The Oresteia by Aeschylus: Summary & Themes

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the Aeschylus trilogy of plays called the Oresteia, a story about the Atreides blood-feud after the Trojan War in Greek history. When you're done take the quiz and see what you've learned.

The Atreides Curse

Agamemnon about to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra while Aegisthus watches
Murder of Agamemnon

The Oresteia is a collection of three plays that explores the last two murders of the Atreides Curse - Agamemnon's murder by his wife and her lover and his wife and lover's murder by Agamemnon's son Orestes. The third play explains the end of the curse.

According to Greek mythology, King Tantalus was one of Zeus' sons and liked to have the Olympian gods over for feasts. One time he decided to test their omniscience by feeding them his son Pelops. Most of the gods realized right away that their meal was human. Not Demeter, though, because she was concerned about her daughter's abduction (Proserpina was missing and she didn't know Hades had taken her yet). Distraught and not paying attention she ate a shoulder before she realized it.

The gods, being gods, restored Pelops to life and had Hephaestus forge an ivory shoulder. In punishment for the insult and for killing his own son, Tantalus and his house were cursed by the gods. Pelops would kill his wife's father. Two of his sons, Atreus and Thyestes, would kill a third brother. Atreus would kill Thyestes' sons and feed them to him. Thyestes had another son by his daughter, Aegisthus. Aegeisthus would eventually kill Atreus, but Atreus' son Agamemnon would become the king. Agamemnon killed his own daughter before he left for the Trojan War.

During the Trojan War, Aegisthus would become the lover to Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra. He helped to murder Agamemnon when the king returned, and then was killed by Agamemnon's son Orestes. Orestes would be cleared of murder, finally ending the family curse.

Agamemnon

The Oresteia consists of three plays, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Agamemnon takes place when Agamemnon returns from Troy with two female slaves. His wife Clytemnestra convinces him to walk on a red carpet symbolizing hubris and later kills him and the slave Cassandra while he is in his bath.

The Libation Bearers

The Libation Bearers is about Orestes taking revenge. He was in hiding during childhood but has returned now to take revenge. He kills Aegisthus but hesitates to kill his mother. The god Apollo appears and reassures him that it is the right thing to do. But that leaves him as the last Atreides, meaning there is no one left to take revenge on him. The gods can't accept that, however. So the Erinyes, or Furies, attack him instead. In Greek mythology the Erinyes were the personification of revenge. They will torment him for the rest of his life.

The Eumenides

Orestes tormented by the Erinyes for murdering his mother Clytemnestra and his cousin Aegisthus
Orestes

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