Four Life Lessons From Aeschylus’s Oresteia

Revenge! Faster, Kill, Kill!

Aeschylus (525-455 BC) retells a story first made popular by Homer. What develops in “Oresteia”‘s three tragedies – “Agamemnon”, “The Libation Bearers” and “The Eumenides” could be the plot of “Revenge! Faster, kill, kill!”, but behind all this, philosophical questions peek out.

Beyond stories told in ancient tragedies there are topics that were of interest and dispute in community. The Greeks did not believe in holy commandments to live by, they used the lives of their heroes as guidelines. Therefore myths were just stories that, depending on the storyteller, could have a different emphasis.

Aeschylus had the genius of serving philosophy and psychology in a thrilling way. At the core, these three plays dwell on the problems of the cycle of violence and conflict resolution.

1. Conflict Equals Pain, But Knowledge Alone Is Not Enough To Stop It.

It begins with “Agamemnon”.

In the first play – “Agamemnon” – the focus is on the sad state of Argos – powerful Greek city – and its citizens. People are miserable, they believe that the sources of their misery is the Trojan war that began 10 years before, when war terminates and king Agamemnon returns, order will prevail.

But Queen Clytemnestra has superior knowledge: that the real source of pain is Agamemnon and his damned family. She wants to punish the death of their daughter Iphigenia (sacrificed by Agamemnon to gods in order to win the war). Agamemnon, and his war slave Cassandra, must die and then she will rule over a world of order and love, as in the course of these 10 years she took Aegisthus – cousin and enemy of Agamemnon – as lover.

She commits the murders and Argos can only lament powerless.

2. People Can Search For Salvation Outside Themselves, But By Perpetuating Sin, Redemption Remains Undisclosed.

Here comes the sun?

The second play “The Libation Bearers” takes us into a city where suffering increased: unpunished murders and unlawful ruling brought on somber times. There is no salvation in this corrupted place, hope lies in the return of Orestes, the heir, he must avenge his father’s death.

Orestes belongs to the city but was an outsider to the crimes committed, he spent his childhood away from home, in consequence he should be the sane, clean bringer of order. The reality though, reveals a confused hero. Apollo, his sister Electra, his friend Pylade and citizens, bury his first reaction of hesitation: they assure him that killing his mother will restore the order and Orestes trusts them.

Though Electra appears shortly, she plays a special role, she is the important libation bearer, secretly bringing offerings to the memory of her father and in honor of gods. Caught between duty towards father and the weakness of her position – being tolerated in her own home – she pleads for justice.

Orestes avenges his father, but as the city rejoices, Furies, gods of vengeance and vendetta, hunt him.

3. People Can Not Survive Alone.

Finding Redemption.

In the last play – “The Eumenides” – Argos is at last a free city, but standing alone, awaiting for its ruler.

Orestes left home in search of salvation: Apollo protects him, but he still pays for the murder he committed as the Furies keep him in a continuous hustle. Contact with humans decreases his pain but cannot redeem him. Only the intervention of another higher authority – goddess Athena, will finish this conflict.

There are two sides and Athena could take the side of either one: fight off the vengeance gods or rally with them. Instead of this traditional resolution of conflict, Athena calls on the Athenians to judge Orestes. They cannot decide if he was wrong or right and free him. Athena also convinces the Furies to change their ways and protect humans, they change into The Eumenides, spirits of reason and democracy.

4. The suggestion for Greek citizens was that they shouldn’t be Orestes, Clytemnestra or Electra, they should not take justice into their own hands, but instead they should solve conflicts through law and justice.

Aeschylus lived in violent times, he thought in battles against the Persians, his work, of remarkable poetic intensity, is thus a search for meaning and the right ways to resolve conflicts.