Sunday, July 20, 2014

TFBT: Orestes Kills His Mother

“Ah, ah! You slave women, look at them there: like Gorgons, wrapped in sable garments, entwined with swarming snakes! I can stay no longer” Orestes, speaking of the Erinyes at the finale of The Libations Bearers 

At Hour 25 we continue to study The Oresteia; a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus.  Currently under review is The Libation Bearers.  As usual my emphasis is not so much the main character; Agamemnon of the first play of the same name, nor his son or daughter who are the main characters in the present play, but rather on the Erinyes; the ancient goddesses of vengeance.
1. Still No Erinyes

Just like the first play for all the talk of “malignant powers from underneath”,  blood crying out for the Furies, the personified Curses of the slain, deep-brooding Erinyes, and “the hounds of wrath that avenge a mother: Tisiphone, Megaira and Alecto don’t appear on stage.  Okay, maybe they appear at the final moment of the play, but they are clearly off-stage.    Regardless of Loxias’ prophecy that the Erinyes will hound Orestes if he does not avenge his father’s killing, they don’t.  The god of Delphi threatens the fallen Agamemnon’s son with “the wrath of malignant powers from underneath the earth, and telling of plagues & leprous ulcers” and who are stirred by kindred victims calling for vengeance, and madness, and groundless terrors out of the night, torment and harass a man” But the powers that Loxias threatens Orestes with, don’t seem interested in him, until the final moments of the play when our young hero slays his mother, Clytemnestra.  “Have you no regard for a parent’s curse, my son?....Take care: beware the hounds of wrath that avenge a mother.”  
2.  Locks and Rivers

“Look, I bring a lock of hair to Inakhos [The river-god of Argos.] in compensation for his care, “Achilles discusses this ritual in honor of his own home-town river Spercheüs.   (Iliad 23:138)  Why the river?  Why not the local nymph? 
3.  Heroic Honors and the Proto-Event

Recently at Hour 25 we meet with Lenny Muellner.  One of the topics discussed was his proto-event theory in “The Anger of Achilles”.  Proto-events are things that happen and at the time there is not context then just in retrospect.  So, Uranus was not the first King of the Gods, because, no one knew what a king was or who “gods” were. For example Julius Caesar was never crowned Caesar, Augustus was the first Caesar.  Likewise Electra was presenting her father Agamemnon heroic honors for the first time as it would be forever after.  The experiences the foreign slaves had of heroic honors is the proto-event to the Greek mind.  The House of Atreus sending a princess to perform them is the first time and hence forth Agamemnon (and Cassandra) received honors (conceptually) forever.  Ain’t that cool?
4.  The Answers to Electra’s Rhetorical Questions.

 “O mother Earth, she sends me forth, godless woman that she is. But I am afraid to utter the words she charged me to speak. For what atonement is there for blood fallen to earth?” (45)    Now there is irony or wisdom.  One mariticide, Clytemnestra asking the proto- mariticide Gaea for help.  Yes mariticide means; husband-killer.)  And the answer to Electra’s question as to what atonement there is for blood fallen to earth is; Erinyes (Hesiod, Theogony 176)
5.  More Comparisons of Agamemnon to an Eagle

At line 110 of the Agamemnon there is a reference to him as an eagle and here in the Libation Bearers the poet says, “Behold the orphaned brood of a father eagle that perishes”.  Aeschylus refers to their “nest” and calls Orestes and Electra “nestlings”.  And how did Agamemnon die?  “…a father eagle that perishes in the meshes, in the coils of a fierce viper.”   The viper in question is of course Clytemnestra and consequently it only makes sense that she should birth a viper (Orestes) in a dream later on in The Libations Bears.  “What food did it crave, the newborn viper? In her dream she offered it her own breast. “(530) It only makes sense that a viper births a viper and that the poison in her veins should be passed to him.  I am reminded of Hera’s poisoned left breast nursing the hydra and an argument that Hera’s “bile” passed through her milk to Thetis and Thetis’ to Achilles.  Both pointing out the long life and re-cycling ability of that slow poison which when clutched to the chest eventually kills its possessor.
6.  Orestes Should Have Listened to Homer

The gifts are too paltry for her offense [hamartia]. 520 For though a man may pour out all he has in atonement for one deed of blood, it is wasted effort. So the saying goes”.  That is pretty opposite the argument presented in the Embassy Scene of the Iliad
7.  Confounding of the Fates and Furies

There seems to be a lot of confusing other goddesses with the Erinyes.  Around 310 & 950 the Fates unleash a very fury-like Dike.   At 650 the Fates are the smithies producing weapons on the Dikes anvil for the Furies.  (I looked up “anvil” at  one of the resulting entries included “thunderbolt”)  And finally the Erinyes are described as Gorgon-like; which is odd because Medusa was originally a looker, so her immortal sisters should have been good looking.  Medusa was the only one to become scary … and dead.  What was Aeschylus trying to say?

In summary, no Erinyes until Orestes killed a blood relative, Aeschylus tossed in some ancient ritual, there is some logic for Clytemnestra asking the Earth for help, the analogy of Agamemnon to an eagle continues with his children and his inter-species marriage to that viper Clytemnestra gets tossed into the metaphoric mix, Orestes totally blew off the argument of accepting blood-money and Aeschylus seems to wax a little too poetic at times mixing up is goddesses.   



  1. As far as I know, the story of Medusa originally being a beautiful maiden is a late (Roman) invention.
    Hesiod just lists her along with her sisters as children of Phorkys & Keto. Presumably monstrous offspring from a monstrous family.
    I like that in the Theogony, the only epithet attached to Medusa is "unfortunate". So Hesiod here has completely dissociated himself from the human viewpoint and taken the viewpoint of his divine characters. And not even of Zeus, but of his opponents. Phorkys is called "brave", like the Titans during the Titanomachy. So I guess he refused to accept Zeus as ruler. Respectively, his offspring had the choice either to submit and serve the Olympian order, or be killed (unless intrinsically immortal). Heroes were recruited to do the dirty job.

  2. Maya,

    Thank you for explaining "Gorgons" I never noticed that Medusa's beauty was a later notion. The Gorgons not conforming to the Olympian standard of beauty makes a lot more sense. I am amazing at times how flattering the descriptions of the pontides and the brood of Echnida can be. Descriptions of the power and size of Typhon are awe inspiring and I just have to wonder if not a few goddesses did not glance upon him with admiring eye as Echnida did. Some author once postulated them as an alternative reality to the one we inherited. What if Typhon had ruled the universe and asymetrical, fertile mixed-species were the norm?

  3. I know little of pantheons of different nations. Maybe some people had gods looking like that?
    To me, Typhon does not seem to have the potential of a good ruler. We hear only of his strength, and we do not know of any "campaign promises" of him, just roaring in different voices. He is alone, seeming not only abnormal but also asocial. Indeed, I may be giving in to prejudice. Besides, Uranus, Kronos and Zeus were not particularly good rulers, either, and the rule of Zeus relied on creatures no less weird than Typhon. As my Athena rants, telling about the failed revolution on Olympus:

    "Unfortunately, there was an immortal who frustrated our attempt. Try to guess whom I am talking about! You can never guess... It was your good friend Thetis. She called the hundred-handed monster Briareus and put an end to the whole thing. Monsters! Our father's rule rests on six monsters. The Hundred-Handers and the Cyclopes. They decide how our entire folk will live. So do not wonder why now, seeing Thetis in trouble (because Zeus seeks to rape her), we are not rushing to help. Let her reap as she has sown."

    Actually, as you know, Hesiod describes the Hundred-Handers also in flattering terms, even stating that their father imprisoned them because he envied their comeliness. I put this praise in the mouth of Briareus' bride.

  4. Maybe the world of the Pontides was imagined as something like the animal kingdom of the Cambrian explosion, when all sorts of body plans emerged:

  5. Maya,

    As to the Pontides alternative universe, have your read the Xanth cycle by Piers Anthony. The are funny (punny) and wild. He has all sorts of hybrid creatures, mostly caused by magical springs that have the same affect as Cupid's arrows.

    As to other pantheons; you see in art and epithets the beastly nature of the Egyptian and Greek gods. Less so in the Roman and not at all in the Norse gods. I haven't followed other mythologies closely enough to make a response.

    Athen bad-mouthing Thetis; it is notable than in the Iliad, no one ever bad mouths Thetis. Thetis gets what Thetis wants and no one every objects. For all the constant bickering on Olympus about the tide of war on the plains before Troy, when Thetis decides the Trojan are going to win for a while, they win and no complains about her involvement, just Zeus' doing as she asked. She rescues Dionysus. She rescues Hephaestus. She honors her foster mother. Thetis and her good friend Eurynome are primordal goddesses in other theogonies. Homer treats them accordingly as do the gods.

  6. Actually, at the end of the same conversation Athena remarks, "However angry I am at her (Thetis), I'd be glad if she somehow gets out of the mess."
    By the much later time of the Iliad, everything is of course forgiven and forgotten. The immortals are, or at least must be, a reasonable, tolerant and forgiving race. If grudges are dragged through ages and millenia, everybody's life would be hell.
    Remember Aeschylus' Titans - when they are released and visit Prometheus, they have only sympathy to him. But if one had asked them shortly after the Titanomachy what they think of him, I guess they would have a thing or two to say :-).

  7. Do you think Apollo intentionally lied about the Erinyes (that they would pursue Orestes unless he kills his mother)?

  8. Maya,

    I have a very poor opinion of Apollo. Liar? Hera st Iliad 23.55 rages st him for lying about Achilles life when prophizing at his parents wedding, Early on in the Eumides, the clearly state they are only interested in blood relatives kilking one another a

  9. Thetis herself voices such an accusation against him in an Aeschylean fragment cited by Plato:

    "He dwelt on my happiness in my children, whose days were to be many and unacquainted with disease; and, comprising all, in triumph-strain that cheered my soul, he praised my lot, blest of the gods. And so I deemed that falsehood sat not upon Phoibos' lips divine, fraught with the prophet's art. But he, who raised this song himself, he who himself was present at my marriage-feast, he who himself spake thus, he it is who himself hath slain my son."

  10. Maya,

    That was so moving and beautiful. Thank you for sharing.