Thursday, June 26, 2014

TFBT: Winged Furies and Snatched Girls, Part I

On July 7th, at Hour 25 we begin the study of the “Oresteia”; a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus starting with “Agamemnon.  In the Iliad, during the funeral games for Patroclus, (XXIII 326-343) Nestor famously and in beautiful detail advises his son on how to win a chariot race, specifically how to turn the post at the far end of the race.  Universally, scholars and researchers acknowledge that his advice has nothing to do with turning-posts.  I am coming to the conclusion that Aeschylus’ play “Agamemnon” has nothing to do with King Agamemnon. 

Rather the play is about; Furies, generally called Erinyes and children.  The Erinyes are more ancient gods than the Olympians, born of the divine ichor split when the primordial sky-god Uranus was ambushed and castrated by his own sons.  The Erinyes are fearsome, gorgon-like, winged goddesses clothed in black with serpent-entwined hair and arms.  The children we discuss here are young women, little boys and unborn baby bunnies.

 "… when Aphrodite went up to high Olympus to entreat Zeus to let these girls (Pandareus’ daughters) attain the moment of happy marriage ... the Harpies snatched them away and delivered them to the ministrations of the detested Erinyes." Homer, Odyssey 20. 68

Helen as Victim

The first reference to lost children is at line 49,
starts with a pair of eagles screaming as they circle over their empty nest.  Screaming because they have lost their nestlings.  The winged wrathful creatures represent Agamemnon and Menelaus.  Though unnamed the fledgling snatched from their nest was Menelaus’ young wife Helen.  Aeschylus makes a habit of not naming characters in their “victim” role .  Iphigeneia herself is not named until line 1527 out of 1672.   Helen is snatched up by Paris and taken to Troy.  Helen was also snatched up by Theseus as a child and taken to Athens , snatched up by Menelaus at the end of the Trojan War and taken home, if we are to believe Stesichorus and Hilda Doolittle snatched by some deity (Hermes?) and taken to Egypt. Helen ever the handmaiden of the Erinyes is the tool Zeus’ uses to destroy Troy for the sins of Paris. She is called “a vengeful Eriny to be lamented by mourning brides.” (749)

Doe and Kits

Next reference to children is at line 119 where two eagles devour a rabbit bursting with a litter of kits ready to be born.  According to Calchas, the doe represents Troy and the atrocities that will be committed by the Achaeans on the night the city falls.  Oddly enough these two eagles (Agamemnon and Menelaus again) are the same eagles sent as Erinyes by Zeus to punish Paris' transgression of the laws of hospitality. (55)   

It is interesting to contrast the unborn bunnies with a litter of Argive beasts, (850) like lions  born from the belly of that wooden horse that leapt down and gorged themselves on royal blood.  Philip Vellacott in the Oresteian Trilogy (1956) points out that “locos” means both “litter” and “ambushers”.  He says that it is used here in reference to the Achaeans in the belly of the wooden beast.

The Unnamed Child

155 “It is a treacherous keeper of the household. It is an anger   that remembers, and it comes with punishment for whatever happened to a child. Such dire things did Calkhas proclaim,”  It struck me odd on first reading that Calchas didn’t say “Iphigenia”, but her name isn’t mentioned until line 1555.  Otherwise I would have expected “daughter”.  That not being said I wondered for moment if Aeschylus allowed for the death of the Broteides here.  The unnamed boy was the son of Clytemnestra’s first husband.  The child was son or grandson of Broteas, the ugliest man who ever lived.  As Clytemnestra avers in “Iphigeneia at Aulis” by Euripides “by force that thou didst take and wed me, after slaying Tantalus, my former husband, and dashing my babe on the ground alive, when thou hadst torn him from my breast with brutal violence.”  But the little boy, never named like the other victims in this play is never referenced. 

Thyestes Sons

At line 1095 Cassandra in fearsome trance points out “Behold those babies bewailing their own butchery and their roasted flesh eaten by their father!  The chorus doesn’t acknowledge that they know about “Thyestes' banquet” until several hundred lines later.  The boys, who the poet does name, but others have,  are Agamemnon’s cousins butchered and boiled up for a stew given to their father to eat.  Their father Thyestes suffered this vengeful deed in retaliation for sleeping with this brother’s wife.


And the finally we come to Iphigeneia taken up by her father’s ministers, her saffron robe falling from her,  and raised on the altar of Artemis and sacrificed in order to charm the Thracian winds.  (235 & 1414)  Artemis, however, snatched her away and transported her to the Tauroi, making her immortal, and put a stag in place of the girl upon the altar." Stasinus of Cyprus or Hegesias of Aegina, Cypria Fragment 1 

Summary on Snatched Children

The snatched children in “Agamemnon” consist of Helen, the unborn bunnies, Thyestes' Sons and Iphigeneia.  Of the kits I can write no more, but continue to ponder and contrast them with the brood of the Wooden Horse. 

I find it interesting the both Helen and Iphigeneia became goddesses. Helen alongside her brothers and sisters-in-law were worshipped at Therapnae and she was divine patroness of sailors.  Iphigeneia was either one of the Artemis nymph-companions or confounded with Hecate.  Admittedly deification is a common destiny for the descendants of Gorgophone, but still one wonders at the coincidence. 

Likewise, I wonder at the lack of heroic honors for Thyestes’ sons.  Snake-bit baby Opheltes was given heroic honors and a PanHellenic game by the Seven Against Thebes.  Medea’s children got “solemn festival and rituals” according to Euripides (Medea 1377).  The boys' grandfather Pelops was reborn with physical perfection and later heroic honors at the Olympic Games.

Part II will concentrate on the appearance of the Erinyes in “Agamemnon” by Aeschylus


  1. I recently read intriguing details about the "evolution" of the Medea myth, using the Google Books preview of C. O. Pache's Baby and Child Heroes in Ancient Greece.
    In its earlier version, Medea was liked by Zeus but, for the sake of Hera, rejected his advances. (I wonder how a mortal heroine could avoid the advances of Zeus by any means other than suicide. But the story does not go into details.)
    In gratitude, Hera promised to make Medea's children immortal if Medea would secretly place them in her sanctuary.
    Here, apparently Medea became victim of a terrible misunderstanding. She took the promise of immortality literally, while Hera actually meant "immortalization" by hero-cult. And as we know (but maybe Medea didn't), the crucial element of such "immortalization" is early death. So she secretly brought her children to Hera's sanctuary and they died there. Jason was very angry, ordered her out and never forgave her.
    In other versions, the children were lynched by Corinthians. It seems that Medea's direct and intentional killing of her children was Euripides' invention.
    It is strange to me that the early version of Medea's story is so similar to that of Thetis, though they are otherwise very different in biography and character.

  2. Maya,
    you know that Medea is fond of dicing up her relatives fight? It is the first step in immorta,izing them. So the death of the kids fits her pattern. In somw stories the die giving the stepmother the incendary wedding gifts. I am reading "Agamemnon" by Aeschylus. Apollo admittedly has no luck with the ladies, but Cassandra noteable resisted his charms and became prophetic in the process.


  3. I recently read with my son a truncated and censored version of selected Greek myths for kids (by Acritas, some parts suspiciously similar to Baldwin's version, though I don't know who took from whom).
    The story of the Golden Fleece was a little gem. When Jason and Medea went to retrieve it, it was mentioned that she took her brother with her. However, there was not a word more about the lad's fate. The reader would presume that he went with his sister to the Argo and became an immigrant to Greece.
    Then, Jason presented the fleece to Pelias and said, "Here is the golden fleece! So you should give me the kingdom, as you promised!" Pelias didn't move and didn't say a word. The reader's conclusion: he either surrendered his throne peacefully or died suddenly from the combination of shock, disappointment and old age.
    Next (and last) sentence: "So Jason and Medea became king and queen." Still good that it was not followed by, "And they lived happily ever after."

  4. Maya,
    iheard once that ever story has a happy depending where you stop it.