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Aaron King

University Studies 11C

May 25, 2007

Glenn Odom

Oresteia and Today


What can one say about the Oresteia? This problem has haunted me ever since the

professor described the myriad of interpretations to me freshmen year of college. Other authors,

such as Gewirtz, Bowie, and Konishi have had interpretations of their own about what the book

really means; the Oresteia and its author Aeschylus are subject to almost every point of view

imaginable. Commentaries, analysis, these are common forms of attacking the purpose of the

Oresteia. Most of the papers written consist of attempting to discover the author intent of the

book, however this is difficult as Aeschylus has been dead for hundreds of years and cannot

verify anything that is said about him. The use of Systems Theory to analyze the play disregards

author intent and cultural difference to gain a unique view of the Oresteia, and ultimately this

new view of the core systems will give more evidence of an evolutionary reading. It is my hope

that after contemplating this methodology of analysis readers will expand upon it and reveal

further insights that I have missed.


There have been, quite literally, hundreds of papers and books written analyzing the

Oresteia. Being nearly 2000 years old, it's not surprising. Most, if not all of these, have dealt

with its purpose in context of the ancient Greek world in which it was written. There have been

a lot of commentaries written about it, these seek to clarify Aeschylus's true intention.

Furthermore, many papers have been written using Aeschylus's 'true meaning' as evidence for

their own conclusions. The 'true meaning' of Aeschylus seems to change, however, from paper

to paper. Paul Gewirtz in Aeschylus’ Law uses and interprets the Oresteia through Aeschylus

with statements like “This understanding, however, fails to take account of the positive function

that Aeschylus clearly sees the furies playing in the new Order” (Gewirtz, 4). Gewirtz’s thesis,

that passion is a necessity for law and that law is gendered, are both grounded in what Aeschylus

was attempting to say. “This, then, is Aeschylus’ large claim about law: law and passion are

inseparable” (Gewirtz, 5) and “There is no doubt that Aeschylus portrays the solution of

inclusion far better” (Gewirtz, 11) rely on Aeschylus’s perspective to be the evidence.

Regardless of whether the claims are true, this use of evidence cannot be fully understood as

Aeschylus himself is dead, and thus is defunct. Aeschylus’s intent in weaving different aspects

of the play together is as ambiguous as the conclusion to the play itself. Haruo Konishi’s literary

commentary The Plot of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is just an example of another genre of analysis

done on the book directed at unearthing what Aeschylus’s intention was at every turn. The

commentary primarily revolves around Aeschylus; “What Aeschylus expected, presumably, is

that his audience would eventually realize that the Messenger was not from Agamemnon…”

(Konishi, 69). Again, this is an attempt to get at what Aeschylus ‘wanted’ to write, and again it

cannot be concretely proven. My interest does not lie in simply bringing a new interpretation of

the Oresteia to the table, but in attempting to uncover aspects about its structure that may have

been previously glossed over. Therefore, in order to effectively analyze the Oresteia, the

ambiguous intentions of Aeschylus must be ignored completely; any authorial intent cannot be

used as evidence for conclusions of any sort. Another type of mistake that has been made in the

past involved the audience. Aristotle himself analyzed the Oresteia and completely ignored the

audience aspect of the work, which I think fails to capture most of the meaning (Chioles, 2).

Systems Theory will therefore have to take into account the audience as well as discard author

intent, a difficult circumstance but not altogether impossible.

Systems Theory

The disassembly of the Oresteia into lesser systems utilizes the foundation of Systems

Theory. What, exactly, is Systems Theory? It is difficult to explain, and presently there seems to

be no discrete understanding of the methodology as a whole. The book The Emerging

Consensus in Social Systems Theory itself gives no actual definition, which should be taken as a

sign that the title is somewhat of an oxymoron. In this essay, however, the definition of Systems

Theory will be the process of breaking down complex actions and situations into separate,

understandable systems. There are several key systems within the Oresteia that contribute to its

meaning and discourse as a whole, and these can be explained not through the intention of

Aeschylus but through the utilization of natural systems of communication within the ancient

Greek world.

That being said, the approach used to analyze the Oresteia will be to find the main system

that each section revolves around and see how the lesser subsystems intersect and interact with it.

The advantage to this approach, instead of starting at the beginning, is that importance is not

dependent on chronological order. The beginning of each section may hold the key to the entire

plot, or it may be a boring setup of the characters and location.



Unfortunately there comes a time for due process of analysis-writing. In order to reveal

the systems that appear in the Oresteia, an unambiguous language must be used. To create an

analysis that can itself be interpreted many ways is self-defeating. Natural languages, such as the

spoken languages, have inherent ambiguity. The definition of some terms to remove

misunderstanding is necessary for the establishment of an environment of discrete conclusions.

Here are the definitions of certain terms used to analyze the Oresteia:

System - A group of variables and methods that interact with each other

Variable - A placeholder for an object

Constant - Replacement for a variable within a certain context

Method - A process, generally the focus of a Holistic System which requires participation by the

variables/constants it is involved with (white arrows)

Causality - The start of an event as a result of something else (black arrows or curly brackets)

Causal Anchor - Start point where a chain of events begins


I begin with the Agamemnon. The main plot of this segment is the death of Agamemnon,

which will be defined as the goal of the main system operating in this section. The direct

elements that come into play when looking at how Agamemnon died would be his killer,

Clytemnestra, and the reason she killed him. The direct system, then, looks something like this:

The version of the Oresteia used here is the translation by Richmond Lattimore. Whether or
not this version captures the grammatical essence of the Oresteia is not important, what is
important is the plot and I believe this version has described it with adequate accuracy. The book
was published in 1953 and the version used here is from 1992, which suggests that the version
does a good job at capturing the original meaning.

Clytemnestra, through a process (method), kills Agamemnon. The first thing to explore

would be that the process itself is another system. The process is the subversion of the ritual

sacrifice. The red robes, the leading of Agamemnon to his death, these all point to ritual

sacrifice. In order to really understand what this process is we must look at more of the plot.

The next intriguing question is what caused Clytemnestra to do what she did? Agisthus

certainly plays a role, but he is not so much a reason as an accomplice. The reason that

Clytemnestra gives in the play is that it is revenge for Agamemnon killing Ephygineia. Thus, the

system now is expanded out to be:

Now there is a reason behind Clytemnestra's actions. However, two more questions

appear, what is the method that Agamemnon and Ephygenia are engaged in, and what causes it?

Ephygenia is killed by Agamemnon through a ritual sacrifice to Zeus. The process does not, as

in the case of Clytemnestra’s actions, have a hidden meaning. This first method is the one

Agamemnon's death echoes, thus we can say that if the method leading to Ephygenia’s death is

D, the method leading to Agamemnon's death is D'.


What causes Agamemnon to sacrifice Ephygenia in the first place? Agamemnon wanted,

perhaps needed, to go to war. Within the world of the play, it was necessary that he sacrifice

Ephygenia to create the winds necessary to go to war. Artemis anchors the causality of

Ephygenia's death; it is taken as a truth that in the Oresteia she is angered at some eagles that ate

a mother hare and its unborn young. There is no cause for this event, it simply ‘happens’ before

the story takes place, demonstrating a key principle in the construction of a chain of events. The

book must start somewhere; therefore systems constructed using a literary basis cannot extend

beyond the literature itself.

What remains unclear are the effects of Agamemnon’s death, which is actually the next

section of the Oresteia. Before moving on, however, the presence of Cassandra should be

examined. From this system, it is clear that Cassandra, while dying alongside Agamemnon, does

not actually take part in the process leading to his death. Instead, she is aware of what is going

on and in her segment of the play describes the system before it actually occurs. Furthermore,

she actually alludes to another system entirely outside of the play in which infanticide was used

as a method of revenge between two brothers, which are represented as variables X and Y. The

subsystem that Cassandra invokes is in fact very similar to sacrifice of revenge, except that X

kills the offspring of Y in order to seek revenge against Y. The method of X and Y can be

described as D + D’. Agamemnon kills his own daughter and Clytemnestra seeks revenge

against Agamemnon, so it can be concluded that the invoked method Cassandra brings in is a

combination of these two. Thus, Cassandra is involved in a subsystem of the plot that has no

effect on the characters within the play but interacts with the audience. The method she is

involved in is a spoken speech with the chorus that reveals aspects of the plot. The final

Agamemnon system looks like this:

Instead of using the specific names from the Oresteia, they can be replaced with variables

that represent their relative status. In order to do this, an anchor point needs to be established to

relate everything to; in this case Agamemnon will be used as he is the focus of the Agamemnon:

The summation of what has transpired in the Agamemnon can be described as an ironic

twist of fate for the main character as the same method that he used to destroy that which he

loved (or at least was supposed to love) was used to destroy him, by someone who loved him (or

at least was supposed to love him). The story and methods of revenge are related to the audience

through a cohort of Agamemnon. However, all the events of the Agamemnon have not been

taken into account yet. The death of Agamemnon was preventable, but it happened nonetheless.

His death showcased a political failure, the failure to make decisions within a political body, as

seen in the scene in which the political body of Argos was arguing over what action to take as

Agamemnon was being stabbed to death. Since Ephygenia’s death was so similar, would it not

also showcase another political failure? In fact it does, her death leads to Agamemnon’s voyage

to Troy, a war of attrition which was so costly for him that the entire army is destroyed. These

two failures must be taken into account in the system of the Agamemnon; they are represented as

orange lines.

What can be concluded from this system setup are:

1) That the methods Agamemnon focuses on are ritual and perversion of ritual.

2) A character exists whose sole purpose is to relate the story to the audience.

3) Political failures are tied to the main methods of Agamemnon.

However, just as the charge potential of a single electrode cannot be measured without a

reference, a system does not gain much importance without something to compare it to. Perhaps

The Libation Bearers can shed some light onto Agamemnon.

The Libation Bearers

The main event in The Libation Bearers is the death of Clytemnestra. She is killed by her

son, Orestes, along with Aegisthus. Through the two deaths, Orestes is helped by a cohort,

Pylades. The main method here will be described by “V”. The primary system so far looks like


Two questions arise, what caused Orestes to do this and what do these deaths lead to?

Going backwards first, Orestes was charged by Apollo to kill Clytemnestra as a response to her

murder of Agamemnon. This causality anchors Orestes off to the Agamemnon. The system is

expanded to:

Clytemnestra’s death causes Orestes to be chased by the Furies, who attempt to inflict

punishment on him, and this concludes The Libation Bearers.


We see that the focus is not actually on just one method of vengeance but two. The first

(V) is revenge by a mortal on the whim of a deity and the second (V’) is based on the whim of a

mortal and carried out by a deity. Although all the events are a result of the Agamemnon, in The

Libation Bearers it is evident that a god, Apollo, is acting as a causal anchor to the plot. Orestes

changes from the transgressor to the victim between the two main methods. Looking back at the

system of Agamemnon, we see the very same system occurring, but a bit more complex. The

next question to ask is why should the Agamemnon be any more complex than The Libation


It is interesting to note that Electra and Cilissa are not in this system. In fact, both of

these characters have a lot of dialogue that seems to make no impact on whether Orestes does or

does not kill Clytemnestra. It would seem, then, that they take the place of Cassandra in the

Agamemnon; a pipeline of key ideas to the audience. Cilissa references the entire paradigm of

law and order with her speech about young Orestes (however it does not mirror method V), and

of course Electra has the entire beginning of the section devoted to her.

Each of the vengeance methods that Orestes is involved in seems to mirror that which

Agamemnon was involved in. Consequently these both showcase political failures; the first

method showcases a traitorous plot against the head of state, in which those who are charged to

protect Clytemnestra and Agisthus fail as a result of conspiracy. In the second method, Orestes

flees the city because of the furies, leaving the city without a leader and in a state of chaos.

How does one interpret this system? It practically mirrors the system for Agamemnon.

In fact, replacing the variables from the Agamemnon system with names from The Libation

Bearers gives nearly the same plot. The only difference is that another method is invoked by the

cohort of Orestes outside of the play, which implies that rather than restating the vengeance cycle

another message is being transmitted to the audience.

The Eumenidies

This section of the Oresteia focuses on a different system than the other two. There are

no murders in The Eumenidies; instead the main system is Athena pardoning Orestes:

What results from Athena pardoning Orestes? Peace throughout the land, and a happy

ending; this is the end of the play. What causes Athena to pardon Orestes? A stalemate between

the men of Attica in deciding his fate causes Athena to step in and cast a deciding vote.

How does this stalemate come to pass? A judicial process precedes Athena’s final

judgment. Orestes and the Furies debate (B) first. Orestes’ logic begins to falter and Apollo

steps in to debate for him. These two processes ultimately must lead to the stalemate, because

this is the only evidence that exists in the trial. Now the system looks like:

But what sparks the trial in the first place? Between the Furies chasing Orestes and the

Furies arguing with Orestes, something must take place. Athena stops the furies wrath upon

Orestes and invokes the trial in response to his plight; the goddess Athena seems to be the causal

anchor of the Eumenidies.

What is intriguing here is that it was entirely godly intervention that saved Orestes. He

was unable to overcome the wrath that pursued him, he was unable to give sufficient evidence

for himself, and ultimately his fate rested in the hands of Athena. Ultimately, the trial that took

place in the Oresteia was more of an argument between gods than people.

While this model reveals certain things, one last event must be accounted for before it can

be called complete. The fate of the furies at the end is a direct result of the outcome of the trial.

Because Athena voted with Orestes, it caused her to have to calm the Furies:

Something of interest to note here before continuing is that Athena coerces the Furies as a

side effect of the trials result. The three complete systems are shown below for comparison:




From these systems one can conclude:

1) Based on the similarity of the first two systems and the difference of the last one, a

paradigm shift has occurred. In context of the entire book, the focus seems to be on this

paradigm shift and its outcome.

2) Political failures are directly tied to vengeance methods, along with a recursive property

that eventually leads back to the instigator. The lack of political failures and vengeance

methods in the third book suggests that the new paradigm is better than the previous one.

3) Electra, Cilissa, and Cassandra all serve as information pipelines to the audience; as such

their role is explicitly based on an interaction with the audience. At this point it is unclear

what ramifications this has, but it seems that the lack of this kind of character in the

Eumenidies indicates that a message is not necessary to the audience, possibly because at

this point further change is unnecessary.

4) Divine entities anchor off every section. While it seems possible that this is the

representation of a greater idea, it is important to remember that every story needs a

beginning and the beginning involves a causal anchor, which would be easiest to

manufacture using ideas that require no explanation.

5) There is a uniformity of the methods in Agamemnon but there seems to be no uniformity

in The Libation Bearers. V and V’ do not match up with R, indicating that the message

being communicated by Cilissa does not match the main methods of the section.

Author’s Note:
Through this analysis I hope you gain a better understanding of how Systems Theory can
be applied to literature and especially the Oresteia. If you perhaps see a hole that can be filled
or a new branch of a system that has yet to be explored, I implore you to focus your concentrated
attention on it. Time is all that is required to derive the truth.

Influencing Works
Bausch, Kenneth C. The Emerging Consensus in Social Systems Theory. New York:
Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2001.

Bowie, A. M. "Religion and Politics in Aeschylus' Oresteia." The Classical Quarterly

(1993): 10-31.

Chioles, John. "The Oresteia and the Avant-Garde: Three Decades of Discourse."
Performing Arts Journal 15.3 (1993): 1-28.

Gewirtz, Paul. "Aeschylus' Law." Harvard Law Review (1988): 1043-1055.

Konishi, Haruo. The Plot of Aeschylus' Oresteia. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1990.

Lattimore, Richmond. Aeschylus I. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953.

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