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This chapter presents the first detailed study of afterlife heroic power in the Oresteia. Aeschylus only uses the word “hero” (hērōs) once in his plays, for the anonymous powerful ancestors who send and receive the expedition to Troy in the Agamemnon. But in the Choephoroi, Agamemnon is prayed to as powerful at his tomb, and in the Eumenides, Orestes predicts his own heroic power from beyond the grave. The Oresteia famously relocates these two mythical heroes to Argos to associate them with that city’s treaty with Athens. This chapter demonstrates that the representation of father and son after death reverses expectations not only from the world external to the play, but also from their living actions within the trilogy. Agamemnon becomes an ethically whitewashed ancestor figure; conversely, Orestes, who killed his mother, becomes a political hero. These radical afterlife transformations are a major part of the Oresteia’s “poetics of the beyond.”
The Ghost of Clytemnestra is the first afterlife figure in extant Greek literature to call for vengeance instead of ritual burial. Speaking for the sake of her own soul (psychē), the Ghost cites the ethical wrongs done to her as a mother killed by her own son and as a queen dishonored in the afterlife. The Ghost’s claims, however, have never been seriously considered by scholars. By contrast, the Erinyes do take up her cause, chasing down Orestes and arguing a universal version of Clytemnestra’s case in the trial. This chapter delves into the specifics of the Ghost’s rhetoric, her metatheatrical self-awareness, and her first-person depiction of the afterlife. The living Clytemnestra has already proven manipulative, politically usurping, and murderous; she continues these behaviors after death. Further, the Ghost’s lack of substance (as image, soul, or dream of the Erinyes) distances her from the living world. How can a character so far outside of societal norms demand serious ethical consideration?
Announcing victory in the Trojan War, the Herald has been seen as a cheerful character, thoroughly enjoying life. Why, then, does he dwell on his own grave from the moment of his arrival? Why does he attempt to silence lament and, unsuccessfully, any speech about his fallen companions? The Herald never directly mentions the afterlife and insists on treating death as the end of all ties to life. Nevertheless, his approach to his own death and to the war dead serves as indispensable background for the rest of the trilogy. The Herald’s traumatized approach to warfare and death contrasts with his official function. His attempt at guiding social memory excludes the dead as impinging on society’s profit (kerdos) or glory from war. He reckons them out of the account with the language of calculation and voting. We thus see individual and societal values being formed in response to death as closure, in ways the Oresteia will later overturn and complicate. Moreover, the Herald provides the first mention of heroes as worshipped beings, of Hades, and of the “unseen” forces that affect human fate.
The extended mourning for Agamemnon in the kommos scene of the Choephoroi dramatizes relationships to the dead not found previously in the trilogy. Unlike in the Agamemnon, in the kommos, death is neither an end point nor a peaceful rest. Instead, the mourners repeatedly alternate contradictory conceptualizations of Agamemnon’s existence and power in the beyond: They insist on his outraged, avenging spirit; paradoxically, they also refer to his honored place among kings in the underworld. At some points, they call on him to send his power from below; at others, they beg him to rise from the dead. None of the characters seems to know which of these possible afterlives, if any, are true. The “poetics of multiplicity” evident in the kommos affects the emotional, epistemic, and ethical aspects of the scene. The Chorus’s contrafactual image of Agamemnon as glorious king in the afterlife, jammed against their insistence on his dishonored death and burial, compels Orestes to begin the second coup d’état. It is potentially the first instance in extant Greek literature in which a fictional depiction of the afterlife motivates extreme political action.
The Eumenides contains one of the earliest descriptions anywhere of Hades as a universal judge. The Erinyes threaten Orestes with a continuation of his punishment after death by “the great assessor of mortals beneath the earth.” This passage contains the first extant catalogue of Hades’ ethical concerns: he is said to punish human–divine, parent–child, and guest–host transgressions. Although he “sees all things,” the name Hades derives from a-idein, literally the “unseen,” a moniker that exemplifies the human inability to confront this nonpolitical, absolute judge. By differentiating Hades from the Erinyes, this chapter draws out the dynamics of his character and ethical law. Like them, Hades’ connection with blood and punishment entails pollution, but unlike them, he is never subordinated to Athens. The analysis then contrasts Hades’ law to the “new law” that Athena creates. It argues that Hades represents an alternate, yet still valid ethical code that can be used to critique the jingoistic and bellicose politics of the trilogy’s ending.
The Chorus of the Agamemnon depict death and the afterlife in diverse ways, both in their dramatic role as the Elders of Argos and in their more universal choral songs. This chapter examines the ethical and political values their contradictory references imply, whether any affect their actions as characters, and how each links to other themes in the trilogy. The Elders go further than the Herald by not only treating death as oblivion at some points but even actively wishing death at others. In what way does this seeming escapism, contrasted with their emphasis on a good death as glorious, affect their resistance to the coup d’état? How does their story of returning casualties color the Argive critique of the Trojan War? The choral songs introduce different types of afterlives into the trilogy: in the memory of the living, at the grave, through the psyche that survives after death, in the possibility of resurrection, and even as a realm of punishment for ethical wrongs. The rest of the Oresteia significantly develops many of the Elders’ wide-ranging speculations.
The introduction provides necessary background on Ancient Greek religious and literary ideas about the afterlife, methods for analyzing ethics in literature that several of the chapters will challenge, a working definition of tragic poetics, and historical context and preliminary definitions relevant for political structures and themes in the Oresteia.
In the Oresteia’s central scene, Cassandra tells of being cursed by Apollo to foretell the future but be disbelieved. The Trojan princess, who “cheated” the god in a violent sexual encounter, who survived her city’s extirpation, goes to her own known doom bravely, predicting Agamemnon’s death and vengeance to come. Yet there is an unexplored aspect to this famous and moving scene – Cassandra’s hint of her own continuation in the afterlife. It seems (eoika) to her that she will soon be singing prophecies in Hades. This chapter argues that attention to Cassandra’s potential afterlife changes how we view her prophecies of death and vengeance, her rebellion against Apollo and Clytemnestra, her bravery, her language of closure, and the ironies each of these entail. Moreover, the “poetics of plurality” uncovered in Cassandra’s statement and its uncertain status sophisticate and perhaps even reverse our understanding of her fate.
Poetic, religious, and philosophical engagement with the beyond transcends cultures and time periods. The notion of the afterlife has always operated both literally and as a metaphor. Issa evokes the thin crust separating everyday life from the cavernous domain of death, ever present but disregarded. Zweig incites us, through Freud’s continuing influence, to examine unconscious, violent forces, both in our individual psyches and on a global level. Achebe narrates the rituals surrounding dead ancestors and the role that their masked impersonators play in traditional life, including the active mediation of quarrels for the sake of the community.
The Oresteia is permeated with depictions of the afterlife, which have never been examined together. In this book, Amit Shilo analyzes their intertwined and conflicting implications. He argues for a 'poetics of multiplicity' and a 'poetics of the beyond' that inform the ongoing debates over justice, fate, ethics, and politics in the trilogy. The book presents novel, textually grounded readings of Cassandra's fate, Clytemnestra's ghost scene, mourning ritual, hero cult, and punishment by Hades. It offers a fresh perspective on the political thought of the trilogy by contrasting the ethical focus of the Erinyes and Hades with Athena's insistence on divine unity and warfare. Shedding new light on the trilogy as a whole, this book is crucial reading for students and scholars of classical literature and religion.
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