The Oresteia: Entanglement in Nets and Blood

The Oresteia: Entanglement in Nets and Blood

By Citlali Diaz

The Oresteia, written by Aesychlus, is composed of three separate plays, each of which focuses the attention on the different characters involved in the same conflict of violence. Whether it is Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, or The Eumenides, regardless of the focus on Clytemnestra, Orestes, or the Furies, the Oresteia as a whole highlights the consequences which arise out of intrafamilial bloodshed. From Agamemnon’s father to his children, this bloody conflict passes down through generations as it passes down through the three plays. This theme of the ceaseless cycles of intrafamilial violence is centralized around the imagery of nets that are spread throughout the Oresteia. Each family member’s action further entangles them in this cycle, making it clear that an outside system is necessary to free them from these nets.

Agamemnon, the first play in The Oresteia, begins with Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan War. His wife Clytemnestra had waited a decade for his return, her heart fueled with anger over the sacrifice of her daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice their daughter as a means to appease the goddess Artemis, who was preventing his ships from sailing to Troy because the king had offended her. In order to arrive at the war site, Agamemnon had to let his daughter be slaughtered or face scrutiny as a king who had failed to get his men to battle. For this action, Clytemnestra kills him in turn, as well as Cassandra, a Trojan princess whom Agamemnon had brought home as a war prize and mistress. Before her death, Cassandra, a prophet cursed by Apollo to never be believed, shares her vision of family violence committed long before the Trojan War. She shares the vision of Atreus, Agamemnon’s father, who in anger over his brother Thyestes sleeping with his wife, kills his brother’s children and feeds them to him, leaving Thysetes with only one son: Aegisthus. Aegisthus joins Clytemnestra’s side as a ruler until Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, returns to Argos from exile to avenge his father in The Libation Bearers. After killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, Orestes is chased from Argos by Furies, goddesses of vengeance who punish those who have betrayed sacred laws, in this case pursuing Orestes for matricide. It is not until the goddess Athena brings in a jury of men from Athens to judge the case between Orestes and the Furies that the cycle of violence is eliminated. The Eumenides ends with Orestes being absolved of guilt and with the Furies receiving their own space in Athens.

The first mention of nets occurs in Agamemnon through the context of Zeus, creating the implication that the conception of this cycle was beyond Agamemnon’s control. In response to Clytemnestra’s wish for the safe delivery of the Achaens from Troy, the Chorus sings:

“O Zeus our lord and Night beloved,

bestower of power and beauty,

you slung above the bastions of Troy

the binding net, that none, neither great

nor young, might outleap

the gigantic toils

of enslavement and final disaster. (Agamemnon, 355-61)”

At first, the “gigantic toils” of this passage appear to be simply about the horrors of Troy, where Agamemnon “had been cut full of gashes like a fishing net” (Agamemnon, 868). The scars on Agamemnon’s body thus bring one’s mind to the battles of Troy; in this manner, Troy appears to be the net that Agamemnon labored for ten years to escape, especially since the length of the Trojan War can be attributed to the involvement of the gods, including Zeus. However, the nets slung above Troy in this passage should not only be interpreted as the endless years of the battles, instead, it was the actions needed to incite the Trojan War that entrapped these individuals in this cage. Such is the case for Agamemnon, who becomes trapped in the ultimatum of needing to kill his daughter, Iphigenia, or accepting that his troops will not make it to Troy. Agamemnon’s dilemma becomes the net that entraps him; he has to choose an action, neither of which is right, both of which lead him down a dishonorable path. Neither the “great / nor young” can escape this net, there is no decision in which Agamemnon escapes “the final disaster” – his ruin and death. It was divine involvement that resulted in this difficult decision, that cast the net over his life, but it was his choice which staged the conflict of the Oresteia. The whole tragedy of the Oresteia revolves around this action; his choice to shed his daughter’s blood is what pushes him into the net, leaving him gashed and bloody. What is more, it is this action which results in the cycle of family violence. Agamemnon the king and warrior was the “great” referred to in the passage and his children are the “young,” all of whom find themselves in “the gigantic toils of enslavement” to this cycle.

The following references to nets are through Cassandra’s prophecies of the future and vision of the past; it is her words which illustrate the unseen cycle that arises out of intrafamilial violence. Although Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter is what brings about further bloodshed within his family, Cassandra makes it clear that this cycle emerged long before him. When speaking to the Chorus, Cassandra cries, “No, no, see there! What is that thing that shows? Is it some net of death?” (Agamemnon, 1115). Cassandra has the gift of understanding what has occurred in the past and what will happen in the future; however, she is cursed to never be believed. With her ramblings, the audience becomes part of this curse, not because of a lack of belief, but because of a lack of understanding. Throughout her speeches, her words remain ambiguous as to whether she is referring to the past or present. When she says, “Look there, see what is hovering above the house, / so small and young … like children almost, killed by those most dear to them,” her words can be interpreted as referring to Thyestes’ children, whom his brother Atreus killed, or to Iphigenia, whom Agamemnon killed (Agamemnon, 1217-9). Her question about the “net of death” becomes lost in the ambiguity of whether she is speaking of the past or present, however, it is this lack of clear understanding which brings about the realization that it does not matter what time she is speaking of. The net of death cast by Atreus is the same as the net cast by Agamemnon, which is the same as the net Clytemnestra is plotting to cast. These nets are all one, connected in past, present, and future, connected in being the cycle of intrafamilial violence. As an outsider of this family, Cassandra can observe this clearly and fully; she can see herself caught in this net that began long ago, and she can see how this cycle is bound to go on.

Clytemnestra’s role within this cycle not only demonstrates how intrafamilial violence is destined to proceed but also focalizes the theme of ancient Greek anxiety over women’s power. After killing Agamemnon and Cassandra, Clytemnestra states that she feels no shame over how she brought about their deaths: “as fishermen cast their huge circling nets, I spread / deadly abundance of rich robes, and caught him fast” (Agamemnon, 1382-3). With these words, Clytemnestra paints herself as taking an active role in the cycle of violence. She becomes a fisherman in her speeches, purposely creating a trap to bring about Agamemnon’s final disaster. In this manner, Clytemnestra is acknowledging her participation in this cycle, unlike Agamemnon and Atreus who never again directly mention the family blood they shed. Out of all the characters in the Oresteia caught up in these nets, she is the only one who has the most understanding of the cycle. Clytemnestra makes it clear that her actions were taken because Agamemnon “slaughtered like a victim his own child,” once again illustrating how intrafamilial violence is what brought us to this key conflict and action in the play (Agamemnon, 1417). Her revenge for her daughter is why she is not afraid of admitting that it was she who “pieced together this fell plot” or of the consequences that follow (Agamemnon, 1609). However, justice for Iphigenia becomes forgotten as the Chorus focuses on the lies perpetuated by Clytemnestra. She needed to use deception to “fence high the nets of ruin beyond overleaping,” similar to how Zeus slung a net over Troy so that none might “outleap” what awaited them. The similar language brings her in parallel to the gods, and since it was her taking the action of fencing “high the nets of ruin,” Clytemnestra appears to want to imitate Zeus. Her actions and use of power therefore become blasphemous; she is simultaneously cast as a deceptive and promiscuous, as well as hubris-filled woman who should not be trusted with power. Clytemnestra becomes not an avenger of her daughter, but a woman who must be cut down and placed back where she belongs within Greek society.

In The Libation Bearers, Agamemnon’s children continue the shift of the last play into believing that Clytemnestra is the sole creator of violence, not realizing that by acting against her, they are further entangling themselves into the cycle of intrafamilial cruelty. Orestes and Elektra both view Clytemnestra not as a mother, but as a monster. Elektra tells Orestes “when / a man dies, children are the voice of his salvation / afterward. Like corks upon the net, these hold / the drenched and flaxen meshes, and they will not drown” (The Libation Bearers, 504-7). By bringing up the concept of children as the means of salvation, it is clear that the two siblings haven’t yet deeply considered Agamemnon’s act of killing their sister. Ironically, Iphigenia was Agamemnon’s salvation when it came to arriving at Troy, but for the same reason, she was also his ruin. By not acknowledging their sister, Elektra fails to notice that to be their father’s salvation they must also meet their doom. This is exactly the path Orestes falls on when he decides to kill their mother. Elektra illustrates them both as corks that will not let Agamemnon and his lineage drown. With these words, it becomes evident that the two know that Agamemnon was caught in a net, yet they attribute this trap to their mother, not to the cycles. Orestes tells the Chorus that “by treachery tangled in the self same net / they too shall die” (The Libation Bearers, 557-8). He simply means that he will kill his mother with the same treachery she bestowed upon her husband. However, he does not recognize that by casting the “self same net,” he is actually casting it upon himself. His net is the same one his mother used; thus the cycle of bloodshed they are in goes on.

As the ceaseless cycle of violence progresses throughout the three plays, there is an emerging understanding that as long as the family of characters are left to their own devices, there will be no escaping the nets. This cycle of intrafamilial bloodshed is tied so deeply to the characters’ actions that the entirety of the Oresteia becomes the net that they are trapped in. Orestes says as much when he asks, “What shall I call it and be right, in all / eloquence? Trap for an animal or winding sheet / for dead man? Or bath curtain? Since it is a net, / robe you could call it, to entangle a man’s feet” (The Libation Bearers, 997-1000). Without knowing it, Orestes is asking what to call this cycle he is caught in. The net is the significant object that represents this cycle, but the sense of being trapped is illustrated through the various objects Orestes names. In all of these objects, they are stuck, making the narrative of the Oresteia the key net that will entangle endlessly. There is no action the characters can take that will free them; no choice is right, just like Agamemnon’s original dilemma. The only manner that the characters can be saved and that this cycle can be ceased is through a system that is separate from the family. Even Athena, in The Eumenides, realizes that every choice will result in further consequences when she states, “Whether I let [the Furies] stay or drive / them off, it is a hard course and will hurt” (The Eumenides, 480-1). The Furies and Orestes are both in the right and both in the wrong; thus any action that either takes will further entangle them in the cycle. It is why immediately after these words, Athena leaves to bring in judges. She sets up a court with the call for witnesses and the presentation of evidence. This is a systematic democratic public process far from the private irreconcilable conflict created by the family. The Oresteia is a tragedy created by intrafamilial conflict until this outside system is brought in. Only when the treachery and familial blood are brought to light by the city and its citizens is the conflict mediated without further bloodshed.

From Agamemnon’s return home to Orestes’ flight to Athens, the Oresteia follows the bloodshed of one family, highlighting their endless continuance of violence through the imagery of nets. In this sequence of plays, nets are the representation of the cycle of family conflict these characters are trapped in. Every action the family takes only further pushes them into the nets, bringing the cycle into another round. Aeschylus makes it clear that an outside system is necessary to cut these nets away. The democratic courts of Athens are needed to finally help Orestes go free; even though the blood has long been spilt, the citizens of the city are what put a stop to this family’s deadly cycle. Only then can the final play end.


Citlali Diaz is a student at the University of California, Berkeley. 


Works Cited

Aeschylus. The Complete Greek Tragedies. Translated by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, University of Chicago Press, 1992.