THE BIRTH OF SERPENTS
SERIES II · EPISODE IX
And so it was that King Odysseus and his loyal men took up residence in a fortress that lay high in the Rocky Mountains of Ithaca. They made an altar there to Athena, and they slaughtered many goats and oxen, so that the smoke of the sacrifices rose from the peaks into air, and the scent of roasted flesh and charred bones drifted down through the canyons to the hills below.
Day after day, Odysseus sat in his high chamber making devotions to the goddess. And day after day, his lieutenants and his spies went up and down the roads, bringing him reports from all over the kingdom...
The Birth of Serpents recounts one of the most infamously bloody cycles in Greek mythology, the myths of House of Atreus, and is based on the trilogy of plays by the tragedian Aeschylus, known as the Oresteia.
The myths that followed the stories about the Seige of Troy and its Fall were known as The Returns, and they told the stories of the different Kings and heroes and their fates as they travelled back from Troy to their homes, having offended the gods by commiting various sacrileges after the fall of the City. While the Odyssey is the most famous example of the returns, stories were also told about the journeys of Nestor, of Menelaus and Helen, and Agamemnon, the Greek War Leader. Agamemnon’s fate was the most bloody, murdered by his wife Klytemnestra and his nephew , ostensibly for the sacrifice of Klytemnestra’s daughter Iphigenia, which was demanded by the gods before he could sail to Troy. The murder sparked the next cycle of the story, in which Agamemnon and Klytemnestra’s son, Orestes, is driven to revenge himself on his mother at the behest of Apollo. In different accounts, Orestes sister Electra, was also motivated to call for and aid in the killing of her mother.
While these stories are related in several places in Greek mythology, the most famous depiction is undoubtedly the three-play cycle by Aeschylus, the Oresteia. These three plays included Agamemnon, which depicted the murder of the War Leader, The Libation Bearers, which told of Orestes return and murder of his mother, and the Eumenides, in which Orestes is pursued by the Furies, and seeks sanctuary and vindication for the murder from the Olympian gods. The trilogy explored the demands and the consequences of different conceptions of justice: of justice through vengeance, upheld by the ancient and primal gods, and which keeps the House of Atreus enmeshed in a web of bloody revenge and retialiation, and justice through law, symbolically introduced to society through Athena, representing the Olympian gods, as the new standard by which to judge the actions of Orestes. This argument was intimately bound up with the culture of Aeschylus’ city Athens, celebrating and promoting its own institutions of law.
In the plays and in mythology, The Erinyes or Furies represented the law of retribution and its basis in loyalty to family, blood and kinship. They emerged from the Underworld, principally to punish parricide, the killing of ones’ own blood and kin, but also sins against others. There were sometimes said to be many Furies, sometimes three principle Furies called Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone, who were the children of Uranus (Ouranos), god of the sky or heavens. Descriptions and depictions of the Furies varied: they were sometimes described as crones, as having snakes for hair, as having dog’s heads, coal black bodies, or bat’s wings.
The Furies were said to be known by different names according to their roles in different realms: they were the Euminedes in the underworld, where they received people’s oaths and prayers, and judged people for their crimes; and the Erinyes on Earth, where they carried scourges which they used to torment their victims, pursuing them across the Earth until their deaths. The torments of the Furies were often described and depicted as a psychological phenomena closely related to experiences of madness and hallucination in the day, and nightmares and dreams in the night. In one fascinating scene in the Eumenides, the Shade of Clytemnestra appears not to Orestes but to the Furies themselves in the form of a dream, upbraiding them to wake and carry on their persecution of her son.
‘Euminedes’ meant ‘Kindly Ones’, and was a euphemistic name for the Furies to avoid invoking their true name and drawing their attention. The Romans called the Furies the Dirae, which one Roman author claimed was their name in heaven.
In Eumenides, the assertion of the law of justice over that of retribution is represented by a negotiation in which Athena pursuades the Furies to defend the new Olympian order of justice, and be known as the Semnai or Ancient Ones, rather than the Furies. This ‘Olympian’ order of justice mirrored the Athenian institution, and Athens itself had a temple to the Eumenides. In the transformation depicted by Aeschylus, the Erinyes’ role as oath-keepers and lawgivers in the Underworld is translated to the world above, where they could now be addressed as directly as the ‘Gracious’, ‘Kindly’ or ‘Ancient’ ones.
Seen through the prism of Orestes’ conflicting duties toward his father and his mother, the law of vengeance is depicted as a biological and even matriarchal imperative in conflict with laws based on deliberative reasoning and law-making, which were identified as rational and masculine. This embodied one of the central conceits of a patriarchal conception of society, in which women were believed to act from passion and emotion, and men from reason and forethought. But as evidenced by the ruling of Athena and the Court in the play, this ‘rational’ judgement essentially amounted to a ruling which affirmed the priority and status of men over that of women, through laws and institutions created and controlled by men. Orestes act of vengeance is excused or even affirmed because he owes his loyalty first to his father and not to his mother.
It may appear ironic that it is Athena and not Zeus who represents the Olympians here, but this in fact acted to bolster the patriarchal ideology. Athena was often described as possessing masculine characteristics and virtues: she was in some sense different (by implication superior) to other women because she was born from out of her father’s own head and had no mother; and her wisdom, power and status derived principally from her direct allegiance and service to her Father Zeus. These two facts are directly related in the Eumenides, when Athena states that she cannot give primacy to the rights of a mother when she herself has none.
Orestes is front and centre in the narratives presented by Homer and Aeschylus, but the Greek playrights in particular were eager to explore the role of his sister Electra in the myth, and how a daughter should or might be expected to act in the same situation. Was the law of vengeance binding on them as well, and did they owe more to their own mother or father? In Aeschylus’ tale, Electra is an ally to her brother, but is ultimately a passive character, who waits for the hero to return and exact divine vengeance. Sophocles’ play seems to depict a struggle within Electra to decide whether revenge really is a form of justice: she believes that her mother has used justice as an excuse to enact her desires, and yet she is unable to restrain her own desire to see her mother suffer at the hands of her brother. Euripedes’ portrayal of Electra and her brother was subversively anti-heroic: their act of revenge is spurred by selfish motivations; their character is not heroic; and their victims are shown to be capable of self-reflection and repentence, all of which calls into question the virtue of revenge. In the first two plays, Electra understands that it is men, like Orestes who are expected to seek revenge, and there is an implied rejection of the character and motivations of her mother, who took revenge into her own hands. Only Euripedes’ directly implicates Electra in the murder of Clytemnestra: her own hand guides Orestes’ sword as he pushes it into her chest.
"The Furies (Erinyes)." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 Oct. 2020. Web. 16 Nov. 2020.
Story interpreted and performed by Sebastian Odell.
Sound editing, audio design and original illustrations by Rick Scott.
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