Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aeschylus, Tragedy and the Oresteia

Notes On Liberty

Ancient Athens was the place where the comic and tragic traditions in western drama began. Aeschylus (c. 525 BCE to c. 456) was the first of three great tragedians. The other two will be considered in the next two posts. The work of those three is often known as Attic tragedy, with reference to the region of Attica which contains Athens and was part of the lands of the Athenian city-state at that time. The idea of a city state with extensive land outside the city might sound oxymoronic, but city states which expanded into neighbouring territory and where power still rested in institutions of city self-government, are generally still referred to as city states.

The tragedies were performed in day long festivals, which included religious sacrifices, and heavy consumption of wine.  Festivals took place in an outdoor theatre, the amphitheatre, examples of which can still be seen in Athens…

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Athena between Apollo and Dionysius: Aeschylus’ Oresteia, The Eumenides

The last part of Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy the Oresteia  is the Eumnides (The Kindly Ones), which is not really a tragedy. No one dies, or even falls form a position of good fortune. The hero does not have some failure of judgement which leads to disaster, of a kind often accompanied by discovery of some painful truth. The tragedy is in the back story. Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War, because he sacrificed their daughter to raise a wind for the fleet. These events themselves have a backstory in the life of Atreus, the father of Agamemnon. The Eumnides is the story about how law can replace violent revenge as a basis of sanctions against those who cause harm, who violate the basic law of the cosmos, or nature or the gods. Orestes was  driven to take revenge against Clytemnestra by the message from Apollo that he himself would be polluted if he did not kill his polluted mother. Clytemnestra appears as ghost demanding revenge through the furies.

The furies are determined to punish Orestes, causing horror to the God Apollo, who is disgusted by their appearance and their pleasure in sadistic violence. He thinks they belong to the underworld, so exist in contrast with the beautiful Olympian gods associated with the world of sensation, not deprivation of the senses.  His Priestess at the Oracle of Delphi is shown to inhabit some strange dark world though, the underworld nature of the fate is not just connected to the fates. When Apollo seeks her protection, she sees a very strange sight, Orestes with the fates, who are described as very ugly looking bird things. The sanctuary provided by the oracle is one were Orestes is present with his sword covered in his mother’s blood, and with a vine leaf crown, connected with some white wool, and the dreadful fates, right next to him but unable to harm him.

Orestes goes to Athens for judgement, turning the play into a justification for Athenian leadership in Greece, and the dominance it exercised over ‘allies’, which included turning Athenian courts into the highest court for all allied states. In going to Athens, Orestes he puts himself under the divine judicial protection of Athena., the presiding deity at Athens, the Parthenon temple was built by Pericles in Golden Age Athens around the cult of Athena who had a giant statue at the Parthenon. The Furies pursue Orestes to Athens, and Athena organises a trial of Orestes where the vote is divided between the Furies and citizens of Athens, with Athena herself having the casting vote. The vote split between the Athenian citizens (presumably male) and the Furies. Athena casts her vote on the side o Orestes using arguments  referring to the supposed great link between child and father than child and mother. Athena herself was born from the head of Zeus, so we could see her position as the product of a strange start to life, though what she also says is very normal for Greek thought of the time. Orestes himself had very little to do with either parent, his father Agamemnon went away for war for 10 years when Orestes was a child. Orestes never sees him again, and had not seen his mother either for a long time (maybe 10 years) since she sent him into exile on the departure of Agamemnon, until he kills her in revenge for the death of the father he hardly knew. So the arguments about closeness to parents are strange in relation to Orestes’ own life. Athena’s casting vote frees Orestes to be King of Argos with Athenian permission, and places the male above the female. However, Athena does have something to offer the Furies. They are given new form and new residence, so that they are less repugnant and less associated with a dark and fearful underworld. They become the Eumenides, the kindly ones, who judge and enforce law with less of the cruel fanaticism they exhibited as Furies. This is all part of the mythical foundation of a historical court in Athens, the Areopagus, a very long lasting institution in Athens, which St Paul visited.

Eumenides  combines different forms of the sacred, exploring different levels of the divine. The Furies are an obscenely ugly and evil expression of the divine,. Their presence at the Pythian Oracle in Delphi with Orestes who they wish to tear apart suggests a world of fear that a beautiful princely personage call victim in an instant to terrible forces of suffering and destruction, which higher divine forces try to keep within bounds. In that part of the play, the Furies are compared with devotees of Dionysius tearing apart a king. There is a suggestion then of the conflict of Apollo and Dionysius which Nietzsche saw as the heart of tragedy. The tension between Orestes and the Furies is a displacement of that conflict as is the tension between Orestes and his mother Clytemnestra. That the resolution of the conflict is left to a goddess suggests some ambiguity within the official Athenian way of thinking apparently endorsed in the play. Athena is Apollo and Dionysius?

Thoughts on Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers

(2nd of sequence of weekly posts referring to texts in the philosophy and tragedy course I am giving this semester)

In the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, Orestes avenges the murder of his father in a vindication of an ethic of revenge and the of blood to cleanse pollution, but also with a sense of horror and wish to atone for the murder of his mother. His mother Clytemnestra had conspired to kill her husband King Agamemnon of Argıos, working with her lover Aegisthius, who carries out the deed. Clytemnestra’s crime is motivated by Agamemnon’s absence for 10 years during the Trojan War, and by the sacrifice Agamemnon made of their daughter Iphigenia so that the Greek fleet could sail to Troy. Orestes has been in exile since his father led the Greek alliance to Anatolia, and that is part of his grievance against his mother mentioned as he is about to murder her.

Orestes’ sister Electra also has a part in the drama. They meet at the beginning of the play after many years of separation. Electra does not recognise Orestes while mourning at Agamemnon’s burial mound; it is the sight of a lock of his hair which leads her to realise that he is nearby. We have the issue of family bond in that recognition and reunion, a family bond which is under extreme oppression with all the killing that takes place between members of the House of Atreus. An unbreakable bond of physical resemblance, of shared physical characteristics is suggested between brother and sister. The brother-sister bond is famously at the centre of Sophocles’ Antigone, and we will look at that play in a few weeks.

The recognition and reunion between brother and sister in The Libation Bearers gives the opportunity to show different attitudes to the death of Agamemnon. Orestes wishes that he had died as a hero at Troy, while Electra is disturbed by the idea of a battlefield burial in a distant land, preferring the idea that he could have come back and reigned again. The son’s wish that the father had died before returning to Argos brings an interesting tension into his speech and actions. Is there some way in which Clytemnestra and Aegisthius were acting out his wish? Does that explain the murderous revenge, followed by a mixture of triumph and remorse?

Orestes partly justifies his double murder with reference to curses from his father and a fate he cannot escape except through murder. The chorus calls for a killing which will be so deep that it will cleanse the House of Atreus of all the blood since Agamemnon’s father Atreus tricked Thyestes into eating his own dead cooked children . The punishment refers to the earth, the powers of the underworld and to blood. This is in contrast with the role Apollo plays as the god behind the order Orestes claims to uphold. There is tension between the underworld elemental force of revenge and the world of Olympian divinities protecting a political, legal and social system. The title refers to the opening scene in which Clytemnestra has sent women to pour libations on Agamemnon’s grave, though the libation bearers could also be Orestes and Electra.

Orestes is the exile who brings justice to his homeland, the very act of sending him away from Argos adds to his mother’s guilt. His home coming is a murder of his mother and her lover. He appears as a stranger, accepting hospitality from Clytemnestra before killing her. This is an echo of the abuse of hospitality when Paris took Menelaus’s wife Helen back to Troy with him, and the abuse of hospitality of the suitors of Penelope when Odysseus was away at the Trojan War and travelling home. Orestes’ violence is also an echo of the slaughter of the suitors by Odysseus and his son Telemachus. His return to his home in disguise is an echo of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. The issue of hidden identity and reversed identity is s major issue in The Odyssey followed up various Greek tragedies. Aeschylus stands at the beginning of tragedy bas a major literary for.

Orestes’ killing of Clytemnestra uses a the garment within which he says Clytemnestra and Aegisthius trapped Agamemnon; Orestes refers to the danger of a trap in the opening scene when Electra says that he might be part of a trap, and he responds that is the one in danger of being trapped. This suggests the traps of fate, pollution and revenge they are all caught in, and a general triumph of death, as the garment is a funeral shroud. Electra refers to words which will arouse the angry dead, and the inadequacy of Clytemnestra’s attempts to appease the powers of the earth by sending libation bearers.There is constant fear of death, of dark underworld powers combined with attempts to use them. The play ends with Orestes both transfixed by the passion of his killing and its justification, but also aware that it might be see as unjust violence. He is ready to tae his case to Apollo, the god of law and light, while also facing the threat of the Furies invoked by his mother.

Thoughts on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: Horror, Kingship, Hospitality and Lucretius

The picture of human existence in Agamemnon, is of suffering. It is suggested that humans only become wise through suffering, but even more darkly that human happiness leads to disaster and downfall. The idea of a following a middle course of avoiding extremes appears, and idea particularly associated with Aristotle among ancient thinkers, but the idea is present throughout antique philosophy and culture that self-restraint and moderation are at the heart of happiness, the good life and ethics. Good fortune seems to lead to bad fortune, as it seems inevitable that humans will make bad decisions so that good fortune will become the instrument of bad fortune. Good fortune, at the extreme, may attract the malevolent interest of divine forces, which always wish to keep things within proportion and are even jealous of greatness. There is a suggestion that to be a king necessarily attracts that divine jealousy. Those who live in palaces will be noticed by divine forces and punished for standing out too much. Aeschylus is writing at a time when there are no kings in Athens, and the Greeks generally  have adopted some kind of sharing as power in most cases.  For Aristotle a good king has something divine about him, a man of really exceptional goodness would be like a god and would have to be king. By the time Aristotle is writing the Macedonian monarchy, with which he was associated, has established hegemony over Greece, including Athens. Aeschylus died before the birth of Philip II who established that Macedonian monarchy. It is useful to remember that Aristotle’s own comments on Greek tragedy are separated from the time of the great tragedies. The tragedies themselves refer to an even bigger gap in time, the gap between classical Greece, and Bronze Age Greece, or Mycenaean palace civilisation. Between Bronze Age Greece and Classical Greece there is the Greek Dark Ages and Archaic Greece, which produced the Homeric epics, to which the tragedians refer. So the tragedians use this lost age to approach issues of a world which no longer exists, but also in someway that are present in classical antiquity. One message of the time is that concentration of power in one person, or in one family leads to disaster.

The ethics in the tragedies is partly one of avoiding pollution. Clytemnestra creates a pollution that has to be expelled from the community when she murders her husband. Her polluting act is itself a response to an earlier polluting act, Agamemnon sacrificing their daughter. That Clytemnestra is acting out of revenge is not regarded as an extenuating factor in the play. There must  be some sympathy created in the audience, but as the audience was  mostly if not entirely male, there must be a predominant fear and hatred of the woman who pollutes her family and her community by murdering her husband. Her act serves divine vengeance but demands an act of vengeance itself, which the play indicates will come from Orestes, the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. Her adultery with Aegisthus who plans to seize the throne increases the revulsion for the original audience. Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter is itself presented as criminal and polluting, even as madness.There is a complete loss of the general moderation apparently endorsed by Aeschylus. Again, his act serves divine purposes but is in no way excused by that. There is background to that act of madness in the preceding murderous violence within the House of Atreus and the crime of the Trojan prince in seducing the wife of King Menelaus. That is an example of the good fortune which leads to bad fortune, since Menelaus’ happiness with Helen is doomed to be replaced  by the devastation of her departure . There is the suggestion that the greatest good fortune must come from crime, and so must be polluting with catastrophic consequences. If not the crime of that person, then the crime of an ancestor which in this case is Atreus, father of Menelaus and Agamemnon.  The form of tragedy is to show how excess happiness comes from polluting crime and leads to downfall. Clytemnestra’s happiness at killing Agamemnon is just an extreme example of this. These errors of judgement which are so intense they are acts of madness are compared with the failure to understand nature, like the shepherd who looks after a lion cub unit the cub becomes a full grown lion that attacks the shepherd.

The reason for launching a huge navy to take a Greek army to Troy is the breach of laws of hospitality and friendship committed by Paris when he seduced Helen and took her to Troy. The bonds of hospitality and friendship are of extreme importance in the societies of the time of Aeschylus. Friendship is a major aspect of ethics for Aristotle, though in this he is abstracting from customary codes which we can see in the Homeric epics, where hospitality and friendship are among the deep issues. Troy shares the guilt of Paris, because King Priam shelters both him and Helen. The breach of hospitality and friendship, including familial ties, is at issue when Agamemnon returns to his palace in Argos to be murdered by his cousin, who has become the lover of this wife. The Paris-Helen adulterous coupling has been replaced by Aegisthus-Clytemnestra. Agamemnon finds himself the victim of inhospitality in his own home which has become a hostile place in his absence. Clytemnestra appears to offer the most extreme hospitality, treating him like a Persian king (an anachronism since Persians do not appear in the Homeric world). The play rests on the destruction of royal families, containing the suggestion that all kings are by nature of the role excessive, going beyond bounds, so inviting some kind of divine attack. Agamemnon is presented as a consultative law abiding king, so maybe a resisting excess. Clytemnestra’s attempted transformation of him in absolutist king is part of his destruction. The message seems to be that kingship is an excessive form of power, perhaps mitigated by respect for law and consultation, but definitely ripe for destruction when it goes beyond those bounds.

The destruction of the king is part of  vision of human life. The destruction has a dream like aspect, foreseen by Cassandra (the salve woman and prophetess from Troy) whose visions mingle the slaying of Agamemnon, Atreus murdering the sons of Thyestes, and the total violence of the fall of Troy, which consumes everyone including babies. The chorus early on suggests that life becomes vague, something like a dream in old age. Menelaus is reported to have such a state after his loss of Helen. Human existence stands on an abyss of horror which emerges in the dream like vision of the old, the grief stricken and those who communicate with the gods.

The killing of Agamemnon is preceded by Clytemnestra treating him as a very exalted king, which disturbs Agamemnon since he thinks that exaltation makes him like a Persian king, not a Greek king who follows law and consults his people. He is a model of kingship from that point of view, though the play at least once indicates that his murder of his daughter did not even serve the purpose it was supposed to satisfy of bringing a wind to take the Greek ships to Troy, something to be achieved by a sacrifice to Artemis. Towards the end of the pay, this act is presented as done to appease the superstition of his men and not as a cruel necessity imposed by the gods. It may be this passage that Lucretius is thinking of in On Nature when he refers to overcoming the superstitious fear that led to the sacrifice of Iphigenia.