The Oresteia

I realized today tht it’s been a long time since I talked about design philosophy. I’ve been offering some guidance on some structural analysis software for earthquake design to two colleagues over the past few days. Whenever embarking on the analysis and design process for the first time, in this case theirs rather than mine, you are forced to revisit the basic principles that you’re operating with. So, consequently I’ve been having some interesting thoughts about seismic design, and the approach in the old code (that is being superseded over the next year) compared to the new.

However, since I’m a couple of days late on a classics essay, I think I should briefly discuss those issues instead.

The question I’ve decided to answer is:

In what sense or senses (if at all) does the Eumenides resolve the issues explored in Aeschylus’ trilogy the Oresteia?

I’ve noticed over the past few years that I prefer essays which give me scope to wander far from the specific text at hand and examine all kinds of tangential philosophic issues. This essay is potentially no different, because the central issue in Orestes’ story is whether justice should be public or private; at least according to Jed Bartlet. 🙂 The issue of Justice is a particularly relevant one at the moment; at least according to Idiot.

Broadly, the story goes thus:
Atreus, father of Menelaos and Agamemnon, had a falling out with his brother Thyestes over the rulership of Mykenae/Argos. Atreus came out on top, and when his brother came to offer due penance and oblations, Atreus murdered Thyestes’ children (except for the youngest, Aegisthus, who was not brought to the meeting) and tricked Thyestes into eating them.

Fast forward: Agamemnon marries Klytemnestra, while Menelaos marries Helen. Helen is stolen by Alexandros, a half-wild Trojan prince, and war is declared between the two sides. As the greek fleet prepares to sale from Aulis, a sacrifice is offered of a pregnant hare. Artemis, goddess of the hunt and virginity, takes offense and turns the winds against the Greeks so they can’t sail until she is satisfied. Well, turns out that the necessary sacrifice is Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s eldest child. Faced with the choice of not rampaging across the Aegean and sacrificing his daughter, Agamemnon choses death.

While Agamemnon’s off raping and pillaging, Aegisthus returns to Mykenae and hooks up with Klytemnestra, who is understandably upset by the sacrifice. So upset that in most versions of the myth she condemns her young daughter Elektra to semi-slavery and exiles her son.

At length, Agamemnon returns, and the lovers kill him. Usually Klytemnestra bears the burden of this crime alone. Even later in the piece, Orestes returns and kills both Klytemnestra and Aegisthus; unfortunately they leave nobody to revenge them, and so the Furies step in to do what needs to be done. Orestes appeals to Apollo, who more-or-less ordered him to take his just revenge and Apollo says “sorry bud, gone fishing”. Instead Orestes travels to Athens, where in the first jury trial he is acquitted of murder.

Whew. So, upshot is this: justice is in the purview of the public, as they are neutral. This is not too different from the situation depicted by Homer at the end of the Odyssey, where the families of the suitors come to kill Odysseus and Athene comes down from Olympos and says “nanananananana, can’t do it”.

There are a lot of different versions of this floating around, and each person puts their own spin on the essential Justice of Orestes actions compared to the justice of Klytemnestra’s revenge on Agamemnon for murdering her daughter. Homer’s pretty quiet about the affair, except as a warning to Telemachos and Odysseus that women aren’t to be trusted. Sophocles and Euripides focus their attention on the latter phases of the whole story, and my initial take is that they don’t have a huge amount of sympathy for Klytemnestra.

The point of this essay is partially to decide where Aeschylus’ sympathies lie. But to a large extent, it doesn’t really matter who’s right and who’s wrong. The point is that the cycle of violence must be broken, and hence after much spurious (and somewhat specious) argument, Orestes is acquitted. He couldn’t be found guilty, because that merely positions society in the place of the furies, one demonic and relentless foe replaced with another.

So, there’s a pretty conventional take on the situation. Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers set up the framework for the court-scene and then the Eumenides resolves it. But I’ve been noticing a few interesting things in the structure and lietmotifs. For example, the Furies get their first mention very early in the play, and they are referred to about another dozen times. I haven’t counted precisely, but I think they’re actually mentioned more than Agamemnon himself. Certainly they, and brief asides about Justice, appear every hundred lines or so. When we get to the Eumenides they appear at the same time as Orestes, and though he leaves the trial at line 780, the Furies only exit at the end of the play 300 lines later. They are, in other words, the characters whose implied presence unites the three plays. The best any other character manages is Orests in two, most of the other characters appear in one play only. Of course, they only physically appear in the third play, so maybe I’m reading too much into the references to them.

The furies are made more important than their mere plot function by their almost omnipresence in the mind of the characters, as a close reading of the text shows. I am almost inclined to argue that they are in fact a personification of Justice (that’s why I’ve been capitalizing it up till now, not because I don’t understand what a proper noun is. 🙂 ) And hence, much of the trilogy isn’t about the mortal characters except as they express themselves as acting in the name of Justice (as they all do), which leads you to believe that Justice is the main character, rather than Orestes.

The conception of Justice that’s offered isn’t in accord with ours either. I think that our justice system would have condemned Orestes. Aside from the thematic reason already mentioned for his exculpation, there is a strong logistical reason. Without a strong nobility, the Greek city states were anarchic. Close readig of the Chorus’ speeches in the Agamemnon reveal many touches where they note things aren’t working properly in Agamemnon’s absence. Orestes, as the head of the house, is the lynch-pin in the basic building block of greek society. Also vital is the fidelity of a wife.

Oddly though, neither Orestes nor the Furies even touch on these points when offering their arguments. Orestes’ argument is simply that he was following orders, and the Furies don’t try to build a case, favouring jury-tampering via threats. Neither argument or statement of the facts is particularly full or compelling. I wonder just how close they might have been to arguments offered in real Athenian courts. Pretty close based on inference from Demosthenes. 😦

Also interesting are the range of issues that Aeschylus doesn’t touch on that sprang unbidden to my mind as a child of the 20th century, but perhaps I will follow up that line in a subsequent post. And friends, there will definitely be a post in the near future on Chaucer, that champion of the rights of women and indigenous peoples.

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One Response to The Oresteia

  1. sokky says:

    I’m not sure which of these things I can possibly be blamed for ;P

    If I wasn’t running mad with the power of my internet at home right now, I would make an insightful remark about your Aeschylus essay.

    *insert insightful remark here while I run off and explore the wonders of non-work internet*

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