The Rise of the New World in Aeschylus’ The Oresteia
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But who can tell aright the fiercer thing,
The aweless soul, within man's breast inhabiting?
Who tell how, passion-fraught and love - distraught,
The woman's eager, craving thought
Doth wed mankind to woe and ruin fell? (Aeschylus 78)
This lyrical excerpt from the song of the Choephori (The Libation Bearers) in a highly pensive note marks the finale of the scene that takes place at Agamemnon’s grave, near the palace of Argos. That is when the two siblings, Orestes and Electra, reunited after a long time, are planning the murder of their mother Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. It has to be mentioned that matricide or patricide was considered to be the most atrocious crime in the ancient Greece. However, such a dire act was slightly justified by Clytemnestra having murdered the siblings’ father, and by Apollo who himself requested the punishment. What really stands out here, in the Chopehori’s lament, is the great division between men and women in terms of the source of their madness: the hybris, the excess, the lavishness, all being bringers of doom that “wed mankind to woe and ruin” (Aeschylus 78). The madness of the woman is indirectly but strongly tied to her instincts and sexuality, as the “passion-fraught and love-distraught” (78) and the “craving thought” (78) are in Aeschylus’ point of view manners of excesses now colossally rendered by the womanhood’s greatest asset, the ability to give birth. On the other hand, the hybris of the men is related to boldness, audacity, and overconfidence in a warrior’s strength. Such distinction between the hybris of the men and that of the women demonstrates a very strong connection between the female and the chthonic forces, and it ties the social function of the master or ruler to masculinity, on the other hand.
The chthonic forces of the Greek pantheon are rather ambiguous elements. Aeschylus definitely refers to them in The Oresteia as to the forces of the underworld that are closely tied to fertility as well as to envy, lust, and sensuality. They are depicted as the monsters or creatures of darkness and dread.
In order to justify the killing of her husband Agamemnon, Clytemnestra’s complex plea put forward the sacrificial rite of her daughter Iphigenia, born in blood and pain, for the purpose of winning the war, denying her maternal right associated with the warrior master. Besides, the image of Iphigenia’s death on the altar by the insistence on blood and pain depicts a reversed echo of her birth. Even so, this entitlement is soon shadowed to a mere pretext once Clytemnestra accuses the long absence of Agamemnon from the conjugal bed. Finally, the “passion-fraught and love-distraught, the woman’s eager, craving thought” (Aeschylus 78) in the end satisfied by Aegisthus, is revealed as the real reason that stands behind Clytemnestra murdering Agamemnon.
The elders of the city, representing the chorus of the trilogy’s first part, are regarding the murderous wife in the terms as depicted above. Thus, they are indignantly contesting any rights her paramour Aegisthus has taken as the new leader of the city. Consequently, Orestes and Electra are not considering Clytemnestra to be the mother who gave them birth, but as the one who has stripped them of all rights, sending them to a social death in favor of her lover. As a lover, Clytemnestra appears to be a creature of reversed birthing, the devourer, and Orestes’ nurse is convinced that the display of her pain at the news of Orestes’ death is fake. It is said to be a mask underneath which the joy that the potential candidate to the throne of Argos and therefore her lover’s adversary hides, is now gone.
These are the results derived from the sequence that ends with the Choephori excerpts at Agamemnon’s grave. Even there, in a place and at a time where reminiscence and the current state of affairs could have brought it up, nobody, not even the Choephori mentioned the sacrifice of Iphigenia. There was no love that was lost between them and Agamemnon, as it was he who had reduced their social ranking to mere servants, as their status of spoils of war entitled him. It is this particular detail that is a clue to the fact that Aeschylus’ tragedy reflects a point of view of that time, a mindset rooted for long now, since all choruses from the first parts of “The Oresteia” share it.
If we take in consideration the deities that are joining the family conflict, the Erinyes (also known as Furies in Roman mythology) on Clytemnestra’s side and Apollo on Agamemnon’s side, and also the fact that the female monsters are the daughters of the Night, who take the interference of the new gods as a trespassing, there is a reason to think that Aeschylus has chosen The Oresteia to celebrate a significant change in the society. The old gods are the chthonic gods, the masters of birth. In the last part of “The Oresteia” the chorus of the Erinyes threatens the citizens of Athens with the drought of the land that would occur if the Areopagus (judicial body assembled by the elders) ruled for Orestes, therefore justifying the murder of his mother and also depriving them of the right to punish him. The new gods, on the other hand, The Olympians, are those of the city. Athena herself, who presides over the trial of Orestes, is a goddess without a mother, who was born from the head of Zeus and represents the full-fledged woman that was set free from the connection to the chthonic mystery of blood and pain.
The act of revenge in the human world, like the apple that started the Trojan War, becomes a struggle of the gods, with dominion being the prize. The triumph of the new gods over the old ones now reduced to positions of underlings has also a deeper meaning: it consecrates a downgrade of the woman rights in society. The trial of Orestes also challenges the role of the woman as birthing mother on the grounds of the warrior goddess’ birth, in favor of the role of nursing mother. Just like the old chthonic gods lost their positions, everything that’s tied to them in the new society has to disappear or to be significantly altered to fit the new mindset. Set free from the fears of the daughters of the Night, the Areopagus denies women any right to lead, rule, and in general to participate in the life and well being of the state, in any way. With the exception of Athena herself, the judicial body is comprised only of men. There is no mentioning of any other form of social life anywhere in “The Oresteia”, because Clytemnestra, the murderous wife, does not assume the leading role of her husband after having killed him, offering it to Aegisthus, her lover. The old ways of the world can only be deduced from the existence of the conflict of the gods, which was diplomatically solved in favor of the new gods by means of granting the old ones temples and offerings from the citizens of Athens. Thus, the old deities that are tamed and are now known by the name of Eumenides can participate in the well being of the new harmonious way of life.
From this perspective, “The Oresteia” does not only celebrate the triumph of the powers of light, of rightful justice over the dark right of an eye for an eye, but it also celebrates the triumph of a new world, a world of men. The city/state that stands for this new world is a symbol of the goddess that is a maiden and has no husband. Her other half is her twin brother Apollo, the god of light. The human womanhood, as the subordinate part of mother and wife, will still maintain a guileful role of duplicity, closely tied to the darkness that is ruled by monsters, is seen as the dominant characteristic when she manifests as the lover.
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