The hero in Aeschylus’ Oresteia

Gregory Nagy writes about how examining the hero’s importance and role in the ancient world can shed light on the meaning of ancient texts. His analysis of Aeschylus’ Oresteia inspired me to see these plays in a fresh way. It relies, in part, on accepting two thing: a) heroes are not morally perfect; their larger-than-life qualities inspire awe, but in both good and bad ways. b) the hero’s “journey” begins but does not end in the heroic age.

The Oresteia, according to Nagy, is about the transition from the heroic age to the historical present of Aeschylus and the city-state. He frames the trilogy in Hegelian terms: thesis (Agamemnon), antithesis (Libation Bearers), synthesis (Eumenides). There’s much more to his analysis than I can do justice to in such a small space, but here are some pared-down elements that struck me:

In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra avenges Iphigenia’s murder by murdering her murderer, Agamemnon; according to the conventions of her society, Clytemnestra is justified, but then so will her murder be. This is the “antithesis” of Libation Bearers. Since Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon, his children are then justified in taking revenge against their mother. But since she is their mother, it is also wrong for them murder to her. Whatever Electra and Orestes do, then, will be both wrong and right. What can bring this disastrous cycle to an end? The “synthesis” of Eumenides, which is about the transition from a vendetta system to a legal system. In order to actuate this, Athena must convince the Erinyes (aka the Furies, the personification of the dead’s vengeful anger) to reward not just punish, to promote prosperity and fertility not just disaster and sterility. Which is to say, Athena must convince them to harness their superhuman power for kindliness, hence renaming them Eumenides, meaning kindly ones.

Have you read the plays? Any thoughts or resources you recommend?

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