Progression Towards LightAeschylus’ use of darkness and light as a consistent image in theOresteia depicts a progression from evil to goodness, disorder to order.
In theOresteia, there exists a situation among mortals which has gotten out ofcontrol; a cycle of death has arisen in the house of Atreus. There also existsa divine disorder within the story which, as the situation of the mortals, mustbe brought to resolution: the Furies, an older generation of gods, are inconflict with the younger Olympian gods because they have been refused theirancient right to avenge murders between members of the same family. TheOresteia presents two parallel conflicts, both of which must be resolved ifharmony is ever to be desired again.
As one can expect, these conflictseventually do find their resolutions, and the images of darkness and lightaccompany this progression, thereby emphasizing the movement from evil to good.The use of darkness imagery first emerges in the Agamemnon. In thisfirst play of the trilogy, the cycle of death which began with the murder andconsumption of Thyestes’ children continues with Clytaemestra’s murder ofAgamemnon and Cassandra. The darkness which is present in the beginning of thestory is further magnified by the death of Agamemnon.
This is illustrated whenClytaemestra says, “Thus he Agamemnon went down, and the life struggled outof him; and as he died he spattered me with the dark red and violent drivenrain of bitter savored blood” (lines 1388-1390). Clytaemestra has evilly andmaliciously murdered her own husband; thus the image of the dark blood. Thedarkness is representative of the evil which has permeated the house of Atreus,and which has persisted with this latest gruesome act of murder. Becausedarkness results from the death of Agamemnon, Aeschylus clearly illustrates thatthis murder was nothing but pure evil. As long as this type of evil continuesto be practiced in the house of Atreus, darkness will continue to emerge. TheOresteia has not yet seen the light.The beginning of the progression from darkness to light can initially beseen in the second play of the trilogy, The Libation Bearers. Orestes is theembodiment of this light, a beacon signalling a possible end in the evil thathas infected the house of Atreus.
It is true that Orestes, in revenge forAgamemnon, kills his mother Clytaemestra. Yet the darkness that is expectedfrom such a murder, a matricide, is negated by one of the main reasons thatOrestes commits the murder: his fear of the wrath of Apollo, who has orderedhim to commit the deadly act. Aeschylus provides Orestes with a justificationfor his action in the form of the oracle from Apollo. For not only doesOrestes’ murder of his mother fail to differ greatly from Clytaemestra’s murderof Agamemnon, but it can in fact be seen as a worse crime because of the bloodties.
Therefore, in order to convincingly prove his assertion that Orestes isjustified in killing his mother, Aeschylus must include the order from Apollo,who by no mere coincidence is the god of light. With the divine support of thelight god on his side, Orestes is the beginning of the progressive illuminationtowards goodness and order in the Oresteia.Another example of Orestes’ introduction of light into a story ofdarkness occurs later in The Libation Bearers. The chorus is describing thedream that Clytaemestra has had of giving birth to a snake, which representsOrestes. The chorus sings of Clytaemestra’s fear as she awakens from thenightmare: “She woke screaming out of her sleep, shaky with fear, as torcheskindled all about the house, out of the blind dark that had been on them” (lines535-537). Aeschylus describes the house of Clytaemestra, the rightful house ofAtreus and the Atridae, as dark; this darkness has been caused by none otherthan her own murderous deeds. She has dreamt of the coming of her son Orestesto avenge his father, and the torches that light up the house signal this coming.
Clearly, Orestes is the man who will restore light to the house of Atreus.Orestes is looked upon by those characters sympathetic to his plight(namely Electra and the chorus of The Libation Bearers) as the light which willbring an end to the evil in the house of Atreus. Soon after Orestes reveals hisidentity to his sister, he proclaims that he will avenge his father’s murder.The chorus, who represent the subjects of the late Agamemnon, express theirgratitude for Orestes’ decision when they say, “But when strength came back hopelifted me again, and the sorrow was gone and the light was on me” (lines 415-417). Orestes’ arrival and his resolution to make his mother pay for her crimesilluminates the darkness which Clytaemestra has brought upon the royal house;the chorus, in proclaiming that the light is on them, recognize that Orestes isthe man who will achieve this illumination.
Electra also recognizes thatOrestes will bring good to an evil situation: “O bright beloved presence, youbring back four lives to me” (lines 238-239). Orestes’ presence brightens thedark, gloomy state of mind of Electra just as it brightens the dark, gloomysituation in the house of Atreus.Following the murder of Clytaemestra and Aegisthus at the hands ofOrestes, light is finally restored to the conflict within the mortal house ofAtreus.
Orestes has fulfilled the oracle imposed upon him by Apollo, and thedarkness, the evil of Clytaemestra, has been defeated. In reference to thisdefeat, the chorus proclaims, “Light is here to behold. The big hit that heldour house is taken away” (lines 961-962). The disorder and darkness that hadreigned in the house of Atreus exists no longer; Orestes has given his familyillumination. The evil darkness has been overcome by the good light.Another way in which Aeschylus manifests the imagery of light anddarkness is through the conflict between the Olympic and Chthonic gods. TheOlympic gods are represented in the Oresteia by Apollo and Athene. Aeschylusties together the ideas of justice and reason, Athene’s domain, with the idea oflight, of which Apollo is god.
By contrast, the black clad Chthonic gods, theFuries, tie together the idea of darkness with the idea of bloody revenge, whichis their area of specialization. In the Eumenides, Pythia says of the Furies, “They are black and utterly repulsive, and they snore with breath that drives oneback” (lines 52-53). The contrast between the two different races of gods setsup Aeschylus’ second progression from darkness to light in the Oresteia.The Furies are at first incapable of treating Orestes with the justicethat he deserves. They do not take into account the circumstances under whichOrestes killed his mother, specifically the pressure which he had received fromApollo.
Therefore, the Furies are at first enraged that Athene allows Orestesto escape their dark and bloody vengeance. Eventually, however, the Furies’hate begins to subside and they accept the arbitration of Athene, who offersthem land and honor in Athens. This acceptance marks the beginning of theirmovement from darkness to light. They embrace the just attitude of the Olympicgods Apollo and Athene, progressing from a doctrine of bloody revenge to one ofreason and justice. The light images emerge along with this progression, andthe Furies proclaim near the end of the Eumenides: “So with forecast of good Ispeak this prayer for them the citizens of Athens that the sun’s brightmagnificence shall break out wave on wave of all the happiness life can give ,across their land” (lines 921-925). The Chthonic gods have given up their darkways and have called for light.
This light image is also manifested in thegarments that the Furies change into at the end of the Eumenides: where theyhad previously worn black robes, they now wear bright crimson robes. Nowcalling themselves the Eumenides, or Benevolent Ones, these gods have progressedfrom symbols of evil darkness into symbols of bright goodness.In his trilogy the Oresteia, Aeschylus’ use of darkness and lightimagery coincides with his progression of themes. Orestes, who represents light,brings and end to the vicious cycle of dark death continued by Clytaemestra. Heilluminates the dark evil in the house of Atreus.
Likewise, Athene and Apollobring the Furies out of their dark, blood-lusting ways and into an order ofjustice and reason, transforming them into the brightly clad Benevolent Ones.In the end, goodness prevails over evil just as light conquers darkness.Aeschylus effectively makes use of his images to emphasize this movement.