Classics Summarized: The Oresteia

So, a long, long time ago, I said I was going to summarize The Oresteia. You know, finally tie a nice little ribbon around Agamemnon’s catastrophic landslide of a personal life and close that particular chapter of Greek mytho history. And then I just kind of didn’t. I mean I had stuff going on, like, you know, college and moving and not sleeping enough and then drawing 300 frames for The Iliad video. And honestly, I just completely forgot about it, which is a damn shame because in hindsight, The Oresteia is one of the most interesting tragedies I’ve ever read. And the one with the most far-reaching mythological and political consequences. So first of all, some context. If you’ve seen my video on “Iphigenia”, then at first, I’d like to apologize for the general quality. But more specifically, you’re aware that Agamemnon rather famously sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to raise the winds and set sail to the Trojan war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the #1 person most likely to be enraged by this development is Queen Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife and Iphigenia’s mother. Fortunately for Clytemnestra, she has a whole ten years to plot her revenge with her boyfriend Aegisthus so that when Agamemnon returns triumphant from the Trojan war, Clytemnestra has a nice revenge scheme queued up and ready to go. Oh, and on the off chance that Agamemnon hadn’t pissed her off enough yet, he also brings back a trophy concubine, the Trojan princess Cassandra, famous for being able to see the future and also for not being able to convince anyone to ever listen to her about said future. (Sarcastic) Strangely as soon as they land, Cassandra starts yelling about how Agamemnon’s about to get totally murdered and so is she. Agamemnon is like, “Huh, women, am I right?” and is promptly murdered in the bath by Clytemnestra who also kills Cassandra. (Sarcastic) What a twist. One thing we do have to keep in mind when we’re reading this story is that in ancient Greece, murdering family was seriously not okay, regardless of the circumstances. Agamemnon got a pass for killing his daughter because the gods ordered him to. But Clytemnestra murdering Agamemnon as retaliation was considered pretty reprehensible just on principle, even though from a more modern perspective, it’s an almost precedented response. Now because she wasn’t related to Agamemnon by blood, Clytemnestra gets something of a pass from the gods. But the bottom line is we’re really not supposed to be rooting for her. So Aegisthus takes the throne of Argos and Part 1 of The Oresteia wraps up on a high note, at least if you’re Clytemnestra. So like all the best stories where the appointed bad guys win at the end of Act 1, Part 2 begins with a several year time skip. And Clytemnestra has a nightmare about giving birth to a snake. She worries that this might be an omen that the gods are angry with her for some unknown reason so she sends her long-suffering daughter Electra along with a posse of slave women to offer libations on Agamemnon’s grave. Now Electra is none too pleased with her new evil dad or her old evil mom and neither are any of the slaves, but they don’t really have a whole lot of autonomy so they do as Clytemnestra says. And it’s a good thing too because when she goes to the grave, Electra meets her brother Orestes who’s been exiled from Argos for several years. He’s back and ready for some sick vengeance because Apollo’s oracle told him he has to stab his mom for stabbing his dad. Orestes and Electra throw out some prayers to their dead dad, then concoct a plan to kill Clytemnestra and also Aegisthus just because. Orestes disguises himself as an ordinary traveler and heads up to the palace. Then when Clytemnestra answers the door, he says that he’s been sent to inform her that her son Orestes is totally dead. Clytemnestra is majorly bummed out by this or at least, she appears to be; it’s kind of hard to tell with her. Anyway, she invites Orestes in and he promptly navigates his way to Aegisthus who, thanks to the machinations of the Greek chorus, is totally unguarded. Orestes promptly murders him. And when Clytemnestra comes charging in with an axe, he gets ready to kill her too. But then he’s all conflicted and junk. After all, she is his mother. Clytemnestra argues with him for a few lines but Orestes’s hypeman reminds about the Apollo thing. And Orestes makes up his mind, successfully murdering Clytemnestra. So that’s cool, right? Well, you know how sometimes when you’re watching a cop show and the cops zero in on the bad guy and the whole plot gets wrapped up all nice and neat. But then you check the time stamp and you realize there’s, like, a whole twenty minutes left in the episode. And you’re like, “Oh, man. There’s no way something is not about to go catastrophicly wrong.” So Orestes promptly begins hallucinating that the Furies are torturing him for the crime of matricide, which was one of those things you just super hella weren’t supposed to do in ancient Greece. The chorus questions his sanity and Orestes runs off into the night, harried by nightmares that nobody else can see. So Part 3 begins when a priestess of Apollo heads into the temple of Delphi for work one morning. At which point, she sees Orestes passed out on the suppliant’s chair, surrounded by the Furies who are all asleep. As it turns out, Apollo pulled a total bro move and cast a spell on the Furies to knock them out. So Orestes can take some time to take a nap and then seek refuge in Athens. Orestes starts heading to Athens with the help of Hermes at which point, the ghost of Clytemnestra slaps the Furies awake and sends them off after him again. So Orestes has just enough time to arrive in Athens and throw out a prayer to Athena before the Furies catch up to him. Luckily for him, Athena has been keeping an eye out for him and manifests to take care of this whole mess. So Athena gets the general gist of the situation and says that this whole thing is too complicated for her to judge on her own so it’s time to establish the Athenian legal system. Yeah, so as it turns out, this whole play is basically a giant excuse to explain the Athenian judiciary system. Swerve. So Athena assembles a jury of Athenian citizens and places herself as the judge. And Apollo shows up to be Orestes’s defense attorney. The Furies are deeply uncomfortable with this whole prosecution business, being better equipped to enact vigilante justice rather than actual justice. But they give it the old college try anyway. So Orestes gets cross-examined by the Furies who get him to spill that yes, he did indeed murder his mother. But in his defense, she had it coming and besides, says Orestes, she wasn’t really his mother. If that sounds baffling, don’t worry; Apollo’s got you covered. See, according to Apollo, motherhood doesn’t mean anything. it’s really the father that has the true claim to parenthood and the mother is just a walking fetus incubator. Wow, that concept has not aged very well, has it? Anyway, with all the arguments made, the jury sets about voting. Though Athena volunteers beforehand that she is casting her vote for Orestes. As it turns out, the jury ends up in a tie. So thanks to Athena’s tie-breaking vote, Orestes is free to go. And go he does, all the way back to Argos and far, far away from the Furies so he can sort out his problems without all the crazy Athena, meanwhile, persuades the Furies to stick around and help her out with this new legal system she’s created. Rather than just punishing people with no regard for context, these new and improved Furies are only here to punish the bad people judged as such in a court of law. With their new role, the Furies are also given a new name and are dubbed the Eumenides, meaning “The Kindly Ones”. So long story short, the next time you’re hunted down by a trio of bloodthirsty demons for the crime of intra-familial murder or the violation of hospitality rules, make sure to request your phone call. “so the cool thing about the Oresteia is that it’s the only complete ancience greek trilogy we have”

[Singing] “And I’m here to remind you of the mess you left when you went away.” “The other cool thing about the Oresteia is that Orestes is basically a total victim throughout, being jerked around first by Apollo and then by the Furies”

[Singing] “And I’m here to remind you of the mess you left when you went away.” “He’s a tragic figure in that he has no real autonomy and ultimately suffers as a result”

[Singing] “And I’m here to remind you of the mess you left when you went away.” “He’s a tragic figure in that he has no real autonomy and ultimately suffers as a result”

[Singing] “Cuz it’s not fair to deny me of the cross-eyed bear that you gave to me.” “But he’s also not dead at the end, which is a major step up!”

[Singing] “Cuz it’s not fair to deny me of the cross-eyed bear that you gave to me.” “Pretty sure Clytemnestra is a prototype Lady Macbeth”

[Singing] “Cuz it’s not fair to deny me of the cross-eyed bear that you gave to me.” “this song is only sort of appropriate for this story but whatever”

[Singing] “Cuz it’s not fair to deny me of the cross-eyed bear that you gave to me.” “this song is only sort of appropriate for this story but whatever”

[Singing] “You, you, you ought to know.” “This has been an overly sarcastic production!”

[Singing] “You, you, you ought to know.”
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kpGhivh05k

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