The Imagery of Bloodshed in The Oresteia
In the prologue of Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus' trilogy, The
Oresteia, the watchman implores the gods for "a blessed end to all our
pain." (20). He is asking for deliverance from the retributive system of
justice, where the only certainty is that bloodshed breeds more bloodshed.
The old men of the chorus in their opening chant, "Hymn to Zeus," declare
that suffering must be experienced before man can be released from this
ceaseless irredeemable bloodshed and thus be, "free from all the pain." (1)
They declare that it is a law laid down by Zeus "that we must suffer,
suffer into truth./ We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart/ the
pain of pain remembered comes again,/ and we resist, but ripeness comes as
well." (177-184) Eventually, as the more and more of the agony of
remembered pain, the blood, drips away from the heart, there will be
"ripeness." The blood will be transformed from pain into a deliverance
from the blood vendetta.
Throughout the Oresteia, there is a transformation
in Aeschylus' use of blood imagery. In Agamemnon, he uses it to illustrate
the suffering and hopelessness that arise out of the vendetta system of
justice. Then, in The Libation Bearers, he continues use of the imagery as
the bloody cycle continues and also uses it to testify to the beginnings of
the search for a deliverance from all the bloodshed. Finally, in The
Eumenides, through a change in the pattern of the imagery, Aeschylus
illuminates the deliverance and "ripeness" brought forth by a new order
that breaks the cycle of blood deeds.
In Agamemnon, Aeschylus presents the suffering and hopelessness that arise
out of retributive justice. He uses the imagery of bloodshed to show how
the blood vendetta is a futile and unending cycle. At the beginning of the
play, the chorus describes the blood that was shed by Agamemnon in Troy,
where he was driven to avenge Priam's theft of Helen. Here, Agamemnon acted
"true to revenge, [like] a stabbing Fury," (65) plunging his sword into "a
mother/ bursting with unborn young- the babies spilling, / quick spurts of
blood [and] cut off the race just dashing into life!" (107) He is a bloody
lion that "lapped its fill, gorging on the blood of kings." (812-13) Not
only did his need for vengeance cause bloodshed in Troy, it also resulted
in his sacrifice of his daughter. The chorus describes how Agamemnon
performed this act in order to appease Artemis for "[she] must have blood."
(201) if the fleets are to be able to sail to Troy. The chorus relates
"the older warlord saying, 'Obey, obey, or a heavy doom will crush me!-/ Oh
but doom will crush me/ once I rend my child/ the glory of my house-/ a
father's hand's are stained,/ blood of a young girl streaks the altar./
Pain both ways and what is worse?/...