Gender is made explicit as a theme throughout the Oresteia through a series of male-female conflicts and incorrectly gendered characters dominated by the figure of Clytemnestra, a woman out of place. This opposition of gender then engenders all the other oppositions of the trilogy; conflicts of oikos and polis, chthonic and Olympian, old and young can be assigned to female and male spheres respectively. In this essay I will look at how the polis examines itself in terms of gender by focusing on the Eumenides’ exploration of the myth of matriarchy, issues of the conflict between oikos and polis and the use of speech within the polis. I will then look at how these themes are brought together in the trial and the play provides an image of resolution. Many of these issues are set up in the opening speech of the priestess Pythia as already resolved and are then reconfirmed by the trial itself and closing images order.
The myth of matriarchy, despite the study of J. Bachofen is not a provable historical reality. It can be seen as the result of a combination of male anxiety and a myth being used to define society and justify male-female relations within it. The Oresteia includes and alludes to several myths of rule by women as a means of informing the main action within the trilogy and giving it wider significance.
The opening speech of the Eumenides is a prayer uttered by the priestess Pythia, which gives a history sanctuary at Delphi. The myth Aeschylus has chosen to use here is not the standard one of Apollo’s battle with the serpent, or Poseidon or Herakles but seems to be motivated by issues of gender. The myth charts a transition from female to ma…
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…s ‘Never pollute / our law with innovations’ (Eum. 706-707) could be taken either way.
4. See Lardinois (1992). The physical proximity of the theatre and this cult would also emphasise the link.
5. Although it is still slightly dubious and is clamped down on from the early sixth century onwards (See Bremmer 1994).
6. See Goldhill (1992).
7. See Winnington-Ingram (1983).
8. Although skill at public speaking would always have dubious Sophistic associations.
9. Athens and Argos had recently made a treaty (461/460) and this adds further political significance to the play and could explain a shift from the house of Atreus being situated in Mycenae to Argos.
10. And indeed Clytemnestra could be seen as a physical agent of the principle of revenge in her killing of Agamemnon.
11. See Parker (1996).
12. See Zeitlin (1996).
The Oresteia – The War-of the-Sexes in Eumenides
The War-of the-Sexes in Eumenides
In this essay I will examine the war-of the-sexes taking place in The Eumenides, the final play of The Oresteia. The plot of The Eumenides pits Orestes and Apollo (representing the male gods and, to a certain extent, male values in general) against the ghost of Clytemnestra and the Furies (equally representative of female values.) Of more vital importance, however, is whether Athene sides with the males or females throughout the play.
The character of Orestes is somewhat down-played in The Eumenides and in fact his role is far less significant than that of Apollo. Our first sight of Orestes sees him in a contradictory stance at Delphi, “Orestes holds a suppliant’s branch in one hand, wreathed with a shining, pious tuft of wool, but in the other hand a bloody sword – bloody from his mother’s wounds or from Apollo’s purges, or both, since purging contaminates the purger and Apollo’s shrine is polluted either way.” (Fagles, R., The Serpent and the Eagle, p. 73, Penguin Classics, 1977.) Orestes admits his guilt (with no small amount of rationalization) but also attempts to place the bulk of the blame on Apollo, “And Apollo shares the guilt – he spurred me on, he warned of the pains I’d feel unless I acted, brought the guilty down.” (Aeschylus, The Eumenides, Robert Fagles Trans., lines 479 – 481, Penguin Classics, 1977.) Apollo is representative of the new gods and, more particularly, of Zeus. “In the rapid succession of scenes at Delphi the representatives of the male and female divine forces appear before our eyes in bitter enmity with each other. And, they are indeed only representatives. Apollo speaks with the voice of Zeus… and hence of the Olympian patriarchy…” (Harington, J.,…
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… of Athens – all will praise her, victor city, pride of man.” (Aeschylus, The Eumenides, Robert Fagles Trans., lines 919 – 926, Penguin Classics, 1977.) Note she even uses a masculine construction in this statement (I love them as a gardener loves his plants.) And ultimately where actions are used to imply character, Athene’s works are all in the interests of the male, when acting in the interests of the female (or, indeed, of herself) she is merely acting with diplomacy.
– Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Robert Fagles Trans., Penguin Classics, (1977).
– Fagles, R., The Serpent and the Eagle, Penguin Classics, (1977).
– Harington, J., Aeschylus, Yale University Press, (1986).
– Sommerstein, A. H., Aeschylean Tragedy, Levante Editori-Bari, (1996).
– Thomson, G., The Oresteia of Aeschylus, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, (1966).