Book Review in Three: The Oresteia

I have terrible eyesight. Around ninth grade, my teacher had noticed that I was struggling to see the board from the front row and recommended it was time to get an eye exam. Too my parents credit, I did my best to fake my way through the problem for several years because in the nineties it was not cool to wear glasses. Finally though, I could no longer pretend I couldn’t see and my mom took me to the eye doctor. I still remember the drive home with my new contacts in, and the disbelief that I could now see all that I was missing. Who knew that street signs could been seen from the car!

I’ve had a similar experience with classical Christian education. All of a sudden a massive world has open up to me that I had no idea about. Like Paul, the scales have fallen off my eyes and the world will never be the same.

I’m not a classist, although I would like to be one some day. I’m a new convert trying to give myself the education that I now realize I always wanted. These great authors of Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Plutarch, Milton, Shakespeare, Austin, and so many more have offered their friendship to me to pull up a chair, have a drink, and discuss all things that are worth discussing. I’m also realizing that old friends, like Lewis, and Tolkien, would have introduced me to this group long ago if I had been willing.

Ancient Greek Plays?

I would have never guessed that in my thirties I would be reading, digesting, and then teaching Greek plays (not doing them justice yet). For most of my life Ancient Greek plays would have been the last things on earth I would have desired to read. Yet, now after read Aeschylus’ Oresteia twice, I’m hooked. It is amazing how much I, as an American citizen, owe to this story. It is amazing how the same issues my culture is struggling with the Greeks already endured. It is amazing how my culture’s solution is to tear everything down, theirs was to create some of the greatest systems of government the world as ever seen.

Background

At its core, at least to my estimation (again, not a classicist), the Oresteia is about how a culture can stop the cycle of revenge and yet still provide justice for the victim. This, to the modern reader, may seem like an easy answer until you realize that the reason why it is easy is because the Greeks answered it for us: trial by jury.

A background of the story is necessary for us to get the context of issues brought up in the play. We need to be familiar with the “curse of Atreus” which falls upon the legendary figure Agamemnon. This is the famous king from Homer’s Iliad who summoned all the kings of Greece to recover Helen who had been stolen by Paris, a prince of Troy. What proceeded was a ten year long and bloody struggle we call the Trojan War.

Agamemnon has this curse because his family line is full of vile and disturbing figures. His great great grandfather, Tantalus, thought it would be a great idea to feed his son to the gods to see if they would notice. They did, and they banished him to a watery pit with a fruit tree growing over it. Every time he was thirsty and tried to drink the water it would recede. Every time he tried to grab a piece of fruit the wind would blow it out of his reach. Hence, this is where we get our word tantalizing to describe something that is so close but just out of reach.

Tantalus’ son Pelops, the one who was murdered, was brought back to life by the gods. Pelops though was no better than his father. In order to marry the woman he desired he discovered he must defeat her father in a chariot race. Instead of doing so like a man, he sabotaged the father’s chariot the night before. As you might guess, the next day during the race the father’s chariot fell apart and killed him. Pelops got his bride.

Pelops had two prominent sons who vied for the throne, Atreus and Thyestes. Thyestes seduced Atreus’ wife. To get him back, Atreus’ killed Thyestes children and fed them to him. Once he realized what he had done he was banished for cannibalism but placed a curse on Atreus’ descendants. While it seemed that all of Thyestes children had been murdered, there was of course another son, Aegisthus, who would become the agent of this revenge.

This leads us into a critical piece of motive for the play. After mustering his army to sail for Greece, Agamemnon’s expedition is halted because there is no wind. In order to win the gods favor and get the ships moving again, he sacrificed his eldest daughter. This enraged his wife, Clytemnestra, who spent the next ten years plotting her revenge with a certain Aegisthus at her side.

Summary of the Plot

This is where story kicks off. A watchman informs Clytemnestra that after ten long years Agamemnon is on his way back. It is time for her plan to be sprung into action. Needless to say, Agamemnon returns not expecting anything but a warm welcome. This he sours a bit by bring home his new concubine Cassandra and walking on a red carpet like a Persian king. He is promptly murdered in his bathroom by the conspirators, thus fulfilling the curse of Atreus.

In the next play, we have Orestes, Agamemnon’s exiled son, returned to honor his dead father and conspire with his sister to get his revenge. Now it is Orestes, who sneaks into the palace and murders Clytemnestra his mother and her lover Aegisthus. This matricide cause the ancient goddesses of vengeance, the Furies, to chase Orestes seeking to bring revenge upon him for such a deplorable act.

Finally, in the last play, Orestes is on the run from the Furies and seeks refuge on the acropolis in Athens. Here he pleads for Athena’s help to resolve this issue. Athena, being the goddess of wisdom, convenes a trial with a jury. Apollo becomes Orestes defense council while the Furies prosecute the murderer on behalf of the ghost of Clytemnestra. In the end, the decision is split causing Athena to cast the deciding vote and she chooses to acquit Orestes. The Furies are outraged but Athena placates them by give them a shrine in Athen’s to be worshipped by the cities citizens.

Significance

In all, the story and back story are very disturbing but cycles of revenge in real life are very disturbing. It has been a common form of human nature to get someone back for wronging you, usually by upping the ante in the process. This makes for increasingly vicious forms of hatred and murder.

But the Greeks realized that a culture could not go on living with such a form of justice. How can one feel safe if half of their lives they are constantly looking over their shoulder for some ancient score to be settled? On the other hand, how the bloodlust for revenge ever be satisfied apart from continuing the cycle. This is where the Athenian democracy and trial by jury are held up as superior forms of mediating justice. The accused have a right to hear their accuser. The accuser and the accused are able to cross examine witness to discern the truth. An impartial group, instead of those whose eyes are clouded by revenge, give the deciding verdict.

We owe so much to the Greeks here. We cannot have a civilization where citizen’s trust one another if their is not an impartial system of justice. It is amazing to me that at the time I was reading this, all of the hubbub about Brett Kavanaugh was taking place. It was frightening to see how quickly we can be ready as a society to cast off all the jewels of wisdom we have been handed and plunge back into the carnal instincts of the curse of Atreus.

Verdict

I can’t give a verdict on a classic, because the verdict has already been given. I found that the lessons of the Oresteia are still incredibly valuable and important. We are a proud and entitled people in the West. We have lost any kind of gratitude for the pearls of wisdom that we have been given from that past. Worse, we seemingly are quite willing to throw them to the pigs. This is a book every American should read. We need a new renaissance of Western Culture to remind us who we are. We need a fresh desire for ad fontes, back to the sources, that we might appreciate what we so easily despise today.

Lastly, we need to realize that even though trial by jury is the best form of justice human’s have developed, it is not the best form of justice. Only the true and righteous king Jesus can offer perfect justice. He knows all that we have done, even down to the motives of our hearts. He knows how to perfectly and righteously mediate justice for he is the definition of it himself.

Yet this same God who is perfect justice forgives sinners, even sinners like Orestes, who place their faith in him. For Jesus was the perfect god-man who bore the fury of the wrath of the Father on the cross for his people. He took the guilty verdict, undeserved, to make the underserving righteous and free.

More to come later.

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