As February is slipping away, it’s past time to revisit my excellent January reads. So with no further preamble…
January reads: Ancient Greece
The Oresteia: “Agamemnon,” “Libation Bearers,” and “Eumenides” by Aeschylus
The Oresteia follows Agamemnon’s return from Troy, his murder at the hands of his wife (Clytemnestra) and lover (Aegisthus), his son Orestes’ revenge killing of them, and Orestes’ murder trial.
Aeschylus is credited with creating tragic drama’s rules and inventing the trilogy—three related tragedies performed in succession over the course of a single day. Their plots derived from myths. At a trilogy’s conclusion, a satyr play (a short tragicomedy) was performed to lighten the audience’s mood. The Oresteia is the only surviving trilogy from antiquity, though the satyr play performed at its conclusion is lost.
To understand Clytemnestra and Aegisthus’ motivation, it helps to know the backstory that’s referenced but not fully explained in the play. The Greeks were ready to head off to Troy, but they had a problem: no wind. Apparently, Agamemnon offended Artemis. She demanded a sacrifice: his and Clytemnestra’s daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon sacrificed her. The winds picked up. The Greeks sailed away, with Agamemnon. But he left behind a distraught wife.
Enter Aegisthus, who was the son of Thyestes, who was the brother of Atreus, who was the father of Agamemnon. Are you still with me?
Aegisthus and Agamemnon were first cousins. Their family line was cursed going back to their grandparents (broken promises, angry gods, etc.). Aegisthus and Agamemnon’s fathers—Thyestes and Atrius respectively—were brothers. Their father exiled them from his kingdom, Olympia, for murdering their half brother. Thyestes and Atrius found refuge in Mycenae, ascending the throne jointly when its king, Eurystheus, died. Atrius eventually gained sole control of the throne and banished Thyestes. At some point, Atrius discovered his wife had an affair with Thyestes. In revenge, Atrius killed Thyestes’ children and served them to him. This profane act caused Atrius’ sons, Agamemnon and Meneleaus, to be cursed. Which brings us to The Oresteia.
“Agamemnon” picks up the family’s story when he returns from Troy and walks into a trap set for him by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, who became lovers during Agamemnon’s absence. Clytemnestra welcomes Agamemnon in a speech filled with double meanings. Then she and Aegisthus kill Agamemnon. The play ends on a cliffhanger: The Chorus refers to Orestes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son, being in exile and possibly returning to avenge his father. “Agamemnon” feels very much like the first act of a larger story.
In “Libation Bearers,” Orestes reunites with his sister Elektra at their father’s grave. Elektra is one of the titular Libation Bearers, slave women who pour libations on Agamemnon’s tomb and serve as the play’s Chorus. Clytemnestra sent them for appeasement, but the Libation Bearers are not loyal to her. At Agamemnon’s tomb, Orestes and Elektra pray for the strength to avenge their father’s death by murdering their mother and Aegisthus, which Apollo has directed Orestes to do.
Orestes kills them offstage, and the Erinyes (more often known by their Latin name, “Furies”) arrive. The Erinyes’ role is to punish kin murderers. Orestes has committed matricide, thus they pursue him to punish him. Orestes knows he must be exiled and can only find refuge at a temple of Apollo. The play ends with the Erinyes pursuing Orestes and the Chorus recapping the events that led to this murder: Agamemnon’s father Atreus serving his brother Thyestes his own children. This led to Atreus’ children being cursed—Agamemnon’s wife murdering him and his son avenging him.
Possibly the play’s most moving exchange is between Orestes and the Chorus. Orestes laments, “All that’s been done and suffered, all my bloodline / grieves me in my defiled, uninvited victory.” The Chorus replies, “No one of humankind can spend / his life unharmed, and in perfect honor.” Characters in Ancient Greek tragedy and poetry are often tormented or punished by the gods, whether as proxies, because of their own bad acts, or because of some whim or other. These lines made me feel that these complicated, sometimes convoluted, plots speak to a painful truth: We cannot avoid suffering. Perhaps that is the real tragedy. Orestes derives no satisfaction in vengeance. It’s just what had to be done.
The central feature of “Eumenides” is Orestes’ murder trial. The play opens with Orestes seeking shelter at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. The Erinyes, who serve as the play’s Chorus, have pursued him across Greece. They and Apollo debate, finally agreeing to go to Athens for a trial to be presided over by Athena. In her namesake city, Athena creates the idea of trial by jury, saying “I’ll go and choose the best men in my city, / and bring them to decide this matter justly. / Keeping within their oaths, in strictest conscience.” Eleven men are chosen to serve with Athena as the jury. A tie will go in favor of the defendant. The Erinyes threaten to stop punishing anyone if Orestes is set free.
The Chorus and Apollos verbally spar. Apollo asks a profound question for any time: “Is kindness not a just return for reverence / always, but most of all when it’s most needed?”
Apollo serves as Orestes’ witness. Which seems only fair since he decreed Orestes murder Clytemnestra. Apollo argues that Orestes and Clytemnestra are not blood relatives. Thus the Erinyes should not be punishing him. Apparently, this is a reference to a 5th century BC theory of reproduction, not commonly held, that claimed women are the vessel through which children are born but not their blood relatives. Athena supports this view and casts the tying vote in favor of Orestes. As she does so, she says, “There is no mother who gave birth to me. / With all my heart, I hold with what is male— / except through marriage. I am all my father’s, / no partisan of any woman killed / for murdering her husband, her home’s watchman.” I guess no one told her she sprang fully formed from Zeus’ head because he swallowed her mother, Metis, while she was pregnant.
Orestes calls Athena “the savior of my house.” He, who is from Argos, vows never to bring arms against Athens. This echos a real-life treaty between Argos and Athens at that time.
The Chorus becomes dangerously unhappy. Athena points out that the tying vote does not bring them shame. She asks them to calm down and not retaliate with rage, promising the Erinyes they’ll be honored by Athena’s existing citizens. The Chorus repeats its refrain, expressed throughout the play, that younger Olympian gods disrespect the ancient ones. Athena stays on message, offering the Erinyes a place of honor in her city. Finally, they accept, dance in joy, and call Athens “the delight of heaven.” They will become the city’s moral guide, keeping its citizens on the right moral path. This is doing a “kindness” for them. Thus the Erinyes become the Eumenides, meaning “kindly ones.”
According to the introduction in my edition (The Greek Plays), the play contained political messaging. In addition to the treaty resonance mentioned above, Athens at that time faced a threat of civil war between those who wanted radical democracy and those who did not. In the play, the tying vote allows the Olympians “to win the case, but not to lay claim to the moral high ground.” Athena’s offer to provide a place of honor for the Erinyes turns curses “to blessings and hatred to love.” Which is pretty much how you’d like any potential civil war in your country to end.
I highly recommend reading this trilogy. As the only surviving one, it’s an opportunity to see a tragic series resolved. Though that’s also the downside of reading The Oresteia. It made me want to weep for longing to have access to more complete trilogies.
The Penguin Book of Classical Myths by Jenny March
March’s summaries and retellings of Greek and Roman mythology are a joy to read. Her book is also a useful reference for anyone interested in tracing myths to their primary source material. She quotes from source materials and provides line references. That was my favorite part of this book: the ability to read the mythical stories in their original texts.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
This little novella is part of the Canongate Myths series of contemporary retellings of myths from around the world. This one, as you may have divined from the title, is about The Odyssey’s Penelope. In Homer’s epic, Penelope is canny and circumspect. She devises a plot to keep more than 100 suitors at bay for years, while keeping her husband’s kingdom running successfully and raising their son. In The Odyssey, Odysseus speaks with Agamemnon from Hades. Agamemnon lauds Penelope as “much too sensible” (in Emily Wilson’s translation) to plot against her husband. Not loyal or demure or devoted. Sensible.
This descriptor suits Atwood’s Penelope. The Penelopiad takes place in the present. Penelope has been languishing in the underworld for over two millennia. From there, she tells readers her story, from her childhood (her father tried to kill her) to her early marriage (Odysseus was gentle and kind). She rehashes her 20 years spent waiting for Odysseus to return, the trials of raising a teen son alone, and the events around Odysseus’ return. In The Odyssey, after Odysseus dispatches the suitors, he and his son, Telemachus, put 12 slave women to death by hanging—punishment for cavorting with the suitors. Those 12 women function as The Penelopiad’s Chorus and serve the role of the Chorus in Ancient Greek tragedies. They comment on Penelope’s version of events and are the real stars of the book.
Despite its tragic premise, The Penelopiad is, at times, wacky and hilarious. It is packed with references to myths, despite its slim size. Most engaging is how very much in conversation it is with source material. But even if you know very little about Ancient Greek myths, this is a thought-provoking read.
January reads: the rest
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis
I read this for a work project.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
After rereading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban last fall, I ended up rereading the series to the end. It was rereading Deathly Hallows that inspired me to read The Oresteia: A quote from “Libation Bearers” serves as an epigraph to Deathly Hallows. Despite having read the book several times, I’d never noticed that before.
Out of context, the translation Rowling quotes fits, especially the final lines: “Bless the children, give them / triumph now.” In context, it’s an odd choice. “Libation Bearers” is about plotting violent revenge. The children in the quote—Elektra and Orestes—are asking for strength to murder their mother. On the other hand, the trilogy considers, according to the introduction I read, “whether justice is to be administered by way of retribution and revenge, or some other, less violent process.” That notion resonates with Harry’s journey.
Besides that, I have many, many thoughts on how Harry Potter’s themes echo themes from The Oresteia. Too many for this space but plenty for future post(s).
Now it’s your turn: How has your reading life been going so far in 2018? Any suggestions or recommendations?
2 Replies to “The Oresteia by Aeschylus and more January reads”
Ooh – thanks for “No one of humankind can spend / his life unharmed, and in perfect honor.” What a deep thought to mull over….
Also, I laughed when I read your surprisingly, inexplicably succinct “summary” of “The Blind Side”. I saw the movie a few months ago and while I thought Sandra Bullock did an amazing acting job,I was shocked that the movie didn’t give the main character a voice – he was just someone to “save.” It actually made me want to read the book. Why didn’t you want to say anything more about it?
“The Penelopiad” sounds really cool. I have always been a bit wary of Margaret Atwood -her stuff seemed too serious and dystopian for me. Then, I watched the series “Alias Grace” and it was so beautifully and wisely done, plus a bit magical/spooky – it made me reconsider and think about picking up one of her books. This one sounds absolutely delightful. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
As for my own reading, I just finished one of those cool surprises you get sometimes when you buy a cheap, random book from a used bookstore, not expecting much. The version of “Atlas of Unknowns” by Tania James that I found had this cover (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Atlas-Unknowns-Tania-James/dp/1847394167) that made me think it was going to either be a lighthearted chicklit romp, or a YA book. It was neither, and so, while it did not satisfy either of those itches, it was still a really surprisingly engrossing read. Not perfect, but moving at times and a true page-turner for much of it, because I really did not know what was going to happen to these characters. Have you heard about or read it at some point? I could see you liking or at least enjoying it…certainly more than you seem to have enjoyed “The Blind Side.” 🙂
Hi Alysa! The Penelopiad was a huge (and happy) surprise for me. I did not expect it to be so funny and wry while also being super thought-provoking not only about mythology but about the nature of storytelling. I hadn’t heard of Atlas of the Unknowns. I just looked it up, and it definitely looks like something I would enjoy. Regarding The Blind Side, mostly I didn’t say more about it because I would never had read the book if it hadn’t been assigned to me. I’ve heard your criticism leveled more heavily against the movie than the book. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’d guess they stripped away a lot of the context and nuance. The book was also about the evolution of football strategy and how a particular position (the one Michael Oher, the main character, plays) became so highly regarded and compensated. That part of the book was fascinating. The author, Michael Lewis, crams a lot of story into that book, lots of narrative threads and lots of metaphoric levels (like “the blind side” has literal meaning as a football term but is also used in the book to refer to things you don’t see coming until they knock you over). So if the movie only told Oher’s story, that’s not the point of the book.
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