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.

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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.

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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.

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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, The Seven Against Thebes 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.

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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