Aeschylus: The Oresteia

Week 7:  The Oresteia by Aeschelys

I need to read the book and watch a few  performances of the plays on youtube et al before I continue with the University of Pennsylvania course on mythology.  We have come to Week 7 and we are discussing the Oresteia, of which I know nothing.  I am now listening to In  Our Time: The Oresteia – a radio discussion with emminent professors discussing topics lead by Melvyn Bragg.

The book comprises three plays:  Agamemnon; The Eumenides and The Libation Bearers, it is the only Greek tragedy to survive since 500 BCE.  There are many versions, there is an excellent radio version on youtube and also a video of the production in the famous theatre at Epidaurus in Greece, where I hope to go one day, when travel is not so dangerous.

The House of Atreus: A family of betrayal, patricide, murder, revenge

Agamemnon, Clytemnaestra, Orestes.  Other characters of note: Cassandra, the watchers on the roof, the soldiers on the beach waiting to go to war at Troy; Iphigenia the daughter who is sacrificed. 

The story behind the curse of the House of Atreus starts with Tantalus.  Tantalus thought it was a good idea to take his son and kill him and cook him, he invites the gods to eat his son, the gods are disgusted and .fling him into the underword; here the gods manage to put back together the son, however, one piece is swallowed by one of the gods; Pelops goes on with his life, he takes off to Pisa, he finds a young princess, her father will only give him away to someone who beats him at a chariot race.

The father loses the race, Pelops renames the kingdom, Peloponnesia.  Pelops has children: Atreus;  there is an oracle that a son of Pelops will take over a kingdom, Thaistes, the younger son wants a chance and proposes that the  one who can show the nicest sheep.  Atreus cannot find his sheep, Th has taken up with A’s wife who betrays her husband.  Th then takes up rulership of Mycenae.  Atreus takes over the kingdom.  A finds out about the affair.  He invited Th to dinner and carves up A’s own sons and he eats his own son. 

What is the purpose of this action?  How can A get revenge he asks the gods, the gods answer that he must conceive a child with Th’s wife!!  He has sex with the daughter, his own daughter, leaving behind his own familial sword, the girl who is pregnant, finds the sword. 

The child is Aegisthus, who is the product of incest and everything else! and then he becomes the lover of Ag’s wife. Pelopia has to deal with the family awfulness. She takes her own life.  Aegisthus says he has killed Atreus, but he hasn’t. 

Aga and Men come back later to take over the kingdom, however he gets killed by his wife for sacrificing the daughter.

The Trojan war comes is connected to this family, Helen is sister to Clytaemnestra; the former was abducted by Priam to Troy and there we have it…

The Agamemnon by Aeschylus

Starts with a watcher on the roof, he is looking for a beacon which will tell him that the Greeks have won Troy.  Clytaemnestra has been waiting for ten years for this news?  Can we blame her for taking Aegisthus as a lover?

Ag arrives – there is along discussion with Cly – their greeting is a verbal test of wills, very subtely in a sub terranean way, she is waiting to kill him; he wants to get back into his house. He is brutish.  The prize he returns with is Cassandra.

NB Clytemnaestra is the sister of Helen who is the reason the Trojan wars started.  Cassandra is the daughter of …..

The meeting between all these people is depicted on this  Greek vase, in a circular pattern.



Cly draws her husband a bath, persuades him to step in, then wraps him in a long winding cloth as he comes out of the bath. at which time Aegisthus kills him with a knife – you can see this here in the vase.

The plot and sets are spare and also the thematic elements which get reworked.

References to nets and webs.  Penelope in the Odyssey is weaving a tapestery.  The crimson tapestry – Cly says to Ag, step on this beautiful cloth that i have woven for your return, the scene is loaded with bitterness, what is going on?!  She has been nurturing her own bitterness for many years, she wants to prove what a clod he is!  It is a deep rich red; a dye made from sea shells, many sea shells, very valuable.  a sign of Ag’s grandeur.

Secrecy is an aspect, it works to produce connections that are not authorised; Cly and Aeg; they become divisive; fire beacon not everyone knows what that is, Ag does not know that his arrival has been told of.

Medecine and drugs also – poison and cure – Pharmakion is the greek word for this.  There is no god of healing here in this palace. Cass says that cly intends to shred her in a bowl, it means that drugs are delivered in that way in a pestle and mortar.  A potion to drink. 

Another generation in the story treats each part as a kind of medecine (?).  Ag had to kill his own daughter, in order to get the gods to change the wind so they – the soldiers – can travel to Troy.

Purification is another theme : Cly tells Ag to come in to be cleansed.  something which is supposed to clean also can make things diseased. 

Justice –  where will we find.  A miasma is a cloud of pollution. Someone would be impure who has been involved in killing, guilty subject to punishment.  Anyone can get stained by the miasma even from a corpse.  Elemental forces are responsble for many forces.

Is Agamemnon real? 

Agamemnon, a character of Greek mythology, was the son of King Atreus of Mycenae and Queen Aerope. He would eventually take to throne of Mycenae (also known as Argos) to become king. It is not certain if Agamemnon was a real person or the product of Homer’s book the Iliad, even after claims from Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 that he had discovered his tomb and the ‘mask’ of Agamemnon (pictured right). The mask was later identified to belong to a previous King of Mycenae a few centuries before Agamemnon would have existed.

What we know of Agamemnon is only through one of the plays by Aeschylus, the Greek lyric poet Pindar and the book the Iliad. The book begins with Agamemnon declaring was on the Trojans after Helen, the wife of his brother Menelaus, was abducted by Paris of Troy. Agamemnon and his brother at the time were the most powerful people of Greece and gathered up Greek soldiers to sail for Troy. However, the goddess Artemis was angry with Agamemnon because of all the young men who will die at Troy and prevented his ships from sailing to Troy. Agamemnon then sacrificed his own daughter, as the prophet Calchas announced this was the only way to to please Artemis. Then the Greek army set out for Troy.

Agamemnon was the commander of the Greeks during the Trojan war and even participated in the fighting killing 16 Trojan Soldiers. One of the main plots of the Iliad was the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles during the final year of the war. Agamemnon had taken one of Achilles slave girls, Briseis, from him. Achilles, the greatest warrior the Greeks had, withdrew from the war, nearly costing the Greeks the war. Eventually the Greeks would capture Troy and return to Greece.Among the spoils of the war was Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, whom Agamemnon took along with him.

Upon returning to Greece Agamemnon got blown off course and landed in Aegisthus’ country, where Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, had taken him as her new lover. Upon returning to Mycenae Clytemnestra decided to take her chances. She killed Agamemnon as he was taking a bath. Clytemnestra was still angry over Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice their own daughter, her jealousy over Cassandra and his decision to go to war over Helen. Agamemnon’s son Orestes later avenged his father’s murder by killing Aegisthus and his own mother.