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The Orestes By Trinity Sibylline Priestess

The word prehistory means before written historic record thus the cultures and events that predate are left to be sorted out through archaeological sciences. These sciences give us back the remains of the cities, temples, art, and dwellings of our ancestors. Yet they can not serve as an unbiased interpreter to human thought and belief.

Those whose embrace the historical theories of Matriarchies societies have a difficult time in a world where writing is king. Culture and belief is open for interpretation. However it may be that there are written records, echoes of the past in the writings of other cultures that followed in their wake inheriting culture, myth, and even strife. Through myth, overlapping accounts, and unusual bias or inconsistencies we may yet learn some of what these earlier cultures were like through the eyes of those who witnesses their demise.

One such beacon in written records is 'propaganda' where stories of extreme events, illogical actions, contrary commentary, hateful descriptions, and demeaning verbiage gives insight into deep rooted fears often times caused by a fear of change, efforts to subdue remaining vestiges of past events, or a struggle of power and control. To support the theory of a shift in the societal structure between men and women we look for written records where the ripples of power shifts remain and speak through altered voices. There is no better source than the Greek trilogy The Oresteia.

Written by Euripides in 458 B.C.E Orestes is the climatic story of the doomed House of Atreus. In short Orestes is being hounded and terrorized by the Furies for the blood crime of matricide. Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra, who murdered his father Agamemnon, who sacrificed his youngest sister Iphiginea.

Our focus is the third play; The Eumenides. The strife between two worlds and two sets of laws is forefront in this play. The Furies haunt the guilty with screams and anger, driving the murderer, in this case Atreus, insane and to their death. It is the playwright's words of the Gods themselves and ultimate outcome that give us insight into the cultural aftershocks.

In the opening Apollo, god of reason and logic, has deflected the Furies and rendered them unconscious. They are described as

APOLLO: (opening scene with the Furies asleep)
Now look at these - these obscenities! They disgust me.
These ancient children never touched by god, man or beast - the eternal virgins.
Born for destruction only, the dark pit, they range the bowels of Earth, the world of death,
Loathed by men and the gods who hold Olympus.

monsters loathed of all, O scorn of gods

The words voice hatred and disgust for their power. Yet the power structure of the Gods changes even in antiquity.  Olympian Gods were predated by the Titans but the Furies are not Titans. They are something different.

How ancient are the Furies? The word 'ancient' is part of their general description - either by the Furies themselves or the other Gods. They are untouched and beyond the hold of the Olympian gods; Virgins by choice. They wield justice in a wild force, uncontrolled by Apollo - champion of law, society and balance. To them, Apollo is viewed as a youth who has no rights to cast judgment or interfere with their divine justice. It may suggest that power structure and justice had been far different.

And us the Fates, the ancients of the earth
Ancient of days and wisdom!

I, drawn on by scent of mother's blood, Seek vengeance on this man and hound him down.

FURIES: (With regards to Apollo's interference)
Thou, child of the high God Zeus, Apollo, hast robbed us and wronged;
Thou, a youth, hast down-trodden the right that to godship more ancient belonged;

The ruling pantheon of Olympus is ruled by a male god Zeus, where Queen of the Gods Hera, Goddess of of marriage and women, is frequently portrayed as spiteful and vengeful. Though she is the Queen of Olympus she holds very little sway over the actions of her husband Zeus. Hers is also a story of frustration and loss of power.

The Furies are a last bastion of female power and independence. They represent a female force both in power and in deed ~ they defend family bonds, and in particular the sacredness of motherhood. The question becomes who is kin? According to the Furies Clytemnestra did not shed the blood of her kin.

FURIES: (regarding the murder of Agamemnon)
That is not blood outpoured by kindred hands.

Clytemnestra killed for blood vengeance. Yet the murder by the father/victim is not addressed, Iphiginea was a sacrifice to the gods for favored winds to carry Agamemnon to Troy and wage war. The sacrifice of a female promised to the temple of the Goddess Artemis - virginal independent wild-woman - as well as the revenge of a mother upon the murderer of her child being a 'non-issue' in this play. It is viewed by the culture of the time as acceptable. 

If one is to take a highly feminist stance the sacrifice of the daughter could be viewed as feminine power and inheritance ~ the link of mother to daughter. The recurrence of the feminine being used as a tool for war is also exemplified by warring over Helen when historically it is believed that she was an excuse for claiming trade route. This play is about the role of women and their rites.

Orestes places the key question smack in the face of the audience.

And I, am I by blood my mother's kin?

Now we can start to see the two forces facing off. The Furies representing the old ways with reverence to the mysteries and powers of motherhood (possibly reminisces of matriarchies) and the new ways of Apollo; reason, logic, structure. But why point at this play as a turning point for Women's power rather than a shift from tribal law - an eye for an eye - to the laws of society?

The play outlines for the audience how the mother is not blood to the child. She is like the soil to the seed. This idea may seem absurd to 'modern' senses but this was the prevailing science of the day. It is Aristotle who states that the semen is a complete being while the womb is akin to an oven, offering nutrients and a safe place but nothing more. A mother, therefore, is not blood to a child, only the father is. Thus the murder of Clytemnestra is not a blood murder.

Not the true parent is the woman's womb
That bears the child; she doth but nurse the seed
New-sown: the male is parent;

The Goddess Athena is held up as proof of this statement.

And proof hereof before you will I set.
Birth may from fathers, without mothers, be:
See at your side a witness of the same,
Athena, daughter of Olympian Zeus,
Never within the darkness of the womb

The play uses the divine Athena to redefine nature and assists the audience into embracing the idea that the father is sole creator. It is this point that the play is really centering around.

Athena embodies in a female form the essence of the Greek male; rational, balanced, and forever in a mans world preferring the company of men to the company of women. She is deliberately chosen to represent the voice of womenhood and to strengthen the argument that mother is not 'necessary'. Athena herself was not born of mother* but nurtured in the body of Zeus springing forth fully armored and grown.

For me no mother bore within her womb,
And, save for wedlock evermore eschewed,
I vouch myself the champion of the man,
Not of the woman, yea, with all my soul,-
In heart, as birth, a father's child alone.
Thus will I not too heinously regard
A woman's death who did her husband slay,
The guardian of her home;

The play separates women from the seemingly only thing that gives them power - the ability to create life. And it does so through the voice of a Goddess. Athena is chosen to casts the deciding vote that decides the fate of Orestes, aligns her forever with men, and places human women as duty bound to a society of 'reason'.

In my view the words of the play reflects a fear and hints to a possible time when the power structure was different. It seeks to convince the audience of its logic, and to reeducate us in the way of nature. The play encompasses the changing nature of the culture, justice, religion, and power.

Which is reflecting which - the play reflecting the ideas of the populous or the populous forming ideas based on the play? Literature, theatre, and art have long been a tool of propaganda both for and against movements. It seems to serve both purposes. This play existed to solidifies and validates a cultural shift.

The Furies are the old law and foreshadow the calamity of women in the future.

Now are they all undone, the ancient laws,
If here the slayer's cause
Prevail; new wrong for ancient right shall be
If matricide go free.

This then is the final moment for women's power. At the end of the play the Furies are now passive and obedient upon Athena's words. The play serves as propaganda to justify and solidify the treatment of women ~ both daughter and mother ~ as powerless members of this new world. It was a battle of words between the women and the men, where the women loose not only themselves but their body, their voices, and their right for justice.

We too have shot our every shaft of speech,
And now abide to hear the doom of law.

Ye too, O Fates, children of mother Night,
Whose children too are we, O goddesses
Of just award, of all by sacred right
Queens, who in time and in eternity
Do rule, a present power for righteousness,
Honored beyond all Gods, hear ye and grant my cry!

And nevermore these walls within
Shall echo fierce sedition's din,
Unslaked with blood and crime;
The thirsty dust shall nevermore
Suck up the darkly streaming gore
Of civic broils, shed out in wrath
And vengeance, crying death for death!
But man with man and state with state
Shall vow The pledge of common hate
And common friendship,

Blameless and blissful be your doom!

*In some myths Athena has a mother, Goddess Metis. Zeus swallowed Metis in order to prevent her from giving birth to a son that would be mightier than him. Zeus was plagued with headaches and sought out Hephaestus to 'open his head' whereupon Athena sprung forth full grown and ready for battle. Thus she is seen as having no mother and owes no allegiance to women.

** The struggle of Apollo over more ancient goddesses is not without president. It was Apollo who slew the great serpent Python and built his fabled Delphic Oracle over the rotting body whose fumes are said to have given the ability of prophesy. This struggle is interpreted by many to be the over through of a female earth deity who presided over the area long before the Olympian gods.

***Apollo having already gifted Orestes to aid him in defense against the Furies... "Give me my horn-tipped bow, Apollo's gift, wherewith that god declared that I should defend myself against these goddesses, if ever they sought to scare me with wild transports of madness." has usurped power without due process.


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