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Night of the Waking Dead: The Ghost of Clytemnestra and Collective Vengeance in Aeschylus’ Eumenides

Robert Cioffi

Of all the corpses piled high in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, only Clytemnestra is permitted to speak from beyond the grave. This paper investigates the role that her ghost, which appears unbidden at Aesch. Eum. 94, plays in the drama. It argues that Clytemnestra can be understood as a chthonic chorêgos, who blends ritual and performative language to rouse the chorus of sleeping Erinyes. This action transforms the religious and imaginative landscape of the play, since through her ghost, individual desire for vengeance is transferred to the collective performance of the chorus. While Clytemnestra’s ghost has been included in studies of the returning dead in Greek literature (e.g., Johnston 1999; Bardel 2004, 2005; Aguirre 2006, 2009), her role in the play and the performative aspects of her ghostly appearance have received less attention. This paper builds on a growing understanding of the way that the chorus of Erinyes combine ritual and performance (Faraone 1985, Henrichs 1994; Loraux 1988, cf. Henrichs 1991), to demonstrate how the presence and actions of Clytemnestra’s ghost create a dramatic arc that re-embodies her individual search for vengeance in the collective persona of the divine chorus. She directs both the ritual action and the performance of Erinyes, stirring them to dance their vengeance.

Clytemnestra begins by expressing her highly individual search for vindication. An unbidden ghost, she mediates between past and present, making visible through her appearance and her language the injustice that she has suffered: she complains about her treatment in the underworld (95-9); she displays the wounds inflicted by Orestes (103); and she rebukes the Erinyes for dishonoring her (106-9). Her demands begin to shift, I suggest, at the end of her speech. When she says “I am speaking on behalf of my soul (ψυχή). I, Clytemnestra, a dream vision (ὄναρ), call on you!” (114-16), she combines the language of Athenian oratory with that of the returning dead; the ambiguity of ψυχή, which can mean either life or shade, and her self-identification as a “dream vision” simultaneously expresses her position as legal claimant and as a ghost returning to inspire vengeance.

In the lyric exchange with the Erinyes that follows, Clytemnestra transfers her individual vendetta to the chorus at the same time that she directs their performance. Comparing them to a dog (κύων) pursuing its prey in a dream (131-2), she repeatedly calls on them to “get up” (ἀνιστάναι, 124, 133) and asks them to “grieve their heart” (ἄλγησον ἧπαρ, 135) with her cause. This passage finds a close verbal and thematic parallel in Euripides’ Bacchae when Agave rouses the sleeping bacchants, her “nimble hounds” (δρομάδες…κύνες, 731). Like the sleeping Bacchants, the Erinyes respond to Clytemnestra’s direction and language by expressing their new-found lust for vengeance in performative terms. Specifically, their use of the language of “waking” (ἐγείρειν, 140) and “getting up” (ἀνιστάναι, 140) as they enter the stage and begin their “prelude” (φροιμίον, 142) blends their role as a chorus and as Furies. The verb ἐγείρειν, for example, is used in curse tablets to invoke the Erinyes (I.Kourion 128, 142), and it is also used metaphorically to describe other performative moments in which song and dance are initiated, such as waking the lyre, a paean, or a dirge (Pindar, Nem. 10.21, Cratinus fr. 237 (Kassel-Austin), Gramm. 40, Soph. OC 1778). Clytemnestra rouses the chorus to represent their own performance as a collective embodiment of her demands. They experience her pain (ἐπάθομεν, 143, 145); they adopt her metaphor of hunting (147-8); and, most importantly, as a choral body, they take up her individual claims for vengeance, which drive the play until its conclusion.

Clytemnestra disappears as suddenly as she appears. In her absence, Apollo will describe the Erinyes as a “flock without a shepherd” (196), but as a ghost she has a profound impact, directing both the ritual and performative arc of the tragedy and making the past present in the here-and-now of dramatic performance.

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Discourses of Greek Tragedy: Music, Natural Science, Statecraft, Ethics

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