Word of Zeus

Word of Zeus: Apollon in Aeschylus’ Oresteia
by Lykeia

Within the complex weaving of religion throughout the Oresteian trilogy, Agamemnon, Choerophi/The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides, Apollon took a prominent place within the development of the plays. Though his throne of prophecy, where he relayed the will of Zeus to men, dominated his part within the play, it accompanied other facets of Apollon’s nature to which it often intimately connected. In some fashion he maintained a constant presence throughout the trilogy as patron of seers, god of light, a god of purification and healing, in addition to his oracles that men respected and yielded to.

Apollon made a fairly early appearance in Agamemnon through his connection with prophecy. Not as an actual present force as he appeared later in Eumenides, but rather as a god who played part in events that lead up to the moments the characters were then experiencing in both Agamemnon and Choerophi.  Throughout the Oresteia, Apollon was regularly addressed as Loxias when referring to him in his capacity as the oracular deity and god of prophets. This name acknowledged the god as one who spoke the will of Zeus, who, as Apollon’s priestess, the Pythia, stated, established Apollon on his oracular throne and filled his mind with the prophetic craft (Eumenides, 16-20). The presence of this divine will presented through Apollon appears in the recounting of the death of Iphegenia at Aulis ten years prior. The narrative was offset by the lyrical meter of the lecythia, a meter that indicated divine will in a hymn to Zeus that encompassed the sacrificial event composed in the oracular dactylic meter (Chiasson, 4). They also narrated how the prophet Calchas pleaded with Apollon, as patron of seers, to intervene and subdue the anger of his sister so the vision he saw of an unholy sacrifice would not come to pass and bring bitterness to the family of the Atreid (Agamemnon, 110-59). Unfortunately since the sacrifice of Iphegenia was conducted by Zeus’ will, the pleas of Calchas were in vain. Since the ancient justice of Zeus determined that one could only learn through suffering, Agamemnon was obliged to learn from his own suffering by murdering his daughter in order to understand the suffering that he was bringing to Troy under the will of Zeus Xenias (Fontenrose, 81). In the system of justice of the new gods man learned from experience, rather than destruction without knowledge (Cunningham, 184).

Despite references toward him through dialogue among characters of the trilogy, most of Apollon’s actual presence in these plays manifested in connection to Pytho. This location served like the trunk of a tree that all branches of his influence sprung from. It is natural to consider that Apollon would champion rightful and just succession if one looks at his own rise to the oracular throne. In her opening prayer before taking the oracular seat, the Pythia, the prophet-priestess of Apollon, acknowledges the sequence of gods who presided over the oracle. First from the Earth, the initial prophet, to her daughter Themis, then to the titaness Phoebe, and lastly to Apollon, the passing of the oracle had been one of peaceful transition between the gods (Eumenides, 1-33). Though he never claimed that he championed Orestes out of offense for the violent manipulation that Aegisthus and Clytaemestra employed to overthrow Agamemnon, one would assume by this recounting of the Pythia that it had some bearing in Apollon’s disposition in the situation. He certainly backed up his father’s authorization of the oracle in a manner that condemned the methods that were used to dispatch Agamemnon. “If when such kill each other you relent so as not to take vengeance nor eye them in the wrath, then I deny your manhunt of Orestes goes with right.” (Eumenides, 219-222).

Apollon in this way champions a rightful and natural order of things. This nature and right included the bond of loyalty of a son to his father and the sacred love of spouses. Though the Erinyes targeted Orestes for murder of kin, Apollon in turn condemned them for attacking Orestes when they did nothing to a wife who murdered her husband. For this reason they failed to do right in the eyes of Apollon, and instead punished a son who did what a son was right to do. The pitiful response of the Erinyes which the murder of a husband by his wife did not violate blood as a son who murdered his mother earned nothing but contempt from Apollon. This in itself was a violation of nature that Apollon valued. Married love, a thing bigger than oaths, was guarded by nature itself. By violating married love a person violated nature and violated those gods that presided over marriage: Zeus Telios, Hera Telia, and Cypris (Eumenides, 210-224). Cassandra echoed this in her horrified visions as she witnessed king pulled down by his mate, a sacrilege against what was right.

Apollon expanded on this by striking at the wrongness of how Agamemnon was executed that compounded how he was executed. “It is not the same thing for a man of blood to die honored with the king’s staff given by the hand of god, and that by mean of a woman, not with the far cat of fierce arrows, as an Amazon might have done…” (Eumenides, 625-30).  For the great to be struck down in disregard for the favor given him in a manner unworthy, and done in a way that could never be rectified as with the permanency of death went against the right order of things (Eumenides, 625-47). Apollon defended that nature too placed the father above the mother for the child’s obligation. It provided the woman as the nurturing ground into which the man’s seed was sewn, rendering the man the true parent and the mother secondary to a child’s loyalty (Eumenides 657-66). Thus in this way Clytaemestra went against right and nature whereas Orestes did not in Apollon’s estimation.

The most heartbreaking scene connected to the god was the prophecies and death of Cassandra (Schein, 11). The scene itself is a mystery to scholars for the reason that it serves little purpose to move the action along for its large part in Agamemnon, about its only apparent objective was to clarify in the minds of the audience what had happened and what was to happen (Schein, 11). However, it reveals an emotional interest that the reader does not see otherwise reflected that may indicate another reason that Apollon had a great deal of personal interest invested in the matter. Though Apollon never mentions Cassandra throughout the course of the play, the laments of Cassandra reveals clues hidden in her dialogue of her relationship to the god. In the first clear evidence that she gave of her relationship she revealed that her prophetic gift came from Apollon, but she was punished for breaking her oath to him. Since she had wagered her love in order to see the fate of her city he merely removed her credibility among the people (Agamemnon 1202-1212). Nevertheless in the face of everything she still belonged to him, something that not even her new status as a slave could change. “Even in the slave’s heart the gift divine lives on (Agamemnon 1084).

Even though in the breaks of Cassandra’s vision she grieves bitterly against the god she believes brought her to the house of Atreus as a sacrifice, the change in her visions could easily account for an emotional swell on his part reflecting into her experiences. Cassandra describes them as changed from a gentle softness that she likens to a young bride glancing from under her veil, to bright strong winds blowing to the morning and the sun’s up-rise waxing along the swell of blowing winds like a great wave to burst at last into agony (Agamemnon, 1178-82).  The bright light of the sun is certainly Apollon, and the winds play the role of the unfolding events. Logically this line could be interpreted to mean that the images were becoming brighter and stronger equivalent to Apollo rising to emotional heights of distress from the prophetic winds flowing to him from his father Zeus.

The bitter accusations Cassandra makes toward the god more often than not indicates Apollon’s attachment to her through her experiences. Though she cries out against the painful visions, the agonizing burn of his fire as he embraces her, it is not some punishment forced upon her to endure them. He demandingly and continuously grips her, from which she is able to see the complex and interwoven web of the Atreid. He is allowing her to see her fate and more specifically why it is happening as she witnesses the terrible evil done within the family and the company of Erinyes drunk upon the condemned blood (Agamemnon, 126). Past, present and future run together in her mind: the bed of Atreus, the feast of Thyestes, the murder of Agamemnon and his avenger to come. All of these she experiences in her divine madness as if she is there witnessing each as they occur in that moment rather than objectively seeing them from the distance of her own time (Schein, 11-12). Her astounding difference in this manner from other prophets marks her as existing in a state that is something beyond other mortals through her union with Apollon.

Moreover, though she was cursed with fruitless prophecy, it appeared that the punishment was discontinued though she, in her bitterness, was not aware of it. Despite confusion among the chorus, and they admitted that even among the Greek prophets confusion is inescapable when dealing with prophets, they asserted by way of their dialogue that they believed her, something that they would not feel if the punishment was still in place (Agamemnon 1213). Even later it was not so much disbelief that halted their actions when they heard Agamemnon cry out but indecision about the consequences (Agamemnon, 1345-1370). The fact that they believed her though indicates that Apollon foresaw her end nearing and not only forgave her but attempted to convey through her what the curse wrought and Zeus ordained (Agamemnon, 1090-1129).

Through Cassandra’s prophesying of an unnamed avenger, Apollon additionally indicated his intent, not for sacrifice as she assumed, but to retaliate on her behalf. Though Apollon foresaw her doom, he did not device it anymore than he devised any other fate he foretold (Fontenrose, 108). Though he was unable to keep her from the fate that fell upon her city, neither from slavery to Agamemnon whom she naturally went to as the daughter of Priam, nor from succumbing to the terrible curse of the Atreid, he was still able to ensure her vengeance. When Cassandra told of Clytaemestra’s nemesis she spoke of vengeance sworn for her death, and possibly conjointly of herself and Agamemnon, both dying and both avenged (Fontenrose 109). Through Cassandra’s mouth Apollon offered her some comfort, but it was consolation that she did not hear, for she later prayed that the one coming might think to avenge her, a slave, as well (Agamemnon,1322-30).

It is not entirely surprising that Cassandra was blind to these things. She was overcome by bitterness for a fate that she felt Apollon orchestrated, or at least was responsible for through his cursed gift. At the very beginning of her scene she lamented to Apollon that he had been her ruin twice. First for the fall of Troy that put her into captivity, and then for the imminent death she foresaw. That the god did not heal her pain nor give her wings like a nightingale to escape to her freedom, placed Apollon in her imagination as a cruel observer taking the debt she owed to him through her death (Agamemnon, 1275-7). In her despair the god became one who watched as she was mocked when she wore the ornaments of her station until he was through with her. She was blinded to such extents with her bitterness that she cast away the offending symbols which she felt had brought her to ruin. Fontenrose suggests that she received inspiration from Apollon to do so, but if it were divinely inspired there would be no reason for the bitterness that encompassed the action. Instead it is after the action is done that she claimed Apollon stripped her bare of them as an announcement that because he bestowed the cursed gift in the first place he effectively removed them by bringing her despair. “At least I will spoil you before I die. Out, down, break, damn you! This for all that you have done to me. Make someone else, not me, luxurious in disaster….Lo now, this is Apollo who has stripped me here of my prophetic robes”(Agamemnon, 1266-1270). Despite her bitter lyrics and apparent rejection, the god was there for her as Clytaemestra relates by calling Cassandra’s laments her “swan song.” This indicated her esteemed position like that of the sacred swans of Apollon, who would only sing beautifully right before death. So Apollon received Cassandra’s cries as a bitter mourning for her mortality as he would the songs of his beloved birds (Agamemnon, 1444).

According to Fontenrose by Cassandra’s vision of the vengeance to come, Apollon must be one of the gods who sent retribution and swore an oath that Orestes would return to execute the punishment. Though Apollon claims throughout the play that Orestes’ task was determined by Zeus, the Erinyes clarified that Zeus authorized the prophecy (Eumenides, 622). This indicated that while Zeus gave his stamp of approval for the oracle, he was not the sole author of it.  Apollon’s close status with Zeus within the play appears a few times. First the herald, when he called a greeting to the divine powers at Argos, Apollon was mentioned second to Zeus. At Pytho even the Erinyes acknowledged Apollon’s power, “… you are called great beside the throne of Zeus already…” (Eumenides, 229). Regardless the oracle was conducted with the divine will of Zeus behind it in care of the “orphan eagles,” as Orestes and Elektra identified themselves in Choerophi. As such if Apollon willingly failed Orestes he would be subjected to the fearful wrath of his father. Naturally anger for making an oracle, and thus the word of Zeus among men, void, but possibly also for Apollon’s own vengeful part in spurring Orestes on.

Indeed Apollon shoulders all the blame for Orestes’ “crime,” regardless of its sanction by Zeus. “Thus you will be rid of your afflictions, once and for all. For it was I who made you strike your mother down” (Eumenides, 83-4). Orestes’ oracle, as testified in Choerophi, had a threatening edge to it proclaiming that if Orestes did not revenge his sire he would be plagued by the Erinyes of his father. Orestes felt he had no choice but to do so as the oracle instructed, he trusted that the oracles had never been wrong and so would not be wrong in his case either. All the same he put blame on Apollon too for sending him to stain his hands with his mother’s blood. “Apollon shares responsibility for this. He counterspurred my heart and told me of pains to come if I should fail to act against the guilty ones” (Eumenides, 465-7). For this reason Apollon took responsibility for Orestes. In addition to fulfilling the purposes of the oracle, Apollon takes Orestes under his wing as supplicant. First, he also gave Orestes some relief from the pursuing Erinyes by placing them under sleep at Pytho when Orestes took sanctuary there, and second, he provided Hermes as guide to assist Orestes in his journey to Athens. Most importantly Apollon purified Orestes so that he would be able to approach Athena for judgment.

By assisting Orestes Apollon was also protecting the validity of the oracles. If Apollon failed to help Orestes escape the blame as his oracle promised, then none would give credence to the oracles anymore. Indeed Orestes was motivated in large part because Loxias had never before been wrong (Choerophi, 558-9). Men depended on the credibility of the holy oracles in order to understand the determination of Zeus, without such assurance men would cease to look to the gods for guidance. Orestes’ friend Pylades brought an awareness of this very thing as he advised against going against Loxias when Orestes wavered from his purpose when confronted with the pleas of his mother. “What then becomes thereafter of the oracles declared by Loxias at Pytho? What of sworn oaths? Count all men hateful to you rather than the gods” (Choerophi, 900-3). Apollon also spoke to the people in his closing statement in his defense of Orestes reminding them of their obligation to not make void the oracles of Zeus and Apollon.  His own actions harboring a murderer in his temple as suppliant, according to the Erinyes, had already done the job of destroying the oracles by defiling his centrestone (Eumenides, 170). As if that were not enough for them, the Erinyes threatened further destruction of people’s faith in the oracles. They pronounced that should Apollon win and trod over their ancient justice by freeing Orestes, they would release a windstorm of death that would render him, the pathetic prophet, powerless in his attempt to cast cures through divination (Eumenides, 576).

Apollon’s priestess revealed this branch to his power when she encountered the fearful sight of the Erinyes surrounding the polluted man at the centrestone, a situation that only Apollon might have the remedy. “Now after this the master of the house must take his own measures: Apollo Loxias, who is very strong and heals by divination; reads portentous signs, and so clears out the houses others hold as well” (Eumenides, 61-3). His revealing luminosity was a healing force that purified and set people free from the gloomy confines of darkness, as much as it had manifested in bright beams that tormented Cassandra. The most overt example of this is when Apollon purified his suppliant through Orestes’ sacrifices of swine, so that when Orestes addressed Athena he spoke again with pure lips (Eumenides, 282-5) Aside from his individual treatment of Orestes, Apollon was typically invoked in order to bring the same good health for entire peoples. The herald upon returning to Argos prayed at more length to Apollon than to any other divinity he addressed, sensitive to the needs of the returning warriors and the people at home, all who endured sadness during the ten year war. He called upon Apollon to be a savior and bring his healing to the people, and no longer be the grim god that he was by Scamandrus where he showered them with arrows of pestilence (Agamemnon, 510-3).

He banished the darkness that dwelled over nations, through his destructive rays even as he could turn those very rays against nations. The chorus of slaves affirmed this in Orestes acting as Apollon’s agent, “…or our man will kindle a flame and light of liberty, win the domain and huge treasure again of his fathers. Forlorn traveler, though blessed by a god…” (Choerophi, 863-6). The elders too affirmed this when they saw what Orestes wrought in the house of Atreus: “Light is here to behold and the house liberated so that it may again rise up from where it long laid rested upon the ground” (Choerophi 961-4).

By this token Apollon, likely more than any other immortal god loathed the foulness of the Erinyes. Where Athena treated them with respect due to elders as she tried the case, Apollon dealt abuse upon them for their defiling presence and unjust law. As darkness from which they were born countered his light, so their pollution from their feasts of death offended him. In opposition from his logic, the Erinyes were like hounds scenting blood as they tracked the murderer. Mostly they were little more than instinctual, primal goddesses like animals with pack mentality rather than possessing individualized reason. He did not disregard their purpose or necessity, for he admitted that he would not wish for their privilege, but rather he held issue with their limited old law that did not portion out punishment fairly nor take into account circumstances that were in the right. However, he took the greatest offense to their presence because they deigned to accompany Orestes to Pytho, a place, like all houses of gods, forbidden to them. This is the only occasion that he offered to attack them with his arrows when they failed to show indication that they were leaving, for their contamination was not welcome among the gods.