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As Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia, the only trilogy to survive from ancient Greece, he filled it with double-meanings, vivid and oftentimes gory imagery, and more themes than most scholars could unravel in a lifetime. Aeschylus takes many common themes and transforms them into a perverse version of their accustomed meaning. One example of this can be found in the recurring image of light. Whereas many authors and poets use this image in a context such that light exemplifies all that is good and right, Aeschylus uses it quite differently.

Most every appearance of light n Agamemnon is saturated with irony, suggesting to the reader that their initial notion of light may not hold true through the course of the trilogy. The paradox of light as a bad omen continues through the Libation Bearers, until a point in the Eumenides such that it is restored to its natural connotations. As Agamemnon opens, a prologue given by a night watchman offers no indication that light means anything other than that with which it might normally be associated.

He remarks that he is watching for the fire signaling the Greeks’ victory at Troy (Ag. 10-11). He even goes so far as to call this signal a “godsend” in the dark (Ag. 23). The use of light in both of these statements has undertones that evoke the thought of light as a pleasant and hopeful image. Until near the end of the prologue, it seems that all is as it should be. Shortly after these statements are made, however, the watchman says, “A throw of the torch has brought us triple-sixes (Ag. 34-35).

Although the modern implications of this number were likely not evoked with an audience of Aeschylus’ time, the presence of such a symbol in what should e a well-intended line cannot go unnoticed by a contemporary audience. This is the first hint to today’s reader or listener that light may not be as good a sign as he or she had been led to believe. Even if this statement is understood by its archaic meaning of a lucky dice roll, it nonetheless marks a transition from the final good implication of light within Agamemnon to the remainder of the trilogy’s more dismal outlook upon it.

Moving further into the Oresteia, the first truly bad connotation of light comes in the parodos of Agamemnon. The chorus finds Clytaemnestra lighting altar fires to celebrate the fall of Troy. They ask the queen why she goes through the citadel burning victims on blazing altars. (Ag. 96, 99) What should have been a sacred ritual is instantly transformed into a gruesome image of death. The next hundred or so lines do not mention light itself, but rather relate to the audience the tale of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia.

It is no coincidence that as the connotation of light changes more to one associated with darkness, the mood of the play also darkens. This is actually alluded to by the chorus members when they say, “Now the darkness comes to the fore” (Ag. 107). Once the initial image of light in a negative context has passed, the mention of light within the text becomes more ironic. The doubts which Aeschylus’ double-meanings are beginning to foster, coupled with the fact that previous readers or listeners already know of Agamemnon’s soon-to- occur demise, cause each reference to light to be thought of in a new manner.

When Clytaemnestra exclaims, “Let the new day shine! ” (Ag. 264), he, and the audience as well, know that with the new day come the double murders of Agamemnon and Cassandra. The ideas that would normally be evoked from such an uplifting statement are lost as the audience instead dwells upon the gory violence that is soon to occur. Discussion of light then moves back to the signal fire from Troy.

The chorus begins to wonder if the signal really means what the queen has told them, or if it might not even be sending the wrong message by the mistake of an over-eager man with the first torch (Ag. 67-474) It can be oncluded from the conversation between Clytaemnestra and the chorus that her true reason for this chain of fire was to allow her to prepare for her husband’s homecoming. With the progression of the flame from Troy to the home of Atreus’ sons (Ag. 283-311), Agamemnon also draws nearer to his country. Clytaemnestra insinuates that the arrival of the light is parallel to the arrival of Agamemnon, and thus inevitably parallel to his death (Ag. 347-354).

The old men of the chorus, in a moment of brilliance they themselves do not quite understand, say that they will soon know her ires for what they are (Ag. 480). Indeed they will. Moving into the second stasimon, the chorus presents the metaphor of a lion cub captured as a newborn, which upon coming of age turned on its masters and feasted on their bodies (Ag. 713-730). They refer to the fire in its eyes before it commits the act of revenge (Ag. 721), and then compare this lion cub to the Greek attack upon Troy.

This suggests that the light is an indicator of revenge to come. The light in the eyes of the cub is much the same as the light sent from Troy before Clytaemnestra’s revenge upon Agamemnon. When Agamemnon arrives home with Cassandra in tow, one of the most paradoxical illustrations of light is brought forth. When Cassandra begins to speak, one of the first things she says is “Apollo Apollo my destroyer” (Ag. 1079); when the chorus question her about this statement, she explains that Apollo breathed his fire through her and gave her the gift of prophesy.

She goes on to refer to his fire as her torture (Ag. 1270). Why would a gift from Apollo – the God of the Sun – be torture? Aeschylus reveals that because of the events leading up to this gift, Apollo put a urse on Cassandra that will inevitably lead to her demise. A gift from the God of the Sun, the source of all light, which should have been a blessing, is for Cassandra nothing more than a death sentence. After Cassandra’s and Agamemnon’s murders, the bad association of light shifts from these two onto the characters of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus.

As they gloat in their accomplishment, the pair recklessly throws around words that will eventually damn them. Clytaemnestra says that she will never fear so long as Aegisthus lights the fire on her hearth (Ag. 461-1463). Up until this point she alone has understood the full meaning of the light, but after this slip of words, the audience sees that she may now be the one who does not comprehend the context of light. Furthermore, Aegisthus unwisely boasts that the day is a brilliant day for vengeance (Ag. 605-1606).

Little does he know that he will be the victim of such vengeance soon enough, with the return of Orestes in the second part of the trilogy. As we move into the Libation Bearers, the image of light moves further and further from its more pleasant connotations. The first image of light in this part of the trilogy is of Electra “radiant in her grief” as she stands at her father’s grave (L. B. 29). It is during this scene that Electra also compares Orestes to the light that will save the house of Atreus.

She too assumes that the light associated with his return will bring nothing but good (L. B. 137 & 240). When Orestes finally does return, the audience sees that this is not at all the case. Orestes himself makes the first obvious connection between light and the actuality of darkness (L. B. 26), and it is shortly after this that the chorus remarks that there is no hope or light, only suffering (L. B. 410). The chorus goes on to speak, quite ironically again, about the light of freedom that Orestes brings with him (L. B. 801).

The audience is beginning to see that the light associated with Orestes is much the same as the light associated with Agamemnon. Both were the predecessors of revenge and murder. The chorus members make this all the more clear by saying that even when the morning – the light of Orestes – comes, the world will still be dark (L. B. 808). In the next several lines of the Libation Bearers the audience sees the murders of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus played out before their eyes. Orestes has lit the much-awaited torch of freedom (L. B. 50) and in reality it is simply another murder in the ongoing cycle of death.

At a pivotal point in the trilogy, Orestes remarks that the light is breaking (L. B. 950), which alludes to the fact that a change may be on the way soon. Once this statement has been made, Orestes is suddenly overcome with grief as the avenging Furies take after him and he is forced to flee Argos with the ealization that his light was no better than the others’. It is in the third and final play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, that the characters all begin to see the light for what it truly is.

In this play, Orestes is tried before a jury for Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus’ murders. Light is personified in the opening of the Eumenides by the presence of Apollo. As the trial begins, Orestes and the chorus make note several times of the fact that Orestes guilt is directly liked to light, or to Apollo (Eum. 244, 479-480, & 599-600). Through the character of Apollo, t is made clear that the light was the cause for all of the murder and vengeance occurring within the first two plays of the trilogy.

A very important connection is also made in the Eumenides between light and darkness. The chorus leader makes the connection between guilt and the light, and then he goes on to say that a dark guilt hovers over Orestes (Eum. 244 & 381). From these two lines, one can conclude that since guilt and light go hand in hand, then if guilt is dark, light must truly be dark as well. This reaffirms the idea that Aeschylus has erverted the image of light to one more commonly associated with darkness.

The storyline progresses and Orestes is eventually decreed innocent by Athena and the newly established court of law. After the proclamation is made, Apollo completely disappears from the text. The light that was present in Agamemnon and the Libation Bearers disappears with him, only to be replaced by an entirely new version of the image. For the first time in the trilogy, light is presented in a hopeful and pleasant way when Athena compares the change brought about by the court of law to “a wash of unlight streaming through the land” (Eum. 16).

This is the turning point for the image of light in the Oresteia, as it is presented in its new context from here on out. The change can truly be sensed as every mention of light suddenly takes on bright and cheerful tones. For example, the previously dreadful Furies begin to speak of the good things in life, gleaming with a bursting flash of sun (Eum. 935-938). Furthermore, the Furies curse outright light that is associated with murder (Eum. 968), the same kind of light present in the beginning of the trilogy.

The Eumenides closes with a series of lines all focused on the progression of this new light. Athena exclaims to the people, “I will speed your prayers lit by the torches breaking into flame” (Eum. 1021-1022) and then says triumphantly, “Let the torch move on! ” (Eum. 1039) This leaves the audience with the general good feeling that the “new light” will continue to grow, bringing peace and happiness to all of Zeus’ people. Throughout the course of the Oresteia, the image of light undergoes some drastic developments. It is first foreboding and ironic through

Agamemnon and the Libation Bearers as Aeschylus presents the audience with an idea of light in great contrast to that which they are normally accustomed. Finally, in the Eumenides light is restored to its usual good and right connotations. This change coincides with the political changes taking place in Athens at the time as it moved from a system of retributive justice to that of a court of law. Aeschylus uses the image of light to show his audience both the perils that come with revenge, as well as the good that can come about from new and innovative ways of thinking. Let the torch move on.

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