Background and Images for the Oresteia
purification of Orestes

House of Atreus: Atreus, the king of Mycenae (or, in the version of Aeschylus, king of Argos), had a brother Thyestes who bitterly resented Atreus’ kingship. Thyestes seduced his brother's wife, and in revenge, Atreus invited Thyestes to a “reconcliation dinner,” during which Atreus served a stew whose main ingredient was the flesh of Thyestes’ own sons. After Thyestes found out what Atreus had done, he pronounced a terrible curse on the house of Atreus—that generation after generation of family members would destroy each other. Thyestes’ only surviving son, Aegisthus, grew up nursing a bitter hatred for his cousins. Atreus’ eldest son, Agamemon, succeeded to the throne of Mycenae/Argos, while his brother Menelaus married Helen and assumed kingship of Sparta. Agamemnon married Helen's half-sister Clytemnestra and produced three children, Iphigeneia, Electra, and Orestes:

house of Atreus genealogy

The Trojan War: The marriage feast of the mortal Peleus with the goddess Thetis (a union which would produce the Greek hero Achilles), was interrupted by Eris, goddess of strife; angered because she had not been invited, Eris tossed into the midst of the feast an apple inscribed “to the most beautiful.” Three goddesses laid claim to the apple—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Zeus decreed that Paris (also known as Alexander), son of Priam, the King of Troy, should arbitrate the dispute. Each of the goddesses sought to bribe Paris, who ultimately awarded the apple to Aphrodite on the basis of her promise to unite him with the most beautiful woman in the world. The Judgment of Paris was the immediate cause of the Trojan war, since it led to the elopement of Paris and Helen, daughter of Zeus, who had raped her mother Leda in the form of a swan. Since all the Greek kings had sworn an oath to return Helen to Menelaus should she ever be taken from him, they prepared to attack Troy, electing Agamemnon to serve as their leader, king of kings.

coin of eagles devouring hare

Sacrifice of Iphigeneia: As the Greek fleet assembled at the port of Aulis to sail for Troy, Agamemnon angered the goddess Artemis in some way, possibly by killing one of her sacred deer. Artemis was closely associated with her twin Apollo, as on this coin; she was a divine huntress who, perhaps paradoxically, fiercely protected the young of animals. Aeschylus draws on this aspect of her nature when he describes Agamemnon's offense through the highly-charged poetic symbol of two eagles devouring a pregnant hare. Adverse winds made it impossible for the fleet to sail, and through the priest Calchas, Artemis ordered Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia in order to obtain favorable winds. Though reluctant, Agamemnon performed the sacrifice, and the Greeks sailed to Troy.

Fall of Troy: After ten years of hard-fought battles, the Greeks finally captured Troy through the strategem of the Trojan Horse. Their behavior upon this victory was exceptionally brutal, however. The same pithos (large terracotta vessel) on which the Trojan Horse appears also depicts numerous scenes of Greeks slaying young boys before the eyes of their mothers. Helen was returned to Menelaus at great cost to both sides (Aeschylus compares her to a lion, brought into the house as a cub and raised as a pet, that eventually turns on the family that cherished it).

Cassandra: Cassandra was one of the daughters of Priam, King of Troy. The god Apollo, desiring her, gave her the gift of prophecy, but when she refused to have sex with him, he added a curse—although she would always foretell the truth, no one would ever believe her predictions. Upon the fall of Troy, Cassandra, like all the other Trojan women, was enslaved; Agamemnon claimed her as his concubine and brought her back to Mycenae/Argos to live with him in the palace. There are many illustrations, like the seal ring at right, that show Cassandra being savagely torn away from the statue of Athena, where she had taken refuge when the Greeks invaded her city. This wooden statue of Athena, called the Palladium, was especially sacred to the Trojans, because its presence was supposed to keep the city safe.

sealring depicting Cassandra

Plot of the Oresteia: During the ten-year absence of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra nursed her anger over the slaughter of her daughter. She took as a lover Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, and the two ruled the city and plotted vengeance on Agamemnon. When the king returned triumphant from Troy, bringing Cassandra with him as a concubine, Clytemnestra waited until he was unarmed in the bath, entangled him in a robe, and struck him down with an axe. After killing Cassandra as well, she gloated over the bodies, symbolically characterizing herself as the matriarchal earth goddess made fertile by the blood of sacrifices.

Many years later, Orestes (who had been sent away by Clytemnestra to a foreign kingdom when he was a child), returned in disguise with his companion Pylades to find Electra continually mourning beside the tomb of her father. After a poignant recognition scene, Orestes told her of the strongly commanded to avenge the death of his father by the god Apollo (here shown sitting on the omphalos, the sacred stone at Delphi that supposedly represented the very center of the earth). Together they formed a plan to catch Clytemnestra and Aegisthus off guard and slay them. With the help of Electra, Orestes stabbed Aegisthus before the eyes of his mother and then caught and killed Clytemnestra (here is another scene of Orestes slaying Aegisthus, and a series of drawings from a vase in the Boston Museum that depicts both the murder of Agamemnon and the slaying of Aegisthus). However, as soon as he appeared with the two corpses to justify the killings, he was driven off by the Furies (Erinyes), blood-sucking underworld goddesses who hunt down and destroy those who shed kindred blood, especially matricides.

gold seal ring depicting Athena

After a long and exhausting pursuit by the Furies, Orestes finally arrived at the temple of Apollo (also called Loxias) in Delphi, where the Pythia, the priestess through whom Apollo delivered his oracles, described the scene depicted at the top of this page: Apollo, having lulled the Furies to sleep, purified Orestes with the blood of a sacrificial piglet (here is another vase painting of this scene with a fiercer looking Fury). This brief respite for Orestes did not last long, however, for Clytemnestra, now in the form of demonic ghost, awakened the sleeping Furies and lashed them back into frenzied pursuit of Orestes, who eventually sought sanctuary at the temple of Athena in Athens. The goddess determined that the opposing claims against Orestes should be settled by a trial, with Athena as judge, Apollo as defense lawyer, the Furies as prosecutors, and fifty Athenian citizens as jurors.

After both sides presented their cases, the votes of the jury were evenly split, so Athena cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of Orestes. She was won over by Apollo's argument—in opposition to the blood-claims of the Furies—that the father was the only true parent, for she herself had no mother but was born from the head of Zeus and thus strongly supported male claims. When the Furies threatened to devastate Athens with their wrath, Athena used her powers of persuasion (well depicted in this classical Greek bronze statue and marble Roman copy) to transform the Furies into “Kindly Goddesses” (Eumenides), who would foster the fertility of the land and protect the sanctity of marital as well as blood ties. Thus Athena invented a new method of resolving disputes (the jury trial) that would not lead to further bloodshed and subordinated the claims of the matriarchy within a framework of patriarchal hierarchy and values.

Lion and Bull Imagery: The images of lions and bulls that figure so prominently in the Oresteia have their roots in the Bronze Age. The citadel of Mycenae was entered through a huge gate topped with a relief carving of heraldic lions, and many of the artifacts feature lions or bulls—for example, this gold rhyton (vessel used in religious rituals) of a lioness or this silver and gilt rhyton of a bull.

October, 1999
Barbara F. McManus
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