The Oresteia is a series of three tragic plays written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus. It was first presented in 458 BCE, just a couple of years before his death in roughly 456 BCE. The trilogy is based on the story of the House of Atreus and includes Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.
The trilogy features several female characters, both mortal and immortal as well as rulers and slaves. These include Iphigenia, Cassandra, Electra, Cilissa, Pythia, Athena, and the Choruses in both The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. I will examine all of these female characters and the roles that they play in the Oresteia, which are highly diversified and show the different ways that women lived and were regarded in ancient Greece…at least from the perspective of a male playwright.
The plot information referenced throughout this page derives from Richmond Lattimore’s 1953 translation of the trilogy. A publication of this translation, published in 1969 and edited by Lattimore and David Grene, can be purchased here.
The female characters in the Oresteia can be divided into three categories: royal women, servants, and religious women/deities. I will start by exploring the royal women, including the women of the House of Atreus and the Trojan princess Cassandra.
Clytemnestra was the daughter of Tyndareus of Sparta, sister of Helen of Troy, wife of King Agamemnon of Argos, and ruler of Argos in Agamemnon’s absence during the Trojan War. She was the mother of Agamemnon’s only son, Orestes (who was sent away to live with a family friend prior to the opening of Agamemnon), and two daughters, Electra and Iphigenia. In Agamemnon’s absence, she was having an affair with Agamemnon’s cousin, Aegisthus, whose father Thyestes had cursed the House of Atreus prior to the play’s events.
In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon upon his return from the war, an act that she had been plotting for some time. She did this by waiting for Agamemnon to get in the bath, then trapping him in a fishnet and stabbing him to death. She had two primary motives: her love for Aegisthus overpowered that for Agamemnon; and she wanted to avenge her daughter, Iphigenia, who Agamemnon sacrificed during the war so that his ships would sail. A third motive, jealousy over Agamemnon bringing the Trojan princess Cassandra home with him as his mistress, may also have come into play; this can be assumed by the fact that Clytemnestra shows open hostility towards Cassandra and, while killing Agamemnon, kills Cassandra as well. After killing both Agamemnon and Cassandra, Clytemnestra announced it to the people of Argos, making sure that her role in the assassination was no secret to the public.
Aegisthus and Clytemnestra ruled Argos with an iron fist for seven years, until Orestes returned at the beginning of The Libation Bearers and, with the help of his sister Electra and a Chorus of servant women, killed the King and Queen to avenge his father. Clytemnestra foresaw her death through a series of nightmares and tried to prevent it by offering libations to Agamemnon’s tomb, but to no avail. She tried to guilt Orestes out of killing his own mother, but was unsuccessful. Her death summoned the Furies, who end the play by chasing Orestes away.
In The Eumenides, the ghost of Clytemnestra appeared to address the Furies, prompting them to chase Orestes down and seek revenge on her behalf. This triggered the major events of the play, including the appearance of Athena and the trial between Orestes and the Furies.
Ultimately, in all three plays Clytemnestra was depicted as an unusually masculine woman in strength and personality. She made several patronizing comments about women, like “Am I some young girl, that you find my thoughts so silly?” (Agamemnon 277) and “You try me out as if I were a woman and vain” (Agamemnon 1401), and she had the ambition and resolve to murder her husband and his mistress without batting an eye.
Daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Iphigenia tragically predeceased her parents as well as her siblings, Orestes and Electra. She was sacrificed by Agamemnon during the Trojan War; poor weather prevented his ships from sailing, and the prophet Calcas divined that this was caused by Artemis’ anger, thus Iphigenia’s sacrifice was meant to appease her.
“Her supplication and her cries of father
were nothing, nor the child’s lamentation
to kings passioned for battle.
The father prayed, called to his men to lift her
with strength of hand swept in her robes aloft
and prone above the altar, as you might lift
a goat for sacrifice, with guards
against the lips’ sweet edge, to check
the curse cried on the house of Atreus
by force of bit and speech drowned in strength.
Pouring then to the ground her saffron mantle
she struck the sacrificers with
the eyes’ arrows of pity, lovely as in a painted scene, and striving
to speak—as many times
at the kind festive table of her father
she had sung, and in the clear voice of a stainless maiden
with love had graced the song
of worship when the third cup was poured.
What happened next I saw not, neither speak it.” – Agamemnon, Lattimore 227-248
Aeschylus and his contemporaries would have been much more forgiving of this act than we are today, because they placed higher value on military prowess and accepted the need for animal or human sacrifice, even that one’s own daughter (Zelenak 61). Nonetheless, Iphigenia’s death upset Clytemnestra and was her primary motive for murdering her husband.
Cassandra was a Trojan princess (daughter of Priam, King of Troy), and Agamemnon’s war prize following his victory at the Trojan War. After witnessing the death of her father, brothers, and other fellow Trojans at the hands of Agamemnon, she was taken captive by him and brought to Argos as his new mistress.
Cassandra was a prophetess, given this power by Apollo whose romantic pursuits she denied. Angered by his rejection, Apollo cursed Cassandra, giving her prophetic powers with the condition that nobody would ever believe her (Carter 59). Cassandra tragically knew that she and Agamemnon were about to die upon arriving in Argos, but there was nothing she could do to save herself. In a final desperate attempt, she tells her prophecy to the Chorus:
“See there, see there! Keep from his mate the bull.
Caught in the folded web’s
Entanglement she pinions him and with the black horn
Strikes. And he crumples in the watered bath.
Guile, I tell you, and death there in the caldron wrought.” – Agamemnon, Lattimore 1125-1129
In contrast to Clytemnestra’s masculine depiction, Aeschylus depicted Cassandra as an archetypal “proper” Greek woman, feminine and passive. Her murder also served to present Clytemnestra in the worst light possible, as Cassandra was completely innocent and brought no harm to Clytemnestra.
Electra was the surviving daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, sister of Orestes and the late Iphigenia. Unlike Orestes, she was still living with her parents at the time of Agamemnon’s murder and experienced the effects of his death first-hand. In The Libation Bearers, Electra was unmarried, still living at home, and shown to have a close bond with the Chorus of servant women. She prayed for Orestes’ return and helped him enact their revenge.
A major difference between the murders in Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers is found in the roles of the men and women involved. Unlike Clytemnestra, a woman who killed two people with ease, in The Libation Bearers the women had less physically challenging roles. In Electra’s case, her job was to keep watch over the house and ensure that everything runs smoothly while her brother performed the actual murders.
The servants offer a unique perspective on the House of Atreus and its members throughout the trilogy. Not related to the royal family by blood or otherwise, they are able to talk about Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, and Aegisthus as rulers and masters, not as family. Their presence also emphasizes the hatred between Clytemnestra and her offspring, as the royal children have established closer bonds with the servants of the house than their own mother.
Chorus (The Libation Bearers)
In The Libation Bearers, the Chorus was a group of servant women in the house of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. As young women, they were kidnapped from their fathers’ houses (their place of origin is unspecified) and forced into slavery. They were as openly resentful of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra as Electra was, referring to Clytemnestra as “the godless woman” (45) and helping Orestes to plot to murder his mother. Before meeting Orestes upon his return, they escorted Electra to Agamemnon’s tomb, where they would offer libations on Clytemnestra’s behalf.
Like Electra, the chorus had an important role in the assassination but they did not commit physical harm themselves. Orestes’ command to them was as follows: “I charge you, hold your tongues religiously. / Be silent if you must, or speak in the way that will / help us.” (580-82)
Cilissa was another servant of the House of Atreus and, more specifically, she was Orestes’ nurse. She lamented for Orestes after learning of his supposed death, and described in detail how she cared for him when he was an infant:
“darling Orestes! I wore out my life
For him. I took him from his mother, brought him up.
There were times when he screamed at night and woke me from
My rest; I had to do many hard tasks, and now
Useless; a baby is like a beast, it does not think
But you have to nurse it, do you not, the way it wants.
For the child still in swaddling clothes can not tell us
If he is hungry or thirsty, if he needs to make
Water. Children’s young insides are a law to themselves.” (749-57)
Cilissa proceeded to explain how she served as both nurse and laundrywoman, as Agamemnon had observed that she was equally skilled in both tasks.
Though her role was very small, Cilissa’s speech reminded the audience of both the servants’ humanity and of the fact that Orestes, who is about to kill his mother, was once an innocent child as well. It also reminded the audience of Clytemnestra’s lack of directly maternal action as she had servants to raise her children for her, which was typical of wealthy women in ancient Greece.
Religious Women and Female Deities
Women played significant roles in ancient Greek religion and myth, and the religious women and female deities in the Oresteia exemplify this. After Clytemnestra’s death, the Furies are the main antagonistic force in the trilogy, and Athena’s role in the trial not only affects Orestes’ future but that of the entire Athenian society; the Pythia’s work at the Oracle of Delphi predicts this incoming social change.
The Pythia appeared in The Eumenides. She was the priestess of Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi, where the play opened as Orestes slept surrounded by the Furies. The Pythia made her opening invocation before entering the Oracle and finding Orestes inside; she prayed to the Earth, to Themis, Phoebe, Delphus, Pleistus, Poseidon, and finally to Zeus (Eumenides 1-35). This hints at the play’s final resolution through its suggestion of transference of power from the old order to the new, which Athena commanded after Orestes’ trial (Conacher 141-2).
The Furies made their first appearance after Clytemnestra’s death in The Libation Bearers. Also referred to as the Erinyes in Greek mythology, they were female deities of vengeance, and in this case they were summoned by Clytemnestra to pursue Orestes after he killed her. In The Libation Bearers the Furies were never seen by the audience, only described by Orestes:
Women who serve this house, they come like gorgons, they
Wear robes of black, and they are wreathed in a tangle
Of snakes. I can no longer stay.
These are no fancies of affliction. They are clear,
And real, and here; the bloodhounds of my mother’s hate.
Ah, Lord Apollo, how they grow and multiply,
Repulsive for the blood drops of their dripping eyes.” (The Libation Bearers, Lattimore 1047-58)
In The Eumenides, they returned as the Chorus, awakened from their sleep and enraged into a frenzy by Clytemnestra’s ghost. They were then visible to the audience and antagonized Orestes for the rest of the play—including chasing him down, trying to kill him, and then speaking against him and cross-examining him in court. After Orestes won the trial (Athena’s vote being the tie-breaker), Athena appointed the Furies as deliverers of justice in Athens, renaming them to the Eumenides (hence the play’s title).
Though the Furies/Erinyes appear in other works, their representation in the Oresteia is unique compared to that in other stories: “Nowhere in Greek literature do we find such a vivid impression of the Erinyes as the personal avengers, the divine servants, even, of a particular victim of kin-violence.” (Conacher 141)
The goddess Athena (alternatively spelled Athene depending on the translation), daughter of Zeus alone, appeared in The Eumenides when Apollo and the Furies appealed to her for a decision regarding Orestes’ fate. Instead, she proceeded to gather a jury of Athenian citizens and invited them to court, appointing herself as the judge. The Furies argued that the relationship between a mother and child is the most sacred and legitimate familial relationship, as the mother carries the child inside of her. Since Athena was born of no mother, she disproved the Furies’ case (Winnington-Ingram 125). In addition to this reason, she voted in Orestes’ favor because, as she admitted, she was biased towards men:
“This is a ballot for Orestes I shall cast.
There is no mother anywhere who gave me birth,
And, but for marriage, I am always for the male
With all my heart, and strongly on the father’s side.
So, in a case where the wife has killed her husband, lord
Of the house, her death shall not mean most to me. And if
The other votes are even, then Orestes wins.” (735-41)
In judging this court and appointing the Furies as new delivers of justice, Athena brought a new form of justice to Athens, where compromise, reason, and the democratic art of persuasion would rule. This began a new era in Athenian society, a society of democracy.
The women in the Oresteia are highly diverse in their social classes and roles, as well as their contributions to both the story of the House of Atreus and the society in which they lived. The play offers a glimpse into the complexities of women’s lives in antiquity and how these women may have been regarded by their male contemporaries.
Aeschylus (458 BCE). The Oresteia (Richmond Lattimore, Trans. 1953). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Carter, D.M. (2007). The Politics of Greek Tragedy. Exeter, UK: Bristol Phoenix Press.
Conacher, D.J. (1987). Aeschylus’ “Oresteia”: A literary commentary. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
Winningham-Ingram, R.P. (1983). Studies in Aeschylus. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press
Zelenak, Michael X. (1998). Gender and Politics in Greek Tragedy. New York, NY. Peter Lang Inc.