The Power of Zeus Teleios in the Oresteia
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Is the action in the Oresteia preordained? Is the trilogy simply a working through of destiny and fate; the ultimate telos of the events being the downfall of the house of Atreus? Are the characters in the story destroyed by themselves or by the necessity of the deeds that are carried out? These are some of the questions I will discuss in this essay.
I wish to concentrate on the end of the story as we know it, the Eumenides, with reference to character portrayal in the previous parts of the trilogy. The characters I am really interested in discussing are Klytaemnestra, the Erinyes and Orestes in particular, but am also going to make brief reference to the characters of Elektra and Athena.
Klytaemnestra appears in all three plays in the trilogy: which through repetition, for me at least, makes her the most important character. More than anything, in the Oresteia, we watch Klytaemnestra become powerless. It is her transgression of limits1 that we see rectified.
Klytaemnestra in Agamemnon is a strong and wilful woman, who relishes her part in the downfall of Agamemnon himself. She is proud of her action, accepts full responsibility for his death at her hands; she takes her vengeance against him for the death of Iphigeneia2. This is shown in lines such as 'I exult' (A 1417) and after she kills him, 'you think I'm some irresponsible woman?' (A 1425). Aeschylus uses her to embody the powerful 'heroic' ethic of vengeance - blood for blood.
This is unusual firstly because she is a woman; it would seem more appropriate to use a hero in the traditional Homeric sense to embody a heroic ethic. Secondly, we have the dichotomy between the markedly female Erinyes, visualising the nature of 'blood for blood' in Eumenides and the act of vengeance itself - expressed in Homer as a male 'heroic' ethic.
We know this is the start of a trilogy because an audience cannot see a woman - especially one as anti-matriarchal as Klytaemnestra - triumph over a king as famous and respected as Agamemnon. Her downfall is intrinsically tied in with his; she catches herself in the 'great net' (A 1402) and it is her struggles that 'merely tightened the tangle.' (A 1403).
Her struggle is shown in Choephori. She sends the ghost of Agamemnon3 libations in an attempt to appease the matricidal fury that she dreams of. They are 'wrung from the terrible heart of Klytaemnestra / which now begins to stagger with fear.' (C 49) When she and Orestes meet, she knows her fate; 'O God, let it be settled. / Let this long, bloody coil / come at last / to the final twist.' (C 878) as she has known it all along.
They engage in stichomythia: a dialogue of blame and excuses. Klytaemnestra makes explicit the fact that she was following a predetermined path, 'Do not blame me. I was in the hand of Fate.' (C 897) which is a change in stance after her previous statement in Agamemnon about the killing - 'I make no mistake. See, my work / perfected. I don't disown it.' (A 1400) Her own conviction of her choice to act in the way she did is being corrupted as she comes face to face with her own destiny: Orestes. She asks him at C 909, 'Will you murder your own mother?' and he replies, 'Me murder you? / Mother, you have already murdered yourself. / I merely hold the sword as you fall.' (C 910) This interchange really brings the problem of responsibility home. Klytaemnestra is deemed guilty of the murder of Agamemnon by Orestes; motive for doing so, or the guiding hand of destiny is not the issue for him. Simultaneously, she sees his ordained fate (and in some respects, her own victory?) as clearly as he sees the necessity of matricide.
Her ghost urges the Erinyes on in pursuit of her son at the beginning of Eumenides. She has been introduced to remind us of the real driving force behind this final play - the overturning of the old ethic and the beginning of a new democratic era. Again she embodies the old spirit of vengeance: she is closely associated with the furies. She has conjured them, she is depicted as being beneath the earth, she is bloody with the wound Orestes made. The only redemptive feature in her description of death is 'I stumble and run ashamed.' (E 102) which implies perhaps that she feels some kind of remorse for the actions she has taken.
Previously she has been portrayed as 'unfathomable evil! The spirit of evil / wears the face of Klytaemnestra' (A 1496/1497), a force to be reckoned with, cunning and powerful. Here, the worm has turned and as a ghost she is impotent. 'Klytaemnestra! / She is screaming to you from under the earth.' (E 120) Her power is lost: she can do nothing but hope that the Erinyes will fulfil their telos, but she does not reappear when they do not. She is vanquished.
Her role in the plays gradually diminish in importance and influence upon the action. Here, all she does is wake the Furies up; they would have done this anyway eventually. As the plays move towards the telos proscribed by Zeus, her screams become more and more faded, until finally the spirit of dik? is overruled.
Orestes appears in Choephori and Eumenides. His actions in Choephori are under impulse from Apollo: a strangely double edged character urging vengeance and at the same time in a reasoned manner. Apollo is a son; a product of Zeus and Hera. He is in the same position in terms of lineage as Orestes is, which is perhaps why he sides with him so vehemently: and also why he cannot judge the case himself, it must go to Athena. Apollo is too biased.
Apollo controls Orestes much in the same way as he controls Kassandra in Agamemnon - although we are allowed to think there is an element of Orestes free will involved, for example, when he asks: 'Pylades, can a man kill his mother? / Can he perform anything more dreadful / than the murder of his own mother? / What shall I do?' (C 899) Here we see Orestes is strong: he has not simply been taken over by the god as Kassandra was. He questions his actions and he knows what he does is wrong, regardless of Apollo's instruction. He acts, however, because he must.
Orestes may have started the play strong and supported by his sister, but by the end of the play, while Klytaemnestra's blood is still warm, he begins to be weakened by her furies and is driven into madness.4 Again, Apollo has caused madness - this time unwittingly. There is an almost irresponsible side to Apollo's character, especially as he underestimates the power of the Erinyes: 'After him then. Do your worst.' (E 224) Their worst is enough. Even though Apollo has promised him sanctuary from guilt, and in the eyes of god (as such) he is not guilty, Orestes must be damaged by the action he has taken in order that he can be absolved of it. However, 'Aeschylus must downplay the element of guilt in Orestes matricide, since he will found the Athenian system of justice on Orestes' acquittal'.5
Eumenides finds Orestes a strained character. His words are confused; he acts almost as the mouthpiece of Apollo. Again we see a marked similarity between him and Kassandra: (Kassandra) 'Apollo! God of my guidance - / you led me the whole long way / only to destroy me.' (A 1078) and Orestes 'Apollo - of all the gods you are the god / of justice. / I commit my whole life / to your guidance. / And your promise.' (E 89) This is why I think we do not see Orestes truly acquitted: he has been damaged too much by Apollo's support of his cause.
He does not seem to know whether what he has done was the correct course of action: he has been ground down by the pursuit of the Erinyes. 'I killed my mother. / Was I right or wrong?' (E 482) He places heavy emphasis upon Apollo's hand in his act, and now asks 'Apollo, teach me / how to defend / what I have done.' (E 618) Upon his acquittal, the weight of his words are on the benevolence of the Olympians and the fortune of Athens. The house of Atreus is realigned with Athens - 'Athene - / you are the new foundation of Agamemnon's / resurrected house.' (E 768) Even though he is acquitted of his crime, he is not freed from the terror of the Erinyes' memory. Orestes leaves halfway through the play, the last in the line of the Atreidae is broken. Again we see one who was strong brought down by the hand of Zeus.
It is the Erinyes that go through the most marked transformation from strong to weak however. Although they do not physically appear in Choephori, they are described by Orestes in such vivid detail that it is almost as though they do. 'Apollo! You did not warn me! / They are climbing out of the earth, / out of their burrows in old blood. / Eyes like weeping ulcers, / mouths like fetid wounds.' (C 1057/1058) It is something of an entrance into the audience's consciousness, these dark creatures have a powerful hold over Orestes: we watch him cracking under their pressure.
Their appearance in Eumenides is no less shocking. They are strong more as mental concepts than as deities and they have dik? on their side. Orestes is never actually going to escape in physical terms - 'Erinyes are known to exist, but most people do not see them. Orestes' madness is to see them as they really are.'6 The audience are brought into Orestes' world of terror by the fact that the Erinyes make up the chorus. 'The trilogy shows the audience that what madness saw was true. Everyone sees it.'7 Klytaemnestra need not have feared: she has enough vengeance upon her son without the need for his death.
The Erinyes battle long and hard over Orestes in the trial. They bring up the problem of hospitality between guests and hosts: at E 726 they say 'we are your guests. / Fear our anger.' This brings them more directly into opposition with Orestes (who is also asking for guest treatment) - rather than just trying to catch him and bring him down for Klytaemnestra's sake, they are fighting for their own acquittal. Their arguments for the old tenets of blood are destroyed by Athena's (and therefore, by inference, Zeus') logical establishment of the law court.
They use threats against the city; 'But if we lose this judgement / this land, and the city of Athens, / will decay. We shall blast it - with a curse.' (E 735) and it is this threat which becomes the problem after the acquittal and exit of Orestes. The Erinyes hypothesise on what the outcome will be for the man who does not fear the consequences of doing evil. 'That hand will stop at nothing. / The man without fear of the law / will easily kill, as if by nature.' (E 532) They equate themselves with what is time-honoured law; but the newly formed jury system based on reasoned 'parity of votes'8 is now called law as well. As Athena says, 'The day of reasoned persuasion, / with its long vision, / with its mercy, its forgiveness, / has arrived.' (E 839). The old laws and traditions must bend to accommodate the new: the Erinyes laws are obsolete.
Athena flatters them with soothing words 'I bow / to your wisdom' (E 867) and offers them the position of honoured deities of fertility. They have no choice in the decision, however, they must accept Athena's proposal, for she says: 'If you reject my words / you have no argument to justify / your taking revenge on Athens. / Athens offers you all that gods could hope for, / your reputation glorified in this city,' Their hand is forced into taking up the offer, if they do not, they will lose everything. This is the final insult (as it were) but by this time, they too are broken. They have been transformed by the fight for their own beliefs, and once these beliefs have been overthrown, there seems no point in holding on to them anymore. Athena calls them strong, 'these terrible powers' (E 940) but she has made them weak.
Elektra starts the Choephori weak and impotent, and she vanishes halfway through, in order that 'the focus remains undiminished on the son's and mother's conflict.'9 Her presence is seemingly to identify her sympathies and feelings about Klytaemnestra with Orestes. This provides a common bond of enmity towards Klytaemnestra between the unstained members of the house of Atreus: 'the recognition scene between Electra and Orestes as reasserting a particular family tie between the children, set against the doubts and uncertainties surrounding their relationships with their parents.'10 Elektra is weak: but her return into the oikos gives her back her own strength: the strength of respectability as a citizen woman.11
Apollo is somewhat undermined by his sudden disappearance, he is obsolete after Athena takes over the true role of justice. His justice is too one-sided to resolve this argument. He weakens his own status through the strangely petty insults he throws at the Erinyes during the trial. 'We have moved out of darkness, but we are not yet on even keel; neither Apollo's extreme and designedly unconvincing arguments about the primacy of the male, nor the lofty disdain that he shows towards the older deities, crude though they are, allow us to feel that we are on firm ground.'12 Athena shows herself to be far above that kind of name calling, instead respecting the old goddesses, and offering them an honoured place in Athenian society.
Athena and Zeus are closely identified: 'Only I, Pallas Athene, / possess the key / that unlocks the thunderbolt of Zeus.' (E 836) Zeus' laws and decrees are given through her - 'the highest god, who rules the world according to eternal laws, also knows ?????, the mercy which can solve the apparently insoluble. [...] Man cannot by his own power break away from the bondage of crime and destiny which encircles him, but the ????? of the gods, in whose hands he is, can release him'13 This point of view suggests that Orestes has been released: I have already argued against this. Zeus here is deemed to be merciful. I do not believe that we are given this perspective in the Oresteia.
Athena is strong and dignified throughout the Eumenides. This is presumably a reference to Athens' political might at the time (c.454 BCE) - her golden age of economic growth and democracy. The argument expounded in Vernant's 'The historical moment of tragedy in Greece'14 suggests that between Solon and Agathon, there emerged a new form of society that created a gap between the interest in the old 'heroic' ethics and era, and the creation of new democratic laws and social structure based in a wider sector of people. In the Oresteia, Aeschylus moves away from Homeric myth which starts the trilogy, gradually into the present with Eumenides. Although the story is still located in the heroic past, the actions depicted in Athens are directly referential to Aeschylus' contemporary period.
In the end, the only things that emerge stronger from this tale of blood are the Athenian political system, the interest in justice for all and the position of Athena. Female and male are weakened or destroyed regardless of gender. Zeus Teleios has preordained the destruction of the house of Atreus; there is no escape for any member of the family.
Do the characters destroy themselves, or are they broken by the predestined necessity of the deeds they perform? The problem of double determinism is indeed present, but there is a somewhat overriding feeling of characters moving without being able to stop themselves. It is a combination of Zeus' will, and the corruption of the characters involved by the old bloodstains of the cursed house.
The Erinyes are hated by gods and men alike; 'inhuman. / Monsters from a different world / to be cursed by God and men.' (E 60) - and their transformation into kindly fertility goddesses strengthens only the emphasis on Athens' 'land of the blessed' image of the time. The Erinyes, powerful with their dark, bloody and old motivations are quietened and subjugated in favour of Athenian (and by inference, Olympian) glory. Zeus Teleios has indeed ensured that there is no victor in the trilogy: the destiny of all those less than Olympian gods is to be transformed to fit into the new world order more easily. Zeus' ultimate telos was to repay the bloodline of Tantalus for his ancient crime against the Olympians. Along the way, he destroys the power of the individual in man's society through the establishment of the law court. Finally, though, Zeus has overseen the whole episode.
* Aeschylus the Oresteia trans. Philip Vellacott, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1956.
* Aeschylus the Oresteia trans. Robert Fagles, New York: Penguin Books, 1976.
* Aeschylus the Oresteia trans. Ted Hughes, London: Faber and Faber, 1999. (Please note: all quotations used are from this translation.)
* Foley, H. P. ed., Reflections of women in antiquity, New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1981.
* Goldhill, S. Language, sexuality, narrative: the Oresteia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
* Goldhill, S. Reading Greek Tragedy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
* Hall, E, "Ithyphallic Males Behaving Badly; or, Satyr Drama as Gendered Tragic Ending" in Parchments of Gender, ed., M. Wyke, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.
* Kitto, H. D. F. Greek Tragedy, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1939.
* Lesky, A, Greek Tragedy, English translation, Great Britain: Ernest Benn Ltd, 1965.
* Lloyd-Jones, H, "The Guilt of Agamemnon", in Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy, ed., E. Segal, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
* Vernant, J-P, Vidal-Naquet, P, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, New York: Zone books, 1988.
1. S. Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) p. 152.
2. There are aspects of Klytaemnestra's motives that are more complicated than this, for example; 'While Clytemnestra in the Agamemnon, for example, is initially propelled into action over the sacrifice of her daughter, her motives by the end of the Trojan war have become considerably more complex. She rejects her husband and chooses her own mate, and acts to secure political power for herself.' H. P. Foley, "The Concept of women in Athenian Drama" p. 151. In H. P. Foley, ed., Reflections of women in antiquity, (New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1981.)
3. How different the play's emphasis would be if Aeschylus had chosen to portray Agamemnon's ghost here: instead we know of his presence through Orestes' internal battles. Presumably, with foreknowledge of Odyssey XI, we do not need to see Agamemnon.
4. 'With one of the loneliest lines in tragedy, "You do not see them: I do," Aeschylus pinpoints the gulf between mad and sane. It is defined by how and what each sees.' R. Padel, Whom Gods Destroy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.) p. 80
5. Foley, Concepts, p. 138
6. Padel, Whom, p. 78.
7. Padel, Whom, p. 80.
8. Lesky, A, Greek Tragedy, English translation, Great Britain: Ernest Benn Ltd, 1965. p. 84.
9. S. Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) p. 152.
10. Goldhill, Reading, p. 85.
11. This refers to Athenian citizen wives who were deemed at their most virtuous if they were not seen or heard of in society. They belong in the oikos alone; things go wrong when a woman is allowed to be involved in the polis. (With reference to Goldhill, p.151.)
12. H. D. F. Kitto, Greek Tragedy, (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1939) p. 92.
13. Lesky, Tragedy, p. 84.
14. In Vernant, J-P, Vidal-Naquet, P, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, (New York: Zone books, 1988).