Vägivaldne surm Aischylose tragöödias „Agamemnon“ / Violent death in Aeschylus’s tragedy “Agamemnon”


  • Karina Talts Institute of Humanities at Tallinn University




Aeschylus, Agamemnon, tragedies, death, murders


Violence and tragedy are inseparable. Like myths, the bases for most tragic storylines, antique tragedies also depict innumerable murders, sacrifices, suicides, etc. This paper focuses on how death is depicted in Aeschylus’s tragedy „Agamemnon“ in order to examine how the tragedy portrays violent death. The paper further explores the ritual markers of murder, dying as a boundary-crossing process and the different attitudes towards and beliefs about death and the dead found in the tragedy. 

Despite a lack of any kind of written source or comment on the conventions of depicting death in antique Greek tragedies, we know that, whether it was in the interest of credibility or for some other reason, portraying death and violent events on stage was avoided. Blood baths and murders were not shown physically on stage, but were rather conveyed verbally using various narrative means (a messenger’s or the choir’s text, a character’s account, etc.). Many different explanations have been given for these conventions of depicting death, such as the limited number of actors in Greek theatre, religious taboos, ethical beliefs, technical limitations on stage, as well as dramatic reasons. Since the act of murder isn’t shown on stage, a study of the representation of violent death can only analyse the way that murder is described in the text. 

In the tragedy „Agamemnon“, one must distinguish between the deaths that occurred in the past, before the actions that take place on stage, such as Iphigenia and the warriors who fought in Troy (as recounted by the choir), and those that take place during the play, i.e. the murders of Agamemnon and Cassandra. If we take a closer look at these two murders, the disproportionate amount of attention given to them stands out. Agamemnon dies three times for the public: first in Cassandra’s prophetic vision (1100-1130), which she presents to the choir, then his „real“ death behind closed doors (1343-1345), and, finally, a third time in Clytemnestra’s victorious recounting of the blood bath (1380-1395). Whereas Cassandra’s death is but briefly mentioned in Clytemnestra’s account (1440-1448). In the threefold presentation of Agamemnon’s murder, all categories of time are powerfully combined – the future, the present and the past. Cassandra’s prophetic view of the future describes in explicit detail, though metaphorically, the fate about to befall Agamemnon. Clytemnestra’s retrospective description of the murder is cold-blooded and precise. But both help to create a vivid image of the terrible event for the viewer by the end of the play. Poetic suggestiveness and layers of description (direct and metaphorical) give the otherwise dramatically wan murder scene the dimensions of a larger event. 

Cassandra’s and Clytemnestra’s descriptions of the murder evoke a sense of ecstasy and ritual. Agamemnon’s murder gives symbolic weight to many objects, conferring upon them a deeper, ritual meaning in the tragedy. These objects include the bath and robe/trap that Clytemnestra uses during the murder ritual, but also the blood spilled so violently as a libational sacrifice to the gods. The central images in the murder scenes, the references to an altar and comparing the dying to a sacrificed animal, all allude to Greek sacrifice customs. Agamemnon’s death can thus be seen as a metaphoric rite of sacrifice. Such „sacral violence“ isn’t ritual per se, but it essentially imitates cult practices. 

The victim’s journey from the world of the living into the reality of the dead can be seen as a transition ritual and the dying as a liminal process. In the context of Juri Lotman’s cultural semiotics and his theory of boundaries, the opposition between „in“ and „out“ allows death to be placed on the life/afterlife, seen/unseen, known/unknown axes. The spatial structure of the tragedy „Agamemnon“ is also a spatial model of the universe (according to Greek cosmology). Space in the tragedy’s text is organized according to concepts of „in“ and „out“ and, on the vertical axis, „above“ and „below“, wherein the synonyms for „in“ are „closeness“ and „belonging“ and for „out“ are „distance“ and „the unknown“. With death, there is movement from „in“ to „out“ and from „above“ to „below“ and, with these concepts, come the binary oppositions of „day“ and „night“ and „light“ and „darkness“. Day and daylight symbolize life but death is darkness and the „setting of life“ (1120-1225). Thus, Hades is depicted as an obscure, hopeless place. 

The clear outlines given to death in the tragedy as well as the depiction of Hades are in line with the general religious traditions of fifth century Greece. Death was feared and it elicited emotions of horror and negativity. Though it wasn’t possible to return to the land of the living, death wasn’t considered to be the end of existence, merely its continuation in the next actuality, where new rules applied. In conclusion, violent death as an aspect of society is depicted in this tragedy mainly in descriptions of the horrors of war and the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice. However, the personal horror of death emerges in the depiction of the familial blood feud and the descriptions of Agamemnon’s murder. „Agamemnon“ contains little reference to the Greek underworld and beliefs about death. The tragedy mostly focuses on the ways of, and reasons for, leaving life and gives a detailed description of violent death. 


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