Greek Week: The Oresteia

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Oresteia
Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides
by Aeschylus

This trilogy of plays begins just as the Trojan War ends. It focuses on the House of Atreus, the war hero Agamemnon’s family.

**Because each section of the trilogy depends on the events in the previous section there will be SPOILERS**

Agamemnon, the first part of the trilogy, tells the story of his triumphant return home after the Trojan War. In order to gain favor with the gods before embarking on the journey to Troy to fight the war, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. Tricking both her and her mother into believing she was about to be wed to Achilles, Agamemnon instead murdered her to honor Artemis and receive the gift of winds to carry their ships.

Agamemnon’s cruel actions towards his daughter come back to haunt him when he returns. His wife Clytemnestra welcomes him home with open arms, inviting him to walk on a red carpet and honoring him with gracious speeches. All the while she is secretly planning his demise with the help of Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus.

Cassandra, King Priam’s daughter, was taken as a spoil-of-war by Agamemnon and is caught up in this horrible scene. She has the gift of sight and so she knows about the impending murder, but she is also cursed by Apollo so no one will believe her when she warns them of it. Cassandra has always been one of my favorite characters in Greek mythology. Her life is such a tragic one and her presence in this player added an extra layer of futility.

Part Two, The Libation Bearers is about Agamemnon’s son Orestes’ return to his home land. He quickly learns of his father’s murder and wants to avenge his death. Apollo’s oracle has instructed him to kill his mother in order to achieve this. With his sister Electra’s help he kills both his mother and Aegisthus. They trick Clytemnestra into thinking Orestes is already dead and then follow through with Apollo’s decree for her death. Almost immediately Orestes is haunted by The Furies and he is plagued with guilt for committing matricide.

The final section, The Eumenides, is about Orestes’ trial. The Furies have hounded Orestes for years. The gods must decide if he will be punished for his mother’s murder and so Athena arranges a trial with jurors from Athens.

There was no blood connection between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s, so his murder was not considered as heinous a crime as her’s. Murdering a blood relative is a more punishable offense, hence Orestes’ trial. During the play we learn the details of Agamemnon’s murder. Apollo comes to Orestes’ defense, explaining that he is the one who told him to avenge his father. Athena is the deciding vote in the trial, deciding to acquit Orestes of all guilt, but not truly giving him peace of mind from what he has done.

Greek mythology is all about cycles. You killed so-and-so, therefore I must kill you. You raped my wife, so I will curse you. You tricked me or refused me, so you will be fated to live in some form of agony. The more the gods meddle in human affairs the worse the cycle becomes. This trilogy is a perfect example of this cycle. One murder leads to another until almost everyone is dead. No one is truly spared from the horrific events.

BOTTOM LINE: I thought this one would be much denser and hard to read, but I found it relatively easy. I think that a big part of that is reading it while being immersed in the world of Greek mythology. I didn’t have to stop and try to remember who was who and how they were all connected because it was fresh in my mind. I would highly recommend reading this one along side The Odyssey and The Iliad as it provides closure for Agamemnon’s part of the Trojan War story.

*The Mythology book I’m reading includes another section of this story. A play by Euripides tells of Iphigenia and Orestes being reunited after all these events unfold. In that version, instead of being sacrificed by her father, Iphigenia is saved just before execution by Artemis and spirited away to live on an island as a priestess. Sometime after the trial Orestes arrives at the island and the two escape together.

I read this as part of the Let’s Read Plays yearlong event hosted by Fanda. From November 2012 to October 2013 participants will read 12 classic plays throughout the year, at least one each month.


Donna said...

Did you know that Greek plays were almost always presented as trilogies and this is the only surviving trilogy we have? (The Oedipus plays were not written as a trilogy but were parts of other trilogies.)

The Orestia is among my favorite Greek literature. I believe The Eumenides is Aeschylus' way of explaining the change from eye-for-an-eye justice to trial by jury. It is a really important piece of literature. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Donna - That's fascinating! I loved reading this trilogy and knowing that it's the only remaining trilogy makes it even more interesting.

Fanda Classiclit said...

I haven't read anything from Aeschylus, but just like ancient Rome, Greek mythology always intrigued me. Perhaps someday I might come to this.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I was on a Greek kick last month so I really liked it!