Aeschylus (523 -456 BC), it is thought, wrote around ninety plays in his lifetime; only seven of them survive. Three of these comprise the only complete trilogy in the ancient Greek canon that has thus survived and it is known as The Oresteia after its main protagonist, Orestes.
It is testament enough to Greek civilisation of the period that in the playwright’s epitaph there is no mention at all of his significant and acknowledged literary achievements in life, whilst instead he is mentioned as a veteran of the very real Battle of Marathon in which he fought in the year 490 BC.
The trilogy is best tackled with some prior knowledge of both the Trojan war and the House of Atreus which I will endeavour to summarise:
In the former, the supreme commander of all victorious Greek forces at Troy – Agamemnon – is murdered by his wife – Clytaemnestra – upon his return in the first of the plays as vengeance for the sacrifice of their daughter – Iphigenia – some ten years before. The sacrifice was essential due an offence against Artemis which stranded the Greek fleet at Aulis before the Greek invaders had even reached battle. In order for favorable winds, Iphigenia was put to the knife. The action of the trilogy starts with signal beacons lit to signify the fall of the city and to prepare Agamemnon’s wife for his murder. Chronologically then, the story takes place after The Iliad, authored by the Greek poet Homer (late 8th century BC) which serves to illustrate the ten-year war itself.
As for the latter – the House of Atreus – the murder at the start of the first play – Agamemnon – regenerates the curse of the house where generations before, its progenitor – King Tantalus – offered the Olympian Gods the human flesh of his own son – Pelops – at dinner. This outrage, despite his former favour with the Olympians, was discovered and would live on as inherited guilt passed down through future generations. Pelops was resurrected and he, in turn, had two sons – Thyestes and Atreus. Thyestes betrayed his brother by seducing his wife and, in retaliation, Atreus murdered Thyestes’ children and invited his brother to dine, unknowingly, on the flesh of his own two children.
Thyestes would eventually get his revenge through the next generation, when Thyestes’ son – Aegisthus – would go on to team up with Clytaemnestra to murder Agamemnon, the son of Atreus. The drama is superb as not only does Clytaemnestra outwit her husband in the dialogue, she allows him in the short interlude from returning home to his violent end, a sense of overblown hubris. A great victor she plays him, but all is a great trick.
In the second play – The Libation Bearers – Orestes, the son of Agamemnon spurned on by the God Apollo would meet up with his remaining sister, Electra, to murder the mother and her lover – Aegisthus – thus reworking the curse. This time, unlike in Agamemnon, Orestes has to deal with the wrath of the Furies whose ancient power is evident throughout the trilogy. They represent a natural order that even the ‘young Gods’ cannot ignore. They are the natural law, there at the precipice, the extremity to make sense of the mess and exact justice, price for price.
The Furies play the major role in the third play – The Eumenides – where the constant hounding of the matricide, Orestes, takes him to Athens to be judged by Athena and it is here that the light is won back from the darkness and the cycle upon cycle of outrages worked through, purified perhaps. Thereafter is established the Areopagus (Ares’ Rock) as a court of law for trying homicide and the Furies become incorporated into the brave new world, steered into being with the statesmanship of Athena.
The Furies are the prosecution, Orestes and Apollo defendant and defense alike and there is a jury selected from the people of Athens by the judge, Athena herself, patron of the city-state.
The three plays are translated in this edition by the renowned American professor, poet and academic, Robert Fagles (1933 – 2008). In addition, the Irish classicist WB Stanford (1910-1984), who was already by Fagles’ time a classical scholar of veteran proportion, collaborates on a 100-page essay entitled ‘The Serpent and the Eagle’ which I so urge you to read before the plays themselves.
The essay is hard-going and is almost a book in itself but it will allow you to appreciate the splendor of the plays with prior knowledge that brings so much of the metaphor and allusion into being. Mysterious lines become reduced once you’ve gotten through the essay, but make no mistake you will hate the authors for it at times, I assure you. You will curse their academic backsides and either you will persist – as epic as you like – or you will succumb. I recommend the former.
But I hope I have planted a seed in your mind. There are so many ways to appreciate, live and work with the Gods and academia is one of them. This essay is worth a country -mile and more if you want to deepen your understanding of Greek mythology from whichever angle you personally approach it from, whether as scholar, student, polytheist, pagan or poet. Or all, or none.
What struck me immediately is the brilliance of the translations and I mean this on a number of levels because I am not a trained classicist and have neither Greek (or Latin) to my name so how would I know, right?
you’ll give me blood for blood, you must!
Out of your living marrow I will drain
my red libation, out of your veins I suck my food,
my raw brutal cups –
– wither you alive,
drag you down and there you pay, agony
for mother-killing agony!
And there you will see them all.
Every mortal who outraged god or guest or loving parent:
each receives the pain his pains exact.”
Lines 262 – 269 from ‘The Eumenides’ The Furies addressing the matricide, Orestes.
Both Fagles and Stanford were poets in their own right and it shows, I think, don’t you? Yes, officially Fagles is the translator but working together on the essay, I can imagine the translation work itself would also have been a topic of conversation between the two of them, don’t you?
The language rendered from Greek into English is beautiful on so many levels and it is brought home even deeper because Fagles has such a grasp of his subject, who along with Stanford in the essay, unmask the entirety of the meaning behind the trilogy – the journey from savagery to civilization and the prerequisite for darkness to give rise to the light; an experience embodied by both men and Gods, for the deities themselves also improve within the space of the story and the progress through brutality and regenerative violence comes across as a strong message for the light that is Athens… of the necessity to effort man must make, in order to arrest his slide back into his own degeneracy. The story and the characters of the trilogy all ‘suffer into truth.’
The Orestaia was iconic then, a monument of its age charting the birth of a civilization. This edition was published in 1977.
© Sam R Geraghty