Thursday, June 4, 2015

the only really innocent characters

Why, after more than 2500 years, do people still read the ancient Greek tragedies? Because they are amazing, living things, charged with the electric urgency of human existence. Even when the dramatists are not speaking of humans.

I just read Aeschylus' trilogy "The Oresteia," the story of the royal family of Argos in the thrall of capricious and childish gods, gods with no pity for mankind, gods who have upset the old order of the universe and co-opt simple justice, replacing it with something else. The rule of divine right, maybe. Aeschylus writes, it could be argued, a subtle tale of the evil of Zeus and his Olympians, a poisoning of the Earth. I'm not sure that's what I want to write about here, though. In part it is. We'll see how far I take that idea.

Mostly I'm still very excited by the Furies, the trio of pre-Olympian supernatural creatures, female figures with snakes growing out of their heads, monsters who are charged to punish those who murder their parents. The Furies are called from the bowels of the earth by the death of Clytemnestra at the hands of her son, Orestes. Everyone thinks of the Furies as horrific beasts, mindless and inexorable and bloodthirsty. Aeschylus presents them in "The Eumenides", however, as something more like trained animals, single- and simple-minded hunting dogs, maybe. In fact, when we first see the Furies, they are lying on the floor of Apollo's temple, at the feet of Orestes, who sits in the supplicant's chair. The Furies moan and cry out in their sleep, like dogs in tortured dreams. They are not forces of evil despite the claims of Orestes, Apollo and Athena (unless, like the Olympians, you define "evil" as "moving against the will of the gods"). What they are is pure vengeance, a force to put fear into the heart of men, protectors of the sanctity of blood relation.

During their debates with Apollo about Orestes' guilt, the Furies speak only the truth, list only facts about Orestes' actions. Apollo argues fine points of philosophy, as does Athena, and the two young Olympians get Orestes off on a technicality unrelated to the crime at hand (as well as threats and bribes to the jury) in a show trial with a dozen Athenian men as jurors (hand-picked by Athena, who declares that she is of course prejudiced in Orestes' favor). The facts of the case, as put forward by the Furies and stipulated to by Orestes himself, are never at issue. What matters here is the will of Apollo and the irrelevance of the old powers, the claim that the Furies have no place in the new world of the Olympian gods. The Furies are baffled, confused and aware of their having been cheated, and quake with anger. They are furious.
I am dishonoured of you, thrust to scorn!
But heavily my wrath
Shall on this land fling forth the drops that blast and burn,
Venom of vengeance, that shall work such scathe
As I have suffered; where that dew shall fall,
Shall leafless blight arise,
Wasting Earth's offspring,-justice, hear my call!-
And thorough all the land in deadly wise
Shall scatter venom, to exude again
In pestilence on men.
What cry avails me now, what deed of blood,
Unto this land what dark despite?
Alack, alack, forlorn
Are we, a bitter injury have borne!
Alack, O sisters, O dishonoured brood
Of mother Night!
[...] I, I dishonoured in this earth to dwell,-
Ancient of days and wisdom! I breathe forth
Poison and breath of frenzied ire. O Earth,
Woe, woe for thee, for me!
From side to side what pains be these that thrill?
Hearken, O mother Night, my wrath, mine agony!
They are also, strangely, the only really innocent characters in the trilogy. By "innocent," I might mean that they follow set rules, they do not act for personal reasons. The entire storyline of the Trojan war is one of prideful action followed by prideful counter-reaction, murder done to avenge murder, murders and wars and betrayals committed under the influence of prideful Olympians whose sole interest is in buttressing their fragile vanity. The Olympians are a prissy, preening lot who use the history of mankind as a brutal game of one-upmanship. The ancient fixed moral system is replaced by a situational ethics, a moral relativism where the biggest god trumps all, and good and evil are reduced to winning and losing in the name of the gods. The Olympians usher in an age where a guy like Odysseus, all vanity and lies, can be a hero. The Furies' teeth are extracted and the tamed Eumenides are led underground once again, to sit beneath the Parthenon and scare Athenians into obeying the new young gods.


  1. The Furies, like the Fates, remind me of why the ancient Greeks fascinated me: they accepted something like "predestination," but they persisted in their agon (struggle) against all that they otherwise accepted; in other words, they were coming to grips with what it meant to be human rather than what it meant to be "puppets of the gods." We see a similar tension in Judeo-Christian thought. Too simple? Perhaps.

    1. I don't think Judeo-Christian thought involves a struggle against divine will.

      I do see in Greek theater the idea that humanity does not fit well into a world where gods run amok (or vice versa). Aeschylus makes a good argument against the sin of pride and in favor of the virtue of forgiveness, which seems a very non-ancient Greek idea. I don't know enough about Athens in 500 BC to know if the audience also bridled against the will of the gods, or if Aeschylus was being revolutionary and heretical. But there's something pure in the way the Greeks revealed character in these plays, something oddly more realistic than, or at least quite different from, the way character is revealed in Shakespeare.

    2. Calvin, Puritans, Saul/Paul, and Job would be starting points for my discussion of the Judeo-Christian agon. I could then discuss Hazel Motes, Captain Ahab, and the priest in Greene's The Power and the Glory. Sophocles gets more obvious in the Greek agon. But enough for now.

    3. No, no, you're confusing men who struggle under their misconceptions of God with men who struggle against God. Which is understandable, as you do that with yourself also, your "Christian in spite of himself" being far more valuable for the spite than Christ, as you clearly give great personal value to doing battle against religion. But again, that's really got nothing to do with God.

      Try Jacob and the angel for a real example.

    4. Let's stay focused on others. My agon is not relevant. I will more closely examine Jacob and the angel; however, I remember a book on wrestling with angels that I ought to dig out and revisit.

      Greeks in the golden age of drama were poised to move away from blind acceptance of deities and toward belief in human freedom to make decisions. It was a dynamic era.

      I also understand Christianity owes a lot to Plato. Hmmmm.

    5. Thomist theology owes a lot to Aristotle. Certainly there have been Platonist theologians, including Augustine of Hippo. I don't see how that leads you to any Christian agon.

      The agon you ascribe to the ancient Greeks is not an agon found within Christianity. It is certainly an agon found in Western cultures. But again, Christianity already encompasses free will.

      "My agon is not relevant." Hahah, good one, Tim.

  2. None of this is as interesting as the portrayal of the Furies in the Oresteia, though.