About 20 years ago I witnessed a performance of the 3 plays of the Oresteia (the Orestes plays) by Aeschylus. I was stunned. Watching them in sequence, I understood that the plays were one of patriarchy’s “just so stories” and that their continuing performance was part and parcel of patriarchy’s perpetuation and legitimation.
According to the myths, Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, ran off to Troy with its prince, Paris. In revenge for his lost honor, Menelaus called the Greeks to attack Troy and bring her back. Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus and king of Mycenae, assembled his ships, but the wind refused to fill their sails. He was told that his army would be allowed to depart only if he killed his daughter Iphigenia. He lured his daughter and her mother Clytemnestra to the place where his ships were waiting with the promise of marriage to Achilles. When they arrived, he killed his daughter and the ships sailed.
The myths do not tell us that in matrilineal and egalitarian matriarchal cultures the mother-daughter bond is the sacred because it represents the continuation of life.
The first play begins when Agamemnon arrives home from the war with the Trojan prophetess and princess Cassandra whom he captured and raped. In his absence, Clytemnestra is ruling with her consort Aegisthus. She lures Agamemnon to his bath where she kills him in order to avenge her daughter’s death. .
In the second play, Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his father’s death. In the third play, Orestes is pursued by three old women called Furies, whose duty is to avenge matricide. The Goddess Athena decides to hold a trial with a jury of 12 male citizens. Even though all those voting are men, the vote is tied. Athena breaks the tie, declaring that she was born from a father not a mother and stating that the mother is but the nurse, while the father is the true parent of the child.
The Wikepedia article on the Oresteia repeats the conventional wisdom that the “themes of the trilogy include the contrast between revenge and justice, as well as the transition from personal vendetta to organized litigation,” adding that the play depicts “the development of social order or a proper judicial system in Athenian society.”
Students are taught that the “old order” represented by the Furies was based on revenge and blood lust rather justice. It may be mentioned in passing that the Furies stand for the mother line, while Orestes and Athena uphold the values of the father line. But as the mother line is associated with violence, it is expected that it will be obvious to all concerned that the values represented by the father line are the higher values.
In the play, the 12 men are divided on the question of Orestes’ guilt. This may reflect the fact that even in Greek times, the patriarchal order had not completely triumphed. If this is true, then the fact that a Goddess is called in to vindicate the patriarchal order can be seen as a brilliant sleight of hand. Even the Goddess, who once was the symbol of the mother line and maternal values, no longer believes in the honor due to mothers!
In the Oresteia, the bloody deed of Clytemnestra is the only one that is judged to be truly wrong. The murder of Iphigenia by her father in front of her mother is glossed over, as is the rape and abduction of Cassandra. Nor does anyone blame Menelaus and Agamemnon for deaths on the battlefield.
The answer is that this is not a story about revenge and vendetta versus a system of justice.
This is a story justifying the power of men in patriarchy.
Agamemnon had the right to kill his own daughter in pursuit of male honor. It may have been “tragic” for him to have to kill his own daughter in order to start a war. Cassandra’s capture and rape may also be “tragic,” from her perspective at least. The deaths of soldiers in battle can also be viewed as “tragic,” especially by their mothers. But all of this must be considered necessary in order to achieve a “higher” goal, which in this case, as in so many others, is to protect male honor.
In contrast, Clytemnestra, had no right to kill her husband. As a good wife, her duty was to obey her him and to support his decisions, no matter how horrible they might have seemed to her.
Orestes, on the other hand, was justified in killing his own mother because she dared to question the power of men in patriarchy. And even the Goddess agrees.
We might ask: why did anyone believe such a crock of lies?
The answer is power. The fathers controlled the legal system. They could punish anyone who disagreed with their decisions. They controlled the educational system. Anyone who disagreed with their views would be silenced. They also took control of the religious system (though this took longer), rewriting the myths and co-opting the Goddesses (as Aeschylus did in the Oresteia) to their new social order.
Moreover, as their just so stories were passed down from generation to generation, people came to believe that they were true.
Today with the emergence of modern matriarchal studies, we are able to re-imagine “the old order” that the Furies represented. In matrilineal egalitarian matriarchal societies such as those of the Mosuo and the Minangkabau, mothers are honored because they nurture life. The nurturing of life is the highest value—and both girls and boys are encouraged to embody maternal values. In such societies, there is no domination of one sex over the other. Both males and females are valued, because both are children of mothers.
In order for patriarchy to succeed, the maternal values that focus on nurturing life must be discredited. The idea that honor is due to mothers must be destroyed. Violence against women must be legitimized. And if need be, the mother herself must be eliminated. It is not coincidental that matricide is at the heart of the story told in the Oresteia. Breaking the bonds between mother and child is the point of the story.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.