You are here

Performing Relationships: Aeschylus’ Use of Mousikē and Choreia in the Oresteia

Valerie Hannon Smitherman

The culture of musical expression which nurtured Aeschylus and to which his Oresteia belongs was firmly rooted in the community known as the pólis. Damon, a fifth-century musical theorist, emphasized both the depth and significance of this connection, observing:

οὐδαμοῦ γὰρ κινοῦνται μουσικῆς τρόποι ἄνευ πολιτικῶν νόμων τῶν μεγίστων (Plat. Rep. 5.424c)

Never are the modes of music disturbed without [disturbing] the most essential nómoi of the pólis. (my own translation)

Thus, when Aeschylus incorporates moments of metrical disorder together with the literary motif of corrupted song they are meant to be understood as signs of a fundamental breakdown in the reciprocal social relationships that characterize both communal performance and the structure of the pólis as a whole. By introducing a chorus of Erinyes, Aeschylus makes the connection between harmonious mousikē and communal stability more concrete, although at first only Cassandra can perceive them and understand the significance of their song:

τὴν γὰρ στέγην τήνδ’ οὔποτ’ ἐκλείπει χορὸς
ξύμφθογγος οὐκ εὔφωνος∙ οὐ γὰρ εὖ λέγει.
καὶ μὴν πεπωκώς γ’, ὴς θρασύνεσθαι πλέον,
βρότειον αἷμα κῶμος ἐν δόμοις μένει,
δύσπεμπτος ἔξω, συγγόνων Ἐρινύων∙
ὑμνοῦσι δ’ ὕμνον δώμασιν προσήμεναι
πρώταρχον ἄτην, ἐν μέρει δ’ ἄπέπτυσαν
εὐνὰς  δελφοῦ τῷ πατοῦντι δυσμενεῖς. (Ag. 1186-93)

For a chorus never leaves this roof
It sings in concert, but not in harmony, for it tells of nothing good.
Having guzzled human blood, and so become even more bold,
A besotted band of kindred Erinyes remains in the house,
Hard to drive out,
Encamped within its chambers, they sing a song of that
First ruinous act, each in turn spurns the brother’s bed,
Which was hostile to its trampler.
(my own translation)

The audience sees and hears these Erinyes for themselves when they come on stage to act as the chorus of Eumenides. After they begin to articulate whole words, they lament that they have lost their quarry, Orestes, singing chaotically in highly emotional iambo-dochmiacs (cf. Eu. 143-77; Scott 113ff.). Theirs is hardly a canonical entrance song - indeed, it seems they simply do not know how to sing as a chorus is expected to sing.

When they finally come face to face with Orestes, they proclaim their intention to perform for him, declaring that their song will ‘bind him’ and render him their sacrificial victim (cf. Eu. 306; Eu. 328ff.). In this ‘binding song’ (Eu. 307-96), they identify themselves as the daughters of Night and describe their role in the universe, claiming that they will never harm a person whose hands are clean, but rather they come to punish those who have sinned (cf. Eu. 312ff.). These goddesses who at the start of the drama seemed to be little more than divine hunting dogs, frenzied and struggling with language, are now presented as articulate avengers and guardians of díkē. Yet, their song is still disordered and dissonant. Its metrical structure never regularizes - it is not simply ‘a hymn to bind the mind, not sung to the lyre’, it is chaotic. W. C. Scott, the only scholar who offers a detailed critique of metrical structure in the Oresteia, observes, “There is no reason why the Furies should be unable to sing a unified hymn, but they fail (123).

We believe, however, that the Erinyes’ marked inability to sing a unified, coherent, harmonious song is due to their liminal nature. It is not a failure (either theirs or Aeschylus’), but rather a consequence of the fact that they are not members of a stable community (cf. Eu. 349ff.; despite Eu. 208-10; Eu. 315-20; Eu. 334-40) which is the essential prerequisite for a harmonious performance (cf. Eu. 892ff.; especially ln. 902). By linking the concepts of choral performance and community we will demonstrate that the trilogy dramatically depicts layers of relationships through mousikē and choreía, providing exciting new avenues of critical analysis.

Session/Panel Title

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

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy