Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Random Notes on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

At Hour 25 we are studying the Oresteia, starting with “Agamemnon.”  Currently, I am researching the occurrence of “erinyes” in the text.  My notes are getting out of control, so I am publishing some random thoughts here to make room for the Erinyes.  (There’s a phrase you don’t hear often!)
At line 60-75 Aeschylus compares the Atresides to two eagles whose fledglings are gone.  Universally this is supposed to represent their reaction to Helen’s disappearance. In response to the eagles screams, Zeus sends a Fury to take revenge on the transgressors.   Then at 73 Aeschylus says “in just that way mighty Zeus…sends those sons of Atreus.”  As though they are Furies bent on mad revenge.  This could explain Agamemnon’s constant bouts of “ate”.  
 “For every god our city worships— all-powerful gods above the earth,
 and those below, and those in heaven,   and those in the marketplace their altars are ablaze with offerings. (111)  They are;   Zeus, our highest god, and to Apollo, lord of Pytho” (607) including Hermes, whom I honour, (614) Here’s my question; “Where’s Hera?”  This is one of her three favorite cities and she is not included in the list of gods of the city.   
At line 228 of the Agamemnon by Aeschylus, the seer Calchas declares that it is the goddess Artemis that keeps the Troy-bound Achaean fleet wind-bound at Aulis.  It is interesting already we see the conflict between Artemis and her step-mother Hera which culminates during the Theomachy in Book XX of the Iliad when Artemis gets slapped around and sent on her way.  Hera, of course, wanted to see the destruction of Troy so badly that she offered to exchange its destruction for the unhindered destruction of Agamemnon’s city of Mycenae (Iliad 4.5o) So, once again; “Where’s Hera?”  Artemis is screwing with Hera’s master plan to destroy Troy and she doesn’t even show up to complain?  What? 
At line 326 the Chorus asks Clytemnestra how she knows that Troy fell, “Has some vision persuaded you of this, something in a dream, perhaps?” To which she sharply replies “Not at all.  As if I’d listen to some dozing brain.  This in sharp contrast to her husband who was famously tested by a false dream sent by Zeus in Book II of the Iliad. 
Lots of Net imagery  
  • (Zeus’) all-encompassing hunting net, and no one, young or old, escaped its enslaving fatal mesh that overpowered them all.  (376?)
  • Around Troy we’ve cast a savage net. 966
  • 1019 If my husband had had as many wounds as I heard rumours coming to this house, he’d have more holes in him than any net.
  • 1380 Thus have I done the deed – deny it I will not. 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.
  • 1514 “Alas, alas, my King, my King, how shall I bewail you?   How to voice my phrēn that is dear [philē] to you? To lie in this spider's web, breathing”
Clytemnestra gets called a dog a lot;
  • 729 where she also admits that “he’ll find his wife as faithful  as when he left, a watch dog of the home”      
  • 895 Where she asks Agamemnon to take over her role of “watchdog of the fold,”
  • Finally Cassandra speaking of Clytemnestra says “the hateful hound, whose tongue licked his hand, who stretched forth her ears in gladness, 1230 like treacherous atē. Such boldness has she –“ 
 Around 615, the chorus asks “But tell me, herald, can I learn something of Menelaus, this country’s well-loved king…”  The herald replies “I can’t lie.” But then says nothing of consequence without further encouragement from the chorus, then “Menelaus disappeared—the army lost sight of him and his ship. That’s the truth.”  We know from studying the Odyssey that when people repeatedly affirm that they are speaking the truth, that in fact, they are lying.  The chorus asks; “      Did you see him sail off from Ilion, or did some storm attack the entire fleet and cut him off from you?”  Rather than the lie direct, the herald replies, …your last question briefly tells the story.  The chorus asks, “ Is he alive or dead?  The herald again avoids a direct answer, No one knows for certain” Chorus “  Tell me how that storm struck  Avoiding an answer the herald saysIt’s not right I talk of our misfortunes…  Then finishes with “there’s hope…and the always suspect  you’ve listened to the truth. “   Was this an elaborate avoidance of the fact that the brothers argued and parted?  
 Starting at 337, is the signal fire possible? Flames racing from one beacon to the next?  See
      “For a woman’s sake, the beast from Argos,
      born from the belly of that wooden horse, 
      in the night, as the Pleiades went down,
      jumped out with their shields and razed the city       
    Leaping over walls, the ravenous lion
      gorged itself on blood of royalty.”
Clytemnestra speaking of rumors about Agamemnon says at 1023 “If he’d died as many times  as rumour killed him, he could claim to be a second Geryon, that triple-bodied beast,   and boast of being covered up with earth  three times, one death for every separate shape” eventually she describes his death; three fold also, (1384) “Twice I struck him, and with two groans 1385 his limbs relaxed. Once he had fallen, I dealt him yet a third stroke as a prayer of gratitude [kharis] to the infernal Zeus”,
910 “Quick! With purple let his path be strewn, that dikē may usher him into a home.”  The whole conversation is a trap to get Agamemnon to commit hubris. 
1055 “I have no time to waste with this woman here outside; for already the victims stand by the central hearth awaiting the sacrifice” says Clytemnestra jokingly about Agamemnon as victim for her sacrifice to Erinyes. 
“Scamander, my native stream! Upon your banks in bygone days, unhappy maid, was I nurtured with fostering care; (1160) but now by Cocytus and the banks of Acheron, I think, I soon must chant my prophecies.” Beautiful and sad.
1555 No! Iphigenia, his daughter, as is due, shall meet her father lovingly at the swift-flowing ford of sorrows [akhos pl.], and shall fling her arms around him and kiss him.  

In many of the “Nostoi” plays the absence of the men who went off to war is felt.  In Agamemnon there is no male population to revolt against Clytemnestra, just the men too old for war ten years before.  And in the Odyssey, the old men were too old twenty years before and the boys who grew into men meanwhile seemed to have been raised without heavy-handed fathers to teach them manners.
At 511(?) Aeschylus writes “In his dreams he sees sad images  with memories of earlier joy—    a vain relief, for when the man thinks he sees such beauty there, all at once it’s gone, slipping  through his hands, flying away  along the paths of sleep.” Is this a reference to Helen?  “such beauty” “slipping through his hands, flying away” and according to Stesichorus and Hilda Doolittle’s “Helen in Egypt” living a dream-like existence in Egypt among the “paths of sleep”.

Today at the Center for Hellenic Studies open house we talked about Penelope and weaving with Olga Levaniouk  It struck me during the conversation that Helen and Penelope controlled times at their looms.  In Book II of the Iliad, when Helen stops weaving about the war, battle stops. When Penelope starts unraveling the shroud on her loom each night, she is unravelling the suitors’ plans to marry her off – the plot line in Ithaca stops moving forward.  Bellephron at Hour 25 points out that “It seems to my lay-person paradigm that if there is weaving that is shaping Fate, it would have to be related to the Moirai.” This is brilliant and I need to think more on it.  Then I finished reading Agamemnon and heard Clytemnestra sing at 1580,now that, to my joy, I behold this man lying here in a robe spun by the Erinyes”!


  1. I find it interesting that, for all the misogyny of ancient Greek culture, women in myth and drama are not portrayed as less intelligent than men. Here, Clytemnestra is in fact much smarter than Agamemnon, and the Chorus reluctantly admits this.

  2. Penelope outwitts the suitors for three and a half years. Medea is an evil genius compared to everyone else in the world. Helen is clearly the brains in the Helen/Paris marriage. As you commented the list goes on and on. Hard to believe that a culture that in ritual and literature honors such strong women doesn't let them out of the house. I know they couldn't attend the Olympics (We know what happen when Hippolytus' step-mother saw him exerise in the nude!) But, could they even go to the plays? I know they weren't on stage at Athens. But, plenty of other places had women in ritual performances. Hmm, I wonder if our perspective on ancient life is primarily a perspective on ancient Athenian life?


  3. The curious thing is that most of these portrayals of strong women come exactly from Athens. I suppose this text may give a clue:

    "Matriarchy in the literal meaning of the term is not provable as a historical reality... Far more compelling is Bamberger’s theory of the myth of matriarchy as myth, not “a memory of history, but a social charter,” which “may be part of social history in providing justification for a present and perhaps permanent reality by giving an invented ‘historical’ explanation of how this reality was created.”
    From a cross-cultural perspective, the Oresteia can be characterized as an intricate and fascinating variant of a widely distributed myth of matriarchy, the so-called Rule of Women, whose details differ but whose general scenario conforms to a consistent pattern... Women once had power, but they abused it through “trickery and unbridled sexuality,” thus fostering “chaos and misrule.” The men, therefore, rebelled. They assumed control and took steps to institutionalize the subordination of women."

    I have read also that women in Sparta allegedly enjoyed much more freedom than in Athens and received education even superior to that of men. (Euripides' Andromache is some testimony, though heavily burdened with propaganda.) It is difficult for me to believe that women in such a militarized society could be (relatively) free. The mentality of women is, "Bring the boys back home." But education can set this right, if by "education" we mean "brainwashing". Maybe Sparta was the first case in history of mass-scale brainwashing using secular educational institutions. Women were "educated" to feel happy when their husbands and sons were killed in battle.

  4. Maya M,
    You know even as a child reading Robert Graves I didnt buy his matriarcal society