Aeschylus' Agamemnon

The central probem of the Oresteia

Free choice or fate?

Immortal means "outside Time"

[drawing by Laurence Preest]Greek gods are immortal - this is their only important difference from men. Immortal only means "living forever" or "immune to death" if you try to see what it is from the human perspective. What does immortality mean to a god? It means "being outside time". Humans are prisoners of time, but the gods are outside time. This is the insight that Aeschylus had. It had taken that long for the full implications of immortality to sink in. In Homer, they still tend to act like children rather than gods. Aphrodite is hurt by Diomedes, and goes crying to mummy: she can't really be separated from the world of men: she's a part of it, but a part where wounding is trivial and easily cured. For Agamemnon, a cut on the hand is agonising, and he withdraws from the fighting, leaving the way eventually for Hector to dominate the plain. But in the Iliad, only Zeus can almost manage the feat of seeing events from a perspective outside time: Hera and Athena behave like sulky schoolgirls when forbidden to go into battle. Ares complains. Apollo is vindictive. And Zeus himself can be distracted by a wife dolled up and offering sex.

"The Future" is meaningless to a god

But Aeschylus' Artemis "hates the eagles' feast" not because she's a touchy teeenager, but because - as a goddess - she is outside time, and can see past, present and future simultaneously. Agamemnon has still to make up his mind whether to sail to Troy - everything is a misty future, which even Calchas can only hope will turn out well; Artremis sees the sacrifice, the brutalities of the war itself, and the cruelty of the aftermath - that's why she wants the project stopped. And this is how fate/necessity comes in: what is a free choice to the human (Agamemnon chooses to "put on the harness of necessity") is, from the perspective of a god, already past and present. For gods there can be no "future" - everything is there at once present and past. Their world is like that depicted by vase-painters, who show the various stages in a story as if all occurring at the same time.

Cassandra - her special position

This is why the Cassandra scene takes up one third of the play Agamemnon. Cassandra is unique, in that she exists both outside time like a god, and is trapped within it as a helpless female slave. Through her attempts to explain her predicament, we can, as audience, just begin to get a glimmering of what it feels like to be a god. She is clearly understood as soon as she merely hints to the chorus about Thyestes' feast: but her clear description of her own death and that of her master is incomprehensible.

Divine willed and humanly chosen

So fate depends on your perspective: if you are a god, or endowed with godlike vision like Cassandra, fate is something determined - it is as if it has already happened. If you are a mortal, you appear to have choices. Agamemnon made several - the wrong ones according to the chorus and Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra thought she chose her actions. But after she'd killed her husband, the true explanation dawned: it was not her but the old alastor, the blood-demon fed already three times by the family.

Zeus' master-plan

Aeschylus' religious vision can only be compared with Virgil's. For both, the Trojan War and its aftermath are part of an immense divine plan. For Virgil the plan seems to involve order growing out of chaos - a Stoic hero who learns painfully to "follow Nature". But Aeschylus' divine plan is maybe even more ambitious. Just as on the human level, during Aeschylus' own lifetime, law and democracy had evolved to replace vendetta and tyranny, so on the divine changes had been afoot. Aeschylus' Zeus - unlike any god before (or since?) - is in the business of change and evolution, the objective being no less than the full devolution of power and responsibilty to men themselves. The true acceptance of responsibility for one's own actions - which is the greatness of Oedipus - began with the trial of Orestes.

The New Justice

Clytemnestra at SyracuseThe early versions of the story are no more than conventional vendetta and blood-feud. "The doer must suffer". And in Homer (Odyssey) Orestes is held up by the gods themselves as a fine example of what every young man should do - avenge his father successfully. He's an inspiration to young Telemachus. But it was easy for Homer's Orestes - Aegisthus killed Agamemnon, and all he had to do was kill Aegisthus, and he'd done the needful. Aeschylus denies Aegisthus, the "cowardly lion", any part in the murder, which is planned and executed by Clytemnestra. Now Orestes can only avenge his father by killing his mother. He hesitates, but feels that Apollo is behind him. There's no one now to avenge Clytemnestra, except her murderer! - and so the vile and ancient Furies are unleashed. They embody the unthinking vengeance of the past: for them it is axiomatic and automatic that "the doer suffers". Thus Zeus is using the impossible situation he's created for Orestes (wrong if he fails to avenge his father, wrong if he kills his mother) to defeat the old notion of divine justice ("the doer must suffer"; "an eye for an eye"). A new human justice, based on argument and discussion, talk and evidence is the only possible way out. Unless we want the Furies back full time!

So is freedom possible?

And so Aeschylus' gods have evolved beyond the "big kids" revelling in their irresponsibility in Homer. They - despite being outside time - feel pity for the humans trapped inside, and wish to give them a chance to escape the divinely imposed "justice" which makes their lives short and miserable. It was a gift more important even than Prometheus' fire. It's an amazing concept: gods can - despite their immortality - change, evolve and genuinely - in the long term - have the interests of humans at heart. Perhaps real freedom to choose one's actions is a possibility after all!

But Aeschylus' idea does not survive

But what happened to Aeschylus' brilliant innovation? Within two generations it no longer seemed to reflect reality. No longer were men seemingly evolving and improving - quite the reverse. Aechylus wrote the Oresteia in 456 BC. The Peloponnesian War began in 431. For Euripides, the gods return to the childish spite of Homer - only this time, they don't even have that saving sense of humour that could make them sometimes strangely likeable or even attractive. Apollo in the Iliad tries to cheat to destroy Achilles, but he's philosophical, though cross, about losing. Compare him with the cynical, shallow "inhuman" apologist for the Trojan War in Euripides' Orestes. For Euripides' Apollo, the Trojan War is not a daring laboratory experiment to produce a new Justice, but simply an early and effective exercise in population control.