kind of moral order that can be seen, I think, in the Biblical Book of Revelation or the Christian idea of Hell where, in the former, God avenges the evil of the unjust who have heretofore ruled the world, and in the latter, where every earthly sin has its corresponding punishment after death. And though the concept of blood justice might have become more sophisticated for a while under Christians, with the accidental homicide the Greeks thought had moral meaning no longer being placed on the scale of justice and the interior self- the idea of intention- bearing the moral significance of an act, Calvinists would abandon this sophistication with their idea of predestination, which, arguably, brought moral understanding back to the primitive type found in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, a level the ancient Greek Aeschylus in the remaining plays of  The Oresteia would transcend, a meaning hinted at in these lines from the opening of the Agamemnon:

Zeus has led us on to know,

    The Helmsman lays it down as law

    That we must suffer, suffer into truth.

    We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart

    the pain of pain remembered comes again,

    and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.

    From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench

    there comes a violent love. (Lines 177-184)


The second play of The Oresteia, The Libation Bearers, tells the story of Orestes’, the only surviving son of Agamemnon, revenge against his mother and uncle for the murder of his father. The play begins with Orestes visit to Agamemnon’s grave where he secretly spies a group of women shrouded in black bearing libations- offerings to be poured in prayer. The women have come to the grave to find comfort for Clytemnestra who has been haunted by a dream of being strangled by a snake that suckles milk from her breasts. Accompanying the old women is Electra, the sister of Orestes who prays for justice in the name of her father. When Electra spots a lock of what she thinks might be her brother’s hair she cries these lines, which anyone who has ever escaped the grip of despair will understand in their heart:

We call on the gods and the gods well know the storms that torment us, sailors whirled to nothing. But if we are to live and reach a haven, one small seed could grow a mighty tree.  (Lines 201-204 )


When Orestes is reunited with Electra he is urged on by her and sanctioned by the god Apollo to seek justice against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Here the trilogy begins to gain new psychological and moral depth for intersecting in the mind of Orestes are two opposing systems of value- his natural maternal love and loyalty and his paternal bond to the memory of his deceased father. It is Apollo and his “new gods” that represent a new value perhaps best understood as a move beyond the moral ties born of blood to those born from the human capacity to make and keep promises. The crime Apollo seeks justice for is Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon to whom she was bound in marriage.

It is not so much in the act of murdering Clytemnestra that Orestes becomes fully conscious of these competing value systems, his mother after unsuccessfully pleading for her son’s mercy cries out:

“I must be spilling live tears on a tomb of stone”. (Lines 926 p. 219)

Rather, it is in the aftermath that Orestes recognizes the gravity of the decision he has made:

“ What bow could hit the crest of so much pain?” (Lines 1035 p. 224)  

It is in the last surviving play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, that Aeschylus brings all these elements together, and in the process brings the human moral imagination yet another step higher beyond the bounds of either blood ties or social contact.
In Eumenides Orestes is pursued by the Furies (pictured above). The Furies are deities dating back before Zeus overthrew the earth gods- the Titans. They have been given the task by a force more powerful than even the gods- Fate- to seek justice for murder and the breaking of sacred law. Contrasted with the concept of the Furies, the traditional dichotomy between good and evil found in modern religion seems almost simplistic. The Furies are certainly a force of darkness and yet their purpose is to restore the moral order through revenge against those who murder.

Over the victim’s burning head this chant this frenzy striking frenzy lightning crazing the mind this hymn of Fury  chaining the senses, ripping cross the lyre,withering lives of men! (Lines 328-333 )

Unable to find refuge from the Furies in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, Orestes, under the advice of Apollo and with the guidance of Hermes flees to Athens where he seeks refuge in the temple of Athena. The Furies delayed by being lulled to sleep by Apollo are eventually aroused by the ghost of Clytemnestra and renew their hunt. Animal like, they follow the scent of Clytemnestra’s blood on Orestes until they find him at the feet of the statue of Athena. When the goddess Athena appears she does something that had not been seen in the entire Oresteia up until now- rather than becoming partisan she shows both sides respect. She takes Orestes at his word that he may have been guilty of violating the letter but not spirit of the cosmic law for which the Furies seek his torment, but she also shows respect to the antiquity of the Furies and their rightful powers. She does not, as Apollo does, see the Furies as monstrous and unnatural- enemies of order- but as forces with a rightful place in the cosmos. Because of this respect the Furies ask Athena to judge Orestes’ case, and here Athena does something amazing. She asks a jury of mortal men to help her decide the matter.   

Too large a matter, some may think, for mortal men to judge.  (Lines 484-485)

Acknowledging that both Orestes and the Furies seem to have a strong case and that judgement in favor of either will have deep implications Athena muses:

So it stands a crisis either way.

 Embrace the one? expel the other? It defeats me.

 But since the matter comes to rest on us, I will appoint the judges

of manslaughter, swear them in, and found a tribunal  here

for all time to come. (Lines 495-499)

Something quite startling has happened here for Athena ( Aeschylus) has managed to make the rules of the gods subject to the reasoned judgement of mortal men. I am unaware of any such a leap anywhere else in religious history. Ultimately, their cases argued the jury tied with Athena breaking it in favor of  Orestes. The Furies feel the whole moral order has come crashing down and swear revenge against Athens for upending the eternal laws of justice.

All’s lost, our ancient powers torn away by their cunning,

ruthless hands, the gods so hard to wrestle down

obliterate us all (Lines 885-887)

Athena again tries to appease the ancient gods of the Furies with respect.

But if you have reverence for Persuasion,

the majesty of Persuasion,

the spell of my voice would appease your fury- (Lines 893-895 )

Athena offers the Furies a home in Athens. Their role to be the violent force behind the justice decided upon by the reasoned decisions of mortal men or the power behind their violent struggles with others. The Furies acceptance of this new and bounded role for their powers ends the trilogy.

The Oresteia thus represents something incredible as a piece of  literature, political philosophy, or religious reflection and I think we should consider it an example of all three. Not only as a great piece of literature does it give us insight into the human experience of injustice and the corresponding desire for revenge, it is also a tale of social evolution showing us how the violence natural to human societies which arises from this need for justice is contained with the establishment of political communities. But this isn’t just any political community- it is not Hobbes’ Leviathan terrorizing men into a state of peace. It is a community built around the active participation of citizens to decide upon and bound matters of justice. As a piece of religious reflection the Oresteia is revolutionary in that it subjects the gods to the reasoned judgement of  mortals even as it urges us to show respect to the wisdom and authority of ancient traditions.

To heed its lessons; now that’s what I would call progress!

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One comment on “Progress Ancient and Modern: The Oresteia

  1. […] Republic in a way we don’t hold his contemporary Aeschylus for a play full of human violence like The Oresteia. The reason for this is that philosophers rather than artists it is assumed, not doubt in part […]

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