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              Resolution in the House of Atreus:             The Family and the State in the Oresteia

  •  Submitted: 4.04.06 


“They have no meeting place for council, no laws, either,

no, up on the mountain peaks they live in arching caverns-

each a law to himself, ruling his wives and children,

not a care in the world for any neighbor.”

                                            - Homer Odyssey Book IX 

Herodotus tells us in The History that the Trojan War is what united the various peoples of the Peloponnesus and made them a single Greek people.  Aeschylus gives an account in The Oresteia of what separates this new people from the barbarians.  Through the clashing of two immortal forces, and the resolution between them, Aeschylus attempts to find balance between emotion and logic.  Whether the equilibrium reached at the end of The Eumenides properly reflects human nature as it ought to be, and the role which the unintelligible emotions play in our lives, is another thing altogether.  What is clear is that justice must be redefined and given a new place in society, for, as it stands at the beginning of Agamemnon, just action is personal revenge, and while there are certain elements within men which are irrepressible and undeniable, the city is being destroyed because these elements are given a free hand in the affairs of men.  The Furies are the embodiment of the passion to avenge family which exists in man, and Apollo is their opposite in almost every way.  He is not concerned with blood, but with property.  What is unclear is just what the balance between these two ideas should be.

An object of loneliness of the most profound sort, her daughter slain by the hand of her husband for the sake of a war waged over her sister—who is also her husband’s brother’s wife—stands Clytaemestra.  Recoiling from her situation, Clytaemestra allies herself with Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, enemy of the House, and her husband’s cousin.  The Argive elders remain loyal to Agamemnon, and sat idly by as he sacrifices his daughter, Iphigeneia.  Waiting ten years for her chance, Clytaemestra avenges her daughter and kills Agamemnon, meanwhile giving thanks to Zeus, believing she

struck in strength of righteousness

Standing over the lifeless body of her husband, she tells the chorus the house is cleansed, and the bloodshed is over.  But it is not.  The ties of family are strong, and the exiled Orestes is driven to avenge the wrong done to his father.

These strong family ties work both for and against Clytaemestra; they simultaneously drive her actions and undermine any hope she holds for resolution.  The sins of the House of Atreus go back three generations to Tantalus and are passed on to his sons Atreus and Thyestes, and again to the present generation of the Atreidae.  Clytaemestra believes that the stain in the blood of the House of Atreus will end with Agamemnon: the murders upon murders have each wrought repayment.  What Clytaemestra does not consider is that the freshly spilled blood of Agamemnon carries with it fresh anger, and ensures that the curse is passed on to the next generation.  The chorus warns Clytaemestra,

Yet to come is stroke given for stroke

                         vengeless, forlorn of friends

 The embodiment of the justice of Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers, the Furies are hateful creatures, primitive daughters of the Night whose unyielding purpose is to force their justice upon those who shed kindred blood.  Orestes’ claims of being absolved of the blood on his hands by Apollo mean nothing to them.  They are perfect hatred, and no persuasion can assuage them.  The Furies are the representation of the tradition and harsh justice which rules uncivilized men.  They respond only to the cries of the aggrieved when slain by a blood relative.  That is where the domain of the Furies begins and ends.  The influence the Furies can exert is specific and powerful, suited for families and tribes, relying upon emotion and instinct as its driving force.  There is something undeniable about the existence of the Furies, and the madness which they instill in men.  Agamemnon is driven to madness when he looks into the eyes of Iphigeneia, and Orestes is immediately pursued by the Furies as he flees Argos.  The message is clear: there are forces which will destroy you if you do something as horrible as killing your mother, and there is no possible rationale to which an appeal may be made.

In the Oresteia, the Furies and women are presented as having their roots in the earth, and thus the primitive world of instinct.  Clytaemestra tells the elders of Argos to listen to her, a woman amongst men, when she says,

                                  Here is a monstrous harvest and a bitter reaping time.

                        There is pain enough already.  Let us not be bloody now.

                                    Honored gentleman of Argos, go to your homes now and

                                                give way

                                    to the stress of fate and season.

And speaking of the blood of Agamemnon which she has just spilled,

                                    and as he died he spattered me with the dark red

                                    and violent driven rain of bitter savored blood

                                    to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers

                                    of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.

The juxtaposition of growth and death in Clytaemestra’s impassioned speech is striking.  The reliance upon curses and the references to the seasons suggests a primitive and irrational connection to nature.  Women are like the soil, or earth, in that they bring forth children from the man’s seed and so are more in tune with the seasons, with sowing and reaping, and have a powerful, visceral connection to the things which they bring forth.  For the Furies, the blood on Orestes’ hands is the only thing which could ever matter, and there could never be any justification for its being there.

The primal, barbaric mentality that justice is blood for blood cannot eliminate the curse upon the House of Atreus; instead it only serves to perpetuate an unending cycle, for each fresh spilling of blood requires new blood in answer.  The pattern seems not to be one of right versus wrong, nor even one of wrong versus wrong, but rather one of right versus right.  Clytaemestra righteously invokes the name of Zeus over the body of the husband she has killed, and the chorus sanctifies her action, crying,

alas, the bitter glory

of a doom that shall never be done with;

and all through Zeus, Zeus

 And in The Libation Bearers, the avenging son Orestes tells the chorus,

                                                                                        So shall, not my

                                    father, but that great father who sees all, the Sun,

look on my mother’s sacrilegious handiwork

and be a witness for me in my day of trial

how it was in all right that I achieved this death

Both Clytaemestra and Orestes can fairly claim they have acted rightly and with divine sanction, which lends authority and a sort of rationale to their emotional actions.   In murdering, they each paid blood for blood, in accordance with the ancient laws.  Orestes knows immediately that he has not ended the curse, but rather brought a new one down upon him in the form of the Furies because he has spilled fresh kindred blood.

This primitive justice has its place in the domestic realm.  Driven by the Furies, it is the family unit which enforces its justice between its members.  Thus, when Clytaemestra rebukes the chorus for refusing to banish Agamemnon, she has no firm ground on which to base her anger; they cannot help her, even if they wanted to.  Not only is Agamemnon outside the reach of the elders as king, but so is he also as the ruler of his house.  There exists no justice common to all in Argos.  The king is different, superior and irreproachable, both because he is the tyrant, and because he has murdered someone within his family.  And while the chorus of elders has some political power, they are physically weak, and would be acting outside their bounds if they were to move in the familial realm.  The obfuscation of the public and private realms, which began when a king murdered his daughter in an attempt to free his fleet for war, has brought these conflicting forces to a head with the slaying of a king by his wife.

The first words Orestes speaks in the trilogy point to the political realm.  Although at his father’s grave, Orestes asks Hermes, to protect the powers which should be his by right, and then gives thanks to be on his own soil again.  Only after this does Orestes show any concern for the familial.  Not only the chorus in Agamemnon, but the entire city, is tied up with the fate of the king, and now, with Orestes.  The watchman in the dark of night which opens the play says,

my lord’s dice cast aright are counted as my own.

The alliance forged between Clytaemestra and Aegisthus is one which shows the weakness of the Furies’ justice.  They rose to the throne of Argos through murder, but because Clytaemestra does not share the ties of kindred blood with Agamemnon, she is outside the realm of the Furies.  The only way for justice to be served is through a father’s curse, just as it was a mother’s hatred which brought down Iphigeneia’s murderer.  And so, like Agamemnon before them, they are untouchable to any of Argos, though the fate of the city is bound up with them.  The only hope of resolution again lies in a divinely sanctioned, but private, murder.

            Apollo is just as brutal as the Furies, yet in every other way he is their opposite.  While the Furies are irrational and chthonic, Apollo is logical and, at heart, political.  For him, the distinction of kindred blood is lost.  Instead, he protects the political connections men choose to make between each other.  He admonishes the Furies in The Eumenides for ignoring the oaths of marriage which Hera holds so dear, and instead focusing completely on those connections which men are born into.  Orestes is a man with no choice.  Because the Furies rely upon family members to exact justice, Orestes’ fate is established by the actions of generations past.  He is not free to make a choice.  Either the curse of his father will get him, or the Furies will drive him mad when he kills his mother.  Before the State, and Apollo, men make their own choices.  The House of Atreus will be destroyed with Orestes, and that is just how the Furies want it.  The State and Apollo bring with them the hope of survival.  Apollo is completely open to looking behind the facts of murder, and into any circumstances which could justify murder.  The distinction of family is lost, and is to be replaced by the bonds which exist between citizens.  It is with Apollo that the qualification of friend and enemy comes in.  This is an important and new distinction.  Whereas before the family ruled, now the classification of friend and enemy becomes primary.  Orestes tells the chorus of women in The Libation Bearers that Apollo has commanded that he must,


                                    to the bull’s fury in the loss of my estates


If the Furies represent primitive nature and regression, it is Apollo who brings progress.  Apollo occupies the seat of prophesy at Delphi, but it was not always so.  First was the goddess Earth, a Titan, and following after her was her daughter Themis.  The seat was given peaceably next to Phoebe, another Titan daughter of Earth.  As a gift, the position was given to Apollo, and he became Phoebus Apollo.  The Pythia describes Apollo coming as harbinger of light and progress.  With Hephaestus’ sons, Apollo brought roads, and was the first to tame the wilderness.  This passage shows that the very gods themselves went through a natural evolution.  The other daughters of the Earth have given way to the Olympian gods peaceably, but not the Furies.  They were left behind.  They still hold sway on the hearts of men.  Under Apollo there is no revenge except through the state, and had the Furies given way, there would be no fear of extraordinary retribution in murders taking place between families.  In The Libation Bearers, Electra is unsure of whether to ask for someone

to judge them, or to give them punishment


The juxtaposition of the political realm and the familial realm in the case of the murder of Agamemnon cannot be solved by either Apollo’s logic or the Furies’ instinct.

Orestes murders Clytaemestra and is pursued to Delphi, where as a suppliant to Apollo, he is absolved.  But the Furies continue to follow him.  The scene is set for a clashing of two immortal forces, both claiming the correct system of justice.  The Furies pine to avenge the slaughter of Clytaemestra because she is a mother, and Apollo must protect Orestes’ political power.  Orestes flees to Athens, and to the refuge of Athene.

The first lines of Agamemnon are spoken in the dark, by a man affected by the rise and fall of his king, and the first words of Orestes in The Libation Bearers speak to the wrongs he has suffered in the political sphere.  The first words, then, of The Eumenides are surely about reconciliation and remembering your past.  The very name, Phoebus Apollo, is itself a reminder that Apollo’s power came from an older goddess, that the past cannot be separated from the present.  Perhaps Apollo forgets that fact.

Athene’s nature is such that she has no mother.  Born of Zeus only, she sides with the man in all things.  However that may be, she cannot escape the reality that she is a goddess, a woman.  This unique position means that she favors Apollo and puts the political sphere first, but she also must feel, or at least have the potential to feel, the hurt of a mother for a slain child.  Because of Athene’s nature, she is able to look upon the Furies and Orestes as equals upon first seeing them.  She says,

                    I address you all alike,

      both you, the stranger kneeling at my image here,

       and you, who are like no seed ever begotten


Eliminating terror is, in this case, a positive step.  Ideally, having this consensus in a city would ensure the fair treatment of all.  It also establishes that emotion should not rule first reactions.  Citizens are to be open to accepting new people into their fold.

            Each party, the alliance between Orestes and Apollo, and the Furies, relinquish their right to act before the judgment of Athene.  Athene, recognizing that a decision such as this cannot reside in any single being seeks to quell the passions of the individual by bringing forth a jury of mortal men.  The jury is extremely important; because it is made up of men, they will be susceptible to the emotions and passions which accompany the more terrible side of mankind.  This is the primary deviance from Apollo’s justice.  But because the jury is entirely male, they will favor the political realm, much as Athene does.  Men will not fail to be moved by the solicitations of a wronged mother.  The men of the jury belong to a common political group which is outside the family, and so the political will be primary in their decisions.  Both Athene and the jury side with the male in all things, and the outcome of the trial reflects this fact.  The balance seems to be no balance at all, but rather almost entirely aligned with Apollo and the political, but the possibility of being susceptible to the irrational emotions of men is still there, if the case is bad enough.

            The jury’s vote is tied and it is Athene’s vote which breaks the deadlock.  Her vote goes with Orestes, and against the claims of a slain mother.  After the decision is rendered, the Furies are, well, furious.  If the forces within men are not given a proper place within this new justice, the Furies will destroy men, and make the land barren.  The image associated with women is the soil, and if men do not fear the Furies, future generations will be destroyed.  Athene tells the Furies not to annihilate the city with the destructive forces of revenge.  If the Furies do not give up their office, Athens will not be able to be a city, and man will remain lawless, submitting only to the terror of the Furies as governance.  If men are to have laws, they must submit to a common standard.  Athene knew this from the beginning, but she also knows she cannot do away with the Furies all together.

We cannot brush them aside,

                           and if this action so runs that they fail to win,

                           the venom of their resolution will return

  to infect the soil, and sicken my land to death.

Here is dilemma.  Whether I let them stay or drive

                                    them off, it is a hard course and will hurt.


The question of just what role the Furies should play is now up in the air.  It is clear that the Olympian gods cannot simply destroy the Furies.  The Furies warns Orestes that

                                    Neither Apollo nor Athene’s strength must win

you free


If the Furies cannot be destroyed then they must be incorporated into the city.  When the verdict of Orestes is read, the Furies threaten civil war, and the destruction of the city.  In order to turn hatred so pure into something not entirely destructive, persuasion, not force, is needed.  In Agamemnon, persuasion is used for evil means.  Clytaemestra persuades Agamemnon to walk upon the fine robes in a bizarre sort of power struggle.  She is, in effect, establishing the possibility of a woman acting.  By getting Agamemnon to walk on the carpets, she is justifying the approaching murder in the political realm, when it is already justified in the familial.  In The Eumenides persuasion is used to a different end by Athene.  The difference is in intention.  While Clytaemestra persuades Agamemnon with evil in her heart, Athene does so with a desire for the good of both men and the Furies.  She tells of all the things the Furies will have if they accept the new role offered.

The Furies will continue to move primarily within the familial realm, but with new direction.  Instead of being a destructive force, the Furies will now be involved in bringing forth fruit from the soil, with children, and with marriage, which they previously ignored.  The emphasis is on progression.  The Furies will still wreak their havoc on those individuals who murder, saying,

                        Death of manhood cut down

                        before its prime I forbid

and because they continue to perform this function, the fear the Furies instill will still exist in some ways.  Athene also tells the chorus of Furies that they must direct their hatred outward, against enemies of the state, and not within.  If the hatred is directed inward, destructive fragmentation of the city follows, and the Furies certainly threaten this course of action before they are persuaded.  With their persuasion, the murder which took place to start a war is in the end balanced by forgiveness which now prevents a war.

            What is unclear is whether the Furies, and the emotions they represent, are persuadable at all.  At the conclusion of the Oresteia, Aeschylus has taken the Greeks out of the darkness which opens Agamemnon, and dramatically leads them away, towards the future and light with a torch-lit processional.  The Furies, however, take up residence underneath the city, still in the soil, poised to act if they are forgotten.  They call themselves Elder Goddesses, daughters of Night and Chaos.  Death and Night will always be with us, even with rationality and light to help us deal with them, and so will the forces represented by the Furies.  Simply because they have been given new responsibilities does not mean that the part of human nature they ruled disappears.  Although the Furies may have a new role, the core of their nature remains, and must remain, unchanged.  If a man does something as horrible as killing his mother and the state lets him go, even if there are extreme circumstances such as those surrounding Orestes, the emotions he feels in his gut do not disappear, despite what the mind may command.  The deeper the connection to the thing taken away, the more passionate the response, and the deeper the need for revenge, and a mother’s connection with her children is the deepest one of all.  There is a point where emotions and the need for personal satisfaction will overwhelm any justice the state can dole out.  Man never agreed to let the Furies rule their hearts in the way the new justice of Athene is agreed upon; the instinct for revenge is simply a part of man which he must learn to deal with when he becomes a part of a society, if that society is to be able to succeed.

 Quotes from:

[1] Agamemnon 1406, Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Trans. Richmond Lattimore.  U. Chicago Press, 1953

[1] The Eumenides 299-300


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