Battle of the Sexes: Gender Roles in Aeschylus’ “The Eumenides”

In the third and final play of The Oresteia trilogy, The Eumenides, Apollo testifies for Orestes and the Furies testify for the late Clytemnestra in a trial that will decide whether or not Orestes is guilty. In this play, a new system of justice centered around rationale and testimony is established. However, parallel to the establishment of a new justice system is a leap towards a society in which claims of men are have more authority over those of women, male-dominated society. The new rule of law also comes to support the marginalization of motherhood and therefore women in general. In this essay, I shall argue that in Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, the battle of the genders, with the Furies representing parental equality and Apollo representing male dominance. The loss on the Furies’ front defines a new social order that weakens the role of the mother and women in society.

The old form of justice was one that valued the sanctity of the parent-child bond and revenge when that familial bond was betrayed. Implemented by the Furies, the original justice system rationalized that both genders are equally important, and therefore, this system upheld the rights of the mother. The Furies exclaim that if the court does not favor them, injustice will be upon both sexes, and “ caught unaware by pain, some father or mother now will cry” (Lines 606-608), as their system of justice places emphasis on the filial bond, not just the honor of motherhood. Also core to the Furies’ belief is that children should “first honor [their] parents, then respect the guest” (Line 639-640), putting the value of family over any other bond. In the case of Orestes murdering Clytemnestra, the Furies do not view their advocation of Clytemnestra as a way to side with only mothers, but instead as reinforcing justice within a family.

The Furies are adamant that a man who commits matricide, such as Orestes, is justified to be brutally punished. This notion conveys that the Furies strongly value kinship and the respect for the role of the mother. When Apollo questions the Furies, asking why they did not seek to punish “a wife who kills her husband” (Line 235), referring to Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon. The Furies respond to this inquiry by saying murdering a spouse “isn’t killing one’s own flesh and blood” (Line 236), referring to the fact that unlike a mother and son, a husband and wife are not related by kin, therefore, the murder does not carry as much weight. One can clearly see that the Furies uphold the mother’s rights over those of the husband’s. The Furies then advocate that “once a mother’s blood is spilled on the ground, it can’t return again, not ever” (Lines 294-296) and therefore that “[Orestes will] have to pay with [his] own blood for [Clytemnestra’s]” (Line 300).

Apollo, however, expresses a different view than the Furies. He argues using rhetoric heavily in favor of the male, based on the notion that a man has more stature and worth than a woman, and that marriage is a stronger bond than kinship. Apollo does not respect the Furies in general, let alone respect the Furies’ cause. First, he attacks the Furies and their cause. For example, he expresses his distaste for the female Furies by openly badmouthing them, calling them “creatures [that] belong in caves with blood-befouled, blood-lapping lions” (Lines 216-217) and “stinking, hideous filth, shunned by the gods” (Line 753). Apollo also assures Orestes by telling him, “see how I’ve tamed, for now, these crazed hags” (Line 80). Apollo often utilizes animal imagery when describing the Furies, conveying that he doesn’t view the goddesses as the divinities they are, but instead as lower-ranking beasts. Beyond his disgust for the Furies’ nature, Apollo also announces his despise for their justice system by telling them, “it’s clear to me you’re stirred by utter outrage by the one crime while the other doesn’t move you in the least” (Lines 248-251). Explaining the Furies’ overlooking of Agamemnon’s murder, Apollo replaces the power of the filial bond with the power of matrimony, saying that “marriage is a thing of destiny, greater than any oath” and that marriage is “the deepest and most intimate bond of all” (Lines 242-245). Thus, Apollo rejects the blood-is-thicker-than-water ideology of the Furies’ system of justice and punishment.

In addition to abusing the Furies, Apollo also constructs an argument against them: The marriage bond is more important than the filial bond. He makes an argument against the Furies’ belief parental equality when he tells the Furies that “the so-called mother of the child isn’t the child’s begetter, but only a sort of nursing soil for the new-sown seed” (Lines 769-771), which means Apollo does not see Clytemnestra as a parent. In addition, Apollo promotes the power of the father by stating that “the man, the one on top, is the true parent, while [the mother], a stranger, fosters a stranger’s sprout” (Lines 771-772). To add ethos to his claim, Apollo alludes to Athena as the epitome of a child who didn’t need a mother. He explains that “a father can give birth without a mother” (Line 775), because Athena never “grew within the darkness of a womb” (Line 778). By using the sample of Athena to confirm his argument that a father can still be a father in the absence of his mother, Apollo strengthens the power of the patriarchy and weakens the rights of matriarchy. Therefore, Apollo argues that one, Clytemnestra is guilty for killing Agamemnon and Orestes is innocent for killing Clytemnestra, and two, the mother does not have a large role in a family.

Athena has a different viewpoint from both the Furies and Apollo. Unlike Apollo and Orestes, she acknowledges the Furies’ wisdom and reveres the Furies. Athena recognizes the importance of the Furies as goddesses, as she tells them, “no house will ever grow without your blessing” (Line 1042). When the Furies express their anger towards Athena’s verdict to exonerate Orestes, Athena tells the Furies, “I’ll put up with your anger, for you are much older than I am […] therefore, so much wiser” (Lines 987-988). Athena then offers the Furies a deal, “to do well and receive well, and well honored, have [their] own share of this land the gods love well” (Lines 1011-1012), for she does not try to eliminate the Furies, but instead give them a different position in the new justice system, the job of blessing the people of the Athens.

Even though unlike Apollo, Athena interacts with the Furies with reverence, Athena is prejudiced to support Apollo and Orestes, advocates of the patriarchy, rather than with the female Furies, supporters of parental equality and kinship. Athena is swayed by Apollo’s argument about parentage, that the father takes on the role of the parent, while the mother merely carries the baby. She cites that “no mother gave me birth” (Line 855), and that “I am entirely my father’s child” (Line 857). Athena, being the daughter of a single male parent, leader of the gods Zeus, confirms that like her, Orestes is also the child of only a male parent, as Clytemnestra does not fulfill the role of a parent. In addition, she believes that the father has the significant role in the family as the “guardian of the house” (Line 859), a comparable belief to those of Apollo and Orestes. Therefore, it is her innate background as the child of a single male parent, Zeus, that leads her to support Apollo and Orestes in the trial. Athena does not support marriage, as she mentions that “in all things but marriage I wholeheartedly approve the male” (Lines 855-857), but she praises men in all other platforms, having been the daughter of only a father. She is therefore still convinced that Clytemnestra is guilty for killing her husband, by saying, “this is why the killing of a woman who killed her husband […] can have no overriding claim on me” (Lines 858-860). Even though she does not tie into the concept of wedlock, she sides with Apollo’s argument that Clytemnestra’s ties to Agamemnon through marriage make her guilty and her actions unjust. Athena is convinced by Apollo’s rhetoric on the power of marriage. The goddess of wisdom and a symbol of feminine power and persuasion, Athena, falls a victim to Apollo’s masculine rhetorical devices and ultimately bows before the patriarchy.

Aeschylus’ The Eumenides on the surface is a battle between a seemingly outdated, blood-for-blood form of justice and a novel, democratic rule of law. The trial and Athena’s final verdict However, what lies beneath this central theme of justice is the battle between the sexes, as the patriarchy forces rise in power while the matriarchal side struggles to gain even a mere standing in the family unit. With the shift in power from the family to other platforms like marriage and male-only parenthood, the new form of justice reflects the alienation of the mother from a family and the marginalization of women in society. Ultimately, this trial implies a new social order.

The Oresteia: Justice Rewritten

The Oresteia is a multipurpose work that sets the foundation for the evolution of modern political thought throughout the ages. It also serves to outline the beginning of the understanding of humanity through multiple different lenses. The human life is examined to a thorough extent, and the result is the beginning of a new form of justice. However, is this new justice the permanent form? The power dynamics that shift throughout The Oresteia present a complex question. The questions posed in this work are critical to the formulation of democracy. The principles of justice, equality, power, and fairness are called into critical question and reflection.

In The Oresteia, the shift from the old form of justice to the newer is a powerful one, but is only one step on the ladder of political evolution. The Oresteia acts an effective political solution as it results in the transition to a new order featuring the trial by jury, the appointment of impartial judges, and the delegation of checks and balances. The trial by jury is a staple in the democracy of today. However, it was not always this way. Blood law used to rule Ancient Greece. In this form of justice, blood ran freely. The cyclical patterns of violence resulted in violence ten times over, providing no room for rationale. The times of murder for murder resulted in an open-ended, cyclical, unforgiving, and disruptive way of life. In this, the importance of the individual life was reduced to a single unit.

In The Oresteia, the pathway from blood revenge to a trial by jury is paved with the pains of the House of Atreus. In a series of blood-thirsty murders, it is decided that the blood must stop somewhere. As Athena is bearing witness to the birth of the trial, the Furies give their input in the transition of systems. “No, you’ll give me blood for blood, you must” cried the Furies (The Oresteia 243). Though it appears the Furies are calling upon the old system for revenge, this quote takes on a stronger role based on the surrounding text. In this scene, Athena begins the process of forming the new judicial system. The Furies continue to say “And there you will see them all. Every mortal who outraged god or guest or loving parent: each receives the pain his pains exact” (243). The system is shifting from a literal bloodshed to a metaphorical one. The idea of a prison or some type of confinement is brought about by that phrase of the Furies. As Athena is called to give judgment, her wisdom comes to the forefront. She decides to place the matter in the hands of one’s peers, which brings about the birth of a new political community. “Too large a matter, some may think, for mortal men to decide. But by all rights not even I should decide a case of murder – murder whets the passions” (243). Athena points to the perfect explanation as to why the current system must be reformed: murder drives one to irrational thoughts and judgments. The cyclical bloodletting could never be stopped based on the human passion by which it is driven. In her confession that even she cannot be impartial, she implies that a different form of judgment should come about.

Another feature of modern democracy is the appointment of impartial judges, who are to remain impartial and rely on the facts to make decisions. In The Oresteia, the judges are appointed by Athena, in her wisdom. As Athena has recognized that she is not impartial enough to make the decision involving murder, she decides to appoint mortals to perform that task. Athena is forced to deal with the task at hand, and decides that, ”since the matter comes to rest on us, I will appoint the judges of manslaughter, swear them in, and found a tribunal here for all time to come” (253). This process is the one that remains in place today in a democratic judicial system. With this statement, Athena formally establishes the tribunal of Athens to cast judgment in the court, essentially putting an end to the barbaric vengeance seen earlier in the The Oresteia. She commands the newly-appointed judges to perform their tasks by her declaration. “And now if you would hear my law, you men of Greece, you who will judge the first trial of bloodshed. Now and forevermore, for Aegeus’ people, this will be the court where judges reign” (253). The effectiveness of her declaration as a political solution comes with the terms of her declaration. Athena commands, with the powers of her goddess status, that the citizens adhere by the system. Clearly that declaration had an impact, seeing as the ideal democracy today still contains these elements.

Finally, Athena establishes the role of the Furies in her democratic system. She commands them to act as the guardians of the new order. “Do you hear how Fury sounds her blessings forth, how Fury finds the way?…. Hold them kindly, kind as they are to you. Exalt them always, you exalt your land, your city straight and just- its light goes through the world” (274). She removes the Furies from their former role, that of antagonizing their victims and aiding in the practices of blood revenge, and transforms them into the guardians of this system she has created. They take on the role of the modern-day castigatory systems, including institutions such as the police. They are transformed from demonic hecklers to a method of deterring humans from doing wrong, similar to the institutions of prison and law enforcement. In doing this, Athena rounds out her new system.

The Oresteia is the most basic transformation story, taking a barbaric, uncivilized manner of handling justice and morphing it into a complex, multilevel system with a formal trial of one’s peers, systems of castigation, and checks and balances. It is, all in all, a very powerful political solution. The creation of a trial by jury, the appointment of impartial judges, and the delegation of checks and balances are figures represented in The Oresteia that are still manifested in modern democratic systems. The Oresteia is a story of justice upheaved, transformed, and rewritten.

The Sacrifices of Creating Democracy

Brimming with death, destruction, and despair, the plots of Greek tragedies are often considered the darkest of theatrical genres. However, it is this same dismal theme that occurs in one of the most well-known works of ancient Greece, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, working to represent a past distant not only to today’s readers but to the author himself. Starting with the sacrificial killing of Iphigenia, the Oresteia tells of a brutal cycle of revenge and murder, one that comes to an end solely through the guidance of the gods who help bring order and justice to the city of Argos. Illustrating human incapability to control their emotions, Aeschylus uses the Chorus and theatrical dialogue typical of a tragedy to highlight the dire consequences of lust, rage, and crave of honor. Broken into a trilogy of three plays, the stories of Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, and the Furies portray the barbarity and violence of human nature and our inability as mortals to break the cycle. Upon close examination of the trilogy however, the significance of the tragedy as a form of writing begins to break through, revealing its role as a work that not only recounts the history of the Greek transition into democracy, but also subtly comments on the culture of Aeschylus’ contemporary Greeks.

Following the murders of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and both of their lovers, the gods realize the propensity of mortals to continue in a never-ending series of vicious actions. Seeing the devastation this could mean for Greek society, the gods take matters into their own hands, fearing that if humanity allows themselves to continue down the path of violence, there is no turning back. Setting laws to keep the society safe, Athena knows that for her efforts to be effective, the “citizens must uphold the law [without] deviation,” for “pure water can never be drawn once the well has been fouled”, suggesting that the people of Greece must be willing to accept the new democracy in order for it to work (Furies, 694-696). In this way, it is up to the government of Greece to establish laws and moral guidelines to restrict the wrong-doings of its people so that their society will not become engulfed in turmoil. Remarking on her achievement of creating a system of justice during the trial of Orestes, Athena highlights the benefits of this newly formed democracy, claiming that she sees “great gain for this city, kind minds for kind minds,” when the laws will “steer this land, [their] city, down the path of righteousness” and bring peace, compassion, and goodness into the hearts of the people (Furies, 991-995). Because human nature cannot control itself, the gods are forced to establish a government to do it for them – for without restriction, the darkness of humanity is allowed to take over, and the cycle of tragedy continues. The strength of human emotion in compelling men and women to take action is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, proving that no amount of logical thought can dissuade an emotionally charged mind.

Through the use of dialogue rather than narration, Aeschylus displays the thoughts and feelings of his characters out in the open, allowing the speaking of every line to separate the Oresteia as a tragedy, distinct from the epic or comedy. Filled with anger and sadness over the loss of her daughter, Clytemnestra declares to the entire audience her reasoning for the murder of her husband: Wasn’t he the one who used treachery and brought ruin down on this House? Yes, he has suffered, deed for deed, for what he did to our daughter, Iphigenia, his own flesh and blood! (Agamemnon, 1522-1526) Exposing her thoughts to the entire audience, Aeschylus highlights the crazed thinking of humans under great stress. Rather than thinking clearly about the consequences she might face for murdering her royal husband, Clytemnestra’s grief from losing her daughter has made her blind to reason, allowing her to justify an action that would otherwise appear reprehensible.

Instead of describing the characters and their actions using a narrator, the Oresteia employs formal dialogue throughout each of the plays, broadcasting the emotions of every actor, establishing attachments in the audience classic to tragedy. Inciting pity from the reader, Aeschylus portrays a heartbroken Orestes, stunned by Agamemnon’s death. After hearing of his mother’s crimes, an enraged Orestes feels compelled to avenge his father’s murder and is even encouraged by Apollo and the Chorus, the latter proclaiming that “Bloody blow pays bloody blow. ‘The doer suffers’ sounds the saying, three times old,” advocating that Orestes get justice for his father’s death, even suggesting that his murderer will suffer for three generations to come (Libation Bearers, 311-313). It is the complete lack of unspoken text in the Oresteia that distinguishes it as a tragedy, showing that just as Clytemnestra felt obligated to retaliate for the murder of her daughter, Orestes was driven by his emotions and the influence of others to get vengeance for Agamemnon’s death. In this way, Aeschylus highlights the violent tendencies of human nature, pointing out not only that they occur in a never ending cycle but also that, without interference from the gods, human beings have no power to stop them. As exemplified by the murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, revenge as justification for killing leads only to more death and destruction as each victim has someone to avenge their death. As such, the bloodshed becomes a never-ending loop, one that humanity knows only the gods can break.

Continuing to define his work as a tragedy, Aeschylus uses a Chorus present in each play to remark upon the action of the narrative, voicing its opinion in every situation. After learning of Clytemnestra’s actions, the chorus declares that she has set upon her family a curse that would last generations to come. Despite Clytemnestra’s belief that the murder was justified, the chorus knew what was to come: But while Zeus sits on the throne, the wrongdoer suffers, that is the sacred law. Can the progeny of this curse be cast from the House, or is this family welded to its own destruction? (Agamemnon, 1563-1566) thereby acknowledging that wrong deeds do not go unpunished and the actions people take will always have consequences that must be paid for. Embodying the character of the Furies, goddess of the world who punish those who commit crimes against the world’s natural order, the Chorus appears in Libation bearers to highlight the power of the gods, remarking on Orestes’ fear, “what mortal man is not terrified, gripped in fear and horror to hear our sacred law determined by Destiny’s decree? The gods yield this right, it is our age-old prerogative” (Furies, 389-394). By doing so, the Chorus in both Agamemnon and the Furies illustrates the cycle of violence and human inability to influence it, extrapolating the power of the gods and their affect on traditional Greek society.

But it is not just the devices and techniques Aeschylus utilizes that make his work remarkable – it is his ability to create an origin story of democracy that keeps the Oresteia relevant centuries after its conception. Beginning with the tragedies of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Aeschylus showcases the sacrifices that must be made in order to reach triumph at the end of the Furies. In this way, the Oresteia displays the transition into democracy in Argos and what losses must be given up in order to reach it. By highlighting the brutality surrounding the murders of Iphigenia, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and their lovers, Aeschylus demonstrates the victims of the democracy that ultimately emerges at the end of the play. By doing so, Aeschylus opens a window into an ancient past, explaining that in order for peace and justice to be established within a society, lives must be sacrificed so that others may live. In absence of human self-control, a democratic form of government must be created to establish laws and protect the people from their own emotions and barbaric tendencies. However, in order to establish the democracy, some individuals and ideals must fall victim to the process so that new individuals and greater ideas may arise.

Through his consistent use of dialogue and the function of the Chorus in each of the plays, Aeschylus not only separates the Oresteia as a tragedy, but also helps explain the heroic past at some distance from his own present. By inciting sympathy for tragic characters such as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra through the use of spoken narrative rather than unspoken text, the tragedy of the Oresteia shines through, distinguishing it from alternate forms of literary genres. Subtly questioning the morals of his contemporary Greeks, Aeschylus highlights the incapability of human nature to control itself and the necessity of gods and government to intervene. While at first it appears that this tragedy is just as it’s form suggests – full of brutality and sorrow, the exaggeration of character flaws and description of the transition into democracy display a history of Greece ancient to both Aeschylus and modern day readers. It is Aeschylus’ praiseworthy manipulation of dialogue, the characters, and the action of the narrative that gives us insight into a time deep into the past of Argos.

Conflict Between Obligations in Oresteia

One of the most prominent and widely recognized dramatists of the ancient time, Aeschylus was a master of the depiction of conflicting situations. His works always perform the main function of the drama work in terms of touching the mind and emotions of the spectator and giving them a chance to experience catharsis. One of his most famous and widely read works is the Oresteia trilogy which consists of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides and raises the questions that are still of high relevance to the modern society. One of the topics that are vividly depicted in the trilogy is the conflict of obligations to which the ancient people were subjected. Each of the parts of the trilogy is based on a conflict between the obligations which leads to the further conflict and seems to create an endless chain of problems which resulted from the obligation of revenge.

The two major types of conflicts that arise in the trilogy include the dilemma between the military power and leadership and the family ties as well as between the need to revenge and satisfy Gods’ requirements and the family ties. While Agamemnon first activates the curse by choosing the military fame over his family, the further conflicts of duties arise on the basis of revenge for the family member and the actual need to revenge to a family member. The prehistory of the drama involves the curse that is placed on Agamemnon’s family, and this curse is the reason for the upcoming of the first conflict of duties. The mere conflict that arises is Agamemnon’s knowledge that the decision to go to war against Troy would result in the activation of a curse. As it was said by Aeschylus, “so then the leader of the Achaean ships/ … / gave in to fortune’s sudden blows” (13). He was seeking for the military fame and the victory rather than thinking of the possible consequences of his actions.

With respect to this, the first conflict of duties was resolved so that it would cause the next conflicts and contribute to the realization of the curse that was prepared by the Gods in the case of Agamemnon’s preference of the military duty over the family duty. Another conflict that was vividly highlighted in the Aeschylus’ trilogy was the conflict between “obligations to the city and obligations to blood types” (Goldhill 47). As the leader of his people and of his militia, Agamemnon was responsible for the successful outcomes of the campaign that they started to avenge Helena. At the same time, the anger of Artemis was a strong barrier to the victory, and the offered solution of the problem made the ruler choose “between the failure of the whole Trojan enterprise and the life of his daughter” (Fuller 466). The goddess required a sacrifice, “So Agamemnon steeled his heart/ to make his own daughter a sacrifice” (Aeschylus 14). In this way, he had prioritized the governance over the family and the whole people over a single life. Under the mentioned circumstances, one life for the numerous lives seemed not a large sacrifice. Nevertheless, putting the city over the family resulted in the range of further conflicts and ultimately led to the growing tragedy of the family story.

The further conflict of obligations appeared in the case of Clytaemnestra and her decision to murder her own husband. On the one hand, her actions are easily justified in terms of the family revenge idea since Agamemnon killed her daughter. Nevertheless, this decision is also quite contradictory and comes as a result of the conflict between the revenge obligation and the idea of being a wife. In the Greek society living by the principles of the patriarchal tradition, for the people it was “outrageous – the woman kills her man” (Aeschylus 50). Her obligation to her husband was to stay true to him and to support any of his deeds. However, the obligation of delivering the revenge wins over the family connections and the social principles. Fueled by the feelings to another man and “the duty incumbent upon a mother to avenge the murder of her child” (Fuller 468). Hence, the obligation to the common law has overcome the social norms and gained the victory over the relationship with the husband. This was the second conflict solution that has lead to the further conflict intensification.

The next step in the range of the conflicts of obligations was Orestes’ decision to conduct revenge for the death of his father. When he learned about the way in which his father was killed, he had to solve a respective dilemma. As a son of Agamemnon, he should have avenged the death of his father and punish the murderer, which was his direct obligation according to the laws. However, the situation appeared problematic in terms of the fact that the murderer was Orestes’ mother. In this situation, he was obliged to her with his life, and it was actually wrong and complicated to kill the mother. Nevertheless, the obligation to the duty of revenge won in this case again. Besides, this decision was also supported by the obligation to perform the God’s words and to follow the god’s injunctions (Goldhill 22). As it was implemented by Aeschylus in the words of Pylades, “What then becomes of what Apollo said,/ what he foretold at Delphi?/ We made an oath” (Aeschylus 105). The obligation to the god as well as the saint obligation to conduct a revenge hence united and resulted in the murder of the mother. In conclusion, the Aeschylus’ is widely recognized as the dramatist who raised the important for his time issues which still stay present in the modern society.

One of the major topics of his trilogy Oresteia is the depiction of the problem of the conflicting obligations that a person should overcome. In essence, the whole problem of the conflicting obligations is connected with the idea of revenge which was the cause of all events and the driving force behind the actions of the major characters. The dilemmas include the necessity to choose between the military fame and risking the family, between the blood ties and the success of the whole campaign, between the need to revenge and the social order, as well as between the need to revenge and obligation to god and the obligation to a person who gave birth. The full spectrum of emotions is involved in the trilogy. Furthermore, the mastery with which the author delivered to the readers and the viewers the tragedy of a single family cannot leave anyone indifferent. It provides the actual feeling of catharsis achieved due to the harsh reality of the plays and the deep emotional appeal to the audience.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Transl. by Ian Johnson. Arlington, Virginia: Richer Resource Publication, 2007. Print.

Fuller, Benjamin Apthorp Gould. “The Conflict Of Moral Obligation In The Trilogy Of Aeschylus”. Harvard Theological Review 8.04 (1915): 459-479. Web.

Goldhill, Simon. Aeschylus, The Oresteia. 2nd ed. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Mistrust and Violence: Animal Metaphor in the Oresteia

There are many instances throughout the Oresteia trilogy where animals and animal figures play an important role in the function of the play. While the use of animal imagery is a common technique in literature, Aeschylus uses animals to manipulate and influence the reader’s perceptions of the play and its characters and situations. Comparisons to animals and beasts provide insight into those they describe, and the metaphors that come from the animal world are used as reflections of the human world to display something previously unseen or unspoken; Aeschylus uses animals to display hidden aspects of human life, politics, and relationships. In the Oresteia, Aeschylus utilizes animal imagery and metaphor of the dog, lion, and snake to emphasize the theme of mistrust and violence through the beastly nature of human beings.

One animal that Aeschylus makes use of in the text is the dog, known already as a creature whose existence is often intertwined with that of humans. In the opening monologue of Agamemnon, the Watchman laments his position as the eternal guard of Clytaemnestra’s residence, remarking that she had left him “elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise to mark the grand processionals of all the stars of night” (Agamemnon lines 3-4). The Watchman is tired of being used, and he wishes that he could finally be done with the task of waiting for a signal for news from Trojan War. The dog, especially the watchdog, is used here by Aeschylus as a metaphor for loyalty. The Watchman has been extremely loyal to Clytaemnestra for the ten years that Agamemnon has been away at war, and this sentiment of his “dogwise” feeling could be a way for Aeschylus to foreshadow what happens in the rest of the play. Due to the Watchman’s loyalty, he knows to alert everyone in Argos that their king has finally returned, which would usually be viewed as a positive event. However, Agamemnon’s return brings great violence and suffering. It seems especially painful when the loyalty of a trustworthy, dogwise person is rewarded with disaster.

The metaphor of the watchdog is also used in Agamemnon to describe Clytemnestra. She describes the difficulty of waiting for her husband’s return, never knowing whether he was dead or alive. She wishes that she could say to Agamemnon “Come, and with speed, back to the city that longs for him, and may he find a wife within his house as true as on the day he left her, watchdog of the house gentle to him alone, fierce to his enemies, and such a woman in all her ways as this, who has not broken the seal upon her in the length of days” (Agamemnon lines 605-610). Here, Clytaemnestra is also emphasizing her loyalty to her husband through her dedication to being a watchdog. Like a loyal hound, she is tender only to him, and will protect him from anyone who tries to do him harm. This is also reflective of her status as the female head of the house and the queen. As a watchdog she is respected and admired, yet she is still subservient to her husband, as a dog is to its owner. The duty of a watchdog is to be loyal to someone no matter what, yet Clytaemnestra proves herself to be the exact opposite of loyal to her husband Agamemnon.

This idea of animal loyalty continues throughout the play; how loyal can an animal be to a person? While people assume that their loving dog would never hurt them, Aeschylus turns this idea around to prove that nothing can be completely trusted. Another animal that Aeschylus uses for imagery and metaphor throughout the play is the lion. In Agamemnon, the Chorus warns how something that is born innocent does not always remain so. In one monologue, they recite the story of a young lion cub that grew into a bloodthirsty beast; “Once a man fostered in his house a lion cub, from the mother’s milk torn, craving the breast given…But It grew with time, and the lion in the blood strain came out; it paid grace to those who had fostered it in blood and death for the sheep flocks, a grim feast forbidden…This thing they raised in their house was blessed by God to be priest of destruction” (Agamemnon lines 716-736). While lions appear harmless as cubs, they are truly powerful beasts who are capable of causing great harm. The lion is a wild animal, and no amount of proper training or well-kept environments can fully stifle a lion’s animal nature.

The parable presented by the chorus is a metaphor for Orestes. Orestes was the cub who, in birth, seemed so benign. However, as he grew into a man he became powerful and lusted for revenge, just like the lion hunts for blood. In the end, Orestes’ violent tendencies prevail and he murders his own mother out of rage. Despite being raised by a king and queen, Orestes has a violent nature inside that cannot be quelled. Clytaemnestra should never have trusted Orestes after she betrayed Agamemnon, just as the sweet lion cub can never be trusted to remain gentle forever. Orestes continues to be compared to a lion in The Libation Bearers. After Orestes and Pylades take Clytaemnestra into the house to kill her, the Chorus speaks about all the horrible things that have befallen this family. They state that “Justice came at the last to Priam and all his sons and it was heavy and hard, but into the house of Agamemnon returned the double lion, the double assault” (The Libation Bearers lines 935-938). Here, the lion is used as a metaphor for death and violence. The double lion that entered the house was the murder of Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra. Lions are typically thought of as the ultimate predator, capable of killing anything they want. They are known for being not only supremely strong but particularly bloodthirsty, bringing down their prey with mighty displays of skill and ferocity. This parallels the ways that Clytaemnestra and Orestes go about their murderous tasks; they both use violence to display their power, and they both prove themselves to be unstoppable forces. Here, Aeschylus uses the lion as a symbol for bloodshed and violent acts, just as lions are known to be in the natural world.

In the Eumenides, Apollo also uses the lion to show the savagery of the Chorus of Furies. In his command for the Furies to leave the house, Apollo shows his resentment for the Furies’ violent sentiments, and bids they leave and go somewhere where their brutishness will be more well-received. He states that “The whole cast of your shape is guide to what you are, the like of whom should hole in the cave of the blood-reeking lion” (Eumenides lines 192-194). Here, Apollo is remarking upon the fact that the Furies are acting no better than savage animals; howling, moaning, and seeking blood and revenge on Orestes. By commanding the Furies to begone, particularly to the cave of the lion, Apollo is saying that the house and the place of judgement are no place for brutishness. He is demanding order, and saying that wild Furies, along with all other wild people, should be somewhere hidden away from the rest of the world where they cannot live out their blood-hungry fantasies. This is another way that Aeschylus makes the lion a symbol for violence and distrust; the Furies are bent on influencing Apollo and having him condemn Orestes, and they are open with their longing to make Orestes suffer for his crime. They wish to do this, however, not through justice or just means, but through revenge and violence; the way of the lions. Apollo knows not to trust the Furies, and therefore he casts them away so they can no longer voice their dissent. By sentencing them to the cave particularly, he is showing that violence has no place in proper society with civilized people, and that beasts and animals should be kept separate from the human world. This could also be interpreted as Aeschylus warning people not to trust the lion; while they are powerful, they have always been the most bloodthirsty creature, and for that reason they should not be allowed to intermingle with human society.

The animal that Aeschylus makes the most use of in the Oresteia is the snake. A common symbol of deception and danger, snakes and serpents weave their way through the trilogy, providing a sense of the dark tone of the play. The most notable instance of a snake being used as imagery and metaphor is in The Libation Bearers, when Orestes learns of Clytaemnestra’s dream from the Chorus. Clytaemnestra dreamed that she gave birth to a great snake which, when fed by her breast, “drew in blood along with the milk” (The Libation Bearers line 531). The snake is infamous for its quiet deception; it hides in the grass and waits slowly for the moment to strike. Here, the image of the snake and its nature serve as a metaphor for Orestes as he clearly picks up on when interpreting the dream. While the snake in Clytaemnestra’s dream seemed harmless at first when she swathed it like an infant, putting trust in a snake always ends poorly. Orestes realizes that he will have to use deception to kill Clytaemnestra, just as the snake used deception to draw blood from her in the dream. After hearing the dream recounted, Orestes realizes that “it follows then, that as she nursed this hideous thing of prophecy, she must be cruelly murdered. I turn snake to kill her” (The Libation Bearers lines 548-550). This image of the snake also shows how violence and mistrust go hand-in-hand; by making the mistake of trusting Orestes, Clytaemnestra brings violence upon herself. The same could be said of Agamemnon; he mistakenly trusted his wife, who, like the snake, used deception to kill him. Snakes and serpents also often kill their prey by twisting around them until they are suffocated, which closely mirrors the way that Clytaemnestra and Orestes kill their loved ones; by moving in close and coiling around their victim.

At the end of The Libation Bearers, Orestes and the Chorus have an exchange that also makes use of the snake. Orestes feels so guilty about killing his mother Clytaemnestra that he thinks he might have to go back into exile for his crimes. The Chorus, however, disagrees, saying that “You liberated all the Argive city when you lopped the heads of these two snakes with one clean stroke” (The Libation Bearers lines 1046-1047). The Chorus is comparing Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus to two evil snakes. They both were violent, untrustworthy, and deceptive, all traits that the snake is thought to represent. Aeschylus uses this metaphor to emphasize the darkness and dangerousness of these two characters; they committed unforgivable acts of violence while operating under a ruse in order to gain their victim’s trust. This is what made Clytaemnestra in particular so dangerous, and what made her most apt for comparison to a snake. After the Chorus makes their claim, however, Orestes fires back, saying “Women who serve this house, they come like gorgons, they wear robes of black, and they are wreathed in a tangle of snakes” (The Libation Bearers lines 1049-1050). This is a direct comparison to the ancient Greek myth of Medusa, the women with a head of snakes. By giving the women in the story, particularly Clytaemnestra and the Furies, the characteristics of a snake and comparing them to Medusa, Aeschylus is using a simile that emphasizes their trickiness and duplicty, along with their cold hearted nature. The image of women in the play as a snake can also be related to the way that many species of female snakes will kill their mates. This intrinsic violence and cunning are traditional characteristics of the snake, and it is telling that Aeschylus chooses to equate so many female characters in the Oresteia to snakes in this way.

Themes of violence and mistrust weave their way through all three plays in the Oresteia. While these themes are exemplified by the statements and actions of the characters, Aeschylus uses animal imagery and metaphor to set the mood and tone of the story, and to build more complete pictures of the characters. These literary devices help the Oresteia convey the true meaning behind what the characters say and do, and they provide important context, foreshadowing, and comparisons so that the reader can be truly invested in the play. The animal metaphors are also poignant because they explore why people associate certain characteristics to certain types of animals, and how those judgements might carry over into the human world. In a similar vein, however, Aeschylus is making the case that some of these judgements may not be unfounded; a person who is sly and guile does remind one of a snake, just as someone who is ferocious seems a lion, or someone loyal a dog. Showing these human characteristics in a variety of ways throughout the play, particularly through the animal metaphors, helps to emphasize the themes that Aeschylus wanted to portray in the Oresteia.

The Oresteia: Nets, Deception, and Dehumanization

In Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, the motif of nets reoccurs throughout each play–each occurrence having its own meaning. The motif of nets is seen around seventeen times in the Oresteia, thus creating the assumption that all seventeen mentions of “nets” hold the same definition or value. Although the motif carries a negative connotation in each occurrence because of its ties to deception and manipulation, there is deeper meaning attached to each mention of the motif in The Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides which symbolizes a greater empowerment for women. Throughout the three plays, nets symbolize several facets of entanglement and deception, both concepts which seem to be gendered as womanly characteristics; however the motif is also used to conceptualize the inevitable grasp of fate while also developing a symbolic and animalistic dynamic between the hunter and the prey–thus provoking the idea that the motif symbolizes an underlying attempt to subvert male dominance in Greek society.

In all three plays, there are instances where the motif of nets is solely used to symbolize the deception and entanglement of men. In lines 1489-1492 of Agamemnon, the chorus sings “O king, my king, how shall I weep for you? What can I say out of my heart of pity? Caught in this spider’s web you lie.” Regarding the themes of deception and entanglement, the web and net motifs are used interchangeably. By using the word “web,” the action of entrapping Agamemnon is viewed as feminine since most female spiders spin webs. The sense of deception and manipulation is gendered, identifying women as the arbitrators of men’s tragic fate. This concept is reinforced in line 1015 of the Libation Bearers when Orestes says “Now I can stand to mourn and speak before this web that killed my father.” Here, Orestes implies that the web is his mother, Clytemnestra, thus assigning a female gender to the motif. These webs and nets are a tool of entrapment–symbolizing authority over, in this case, men. In line 506 of Libation Bearers, Orestes suggests that a fisherman’s net drowns from the weight of the soaked up water. Here, Orestes implies that nets are heavy and difficult to break out of, symbolizing women’s grasp on men in The Oresteia. In line 460 of The Eumenides, Orestes says “It was my mother of the dark heart, who entangled him in intricate nets and cut him down.” By mentioning both his mother and the “intricate nets,” Orestes is stating that his mother, through deception and manipulation, was able to entrap Agamemnon and overpower him. The phrase “cut him down” displays a power dynamic in which the woman is dominant. The traditional power dynamic is further modified through the use of the net motif in all three plays.

The net motif is also used to juxtapose the assumed gender roles in Greek Culture. By using the net motif to describe the entrapped individual as an animal or beast, the perpetrator is taking a position of dominance in this animalistic dynamic between hunter and prey. The hunter–usually being a man–is now a woman, Clytemnestra. In Line 492 of Libation Bearers, Orestes and Electra say “Think of the casting net that they contrived for you / They caught you like a beast in toils no bronzesmith made.” Here, Electra and Orestes are intentionally angering the dead spirit of Agamemnon by reminding him of his death at the hand of his wife. By comparing Agamemnon to a beast who was caught by a net, the motif creates an image of a hunter trapping its prey. Clytemnestra has caught her prey, thus subverting the initial assumptions about the female gender.

The same power dynamic rooted in the net motif is reinforced in Lines 997-1000 of the “Libation Bearers” when Orestes says “what shall I call it and be right, in all eloquence? Trap for an animal or winding sheet for a dead man? Or bath curtain? Since it is a net, robe you could call it, to entangle a man’s feet.” Here, Orestes is describing the tool used by his mother to kill his own father; however, he ascribes several descriptions to the tool. Orestes mentions how the net, or robe, is a trap for an animal–the animal being his father. Again, the traditional power dynamic between the genders is confused because of the opposite gender roles for the hunter and prey. By using the net motif in order to complicate the traditional power dynamic between genders, Clytemnestra is displayed as an authoritative woman who is able to cut down a man like a hunter traps its prey.

The use of nets to symbolize a new power dynamic is also displayed in The Eumenides. In line 110, Clytemnestra says “Now I watch all these honors trampled into the ground, and he is out and gone away like a hunted fawn so lightly, from the very middle of your nets.” Here, Clytemnestra is talking about The Furies, who are all women. Clytemnestra is urging The Furies to go after Orestes, their prey. The nets, in this case, are not being used in the context of Clytemnestra’s deception, but instead, are being used to describe this female relationship to the hunter-prey dynamic. Orestes is described as a hunted fawn–symbolizing his weakness and juvenile actions. In line 146 of The Eumenides, the chorus says “The hunted beast has slipped clean from our nets and gone. Sleep defeated me, and I lost my prey.” By identifying the women as the hunters or entrappers and the males as the prey, the net motif allows women to subvert the presumed authority of men. The net motif is primarily ascribed to authoritative women.

The net motif in The Oresteia not only displays how women utilized deception and manipulation in order to entrap men but also displayed how women were able to attain a position of authority through this new hunter-prey dynamic. The uses of the words “web” and “net” may hold negative connotations when ascribing the words to specifically women; however, in a time where women were usually treated as wartime gifts, the women in these three plays did what had to be done in order to modify the male-dominant dynamic present in Greek culture. The net motif can be compared to Machiavelli’s statement “It is better to be feared than to be loved.” Clytemnestra hunted down her prey–choosing to be feared as a dominant woman rather than loved. The fact that The Oresteia displays such dominant woman figures, provokes the question of whether or not the Greek audience–composed of mostly men–were perceiving these women through a misogynistic lens or if the author of these plays purposely introduced these articulate women to express their discomfort in the traditional power dynamic.