The Oresteia


As Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia, the only trilogy to survive from ancient Greece, he filled it with double-meanings, vivid and oftentimes gory imagery, and more themes than most scholars could unravel in a lifetime. Aeschylus takes many common themes and transforms them into a perverse version of their accustomed meaning. One example of this can be found in the recurring image of light. Whereas many authors and poets use this image in a context such that light exemplifies all that is good and right, Aeschylus uses it quite differently. Most every appearance of light in Agamemnon is saturated with irony, suggesting to the reader that their initial notion of light may not hold true through the course of the trilogy. The paradox of light as a bad omen continues through the Libation Bearers, until a point in the Eumenides such that it is restored to its natural connotations.


As Agamemnon opens, a prologue given by a night watchman offers no indication that light means anything other than that with which it might normally be associated. He remarks that he is watching for the fire signaling the Greeks’ victory at Troy (Ag. 10-11). He even goes so far as to call this signal a “godsend” in the dark (Ag. 23). The use of light in both of these statements has undertones that evoke the thought of light as a pleasant and hopeful image. Until near the end of the prologue, it seems that all is as it should be.


Shortly after these statements are made, however, the watchman says, “A throw of the torch has brought us triple-sixes (Ag. 34-35).” Although the modern implications of this number were likely not evoked with an audience of Aeschylus’ time, the presence of such a symbol in what should be a well-intended line cannot go unnoticed by a contemporary audience. This is the first hint to today’s reader or listener that light may not be as good a sign as he or she had been led to believe. Even if this statement is understood by its archaic meaning of a lucky dice roll, it nonetheless marks a transition from the final good implication of light within Agamemnon to the remainder of the trilogy’s more dismal outlook upon it.


Moving further into the Oresteia, the first truly bad connotation of light comes in the parodos of Agamemnon. The chorus finds Clytaemnestra lighting altar fires to celebrate the fall of Troy. They ask the queen why she goes through the citadel burning victims on blazing altars. (Ag. 96, 99) What should have been a sacred ritual is instantly transformed into a gruesome image of death. The next hundred or so lines do not mention light itself, but rather relate to the audience the tale of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia. It is no coincidence that as the connotation of light changes more to one associated with darkness, the mood of the play also darkens. This is actually alluded to by the chorus members when they say, “Now the darkness comes to the fore” (Ag. 107).


Once the initial image of light in a negative context has passed, the mention of light within the text becomes more ironic. The doubts which Aeschylus’ double-meanings are beginning to foster, coupled with the fact that previous readers or listeners already know of Agamemnon’s soon-to-occur demise, cause each reference to light to be thought of in a new manner. When Clytaemnestra exclaims, “Let the new day shine!” (Ag. 264), she, and the audience as well, know that with the new day come the double murders of Agamemnon and Cassandra. The ideas that would normally be evoked from such an uplifting statement are lost as the audience instead dwells upon the gory violence that is soon to occur.


Discussion of light then moves back to the signal fire from Troy. The chorus begins to wonder if the signal really means what the queen has told them, or if it might not even be sending the wrong message by the mistake of an over-eager man with the first torch (Ag. 467-474) It can be concluded from the conversation between Clytaemnestra and the chorus that her true reason for this chain of fire was to allow her to prepare for her husband’s homecoming. With the progression