Episode 28: A Mother’s Curse

Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy, 2 of 3: The Libation Bearers. The infernal House of Atreus had witnessed almost every imaginable act of depravity. Except for one.

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The Oresteian Trilogy, Part 2: The Libation Bearers

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 28: A Mother’s Curse. This show covers an Ancient Greek play called The Libation Bearers – the second play in the Oresteian trilogy, the trilogy which is the most famous work of the great dramatist Aeschylus. If you’re just jumping in, you might want to listen to the previous show, so you’re up to speed on events so far.

The Oresteian trilogy – and again we’re about to cover the middle play in this trilogy – the Oresteian trilogy premiered in the spring of 458 BCE in the Dionysian Festival of Athens, Greece. The three plays won the 67-year-old war veteran Aeschylus first prize in that year’s contest, and they seemed to epitomize the spirit of Athens in the middle part of the 400s. Ever since its first premiere, the story of the Oresteian trilogy has been sewn deeply into the history of world drama. Its core themes – revenge, an inescapable curse, an inborn propensity for violence, and the search for order and clarity after ceaseless generations of brutality – these themes are everywhere within the darker plays, and films, and television programs that we watch today. As we learned in the previous show, Aeschylus was literature’s first known war veteran. He and his brother charged the Persian army at the fields of Marathon, and only one of them made it back. Aeschylus was on the decks of ships that smashed into Persian ones at the battle of Salamis. He was of the age of Leonidas and Xerxes, Themistocles and Pericles. And Aeschylus, who had seen real war, was tired of screaming battlefield deaths, and the spectacle of glamorized violence in the Homeric epics. The middle play in Aeschylus’ most famous the trilogy is about the new generation of men and women who grew up after the Trojan War. Would they, like their parents, be caught in a cycle of bloodshed, and be devoured by their inherited drives toward destruction? Or would they break the long, and dreadful pattern, and create something better for their children? Let’s continue the great story of the Oresteian Trilogy, with the second of its three plays, this 2,500 year old masterpiece called The Libation Bearers.[music]

The Oresteian Trilogy Thus Far

Clytemnestra by John Collier, 1882 libation bearers

John Collier’s Clytemnestra (1882). The painting, with its bloody ax and the resolute expression of the heroine, crackles with the same power as some of Aeschylus’ best lines, and the scene would have prefaced the beginning of The Libation Bearers.

Let’s recap a bit. I don’t know what you’ve been up to, but man I’ve been busy. I think we should review what’s happened in the Oresteian trilogy so far. First of all, remember that back story. The Oresteian trilogy is about a family. This family had an – uncommonly hideous predilection for violence. Its first patriarch cut his son to pieces and tried to feed him to the gods. Its second patriarch murdered his father-in-law. Its third patriarch, Atreus, after whom the cursed House of Atreus is named, killed his brother’s children and fed them to him. Atreus’ two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, started the Trojan War. But Atreus was killed by his nephew. It sounds a bit like a multigenerational reality show in which the stars are occasionally injected with rabies and given methamphetamines.

So that’s the back story. The play Agamemnon, the one we covered last time – the first of the three Oresteia plays – is about the burly Greek king Agamemnon coming home, having won the Trojan War. Agamemnon believes he’s done everything right. He even sacrificed his daughter – I mean, literally, knife and sacrificial altar type sacrifice – in order to get the Trojan War going, and after ten years of bloody combat, he’s won. He’s killed hundreds, and he’s managed to replace his sacrificed daughter with the daughter of the enemy king, an understandably depressed girl called Cassandra, whom he’s made into a sex slave. Now, I know what you’re thinking. What a likable character, right? Everyone loves a child-sacrificing, blood-soaked egomaniacal despot and rapist!

Well, almost everybody. Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, isn’t exactly a big fan of her husband’s murderous warmongering and proud adultery. And the whole story of Agamemnon – again first part of the Oresteian trilogy that we covered last time, is a slow, doom-laden narrative about what happens when Agamemnon gets home. His wife has become lovers with his cousin. Agamemnon and his unfortunate new concubine arrive back at his palace. Throughout the first play there’s a fair amount of tense back and forth between various characters and a conservative chorus of elders from Agamemnon’s homeland of Argos. And at the climax of it, Agamemnon and his new young lover go into the palace, only to be brought out later, full of knife wounds. Queen Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, again, Agamemnon’s cousin, are unapologetic. The king is dead. Long live the – no, actually, to hell with Agamemnon – he had it coming, but anyway the queen and her lover stand there, unrepentant, over the corpses of their victims. So what’s next? What will now happen in the first extant major work of world theater? Well, keep driving, or walking, or doing whatever you’re doing, because I’m going to tell you all about it. The second of Aeschylus’ most famous three plays – the one that follows the bloody tale of King Agamemnon’s downfall, is, again, called The Libation Bearers. And I’ll be quoting from the Robert Fagles translation, first published by Penguin in 1979. [music]

The Libation Bearers Begins: Morning at the Tomb of Atreus

Agamemnon had been dead for several years. His kingdom, Argos, moved forward uncertainly, following his murder. At the base of Agamemnon’s palace loomed the ancestral tomb of his father, Atreus. This imposing tomb contained a series of patriarchs who would always be remembered, if hated, by posterity, and its latest addition was perhaps the greatest celebrity of all. Agamemnon’s fathers had mostly killed within their families. But Agamemnon had commenced a war that had taken the lives of tens of thousands.

The tomb of the House of Atreus hulked beneath the ancestral palace, so that when visitors came to the palace in Argos, they passed the stone reminder of the men who had founded the kingdom. It looked only slightly less ominous in the early morning light, its unlit altar throwing a long shadow over the paving stones. The play starts with this image – the tomb of Atreus and Agamemnon and their forebears, at dawn, a solemn set, and one focused on a dark and ineluctable past. The play’s first action is two characters coming along the pathway that leads to this tomb. One of them is the central character, and the pivotal figure in Aeschylus’ three plays, and it’s finally time for us to meet him.

electra and orestes libation bearers

Electra and Orestes are united after their long separation at the outset of The Libation Bearers

His name was Orestes. Orestes knelt down and prayed over the grave of his murdered father, Agamemnon. Orestes cut off two locks of his hair, and placed them there as an offering. Then he looked up. “What’s this?” he said. “Look, a company moving towards us. Women, robed in black. . .so clear in the early light.”1 They were slave women, and they brought libations, or offerings of sacred liquid, to the tomb of Atreus. At the head of the solemn column of slave women was another main character of the Oresteian trilogy. Her name was Electra. She was Orestes’ sister, and the daughter of Queen Clytemnestra and her murdered husband Agamemnon. Orestes saw them coming, but he didn’t stay to speak with them. Instead, he told his companion to hide behind the tomb in order to overhear what the chorus of women would discuss.

So let’s pause for a second and talk about this chorus. The chorus in the first play of this trilogy, again, Agamemnon, was made up of old men from Argos. These elders had essentially conservative motivations – they were invested in King Agamemnon’s power structure and they were distraught at his death. At the previous play’s end, the old men of its chorus were ultimately deeply troubled that a woman – Queen Clytemnestra – had killed the king and bumped her lover – the king’s cousin – into a leadership role. Now, the chorus in the second play of the trilogy, which we’re on now, is made up of slave women. This second chorus arrives onstage carrying libation offerings, and the play is named after them – The Libation Bearers. The women of the second chorus are mournful and passive, generally speaking, and they’re a more inert, reactive chorus than the active male chorus of the first play, Agamemnon. So back to the play. Orestes and his companion have hidden behind the tomb, and Electra and her dark clad companions – that chorus of libation bearers – have approached the grave of the murdered king.

The chorus of slave women recounted their long grief at the disintegration of the House of Atreus. They wondered what could possibly come next for the broken kingdom of Argos, and they made this speech.[music]
What [, they asked,] can redeem the blood that wets the soil?. . .
[T]he rampart’s down, a fine house down –
dark, dark, and the sun, the life is curst,
and mist enshrouds the halls
where the lords of war went down. . .
But Justice waits and turns the scales:
a sudden blow for some at dawn,
for some in the no man’s land of dusk
her torments grow with time,
and the lethal night takes others.
And the blood that Mother Earth consumes
clots hard, it won’t seep through, it breeds revenge
[the] frenzy goes through the guilty,
seething like infection, swarming through the brain. (178-9)

So, the chorus of slave women thus reflected on the blighted state of the House of Atreus, and how even though revenge bred revenge in an endless cycle, justice would come to the prideful men who valued success over reverence and piety. They ended their graveside speech with a lamentation that, as slaves, they had to serve whichever usurper came to power, and then they voiced particular pity for poor Electra, the blameless daughter of such violent parents.

As for Electra, she looked down at the grave of her loathed, hated, murdered father. Electra had no idea of what to say to his silent, dishonored grave, and she asked the leader of the chorus of slave women. The chorus’ leader told Electra to pour out her libations for the sake of her brother Orestes, and for the person who would come, whoever he or she might be, and take revenge on Queen Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. And so Electra prayed to the underworld, hoping that Orestes would return, and that she herself would be a better person than her mother had been. While these prayers were kind enough, Electra also voiced the following wishes. “For our enemies,” she said, “Raise up your avenger, into the light. . . / kill the killers in return, with justice! / So in the midst of prayers for good I place / this curse for them” (183). The chorus echoed this wish, hoping for a strong warrior to arrive and abet the vengeance against the murderous queen and her lover.

And just then – just then, Electra saw it. A lock of curly hair, there on the tomb, the same hue and texture as her own. Electra instantly thought of her brother. Had his lock of hair been sent there, in order to make a belated tribute to their dead father? If so, he’d done his duty and signified that he’d never return to Argos. But – but there was more! There were footprints! Electra stood in one of them, finding it the same shape as her own foot, and she followed the footprints, and saw, for the first time in years, her brother, Orestes.

Orestes and Electra

Orestes looked at his sister, Electra. “Pray for the future,” he said. “Tell the gods they’ve brought / your prayers to birth, and pray that we succeed” (187). At first Electra couldn’t believe it. Surely he was a trick, or a trap. But Orestes showed her the place from which he’d cut the lock of hair. He showed his sister his garments, which Electra herself had made, and woven with the shapes of wild animals. Electra was for a moment moved beyond words, and then she resolved that she’d love him deeply – with the love she had lodged in her for their murdered father, their murdered sister, and their murderous mother.

Though the chorus advised caution, Orestes revealed his desire for bold action. The god Apollo, said Orestes, had told him to avenge his father’s murder. Apollo had told Orestes how the murdered dead desired vengeance in the world of the living – and that if one didn’t heed their call, one would be filled with emptiness, fear, and madness. Besides, Orestes said, Clytemnestra was no fit ruler for veterans of the Trojan War. Orestes wished his father had died honorably in the Trojan War, but the old slave women of the chorus cautioned the brother and sister against fantasizing.

Orestes conceded that it was time for action, rather than reflection. The chorus leader gave voice to what seemed to be the collective sentiment, that bright morning at Agamemnon’s grave. The chorus leader said anger seethed in her like a gloomy pair of wings, and a spirit of vengeance filled her. The chorus recollected the extent to which Agamemnon had been mutilated and humiliated at the moment of his death, and made a final prayer for the success of Orestes and Electra. And so with this final invocation, the chorus of old women departed the stage, their black garments trailing behind them.

The Children Plan their Revenge

Left alone, you might expect that the long separated brother and sister might do a bit of good old fashioned catching up. “Hey, Orestes, so, like where have you actually been?” Electra might ask. “Oh, you know, around,” Oretes might say. “Went down to Crete. That was nice. I’ve – ah – taken up painting.” You know and Electra might say, “Oh, how fun. You know I’ve taken up pottery. Yeah, no – with all the terrible stuff that’s happened in our family, it’s super important for us to have hobbies. Focus our energies in a healthy fashion.” And Orestes, “Totally, I know, right. We can’t just spend every waking minute angrily contemplating the past and plotting vicious acts of revenge.” But – uh – they didn’t have that conversation. They had a different conversation. Here’s a portion of what they actually said.

“Oh Earth,” exclaimed Orestes, “bring father up to watch me fight” (199). “O Persephone,” said Electra, “give us power – lovely, gorgeous power!” (199). And then Orestes said, “Remember the bath – they stripped away your life, my father” (199). And Electra. “Remember the all-embracing net – they made it first for you” (199). And Orestes, “Chained like a beast – chains of hate, not bronze, my father!” (199). And Electra, “Shamed in the schemes, the hoods they slung around you!” (199). And Orestes, “Send us justice, fight for all you love, or help us pin them grip for grip” (199). So, yeah, there was no, “How have you been?” or “When did you get that cool new tunic?” Just a lot of “revenge, revenge, revenge, kill, kill, kill.” Poor kids. They were, like their forefathers, children of the house of Atreus.[music]

Clytemnestra’s Strange Dream

Giampietrino - Leda and her Children - WGA08952

Giampietrino’s Leda and Her Children, c. 1515-20. Leda’s kids shown here, Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor, and Pollux, made quite a stir in the world of Ancient Greek mythology.

Once every single ireful resolution toward vengeance possible had been shared between the brother and sister, the chorus came back and made a surprising revelation. All was not well, they said, with Queen Clytemnestra. In fact, the reason the slave women had been sent to the tomb of Agamemnon with the libation offerings was that Clytemnestra had been having bad dreams. The queen dreamt that she’d given birth to a snake. And the snake, as she nursed it, tore into her breast so that milk and blood curdled together, and the queen awoke with a scream. Orestes listened raptly to the story of this dream. And then he offered his interpretation.

Orestes said that the serpent – the serpent about which his mother had been having nightmares – this serpent was him. The serpent had come from Orestes’ own swaddling clothes in the dream, and it darted forward and sunk its fangs into her breast, just as he, Orestes, now a grown up and no longer a baby, would kill his own mother in an act of revenge.

After revealing his – rather weird ambition to be like the nipple biting snake in his mother’s dream, Orestes explained his plan. He said he’d do everything with cunning and secrecy. Now I don’t know if you remember this, but when Orestes first appeared onstage he had a companion with him. That guy is still onstage. His name is Pylades. Pylades has evidently stood there, right next to Orestes, over the course of the past forty or so minutes of dialogue, and said nothing, and everyone has totally ignored him. So Pylades, the inexplicably silent friend of Orestes, still stood there beside his vengeful companion.

Orestes said he’d pretend, along with his taciturn companion Pylades, to be from the region of Parnassus, affecting fake accents. They’d sneak into the palace and wait for an opportunity to get at Aegisthus. Remember Aegisthus was Orestes’ uncle, who by this time has killed Orestes’ grandfather Atreus, and Orestes’ father Agamemnon, as well as being sexually involved with Orestes’ mother Clytemnestra. For all these reasons, Orestes planned to get his uncle slash cousin slash stepfather alone, and then stab Aegisthus to death, providing a much needed pruning to the Atreus family bush. The chorus cautioned secrecy. Electra was told to keep watch. And then Pylades, the possibly insentient companion of Orestes, continued to say nothing. And soon the younger people departed from the stage, leaving the chorus of old slave women there to contemplate. And if there’s one thing an Ancient Greek chorus is good at, it’s contemplating stuff. [music]

Orestes and Pylades Arrive at the Palace

Anton von Maron - The Return of Orestes - Google Art Project Libation Bearers

Anton von Maron’s The Return of Orestes (1786).

The chorus of slave women first contemplated the social evils of female infidelity. They recollected famous women who had murdered family members, and the dread of these deeds. Then, somewhat self-contradictingly, they prophesied how Orestes’ murders would repair his forebears’ misdeeds. In their speech they pictured a child, using blood to purify past blood, his killing sanctioned by the powerful deities called the Furies.

With these words, the personnel onstage changed, and Orestes and his companion Pylades approached the palace. Orestes knocked on the gates for admittance. He demanded lodging, saying that the hour was growing late, and asked to see the masters of the house.

Clytemnestra appeared alongside Electra, and promised that they’d have baths, beds, and lodgings. The queen asked Orestes who he was. Evidently the fact that he was faking a Parnassan accent made it impossible for her to recognize her own son. In any case, the dissembling Orestes explained his origins, and said be brought grim tidings – the son and heir of the house of Atreus, Orestes said, referring to himself – this son and heir was dead! Orestes, said Orestes, had perished abroad. Clytemnestra was devastated. After more dialogue, the Queen told the strangers that they were still welcome in the house, and Orestes and his speechless companion Pylades entered the cursed House of Atreus.

The chorus voiced a short speech of hope that all would be as it should, and soon an old nurse came out of the palace. She had been Orestes’ nurse long before, and she was stricken. She recollected nursing the baby Orestes, delivering him, and fawning over his needs. And once asked, the old nurse revealed what had happened in the palace – that Clytemnestra had sent a message to Aegisthus to come to the palace and hear the news.

Soon, Aegisthus, the murderous stepfather slash uncle slash cousin of Orestes, arrived. Whenever you have to use slashes to describe relationships between characters, you know something has gone badly, and somebody is going to bite the dust. Anyway, Aegisthus asked the chorus of old women standing near the entrance about Orestes’ death, and then went inside. The chorus hoped that everything would go justly within the palace that had been Agamemnon’s. And sure enough, the old slave women of the chorus heard a scream from within the palace. Calamity broke out. Clytemnestra burst from the palace doors and bade a servant to give her an ax. “By cunning we die,” she shouted, “precisely as we killed. / Hand me the man-axe, someone, hurry! / . . .Now we will see. Win or lose all, / we have come to this – the crisis of our lives” (216). And then the palace’s doors opened fully. [music]

The Crisis Unfolds

Orestes stood there in the doorway with his companion Pylades, holding a bloody sword, standing over the dead body of Aegisthus. Orestes looked at his mother. “It’s you I want,” he said. “This one’s had enough” (216). Clytemnestra voiced intense grief for her fallen lover and co-conspirator. Clytemnestra asked her son for mercy, reminding him that he’d once nursed from her breasts.

The Queen’s pleas finally caused Orestes’ murderous resolve to falter. He looked around, and turned to his companion Pylades. “What will I do, Pylades?” asked Orestes. “I dread to kill my mother!” (216). And finally, Pylades voiced his first line of the play, which, interestingly enough, he advised his friend Orestes to go ahead and kill his mother. Well, that’s basically what he said. Hearing Orestes’ hesitancy, Pylades said, “What of the future? What of the Prophet God Apollo, / the Delphic voice, the faith and oaths we swear? / Make all mankind your enemy, not the gods” (216). This advice seemed reasonable to Orestes. In fact much of the rest of the trilogy of plays hinges on this exact moment – Orestes hesitates, but he’s reminded that the god Apollo has commanded him to kill his mother. And so, filled with the sense that he was obeying a divine command, Orestes wheeled on his Clytemnestra, pinning her down on her lover’s corpse. [music]
This way – [he said]
I want to butcher you – right across his body!
In life you thought he dwarfed my father – Die! –
go down with him forever!
You love this man,
the man you should have loved you hated. . .

I gave you life [, Clytemnestra said,] Let me grow old with you. . .

You are the murderer, not I [, said Orestes] – and you will kill yourself.

Watch out [, Clytemnestra warned] – the hounds of a mother’s curse will hunt you down. (217-18)

And again, this is the Robert Fagles translation, first published by Penguin in 1979 – a great edition that I strongly recommend. Orestes said that his mother’s curse was fine enough, because if he didn’t take vengeance, he’d be haunted by a father’s curse. He dragged her through the threshold into the palace, and the doors slammed shut behind them. [music]

The Libation Bearers Respond

That, as you can imagine, was the end of Clytemnestra. Ancient Greek tragedy tends to have murders committed offstage. The chorus of old slave women, naturally, mused on what was happening behind closed doors. And their response was complicated. On one hand, the chorus leader began the reflections by saying that she felt sorry for both the murderer and the victim. This line suggests that the chorus has some awareness of the ramifications of murderous vengeance – on one hand, it certainly pays back a killer for an evil deed, and on the other, it creates another killer who needs killing, and this second killer, like all killers, has to live with the weight of having committed vigilante murder. In Orestes’ case, the murder was a matricide, and so his psychological burden, the chorus said, would be enormous. Now, that’s one side of the chorus’ response, anyway, and probably the more modern and relatable one.

Now, the other side of the chorus’ response to Clytemnestra’s murder was a bit philosophically messier. In a word, they zealously proclaimed that Orestes has done the right thing. They emphasized that the murder of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra had been just. The chorus praised Orestes for his secretive maneuvering. And the old women of the chorus finally said, not mincing their words, that the murder had been absolutely right and justifiable.

So the chorus of old slave women, in the end, heartily endorsed Orestes’ two murders. And you have to wonder, there, exactly what they’re thinking. The simplest answer is that it’s not Aeschylus’ greatest moment as a dramatist. I mean, this is an assembly of slave women. They know that Queen Clytemnestra killed her husband because he’d literally sacrificed their daughter ten years before so that he could get the carnage of the Trojan War going in earnest. As slave women, they’re doubly removed from loving and revering the masculine power that King Agamemnon represents. And moreover, as citizens of Argos, and elders who have seen a couple of generations of the madhouse of Agamemnon’s family, it’s pretty difficult to believe that these women are gung ho about yet another male head of the household murdering yet another family member. You know, it’s hard to believe that these old women see Orestes butchering his mother and think, “Oh, that’s great! That’s just what our kingdom needed. Regicide. Matricide. That’s always good for a kingdom. Can’t possibly result in any more bloodshed. Good job, Orestes. The pain stops here. It’s all kittens and rainbows from here on out.” Anyway, a tangent – sorry, but that’s their reaction to the killing of Clytemnestra, and it’ll be important for later. It’s one fifth queasy apprehension and four fifths optimistic endorsement. Weird. But that’s what they say. So, let’s continue the story. [music]

The Coming of the Furies

The palace doors opened, and revealed Pylades and Orestes, weapons in hand, standing over the bloody corpses of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. If you’d watched this play in Athens in the spring of 458 BCE, you would have noted a definite visual resemblance – the previous play had ended with the exact same blocking – two murderers standing over gory remains in the threshold of the palace of Atreus. Orestes stood over the corpses of Queen Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, and grimly recollected their crimes against his father. Orestes held in his hands a shroud that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus had used to bind and wrap Agamemnon when they murdered him, and Orestes wept into it. Orestes’ companion Pylades handed him an olive branch, and wrapped him in the robes of Apollo. The implications were clear. Orestes had done the right thing by the god Apollo, who had demanded Clytemnestra’s murder. Orestes proclaimed that he would be off to see the Oracle. Only, all was not well.

The chorus, for one, seemed to be second guessing their earlier endorsement of the killing. “Oh. . .dreadful work,” they said. “Death calls and she is gone. / But oh, for you, the survivor, / suffering is just about to bloom. . . Aye, trouble is now, / and trouble still to come” (222-3). And in the midst of the chorus’ increasing apprehension, Orestes looked at the blood on his hands and said, “I must escape this blood. . .it is my own” (224). He said he would follow of Apollo at Delphi, and he would leave the kingdom behind. The chorus bade him not to go. “You’ve set us free,” they said, “the whole city of Argos, / lopped the heads of these two serpents once for all” (224).

Orestes stared at the old women of the chorus, and then screamed – a scream of terror. They didn’t understand – and then they saw that he wasn’t looking at them. He was looking at something behind them.

Behind the chorus there rose a pack of monstrous creatures. They were female, and they were called the Furies. They wore black, and their heads had snakes in place of hair. Their eyes dripped with malice. Of everyone on stage, only Orestes could see them, and he knew what they were. They were vengeance personified – they were primal figures who persecuted mortals for particularly horrible crimes. And they’d come for him. Orestes wheeled, and the Furies, which will be at the center of the next play, chased him offstage.

The chorus of old women, as this second part of the Oresteian trilogy comes to a close, had run the gamut between endorsing Orestes’ matricide as an act of divine justice, and then worrying that the estranged prince might have gone too far. And in the play’s closing lines, the old women of the chorus seem to clearly understand, for the first time, the endless cycle of slaughter that has begun in the House of Atreus, a cycle that will not, and cannot be stopped with more killing. Their closing lines capture this realization. “Where will it end? – ” the old slave women ask. “[W]here will it sink to sleep and rest, / this murderous hate, this Fury?” And that’s the end. [music]

Ancient Greek Drama’s Strong Women

So you’ve just heard the second part of Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy, The Libation Bearers, a play about old slave women bringing libation offerings to the grave of the dead and disgraced king, Agamemnon, and the revenge of Agamemnon’s son and daughter against their mother and her lover. Two down, one to go, and once we get through all three, you’ll know the earliest major work of western theater. And you will feel like a king. Or queen.

In fact, speaking of gender, what I want to do now is to talk a bit about women in the drama of classical Athens. If you were taking a course on classical Greek drama, this subject would come up during several class periods, because the plays that the Athenians watched during the Dionysian festivals of the 400s BCE seemed to be full of compelling, powerful female figures. The Oresteian trilogy is no exception. Queen Clytemnestra is the most prominent example you’ve seen so far. Queen Clytemnestra is evidently expected to tolerate the blood sacrifice of her beloved daughter and then embrace her murderous husband and his foreign concubine after he spends ten years away from home, perpetuating the events of the Iliad. But instead, Queen Clytemnestra and her lover kill Agamemnon and Cassandra, and spit in the faces of the disapproving old guard of Argos. You might not want to have milkshakes with Queen Clytemnestra, but it’s generally agreed that she’s a powerful, memorable character.

At the end of The Libation Bearers – again the play you’ve just heard, Clytemnestra has been replaced by the Furies, those primal female monsters who cause even vigorous young Orestes to scream in fear. The Furies, also, are part of the large arsenal of formidable females in Ancient Greek Theater. Later plays that we’ll look at – Antigone, Medea, The Bacchae, and Lysistrata, these are all full of willful, independently minded women willing to fight – usually for the welfare of their families or homes, regardless of the consequences. The robust, vigorous female characters of classical Athenian drama, particularly the human ones, have been a source of fascination within the plays for a long time. [music]

Clytemnestra’s Curse

So let’s turn to the main idea of this episode. The main idea of this episode is in its title: Episode 28: A Mother’s Curse. Just before she is killed, Queen Clytemnestra tells Orestes “the hounds of a mother’s curse will hunt you down” (217-18). It’s one of the most memorable lines in the play. On one hand it means that the exceptionally heinous crime that Orestes has committed – matricide – will result in him being persecuted by the terrifying, snaky-headed agents of justice called the Furies. But in her promise of “a mother’s curse,” Clytemnestra is also talking about her own curse – the curse of being a mother. Now, this play is filled with references to bosoms, childbirth, breast milk, and caring for infants, maybe most memorably, in the strange boob biting snake dream that the queen has. Queen Clytemnestra, a mother, a murderer, an adulteress, and, ultimately, a victim, has for a long time been recognized as one of the most compelling characters in ancient literature. It’s time for us to consider, as best we can, what Aeschylus’ audience would have made of Queen Clytemnestra on the springtime afternoon of 458 BCE, when the Oresteian trilogy first premiered.

What I’m going to do in the remainder of this show will be simple and easy to follow. I’m going to tell you a bit about the lives of Athenian women during the mid-400s, when the Oresteian trilogy was produced. And then I’ll talk about how Clytemnestra and her sisterhood of strong female leads in classical Greek drama tend to be interpreted in the context of this history. We’ll be moving from literature into history for a moment, but this is some seriously twisted, odd history, and I think you’ll find it really fascinating.

Women in Aeschylus’ Athens

For a long time, now, we’ve been looking for a matriarchal society in ancient history. We looked for one on the island of Crete and the riverbanks of Sumerian Mesopotamia during the Bronze Age. We looked for traces of a matriarchal society in the stone female figurines of Neolithic Eurasia. We would like to find a matriarchal society, because if we could, it would mean that we’re capable, as human beings, of living in a society that doesn’t fundamentally favor men, whether overtly, in its legislation, or covertly, in quiet decisions made behind closed doors, or unspoken policies, or even unconscious preconceptions that endure in spite of our best efforts as a society toward full equity between the genders. We would like to find a nice, solid, matriarchal society in ancient history – one that endured for generations. But for the most part, sadly, we’re still looking.

That desire – the desire to look back into antiquity and find a wholly alternate way of organizing gender relations – that desire has pervaded the way we’ve read ancient Greek dramatists, like Aeschylus. But close analysis of archaeological finds and architecture, along with careful scrutiny of ancient writings – writings like law codes, philosophical treatises, orations, poems and plays – almost all of this extant material suggests that if we want to find a place and time in the ancient world that afforded relatively equal rights between men and women, Athens in the 400s BCE is not – not even by a long shot – a good place to look.

I think that the best way to introduce the rigidity of the gender divide between men and women of Aeschylus’ time is to talk about female infanticide. A classic study found that one in five female babies, or so, were killed shortly after birth in Athens.2 This was not a custom practiced by ancient Romans, Jews, Egyptians, or Germanic tribes.3 In the mid 400s in Athens, however, killing female babies was commonplace.

As with other historical periods that have practiced female infanticide, its justification in Classical Athens was economic. A female baby would never be able to own property, or own land. No wealth would transfer through her down to a subsequent generation. She would not be able to attain any distinction in a career. At the time of her marriage, she would necessitate a dowry appropriate to her husband’s social class. The summit of her possible achievements would be to produce children – males were, again, very strongly preferred – and otherwise stay hidden from public life so as to not besmirch her husband’s civic reputation. Women – even citizen women – were thus sufficiently disenfranchised in classical Athens that twenty percent of them were simply killed at birth for being girls. This means that some of the male attendees of the first staging of the Oresteian trilogy had arranged for their newborn daughters to be killed. Some of Aeschylus’ audience in 458 had killed, or had arranged for their daughters to be killed, and this was normal. If their daughters survived, these daughters were subject to very different lives than those of their brothers.

In ancient Athens, male citizens’ sexual liberty began at an early age, and never ended. Men were generally supposed to be married around thirty, and girls, at the age of 14. Some later philosophers proposed a later date of marriage for women – the Spartan age was 18, and that certainly seemed to produce healthier young mothers and children. But whatever the exact numbers, men were marrying girls often half their age. The result was a higher rate of deaths in childbirth, and a huge experiential and educational gulf between men and their far younger wives. And the cycle was self-perpetuating. Probably the most famous instance of misogyny in early Greek literature is a poem by the seventh-century writer Semonides, in which Semonides elaborately catalogs women into different tribes – messy pigs, crafty foxes, noisy, intrusive dogs, dirt, donkeys, prissy mares, ugly monkeys, or, at best, industrious bees.4 When you have a system in which women are not educated, and men marry teens half their ages, it’s easy for intellectual discrepancies caused by culture to be mistaken for intellectual discrepancies caused by nature.

Young marriage and childbearing resulted in a gulf between the life expectancies of men and women in classical Greece, with men living an average of 45 years and women around 36.5 The hazards of being a very young mother were largely responsible for this discrepancy, but another reason was the extent to which female Athenian citizens were expected to be physically confined. Men’s lives were spent in the places that we today associate with classical Athens – the Agora, or marketplace, the gymnasium, and the public buildings on and around the Acropolis and Aeropagus. Their wives’ lives, however, were spent confined at home. Even within their own houses, they lived in rooms away from the street, and, if the house had multiple stories, in the highest one, furthest removed from contact with the outside world. Athenian wives, in order to emphasize their aristocratic pedigree, wore white lead makeup and frequently used parasols when on foot outdoors. But venturing forth was the exception, rather than the rule. A trip to the marketplace, or even public fountain, were – supposedly – opportunities for social intercourse that might lead to gossip or worse – extramarital affairs.

Modern Feminist Scholarship and the Olympian Pantheon

You’ve heard all this before, haven’t you? I mean even if you didn’t exactly know the specifics of classical Athens’ gender schism – and I haven’t gone into great detail, obviously – but even if you didn’t know the specifics, you recognize the general pattern. Men and women organized into rigidly separate containers, and the containers are built and configured by men. There are those who can go between them a bit – in the case of classical Athens it would predominately be an elite class of courtesans, like the statesman Pericles’ super awesome and famous lover Aspasia. Anyway, you know, there are people who can move between the two spheres, but the general pattern is that a cadre of elite, enfranchised men control the economic and sexual relations of everyone else to suit their own pleasures and the perpetuation of their social privileges.

Let’s get back to the first two plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy, Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers. The question Aeschylus’ readers have often asked is this. How did a muscular, self-determining character like Clytemnestra emerge from this heavily patriarchal society? Why are the powerful Furies – the divine agents of justice who exploded onto stage at the end of The Libation Bearers – why are these deities women? Speaking of such, if Athens was so obviously invested in the primacy of men, why was it named after Athena, and why were some of Athens’ most important rituals, like the annual Panathenaea, and the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the Thesmophoria, centered on the female deities Athena, Demeter, and Persephone?

Let’s talk about the deities first. People tend to remember ancient Greece’s deities. You’ve got the big-daddy lightning guy, the ocean guy, the smith guy, the wise owl chick born from the guy’s head, the war guy, the love girl, the jealous wife woman. There’s just something timelessly archetypal about these Olympian gods – we tend to remember them. But let me ask you something. Have you ever thought about the general differences between the men and women of Mount Olympus? The things that generally distinguish the girls from the boys? In the 1970s and 80s, scholarship started doing so – scholarship written about women in the ancient world.

So when you tell Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite, Poseidon, and the gang to stand in line from tallest to shortest, you don’t immediately distinguish different roles for the genders. There are gods who fight, like Zeus, and Ares. There are goddesses who fight, like Athena and Artemis. Gods and goddesses are engaged in marriages, like Zeus and Hera, or Aphrodite and Hephaestus. Gods and goddesses both secure alliances with mortals, helping mortals, and playing favorites during the Homeric epics. It actually seems rather progressive, doesn’t it? That Athena, wise and powerful patron of Odysseus and Athens – isn’t she an emblem of a commanding, confident woman if there ever was one?

Hmm. You’re free to say yes. But let me introduce you to a counterargument. Sarah Pomeroy’s book Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, which was first published in 1975, took a good, long look at the boys and girls of the Olympian pantheon and noticed some things. Stories of men who sleep around with mortals are all over the place. Zeus has sex with every single living thing on the planet. Slight exaggeration, but he’s such nymphomaniac that I had to write a song about him, back on Episode 8 – you remember this one? [Excerpt from “It is Time for Zeus to Have Sex.”] Sorry. So, the Greek myths are filled with stories of Zeus’ sexcapades. Similarly, Apollo spends a fair amount of time running around with his pants down. But more seriously, what about the girls? Well, Hera is married, and remains loyal to her untrustworthy husband. Aphrodite is married, and in one of the most famous myths about her, she has sex with Ares, but is caught in the act by her husband Hephaestus, and she’s humbled before the rest of the pantheon. Otherwise, Athena is a virgin. Artemis is a virgin. Hestia is a virgin. Demeter is a virgin. So among the girls, we have four virgins, one loyal wife, and one mostly loyal wife. And among the boys we have no virgins – just a bunch of sexually freewheeling men who more or less do what they want with impunity.

Enrique Simonet - El Juicio de Paris - 1904

Enrique Simonet’s El Juicio de Paris (1904). The core story behind the Trojan War – that long before The Libation Bearers, Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite voluntarily submitted themselves to a beauty pageant for the glittering Apple of Discord, doesn’t exactly suggest a trio of wise and sagacious goddesses.

When feminism started looking carefully at the Olympian Pantheon, what scholars like Sarah Pomeroy noticed was that the gender relations of this pantheon seemed to closely resemble the way that men and women were organized in Ancient Greece. Gender relations in Aeschylus’ time were structured to afford maximum enjoyment and freedom to male Athenian citizens at the expense of everyone else. A pithy statement by an orator whom scholars call Pseudo-Demosthenes sums up the situation of the Athenian male. This orator wrote, “We have mistresses for our enjoyment, concubines to serve our person, and wives for the bearing of legitimate offspring.”6 Now, this quote concisely demonstrates how Athenian males thought of female social classes. They thought of them primarily in terms of how each was to be used for sex. Mistresses, or educated prostitutes, were to be paraded around on social occasions. Concubines, probably house slaves, were to be used for immediate sexual gratification. And wives were to be confined at home and slept with around three times per month, a sufficient number, according to the laws of the Athenian lawmaker Solon, for the production of legitimate offspring.7

The bottom line is this. There was no reputable place in Ancient Greek society for a strong, capable, sexually experienced single woman. And accordingly, in the Greek pantheon there is no female Zeus. The closest we get, Hera, often seems like a blowsy housewife, confined and condemned to endure her husband’s eternal philandering. Athena, and for that matter Artemis, are powerful fighters. But being virgins, they are infantilized, or frozen in time. When you put them all together and see that four fifths of the female Olympian pantheon were virgins – when you see that Athens’ patron goddess Athena was part divine warrior, and partly a prepubescent tween wearing a promise ring – you can clearly see the religious side of the gender bias that pervaded Aeschylus’ civilization. Nothing against virgins, by the way – those of us who make that choice often do so for highly commendable reasons. It’s just that having a central female pantheon that’s 80% virginal is a very strange thing to do when your society certainly isn’t 80% virginal. So, now, let’s turn back to Aeschylus. [music]

Clytemnestra and Aeschylus’ Original Audience

We’ve been through the play, now, and we’ve covered a bit of ancient social history, but we still have a puzzle to solve. Who is Clytemnestra? Why is there a sexually self determining, confident woman smack dab in the middle of some of the most famous plays of Ancient Greece? Why does a woman get to take down Agamemnon, who is possibly the most hated character in the Iliad? As you can imagine, generations of readers, and critics, and theatergoers, and actresses who have played Clytemnestra onstage have wondered what her original audience might have thought of her.

There’s been a long critical discussion of whether we can think of Clytemnestra as a hero or villain, or whether she’s something in between. I don’t think that a summary of the tug-of-war of this critical discussion would be particularly riveting subject material for this show. I mean you’re here for Aeschylus, and not a technical synopsis of classical scholarship. So let’s just take what you’ve heard so far and establish some simple points about Clytemnestra.

It’s difficult to imagine that the men of classical Athens would have looked at Clytemnestra as a wronged heroine. Now, granted, Clytemnestra had lost her daughter to Agamemnon’s sacrifice. But Aeschylus’ original audience would have been full of men who believed that killing newborn daughters was acceptable for the optimal transference of one’s family wealth. This, ultimately, was what Agamemnon did when he killed his daughter – he eliminated a female obstacle that stood in the way of his profiteering. So while in our eyes Clytemnestra has a justifiable cause to seek revenge on her husband, in the eyes of a mostly male audience of 458 BCE, Clytemnestra really ought to have just stood down, stayed in the palace, and meekly awaited her husband’s homecoming.

Her open adultery, similarly, would have been intolerable. Males, as we talked about a minute ago, could do almost whatever they wanted, sexually, including, of course, each other. But for a female at the summit of a Greek city state, to join with a bitter rival of her husband – this was an offense just as bad as killing the king. Aeschylus’ original audience, whose culture sought to limit female agency and meticulously regulate female sexuality, this audience would have seen Clytemnestra’s regicide and adultery as unforgivable.

Golden Age Athens and Theories of Gestation

This episode is called “A Mother’s Curse,” and we’ve talked a lot about what it was like to be a woman, and a mother in classical Athens, and the expectations placed on an aristocratic woman like Clytemnestra. But there’s something we haven’t talked about in terms of motherhood in classical Athens, and that is what Athenians believed about conception and gestation. Have you heard about this before? It’s pretty entertaining. And by entertaining, I mean bonkers. I mean a lot of the medical theories of bygone ages are pretty amusing – if you’re feeling sick in Chaucer’s London, you go to the barber and you get bled. If you’re worried about your psychology in Balzac’s Paris, head over to the phrenologist and have him finger your skull and tell you what kind of a person you are. And if you’re feeling unhappy in Edith Wharton’s New York, just ask your husband to send you to a sanitarium, and whatever you do, for god’s sakes don’t get any fresh air or get exercise. Anyway, somehow – somehow even crazier than all of these is the Ancient Greek idea of how babies are made, and carried to term. Now, we don’t know if everyone believed this across the board, but this is Ancient Greece’s most famous surviving theory on gestation. You ready for this?

Our most famous source for this theory is actually Aeschylus himself, and the final play of the Oresteian trilogy, coming up in the next show. We’re not there yet, but it doesn’t matter. Basically, near the end of the third play, the god Apollo takes it on himself to explain how motherhood works. His explanation? Well, it’s perfectly rational and scientifically accurate. He says there’s no such thing as motherhood. So, here is Apollo’s dictum on motherhood, from the play we’re going to cover next time:
The woman you call the mother of the child
is not the parent, just a nurse to the seed,
the new-sown seed that grows and swells inside her.
The man is the source of life – the one who mounts.
She, like a stranger for a stranger, keeps
the shoot alive unless god hurts the roots.
I give you proof that all I say is true.
The father can father forth without a mother.
Here she stands, our living witness. (260-1)

And at this Apollo gestures to Athena, (who’s standing there in that scene) who was, according to legend, born directly from Zeus, without the aid of a woman. So, again, for clarification the theory is that women are just inert incubators for male seeds, and males are the root of all human life. And you can imagine Athena, awkwardly standing there and saying, “That’s right, women have no reproductive powers. Hooray! We’re just fleshy sacks that hold the divine attar of men. Oh, it’s great, isn’t it?”

Well, it’s easy to poke fun at the scientifically uninformed past. I’m sure someone will be doing it to us some day. To make fun of ridiculous theories like this one. But then, going on what they had to work with, the Ancient Greeks who concocted and believed in this theory, including, it seems, Aeschylus himself, were doing the best that they could. The theory that they generated egregiously devalues the female role in the reproductive cycle. I mean I wonder what they thought happened when a blue eyed father and a brown eyed mother produced a brown eyed baby. But however we view it in hindsight, this theory of conception and gestation was prevalent in 458 BCE, and to Aeschylus’ contemporaries, it made the killing of a king, who gave life, a far severer crime than the killing of a queen, who merely nurtured life. The second class role ascribed to women as a result of this ancient theory is, I think, one of the many things compressed into Queen Clytemnestra’s dying words to her son about “a mother’s curse.” In ancient Athens, mothers were not only cursed to confinement and surrogate citizenship. They were cursed, according to ancient scientific theory, into not being mothers in the modern sense at all. [music]

Coda: Helen, the Dark Angel

I’ve been making a lot of this new instrumental music on lunch breaks and after work and stuff, and it’s been a blast. So, anyway, we’ve spent a fair amount of time, now, arriving at the rather unsurprising discovery that classical Athens had a broadly antifeminist culture, and that its paramount theatrical productions generally reflect this antifeminism. I know, it’s absolutely shocking, isn’t it? That works of literature often bear the imprints of the cultures that produce them? I hope along the way, though, you learned something new about the citizenry of one of the ancient world’s most famous places and times. The images that we conjure up when we think of classical Athens – the democracy, the marketplace, the architectural marvels atop the Acropolis, the marvelous harbors – these images are filled with men. Men controlled the nominal democracy of this city, and women, if they survived the culling at birth and the perils of early teenage pregnancies, were consigned to second and third class citizenship.

But as a coda, let’s look at one last thing in Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers before we go on to the final play. We have heard the story of how Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon, the man whom not even Achilles or Hector could kill. Notwithstanding the prejudices of classical Athens, when we read Clytemnestra’s story today, she’s still a magnetic, and captivating presence in the story. And behind Clytemnestra is another female character. This second female character is referenced often in the Oresteian trilogy. She hangs behind the story like a dark angel. She is the thing over which the Trojan War was fought. She is Clytemnestra’s sister. And she’s most commonly known to us as Helen of Troy.

References to Clytemnestra’s sister Helen are all over the Oresteia plays. In a famous passage from the first play, Agamemnon, the chorus compares Helen to a lion. Now, lion similes are all over the Homeric epics. They’re used so often that they eventually get tiresome. Agamemnon fights like a lion. Achilles is as ferocious as a lion. Hector is as undaunted as lion. Blah blah blah. Big men, biceps, manly grunts, lion similes, blood, more lion similes. But Helen’s lion simile is different. Here’s the chorus talking about Helen, and comparing her to a lion. [music]
So a man once reared
a lion cub at hall, snatched
from the breast, still craving milk
in the first flush of life.
A captivating pet for the young,
and the old men adored it, pampered it
in their arms, day in, day out,
like an infant just born.
Its eyes on fire, little beggar,
fawning for its belly, slave to food.

But it came of age
and the parent strain broke out
and it paid its breeders back.
Grateful it was, it went
through the flock to prepare a feast,
an illicit orgy – the house swam with blood,
none could resist that agony –
massacre vast and raw! (130-1)

Thanks again to Penguin and Robert Fagles for this translation. So in those lines, Helen is a baby lion, and she’s taken in and coddled, until a point at which it realizes its true nature, and she tears her keepers to pieces. The old men of Argos, as they speak these lines, obviously remember the dark inferno of the Trojan War, and they express their shock at how something so comely and so pleasant, and so seemingly harmless could ultimately send so many people to Hades.

Later in the same play, after Agamemnon has been murdered, the elders of Argos blame the murder squarely on Helen. The elders say:[music]
Woman made him suffer, woman struck him down.
Helen the wild, maddening Helen, one for the many,
the thousand lives you murdered under Troy,
Now you are crowned with this consummate wreath,
the blood that lives in memory, glistens age to age.
Once in the halls she walked and she was war,
angel of war, angel of agony, lighting men to death.

So, here, the chorus tells a familiar story. Just like Eve ate that apple, or Pandora appeared with her jar, Helen committed an initial indiscretion that doomed legions of people to suffering and death. It’s all her fault, the chorus emphasizes – it’s all because of a woman. Only, Clytemnestra won’t hear any of it.
Pray no more for death, [Clytemnestra tells the old men] broken as you are.
And never turn your wrath on her, call her
the scourge of men, the one alone
who destroyed a myriad Greek lives—
Helen the grief that never heals. . .
Now you set your judgment straight. (164)

In these lines – these wonderful lines – Clytemnestra shows that she knows what all of us who have read the Iliad know. The Trojan War had many causes. A major cause was that the super-macho Atreus brothers, Agamemnon and Menelaus, wrangled together a bloated army to go and retrieve Menelaus’ wife Helen. So Helen does bear some responsibility. But when Clytemnestra hears her sister being maligned as the sole cause, she vituperates the elders for blaming the most terrible war in Greek literature on her sister Helen. Clytemnestra knows her sister’s role in the war was powerful, but Clytemnestra vents her disgust that the old men are using Helen for a sole scapegoat. Of the many things to like about Clytemnestra, Clytemnestra’s loyalty to her sister, and her refusal to let men explain away the Trojan War as the misdeed of a woman are high on the list. [music]

Theater’s First Strong, Independent Female Lead?

One of the things that literary critics do is that we engage in a bit of wishful thinking. We look into the literary archive and we try to find things that are more agreeable to our worldview. So when we read the Oresteian trilogy, one of the things that we look for is some sense that the author is, on some level, aware of the inhumane ways in which women were treated in classical Athens. We would love to find some section in Aeschylus’ plays that definitively shows him questioning his city’s social injustices, and doing something other than repeating Iron Age rubbish about men mounting women and planting seeds in them.

We’d like to find this. But although Clytemnestra and Helen are giants in Greek drama, and although Clytemnestra has some of the most powerful monologues in theatrical history, each woman is showered with venom throughout the pages of ancient Greek literature. World theater, to my knowledge, wouldn’t see an unequivocal heroine who disregards the bounds of marital regulation until Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House premiered in 1879. Clytemnestra might be a heroine to us today. She certainly gets a high five from me for offing that abhorrent bastard, Agamemnon. But it would take world drama another 2,337 years before audiences were ready for a good old, regular, non-virginal, human woman who freed herself from the confines of an oppressive marriage and then went on with her life.

Moving on to The Eumenides

We’ve got one more to go. But already, there’s a sense in the Oresteian trilogy that things can improve. One of The Libation Bearers’ opening lines is Clytemnestra’s daughter Electra’s prayer, in which the younger woman says, “Hear me, make me far more self-possessed than mother, make this hand more pure” (183). Electra and Orestes, at the point of the story where we are right now, are the last living descendants of the House of Atreus. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and almost everyone of their generation, have killed and maimed and demeaned one another with such cruelty that it’s hard to imagine their children acting with any degree of forbearance or kindness. The Libation Bearers ends with the last scions of the House of Atreus facing annihilation – the Furies, it seems, will destroy the young murderer Orestes, and Electra will also, somehow succumb to the violent fate that has plagued everyone in her family.

Or will they? The final play in the Oresteian trilogy is a play about hope, the tale of a brother and a sister who stand by one another even in the face of persecuting gods. We won’t find any thoroughly modern heroes or heroines in the pages of ancient Greek drama. But we’ll still find a brilliant and satisfying story – a story about an entire civilization graduating from the sword clashing vigilante justice of the Trojan War to the more sustainably structured justice system of the world’s first democracy. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and if you want to hear it, I’ve got a song for you. Otherwise, see you soon.

Still here? Really? Thanks! I always have fun putting these songs together. So, this time, I got to thinking. Got to thinking about the House of Atreus – that madhouse of incest and murder and all that, and what it must have been like to be born in that house – as the children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. And I thought, what if Orestes and his sister Electra took all their experiences – everything about their family, and sung a song about these experiences? What kind of a song would it be? And I thought hmm. Murder. Clannish blood feuds. Incest. It sounded a bit like the Appalachian local color fiction I studied in graduate school at one point. So I wrote this bluegrass song, in which Orestes and Electra, together, sing all about their family history, and why this family history has made them into who they are. This one’s called, “The Oresteian Hoedown.” I hope that whatever you’re doing, it makes you laugh, and I’ll be bringing you the end of the Oresteian trilogy very soon.

1.^ Aeschylus. The Orestia. Translated by Robert Fagles, with an Introductory Essay, Notes and Glossary by Robert Fagles and W.B. Stanford. New York: Penguin Books, 1979. Kindle edition, p. 177. Further references are noted parenthetically.

2.^ Golden, Mark. “The Exposure of Girls at Athens,” Phoenix 35 (1981): 316-31.

3.^ Diodorus Siculus and Tacitus report that, according to Sarah Pomeroy, “Jews, Egyptians, and Germanic tribes did not practice infanticide.” See Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, location 95.

4.^ See Semonides, Fragment 7, in Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Kindle Edition, locations 808-953.

5.^ See Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, p. 68.

6.^ Quoted in Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, p. 8.

7.^ Plutarch, Life of Solon, 20.3.