Blood betrayal and vengeance in the house of Atreus

The final essay for my Classical Mythology and Literature course. I love/loved writing essays, and I’ve said before I loved this class.

August 1, 2007

Classical Mythology and Literature                                                                                Final Essay

Blood betrayal and vengeance in the house of Atreus

            This essay will deal with the issues of blood betrayal and blood vengeance as they are exemplified in Aeschylus’ tragedy Agamemnon.  The main idea of the essay will be that blood betrayal and blood vengeance are the motivating factors behind the actions of Agamemnon’s main characters and is what leads them to ruin.

Greek tragedies contain many common themes and concepts. Among them are the tragic hero, usually kings or rulers or unwittingly bring about their own downfall such as Oedipus in Oedipus the King; that of sexual conflict/confusion when traditional gender roles are swapped, for instance Antigone, daughter of the Oedipus and Jocasta, stubbornly refuse to let her brother Polynices go unburied and attempts to bury him herself; and the theme of excessive human suffering, as seen in the plagues that torment the citizens of Thebes in Oedipus the King.

Another vital theme is blood betrayal and blood vengeance. Blood betrayal occurs when one kills one’s own family member. Orestes committed an act of blood betrayal when he killed his father Laois. Though he killed his father unknowingly, patricide is an act of blood betrayal.  Blood vengeance means that members of murdered person’s family are obligated to revenge the death by killing the murderer or a member of their own family. This is illustrated in the final book of The Odyssey. Odysseus has returned home and killed the suitors and plunderers of his kingdom. He now believes that the kin of the dead will seek vengeance against him and his family.

The patterns of blood betrayal and blood vengeance may have begun when Cronos, son of Ouranos, castrated his father (blood vengeance) in revenge for Ouranos’ “stuffing” of all his children (blood betrayal) in the Earth’s crust (Trzaskoma et al., 136). Then Cronos, now ruler of the gods, swallowed his children in an effort to forestall a prophecy claiming that his son Zeus would one day overthrow him and become ruler of the gods. Cronos’ own acts of infanticide were his second instances of blood betrayal. The blood vengeance precipitated by these acts came when Zeus did in fact overthrow him to become ruler of the gods.    

            Aeschylus’ series of plays called The Orestia are good examples of the pattern of blood betrayal and blood vengeance in Greek tragedies. As the first of these plays, Agamemnon, begins, the patterns of betrayal and vengeance is already in full swing and is in its fourth generation of occurrence within the house of Atreus, Agamemnon’s, and will soon encompass a fifth, Orestes’. The pattern began when Agamemnon’s great-grandfather Tantalus had a son named Pelops that he murdered. Tantalus then tried to deceive the gods by serving them Pelops’ flesh at a banquet (Wilkie and Hurt 615). The gods saw through the trickery and returned Pelops to life. Pelops did not have a chance to get revenge against his father, instead committing his own act of betrayal by murdering his friend Myrtilus, a conspirator in a plot to win Pelops a wife (Wilkie and Hurt 616).

Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes, both of whom inherited the proclivity towards dishonesty. Thyestes had an affair with Atreus’ wife and in revenge Atreus murdered his nieces and nephews then served them to Atreus. That brings the action to the current generation, containing Atreus’ son Agamemnon and Thyestes sole surviving child Aegisthus. At this point Agamemnon has not done anything to affront Aegisthus except be born into the house of Atreus. Aegisthus has been betrayed not by Agamemnon but by Atreus. He cannot however, get revenge against Atreus personally and so must take out his vengeance on whoever rules his house.

At the beginning of Agamemnon, the queen, Clytemnestra, lights the altar fires signaling a victorious end to the Trojan War and the expected return of her husband. Agamemnon expects to be welcomed home a returning hero, he even brings with him his concubine, Priams’ daughter and Apollo priestess Cassandra. While he has been fighting the Trojan War his wife and cousin have been having an affair. Though Aegisthus initiates the affair, both parties have their reasons for hating Agamemnon: Aegisthus because of the blood feud between his and Agamemnon’s families, and Clytemnestra because of the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia.

Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father to secure favorable sailing conditions for his fleet for the invasion of Troy. Agamemnon thought he was required to do this by the goddess Artemis. Nothing in the text of the play suggests that Agamemnon’s state of mind was agitated by having to kill his won daughter. Was he upset? Was he joyous, knowing that his fleet could finally sail? Did it cause him angst, having to kill is child? As the chorus recounts that day, he seems very matter-of-fact about it, telling his men to “gag her hard” and “hoist her over the altar like a yearling” (Wilkie & Hurt 623). This account agrees with the account given of the day given by Clytemnestra to the chorus, after she has murdered Agamemnon and Cassandra, “…who holding it of no special account, as though it were the death of a beast…sacrificed his own child” (Jones 105). What a sight it must have been for Clytemnestra to watch her daughter, who was “…the agony I labored into love” be killed by her own husband merely to “charm away the savage winds of Thrace” (Wilkie & Hurt 661).  

Whatever Agamemnon thought of his daughter, the incident and any implications that may come from it is not apparent in the text, but clearly Clytemnestra is upset over it, who vowed to get revenge. At that moment she has decide to join the “ancient blood feud” and “brooded” on murdering him while he was gone (Wilkie & Hurt 660). And like her dead husband, she seems to have no regrets about murdering a family member, saying “I feel no shame” to admit so (Jones 102).

Clytemnestra knew of the blood feud and had decided, prior to Iphigenia’s sacrifice, to stay out of it, her lover Aegisthus had plenty of reason to want to kill Agamemnon. And he seemed excited over the matter, exulting either “Oh what a brilliant day it is for vengeance” (Wilkie & Hurt 665) or “O kindly light the day that has brought justice” (Jones 112). I find it interesting comparing the different translations. In one text Aegisthus is calling the murders revenge, in the other he is calling them justice. Calling them revenge refers to the blood betrayal/vengeance pattern and makes no mention of right or wrong, or guilt or innocence, only the desire to avenge something. Calling the murders justice implies that Agamemnon was guilty in the blood feud by only being a descendant of Atreus. The word justice might make one think that a trial had taken place and Agamemnon was found guilty and sentenced to death, which was not the case.

In either case, Aegisthus took no active part in the killings, leaving that part for Clytemnestra, who was the better person for the job. Maybe saying she was the better “man” for the job would be more fitting. Clearly Aegisthus wanted no part of it, and for a woman to commit murder brings into mind the sexual confusion/conflict theme of Greek tragedies. Aegisthus even tries to blame Clytemnestra, saying “the treachery was the woman’s work, clearly” (Wilkie and Hurt 667) and implies he was unfairly charged by the chorus, saying he was a “suspect” (Jones 115) because of the ancient blood feud.  Coward that he is he will have no trouble to use Agamemnon’s “riches” to “civilize” his people (Wilkie & Hurt 667).

As eager as both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus seemed for revenge to take place, at least Clytemnestra saw that they did not need to, accusing the chorus of doing nothing when Iphigenia was killed, “Didn’t the law demand that you banish him? Hunt him from this land for all his guilt?” (Wilkie & Hurt 661). Again at this point matters of translation come into effect. The Jones translation does not refer to guilt instead calling the sacrifice of Iphigenia a “polluting act” (Jones 105). Using the word pollution (miasma) instead of guilt means that Agamemnon has fouled the entire city and has encouraged the type of revenge that would be his undoing.

As the end of the play draws near the countenance of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are quite the opposite. While Aegisthus is celebrating taking over as king and busy himself with counting his new riches, Clytemnestra ponders what the future will hold for them. She is more aware of the blood feud and the implications of its continuation. She knows that the blood feud continues and that her son Orestes is in exile and may return. In her last speech to the chorus she tells them, “If we could end the suffering, how we could rejoice” (Wilkie & Hurt 668). She may be worried about being the victim of revenge herself, or she would find time to rejoice, like Aegisthus has. Clytemnestra is must be a more intelligent person than her new king. The final line of the play, “You and I have power now. We will set the house in order once for all,” suggests to me a person who understands the finality and grievous nature of their actions, and that there is no turning back (Wilkie & Hurt 669). 

Blood betrayal and blood vengeance are the driving forces behind Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Both acknowledge the existence of the blood feud even if they at first do not agree to having a role within it in the house of Atreus. Ironically, the one is has not been personally affronted by the betrayal/vengeance, is the one that uses it as motivation, and is also the one who does not get revenge by his own hands. Aegisthus allows Clytemnestra to commit the murders even though her reasons, though they may fall under the category of blood betrayal, are genuine because the man she plots to murder did actually offend her.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. The Orestia. Trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1979.

Trzaskoma, S. & Smith, R. & Brunet, S., eds. Anthology of Classical Myth. Primary

            Sources in Translation. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004.

Wilkie, B. & Hurt, J., eds. Literature of the Western World. Vol 1: The Ancient World

            Through the Renaissance. New Jersey: Prentiss, 2001.

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