Words to remember

"Never doubt in the darkness what you believed in the light."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Erinyes, Ordo, et Chaos

An interesting thought crossed my mind today in thinking about the Oresteia, our current reading in my Athenian history course, and Greek art. J.J. Pollitt, in his classic (ha!) Art and Experience in Classical Greece, points out that one of the major themes in Greek art, science, philosophy, and culture, was the attempt to discover order in, or indeed impose it upon, the seeming chaos of nature, "the flux of physical and psychological experience". One of the major problems seen was the incredibly sudden reversal, metastasis, of the human condition, particularly in such a mutable, fallen world. I don't think, of course, that the Greeks ever had the idea of a fall until it was brought to them, but there is a keen awareness within Greek art and literature that the world is, in a real sense, broken- there is something wrong with it, we have lost something important. And the way in which the Greek attempted to respond to this was by seeking out order in nature, or by imposing order upon nature.

In reading the Oresteia, then, the idea suddenly struck me that much the same impulse is at work. The primal force of the Erinyes, the Furies, drives the action of the play. Klytaimnestra murders Agamemnon in retaliation for the sacrifice of Iphigeneia, Orestes murders Klytaimnestra in retaliation for the murder of Agamemnon his father, and is then driven mad and pursued by the Furies, who hound him for matricide.

But after the trial before Athena, the Erinyes, once the drivers of vengeance, who would by their very nature perpetuate the self-destructive murderous miasmos of the Atreidai, became the Eumenides, the guardians of Athenian law and justice. The move from Erinys to Eumenês, from vengeance to civic justice, seems to fit very well into the motivations of Greek art and experience which Pollitt has posited. Interesting stuff.

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