I am taking an online class from Harvard called The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours(CB22.1x). This week (hour) in Professor Gregory Nagy’s wonderful class, we studied the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus . Aeschylus was the first of the great Ancient Greek playwrights.
If you don’t know the story of Agamemnon, here it is. Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus lead the Greek forces to Troy in an attempt to recover his sister-in-law Helen. She either ran off with or was kidnapped by the Trojan prince Paris. Only things didn’t start out too well for the Greeks. Their fleet got stranded in Aulis due to contrary winds. Agamemnon got the great idea to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, in order to get favorable winds.
The play starts ten years later. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnstra had ten years to plot her revenge with her lover. It is not mentioned here or in the Iliad, but Iphigenia was the second of Clytemnestra’s child to die by Agamemnon; a little boy (Apollodorus’ Epitome.2.16 and Euripides’ ” Iphigenia at Aulis”.1148]
After a short lament by the night watchman about the uncomfortable situation for everyone in the kingdom and the signal fires that will announce the fall of Troy, “The signal fire suddenly flashes out… you blaze in the night, a light as if of day" It must be day, because immediately the men too hold to depart for Troy ten years before are in the street declaring, “all the gods our city worships, the gods supreme, the gods below, the gods of the sky and of the agora, have their altars ablaze with offerings. Now here, now there, the flames rise high as the sky,” Can you visualize the scene? A signal fire so bright as to be confused with the sun? It would be located to the east, part of a series of fires strung out across the world to declare Grecian victory. The blaze coincides with the rising of the sun. The panicky Clytemnestra made animal sacrifices at all the holy altars. The flames made high by flagrant oils brought from the palace store room. Can you see the glows and glaring rising up beneath the dawn of a new age; the smell of roast meat and rich spices?
Of course the chorus of old men can’t believe the good news their leader says at line 248; “What happened next I did not see and do not tell.” This denial on their parts is prompt by fear. They know a conspiracy is at hand, but fear to acknowledge it. Professor Nagy says in The Ancient Greek Hero In 24 Hours, “Refusal to visualize and verbalize is what mystery requires when outside the sacred context.“ This suggests that the silence they’ve learned in order to not reveal the Great Mysteries is a skill used to avoid the wrath of Queen Clytemnestra. They are so in the habit of not using their eyes to see or ears to hear, they have a hard time hearing and then seeing when the good news is confirmed at line 269: “What have you said? The meaning of your words has escaped me, so incredible they seemed. Joy steals over me, and it challenges my tears.”
Clytemnestra tricks her husband into bring on his “bad luck” by trammeling on a ridiculously expensive purple carpet. Sort of welcoming home the conquering hero with a “red carpet”. In response to the display of opulence the Chorus comments at line 774 “But justice shines in smoke-begrimed dwellings and esteems the virtuous man. From gilded mansions, where men’s hands are foul, she departs with averted eyes and makes her way to pure homes.”
Of course Agamemnon has no clue about the doom that awaits him inside his house, but it is amazing how many subtle references there are to the net in which Clytemnestra entangles her husband before stabbing him to death. “ Round him, as if to catch a haul of fish, I cast an impassable net - fatal wealth of robe - so that he should neither escape nor ward off doom… To lie in this spider’s web, breathing forth your life in an impious death …Is it a net of death?... And as for wounds, had my lord received so many as rumor kept pouring into the house, no net would have been pierced so full of holes as he.
Agamemnon captured the Trojan Prince Cassandra and brought her home as a ware prize. Cassandra is blessed/cursed with the second sight and knows too well the doom waiting them within the palace walls. At line 1159 she laments to the old men “Ah me, Scamander, my native stream! Upon your banks in bygone days, unhappy maid, was I nurtured with fostering care; but now by Cocytus and the banks of Acheron, (rivers in Hades) I think, I soon must chant my prophecies. “
After the bloody event, Clytemnestra and her lover reveal the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra to the horrified onlookers and threaten them with harm if they don’t accept their new king and queen.
One of the queen’s final comments about the event was; “ No! Iphigenia, his daughter, as is due, shall meet her father lovingly at the swift-flowing ford of sorrows [at the River Acheron], and shall fling her arms around him and kiss him." Could there be a creepier image?