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.
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