Religious Beliefs in Aeschylus' Oresteia, Homer’s Iliad, and Sophocles’ Electra
The final and definitive defeat of the Persian army at the battle of Plataea represented the end of an age-long threat to Athens. But the victory was also a miracle, as all the odds were against the Athenians at the onset of the war. While Pericles took charge of Athens after the war and started the advance of democracy, religion also thrived. The rebuilding of the Acropolis and the construction of the Parthenon and its great statue of Athene under Pericles' rule signified the height of religious belief among Athenians. However, the shift in power from the aristocrats to the common men in the new democracy, and the Peloponnesian War and Great Plague that followed the shift, all contributed to a general decline in religious belief. Only a few decades after reaching its peak, it reached an all-time low. This change in attitude among Athenians can be observed by comparing the works of two tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles, whose plays were performed in each of these two periods. But even with this dramatic shift, it is clear that Athenians remained believers throughout these periods, because religion was, and always has been, a huge part of their culture.
The religious view of Athenians before the Peloponnesian War can be best demonstrated by the portrayal of interaction between men and Gods in Aeschylus’ work, The Eumenides. From the first scene, when “The doors of the temple open and show Orestes surrounded by the sleeping Furies, Apollo and Hermes beside him” (Aeschylus, 137), one can see that in Aeschylus’ eyes, Gods and Goddesses are not something distant and unreachable, but instead, they are “real” figures who will at times stand by our side. Also in this scene, we can see Apollo giving Orestes instructions on how to clear his name from the crime of murdering his own mother and be rid of the Furies. Something close to a Homeric view can be drawn from this, with the difference being that Gods and Goddesses always take the form of a mortal when interacting with other mortals in Homer’s epic poems, but the form that they appeared in was not addressed in The Eumenides.
In the very same scene, after Orestes, Hermes, and Apollo have exited, the ghost of Clytaemestra is seen trying to awaken the sleeping Furies so they can continue their pursuit of Orestes. The appearance of ghosts is nothing new, as it has been done before in Homer’s poems. What this shows, however, is that Aeschylus, likely a representative of Athenians during his time, had the same view that Homer did. In their eyes, not only do Gods and Goddesses walk among men, but even ghosts, something that should be considered on the opposite side of the spectrum, also appear in our world, as real as any men can be.
The second scene of The Eumenides begins with Orestes’ arrival at the Acropolis, as he takes a suppliant posture at the feet of the statue of Athene (Aeschylus, 143). Athene is said to...