Aeschylus and the Role of a God or Goddess
Aeschylus became one of the well known playwright and leading tragic poets of the ancient Greece along with Sophocles and Euripides. Around 458 B.C., he produced a three part play known as the Oresteia Trilogy starting from the first one entitled Agamemnon followed by The Libation Bearers also known as Cheophori and the third is the Eumenides. The play was believed to be based on the events during that time in Greece characterized by civil wars in the society the have resulted atrocities and the evolution of the justice system from traditional “eye for an eye” system to a more structured system with courts and trials.
Other well known plays written by Aeschylus include The Suppliant Maidens, The Persians, Seven against Thebes and Prometheus Bound. Like most of the plays the major themes or motifs that can be observed particularly in Oresteia are justice and revenge, evolution of personal retaliation into a civilized court system, gender rivalry, and infidelity and particularly is the roles of gods and goddesses to the lives of the people.
The gods and goddesses of the ancient Greece played such a noteworthy role in the lives of the characters because they have the power to control and influence. It is worth to analyze how these deities or gods had been an important element of the story that without them the story would be lacking. Why these gods are so important to them and what are their characteristics? They are the basic elements of the Greek mythology and object of their worship. Many recognized these Olympian gods like Zeus, their leader and other gods like Hera, Poseidon, Apollo, Athena, Artemis, Hades, Demeter, Dionysus and other more.
What does the deity provide humanity and why do people worship him or her?
First thing that comes to our minds when we heard of a deity or god is that it is a divine and supernatural being, immortal and more powerful than ordinary human beings. Since most of them have degree of control over some forces in nature or realms people acknowledge their authority. Humans believe that those deities can provide them the things they need if they had their favor. People worship them to show reverence or respect, obedience or just to give honor and praise to them. They are exalted by humans.
In the first part of the play the scene where reader can observe people worship and pray to them can be found in verse like this:
Zeus—if to the Unknown/
That name of many names seem good/
Zeus, upon Thee I call/
Thro’ the mind’s every road/
I passed, but vain are all/
Save that which names thee Zeus, the Highest One, /
Were it but mine to cast away the load, /
The weary load, that weighs my spirit down/
In the play, king Agamemnon had sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis for the purpose of gaining the goddess favor to provide favorable winds which he need for the safety of his journey to the city of Troy. From here one can observed that a person is willing to sacrifice a loved one just to please these gods. Clytemnestra on the other hand went off to the palace and lighted fires on their sacrificial altar to offer prayers to her god .She lit her own sacrificial fire and started to pray that the Greeks be victorious and also never to fail to give respect to the gods of Troy. The chorus do offered form of prayers which give thanks to Zeus for the victory but also reminded the audience that there will be punishment for all who commit an ungodly offense or disobeyed their commands.
How might the existence of the deity help people make sense of the world and their own lives?
Since the beginning of human history people have strong beliefs of the existence of god or deity. In the plays they can even mingle or interact with humans. They believe that in some degree this god exerts great influence in their lives.
People believe that their lives is not separated but in some way very much connected to these gods. Humans need the gods because they are more powerful. People may have their free wills but still they need to follow these gods in order to live. These gods are interested with human affairs they are not passive observers but participated actively in their lives. Life for humans makes sense when they are able to please these gods and obtain favor from them. These gods can bring them either success or destruction. A part of the story that illustrates this and showed how they asked favor from deities is found in The Libation Bearers:
And one to Inachus the river-god, /
My young life’s nurturer, I dedicate, /
And one in sign of mourning unfulfilled/
I lay, though late, on this my father’s grave. /
For O my father, not beside thy corse/
Stood I to wail thy death, nor was my hand/
Stretched out to bear thee forth to burial. /
Orestes had laid down two locks of hair, one in respect to the river god, Inachus, for watching over him and the other was a tribute to his father. Orestes has asked Zeus to aid him in killing Clytemnestra. The goal is very important to him because it will not only pay for his father’s death but also free Electra and the citizens of the Argos from the hands and dictatorship of the oppressive woman Clytemnestra. It will enable Orestes to claim a throne that rightfully belongs to him. Orestes, Electra, and the chorus of slave women all pray in turn that the plot against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus will succeed or work out.
What sort of people does the deity punish? What sort of people does he or she favor? Why?
First, one should realize the characteristic of these gods in order for us to know why they do punish or give favor to some people like in this play. What rights to they have to give punishment? For example Apollo, the god of prophecy then appears with Hermes known as the Messenger God. Apollo told Orestes to leave for Athens while the Furies are sleeping. There, at the Temple of Athena, goddess of wisdom, he is to petition for a trial at which Apollo will plead His case. Hermes will accompany him to protect him from the Furies, who will pursue him after they awaken. In Eumenides one can find the following verse:
But he whose will is set against the gods, /
Who treads beyond the law with foot impure, /
Till o’er the wreck of Right confusion broods,-/
Know that for him, though now he sail secure, /
The day of storm shall be; then shall he strive and fail/
It is important to take heed or honor the will of the Gods. For example in Agamemnon humans faced destruction because they failed to acknowledge the gods and their laws. Guilty of killing an animal sacred to Artemis, she prevented Agamemnon and his armies from having favorable winds for their travel to Troy. The only way for him to change her decision was she decreed to sacrifice his daughter.
Agamemnon exhibited excessive pride on several occasions. As commander of the Greek forces he was hated by the gods. Lastly, he allowed his soldiers to desecrate the holy places of Troy. After his return to Argos, he allowed his pride to take over of him again, this time by allowing himself to walk in triumph on the purple carpet.
Pride was considered such a serious sin in ancient Greece because it placed too much emphasis on individual will, thereby rejecting the will of the state and the gods while endangering the community as a whole. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes showed reluctance when the time comes to kill Clytemnestra. His friend, Pylades however convinces him of the urgency of the act by reminding him that Apollo ordered the killing. In The Eumenides, everyone including even minor gods, the Furies can be observed accepting the will of Athena.
Secondly, the gods of Greek mythology are known to be inconsistent and deceptive, just like their humans counterparts. They violated laws themselves which they commanded humans to obey. For example, they frequently committed infidelity. They also laid, promoted violence, and displayed excessive pride. To understand her methods in this case, one must understand Artemis’ roles. First, she was a known protector of wild animals while also serving as the patron deity of hunters. She herself was a huntress. Artemis thus exhibited lack of sympathy toward two humans she was supposed to favor: a hunter and a virgin. In Agamemnon, Aeschylus does not openly deal with the issue of deception, but he does mention it intentionally in the choral.
Greek plays like Oresteia have illustrated one of the significant themes of the Greek literature and that is the role of gods and goddesses. It shows the characteristic of the Greek people to be religious because of their faith in different gods. These gods have shaped their culture and beliefs. Since most of their plays are forms of tragedies one can expect plots about violence, rebellions and injustices and how these gods have interfered with their affairs. They have the authority and capacity to influence their lives in a wide degree. These gods can even determine their fate. Characters must learn to submit to these gods and acknowledged their authority and power since they are known to take pride over their strength and might. The role of these god and goddesses are to be the guiding force, ruler and source of authority. If humans want to succeed they have to make sure that they gratify the desire or caprice of these gods or goddesses.
Cummings, M., “Agamemnon by Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) A Study Guide”
23 July 2009 <http://www.cummingstudyguides.net/>
Morshead, E., “Agamemnon by Aeschylus” Bulfinch’s Mythology. .
23 July 2009. < http://englishatheist.org/>
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