Aeschylus remains a fascinating mystery to me.
Aeschylus was as much of a genius as Shakespeare, perhaps more so. Aeschylus added the second actor, thus creating the possibility of conflict and drama. Aeschylus manipulates time and space on his stage like a skilled craftsman. He arranges scenes with compelling motion toward a conclusion. He understands humans.
Every time I teach a class in which we talk about the Greeks, I get pulled more and more to Aeschylus. Sophocles is the good-looking one. And the absolute solidity of Oedipus Rex can still put butts in seats and get readers to turn the page. The conflict at the heart of the Antigone is ever-fresh, sadly. Nevertheless, Aeschylus is the one who captures my imagination.
Aeschylus was a war veteran, of course. He fought at Marathon and Salamis. He lost a brother at Marathon. And Aeschylus chose to reference his veteran status as his epitaph rather than his wins as a tragedian.
Jonathan Shay, MD and Ph.D. from the Tufts Medical School Department of Psychiatry points out that the performance and experiencing of tragedy by Athenians was a means by which veterans could be re-integrated into the polis as a part of the healing from combat trauma. This makes sense to a civilian like me.
Combat training always involves learning how to move together, and music usually helps the troops keep in step with each other. Think of every basic training movie you’ve ever seen that includes a scene of the recruits marching and singing or whistling (Bridge Over the River Kwai) or moving to music from the pipes or whatever. And who would Aeschylus and his collaborators know other than other vets? So, they would have a background appropriate to get them through rehearsals to perform as the Chorus.
Dr. Shay posits that the Chorus of younger men performing for the older, experienced vets in the audience would provide a means to relate their war experience to being part of a community. And, as Aristotle opined in The Poetics, the experience of pity and fear lead the audience to a catharsis – whatever that meant – to some kind of healing.
The thing that gets me about Aeschylus, though, is his piety.
Ever since I was introduced to Aeschylus, I’ve heard of his piety. Pious Aeschylus. Oh, Aeschylus, you’re so pious and help us to be pious, too. It’s almost as if anytime we speak of Aeschylus we should either pray to Zeus or simply squeal with delight at the holiness of it all.
This way of describing Aeschylus puzzles me greatly.
The opening Chorus in The Oresteia covers a lot of ground. The Chorus explain who they are, why they’re still in Argos, what happened to King Agamemnon, the story of two eagles eating a pregnant hare, and the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis, among other things. It’s a busy few minutes of stage time.
In the midst of all this singing and dancing and to-ing and fro-ing is Aeschylus’ treatment of the gods and focusing on the relationship of gods and humans.
“Pious” Aeschylus writes this in “Antistrophe 2” (about lines 168-175 of The Agamemnon):
Once Ouranos swelling with pride
And insolence, held heaven’s power,
He is nothing now, gone, forgotten.
Cronus, his successor, met his match,
Downed on the third fall, overthrown!
Any man who shouts his victory-song to Zeus
Will hit the mind’s mark of true understanding. [i]
In short form the Chorus reminds us of the history of Greek gods. Ouranos (or Uranus) was the first “king” of the gods who mated with Mother Earth. Ouranos was deposed by his son, Cronus. Cronus, in turn, was deposed by his son, Zeus. What are we to make, then, of the last two lines? Without the commitment provided by an oral performance, there’s ample ambiguity possible in those last two lines. Yes, it’s possible to argue that the last two lines show Zeus as the ultimate and final victor in the procession of gods. On the other hand, the previous two examples serve to show that we’ve had “kings” of the gods before, and they’ve been sent away. Given the way the rest of the talk of gods by the first Chorus, I’d be inclined to say that Aeschylus was showering some doubt on the power of Zeus.
In Aeschylus’ version of the story, why does Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia at Aulis? If you read Wikipedia, you’ll note that in some stories about Iphigenia that Agamemnon killed a sacred deer in a grove dedicated to Artemis, and this action prompted Artemis to require the blood of a daughter as recompense for the blood of the deer.
But that’s not Aeschylus’ version of events.
In “Strophe 1” the Chorus speak of an omen given to “mighty men.” What was the omen? Two eagles – kings of birds” – perched on the side of the palace and ate the unborn young of a pregnant rabbit. Calchas, the prophet, saw that the eagles resembled the two kings of the Greek forces – Agamemnon and Menelaus – on their way to fight Troy. Calchas prophesies that the Greeks will devour the Trojans as the eagles devoured the unborn rabbit babies. So, Calchas concludes, Artemis feels pity for the coming victims in Troy and resents her father Zeus’s eagles for having done this. “She hates the eagle’s feast.”
Consequently, Agamemnon must appease Artemis with a human sacrifice – his own daughter.
The sacrifice of Iphigenia is a horrible act.
There’s a similar story in Torah, but with a much different ending. In Torah, Abraham is required to take his only son, Isaac, to the top of a mountain and sacrifice the boy as a sign of obedience. This is an incredibly difficult story that stands at the center of the modern world faiths of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. All three faiths claim descendance from Abraham, and the living possessors of the covenant made by God with Abraham. Because Abraham obeyed, at the last minute God provided an animal for Abraham to sacrifice. Isaac subsequently becomes the grandfather of the twelve patriarchs of the Hebrew people, the sons of Israel.
Aeschylus doesn’t work out as well. Instead, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, and the dominoes fall as a result. His wife, Clytemnestra, ultimately kills her husband. As a consequence Orestes, their son, is left with a profound conundrum. He must avenge his father’s death by killing the murderer. But he can not kill his mother. He must kill his mother to avenge his father. He must not kill his own mother. Orestes is directed to kill his mother by Apollo himself.
Now imagine taking most people and saying, “God is directing you to do something. This is a universe with a god or gods. And this isn’t a time when you wonder, ‘Oh, I’m just talking to myself.’ No. God – whatever god is – is telling you to do something. Unambiguously. No quibbles. God is saying, ‘Do this.’ Isn’t that, by definition, the moral thing to do?”
I think most people would answer that, given the rules of the game, yes. The direct thing told you by god is moral.
Aeschylus, though, isn’t saying that at all. Aeschylus is casting all kinds of doubt about the appropriateness of following what the gods say. Following the gods’ directions leads the Agamemnon family into all kinds of trouble that we have directly called a tragedy!
I often think about Socrates and the case against him. One of the charges was impiety – not believing in the gods of the state. And I feel that he wasn’t entirely responsible. Where had he learned to question the gods? At the theatre, watching tragedy.
We’re living in a time that is not boring, unfortunately. We have a leader that we knew wasn’t the cleanest, most chaste guy in the pig pen. We learn almost daily about new crimes, scandals, and lies that he purpurates on the world.
If we were characters in a play by Aeschylus, the dominoes would fall. There would be violence. The Chorus of old men or serving women would sing of these troubles and serve as a reminder of the transgressive acts of the main characters.
But we don’t live in a Greek tragedy. We do have a deme, however. We have our communities. And ultimately, if we’re lucky, we can use our stories and our art of playing “Let’s Pretend” as a way to experience fully the fear and pity of our age and find our way to being healed.
[i] All quotations come from: Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Peter Meineck, trans. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998.