GREEK TRAGEDY: AESCHYLUS, WEAVING AND BIRTH, a lecture by Ricardo Nirenberg. Fall 1996, the University at Albany, Project of greece


The other day we talked about the Otherworld, especially as described in Mesopotamian myths, and we dealt with a hard fact of our human condition: we die. Today we'll talk about the Greeks, and we will, near the end, be concerned with another hard fact of our human condition: we are born of a mother. But we can't talk about the Greeks without mentioning, first of all, the two long epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which, according to tradition, were composed by Homer. This is because those two poems were—culturally if not religiously—as important to the Greeks as the Bible was, and is, to Jews and Christians. Most important characters and most stories which appear in Greek tragedy had appeared already in Homer, and were therefore familiar to the Greek public.

Let us summarize: the Iliad opens with the Greek army camped outside Troy; Agamemnon is the general-in-chief; the Greeks want to capture Troy because one of its princes, Paris, has eloped with Helen, the beautiful wife of Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother. The Greeks are having a hard time because after a quarrel with King Agamemnon, Achilles, the best warrior in the army, decides to quit fighting and stays in his tent. It took ten years for the Greeks to conquer Troy. The Odyssey opens after Troy has fallen, and tells the story of the return home of another Greek king, Odysseus. After another ten years of marvelous adventures and much suffering, Odysseus manages, with the help of the goddess Athena, to get back to his home in Ithaka, and to his wife, Penelope. He also slaughters the many suitors who were pestering her. For more than 2,000 years these two epic poems had the most profound influence on Western imagination, on art, on poetry and prose.

The Homeric poems were transmitted orally at first, sung by "rhapsodes" (the Greeks had a writing system at the time of the Trojan war, about 1200 BC, but it was forgotten; another writing system, an alphabetic one derived from the Semitic alphabet, appeared in Greece in the 8th century BC). The Underworld in these poems is called Hades and is quite similar to the realm Inanna wished to conquer: muddy and dark, inhabited by phantoms. In Book 11 of the Odyssey the hero, Odysseus, descends into Hades to consult with the deceased seer and prophet Teiresias, to ask him what he must do to return home. The shades of the dead are thirsty (a belief common to many cultures), and they must drink blood before they speak. Odysseus kills a lamb and an ewe and lets their blood stream into a pit, whereupon the shades crowd around so thick that he draws his sword to keep them away. You might ask, why should those who cannot die again shrink before a sword: this goes to prove that great poetry doesn't have to be realistic. After learning from Teiresias what fate has in store for him, Odysseus sees the shade of his mother, who tells him that after he sailed for the war in Troy she died because of her loneliness for him. Did Odysseus have a Jewish mother?—so far scholars have not addressed the question. A lovely touch: before she vanishes the mother recommends, "Note all things strange seen here, to tell your lady (Penelope, Odysseus' wife) in after days." The Greeks loved a good story above all. Odysseus talks to other shades, including Agamemnon, who, upon returning home, had been murdered by his wife, Clytemnaestra: today we will have much to say about them, and about what another great poet, Aeschylus, did with that story.

This brings us to our present subject: Greek tragedy. Why talk about Greek tragedy? One reason is: because there we find some of the most powerful myths dealing with the hard facts of our human condition. And there is another good reason: Greek tragedy, as we will see, exemplifies a way of thinking and feeling, which we may call the tragic way. We owe to the Greeks the invention of three RELATED ways of thinking, ways of feeling, without which our own human identity today would be utterly different:

(1) The axiomatic method and mathematical proof, the theme of my first lecture;

(2) Philosophy, defined the other day as the question opened by the possibility that nothing happens after death—this titanic, heroic struggle with the concept of not-being will be the subject of my next lecture;

(3) Three dramatic genres—tragedy, comedy and satyr plays.

(Let me insist on that word, RELATED: the aim of education is not just to get you a good job; it is to get you to relate—and to relate to—concepts, ideas, ways of feeling, which seem totally unrelated). Today we will discuss Greek tragedy, which, I hope to show, embodies a definite way of feeling and thinking.

In recent years, scholars have been discovering how much the Greeks owed to the Semitic nations to the East. Their alphabet, to start with, and much of their technology, including metal craft, medicine and magic. Epic poems were certainly not the invention of the Greeks, and scholars search for influences of Sumero-Akkadian epics such as Gilgamesh on the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. Odysseus' descent into Hades, in particular, may owe much to Eastern models, and although the Queen of the Underworld is called Persephone by Homer, Greek documents have been found with magical recipes in which she is called just like in the Sumerian myth we discussed last time: Ereshkigal. Mathematics as such was not the invention of the Greeks either: the Pythagorean theorem was known to the Akkadians or Babylonians a thousand years before Pythagoras, but as far as we know no one ever thought to prove it before the Greeks. Tragic theater as we know it originated with the Greeks, even though the important word "scene," skéna in Greek, seems to have come from the Akkadian, where it meant a tent, a temporary habitation. Incidentally, that most Western of all words, Europe, too, is thought to come from the Akkadian.

We are not going to get into the vexed and difficult question of the origin of Greek tragedy—whether, for example, it had anything to do with the orgiastic rites of Dionysus,who, like the Christian god, died a violent death and was resurrected, and whose worship came from the north of Greece, from Thrace. We will concentrate on Aeschylus, the earliest tragic poet whose work has been preserved—seven dramas remain, although he wrote many more, now lost. Aeschylus died in 456 BC; in his epitaph, written by himself, he proudly mentions that he fought in the battle of Marathon against the Persians, but doesn't say a word about his plays. Of the seven dramas, we will deal with Aeschylus' masterpiece, his trilogy, or set of three plays: Agamemnon, The Choephori (the libation bearers; libations were offerings of wine or oil poured on the ground in honor of the dead or the gods), and The Eumenides.

From a very general point of view, tragedy is concerned with ethical problems: what is good and what is bad, what is bad and what is worse, and what are the penalties for bad or worse deeds. Unlike most of modern drama which we call "entertainment," Greek tragedy does not assume that those values, "good," "bad," "worse," are already clear and universally accepted; on the contrary, it pits values against one another so that arguments, equally persuasive, almost like geometric proofs, are given for both conflicting sides. We often hear or read: "Greek tragedies are great works," or more generally: "Greek thought was great." This doesn't tell us much. Why are those great? Where does their "greatness" reside? This is what's magnificent about Greek thought: in the same way as the ancient Greeks didn't trust intuition or common sense when it came to the Pythagorean theorem or the uniqueness of the center of a circle, but insisted on logical proof, they didn't trust intuition, prejudice or instinct when confronted with moral or political values. Everything was open to question, to quest.

But questions are never asked in a vacuum; as we saw in connection with Euclidean geometry, there must be assumptions, and these are of two kinds. First, those which, however problematic, are explicitly stated—the five Euclidean axioms, for example, or, in the case of ethics, that murder calls for retribution, for revenge. Secondly, those assumptions which do not surface at all, which remain hidden, and, although necessary for the questioning and evidently operating in it, do not become questions themselves, because not formulated, not even thought. We saw that the intersection of two circles was taken as a given by Euclid, even though logically nothing warranted it, and it never arose as a problem in his work. Indeed, it took more than two thousand years for creative mathematicians to question the assumption that the two circles meet. Similarly, a creative reading of Greek tragedy means this: to make explicit the assumptions which are not explicitly stated in the plays but only become clear after careful analysis. In the case of tragedy, these assumptions will not be of a logical kind, as in geometry, but will rather have to do with the hard facts of our human condition.

Again, from a general point of view, Aeschylus' trilogy is concerned with the specific ethical problem of retribution for murder—or, using a revealing metaphor (how revealing we will discuss later), for spilling blood. The political implications are easy to spot: if the next-of-kin must avenge the blood of a murdered person, this may lead to an unending chain of retaliation where many citizens are killed, weakening the city-state, the pólis. Thus, to stabilize the community, the task of revenge is entrusted to the state and its judicial system. In the same way as the axiomatic method was created to avoid the abyss of infinite regression in logical proofs, state justice was created to avoid the abyss of infinite progression in murder.

Agamemnon, king of Argos, was guilty of several blood crimes. His father, Atreus, had done a horrible thing. Thyestes, Atreus' brother, wanted to supplant him as king and had seduced his sister-in-law, a situation that may remind you of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Atreus feigned reconciliation, invited his brother to dinner, and served him the flesh of his nephews, Thyestes' sons (cooked, of course). The guilt of this horrible crime devolved on Atreus' heir, Agamemnon, according to a most ancient law whereby the parents' guilt was inherited by children. Furthermore, Agamemnon had done some horrible deeds himself: as he and his army were ready to sail and fight against Troy, the gods or their interpreters, the diviners, decreed that to get a favorable breeze for sailing, Agamemnon's young daughter, Iphigeneia, had to be offered in sacrifice. So the king sent for her, telling his wife, Clytemnestra, that he wanted to marry the girl to Achilles. The girl was slain, and the army sailed off. After ten years of fighting, Troy was conquered and razed to the ground, but Clytemnestra never forgave her husband. As you see, what we, usually unthinkingly and often self-righteously, call "family values," constituted a problem for the Greeks.

Aeschylus' Agamemnon opens with a night watchman on the roof of the palace, waiting for the beacon that will tell of the fall of Troy and the return of the king. Is it a coincidence that the first great tragedy of modern times, Shakespeare's Hamlet, opens, too, with night watchmen on the roof of a palace, anxious about foul deeds going on below? I don't know.

In the first song of the chorus (lines 176-9 of the Agamemnon) we hear, from the mouths of the old men of Argos: "(God) opened one road for human wisdom, establishing the rule: we learn through suffering." We have already talked about the first axiom operating in tragedy: murder calls for retribution. Here we encounter the second axiom of the tragic way of thinking: Suffering is the only way of learning. We may feel tempted to say, those Greek poets were masochists, but that would be imposing a much later psychological category on Greek thought; suffering need not be brought about by ourselves: Destiny is most often the agency, and destiny was a much respected and feared agency among the ancients. Some suffer and learn nothing, others suffer and grow wise.

The third axiom, often repeated by the chorus in the Agamemnon, is a principle which Euclid would have called a "common notion" rather than an axiom, since it was fundamental in all Greek ethical thought, as well as in Greek art, not just in tragedy: measure, the middle ground between two extremes, is always to be sought. Too much of anything is bad. Too much wealth, the chorus of old men sings in the Agamemnon, brings misfortune, and Greek medicine (Hippocrates) considered health a middle ground: too much health, in other words, was tantamount to sickness! The opposite of measure was called "hubris," and it was hubris which often brought disaster upon epic and tragic heroes. Those ethical axioms:

  1. Retribution
  2. Learning through suffering
  3. That the middle ground is always good

are the three basic axioms of Greek tragedy. It is important to keep these defining axioms in mind, especially since the words "tragedy" and "tragic" are used nowadays in loose and irresponsible senses, meaning anything that's bloody and sad.

I assume you all have read the Oresteian trilogy. The plot is easily summarized, and, anyway, the public in Athens were not there for the suspense, since they already knew the story. Agamemnon returns carrying as a slave lovely Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy. Clytemnestra persuades her husband to tread on blood-red cloth on his way to the palace, where, unseen by the public (for there are never killings on the scene in Greek tragedy), she murders Agamemnon and Cassandra, not before the latter, talking to the unbelieving chorus, prophesies all that's about to happen. Clytemnestra then appears before the chorus, proud of her deed, and Aegisthus, her lover, the son of Thyestes and cousin of Agamemnon, announces he's the new ruler, all the while threatening the horrified old men.

The next play, the Choephori, opens seven years later, with a chorus of women, servants of Clytemnestra. They, together with princess Elektra, are about to offer libations of wine and oil at the grave of the dead king. They all yearn for the arrival of prince Orestes, Agamemnon's son, the only one who can avenge his father's murder. Orestes appears with his friend Pylades (corresponding to Horatio in Hamlet); Orestes has been commanded by the great god Apollo to kill the murderers and, using subterfuge, he succeeds in killing first Aegisthus, then Clytemnestra.

In the third play, the Eumenides, Orestes is pursued, haunted by the Furies or Erinyes, who want to exact the awful penalty for matricide. He goes to Athens where, at the court of the Areopagus, the gods discuss what to do. Apollo defends Orestes, the Erinyes want his head. The jury is divided, and Athena casts the deciding vote, favoring Orestes. So much for the plots.

Let's now try to read what's not explicitly said, either in the axioms or otherwise. There's no single way of reading any text, but some ways are better than others—better woven, we may say: the word "text" itself originally meant something woven. When we write, we weave; when we read, we weave and unweave. We also weave plots. These three tragedies can be read as dramas of weaving, where we must understand the word "weave" as a complex and extremely rich metaphor. In the remainder of this lecture I'll try to justify this. Among the Greeks, as among many other ancient cultures, women were weavers; indeed, a possible but not certain etymology of our word "wife" derives it from "weaver": a wife was originally a weaver. In the Iliad, when the Trojan hero Hector bids good-bye to his wife, his main fear is that she will end up weaving, as a slave, at some Greek loom. Odysseus' wife, Penelope, was famous for her trick of keeping her suitors waiting while she wove a shroud for her father-in-law during the day and unwove it at night. Both Hector's and Odysseus' wives were good weavers, good wives. Clytemnestra, instead, was the evil weaver, and this not only in a metaphorical sense, because she wove an evil plot to kill her husband, but, in the literal, non-metaphorical sense, because she wove evil fabrics: the long blood-red or crimson silk drape on which Agamemnon is made to walk was dyed with the color extracted from a shell-fish coming from Phoenicia, and was extremely expensive; it was as if, today, we paved a road with hundred-dollar bills. So one can say: Agamemnon was persuaded by his wife to indulge in conspicuous consumption, which for the Greeks was hubris, a deadly sin. But, over and beyond that, the crimson color symbolizes blood—the blood shed by Atreus, the blood of sacrificed Iphigeneia, the blood of the many thousands who perished before Troy for Agamemnon's military glory. When Clytemnestra says: "There's the sea—who shall exhaust the sea? The sea which unceasingly renews the crimson dye...", she is hinting at the unceasingly renewed shedding of blood. Then there is that fatal robe of the same color, crimson, in which Clytemnestra envelops and immobilizes her husband before she kills him; this fatal robe is the trap she has woven; it is the single most dramatic object and it reappears at all the supreme moments in the plays: seven years later, in the second play, Orestes shows it to the people as proof of his mother's perfidy, and in the third play Apollo invokes it to defend Orestes against the Furies.

The evil weaver is explicitly likened to the patient spider: Clytemnestra has waited ten years to trap her husband in her fatal web, to envelop him in that crimson robe; when the old men of the chorus see Agamemnon's corpse at his wife's feet, they lament (twice!) that "the king has been caught in a spider's web." Aeschylus uses six different Greek words to refer to webs and nets (something lost in translation), and nets and webs and spiders are an obsession running through the three plays. Try to count how many times they appear—my guess is at least thirty. Electra, on the other hand, is a good weaver, a good girl; one of the tokens by which she recognizes her brother is that he's wearing the garment she has woven for him. Notice that bad weavers are selfish, while good weavers always weave for the benefit of others (mostly men): in the Odyssey too Penelope was weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, and Athena, whom the Greeks considered the master of all weavers, used to weave wonderful lies and deceptions for the benefit of her protégé Odysseus.

Horror of the spider, of the selfish, fatal weaver in the dark, is ever present in our three dramas. This horror is sometimes made explicit, sometimes not. So far we have talked about two main senses of the word "weave": the literal sense of weaving fabrics, webs or nets, and the metaphorical sense of weaving texts, stories, plots, plans, lies, deceptions, etc. But there is still another metaphorical sense of the word "weave" which becomes a main theme only in the last of the three plays, when the god Apollo gives a lecture to the jury on how we, human beings, are conceived and born. We have seen that our word "text" comes from the Latin word for "weaving": so does our word "tissue". And tissue is our technical name for the substance of our bodies, for the basis of our identity, for our flesh.

Technology changes things so much that old ways and views of life become almost unintelligible for us: in our age of big factories and mechanical looms, we are well past the age of woman's exclusive role as weaver of clothes. But until science finds a new technique, our tissues, our human identity, will be woven in the darkness of a woman's womb. Apollo was a solar god, a god of light, and he couldn't tolerate that mysterious weaving in the dark. The hard fact that our human identity is shaped where no one can see what's going on, where, as we now know, the mother's moods, the mother's food and drink, the mother's thoughts, maybe even the mother's intestinal gas, affect the way the neurons of the fetus are wired and therefore its whole identity—for Apollo this hard fact was an outrage. Only for Apollo? Think about it: shouldn't this fact be an outrage, too, for any technological mind, anyone bent on quality control?

So in the third play, the Eumenides, while defending Orestes, who had killed his own mother, Apollo makes an amazing statement: The mother is not the true parent of the child, the father is. The womb is just the place where the totally formed child—formed by the father—receives protection and nourishment until it's born. To prove it, the god of light and logic points to Athena, who, the Greeks believed, had been born motherless, directly out of Zeus' head, full grown. And of course, it is Athena, the goddess of wisdom whose statue graces our library, the virgin, the master weaver who did not need a mother, she's the one who, near the end of The Eumenides, casts the deciding vote in favor of Orestes.

I could spend several hours telling you about the horror that philosophical reason, abstract thought—the lógos, as the Greeks called it—has always felt for the dark and patient weaving of the tissue of our bodies in our mother's womb. I will restrict myself to Plotinus, the main thinker of the school called Neo-Platonism. Plotinus (AD 205-270) was the last great Greek philosopher, and his work is important to us not only in itself but also because it deeply influenced Saint Augustine and, through him, all later Christian thought. For Plotinus, matter is the root of all evil, and form is the vehicle of all good. We can see why: reason, science, logic, deal only with form and can deal with nothing else. For example, when modern physics speaks of atoms, electrons and so on, it really speaks of the quantitative, mathematical laws governing their motions: these laws are nothing but form, numerical or geometrical form. As regards our human identity, long before Plotinus, Aristotle had taught that the mother provides the matter and the father contributes the form of the child's body. Now, for Plotinus, matter is usually not entirely evil because most of the time it has some form impressed on it (thus, this piece of chalk is not just matter, it has a roughly cylindrical form impressed on it). But sometimes matter can be thoroughly formless, and thus thoroughly evil—this, however, is hard if not impossible to imagine or visualize: where can we get matter with no form at all, purely chaotic? Plotinus gives (as far as I know) only one example: menstrual blood. The womb is the place of chaos. Thus you see: from at least Aeschylus to Plotinus, running like a thread through the entire flourishing of Greek thought, there is this horror of the womb and the horror of evil weavers in the dark.

Finally, remember that in our last lecture Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, went down to conquer the Underworld, where people go when they die. She didn't succeed, but she tried. Here in Aeschylus we have another goddess, Athena, and her partner Apollo: the goddess of wisdom and the god of light try to conquer the place where we come from, the dark recess from which we are born, the womb. In both cases, in both myths, the gods try to shed light on darkness, Inanna on where we go, Athena and Apollo on where we come from. And in both, in the end, the gods don't quite succeed and there is some kind of compromise. It couldn't be otherwise, for the darkness of those two places—tomb and womb—, their being utterly beyond the reach of abstract thought, are hard facts of our human condition.

Required reading:

Aeschylus' Oresteia, Everyman edition.

Optional readings:

On myths of weaving and fabric in Greek and Latin cultures, there is a recent book:
The Craft of Zeus, by John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, trans. by Carol Volk, Harvard U. Press, 1996.
Unfortunately, here Aeschylus is not considered nor mentioned.

For the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, my favorite English translations are by Robert Fitzgerald, Anchor Books. For a survey of scholarship about Homer, you can consult the Encyclopedia Britannica, sub Homer.

For Plotinus: there are many translations of his work (the Enneads), and you can consult the Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

For the origins of Greek tragedy: Gerald F. Else, The Origin and Early Form of Greek Tragedy, Harvard U. Press, 1967.

For the influence of the Semitic East on Greece: Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution, Harvard U. Press, 1992.

To Nirenberg lectures   To Nirenberg bio.