Sunday, January 1, 2012

Greek Classics: Here We Go!

Happy January 1st--are you ready to start reading the ancient Greeks?

I'm going to start with Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. These plays tell the awful story of Agamemnon's family after he returns from the Trojan War. Before setting out, he had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, and in revenge (not to mention how Agamemnon took Cassandra as a mistress) his wife Clytemnestra murders him, and Cassandra too. Now it's up to their son Orestes to avenge his father, and he kills Clytemnestra and her lover. This makes Orestes guilty of matricide, so the Furies pursue and torment him, and he appeals to Apollo, who encouraged Orestes in the first place. Athena has to step in as arbiter, which leads to some discussion on reason and law. What happens when justice and duty are at cross-purposes?

Aeschylus' plays are the oldest we have, and only seven have survived; he wrote at least seventy. All the plays before Aeschylus have been lost, and apparently they were somewhat different, with fewer characters that could only speak with the chorus. Aeschylus developed conflict between characters and is often known as the Father of Tragedy. He wrote many trilogies, but all have been lost except for the Oresteia. From what I hear, his plays are written in difficult Greek that often puzzled his contemporaries and now gives translators fits.

He was born in Eleusis around 525 BC of a wealthy family, and was a member of the Eleusinian mysteries that were based in his home city. He served in the Persian wars and fought at the Battle of Marathon, as did his brother Cynegeirus, who was killed in action there and revered as a hero. Later, he fought at the Battle of Salamis as well. This war service was much more important to the Greeks than literary accomplishment, and so his epitaph reads:
Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian,
who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;
of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,
and the long-haired Persian knows it well.

Aeschylus' death is the subject of a legendary (and probably apocryphal) story: he is supposed to have been killed around 455 BC when an eagle dropped a tortoise on him, mistaking his bald head for a rock.

Now that you know something about Aeschylus, what Greek literature are you planning to read?


Eva said...

How interesting! Which translation did you go with? I read Fagles' translation of the trilogy last year, as well as Anne Carson's translation of "Agamemnon" (part of An Oresteia, in which you uses plays by three different authors to make the trilogy). They were both wonderful.

I've just requested Fagles' translation of Sophocles' The Theban Plays from the library. So I guess that will be my first read!

SRK said...

Hey, I'm planning on reading The Oresteia (Fagles translation) too! Well ... at least Agamemnon, then we'll see how it goes ...

It will be neat to see how our reviews line up.

Jean said...

My library doesn't have the Fagles translation of the Oresteia (it does have the Theban plays), so I'm just reading my old copy from college, which is a Viking Portable Library edition from Penguin. The translator's name is Thomson.

Jean said...

So SRK, we will definitely have to compare! :) (Did you know your initials are also those of one of a big Bollywood star?)

SRK said...

Bollywood?? That's news to me! LOL Better than porn I guess ;)

Jean said...

OK, you need to google "shah rukh khan" now and see what happens! He's widely known as SRK and is probably the single biggest movie star in the world.

Eva said...

I'll be curious to see what you think of it then! Did you study the classics in college? I took Latin in high school but switched to modern languages for college (although I often wished I'd have been able to fit in about five more majors, one of them being the classics, hehe).

Cassandra said...

What better distraction from our exhausting workdays can there be than reading Greek tragedies in which everyone dies?
No, seriously, I am glad you are going to read The Oresteia since I received a copy of it for Christmas (my sister knows me well...)and plan to read it soon, although I am a bit reluctant to read about Cassandra's horrible fate.
My parents should have read more Aeschylus before choosing my name :)

Jean said...

Eva, I was a comparative lit major, which required several classes in various ancient literatures. I took two Greek, one Indian, and one Norse. I had to be forced to take that one last modern American lit class, and was surprised when I enjoyed it. :) But it never occurred to me to talk Latin, and now I'm a classical homeschooler and we all study Latin!

Cassandra, at least they didn't name you Ophelia! (Now I'm trying to come up with worse literary names. Jezebel? Guinevere?)

Amy said...

I just read the Oresteia for the first time last summer, as it happens. All this past summer and fall I've been reading ancient lit, in preparation for assigning it to my oldest dd next year. It's so interesting to fill in "prequels and sequels" to the bare bones I read in high school and college.