Justice in Greek Mythology: the Role of Gender in Aeschylus’ Oresteia

AeschylusOresteia is the only Ancient Greek tragedy (circa 458) that survives to us as a complete trilogy: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, the Eumenides.

According to Peter Jones<Eureka! Everything you wanted to know about the Ancient Greeks>, it is one of the very rare instances in which politics openly rears its head on the tragic stage. That year, it won the prize for tragedy. Aeschylus’ Oresteia assumes that we – like its contemporary audience – are familiar with the unbreakable curse tainting the House of Atreus.

The House of Atreus is a family saga of vendetta: The quest for revenge requires blood-crimes that require more revenge.

Tantalus’ serves his own son Pelops up as stew to the Olympian gods. Pelops’s sons Thyestes and Atreus duke it out for power over his kingdom. A vicious cycle is perpetuated. Atreus cooks Thyestes’ children and serves it to him. Thyestes takes advantage of his daughter Pelopia, who bears Aegisthus. Years later, she kills herself upon a sword. Aegisthus slays Atreus to end his rule. Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia for better winds on his journey to Troy, Clytaemnaestra (with Aegisthus) murders Agamemnon and his new wife Cassandra for sacrificing her daughter. Agamemnon’s son Orestes returns years later to revenge his father’s death by slaying Clytaemnastra and Aegisthus. He is hunted down by Chthonic Gods, the unrelenting Furies.

In Ancient Greek, miasma  meant something like a cloud of pollution.

Paraphrasing Peter Struck, Upenn Classicist: “If someone was killed or had a violent episode of death visited upon them, miasma would hover around the corpse. The person who did the killing would have miasma stuck on them, and be subject to retribution. Unfortunately, anyone who happened to be walking by would also be tainted by miasma and be subject to retribution as well, like collateral damage”. So miasma can be understood to be like an independent elemental force that is a pollution that seeks purification, but seems to breed more miasma just like the House of Atreus’ never-ending saga of vindictiveness.

Aeschylus’s Oresteia tries to solve this problematic idea of Justice: What happens when the act of revenge itself is going to be a crime against the family?

In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra murders her husband, Agamemnon, to avenge the sacrifice of her daughter, Iphigenia. In the Libation Bearers, Orestes is back from exile. He has to kill his mother,  Clytemnestra, in order to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon.

The female characters in the Oresteia are stark beacons of the inescapable entanglements of miasma and family . They bring out all the themes that underscore how intimacy in family is a suffocating force that kills with its closeness. They (including the Furies) represent this older school of thought that Justice is a blood stain contaminates of its own will and cannot be purified.

The Oracle of Delphi makes Pelopia instrumental in propagating an heir to take revenge for Thyesthes, clean out the blood crimes of Atreus murdering Thysthes’ children. Here Pelopia represents the feminine role of procreating justice. She is also the keeper of family secrets. By holding onto the sword, she knows the real identity of Aegisthus’ father. She’s a tragic figure who meets a tragic end by no wrongdoing of her own. Taking her own life by Thyesthes’ sword, she serves to highlight how betrayals in terrible families pollute others around it. Pelopia reinforces Aeschylus’ portrayal of family as an incredibly destructive, terrible, opposite-of-nurturing structure. She just happens to be there, and she was stained by the miasma of Atreus’ and Thyesthes’ crimes before her.

Now, let’s look at Agamemnon. Clytemnestra  has a system of beacons set up to tell her when the Trojan War is over. Not to welcome her husband Agamemnon, like the loving family reunion we’ve come to expect between Odysseus and Penelope in Homer’s The Odyssey. No, it’s because Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus want to lay out the trap that will kill the returning King.

The real meaning of this beacon is evident to her but no one else. It’s a secret. Just like in the example with Pelopia above, family secrecy that doesn’t result in closeness, but fatality. Aeschylus again departs from Homer, where the secrecy that Odysseus and Penelope shares  is a driver for family support against the suitors of Ithaca.

Clytemnestra is bitter at Agamemnon’s licentiousness. She has the dalliances of her husband rubbed in her face (he presents Cassandra). Penelope, on the other hand, reinforces, through the secret she shares with Odysseus that is the olive tree bed, her fidelity to him.

Clytemnestra weaves  the Crimson Carpet for Agamemnon to step onto when he comes home foreshadows the blood bath she’s about to give him behind closed doors (when she murders him with a double axes in his own bath).

“Hey honey, haven’t seen you for a long time. Step on out of your boat with your muddy boots and trample on this beautiful cloth that I’ve woven for your return”. She’s bitter, she’s been harboring so much hatred – ‘of course you’re going to trampple on this fine piece of work I’ve woven for you’. When he steps on it, Clytemnestra proves what a brute he is.

Her crimson tapestry, with its royal color, symbolizes the blood of family ties and the dark sides of intimacy (family betrayal, injustice, closeness as a negative thing).  Penelope’s weaving, on the other hand, is meant to stave off suitors while Odysseus spends years abroad delayed on his journey home from the Trojan War.

Famous lines: Clytemnestra says “There is no God of healing”.

Cassandra foreshadows her own fate: “Clytemnestra is going to shred me into a bowl” like preparing drugs (pharmacon) to cure the blood disease of the House of Atreus.

Iphigenia and Cassandra are pharmacons in this story. Killed in order to ‘cure’ the blood-crimes of the past. Agamemnon kills Iphigenia, his own daughter, for ‘the winds to get corrected’ on his ship’s journey out to Troy. Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon’s new wife Cassandra to cure her own bitterness at his betrayal. Women die as a result of purification needed for the perpetuation of blood crimes. But instead of purification, what happens is that more blood crimes get perpetuated. The cycle of injustice prevails.

In the Libation Bearers, Elektra, Orestes’ sister, as new generation, appeals to Chthonic gods in seance by Agamenon’s grave to ask for permission to exact revenge on Clytemnestra. They give it. Clytemnestra, in verbal test of wills, challenges Orestes’ right to do so before she gets dragged behind the door and then murdered by her own son.

The Furies: as blood-scented hounds representing the old form of justice that is fixed, rigid, inescapable, that Aeschylus wishes to turn on its head in the Eumenides. Murder that cannot be appeased.

In The Eumenides, The Furies highlight a measure of evil using blood relations/blood guilt- which is more evil, the murder of a mother, or that of a wife? The Furies represent the importance of blood relations. To them, Orestes must be avenged because he killed his mother, who gave birth to him. They take the opposite side in a courtroom than Apollo, who argues the popular concept that the mother is just a vessel for a man’s seed and that she is not that important in the production of, of the offspring. Apollo thinks ties between man and wife, which arose out of voluntary associations, should be more important.

Similar to Hesiod’s Theogony, where Zeus wins the war over the Titans and pushes the older gods into the Underworld. At the end of The Eumenides, The Furies, when they lose the court case at the end of the trilogy, get interred. (Athena is the swing vote in favor of Apollo’s defense of Orestes). The Furies, these older Chthonic Gods representing the old order of justice are given a place underground into a new temple of worship.





Ritual & Religion: Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Goddess of Fertility

Eleusinian hydria Antikensammlung Berlin 1984.46 n2.jpgHomeric Hymns are among the oldest monuments of Greek literature. The lengthy  Homeric Hymn to Demeter provides the most important and complete information about Demeter, goddess of Fertility. It covers the abduction of Persephone, Demeter’s grief and anger, her arrival at Eleusis, nursing Demophoön at the home of Celeus and Metaneira, Zeus’ order to Hades, the return of Persephone for parts of the year to her mother’s realm. The story seems to functionally explain the restoration of fertility to the planet according to the seasons  and how Demeter Establishes Her Eleusinian Mysteries.


Painfully aware that Myth and Ritual go hand-in-hand in Ancient Greece *this isn’t intended to be cavalier*… Giving credit to Structuralist or Functionalist interpretations… Ultimately, I gravitate to my Freudian psychoanalytical toolbox to best interpret this myth.



The cartoon my mind throws up of Hades making Persephone eat a (surreal, Dali-an) pomegranate, and thus robbing Demeter of her offspring (and fertility) for a part of the year… reminds me too much of everything we read just in Hesiod’s Theogony of Kronos and Zeus overwhelming their parents with acts of violence to exert their reproductive supremacy and propagate the universe.



Persephone prances in the meadow and grabs a flower, Hades abducts her in a chariot and effectively makes her queen of the dead (‘killing’ her). Uranus lies with Gaia and Kronos castrates him, silencing him forever. The fact that Zeus allowed Hades to abduct Persephone (it mentions in the Hymn to Demeter that it as part of the deal he made in divy-ing up the realms of the universe) — makes it Pile, High, and Deeper full of Freudian repressed subconscious/taboo desires. ‘Uh, you drew the short end of the stick, Hades, and got the Underworld for all eternity. To placate you, here, you can have my niece Persephone and reign over souls of the dead with her by your side.’


And then we have Demeter disguised as an old lady going about her miserable state and wandering through human cities. “Freud thinks that hidden messages inside a myth are always going to be about just you and me as individuals, developing, working our way through a developing, the developing of our psychological state.” Demeter plays foster mother to Demophon and takes care of him as though he’s immortal. She makes him impervious by dipping him in Lethe, feeds him ambrosia, food of the Gods, and seems to displace all the nurturing she could have done for her own daughter Persephone, who ‘died’ as an immortal, by making Demophon, a mortal, into an immortal.


Yeah, I’m using my psycho-analysis toolbox here because my mind totally sees a scene of Demeter lying on Freud’s couch there. ‘Don’t you think when you punish the world by robbing it of its harvests, you are in fact projecting your own trauma of Hades robbing you of your only offspring?’ Hmmmmm.

Gods and Humans: Reading Hesiod’s Theogony with Freudian lens

In taking Peter Struck’s Mythology class at UPenn (via Coursera), I learned that Sigmund Freud made many contributions not just to psycho-analysis, but also to literature. He tells us that myth s dramatize events in every individual’s mental or psychological development.


Freud thinks that hidden messages inside a myth are always going to be about just you and me as individuals, developing, working our way through the developing of our psychological state. In his book, The Interpretation of Dreams (~c 1900), Freud explains the psyche: a repression barrier that blocks the expression of our unconscious desires from our conscious desires.


Freud says that myths are the dreams of an entire culture. So what we get when we take a look at myths is we get this kind of displaced and condensed expression of primal desires in a culture that are displaced onto now more acceptable targets for those desires.

Sigmund Freud would have had an absolute field day with Theogony.

I mean, I don’t think you could call Hesiod’s Zeus in any way repressed. Here’s a King-god dead set on taking the throne to the cosmos and not being challenged. Why would a culture want to tell itself a story like this? Overthrows the father-figure, carries out his mother’s crazy wishes, makes siblings (Cyclops and Hecantosheires) his soldiers and weapon makers, overthrows all his aunts and uncles and chains them for all eternity in a pit, divides the universe between him and his brothers but gives the short end of the stick to the other two, mates with all of his aunts and sisters!

Perhaps because a culture wants to go back to the drawing board and completely consolidate order and power in one single entity and produce an empire unchallenged. Or, perhaps a culture wants to tell itself, look, we’re going to be this great empire, because look at the Gods we worship – Zeus was a powerful god who ruled supreme and because we worship him, we’re going to inherit the Mediterranean.

We don’t care if it’s forbidden or how we get there (through cruel means/ gross misconducts), creating an empire is going to be ugly and we’re going to get there. Maybe that’s the repressed cultural dream or goal coming out in a historical context. Maybe it’s all peacocking.

The Prometheus myth, read with a Freudian lens, transposes this expression of angst against the unjust politicians/parents on Greek Gods as mythological deities.

(Going back to Freud’s statement that myth is an expression of dreams of a culture (in this case dreams of justice) or “myths dramatize events in every individual’s psychological development”, so “I’m trying to, as a citizen of the polis, try and figure out why my political leaders are doing such and such”. I prefer to think of parents, though, simply because of the genealogical theme in Hesiod… like ‘why didn’t dad give me fire today’, or ‘why did dad give me all the good meat to eat and save only thigh bones for himself’. And maybe, with a Freudian lens, it’s then possible to see it as, human beings are these younger, less important, stepchildren of Gods on Mount Olympus, and the overbearing parents/father figure in Zeus makes these judgment calls about fire and sacrifice, and more important siblings (such as Prometheus) totally influenced how things developed before we got a chance to grow up and get a say in it, so… that’s life! It’s not fair, you know, but my brother ruined stuff for me and my dad — this is his way of just being a controlling parent — and since Prometheus is busy getting his liver pecked out, let’s just lay low and try to go with it.

Zeus’ battle with the Titans is really interesting from Freudian ‘repressed subconscious / desire to mate with forbidden parents’ point-of-view.

Because, unless I read it wrong, it looks as if Zeus gets rid / puts in chains in Tartarus all the male Titans from the alpha generation. But puts all the females in Mount Olympus and marries/mates with all of them, creating a new generation of gods. He wants to usurp in this case, Kronos’ role not just as ruler of the universe, but also as chief mate of all the first generation goddesses and himself swallows Methis for wisdom. It’s an expression of reproductive supremacy and hereditary legacy. Maybe he swallows Methis to prove he’s better than Kronos, ‘I’m smarter than you, dumbass, let me swallow her before you do…’. I mean, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I don’t think you can say that in Zeus’ case. He really got busy!

Scholars’ Disputes over The Odyssey’s Ending – Books 23 & 24

Some notable Alexandrian scholars believed that the second half of book 23 and all of book 24 represent a spurious addition to a poem that originally ended at 23.297.

Hmm… lots of passionate/scholarly opinions on this issue by people far more expert, so I’ll venture one opinion without (hopefully) getting bitten.

Though most modern scholars no longer ascribe to the view above, I think that it merits discussion in our readings of Homer’s Odyssey. I believe Homer intended it that way (as in he deliberately composed 23 and 24, afterthought or not…) and I think he had good reasons to.

The last book and a half of the Odyssey change the poem: it adds a nice fable quality/morality tale finish to it.

I think Homer had a great marketing advisor who said, OK, you’ve wrapped this long epic poem, let’s have some inter-textual reference if possible to your other long epic poem so readers will remember your canon and to go read that too. As in cross-referencing the Trojan War, the Iliad.

What would be lost—or gained—by its removal?

I like that 24 ties up some loose ends, with what happens in the father-son reunion not just with Telemachus but also with Laertes. And that the Gods (Zeus no less) surmise what the outcomes will be.

The book kind of started in heaven with Athena conversing with Zeus so there is a nice symmetry in Hermes leading souls to the Underworld, you know, full tour of the cosmos.

24 is probably better in terms of beats than 23 unless Homer was musically into break-beats.

We’re not left hanging wondering what repercussions are on Ithaca folks after all the violent scenes in preceding pages.

I like that here the suitors are telling Odysseus’ stories to Agamemnon in the Underworld, there is a king of ephemeral/divine quality to Homer’s tale, not just that the muse or the gods talked about it, but the undead as well.

All eternity in all the cosmos. I’m guessing Homer really wanted a legacy to be passed on.

Structuralism and Homer’s Odyssey

How useful is structuralism for analyzing myths?

Structuralism is a very interesting, if too accounting t-ledger type POV, personally, for looking at The Odyssey. It’s useful in that it gives us a really quick and dirty way to find major themes or rules of the game within the narrative. It also establishes the rules of the game, perhaps even a hierarchy – white, food, good; black, not food, bad. Something is higher vs lower on the food chain, something is better than another thing. It definitely gets us curious about oppositions, and perhaps gets us asking even more relevant questions as to why those oppositions are emphasized so much, and why they are even the focus at all. To me, anything with structure also helps me remember key pieces of the story. Did cannibalism happen here? Yes. Were they eaten, or did they eat something? No….


What are its limitations?

Sure.. biological needs are important when you’re stuck on a storm-tossed ship and washing up on strange lands with limited resources to live on. But, taking the structuralist point of view all the time means we think that when Odysseus and crew are pushed to breaking point at end of leash on life, on this massive home-ward journey, all they think about is food or not food? Surely not. What about other themes that may matter? What about broken promises to family, their spiritual lives if they die, etc?

How useful is it for thinking specifically about the Odyssey?

In terms of the Odyssey, here are all the limitations I’ve found to only using structuralism: For one, it ignores the True Hero’s Journey (and our understanding of the hero). For two, really, plot, character, settings, all go out the window when you only care about binaries in biologically driven themes. Well, then what’s the point of appreciating this epic poem? For three, where’s the fire plus algebra equals art? The Passion? The creativity, in reading The Odyseey through a kaleidoscope of other possible interpretations? Structuralism seems too inflexible about putting something in one box or the opposite, and not allowing for grey areas or possible reversals of things.

Can there not be, for instance, an anti-food, or a food-multiplier? Also, structuralism doesn’t explain the rules very well to me here. At least not vis food-not food. So a god says it is, and it is food? But most of all, structuralism assumes that was is biologically binary is of paramount importance over say, historical context or spiritual ones. Ignoring context is a pretty dangerous way to look at the world, from experience. I’d much rather know context about why Homer had so much emphasis on food – not food in this particular story rather than care whether cattle is forbidden!

Becoming a Hero

What specifically makes Odysseus heroic?

What makes Odysseus heroic is his extraordinary story – extraordinary quest, settings, challenges, feats, distractions (i.e. the character as hero from a story perspective)! He’s got what it takes to be a hero (strength and intelligence above the norm), but we really only imagine him as a hero because he’s put on a True Hero’s Journey (wonderful trials and tribulations across the wine dark sea), he faces major major conflict (God’s wrath, temptations, monsters, geographical constraints), and showcases key values and actions that help him overcome, transforms him in his personal growth arc to achieve a worthy end goal (Save the world / Free Penelope from suitors / Bring glory to his Kingdom).

From a structural standpoint, Homer set it up that way: when we meet Odysseus in Calypso’s cave, stasis equals death – Odysseus has to get out of a dire situation. A Mentor (Athena) sets him on the path of The Hero’s Journey (via Zeus-Hermes-Calypso). Change is required (or die), and movement through the story-story sets this in motion. He embarks on a high-risk journey fraught with monsters and god’s wrath, he’s tempted by sirens along the way, thinks through decisions-decisions in the face of difficult choices, and struggles, showcases his wits and strength, James-Bonding it or Vin-Dieseling it (Chuck Norris-ing it?) to get to point B.

He gets tools, he collects allies, he battles it out with enemies. Conflict is everything, right. His arc of growth compels us to read and retell his story; his incredible situation, and what he does with it, becomes an example or morality tale for what other folks could be capable of if hard-pressed in a situation like that — and so this surmounting, or standing out, makes him heroic. [Even if he is supported by the gods or fated to do something]. And… worthy goals!

Right from the get go, Homer has got us rooting for him, even before we meet him in first person. Because Telemachus cares, and Penelope cares, and Athena and Zeus… so if all these worthy mortals and deities care, we must have lots of empathy for Odysseus and want him to prevail, too! And that’s what makes him a hero — someone we (as reader/audience) look up to and care about.

In what ways does Odysseus potentially present a challenge to models of heroism?

Odysseus is not quite the stereotypical alpha male hero from the outset.  He cries like this helpless baby when Calypso has him in her cavern. (Weeping, not anger) I mean, if he’s so full of wit and strength why hasn’t he moved to action and dreamt up a thousand methods to get off Ogygia?  And then when Hermes brings instructions from Zeus to free him, Odysseus questions Calypso’s good intentions.

He doesn’t immediately latch onto the opportunity to sail home without one last tryst with her and getting her to help him with the sails of his ship, etc. If he is so heroic, with worthy goals of going home to his wife, why be unfaithful and why delay any longer? If he’s so crafty, why does he need anyone’s help in building a ship? He delays a lot, he is unfaithful, and somehow takes a long time coming home. He questions Ino’s good advice about abandoning ship when Poseidon clearly has it out for him, and then begs for Nausicaa and Arete’s help when he does land in Scheria.

There is some inconsistency in how he trusts some women, not others, even when caught in similar dire situations where he needs help. It is not necessarily rational, but perhaps emotional, based on his view of the gods.

Also, he got into this whole mess in the first place because his crew stole cattle from the Sun God. If he’s the true ancient greek hero, who’s just a cogwheel in the piece of the gods’ plans, he really should have known or managed his crew a little better, and not have angered the gods so terribly in the first place. But I guess every hero makes mistakes.

What about Telemachus?

Even less the alpha male, perhaps more beta or omega, Telemachus just requires a whole bunch of handholding all the way. He’s lounging around when everyone’s ransacking his home and waiting to pounce on his mom, dreaming of the day his dad comes home to save the day. It takes Athena in disguise many times to move him to action. He has no proven track record to inspire authority when he calls for assembly, instead, he is cajoled and pitied. He doesn’t seem to have his father’s good luck being surrounded by a harem of women (did this define a hero in Ancient Greece imagination?). And Nestor, Menelaus and Helen have to bring up the story of Orestes over and over before Telemachus gets it through his thick skull that action is required to do something about his situation. Other people have to tell him what to do! It’s like he’s not even aware of how bad it is, he’s just a frog in boiling water waiting for it to get so hot he dies before jumping out. And he requires a lot of divine intervention in order to get tools and friends necessary to proceed.

What is Myth?

Herder‘s view, “it bubbled up automatically”, resounds with me [Myth as human attempts at coming up and expressing deep ideas that resulted from human beings feeling of being alive.].  The brain is wired to remember story and that’s why we can remember Aesop’s Fables read to us as toddlers when we face the world. Not only is the brain wired to remember story, people, whether Ancient Greeks or modern-day Hollywood screenwriters, want to tell stories because something bubbles up and they do want to share.

When we go out into the world and come across unusual, or surprising, or wonderful, experiences, we tell them over and over to our friends at the dinner table, at the bar. Our motivational structures for storytelling are driven by passion, and passion really comes from an experience so profound, so impactful and meaningful to us, that we must express it.

We are physically-expressive creatures. We can’t explain why and when we want to dance, or sing… or jump for joy.. there is a physiological thing that happens in our bodies at the moment in time, we want to do it!

We are triggered, by an emotional reaction, a physical sensation, a mental state, and we follow through on it. It’s also in our learning systems. Ask any auto-didact, the best way to learn something and remember it is to tell a story about the thing that makes sense to you.

Something in the closed-frame, open-frame, closed-frame arc of a story that has a beginning, middle, and end serves to secure that information in our brains’ hardwiring.


I think that’s why when you do a Milton-Ericksonian trance induction to go into a resourceful state in your brain and give it a story, give it a chance to solve the problem in a resourceful way… it works.

To me, stories, songs, movies, etc captivate us in their telling because they are structured in a way that the brain understands and remembers at a physiological level.