Darkness, Light, and Drama in the Oresteia

By Thomas Gillcrist | December 1, 2011

The basic outlines of the story are not complicated, though the details vary from version to version. As we all know, Paris, a Trojan prince, ran off with the beautiful Helen. Of course, Helen’s husband Menelaus wasn’t too happy about this, and Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon, the most important man in all of Greece, felt compelled to punish the affront by leading an enormous army against Troy. Now the goddess Artemis was sympathetic to the Trojans, so she prevented the Greek army from sailing across the Aegean. At that point, Agamemnon faced a tragic choice: either he could give up the expedition, thereby failing in his duty as a brother and a king, or he could propitiate the goddess by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia, thereby failing in his duty as a father. He chose the latter. This allowed the Greeks to reach Troy, where they won the war. But it also made Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra furious—and who can blame her? During Agamemnon’s absence, she took up with his cousin Aegisthus and, upon Agamemnon’s triumphant return, she and Aegisthus killed him. Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, then killed his own mother to avenge his father. Aeschylus’s great trilogy, the Oresteia, is the story of Orestes.

The stage is dark at the beginning of the Agamemnon. In darkness the Watchman laments his discomfort and anxiety. When the beacon appears, it is the visual initiation of a motif that will recur throughout the trilogy, both verbally and visually: light out of darkness. This light is both real and a will o’ the wisp. It is the signal the watchman was set out to wait for, announcing Agamemnon’s victory and impending return. But it is not the “good news” that “shines through the darkness” the Watchman hoped for. The King’s return will not bring the restoration of order in the house and city, the “happy deliverance from toil” that the sentinel desires. By the time he descends from the roof, he knows it will not, and why. The Watchman is only the first of the play’s characters whose hopes for light out of darkness are quickly seen or feared or expected to be deluded, by themselves or us.

The interaction of visual and verbal images in this opening is characteristic of the play, and the trilogy. Though regarding light out of darkness the visual precedes the verbal, elsewhere the reverse can be true. So it is with another motif, that of the net, which binds together many things, perhaps indeed the trilogy itself. Actually, by net I mean a complex of related images, net, coils, web, harness—constructs of fabric or cord that link, entangle, capture, or constrain. Harness appears first in a metaphor: Calchas at Aulis foresees the Greek army as a “great bit for Troy’s mouth.” Also, when the Chorus envisions Agamemnon reaching his terrible decision at Aulis, they describe him as having “put on the yoke-strap of compulsion.” This is a particularly complicated instance of the cluster. The yoke-strap signifies compulsion, but Agamemnon himself dons it. Translator Lloyd-Jones allows the reading that Agamemnon has no choice here, but not all scholars agree. We should consider the ode and the event it describes theologically, psychologically, and ethically before we decide—including the question of what Agamemnon believes or convinces himself compulsion is.

The next appearance of the net motif is verbal again, but intensely visualized by the speaker and demanding an equally intense imaginative visualization from the audience. This is the Chorus’ conception of Agamemnon’s command regarding Iphigenia and its effect:

to lift her face downwards like a goat above the altar,

as she fell about his robes to implore him with all her heart,

and by gagging her lovely mouth

to stifle a cry

that would have brought a curse upon his house;

using violence, and the bridle’s stifling power.

And with her robe of saffron dye streaming downwards

she shot each of the sacrificers

with a piteous dart from her eye . . .

Why did this execution occur and in this way? Artemis demanded it, at least conditionally, but why? It is often observed of Shakespearean characters that they tend to be actors. Similarly it may be said of characters in the Oresteia, even invisible divinities, that they tend to be dramatists or directors. Here the Chorus envisions the way Artemis required Agamemnon to perform a ritual sacrifice of his daughter if he was to leave the harbor, thereby publicly manifesting himself as the murderer to be of countless young people, Greek and Trojan alike, in his role of king responsible for the expedition.

The audience inevitably ponders the question of Agamemnon’s degree of guilt and the gods’ fairness. Artemis does give him a choice—he can kill his daughter and proceed to Troy or give up the expedition. But Agamemnon is to be the agent of Zeus’s vengeance for Paris’ violation of guest-host friendship in transporting Helen. Still, if the King is setting out on that basis, it is because of at most a general cultural imperative. He does not receive an express divine directive, as his son does in the second play. Here it is as though Zeus does not need to give one because he knows his man and the man’s vindictive, exploitative nature. On his return from Troy, Agamemnon does intend to thank the gods, but as his allies, for their help in what he has done. One may doubt that Agamemnon feels a divine command with enough intensity for that to absolve him of guilt for murdering his daughter. In his crisis of choice, he thinks of failing not Zeus but his “allies,” which may be merely consideration of his future as a warlord. Is the “doom” he foresees merely political? Apparently so, if the Chorus knows its man. They visualize him acting not in piety but hybristically:

his spirit’s wind veering to an impious blast,

impure, unholy, from that moment

his mind changed to a temper of utter ruthlessness.

And Artemis has another motive:

working to bring about another sacrifice, one without song or feast,

an architect of quarrels grown up with the family,

with no fear of the husband. For there abides, terrible, ever again arising,

a keeper of the house guileful, unforgetting. Wrath child-avenging.

Artemis is contriving not only to have Agamemnon incur and manifest his guilt, but to ensure his punishment  by Clytemnestra.

The Chorus’ vision of Iphigenia’s execution includes the detail of her tangled robes falling as she died. And the audience’s memory of that intensifies the irony of Agamemnon’s reluctance to soil the rich cloth, to trample on the treasures of his house, when his Queen in her turn directs him in a staged enactment of his hybris that is of her contriving.

It is more than poetic justice that both father and daughter die amid entangling, bloody fabric. And it is more than strokes of superb stagecraft that bring the verbal image of the net into view at climactic moments. The net is not only a central image of the play —in a sense it is the subject of the play. All the avengers are victims in turn, as they must be while they live within the social net: the ancient, aristocratic code of the vendetta—the convention of justice as retaliation, by a member of the family of the previous victim.

It does not help that the gods seem to be weaving the net, or exploit or at least condone it. The Atreidae are Zeus’s ministers of justice (however conscious they may be of this fact or whatever its position in their hierarchy of motives) and it is in this capacity that Agamemnon incurs the guilt which necessitates his punishment in turn. Avengers characteristically perpetrate culpable excesses in the performance of their function, as do the Achaean troops who while serving as “the mattock of Zeus who does justice” overturn “the altars and the seats of the gods” in Troy and are wiped out by a storm on their return voyage “not without the wrath of heaven.” Avengers also characteristically mingle sanctioned motives with more dubious ones, as when Clytemnestra combines serving as Artemis’s agent with facilitating the consolidation of her paramour’s tyranny. And the despicable Aegisthus, of course, mixes vengeance for Thyestes and his own brothers with sexual and political opportunism. “The impious act/begets more after it” sings the Chorus, ostensibly regarding Paris, as Agamemnon approaches. There seems to be no potential for transcendence from within the system.

From where may help come? From Olympus? That hope has been expressed as early as lines 160–183, by the pious Chorus in their first ode, as they brood upon the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Zeus is only apparently savage, they declare—actually he has a benevolent purpose, inflicting pain on human beings for their benefit: it is Zeus’s law that through our sleepless nights of suffering we come to illumination and maturity. This choral affirmation is often presumed to be privileged, a valid expression of the meaning of the play’s events. But even a hopeful listener must recognize it as an instance of the motif of light out of darkness, which so many characters who hope for peace after turmoil articulate in vain.

By the end of the Agamemnon, there seems to be no clear reason for faith that the Chorus was right about Zeus’s intentions, or perhaps his capacity to achieve them. If Agamemnon suffered during the sacrifice of Iphigenia, there is no sign that he achieved insight or maturity through that. Rather, as Martha Nussbaum has observed, his apparent lack of “regret or painful memory” may be what most persuades us that he deserves his punishment. Cassandra indeed suffers into truth, though one may wonder whether what she gains was worth the cost—she does not believe it so. In any case, her visionary power extends throughout but not above or beyond the net in which she herself dies; her only satisfaction is in anticipation of another link in the chain of retaliation through the coming of Orestes. Aegisthus is exultantly complacent regarding both his righteousness and impunity. And if Clytemnestra finally oscillates between confidence and foreboding, it is because she intermittently apprehends that retaliation will come, not because she has learned to recognize that she deserves it.

There is yet another question about Zeus posed by the Agamemnon but unanswerable at its end. If the Chorus’ faith in Zeus’s purpose seems unsubstantiated, at least so far, is that because they have attributed to the god intentions that he does not have or because he is unable to carry them out, whether yet or ever? Zeus’s project for Troy is complicated by the opposition of Artemis, the first of the virgin daughters of Zeus, whose attitude toward his will affects its exercise. Her anger at Agamemnon and Menelaus is toward their role as Zeus’s agents and thus toward her father and his intentions. It is Artemis who, by demanding Iphigenia’s sacrifice, unleashes Clytemnestra; Clytemnestra is Artemis’s Fury. As far as we can see, the dynamic of retaliation in human society is being driven by—or reflected in—a discord among the Olympian family themselves rather than by a coherent, functioning plan. Is it a plan, or just the cosmic dimension of things as they are?

And does Zeus even care? Does he have any intentions for mankind except punitive ones, even toward the human agents he uses? The play gives no access to Zeus’s consciousness, but what we learn of his shining son Apollo is not reassuring. Apollo makes Cassandra his prophetess, as Zeus makes Agamemnon his executioner. But Apollo, from a contemptible motive of sexual resentment, confers upon her suffering and knowledge in inseparable reciprocity. Cassandra’s experience at Apollo’s hands is a bitter parody of the enlightenment the Chorus hopes will be conferred by Zeus. As the prophetess herself summarizes it, “no healer stands by while this word is uttered”­—or, as Richmond Lattimore translates the line, “there is no god of healing in this story.”

Anxiety and desire for release are carried forth into the second play, the Libation Bearers. Here these themes are intensified by a new factor, the character of the brother and sister avengers. Orestes and Electra appear as, in a sense, better people than their parents, if smaller in dramatic stature. The young ones have a kind of decency, and initially a kind of innocence, with perhaps an attendant vulnerability, which engages a different kind of concern from the audience than was accorded to the mother and father.

Orestes does have the explicit directive from Apollo that Agamemnon did not have from Zeus.  And unlike the characters in the first play, who express hopes that after their crimes all will be well, Orestes expresses a desire to “perish,” having slain his mother. Similarly, Electra distinguishes herself from her predecessors. She prays that she and Orestes will accomplish their revenge, but also that she will be more temperate than her mother and that her own acts will be “more innocent.” One cannot imagine Clytemnestra offering such a prayer.

Moreover, Electra makes an unprecedented “distinction,” to which H.D.F. Kitto rightly calls attention. When the Chorus tells her to pray for the coming of a supporter, Electra hesitantly replies, “Do you mean a judge or one who does justice?” She discriminates between justice as retaliation and justice as trial and assessment. The young princess conceives of an agent of justice willing to consider and evaluate motive and circumstance. No one in the first play had such an idea. And no one else in the Libation Bearers has either. The chorus is peremptory and dismissive. They have the old mentality. Justice is retribution.

Thus for Electra and Orestes there are two dangers. One is that they will be caught in the chain of ongoing retaliation that is the vendetta system. At the beginning of the Libation Bearers, Orestes prays while he and Pylades are alone on stage. The men then hide behind Agamemnon’s grave mound as Electra and the Chorus approach. When the Chorus speaks, the audience, unlike them, is aware of Orestes’s presence and the potentially impending applicability to him of the women’s words regarding Clytemnestra:

For what payment can atone for blood spilt upon the ground?

Calamity, inflicting grievous pain, keeps the guilty man forever infected with an

all-destroying sickness.

and though all streams flow

in one channel to cleanse the blood

from a polluted hand, they speed their course in vain.


Oriented by this opening dramatic irony, the audience is sensitive to the possible double applicability of later choral pronouncements, such as

loud cries the voice of Justice;

“for murderous stroke let murderous stroke atone.” “Let the doer suffer.”

This particularly ominous instance occurs as the time for Orestes to proceed against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus approaches:

But it is the law that drops of blood

spilt on the ground demand further

bloodshed; for murder calls on the Erinys,

who from those who perished before

brings one ruin in another’s wake.

The other danger for Electra and Orestes is that they will not be able to maintain their superior personal quality in action. Because they are temperate by nature, they must impel themselves to frenzy, which came easier to Agamemnon. But as they do, their language, once capable of fine distinctions, becomes more like the savage chants of the Chorus, as in Electra’s cry, “Zeus lay his hand upon them—/ah, ah, severing their heads?” The animal imagery associated with the siblings becomes debased. The woman member of “the orphan brood of the father eagle” comes to identify herself with “a savage dog.” Orestes ultimately acknowledges himself as the “snake” of his mother’s dream. And what is most disconcerting about this is the way it associates him with Clytemnestra’s vengeance upon Agamemnon, “the coils and meshes/of a dread viper.” Orestes must be saved not only from subsequent avengers but from becoming a “guilty man forever infected with an all-destroying sickness.” It remains to be seen whether there will be a god of healing in the next story.

Does the Eumenides resolve the conflicts it inherits from the two preceding plays, and if so how? From the mid-1950s until the early 1970s, the most widely accepted answer to these questions was provided by Kitto and others influenced by him. In the Eumenides, the Oresteia crystallizes as a civic pageant celebrating the establishment of an Athenian institution, the court of the Areopagus. Through Athena’s interaction with the citizens of her favored polis, the ancient tradition of the vendetta is superseded by the innovative court. The passions and conflicting motives and interests of the clan are replaced by the rationality of the objective citizen jurors. Through Athena’s persuasion of the pre-Olympian Furies to sustain the new system, the discord among the gods which paralleled the human chaos of the vendetta era is also healed. The emergence of the Athenian civic institution is hailed as a great step forward for mankind. The Oresteia is a celebration of progress.

More recently, however, there have been second thoughts about this interpretation. One reason is presumably that since the 1960s more people are more aware that courts of law are not always all they should be. If law is the great human, or western, or Athenian institution that the trilogy is celebrating without qualification, is this not politically naïve, or conducive to political naïveté? Anne Lebeck finds that when the trial is “assumed to be the great moment on which alone the trilogy’s resolution turns, it does seem a let-down, a sell-out, an awful disappointment.”  Instead, according to Lebeck, “the trial is a parody which does not present the Athenian lawcourt in the most attractive light” and “the poet does not consider its legal forms above suspicion.” The trial is “only shadow play,” Lebeck continues, behind which “lies the will of Zeus, irrevocable, incomprehensible, and just.” This version of the Eumenides hardly celebrates citizen participation or the triumph of rationality. Regarding human communication, Simon Goldhill concludes that “tragedy’s challenge is precisely to the sense of the secure and controlled expression of the order of things that for so many critics in their different ways has constituted the end of the Oresteia.” Moreover, in the last twenty years there has been powerful elaboration of an older criticism of the trilogy, as in Froma Zeitlin’s argument that “the Oresteia stands squarely within the misogynistic tradition that pervades Greek thought, a bias that projects a combative dialogue in male-female relationships and also relates the mastery of the female to higher social goals.”

It may be possible, however (and only coincidentally like a good Greek striving for the mean), to offer yet another reading of the Eumenides—one in which the play is significantly less complacent than in interpretations of the Kitto school, but more than another chastening ordeal with the problematic of language; a reading, moreover, in which the Eumenides is shown to manifest a criticism regarding the status of the female in Greek culture that anticipates our own criticism thereof—a reading in which the concluding drama is seen as involving an attempt to redefine that status more affirmatively, even if not a completely successful one.

One key to the attitude that the Eumenides manifests toward its materials may be that the play involves a kind of chronological double vision. The Athenian institution celebrated—or, it may be safer to say, commemorated—is the court of the Areopagus, which existed as early as the seventh century. The manipulation of time that matters here is not the elimination of the five-hundred year gap between the era of Agamemnon and the seventh century, that brilliant stroke of dramatic license. Rather, it is the blurring of the distinction between the seventh century and the play’s own fifth. The original court was an arm of the Council of Areopagus, which had extensive legislative as well as judicial powers, and was open to “a group of aristocratic families” exclusively. The Areopagus remained a bastion of aristocratic “privileges and powers” until 462/461, when it was reformed by a democratic group including the young Pericles. The Council and Court were stripped of all powers except the conduct of homicide trials. And the jurors were no longer chosen from the privileged old families alone. The change was strenuously resisted by the conservatives and carried out with near-revolutionary force by the democrats. This crisis had occurred only three years before the Oresteia was produced.

The Eumenides, then, was presented to an audience of Athenians who had been bitterly divided by the recent reform of the Areopagus—on the one hand, those who deplored the loss of the Council as part of the city’s traditional way of life, in which the power of the great aristocratic families had been paramount, and on the other hand, those for whom abrupt curtailing of the traditional powers and their conventions seemed part of the creation of a better future.

This provides one frame for interpreting the nature of Apollo, his attitudes, and his actions in this final play. His behavior at its beginning may initially relieve an apprehension experienced during the Libation Bearers. At the end of the middle play, the only hope held open for the now desperate Orestes is that Apollo will somehow extricate him. But by that point what has been heard of Apollo in the trilogy has generated uncertainty whether his assurances can be relied upon. His behavior toward Cassandra has not been reassuring as to his integrity or dependability.

Early in the Eumenides, however, Apollo does harbor Orestes at Delphi and arrives to support him in Athens. Of Apollo’s intentions there is no more doubt. Nevertheless, an unanticipated problem emerges regarding his effectiveness. Apollo may be said to save Orestes only indirectly—that is, by taking him to Athens where other agents perform the task Apollo himself cannot fulfill alone. Moreover, after Orestes is acquitted there is still more to be done to resolve the general problems of which Orestes’s plight had been a specific instance. Apollo plays no part in that final resolution; he presumably withdraws with Orestes. (But the stage direction to that effect in some editions in conjectural—Apollo simply disappears from the play.)

By dramatizing the reason for these limitations, the Eumenides creates a contrast that illuminates the agent who eventually does what Apollo cannot. The key is his attitude toward the Furies. He cannot speak to them without reviling them. When they claim they have rights as gods and a proper function to perform, he can only sneer. His only wish and command regarding them is that they be gone. The point is not that Apollo as a character is irascible. However anthropomorphic he may be, he is not a person, he is a god—and as such he is the representative of a specific complex of principles in the universe. He has to react to the Furies as he does because he is Apollo. The Greeks conceived of him as fostering the higher development of civilization, sponsoring codes of law, inculcating high moral principles, and favoring philosophy. The play itself clearly associates him with social order, civil law, and rational intellect. And all of these the Eumenides undoubtedly represents as good things. Good, and necessary.  But, more startlingly, especially to the component of the original or any audience dedicated to progress through rational reform, the play’s vision of Apollo also represents these good things as not in themselves altogether sufficient, even for their own perpetuation.

That this is so, and why, is evident in the clash between two arguments: the one the Furies give as to why Orestes’s crime is greater than Clytemnestra’s, and the one Apollo gives as to why Clytemnestra’s crime is greater than Orestes’s. When asked why they pursue Orestes for killing his mother but did not pursue her for killing her husband, his father, the Furies reply, “She had not the same blood as the man she killed.” This is a true statement, but not an acceptable argument, at least to half the audience, and least of all to Apollo in his capacity as embodiment of the principle of social order. It is unacceptable to Apollo in this specific instance because Agamemnon was king. But it is equally incompatible with the principles Apollo represents as a general argument. Because even if Agamemnon had been a private citizen, it would have been his role to maintain order in his family so that its internal relationships reflected and contributed to the larger order of society—which Agamemnon may have been resolved to do on his return, whatever his own past transgressions against the family may have been.

Moreover, the Furies’ disregard for the nonsanguinary bond that does exist between husband and wife is unacceptable to Apollo for another reason: it is because that bond is one of contract, of agreement rather than blood relationship, that marriage is a social institution, reciprocally sustaining of and sustained by the social order. Marriage is the most fundamental of those various voluntary commitments out of which society is made.

Against the Furies, the play juxtaposes Apollo’s argument as to why Orestes’s crime is not so great. He advances it with notable complacency:

This too I will tell you; mark the truth of what I say!

She who is called the child’s mother is not

its begetter, but the nurse of the newly sown conception.

The begetter is the male, and she as a stranger for a stranger

preserves the offspring, if no god blights its birth.

Even, however, if some audience members may have considered this physiologically accurate, the trilogy has already made it irrelevant. Even if the mother’s blood is not involved in conception, it nourishes the fetus in the womb, as does her milk post-partum. The viper image in the Libation Bearers derived its horrifying power from the perverse conjunction of the animal fang that draws blood and the human mouth that draws milk. Whether the natural fluid that gives the son life is blood or milk or both makes no difference. Orestes as viper becomes hideous as his blow spills the life of that being from whom he had drawn his own life.

Moreover, it is from that point that he becomes hideous to himself. For when it is perceived, at the end of the Libation Bearers, that Orestes has become entangled in the net of guilt, it is he who insists that it be recognized. Orestes reintroduces the drapery that Clytemnestra had exhibited at the end of the Agamemnon. But in the son’s case there is this difference: the net motif has been sustained by tangles of fabric in Artemis’s and Clytemnestra’s symbolic productions. But they have used them to make manifest the guilt of someone else. Orestes does that also. He calls for the robes in which his father was killed to be displayed as evidence of his mother’s guilt and thus his own exoneration. But it is also he who orders that the net be spread out around himself. And as it is extended, the lines converge upon him at the center, pointing to his own entanglement in the skein of evil. Ironically, his own symbolic pageantry implicates him rather than exonerating him.

If this demonstration is unconscious on Orestes’s part, that in itself is significant. For it is out of his deeper consciousness that the Furies now emerge. When they appear to him immediately following his encirclement by the net, they arise out of his mind. They can be seen by no one else, on stage or in the audience.  Orestes’s reliance upon Apollonian rationality in reconciling himself to his act has proved insufficient. Part of his own nature has rebelled against it. Elsewhere in the trilogy, the Furies have represented a force in nature, the cosmos, human society, and tradition; now they also represent something in the self. No previous murderer in the Oresteia has experienced guilt to this degree. And the reason, as the scene implies, is that no previous crime has been so terrible. Matricide is a crime against nature which cannot be borne because it violates the most fundamental of natural bonds.

Here then is the trilogy’s answer to Apollo’s glib assertion that the mother does not count. The audience, which has so shortly before experienced the conclusion of the Libation Bearers, can hardly fail to see this: Apollo’s argument does not take into account fundamental human instinct—something which, since he is a manifestation of rationality itself, he cannot comprehend. The trilogy is working to generate in the audience a more comprehensive consciousness, sufficient to criticize both Apollo’s argument and the restricted mentality that can produce or accept it. So far neither the Furies nor Apollo has the answer. Each sees part of the truth but neither can see the whole, due to what at this point seem to be the inherent limits of both their natures.

Apollo’s assertion regarding the autonomy of the male in procreation may also be seen as undercut within the Eumenides itself. The only attempt he makes to provide evidence for his position is by pointing to the visible Athena:

and I shall offer you a proof of what I say.

There can be a father without a mother; near at hand

is the witness, the child of Olympian Zeus . . .

and she was not nurtured in the darkness of the womb,

but is such an offspring as no goddess might bear.

It is necessary to observe that Athena never unambiguously opposes this or Apollo’s other statements regarding her male-oriented Olympian nature. On the contrary, in her own words she seems repeatedly to concur. For example, at the time of casting her lot in favor of Orestes’s acquittal, Athena explains her act this way:

For there is no mother who bore me;

and I approve the male in all things, short of accepting marriage,

with all my heart, and I belong altogether to my father.

Therefore I shall not give greater weight to the death of a woman,

one who slew her husband, the watcher of the house.


Here Athena does verbally confirm Apollo’s claim that she was “not nurtured in the darkness of the womb.” And this statement by Athena is one of those that Jane Harrison is deploring when she laments on behalf of women that “we cannot love a goddess who on principle forgets the earth from which she sprang . . . always from the lips of the Lost Leader we hear the shameful denial.” No one should casually dismiss any opinion from a scholar whose contributions have been as valuable as those of Professor Harrison, the distinguished classical anthropologist and historian of Greek religion.  But it seems possible to suggest that a fuller response to Athena’s lines is to recognize them as generating the questions—for men or women—of can we, how can we, should we, why should we, love such a goddess?

The denial in question is Athena’s omission of a response to Apollo’s description of her birth that would give the full story: Zeus overpowered the Titaness, Métis. She conceived a daughter and Earth prophesied that if she conceived again she would produce a son who would depose his father. So Zeus swallowed Métis and was seized by a headache. Haephestus split his skull, and Athena emerged full grown. As Fagles and Stanford observe, “the myth may demonstrate the fatherhood of Zeus but it hardly excludes the motherhood of Métis, even her irrepressible vitality in the face of the Father’s typical violence.” Apollo’s partial version need not be presumed to indicate that anyone else has forgotten or is repressing the full story. The myth was a cultural property, familiar from Hesiod and otherwise, so Apollo’s distortion by omission here may be providing the audience with further evidence of the limits of his mentality.

In any case, Athena’s nature must be comprehended through her behavior as well as her utterances and her silences—her behavior toward the Furies first of all. They have initially agreed to her arbitration because, as they say, “we reverence you as worthy and of worthy parentage”—a line which Kitto renders as “We pay you honor worthy of the honor you have paid us” and Fagles translates “We respect you. You show us respect.” What is significant here is not only that Athena is conciliatory to the Furies but that she can be, as Apollo cannot. If his inability is an attribute of his limited nature, her ability is a manifestation of a more comprehensive one. In terms of ability to balance the claims of instinct and reason, one may term this wisdom (which was associated with Athena’s mother Métis). In terms of participation in both the male and female principles by which those poles of consciousness are represented here, one may call it androgyny.

Even at the moment of casting her ballot, Athena’s behavior involves more than her words indicate. On the one hand, she does vote to acquit Orestes. And in her rationale, she indeed aligns herself with male principles exclusively, denying any female affinities. But here Athena is doing something specific and at the same time something more general. She is voting on Orestes. And she is thus participating with her citizens in the first decision of the court she just established. The institution is one in whose processes considerations of motive and circumstance are taken into account. What Athena has done is to create an institution that gives weight to the kind of concerns she expressed upon first hearing the Furies’ version of Orestes’s crime; as she asked then, “Was there no other constraint that made him go in fear of wrath?” And as she observed to herself, “Two parties are present, and we have heard half the case.” And then to the Furies, “You wish to be thought to act justly rather than to do so.” Athena is expressing a conception of justice not as retaliation and victory but as trial and right assessment. And that is what she makes a place for in Athens (whether or not human beings will subsequently be adequate to its demands).

Whether this more general and ongoing establishment could be as easily rationalized in male Olympian terms as the single vote on Orestes is not clear. It is clear that Athena doesn’t attempt to; her male-oriented explanation applies only to the vote, not to the founding of the Court. Her broader objective is at least as much mercy as rational analysis. And Athena’s responses when she first heard the Furies’ accusation against Orestes are reminiscent of Electra’s query to her Chorus as to what kind of savior she should hope for: “a judge or one who does justice?” Electra’s Chorus had no patience with that question. Their concern was for retribution alone. And there is no evidence in either play that Electra’s emergent distinction is shared by anyone else in society or the cosmos except and until Athena. What the goddess ultimately does is to give institutional form to concerns and perceptions first articulated in the trilogy by an isolated mortal woman.

Neither the vote nor the creation of the Court are Athena’s last acts on stage. And in her subsequent behavior her more than male nature is most clearly manifested, however it may have earlier been blurred or denied.

Orestes has been saved. Nevertheless, two problems remain, one religious, one moral and social. Or rather, one problem with both religious and social dimensions. Athena’s vote has been a partisan, Olympian one, by her own account. The claims of the Furies have been denied. The conflict among the gods is yet unreconciled. Furthermore, in acquitting Orestes, Athena has refused to be influenced by the Furies’ contention that their power must be maintained because it operates as a deterrent to crime, in spite of the fact that she has earlier recognized the truth of their assertion. Paradoxically, in acquitting Orestes because in avenging his father king and ridding his house of a usurper he was acting on behalf of the social order, she has set a precedent—the denial of the rights of the Furies—which, if followed, will itself result in the disturbance of social stability.

Now Athena acts to resolve these conflicts also. She offers the Furies, and they accept, a new relationship with the Olympians, and a new significance in the hearts and minds of human beings. But in her final disposition, Athena does not try to alter the essential nature of the Furies or their inherent function. Rather, once again, as earlier in the play, she comprehends and acknowledges their nature and value with a sympathy that implies an affinity with them and distinguishes her more comprehensive consciousness from the exclusive rationality of Apollo. Moreover, in recognizing society’s need for the Furies, Athena displays a fuller understanding of human consciousness than does her brother. Indeed, she may be thought to recognize a characteristic of consciousness shared by Furies and humans. Athena’s forensic persuasion of the Furies includes a brief reference to the “lightning-bolt” in Zeus’s armory. In mentioning her access to that, is she not operating on the Furies’ own principle that no one can be expected to do right through reason alone, without an element of fear?

After the Furies have been won over, Athena gives thanks to “Zeus of the assembly,” who has “prevailed.” But in the same utterance she more fervently expresses thanks to a female power: “I rejoice; and I cherish Persuasion’s eye,/for having guided my tongue and lips.” This expression of affiliation with both male and female powers is in striking contrast to her self-definition while casting her vote for Orestes. Athena herself has been through much. Before the trial, she told Orestes “either course, that you should stay/or that I should send you away is disastrous, and perplexes me.” Has she suffered into truth? Has she learned not only how to support Orestes and not outrage the Furies, but also the truth of her own nature—that she embodies and serves both male and female principles? This is her last reference to Zeus. As for visible effects, one may wonder if she drops her spear when she assumes the role of the Fury Chorus’ Leader and joins them in their dance.

The Furies are not demeaned, as they gradually recognize. Entering the cave is not allowing themselves to be shut away. Earth has always been their home, from which their influence can still radiate. The lower position of the cave at the base of the hill relative to the Court at the top represents not a subordinate role but a foundational one.

The resolution of the trilogy requires both the establishment of the Court of the Areopagus and the migration of the Cthonic goddesses to a new home in the soil of Attica, with their conversion from blind and bloody persecutors into defenders, through the awe they inspire, of the new system in which discriminating justice is practiced—or attempted. When they consent to enter the civic structure, their earlier function of avenging bloodshed on family and clan terms is expanded to include avenging acts of violence on behalf of the polis. By accepting Athena’s proposal, these gods of the underworld gain great power in cooperation with the gods of Olympus, and mankind.

At the conclusion, Athena becomes a stage director, like Artemis, Clytemnestra, and Orestes before her. And her directions include the last visual manifestations of the trilogy’s two unifying motifs. The Furies’ black robes disappear from view and torches are kindled—light out of darkness. Their new robes of red, the color designating quests of the state in the Panathenaic procession, supersede the red fabrics that had been involved in the crimes in the preceding plays—the net transformed.

Is this a fulfillment of our hopes or a mockery of them? Is the triumphant conclusion earned and potentially salutary, as critics such as Kitto affirm? Or is it ironically, skeptically, or obtusely imposed on double talk and false consciousness, as Lebeck’s, Goldhill’s, or Zeitlin’s analyses conclude? Or something in between?

At least one prominent pair of readers, Fagles and Stanford maintain the Kitto position in considering both the Oresteia and the Parthenon to be “expressions of optimism,” though they are fully aware of conflicting views of the trilogy. But the final lighting of the torches, in apparent triumph, may indeed convey an undertone of doubt. As the audience has observed since the Watchman’s experience at the beginning of the Agamemnon, characters’ hopes from lights out of darkness have repeatedly been thwarted before. The effect of this repetition might be compared by the modern reader to the rhythm of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At the conclusion of that novel, Stephen is firmly optimistic about his future as a writer, believing that earlier obstacles and doubts have been resolved. But the reader is less certain, having followed Stephen through a series of moments of apparent crystallization that were followed by backsliding into futility or depression. Portrait thus enables the reader to perceive that Stephen may succeed or fail, and also to perceive something on which that will depend. Young Daedalus must learn that he does not and cannot create out of his own consciousness in isolation, as he supposes. He must learn, as Joyce has learned, the possibilities of intertextuality – there is a web to be entered, beyond those nets “to fly by.” Consciousness must be extended by interpenetration with other consciousnesses, even or especially those that have been disparaged as outmoded or threatening, rival or alien, including the feminine. Only out of this does the progress come. So hard it is to “forge . . . the uncreated conscience” of a race or of a city, be it Dublin or Athens.

There is a kind of chronological double vision in Portrait. Though often we have the illusion of unmediated access to young Stephen’s consciousness, there is an older, wiser writer—call him older Stephen, Joyce, or an anonymous narrator—who is fostering our understanding of what Stephen still needs to learn and do. The chronological double vision in the Oresteia may be thought to function in a similar way. If the audience supposes that the Eumenides is reverential in relation to the seventh century foundation of the Areopagus, then the triumphant procession must seem a mockery indeed. The Council’s Court, as originally constituted, did not succeed in bringing harmony to the city during the ensuing two hundred years. If the audience supposes, however, that the play is reverential in regard to the reform of the Court three years before the production, the implication is different. The play simultaneously confronts the audience with an earlier failure and a new chance.

The Eumenides has represented characters discovering hitherto unrecognized traits and capacities for enlargement in themselves and their supposed opponents, in religion, social values, and gender. It has dramatized antagonists discovering underlying common interests. And it has represented the indispensability of the ancient to the modern and the danger of disregarding that. Ironically, it is not the Furies but Apollo, that self-proclaimed champion of progress, who turns out be the “old one” and who must be bypassed to achieve the wedding of opposites: which points toward fertility at the end of this comedy in tragic form.  Apollo’s sterility is in his inability to learn the abortiveness of stereotyping oneself or others, failing to recognize one’s own or their potential to expand beyond definitions that are complacent or pejorative. And the play has sought to inculcate in the audience the fuller consciousness necessary to critique Apollo’s view, whether they entered the theatre as partisans of the civic rationalism of the new Areopagus or the clan-oriented traditionalism of the old one.

It is most significant for judging the Oresteia’s implied claim for itself that the audience is invited to join in the procession to the hill. The double vision suddenly becomes triple. The time is not two hundred on three years ago, but now. The invitation—actually challenge—is not to celebration but to commitment and participation. Whether the procession will lead to a triumph or a mockery depends upon whether the audience can manifest in the city the consciousness that the trilogy has sought to manifest in the theatre.

Thomas Gillcrist retired from Reed College in 2002 after forty years in the English Department.  He received a Graves Award for excellence in teaching in the Humanities and was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Palo Alto, and Fulbright Senior Lecturer in Seoul. He also served on the executive committees of the Association of Departments of English and the Western Humanities Alliance. Since retiring, he has written on Victorian historian and statesman T. B. Macaulay’s essay on Warren Hastings and served as guest editor for a special Macaulay issue of Nineteenth–Century Prose.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1993.

Fagles, Robert, and W.B.Stanford. The Serpent and the Eagle: A Reading of the ‘Oresteia.’ The Oresteia. By Aeschylus. Trans. Robert Fagles. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977. 13-97.

Goldhill, Simon. Reading Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Joint Association of Classical Teachers. The World of Athens: an Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. Ed. Chester G. Annderson. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Kitto, H.D.F. Form and Meaning in Drama: A Study of Six Greek Plays and of “Hamlet.” 2nd ed. London: University Paperbacks –Methuen, 1964.

Lattimore, Richmond, trans. Oresteia. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. The Complete Greek Tragedies. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1953.

Lebeck, Anne. “The Oresteia”: A Study in Language and Structure. Publications of the Center for Hellenic Studies. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1971.

Nussbaum, Martha C. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Zeitlin, Froma I. Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature. Women in Culture and Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.