Authors born between1000 and 500 BCE
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The Sacrifice at Aulis
The Death of Iphigenia
The Gift of Helen
Clytemnestra’s Welcome to Agamemnon
The Elders Judge Clytemnestra
The Furies Claim Orestes
Athena Convenes a Jury Trial
Justice By Jury
The Rage of the Furies
The Furies Calmed
Aeschylus (525-425 BCE) became the first Greek playwright to bring a second actor on to the stage, enabling him to exploit the endless possibilities of dialog. His one surviving trilogy of plays overthrows the ancient tradition of the repeating cycle of vengeance and blood feud, replacing it with trial by jury as a means of achieving justice. Symbolic of the change in psychology this requires is the transformation of the Furies—ancient, primitive deities pursuing vengeance—into beneficent powers bringing peace. They are portrayed as transformed by a new way of thinking, initiated by Athena, who represents wisdom acting through persuasion.
Another deity present in the plays, Apollo, has also demanded murder in revenge for murder. He has tried to break the sequence of calamities by requiring subsequent ritual cleansing and forgiveness. He also comes to accept Athena’s concept of justice by means of a jury. In essence, Aeschylus shows that the tradition of individuals pursuing justice on their own, as advocated by the Furies and Apollo, should be replaced by a system whereby justice is enforced by society as a whole. The extension of this concept to relations between nations has yet to be achieved.
The main characters in the trilogy, which also dwells on the horrors of war, are Agamemnon, son of Atreus and leader of the Greek force sent to Troy to bring back Helen, the wife of Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother. She had been willingly abducted by Paris, son of the Trojan king. To obtain a favorable wind for his fleet pinned down at Aulis, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia. When he returned from Troy, his wife Clytemnestra greets him with welcome that has threatening undertones. She persuades him to the impiety of walking on a purple carpet into the palace. Once inside, she ensnares him in constraining robes and stabs him to death, along with the slave girl he has impudently brought back. She defies the citizens to judge her when they have failed to punish Agamemnon for murdering his daughter. All this is in the first play, Agamemnon.
When he reaches manhood, Orestes, son of Agamemnon revenges his father’s death by murdering his mother (in the second play, not quoted here). In the third play, The Eumenides, he is brought to jury trial under the guidance of Athena, which is presented in the play as the first such trial in Athens. The equally split vote of the jury is declared by the Athena, who has the tie-breaking vote, to clear Orestes of the charge of blood. This enrages the Furies, who threaten devastation of the land, for they represent the superstition that natural calamities arise because of sins that are unpunished. Athena placates them with the gift of being honored in Athens as deities of peace and prosperity. Short extracts from the two plays follow, each section being condensed.
In the play, Agamemnon, the Chorus represents the elders of Agamemnon’s homeland, Argos. They provide a narration of events and also argue with Clytemnestra.
The day came when the elder chieftain,
commander of Greek ships of war,
clinging to faith in his soothsayer,
faced the peril fate had sent him.
Hard pressed by intemperate weather,
menaced by swirling waters off Aulis,
the Greeks were pinned to Calcis coast
by Strymon River winds.
These had blasted many endeavors,
caused perilous anchorage and wasting famine,
spread malignant destruction through men and ships;
they wore out both craft and cordage,
doubled the length of many voyages,
and ground down with delay
the finest warriors of the Greeks.
Then the soothsayer screamed at the chieftains
a ghastly remedy to calm the bitter storms—
a blood sacrifice to Artemis,
who ruled over forests and waters!
Smiting the ground with their scepters,
the sons of Atreus could not stop their tears.
The elder chieftain grieved aloud:
"Terrible is my fate if I do not obey;
terrible also to sacrifice my daughter,
the ornament of my house, polluting a father's hands
by bathing an altar with virgin blood.
Which alternative is without its horror?
How can I desert the fleet and fail the alliance?
For they have the right to wrathfully demand
a sacrifice to calm the winds, and the blood of the girl
would makes things well."
So he took on the burden of necessity,
breathing in with impious, impure air
an unholy change of soul.
From that time on his mind embraced outrageous thoughts.
For violent mental conflict—pernicious guide to action
and primal source of woe—hardens men’s minds.
And thus he dared the ritual murder of his daughter,
as a first sacrificial offering for his ships,
to hurry on a war about a stolen woman.
The chieftains, eager for the war, ignored her pleas,
her cries of "father", and her tender age.
So after prayer her father ordered the attending priests
to quickly lift his daughter, who lay prostrate in her robes,
high above the altar, like a young goat,
and to push a gag into her exquisite mouth,
and tie it down to allow no passage for her cries
that could voice curses on his house
if not prevented by brute force.
Pouring to the ground her gown of saffron dye,
remarkable in her beauty,
she turned many piteous glances of her eyes
on the sacrifice’s celebrants.
As clear as in a picture, she wished to speak to each by name,
as often in the hospitable halls of her father
she would sing a hymn of happiness to them
at the third libation, praying for a happy life
for her dear father.
What followed then I did not see and cannot tell,
but the soothsaying warrant of Calchas ran its course.
Other will learn their fate as they receive their just reward.
Since the future inevitably comes, leave it alone;
Do not wonder what the next day brings,
for it will be dawn-clear in morning light.
The Chorus describes the action of the Trojan war and in doing so gives the following scathing condemnation of criminality and war.
Wealth is no bulwark against destruction
for the man who, in the caprice of his heart,
has spurned the great demands of justice.
Wretched persuasion, intolerable daughter of mad impulse,
forces him on. Impetuosity governs everything;
remedies are all in vain. Guilt is not concealed,
but is conspicuous, a glaring, lurid light.
It is like brass proved adulterate by blackening
under ingrained wear or grinding down.
That man is like a wanton child
pursuing a bird upon the wing.
He brings upon his land a blow beyond endurance.
No one lends an ear to his pleas,
because fate sweeps away the wicked participants
in actions such as this.
Even such a one was Paris, coming to the sons of Atreus
and profaning hospitality by abduction of a wife.
Her leaving caused citizens to take up shields,
the discomfiture of spears and naval armaments.
To Ilion she brought destruction as her dowry,
passing blithely through the gates,
having dared unspeakable betrayal.
In the house of Atreus the songs were all laments—
"Alas! alas! for the palace and the chieftains.
Alas! for the bed bearing the imprint of one
who loved her spouse there.
He stands by silent, dishonored, uttering no reproach.
Not trusting eyes that see she has eloped,
he yearns for her beyond the sea;
a phantom seems to rule the house.
Her husband abhors the beauty of sculpted statues
and in the empty glance of his eyes
all their loveliness drains away.
Melancholy visions appear in dreams,
present themselves, and bring him hopeless joy;
for it is fruitless when, imaging a blessed form,
to have the vision slip from sight,
winging down paths of fleeing sleep."
Such are the sorrows at the house’s heart,
but there come sorrows surpassing these.
Universally, wherever heroes went from Greek lands,
the sorrowful spirit of each patient family is plain to see.
Truly, many things touch them to the core:
each one can tell who marched away,
but who knows what will return?
Instead of men, urns and ashes come back to each dwelling.
And war that trades bodies for gold
and tips the balance in the thrust of spears,
sends to the kinfolk fragments from Ilion:
scorched dust and remnants, things for bitter tears;
instead of a heavy man, a vase filled with light ashes.
And they sigh as they praise one skilled in battle,
or laud another fallen gloriously amid the bloody carnage—
adding, "all on behalf of another man’s wife".
This thing many a one in quietness mutters,
and jealous rancor creeps upon the sons of Atreus.
For other heroes, fair in body, are occupants
of silent tombs in Trojan land.
Outside the walls, they dwell there now,
shoveled under hostile dirt.
Men! Citizens! You elders of Argos present here,
I am not ashamed to tell the love I bear my husband—
in course of time bashfulness dies away in us.
Having my experiences close by me now,
I will describe my own insufferable life,
during the whole long time this lord of mine
was beneath the walls of Ilion.
First, it is a dreadful evil for a woman
to sit desolate in her home without her man,
hearing many sad reports publicly proclaimed,
how one sad messenger has come and yet another
will bring news of an evil worse than told by the first.
Had this my husband met with so many wounds
as were reported to his home,
he would have been pierced more full of holes
than a fisherman’s net.
And had he died as often as reports asserted,
he could have been a second Geryon,
who assumed three legendary forms,
and dying once in each, received three shrouds of earth,
while still above the ground,
for I do not speak now of the earth beneath.
Because of such false reports, people have had to
forcibly untie from off my neck
many a noose fastened from above,
and take my body down.
And it is for the following reason that the boy Orestes,
confirmation of our mutually pledged fidelity,
is not standing at my side where he should be.
Don’t be surprised at this; for he is in the care
of our kind ally Strophius the Phocian.
He warned me of the double hazard that we faced:
your own peril beneath the walls of Troy,
and mine that here some public burst of anarchy
might overthrow our council,
since it is innate in men to spurn someone who falls.
This explanation, I assure you, holds no guile.
In me, indeed, the gushing fountains of my weeping
have been exhausted, not even a drop is left to spill.
My eyes are marred as well, slow to close in rest,
bewailing the lamp kept burning for your sake
but never heeded. And in my dreams I was woken
by the light flitting of a buzzing gnat,
imagining more sufferings befalling you
than could ever happen in my time of sleep.
Now having endured all these horrors,
and no longer full of sorrow,
I will pronounce this my husband a watch dog
of the sheepfolds, a saving mainstay of the ship,
a foundation pillar of the lofty roof,
an only child to parents or a land
revealed to mariners who had lost hope,
a day most fair to gaze upon after storms have passed,
a gushing spring to a thirsty wayfarer.
And it is delightful to have escaped from all restraint
with salutations such as these that honor him.
Though many are the previous ills endured,
let envy be put far away.
So now I pray you, my beloved one,
step from this chariot without planting in our poor earth,
my lord, the foot that trampled Troy.
Women, why the delay? Who is in charge of covering
the surface of the earthen way with tapestry?
Let a purple-blazoned path be put down at once,
that Justice may usher him to the home
he had not hoped to see.
In spite of the sacrilege implied—for in those times purple could only be walked on by gods—Clytemestra's women spread a purple carpet between the chariot and the door.
Later, doors open on the stage to reveal the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, with Clytemnestra standing bloody sword in hand.
Though I’ve said many things before to serve my need,
I shall not blush to contradict them now.
For how else could one, while scheming to discharge
enmity against an enemy who seems a friend,
construct a dense trap of mischief, too high to overleap?
And this struggle of an ancient feud—
though certainly late in coming—
did not arise without being meditated long ago.
And I stand where I stabbed him.
Now the deed is over, done.
I did it too in such a way—and this I’ll not deny—
that he could neither flee nor beat down his doom.
I wind around an endless net, as if for fishes,
a deathly treasure of a garment. I stab him twice!
And with two groans he lets his legs give way.
Then, on his fallen body, I push a third stab in,
a votive offering to him beneath the earth,
Hades, the guardian of the dead.
Thus he gulps away his own soul as he falls;
and gurgling forth the sharp gush of pent up blood,
he spatters me with black drops—gory shower
in which I glory no less than the sown land does
in the rich gift of rain from heaven
during the upward struggle of the ear of corn.
Since that is the way it is, you elders of Argos present here,
rejoice, if you can still rejoice, for I glory in the deed.
And were it seemly to pour a libation on a human victim,
this would be justly done—for surely it is just that he
who has filled the cup with so many accursed ills at home,
should drain it to the full on his return.
We marvel at your tongue,
how bold your language is,
you that boast in such words
over the body of your dead husband.
You judge me as if I were a silly woman;
but I say with an undaunted heart to you Elders,
this is Agamemnon, my husband, and a corpse,
and it is all one whether you give praise or censure.
This is the deed of this right hand of mine,
a righteous agent. Thus this thing stands.
What horrid poison nourished by the
or potion coming from the flowing sea,
have you sipped that you laid on yourself
this sacrifice and public curse?
You have cast him down, cut off his life,
and you shall be outlawed—
abhorrent and fearful to your people.
Indeed! So now you sentence me to banishment
from the city, to the abhorrence of its citizens,
and to public execrations.
You give that judgment—you who formerly brought nothing
against this man who immolated his own daughter,
the dearest to me from my childbirth pains,
as a charm against the Thracian wind.
He made no great matter of her fate,
as if she were a dumb brute.
And all the while sheep abounded in the fleecy folds.
Should you not have banished him out of this land,
in retribution for his foul deed?
But now you hear what I have done,
you are stern judges. But this I tell you—
menace me while knowing
that I am prepared for this on equal terms.
When you have got victory in your hands,
you may rule me;
if fate brings the contrary to pass,
you will—though it comes late—
be taught to know discretion.
In the third play, The Eumenides, the Chorus represents the Furies, primarily their leader. Here they assert their right of vengeance on Orestes, who is yet unpunished for murdering his mother and her lover to revenge his father.
Most surely neither Apollo nor mighty Athena
shall rescue you from wandering forlorn,
a stranger to all knowledge of joy,
bloodless prey to our magic powers, a shadow of yourself.
Will you reject my words and not even answer me,
you my fatted, consecrated victim?
Without altar or sacrificial knife,
I will feast on you while you still live.
Listen, then, to this my song
that is to bind your spirit!
Furies let us form our dance,
since it is right for us
to pour forth our hated song,
and to tell how our sisterhood
decides men’s futures, good or bad.
Know we delight in being upright ministers of justice.
On one who holds pure hands before him
no wrath from us descends—
he passes a long life free from harm.
But whoever commits a crime, as this man has,
and conceals his bloody hands,
we appear against him as true witnesses for the dead,
as terrible avengers of his bloody crime.
Orestes has appealed to newer gods, Apollo and Athena, to intervene on his behalf against the Furies. (Both of these gods have been described in legends as guilty of urging on the bloody events of the Trojan war and its consequences.)
Orestes [pleading to Athena]:
But what my race is, you shall quickly hear.
I am an Argive, and well you know my father,
Agamemnon, leader of the heroic fleet.
Through him you laid waste Troy’s city, Ilion.
Yet he perished ingloriously on his returning home:
for my dark-souled mother cut him down,
having wrapped him tight in artful coils.
She herself bore witness to his murder at the bath.
And I returning home, having been an exile for too long,
slew the mother who put me in this world.
This I will not deny.
It was the bloody vengeance of retributory slaughter,
to settle the account of my own dear father.
And of these things is Apollo guilty also,
promising piercing sorrows in my heart
if I should not act thusly to the murderers.
And now you must decide my case—
whether I acted with justice or did wrong.
For however you rule, I shall stand by your decision.
This affair is too grave for any mortal to presume to judge.
Nor is it lawful for me alone to rule upon a case of slaughter.
That would bring down intense wrath on me.
And the matter is more difficult, too,
because by seeking forgiveness through ritual cleansing
you approach me as a pure and guileless suppliant.
But these Sisters of the Night possess an office
not easily set aside.
If they do not gain victory for their cause,
then poison from their minds, falling upon the plain,
will spread intolerable disease.
Such is the way things are:
it is impossible for me to let both sides persist,
or to dismiss both, without inflicting injury.
And yet, since this thing has come before me,
I will institute a court of men as sworn judges
to decide a case of murder—
a process I will make a law for ever.
So each of you must call evidence
and proofs under oath to aid your cause.
And I, having selected the best of my citizens,
will have them come here to decide this matter properly,
with minds that do not swerve from
the justice they have sworn to do.
Now tradition will be cast away
and there will be a revolution through new laws,
if the motive and the action of this matricide prevail.
The ease of this deed will prompt all mortals
to certain recklessness and parents in the future
will suffer much from wounds inflicted by their children.
For no fury from us—ferocious, ever-watchful women—
will be let loose to punish evil deeds.
All deaths will pass us by, ignored,
and everyone will learn from his neighbor that
the evil deeds of his kindred show the ending of our work.
Revenge against ill use will no longer be assured;
each wretch must console himself in vain.
Nor let one struck by misfortune invoke us,
pouring forth these words,
"Oh Justice, Oh thrones of Furies!"
With such expressions some father perhaps,
or newly afflicted mother, may fall to wailing
without effect, since the house of Justice falls.
Sometimes fear, sitting in the right place,
and reigning in the soul, will hold it back in terror.
It is good to grow wise under sorrow.
But who without room in his blithesome heart for fear,
either city or man alike,
would reverence justice any more?
Praise neither a life free from rule,
nor that which cowers from tyranny;
heaven affords endurance to the middle way.
To other extremes it is indifferent.
But let me speak straight to the point.
Truly, insolence is the child of impiety:
but from a sound and wholesome mind
comes a prosperity dear to all, and much sought after.
But this above all I say to you,
Revere the throne of Justice,
do not dishonor it when looking for gain
by trampling it down with impious foot.
For punishment will follow: a decisive end awaits.
Therefore let every one duly honor the sanctity of parents,
and respect the worth of strangers
when they come to your house.
He who acts honestly, not out of necessity,
shall not suffer unhappiness, or ever be ruined.
But a transgressor rashly daring the contrary,
leaving justice’s path, throwing life into confusion,
in time he shall perish by violence—
disaster will blow out his
sails and shatter his spars.
And he, in the midst of an inescapable whirlpool,
calls out loudly to those not listening.
Rather, the heavens laugh at the bold man,
beholding him no longer boasting,
sinking in a calamity that offers no escape.
The happiness of his previous life
he has wrecked on justice’s rock.
Unwept, unknown, he is lost,
abandoned for ever.
Athena assembles a group of sworn jurors from Athens and the trial begins. Orestes, Apollo, and the Furies testify and plead their causes. then Athena summarizes the law and oversees the jury process.
Now hear the law you Athenian people,
judging the first cause of human bloodshed.
For ever shall this court of judges
remain with the people of Athens. . .
On this hill, the reverence of the citizens,
and its ally, fear, shall restrain people
from acting unjustly, both by day and by night,
provided the citizens themselves
do not tamper with the laws.
For if you allow an evil influx of mud
to pollute clear water,
you will never enjoy a pleasant drink.
I counsel my citizens to venerate with careful attention
a just mean between anarchy and tyranny,
and not to cast all fear out of the city.
For what man who fears nothing is just?
Awed justly therefore by my new law,
you will have both a defense of your country
and safeguard of your city,
such as no other people possess,
neither among the Scythians
nor in the realms of Pelops.
I have appointed a jury of men, untouched by gain,
reverent, quick to act in wrath,
to be a watchful guard over those who sleep.
Indeed, I have set forth this exhortation
to all my citizens for all time to come.
Now you must rise.
Each take up your voting pebble
and decide the case,
duly honoring your oath.
These are my words. . .
The jurors cast their votes by dropping a pebble into an urn.
It falls to me to make the final vote.
I hereby add my vote in favor of Orestes:
for there is no mother who produced me.
With all my soul I praise the male in everything,
except for getting married.
Above all I am entirely on the father's side.
Thus I will not set high price on the death of a woman
who slew her husband, the lord of the house.
So Orestes will prevail even if the votes are equal.
Now quickly tip out the voting pebbles from the urn
you jurors to whom this duty is assigned. . .
Count the pebbles honestly as they fall, my friends.
In setting them down for each side
hold reverently to justice,
for one vote being absent causes great calamity,
while one vote added raises up a house.
The number of the votes is equal!
This man has escaped the doom of blood.
Athena, you have preserved my house.
I being exiled from my native land,
you in truth have restored me to my home.
And every Greek will say
"Orestes is an Argive once again,
and is established in his father’s heritage" . . .
Athena now has the task of persuading the proponents of vengeance and blood feud to give up this tradition and enjoy the benefits of peace brought by the rule of law. As before, it is carried on as a metaphoric argument between wisdom and rage.
You younger gods have trampled on the ancient law,
and have snatched him from our hands!
Dishonored, miserable, inflamed with rage,
I will sprinkle on this land the venom from my heart.
Oozing on the ground, it will cause sterility,
cancerous growths, decaying leaves
and aborted births. . .
Let me persuade you to cast aside this passionate grief.
You are not truly defeated, for voting in this case was even,
and no one desires to throw away your honor.
Clear evidence was given on the authority of Zeus
that Orestes should not be punished.
Do not cause sterility by sprinkling cancerous dew
hostile to all life, for I can guarantee that
you shall have a private place
within this true and faithful land,
seated on thrones, beside richly furnished altars,
receiving gifts and adoration from these citizens.
. . . Our venom will spread across the plain,
Throughout the country it will inflict
a stain ruinous on men.
I groan in my spirit. What is my recourse?
Shall I make intolerable things descend
on to the city as revenge for what I suffer?
Great are the wrongs inflicted on us,
most wretched daughters of Night,
and we in anger grieve at our disgrace. . .
. . . You must be moved by my persuasion,
and not utter ancient curses that bring
failure on all fruit-bearing things.
Calm the dark waves of bitter fury within you,
because I will ensure you have proud honors
and dwell beside me. You will receive
for ever more the first-fruits of this abundant region
in sacrifices for the birth of children
and for marriage blessings.
That I should thus be wronged!
That I, deep thoughtful, ancient-one should dwell
beneath the ground, a dishonored object of abhorrence!
I pant with venomous wrath, with utter range.
Oh woe, woe, woe!
What pang is this that pierces deep within me?
Listen to my angry heart, O mother Night!
The devious wiles of younger gods have
uprooted us from our ancient seat of honor,
turning us to nothing.
I will bear with your passion, for you are older.
But though you are more wise than I,
heaven has given me no small share of wisdom.
If you should depart into a land of strangers,
you still will come to love this country.
I can foretell that with the onward stretch of time
great honors will gather to the citizens here.
Stay, and you shall possess a seat at the mansion of Erectheus,
and received honors from throngs of men and women,
such as you never could obtain in other lands.
Do not infest my country with thoughts
that whet bloody appetites in the entrails of our youth,
rendering them frantic with a rage not set off by wine.
Do not rouse their hearts like those of fighting cocks,
or plant civil war among my people,
raising them in aggression against each other.
To satisfy a violent love of glory, a foreign war can serve;
but I abominate the fighting of domestic fowl. . .
Many gifts are offered for your choosing,
and they are mine to give.
Highly honored, bestowing and receiving gifts,
you may share my rights
within this country loved by heaven. . .
I will accept the fellowship of Athena,
nor will I despise the city . . . for which I pray,
prophesying benevolently that the sun’s bright rays
will cause to spring from the earth
ever-recurring blissful fortune,
crowning their lives.
I willingly do these things for these my citizens,
having, settled in this place these mighty powers,
so hard to be appeased.
Their office is to dispense and guide all human actions.
He that has never felt the weight of their rebuke
cannot know the source from which calamity visits.
For the sins of his forefathers
bring him to judgment before these sisters,
and unforetold destruction lays him in the dust,
a victim of their dread wrath,
let him boast as loudly as he dares.
Now I speak in my kindness—
Let not the tree-destroying blight breathe hurt
and let there be no scorching heat
to blast the buds of plants, preventing them from opening;
nor let the fruit-spoiling black disease creep in;
and at the proper time may this country foster
teeming ewes, each with two lambs.
Let this race of men enjoy the riches of the earth,
embracing fruitful gifts of the heaven. . .
Adapted from The Orestia of Aeschylus, translated into English prose by Lewis Campbell. Methuen and Co, London, 1893. and The Tragedies of Aeschylus, translated by T. H. Buckley. George Bell and Sons, London 1901.
Other texts consulted:
Agamemnon, translated by Louis MacNeice. Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 1936.
Aeschylus, The Orestia, translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Group, Viking Penguin Inc, New York, 1975
Orestia, translated by Richmond Lattimore, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1953.
Agamemnon, in Aeschylus, Volume II, translated by Herbert W. Smith. William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1958
The Orestia translated by George Thomson (1932). In The Portable Greek Reader, edited by W.H. Auden. Viking Press New York, 1948
Agamemnon, The Internet History Sourcebooks Project.
Agamemnon, Online Great Books.
The Eumenides, The Internet History Sourcebooks Project.
The Eumenides, MIT Classics.