The Oresteia (sometimes called The House of Atreus) is kinda/sorta the story of Orestes who kills Clytemnestra, his mother, in retribution for her murder of his father, Agamemnon. This story unfolds in three short plays by Aeschylus and it offers a new twist on a story that we’ve heard previously in the Odyssey – Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of Clytemnestra upon his return from the Trojan war.

The only previous motivation I knew about for Agamemnon’s murder was that Clytemnestra was having an affair with Aegisthus – Agamemnon’s cousin. This story reveals a much more nuanced rationale for Clytemnestra’s actions.

For one thing, Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis during the Trojan war. Maybe this is told in more detail in the Iliad (but I haven’t read that).

Additionally, it seems like Aegisthus’ family was pretty abused by Atreus. Atreus, in point of fact, tricked Thyestes (Aegisthus’ father) into eating his own children – motivations here are not explained, really – and then Agamemnon exiled Aegisthus and Thyestes.

When people talk about Agamemnon’s murder in the Odyssey everyone seems to hate Clytemnestra for it – in fact, it’s interesting, the names Cassandra, Electra, and Penelope are still somewhat common in modern times but I’ve never met anyone named Clytemnestra. History judged Clytemnestra harshly but I’ll say it: damn, did Agamemnon ever have it coming!

For some reason the “Harvard Classics” collection calls the last play in the trio that make up the Oresteia The Furies rather than The Eumenidies (i.e., The Kindly Ones – which is also my favorite book in The Sandman). Just as with The Odyssey I read a more modern translation; several in fact.

I started reading the translation in the Harvard classics collection by E.D.A. Morshead and the prose is lyrical if slightly soporific. I realized I needed a new translation when I nearly skipped over the part where Agamemnon kills his daughter:

And so he steeled his heart–ah, well-a-day– Aiding a war for one false woman’s sake, His child to slay, And with her spilt blood make An offering, to speed the ships upon their way!

And I thought: hold up – did Agamemnon just murder his daughter so he could get sailing?

I found the book An Oresteia which is a collection of plays translated by Anne Carson. This collection tells the same story as Aeschylus’ Oresteia but using the plays Agamemnon by Aeschylus, Electra by Sophocles, and Orestes by Euripides. I really enjoyed Anne Carson’s translation. It was elegant and modern and lyric and I wish I could have read all of the plays translated by Carson. A couple of random quotes I enjoyed:

CHORUS: Brave Girl

KASSANDRA: People never say that to a lucky person do they?


KLYTAIMESTRA: This man who, without a second thought, as if it were a goat dying, sacrificed his own child, my most beloved, my birthpang, my own


KLYTAIMESTRA: You call this deed mine? And I his wife? You’re wrong! Some ancient bitter spirit of revenge disguised as Agamemnon’s wife arose from Atreus’ brutal feast to sacrifice this man for those little children.

I also think that my interpretation of the plays may have been heavily influenced by the translation of Agamemnon. Mainly insofar as I end up with quite a bit of pathos with Clytemnestra and Cassandra (the oracle from Troy that Agamemnon captured and brought back to Greece).

I was determined to read the 3 Aeschylus plays, so I ended up skipping over to the translation of The Libation Bearers and The Eumenidies by Robert Fagles.

Nothing really happens in The Libation Bearers. It’s a few years later. Electra (Agamemnon’s non-sacrificial daughter) visits Agamemnon’s grave and Orestes returns and they talk about how sad they are that Agamemnon was killed. One weird piece of dialog was when Elecrta says, “Mother’s pawned us for a husband” and I thought – does anyone remember Iphigenia?

tl;dr: Orestes murders Clytemnestra and the Furies are fucking furious about it.

In contrast to the Libation Bearers which is just soooo boring, The Eumenidies is super interesting and it’s basically Apollo, Athena, and the Furies in a Law & Order type court room drama talking about who it’s OK to murder.

The Furies think it’s OK to murder people you aren’t related to; i.e., not, say, your mom or your daughter coughOrestescoughAgamemnoncough. Meanwhile, Apollo thinks it’s OK to murder people the god’s ask you to murder. I’m a don’t murder anyone ever-type myself, but I think that if we’re saying murdering is OK then the Furies at least have an ethos. Apollo’s argument seems a little capricious for a system of law. A jury of Orestes’ peers isn’t sure, Athena is on Apollo’s side so Orestes walks. The Furies are placated by Athena who says that they’ll dole out justice to Athens in the future. The fact that the Athenian idea of justice is confusing as fuck is mentioned by no one.

The end.