The Oresteia ~ The Eumenides

The Eumenides by Aeschylus
“I give first place of honor in my prayer to her
who of the gods first prophesied, the Earth; and next
to Themis, who succeeded to her mother’s place
of prophecy; so runs the legend; and in third
succession, given by free consent, not won by force, 
another Titan daughter of Earth was seated here. …..”

Time passes and Orestes arrives at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, still pursued by the Furies.  His conflict continues in tormenting unrelief and he appeals to Apollo for alleviation from his guilt.  He has avenged his father, but in doing so has murdered his mother.  Divine command has clashed with divine decree, and he is helpless to navigate his way through the maze of paradoxical possibilities.  The priestess, Pythia, is shocked to find him in the suppliant’s chair with a sword dripping with blood and the sleeping Furies surrounding him.  A spell has been placed upon them by Apollo so Orestes can travel unhampered to Athens, which he does after Apollo absolves him of complicity in his murder of Clytaemestra. But now he must seek Athena for a possible resolution to his dilemma.

Aeropagus with the Acropolis in the background
source Wikimedia Commons

Yet the ghost of Clytemnestra awakens the Furies and they pursue their prey to Athens, where Orestes is suppliant, and at the Aeropagus the goddess Athena must intervene with a jury of men to pronounce sentence upon the tormented man.  Immediately Apollo is set up as Orestes’ defence, while the Furies appear as the prosecution in support of Clytaemestra’s ghost, yet in the end, by a tally of votes, Orestes is acquitted.

The Oresteia :  Agamemnon / The Libation Bearers / The Eumenides

This play is perhaps the most complex and difficult of the trilogy.  The Furies are older than both Apollo and Athena, and it is thought that they symbolize the old pre-democratic system of ancient Greece.  Their childish simplicity of pre-Hellenic times clashes with the more sophisticated Hellenism of Apollo, where reason, intellect and civility are emphasized; to the Furies, the reason why Orestes has blood on his hands is unimportant, only that it is there.  Yet while Apollo’s reasoning is more refined, his advice and actions echo a similar cruelty to his counterparts.  Athena must intervene, reconciling man to woman, traditional to modern, and barbarism to culture.  To do this she surprisingly convenes a Jury of Athenian men, effectively entrusting the burden of judgement and the transformation to a more equitable society onto the shoulders of men, deeming certain situations and conflicts too complex to be judged by one individual.

In this case, we do no know if the jury has an odd or even number of members, and these numbers do affect our interpretation, as the votes are balanced and for a decision, Athena’s vote is required.  Did she break a tie or did she make one?  In either case, Orestes is acquitted but what is the implication of each scenario?  If Athena’s vote was needed to break a tie, it is implied that human justice still cannot resolve the dilemma; in the later case, it would appear humans are still drawn to the old ways and her vote is needed to push them towards a new order.  In either case, the gods are still necessary.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1921)
John Singer Sargent
source Wikiart

At the point of writing the play, the Greeks had a court system in place, but Aeschylus back-dates it into myth to weave together the old justice system with the new.  The Aeropagus council dominated Athenian government in the 6th century, but by 5th century their powers were curtailed, during the reforms of 462.  It is thought that Aeschylus’ trilogy was addressing these reforms, however, there is dissension among scholars over whether he is admonishing the reformers for not respecting the old system or stressing its importance.  In The Eumenides, the Furies are not discarded, rather they are absorbed by the new order and changed into ‘the kindly ones’.

Now that I’ve finished this play, I’ve read all of Aeschylus’ surviving works with the exception of Prometheus Bound, which is attributed to Aeschylus, but just as likely a play written by another playwright, possibly his grandson.   Otherwise, I’ve read:

I’ll move on to Sophocles next, but I think I might read Electra first, as she played a significant role in this trilogy, and Euripides also wrote a play about her, linking the three playwrights around a specific subject.

The Oresteia ~ The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus

The Return of Orestes (1785)
Anton von Maron
source Wikimedia Commons

The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus
“Hermes, lord of the dead, who watch over the powers
of my fathers, be my saviour and stand by my claim.
Here is my own soil that I walk.  I have come home;
and by this mounded gravebank I invoke my sire
to hear, to listen …..”

Mercury (Hermes) (1636-38)
Peter Paul Rubens
source Wikimedia Commons

The play opens with Orestes standing at the tomb of Agamemnon, with a request to Hermes (or “Cthonic Hermes” who acts as a messenger between the Olympian gods and the Underworld) for favour and for the ear of his father, to bring his spirit back into play. Sadly, in the only surviving manuscript of The Libation Bearers brought to Florence in the 15th century, the opening speech is damaged and there are number of missing lines, the number of which can only be guessed (an estimate is 80 lines).  However, other lines survive in works of other authors:  the first five lines are written in Aristophanes’ play, The Frogs, and other lines can be found in the commentaries of other authors, however, it is expected that most of the explanatory prologue has been lost.

As Orestes lays a lock of his hair on the tomb to honour his dead father, a Chorus of women, dressed all in black, hurry towards the grave.  As they approach, Orestes and his companion, Pylades, hide themselves and he recognizes his sister, Electra, among the mourners.

The women are captive slaves who have been sent by Clytaemestra to pour libations (liquid offerings) on Agamemnon’s grave in response to a nightmare which has disturbed her sleep.  The dead king rages through the queen’s dreams and she will placate his spirit if she can, but the Chorus sings of the impossibility.  The crime committed far exceeds any reparation.

Lacrhrymae
Frederic Leighton
source Wikiart

Electra’s conflict is truly pitiable.  How can she complete the task in true principle?  Both her father’s body and memory have been disgraced, and furthermore the acts were perpetrated by her own mother.  How can she give her father prayers from his own murderer?  Should she simply pour the libations into the ground?  In a fascinating exchange, the Chorus acts as a teacher or mentor, instructing Electra in almost a Socratic way, encouraging her to pray for retribution and the return of Orestes.  First praying to Hermes, Electra’s prayer then moves to her father, asking for vengeance with a glimmer of hope that good will come out of it, almost like her father’s wish in Agamemnon.  Can good come out of evil?  We shall see …………..

Reaching the tomb, Electra is astonished to discover the lock of hair, then she finds footprints, and finally Orestes comes out of concealment. However, his presence is met with doubt by his sister, yet after convincing her of his identity, she gives him all her familial love.  After praying to Zeus, Orestes recounts the oracle at Delphi and his order of vengeance, however he admits that even if Apollo would not persuade him to revenge, his own personal desires would ensure the act, dismissing both Clytaemestra and Aegisthus as “women”.

As Orestes and Electra exchange prayers, mostly to their father, Orestes’ resolve becomes more driven by personal desire than duty.  He then learns of Clytaemestra’s dream; she birthed a snake that drew blood as it suckled, and Orestes claims the dream a portent of the coming murder of his mother.  With the chorus spurring them on to action, Orestes orders Electra to keep secret his arrival and to go inside, whereupon he leaves with Pylades to find Aegisthus and kill him.

Electra at the Tomb of Agamenon (1874)
William Blake Richmond
source Art Gallery of Ontario

As the chorus sings of parents who have murdered their children (such as Althaea & Meleager – see Metamorphoses Book VIII) and children who have killed their parents (such as Nisus and his daughter [Syclla] – see Metamorphoses Book VIII), Orestes arrives at the palace and announces to his mother the death of Orestes.  Not recognizing him, she laments the curse of the House but her regret appears mild, as the slave Cilissa later confirms when she notes there was a “smile inside her [Clytaemestra’s] eyes”.  Cilissa, guided by the Chorus, takes a message to Aegisthus that he needs not his bodyguard while meeting the stanger, allowing Orestes his moment of revenge.  As a servant careens through the door, calling a riddle about the living killing the dead, Clytaemestra arrives and with the courage of a man, calls for an ax. As the truth dawns, Clytaemestra’s words change to the feminine, recalling her care of her son as a child.  As Orestes’ resolve falters, Pylades reminds him of his duty and he finally enacts revenge for the death of his father, Agamemnon.  And in a gross re-enactment of the death of Agamemnon and Cassandra, Orestes is shown standing over the bodies of his mother and her lover, a further echo of the curse blanketing the house of Atreus.

Orestes Slaying Aegisthus & Clytemnestra (1654)
Bernardino Mei
source

Orestes’ speech after the murder begins with a justification of his action, but soon the audience sees his assurance begin to break down and his mental state becomes tenuous.  Though victorious, he feels the evil in his deed.  Since Apollo had counselled his actions, he will go to him as a suppliant to beg his advice:

“I would have you know, I see not how this thing will end.
I am a charioteer whose course is wrenched outside
the track, for I am beaten, my rebellious senses 
bolt with me headlong and the fear against my heart
is ready for the singing and dance of wrath.  But while
I hold some grip still on my wits ………
…. I go an outcast wanderer from this land, and leave
behind, in life, in death, the name of what I did.”

Though no one else can see them, Orestes can now see the “bloodhounds of his mother’s hate.” These Furies punish family member who have harmed family members, in particular, children who have abused parents.  Orestes rushes out in torment and the chorus laments, wondering what will happen to the family of Atreus.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1862)
William-Adolphe Bourguereau
source Wikiart

The plays of The Oresteia are astonishingly well-constructed.  All the questions of revenge and justice and murder and duty are woven with a skillful needle throughout the drama, weaving a tapestry that at times can be alternately poignant, terrifying, suspenseful or appalling.

Setting Electra, a princess of Argos, among captive slaves is very effective.  In effect, she is a slave as well, impotent in her ability to do anything about the situation. Essentially, by placing her among the women, they are made allies in their mental battle against her mother, Clytaemestra, and Aegisthus.

We’ve continued with the theme from Agamemnon of discordant responsibilities that bring conflicting thoughts and either paralyzed or inconsistent action.  Apollo has threatened Orestes with madness if he does not avenge his father, yet the Furies promise the same fate if he does.  His dilemma is identical to that of his father.  With blood justice comes the duty of killing but the process is always cyclical and the avenger often does not escape his own fate.  As to the limitations of this type of justice, Aeschylus makes them obvious.

De Offerstrijd Tussen Orestes en Pylades (1613)
Pieter Lastman
source Wikimedia Commons

I noticed either a “cataloguing” or a “sandwiching” of themes or issues within this play. Initially Aeschylus mentions “bright/half-dark/gloom” within three lines of the play; Electra says “… between my prayer for good and prayer for good I set this prayer for evil;” the Chorus asks for Justice (good), based on hatred in exchange for hatred, then invokes the spirit of Right (good); and throughout the play a connection is implied between the gods (heaven & Apollo), Orestes and Electra (their struggles on earth), and Hades & Agamemnon (Underworld or under earth).

There are a couple of issues in this play that readers might like to be aware of.  The scene where Clytaemestra is pleading with Orestes and bares her breast to him, is not in the original play, and merely an addition by some overexuberant revisionist fond of gratuitous additions.

I also noticed a few non-scholarly commentaries that mention that women in this play are portrayed as “weak” and their place in the home is disparaged and devalued.  In fact, in ancient Greece there were two important roles that both sexes fulfilled and, unlike modern times, there was no crossing over between the two.  The women’s role in the home was considered an important one and in court if there was evidence with regard to a home in a legal case, the woman’s evidence or opinion would be taken over a man’s.  Interesting, isn’t it?

The concluding third play of the triology is called The Eumenides.

The Oresteia ~ Agamemnon by Aeschylus

The Sacrifice of Ipheginia by Agamemnon (1671)  Jan Steen
The Sacrifice of Ipheginia by Agamemnon (1671)
Jan Steen
source

 

Agamemnon by Aeschylus
 
“Dear gods, set me free from all the pain,
the long watch I keep, one whole year awake …
propped on my arms, crouched on the roofs of Atreus like a dog.”

Agamemnon is the first of a trilogy of plays called The Oresteia, the next two plays being The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, all performed in 458 B.C., only two years before the death of Aeschylus.  This surviving unified trilogy allows the reader to experience the development of these three-part stories and to observe the common strands of informatiion and enlightenment winding throughout.  Each play would have built support and framework for the others.  However, even though we have all three plays of this trilogy, the satyr play Proteus is lost, as it would have been a type of comic epilogue to finish the Oresteia.

There are two background stories important to the understanding of this play, the first being the history of the Trojan War, and the second the history of the House of Atreaus, Agamemnon’s family background.

The “fuse” of the war with Troy was the kidnapping of Helen, the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, by Paris, prince of Troy.  To get fair winds to sail for Troy, Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphegenia.  The war was fought for ten long years, and at the end, because of outrages committed against the gods, many of the heroes took years to find their way home (Odysseus’ journey in The Odyssey is the story of one of these heroes).

The curse of the House of Atreus, adds another element to the play, going back to the family’s founder, Tantalus.  Offending the gods, either by attempting to deceive them into eating the flesh of his son, Pelops, or by endeavouring to plunder nectar and ambrosia from the gods, Tantalus was punished in the Underworld by being eternally inflicted with a raging hunger and thirst.  Pelops was resurrected by the gods, but eventually incurred a curse by killing his desired bride’s father and fleeing with the girl, Hippodamia.  An attempted rape of the girl by Myrtilus ensued, and when Pelops threw him from a cliff, he cursed Pelops.  The hereditary nature of the curse resulted in the killing of children by their parents and vice versa, a destroying of the whole family from within.

fleet of greek galleys
Fleet of Greek Galleys reconstruction
The Perseus Project
source Wikimedia Commons

The play begins with a Watchman who is surveying from the roof of Agamemnon’s palace, lamenting the years of watching and waiting for a very important signal, a signal that would indicate the completion of the war with Troy.  The very first lines themselves are a signal, setting a sombre, ominous tone to the scene:

θεοὺς μὲν αἰτῶ τῶνδ᾽ ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων …. ”  (“I ask the gods for respite from these toils …..”)

The beacon is seen and the Watchman rejoices for the return of his king, but the mood does not lighten as the Chorus enters and begins its parados (the chorus’ entrance song).

The Chorus consists of elderly men who were too old ten years ago to make war on Troy, but now impart perhaps the most critical information in the play in their back-story:

  • that Zeus was requiring Agamemnon, the eldest member of his family, to act in avenging the insult to his household by Paris, by making war on Troy
  • Agamemnon was required by an offended Artemis to kill his daughter, Iphigenia, to get fair winds to sale for Troy.

Agamemon is put in an unbearable position.  He is protector of his household, therefore to kill his daughter goes against his moral obligation.  On the other hand, if he dismisses Artemis’ command, he would be disobeying Zeus which would denote a refusal to fulfill his familial accountability to his brother, an offence against his very being.  He is caught in an inescapable situation. Fate is suffocating him and no matter what his choice, there will be appalling consequences.  His words are seeped in agony:

“My fate is angry if I disobey these,
but angry if I slaughter
this child, the beauty of my house,
with maiden blood shed staining
these father’s hands beside the altar.
What of these things goes now without disaster?
How shall I fail my ships
and lose my faith of battle?
For them to urge such sacrifice of innocent blood
angrily, for their wrath is great —- it is right.  May all be well yet.”

Once Agamemnon makes the decision to sacrifice his beloved daughter, his whole character alters.  In spite of her heart-rending pleas, the men who have known her since she was a child, lift her upon the altar.  Although the audience witnesses the poignancy of the preparation of her sacrifice, we are left to imagine her terrible fate.

Le Sacrifice d'Iphigenie Bertholet Flemalle
Le Sacrifice d’Iphigenie
Bertholet Flemalle
source Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife and the leader of Argos during his absence, has entered during the Chorus’ story, and she announces the fall of Troy, which news the Chorus is hesitant to believe, implying that the populous of Argos is discontent after these long years of war.  A Herald arrives confirming the victory of the Greeks, and proclaiming the return of their king, Agamemnon.  His wife professes overwhelming joy at his homecoming, and in an ironic twist, the Herald is impressed with the truth and majesty of her words.

Clytemnestra John Collier
Clytemnestra (1882)
John Collier
source Wikiart

Agamemnon arrives in regal impressiveness, riding in a chariot with Cassandra, the prophetess and princess of Troy by his side, his winnings from the spoils of the war. Clytemnestra greets him with overblown and excessive oratory, spreading purple carpets for him to walk on.  The king denounces such delicate pomp, yet walks on them anyway, unwittingly proclaiming a rather chilly illustration of his own character and a whisper of his fate:

“Discordant is the murmur at such treading down
of lovely things; while God’s most lordly gift to man
is decency of mind.  Call that man only blest
who has in sweet tranquillity brought his life to close.
If I could only act as such, my hope is good.”

Again, Agamemnon has idealistic wishes for a good outcome to his struggles, yet he almost seems to realize that it is a futile hope.  The trampling and “crushing” of the purple carpets symbolize his trampling and crushing of all that is delicate and beautiful: Iphigenia, Troy and soon, Cassandra.

cassandra evelyn de morgan
Cassandra (1897)
Evelyn de Morgan
source Wikimedia Commons

Clytemnestra attempts to invite Cassandra inside, but she silently resists until Clytemnestra gives up and enters herself, leaving Cassandra alone with the Chorus. Finally, the girl speaks, but the words flowing from her lips are laments and apocalyptic premonitions.  She relates her own story, and also begins to offer vague prophecies of calamity and death, revealing the cause of the melancholy and impeding doom which blankets the city in spite of the return of its king.  She claims to foresee her death and Agamemnon’s at the hands of a woman, however, the chorus, bewildered and startled by her claims, refuses to believe her.  Her last words are pregnant with eerie foreshadowing:

“….. That room within reeks with blood like a slaughterhouse …”

Resigned to her fate, she enters the house.

Clytemnestra Guerin
Clytemnestra (1817)
Pierre-Narcisse Guerin
source Wikiart

Suddenly Agamemnon cries out:  “Ah, I am struck a deadly blow and deep with!”  At this point, the Chorus fragments, undecided and perplexed as to what they should do. When the doors of the palace open, Clytemnestra is standing over the prone and bloody bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, bringing the Chorus’ horror to its peak, as Clytemnestra describes the murder of her husband claiming Agamemnon’s evil deed to his daughter as her right.  The Chorus, while still bewildered, finally agrees that judgement between them is unclear and revisits the cause of the war with Troy: the repercussions from Helen’s perfidy still resound.

Aegisthus (Clytemnestra’s lover) enters the scene, exchanging insults with the Chorus, but Clytemnestra attempts to calm his ire, claiming that the curse has been cancelled by her act of retribution. She and Aegisthus will be able to reign in peace and benevolence. The altercation does not diminish as the play ends.

The next play in the trilogy is The Libations Bearers, and we get a hint of one of its characters in this play, when Clytemnestra mentions that she has sent their son, Orestes, away to safety when there were rumours of unrest in Argos.  In the second play, Orestes returns.

the funeral procession of agamemnon
The Funeral Procession of Agamemnon (1787)
Louis Jean Desprez
source Wikimedia Commons

Greek scholars bring out a number if interesting points in this first play that would not be apparent to a modern audience.  The Greek spectators would have been expecting Cassandra to remain silent and have Clytemnestra draw her out, a common strategy in Greek theatre.  The fact that Cassandra actually speaks would have astounded onlookers, therefore making her speeches and presence much more powerful.

They also highlight the masculinity of Clytemnestra, noting the Greek words she uses to describe herself as being very masculine references to a Greek audience.  The fact that she is placed in the doorway of the house (“oikos” – a woman’s domain) as the murderess, would have been appalling to the viewers.  While near the end of the play, she attempts to reclaim her sex as woman, the male images of power, vengeance, murder and ruthlessness still remain.

Hubris in Greek does not simply mean pride but instead indicates wanton violence motivated by pride.  Both Agamemnon and Clytemnestra suffer this poisonous quality.

My personal observations ….?   I’m continually impressed by the lack of reliance on plot by the Greeks as they, in fact, often give “spoilers” throughout the whole play or poem. The plot is only the packaging; the real story is born of the intrigues, the capriciousness of the gods, internal struggle, personal sacrifice and vengeance.  How the plot unfolds is secondary to performance, an intense and acute penetration into the soul of man.

Translated by H.W. Symth (Loeb Classical Library), edited by David Greene and Richard Lattimore

The Second Play in The Oresteia: The Libation Bearers

The Third Play in The Oresteia:  The Eumenides

 

Behold the Stars – Agamemnon Review

 

ancient greek reading challenge

Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus

“You citizens of Cadmus, he must speak home
that in the ship’s prow, watches the event
and guides the rudder, his eyes not drooped in sleep.”

Produced in 467 B.C. and winning first prize in the City Dionysia drama competition, this play is assumed to be the last of a trilogy of plays which dealt with the Oedipus cycle, the other two being called Laius, and Oedipus, both lost, as was the concluding satyr play, The Sphinx.  Driven mostly by dialogue, this play requires some background history to add some further insight.

Oedipus, king of Thebes, received exile for unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother.  In return, he placed a curse on his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, that they should divide the nation, each ruling in alternate years. However, after the first year of rule, Eteocles, enjoying his prominence, refuses to relinquish the throne to his brother, causing Polynices to raise a foreign force of Argives, led by the famous “seven”, to regain his inheritance.  It is at this point that the play begins.

Eteocles & Polynices (1725-30)
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
source Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Aeschylus’ earlier plays, The Persians and The Suppliant Maidens, which begin with a lyrical introduction, Eteocles begins this play with a dramatic patriotic rhetorical speech, appealing to the men of the city to take up arms and defend their honour against the Argives.  A messenger arrives announcing that the Argive army is ready to attack and the Theban army prepares to meet them.  Yet a litany of Theban women’s voices rise above the spectacle, invoking the gods for protection and lamenting the possible repercussions of the battle.  Eteocles loses his patience. These women are unnerving the populous with their pleas to gods and images of doom.  Heaven deliver him from women’s excesses!  And so begins an exchange between them, with Eteocles counselling practicality and proper, balanced emphasis on divine guidance, and the women accentuating the importance of invoking the gods favour. Eteocles demands silence, but the women continue to speak, quite astutely, with regard to the situation, until finally they obey his command.

The messenger enters, and so commences a trialogue between him, Eteocles and the Theban women, the former announcing the Argive heroes, and Eteocles proclaiming the Theban defenders, while the women laud their warriors and invoke divine favour.  Of course, the Argive warriors are the “Seven” against Thebes and each of these attackers has an emblem on his shield.  Curiously, the Argive attacker at the sixth gate, Amphiaraus, is counselling temperance to his leader, proclaiming murder if they continue.  He expects to die a prophet in the land.

Argive                  Attacker’s              Gate                 Theban 
Attacker               Emblem                                           Defender

Tydeus                 Moon &                 Proetid            Melanippus
                                 Stars

Capaneus            Naked man          Electra            Polyphontes
                                   w/ Torch

Eteoclus              Warrior                  Neïs                Megareus
                                climbing
                                 ladder

Hippomedon      Smoking                Onca                Hyperbius
                               Typhon                 Athena

Parthenopaeus Sphinx eating      North               Actor
                                 a Theban

Amphiaraus       None                      Homoloian     Lasthenes

Polyneices          Justice                   Seventh           Eteocles
                               restoring
                               Polyneices

From Eteocles, there is an impious and sacrilegious glory in war, and an obvious antipathy towards the gods, instead proclaiming a complete reliance on men and their ability.  Eteocles does not discount the gods, but does not place an importance on them.  With a curse upon his family, the gods have turned their back on him, and thus, he does likewise.  Now brother will fight against brother, the curse culminating through human choice, although they make it appear as though they have been stripped of their free will by the curse.  The chorus of Theban women have not ceased their beseeching:

“O dearest son of Oedipus, do not
be like in temper to this utterer
of dreadful sayings.  There are enough Cadmaeans
to grapple with the Argives:  such blood is expiable.
But for the blood of brothers mutually shed
there is no growing old of the pollution.”

In the psychology of Eteocles, he cannot escape his fate, in spite of the women pleading for him to use his free will to choose, horrified at his willingness to shed familial blood.  As Eteocles goes to face his destiny, the chorus of women seem to reevaluate its outlook, focusing on the curse as a lament of fate.  When the messenger returns with news of the battle, his proclamation can be of no surprise.  Brother has, in fact, slain brother, and the curse is brought to fruition.  Even though the city is saved, there is no celebration.  Instead, the bodies are carried in, followed by Antigone and Ismene, their sisters, their lamentations of shivering intensity.  The tragedy is a “double sorrow”.

Eteocles and Polyneices (1799)
Giovanni Silvagni
source Wikimedia Commons

Finally, a Herald arrives to announce an honourable burial for Eteocles, since he fought for his city, upholding his ancestors, but in contrast, Polyneices will be cast out to the dogs for bringing a foreign force to attack his city, casting dishonour on his head.  With great resolve, Antigone proclaims that in spite of the edict, she will give her brother a proper burial.  They banter back and forth, the Herald laying her further actions as her own responsibility.  In the end, the chorus divides, half to bury Polyneices, and the other half going the way of Justice.

Originally, The Seven Against Thebes ended with a melancholy mourning for the two brothers, but with the popularity of Sophocles’ Antigone, the ending was re-written fifty years after his death to make a smooth transition between the two plays. While the Seven Against Thebes is not considered as refined or as seamless as Aeschylus’ masterpiece, The Orestia, nevertheless, it contains many wonderful components to its structure.

The battle for the city of Thebes is also presented in Eurpides’ The Phoenician Women.

Translated by David Greene


The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus

“Zeus Protector, protect us with care,
From the subtle sand of the Nile delta
Our ship set sail …….”

Originally thought to be the earliest extant Greek tragedy, having been produced in 490 B.C., more recent evidence places it with a trilogy produced in 470 B.C., making it one of Aeschylus’ later plays. More primitive in style than The Persians, and using the archaic practice of having the protagonist as the chorus, it’s possible that Aeschylus kept it unseen for 20 years, but his motivation for this concealment would certainly be inexplicable.

The play begins with the chorus of the fifty daughters of Danaus, having recently landed in Argos after fleeing Egypt, pleading with Zeus for his favour.   In Homer’s, The Odyssey (Book IX), Zeus is referred to as the protector of suppliants, and in the maidens’ case, their Egyptian cousins have proposed marriage and, rather than submit, they chose to escape to the land of their ancestors.

“I sing suffering, shrieking,
Shrill and sad am weeping,
My life is dirges
And rich in lamentations,
Mine honour weeping …..”

As the maidens hold white olive branches over an altar, their father, Danaus, gives them instructions as to which gods to invoke for help for their protection. He muses that unwilling wives could not possibly be considered pure, and instructs his daughters to allow their behaviour to be guided by modesty.

Pelasgus, King of Argos, arrives with a contingent, and questions the strangers, remarking on their barbaric appearance.  Seeing the altar, his puzzlement is apparent as to their knowledge of Argive ways. The maidens reveal that they are of Argive ancestry, descendents of Io who had been seduced by Zeus, transformed into a cow to hide her from his wife Hera who sent a gadfly to torment her, and so she wandered into Egypt. (see Ovid’s Metamorphosis Book I)  In spite of the importance of kinship, Pelasgus hesitates, finally deciding to take this crucial question to the people (ah, a democracy!) in spite of the maidens’ pleas for his decision as king.

“You are not suppliants at my own hearth.
If the city stains the commonweal,
In common let the people work a cure.
But I would make no promises until
I share with all the citizens.”

Danaid
Auguste Rodin
source Wikiart

However, the question of the fate of these maidens is not so simple.  While they have no legal recourse to claim protection from the Argives, as suppliants they are invoking the protection of Zeus, and Pelasgus sympathizes with their plight.  But if he grants them shelter, Egypt is likely to declare war and can he justify the blood of his people shed for strangers?  His anxiety flows from his speeches.

“Alas! everywhere I’m gripped in strangle holds,
And like a swollen river evils flood;
Embarked on a sea of doom, uncrossed, abysmal,
Nowhere is anchorage.  If I leave
This debt unpaid, you’ve warned of pollution
That shall strike unerringly, but if
I stand before these walls, and bring the battle
To the very end against Egyptus’
Sons, wouldn’t that become a bitter waste —- “

Pelasgus returns to the city with Danaus to discover the people’s will, but soon Danaus returns with happy tidings:  the city has voted to protect the maidens with their lives, if necessary.  The suppliants offer prayers in favour of their honoured protectors until ships are spotted in the sea, and an herald of Egypt arrives on shore to bring them home.  If they resist, they risk their own blood and decapitation.  Thus begins an exchange between the herald and maidens that is a sparring of might and justice.  The maidens are not only struggling physically with their captors, but intellectually as well.

King Pelasgus finally arrives to offer support to the women in their resistance, accusing the stranger of insolence and irreverence, yet making it very clear that it is the maidens’ choice and if they don’t wish to go with their Egyptus cousins, he will protect them with all his resources.  The play ends with the exit of the Herald, and Pelasgus inviting the maidens into the city, but a threat of war still hangs like a shroud over the Argives.  However, the women are satisfied:

“Lord Zeus may he deprive us
Of an ill marriage
And a bad husband,
As Io was released from ill,
Protected by a healing hand,
Kind might did cure her. —

And strength may he assign us.
I am content if ill,
Is one-third my lot,
And justly, with my prayers,
Beside the saving arts of god,
To follow justice.”

To the maidens, prayers and justice are paramount when considering their freedom.

The Danaides (1903)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikipedia

While this play certainly appears more archaic than The Persians, on the other hand, it is more intricate due to the moral and political questions that are brought to the surface and wrestled with quite effectively by King Pelasgus.  It reminded me a little of Sophocles’ play, Antigone (which I haven’t reviewed yet, but will eventually) where there is a question of mortal or divine right over political or societal right.  Does Pelasgus risk war in his kingdom and possibly watch his own people die, all for fifty foreigners with a tenuous connection to the land?  Or is there a bigger question: is freedom and human dignity more important than life itself?  Are preserving the importance of these ideas something that go beyond our human existence?  It’s a powerful question and Aeschylus deals with it quite compellingly.

I quite like the presentation of King Pelagus, not as a powerful, dictatorial king, but as a leader who is truly concerned with what is best for his people.  His mental struggle is defined by his desire to make a just decision, not simply a lawful one.  Yet he doesn’t freely throw law out the window, and his impassioned agony of choice is very compelling as he resolves to defer to the will of the people.  Yet when the Egyptians land, he is strong in his stand for what has been legally decreed, and zealously defends the maidens’ personal decision.  His behaviour is parallel with King Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus where he is faced with a problem, struggles with it, yet despite possible negative ramifications, is determined to act in a just manner.

This play was somewhat difficult because of the translation, which in this case is not the translator’s fault, as it is simply in a form that does not translate well into English.  Whatever its perceived problems, this play held my rapt attention and has become one of my favourites in my growing list of Greek drama.

translated by S.G. Benardete

The Persians by Aeschylus

“Of the Persians gone 
To the land of Greece
Here are the trusted:
As protectors of treasure …..”
Performed in Athens in  472 B.C., The Persians portrays the naval battle at Salamis between the Greeks and the Persians, which occurred seven years earlier.   It is unique from other tragedies, as it was without a prologue or exudos (final scene) of the chorus.  As it deals with contemporary history instead of the common mythic topics, it was not part of a unified triad of plays that Aeschylus appeared to favour, yet interestingly it was performed with two other “lost” mythic plays, Phineus and Glaucus Ponieus.  In comparing this play to later tragedies, these differences raise the possibility of tragedy developing out of an earlier form.

Battle of Salamis (1868)
Wilhelm von Kaulbach
source Wikimedia Commons

The play begins in 480 B.C., and at the palace of Xerxes at Sousa, the Persian elders are lauding the strength of Xerxes and his army as they are engaged in battle with the Greeks:

“And the furious leader the herd
Of populous Asia he drives,
Wonderful over the earth,
And admirals stern and rough
Marshals of men he trusts:
Gold his descent from Perseus,
He is the equal of god.”


Yet their tone of exhortation becomes tinged with concern over the question of victory in this battle, and the mother of Xerxes, the Queen, appearing, echoes their sentiments.  A herald arrives, bringing most unwelcome news:

“O cities of Asia, O Persian land,
And wealth’s great anchorage!
How at a single stroke prosperity’s
Corrupted, and the flower of Persia falls,
And is gone.  Alas!  the first herald of woe,
He must disclose entire what befell:
Persians, all the barbarian host is gone.”


The herald, an eyewitness, bitterly describes the Persians’ defeat at Salamis.  Momentarily speechless, the Queen finally asks about survivors.  Xerxes is still living, but the Herald lists the many dead heroes, casualties of the battle.  The survivors are scattered.
“Ship dashed against ship, till the Persian army
dead stewed the deep like flowers”
source Wikimedia Commons
While Xerxes is a great warrior, his errors in the battle are made apparent.  He harangued his captains publicly, “in ignorance of Greek guile and the jealousy of the gods” …. and, “he conned the future ill.”  In return for his pride and miscalculations:
“All the Persians, who were in nature’s prime,
Excellent in soul, and nobly bred to grandeur,
Always first in trust, met their death
In infamy, dishonor, and in ugliness.”
Lamenting that her dream of defeat has come to fruition, the Queen attempts to assuage her grief by offering prayers and gifts to the gods.  As she offers libations at the tomb of her dead husband, Darius, his ghost rises up, inquiring about the present woe.  When he hears of the tragic defeat, he appears to blame his son’s “youthful pride”, yet he counsels the Queen to receive her son gently when he returns.

Somber laments issue from the Persian council of elders until Xerxes arrives in grievous affliction.  He recounts more of his defeat, his words a song of sorrow until the end:

“Oh alas, woe,
The magic wheel of longing for my friends you turn, you tell
Me hateful sorrows.  Within my frame my heart resounds,
resounds ……”

Death of the Persian admiral (Ariabignes,
brother of Xerxes) early in the battle
source Wikipedia
Wow, this was a very powerful play.  By the Persians’ defeat, Xerxes has not only lost honour for himself, but he is responsible for the loss of honour of generations before him.  Yet the tragedy of the situation is in his overweening pride and his attempt to place himself in a position above the gods.  He ignored the wisdom of his elders, instead choosing to go his own way, and paid dearly for his folly.
Even though, Aeschylus was writing through Persians eyes, elements of a Greek mindset crept in here and there, as in Darius’ horror of the Persians plundering and burning the Greek temples.  And he counsels the Queen for the Persians not to invade Greece because “the Grecian soil is their own ally.”  Very convenient.  Yet there is also a sympathetic tone towards the Persians, as if the Greeks can empathize with the sufferings of battle and the woes of the aftermath of loss.  In fact, the sympathy is startling.  The great daring of such a play perhaps goes beyond both historical and contemporary understanding.  No playwright had risked presenting the enemy, not only from a sympathetic viewpoint, but also showing them as noble and heroic in battle.  The battle at Salamis was a recent event and it is a tribute to the rhetoric of Aeschylus that this play was so well-regarded.  Yet while his feat is indeed admirable, Aeschylus ensures that he remains in control of his creation.  Few names can be traced to real persons, hyperbole is employed and Persians adopt Greek tradition, preventing any person from drawing any concrete truth from his presentation.  His Persian War, while being historically based, is still in the realm of myth, as if he cannot escape it. 

Translated by Seth G. Bernardete