Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Aeschylus' Oresteia: An Interpretive Approach through a Semiotic Analysis

What is the meaning of life? Why should we be good? What is being good? Why does suffering exist...?

These are all existential questions that seem to exist deep down in the depths of the collective conscience of mankind. In every culture we can see that various answers and explanations to these deep-seeded questions are provided handily to its members so that they might live in harmony instead of constant consternation. We need these answers to live, because without them life is rendered an imponderable mystery, of happenings and experiences, 'without rhyme or reason'. It is culture that orients us to the world by giving it meaning. As Shakespeare, in his inimitable prose, famously wrote “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances...” If we adopt this notion of the world as a stage, and life as a play, then we can think of culture as being our script—it is the thing that gives meaning and shape to our actions, thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and beliefs; it, in short, gives an essence to our ethos. In the same sense that music gives meaning to sound, dance to gesture, and language to utterance, it is culture that gives meaning to life. Man uses culture to make sense of the senseless, to rationalize the irrational, to establish order in the face of disorder, and to comprehend what is otherwise the incomprehensible. It is this process that enables man to act meaningfully. By attributing a particular meaning to, as Dewey eloquently put it, “the ongoing experience of things,” man is imbued with a certain drive, a sense of purpose to his life which he can therefore act upon and in accordance with.

In the Oresteia, the ancient Greek play written by Aeschylus, we can see just how influential culture is on both the minds and the actions of man. Moreover, the Oresteia serves as a snap-shot, a rudimentary ethnography if you will, of the world-view and ethos embodied by the individuals who lived in that time and place. In that sense, then, the Oresteia is clearly a play that was both written by and for its cultural context. For many this news is unsettling because it means that we can never quite capture the true meaning or interpretation of the play, since our interpretations will always be secondary ones, which, even more questionably, rely upon the reconstruction of ancient Greek interpretations based upon whatever texts we determine to be relevant. In other words, our interpretations will always be merely interpretations of interpretations. This need not, however, be cause for despair, for there are still deeper truths which we can extract from reading this play. Personally, this play is important because it documents a particular people and culture, which could have otherwise been lost and therefore forgotten. It is in this vain that I hope to gain, through an analysis of this play, rough insights into, not only the way in which these people perceived their world, but the way in which they acted, felt, and thought, which is to say, the way in which they lived within their world.

Much has already been said on the Oresteia and in this paper I intend to include a few of these interpretations of the play that have been provided over the years to support my own analysis. The literature on this play, however, largely consists of interpretations that have been reached through a literary or classicistic lens. Although most interpretations differ interpretively, which is to say, they reach different conclusions, the more recent interpretations, such as Goldhill (who is much more anthropological), do not substantively differ from my own, though I will reframe his conclusions hopefully in a more illuminating light.

The early and even more modern analyses focused their interpretations on things such as characters, events, structures, themes, moods, motives, attitudes, beliefs, and/or political and social messages intended by the author. Some interpretations are wide in scope, covering the entire Oresteia, while others are much more specific (to one of the plays in the trilogy, or a character, theme, ode, etc). The result of this myriad approach to interpreting the text is that their conclusions are, not surprisingly, as vast as they are varying. It is clear, however, that what they share in common is the fact that they all seek to ascribe some meaning to or explanation of each aforementioned concept to determine what, exactly, they play (or the author) is saying. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, for instance, in his article The Guilt of Agamemnon, offers an exceptionally well-written expose on the topic of justice in the first play, The Agamemnon, and shows the extent to which the characters in this play become tragically trapped in inescapable moral dichotomies of to do or to don't (Lloyd-Jones 1962). Another view, mostly eloquently expressed by H.D.F. Kitto, but best summarized by Goldhill, see in the Oresteia “a transformation from dike as revenge to dike as legal justice—a move from the bloody repetition of vendetta to the ordered world of the polis and its institutions” (Goldhill 1992: p.32). The Oresteia is thus seen as being a sort of myth of origin of an institutionalized legal system—“a charter for the city” (ibid. p.32). I find Goldhill’s analysis of the play, found in his wonderful book Aeschylus, the Oresteia, to be the most comprehensive because he uses the cultural context that the play was written in to shape his interpretation.

What is clear is that most of these interpretations clearly address the question of 'what is the play saying' through a literary or classicistic lens. My aim is to answer this question by explaining what the play is inherently doing from an anthropological perspective. Through an analysis of the play I wish to demonstrate the extent to which culture determines or at least heavily counsels the thoughts and actions of men.

Max Weber suggested that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance which he himself has spun. And I, like Geertz, “take culture to be these webs”. Culture is, in more definitive terms, and as Geertz put it quite simply, “a system of meanings embodied in symbols.” In this paper I will employ Geertz's symbolic analysis approach, which he used to analyze culture, to analyze Aeschylus' Oresteia, with the intention of constructing my own interpretation of the play. My interpretation will be thus based upon the interpretative representation and—judged by popularity—possible reflection of most of Aechylus' fellow citizens world-view and ethos. My interpretation, however, will be developed using the lens of modern anthropological insight. I intend to treat the Oresteia as a sort of Ethnography, a material document that is itself a symbol which can be used to reconstruct a people’s world-view and ethos.

The Oresteia is riddled with cultural symbols which I will try to point out, but my main goal is to render an interpretation of the Oresteia based upon its cultural background. I do not intend to offer a final verdict or conclusion of what the play is saying, but rather, through my contribution of yet another interpretive approach, hopefully add to the refinement of the ongoing debate. If nothing else I simply wish to show how the Oresteia offers a unique contribution to the ongoing social discourse, composed of the various and varying interpretations of man across time and space, regarding the true meaning of, and way of living, life. My interpretation will focus on many of the same things that Goldhill has focused on, in particular the construction of gender roles, metaphysics, and morality, but will differ in both scope and results (due to the formula of approach) from much of the other literary interpretations of the play.

Based on my reading of the Oresteia I have singled out three aspects which I think will usefully shape the rest of this paper's topics. The first aspect is that the play offers a model-of reality (the real reality of the world or a world-view). The second is that it provides or proposes a model-for reality (a specific life style and particular ethos). The third aspect is that problems or calamities all seem to stem from the apparent conflict between the first two aspects—between the approved style of life and the assumed structure of reality (not surprising of Greek tragedy in particular, and cultural systems in general). I will focus on each of these individually and show how they color the events, attitudes, feelings, actions, and beliefs that emerge as the play unfolds.

Let the doer suffer . . . (Cho. 313)

The plot of the Oresteia primarily revolves around the two pervasive themes of revenge and justice. Revenge, in the Oresteia, appears to be a socially appropriate way of seeking justice. It is also seen as having a patterned and understood reason of occurrence, as opposed to being a random or barbaric act of passion. This conception of revengeful justice is clearly expressed in the choral ode of the Libation Bearers, where the chorus says “as she demands her due loud cries the voice of Justice; 'for murderous stroke let murderous stroke atone'. 'Let the doer suffer'; so goes a saying three times ancient” (Cho. 311-14). This pattern of revenge, where the doer suffers what he deserves, also creates, as Goldhill points out, a “pattern of reversal, where the very act of taking revenge repeatedly turns the revenger into an object of revenge” (Goldhill 1992: p.27). In other words, as a line in a song from a local Montreal band, the Stars, goes, “killers always have killers on their tracks.” This conception of justice is evidently subscribed to by the main actors in the trilogy and heavily influences their actions, feelings, and sentiments. I will thus treat revenge and justice (to the Greeks, two faces of the same coin) as a symbol and briefly demonstrate how it affects the structure and outcome of each play in the trilogy.

In the first play, the Agamemnon, the king, to which the play is named, is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra after returning home victorious from a ten-year siege on the city of Troy. The queen's motive was clearly anger, because her husband had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia. But the queen feels her act is socially justified because she is exacting revenge in the approved light of justice. The king killed their daughter, so she therefore has the right to kill the king. Her act is wrong, however, because her conception of justice is, as the Greeks always like to say, off the mark. Iphigenia was sacrificed to allow the fleet to set sail towards Troy in order to avenge the taking of Helen, Menealaus' wife (Agamemnon's brother) and thus breaking of the covenant of host and guest, by Paris, prince of Troy. It is clear from the chorus of this play that the mission the two sons of Atreus were sent out to accomplish was considered just. They compare Agamemnon and Menelaus to the Erinys, sent to exact justice on the “transgressors” with the support of the divinities, including Zeus, the guardian “of host and guest” and head honcho of the divinities (58-64). Thus, whereas Agamemnon's sacrifice is considered just because it was a necessary act that enabled him to accomplish divine commands and restore the social/cosmic order of host and guest, Clytemnestra's act is denuded of this divine garb of legitimacy and is therefore rendered a naked act of shameless passion.

The need to sacrifice Iphigenia not only shows an obligation to restore the assumed order, but also shows how this obligation to do what is considered right or just can, consequently, produce intense inner emotions of grief and lead to later troubles. This can be seen in lines 206-211 where Agamemnon expresses his extreme consternation over his seemingly inescapable moral dilemma: “A grievous doom is disobedience, and a grievous doom it is if I massacre my daughter, the pride of my house, polluting with streams of slaughtered maiden's blood a father's hands hard by the altar. What of these courses is free from evil?” Conflict thus arises because the the model-of reality, how the world actually is (its divine-social structure), does not match up with an agreeable model-for reality (Agamemnon is obligated by the former reality to carry out the act, however unwilling; there is a sense that he must do it). It is my suggestion that this ought that governs Agamemnon's actions stems from the is of his conceptual reality.

In the second play, the Libation Bearers, the pattern of justice through reciprocal violence is continued. Cytemnestra and Aegisthus, her adulterous lover and coconspirator in the plot to kill Agamemon, are killed by Orestes and Electra, the son and coconspirating daughter. In lines 298-302 we get a powerful sense of why Orestes feels he must commit the act of matricide “Such were the oracles; and I must not believe them? Even if I lack belief, the deed must be done. For many longings move to one end; so do the god's command and my great sorrow for my father' and moreover I am hard pressed by the want of my possessions.” These lines express the overlap between cultural concepts and personal sentiments and emotions. It is for both divine and personal reasons that Orestes feels obligated to do what must be done. (What he does not realize, however, is that his internal emotions are, if not sparked, at least shaped by the cultural concepts he has inherited regarding justice). Goldhill suggests that these lines express the fact that in the eyes of Orestes he “is fulfilling the god's command to exact vengeance,” but he has reservations and hesitancies because “he is also being forced to kill within his own family” (Goldhill 1992: p.24) My reading of these lines is that Orestes sees congruence between his personal wants and the decree of the divine command for revenge. There is, however, noticeable hesitation later on in the play at having to commit the matricidal act, but in the final climatic scene where he is about to deliver the final blow his intentions are clear: “You killed whom you ought not, now suffer what you ought not” (Cho. 930). Thus, once again the act of vengeance is carried out in the name of ought (the act ought to be done because it is seen as being right in the eyes of those who see revenge to be a just reality). And once again the act of revenge clearly has suffering consequences, as Orestes becomes haunted by the Furies. “The hunter is now the hunted” (Goldhill 1992: p. 30).

In the third play, the Eumenides, the Furies follow the blood-stained scent of Orestes all the way to Athens where a trial court has been established. A panel of judges hears his case, reach a stale mate in votes, and it is left to Athena to settle Orestes' innocence once and for all. Resting on her vote is the very concept of justice. The Furies represent the old mores of 'the doer must suffer', vendetta-type justice', whereas the trial that has been set up represents the new mores of Athens in which an individual is punished based on his responsibility and in the light of a socially approved considerations. Athena votes in favor of Orestes and gives what is, to the modern reader, a rather unsatisfactory explanation of why she voted to free him from the Furies, which thus allows him to escape death and the cycle of reciprocal violence. This outcome in the final play has perplexed a few and concluded for many what the Oresteia is saying, which is, as summarized by Goldhill, that “on both the human and the divine level there is in the final scenes of the trilogy a move away from bloody conflict where each victory leads to disastrous transgression towards an institution and practice that aim to resolve conflict without transgressive destructiveness” (ibid p. 30). I largely agree with this interpretation. The final scenes seem to represent a profound shift in the conception of justice from the 'doer must suffer' to the more legalistic 'doer must be tried'. This also pars well with the cultural context of Athens at the time this play was written. According to Goldhill an obligation or 'commitment to the polis' was a popularly held sentiment and the citizens of Athens in particular felt that there was an ought to act for the good of the polis instead of themselves. The establishment of a court system in which citizens voted on the outcome of fellow citizens clearly demonstrates this sense of communalism.

The female is the murderer of the male . . . (Cho. 1231).

Another pervasive symbol found in the Oresteia is the conception (or what we anthropologists like to call the construction) of gender. Every conflict that occurs in the Oresteia is between male and female counterparts. In the first play Agamemnon is sent by Zeus, a god, to lay siege upon Troy but is held up at port by Artemis, a goddess. As a result Agamemnon, the father, has to sacrifice Iphigenia, the daughter. Then King Agamemnon, the husband, comes home victorious, but is tricked and killed by Queen Clytemnestra, the wife. In the Libation Bearers, Orestes, the son, avenges his father and kills Clytemnestra, the mother. In the Eumenides Apollo, a god, takes responsibility for Orestes' matricidal act and protects him from the Furies, female divinities. The trial at the end of the play also turns on gender related issues, specifically kinship, a topic which I will address later on, because I find it particularly interesting. From these examples it is clear that in the Oresteia there is a clash of, not Huntington's civilizations, but Aeschylus' gender conceptions.

The clash of genders, however, is more a clash within the female-male gender constructs than it is between them, even though a quick reading of the play would make this statement seem erroneous. Based on my reading it is the characters who do not conform to their socially accepted gender roles, most notably Clytemnestra, that seem to be the most socially disruptive threats to the fabric of social order. In the first scene of the Oresteia Clytemnestra's apparent lack of conformity to the dispositions of her gender is suggested by the Watchman who is “watching for the signal of the torch, the gleam of fire bringing news from Troy, and the tidings of her capture; for such is the rule of a woman's man-counseling heart, ever hopeful, heart” (Aga. 10-11). Goldhill translates this passage to 'such is the authority of the man-plotting heart of the woman'. While these two translations seem to be different in tone they both emphasize a seemingly agreeable interpretation: Clytemnestra' command is unusual because she is, namely, a she. Goldhill's analysis of a female's status at the time under the patriarchal society would seem to support the interpretation that this authoritative command coming from a female would have indeed stood out as uncommon or unusual in the audiences' mind—as the words 'female' and 'power' were clearly not synonymous, nor were they even associated with one another. Moreover, according to Goldhill the adjective he translated to 'man-plotting' can mean both 'plotting like a man' and 'plotting against a man'. This “double sense is significant: for a woman to plot like a man – and thus aim at the position of authority – is inevitably to plot against man: against the established order of patriarchy” (Goldhill 1992: p. 37).

Clytemnestra's ability to walk, talk, and act like a man is mentioned on several occasions during the rest of the play. When Clytemnestra appears before the chorus in the Agamemnon they say “I have come, Clytemnestra, in reverence for your power; for it is right to honor the wife of a king when the throne has been made empty of the male” (258-260), which suggests that the only reason Clytemnestra is granted any authority at all is because her husband, a king, is absent. In line 351 the chorus again says to Clytemnestra “Woman you are speaking like a sensible man.” In the scene where Clytemnestra is trying to persuade Agamemnon to walk on the tapestries he says to her “It is not a woman's part to desire battle” (940). This repeated association of Clytemnestra with male attributes suggests that she is certainly not the ideal or stereotypical female that the audience would have expected.

Goldhill suggests that the role of the female in daily life at the time this play was written was indeed very limited. A female was expected to stay inside the house and the only time she could speak in public was during a religious ceremony or in a religious context (i.e. prophecy). Clytemnestra, then, is clearly not the ideal submissive stay-at-home mom and it is both her pursuit for power by deception, persuasion, and guile through the manipulation of language and her sexual corruptness that make her a threat to the social patriarchal order.

In the Oresteia it is always the woman who represents the catalyst of calamity. It is the female who lets her passions get the best of her, followed by a male who has to restore the order. Helen commits adultery and runs away with Paris, Agamemnon is sent by Zeus to lay siege upon Troy respectively. His leave allows Clytemnestra to “dare the undareable” by having an affair with Aegisthus. When he returns he is killed by Clytemnestra for an act that was caused by Helen. Thus, the main calamities that take place in the Oresteia can be causally attributed to the licentious female. This view of the adulterous female seems to have been a common one at that time: “The common ideological association of the woman with the inside of the house is represented repeatedly in Greek writing as a necessary response to the threat of women's desires leading to adultery' and this adultery is represented as a threat to the secure pattern of male inheritance within a patriarchal social system” (Goldhill 1992: p.39). Within the play itself we find evidence of this conception of the female gender: “the desperate passions of women without scruple, fellows of the spirits that wreak ruin among mortals? Unions in wedlock are perverted by the victory of shameless passion, mastering the female, among beasts and men” (Cho. 596-601). Clytemnestra is clearly the embodiment of this licentious threat of shameless passion.

Lastly, there seems to be another appearing pattern that emerges in the play: men act in accordance with and for the good of the polis, while women act in accordance with their passions and for the good of themselves. I think Goldhill puts this point best, so I’ll give him credit by quoting him in full:

“At each point in these conflicts the female tends towards the support of a position and arguments that are based on values of ties of blood to the point of the rejection of the ties of society, whereas the male tends to support a wider outlook of social relations to the exclusion of the claims of family and blood. Thus Agamememnon sacrifices his own daughter, 'glory of the household', to enable the panhellenic fleet to sail. He rejects his duties as a father to maintain his position in society as king and leader of an international military force. Clytemnestra rejects the social tie of marriage, both by killing her husband and by her adultery, in part at least to avenge her daughter. Orestes rejects that apparently most 'natural' of blood ties, between mother and son, to regain his patrimony and reassert the social order of patriarchy. Apollo is a god of state religion, the great civilizer from the international oracle at Delphi. The Furies are depicted as female who seem ready to ignore any claim of society in their pursuit of those who have killed their own kin, their own blood” (Goldhill 1992: p. 42).
This is not a surprising theme to emerge from a male writer who wrote in a patriarchal society. It is what anthropologists refer to as 'the myth of matriarchy overturned' which Goldhill defines as “a story that tells of the overthrow of female authority or female search for power as a way of justifying the continuing status quo of male authority in society (ibid p.45). Every sub-system in culture albeit religion, politics, ideology, etc. uses symbols such as these to maintain their own existence by providing an acceptable world-view and approved way of operating within the context of that world-view. In this case women are seen as untrustworthy and unable to control their passions, so there is a cultural need to restrain them by relegating them to the household and a need to lessen their power and authority. In other words, the maintenance of their oppression rests upon the myth of their gendered dispositions!

On a final, gender related note, I'd just like to draw some attention to the trial scene in the Eumenides where Apollo lays out his explanation for why the male is the true begetter of progeny. In anthropology we lump socio-family relations and relatedness into the category known as kinship. In this play kinship relations comes up, but I could not quite grasp their conception of relatedness. In line 606 Orestes ask the Furies “And have I the same blood as my mother?” And they respond in turn “How else did she nourish you under her girdle, murderer? Did you disown your mother's dearest blood?” The matter is finally settled by Apollo in lines 656-674 where he says “She who is called the child's mother is not its begetter, but the nurse of the newly sown conception. The begetter is the male, and she as a stranger for a stranger preserves the offspring, if no god blights its birth.” Apollo then uses the ancient story of Zeus and Hera to prove that man by himself can produce progeny. Whether or not this is an accurate representation of the audience's kinship system is questionable, but seeing as how it was a patriarchal society, the view that man is the genitor is certainly not an empirical surprise.

On his course by the counsels of the gods . . . (Cho. 941)

The last symbol I wish to focus on is religion. In the Oresteia the presence and involvement of the divinities heavily influences the actions and events that occur in the play. In the Agamemnon the expedition intended to lay siege on Troy is said by the Chorus to have been sent by Zeus “And thus are the sons of Atreus sent against Alexander by him whose power is greater, Zeus, guardian of host and guest; for the sake of a woman of many men” (Aga. 60-3). The portent of the two eagles feasting on the pregnant hare is interpreted by the army prophet Calchas to be a sign from the gods of the sacking of Troy by the two brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus (Aga. 121-5); before the fleet sets sail it is held up at port by the winds of the angry goddess Artemis causing Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter (Aga. 185-200). In lines 362-3 after Clytemnestra has informed the chorus that Troy has fallen they say “It is the mighty Zeus, lord of host and guest, that I revere, he that has accomplished this.” The herald also attributes the divine hand of Zeus to the expedition in lines 523-5 “him who has uprooted Troy with the mattock of Zeus who does justice.” When the herald continues his story he reluctantly tells the chorus of the storm that wreaked the fleet on its victorious return. The storm is implicitly attributed to the desecration of Trojan altars and temples and the slaughter of many men and women before the walls of Troy. When Agamemnon returns and speaks before the chorus his first words are directed towards the gods and the events that have just come to pass are all linked to divine purpose and approval (Aga. 810-30). After Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon she initially tries to convince the chorus that her act was derived from her own motives, but then argues that she is an agent of divine forces.

The Libation Bearers opens with both Orestes and Electra offering prayers to Hermes. In lines 269-285 Orestes explains Loxias’ (aka Apollo’s) oracle which supports his want to regain his possessions and seek vengeance on “those guilty of the murder” of his father. When Orestes displays reservations over killing his mother and asks the hitherto taciturn Pylades what to do, Pylades in his only lines of the trilogy says “ Where henceforth shall be the oracles of Loxias declared at Pytho, and the covenant you pledged an oath? Count all man your enemies rather than the gods!” (Cho. 899-903). After Orestes deals the death blow to Clytemnestra the choral ode that concludes the act suggests that it was an act both divinely motivated and ordained (Cho. 935-41).

In the Eumenides, the first scene takes place in the temple of Apollo. The horrible (miscarriage-inducing) Furies appear before Pythia, who then flees, at which point a central door on stage opens revealing Apollo and Orestes inside the temple. The rest of the play demonstrates a continued and palpable involvement of the divinities (of Apollo, Athena, and the Furies). According to Goldhill, this “direct and constant involvement of divine forces in human action” has lead critics to conclude that “this trilogy represents human action as controlled and determined by divine authority” (Goldhill 1992: p. 75). This interpretation, I think, is somewhat dogmatic and oversimplified vis-à-vis the complexity of human actions and dispositions to other cultural concepts that we have seen in the play. It is not, as Denys Page suggests, simply “the will of Zeus be done . . . [man’s] part is to obey” (ibid 76). This play does, however, raise a number of questions concerning human agency. But these questions basically boil down to the following: is free choice and human motivations independent of a divine plan and determined purpose? A direct answer to this question is difficult to ascertain, because the play offers a number of interpretations. I’ll leave the myriad interpretations to the scholars and extract one thread of thought from Goldhill which I think is pertinent to my approach. Goldhill suggests that “the gods as figures become part of humans’ attempts at comprehending things” (ibid p.76). I think this acutely captures the essence of religion.

In Religion as a Cultural System Geertz says that “Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seems uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1973: p.93). Throughout the Oresteia ritualistic practices are performed for the gods, choral odes are sung to the gods, and characters seem to be acted through or at least, in their minds, with the approval of the gods. Thus the religious symbol has not only gripping affective properties, but also a binding or controlling effect on the actions of men. But the extent to which man is a puppet of divine determinism is somewhat obscure, which is certainly not surprising, since the obligation itself is an imagined reality of numerous puppets: both women and men.

Random occurrences are often dichotomized into good and bad in numerous cultures and the appearance of one or the other is usually associated with divinity. Geertz once again offers insight on religion’s role when he says “as a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering but how to suffer, how to make of physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat, or the helpless contemplation of others' agony something bearable, supportable—something, as we say, sufferable” (ibid p.90). In the Oresteia we see that suffering is made sufferable because it is explained as a grace, endowed by the gods, that puts men on their way to wisdom “there is, I think, a grace that comes by violence from the gods” (Aga. 182). In the line just above we read “Zeus who put men on their way to wisdom by making it a valid law that by suffering they shall learn” (Aga. 176-8). Thus, the attractive force of religion appears to be the fact that it constructs a reality in which, to quote Max Weber, “events are not just there and happen, but they have meaning and happen because of that meaning” (Geertz 1973: p. 96).

This notioin of man is represented even more explicitly in the scene that follows Agamemnon’s death where Clytemnestra attempts to construct a meaning to the events that have just occurred. First she says “this is Agamemnon, my husband, and a corpse, the work of this right hand, a just workman (Aga. 1404-5); she then shifts her stance and attributes the slaughter to more extrinsic forces “I swear by the justice accomplished for my child, and by Ruin and the Erinys, to whom I sacrificed this man” (Aga. 1432-3); then she claims she was motivated by “the thrice glutted spirit of this race” (Aga. 1475-6) after the chorus mentions the family curse; her final position is expressed in lines 1497-1504 where she says to the chorus “You aver that this deed is mine. But do not consider that I am Agamemnon’s consort! But manifesting himself to this dead man’s wife the ancient savage avenger of Atreus, the cruel banqueter, slew him in requital, sacrificing a grown man after children.” Thus it is clear that the act moves from Clytemnestra’s “right hand” to basically ‘this is the work of the ancient demon or curse on the house of Agamemnon’. As Clytemnestra’s explanations of causation shift, so too, do the chorus’ sentiments of sympathy—they actually point the finger of blame at Helen (Aga. 1455-61); then at the “spirit that falls upon the house and the two sons of Tantalus” (Aga. 1468-70). Thus there is much ambiguity with causation and no clear distinction between actions that would be seen as being derived from purely human motives and those that are seen as being derived from a divine plan. My own reading is that their conception of agency seems to be weighted towards the latter, but I’m not sure if this view represents the views of Aeschylus or the audience who first watched this play. What it represents though, I think, is a universal principle of culture: the human need to ascribe meaning to events. Without meaning we can’t function. For, as Albert Camus put it in The Myth of Sisyphus, “living means doing, no matter how much one attempts to disengage from the spectacle” and doing, I think, requires meaning. A meaningless world of happenstance and unexplained occurrences, of passions and unordered experiences, would render man absolutely functionless and incapable of meaningful, purposeful, conscious action. Clytemnestra demonstrates that the possible accounts of meaning can differ widely, but the fact remains, meaning must be ascribed.

Culture, as we have seen, tunes the actions of men to the cosmic conditions of his reality. It gives meaning to our environment so that we can live in harmony with it. When a crime is committed man immediately attributes meaning to it by rationalizing it. For Aeschlyus crime follows a pattern of revenge and reversal—for us today we look to psychological (motives and mental disorders) and socio-economic (race and poverty) explanations which can replace our ineffable consternation with concepts that explain why these bad things happen. Culture, then, gives both a model-of reality and a model-for reality. My aim was to understand, as Geertz put it “how it is that men's notions, however implicit, of the “really real” and the dispositions these notions induce in them, color their sense of the reasonable, the practical, the humane, and the moral” (Geertz 1973: p.84). I have tried to show this by analyzing conceptual symbols found in the Oresteia and elaborating upon how they lead (or even determine) actors to their actions. By analyzing this text I also attempted to reconstruct, as much as possible, the assumed structure of reality and the approved lifestyle within that reality and how these two aspects are related and to some extent interdependent. Believing, with Geertz, that it is only through the cultural context that we can interpret symbols I tried to use what I knew of the cultural background to interpret the Oresteia. Goldhill seems to take up this same approach and the fruitfulness of doing so is clearly evidenced by his book. I do not, however, think that this is the only approach to an interpretation of the text, but I do think it is a good one, because it gets closest to determining what they play is actually saying by recreating and trying to understand the ethos of the audience for whom the play was meant. I also hope that this analysis shed some light on the mechanisms inherent in culture and how man is both shaped and the shaper of these mechanisms. My scope was clearly broad and my page space, unfortunately, is limited, but I hope I revealed some important insights and offered a new way to interpret ancient Greek literature. I hold the opinion that the more interpretive approaches we have the better our conclusions will be. To conclude, and slightly emend a passage from Geertz, Greek literary analysis “is (or should be) guessing at meaning, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions for better guesses, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape” (Geertz 1973: p.20).


E&D said...

man, this is my kind of post!

it's nice to see some intellectual action going on in the blogosphere. all i can find these days is political or news commentary, both of which i am a bit too hermited and self absorbed to know anything about, really.

cheers, friend!

Anonymous said...


This was really helpful