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Physiology of Matricide: Revenge and Metabolism Imagery in Aeschylus’ Choephoroe

Goran Vidovic

Several scenes in Aeschylys’ Oresteia have been defined as a comic relief (Pypłacz) or, similarly, a touch of mundaneness highlighting by contrast the elevated tragic atmosphere (Seidensticker). The speech of Orestes’ nurse Cilissa in the Choephoroe (730-782) is commonly taken as the prime example: “grotesque but natural... pithy illiterate babble” (Sidgwick; cf. Garvie). Yet such an ostensibly gratuitous digression at such a climactic moment commands attention. I argue that the Nurse episode, so far from an interlude, is an emblematic summary of the dynamics of guilt and retribution in the trilogy.

First I analyze how the scene is carefully scripted and thematically appropriate. To give a few examples, Cilissa describes how laboriously she tended the infant Orestes (749-62), implying that she replaced Clytemnestra, unworthy of being called ‘mother’ (190-1). Cilissa ominously recalls Orestes “in swaddling-clothes” (ἐν σπαργάνοις, 755), echoing the image of the newborn snake from Clytemnestra’s dream (ἐν σπαργάνοισι, 529; cf. 544; Garvie duly connects animal imagery in the trilogy with baby Orestes’ inability to speak, 753-5). The Nurse thereby had to “divine” (πρόμαντις οὖσα, 758) when is the baby hungry, much like Orestes interpreted the omen of the snake (τερασκόπον, 551) sucking bloody milk as himself; Cilissa usually failed in interpreting the baby’s signals properly (ψευσθεῖσα, 759), just as Clytemnestra failed to recognize Orestes in disguise. Cilissa washing Orestes’ swaddles (σπαργάνων φαιδρύντρια, 759) foreshadows his eventual purification (e.g. Eum. 656); at the same time, the allusion to the bath of Agamemnon (λουτροῖσι φαιδρύνασα, Ag. 1109) is activated by the immediately preceding scene where unsuspecting Clytemnestra welcomes Orestes and Pylades offering a warm bath (θερμὰ λουτρὰ, Cho. 670).

The most puzzling is Cilissa’s remark that she did everything by herself, so “the nurse and launderer had the same telos” (κναφεὺς τροφεύς τε ταὐτὸν εἰχέτην τέλος, 760). Garvie observes that she prides herself on performing two tasks at once, but since she will say this explicitly in the following line (διπλᾶς δὲ τάσδε χειρωναξίας, 761), I believe that line 760 merits further scrutiny.

This verse, I argue, epitomizes several related motifs of the Oresteia by employing the dynamic imagery of intake and discharge of liquids. Circulation of liquids in the trilogy represents the cycle of life (wetness) and death (dryness). For example, bloodshed must be compensated for by pouring libations (Cho. 66, 164, esp. 400-2, 520; Eum. 261-9). Dry dust absorbs human blood (Eum. 647, 980) and Ares memorably gives urns (λέβητας, normally for liquid) containing dry dust and ashes (ψῆγμα, σποδοῦ) in exchange for living heroes (Ag. 441-4); in an ironic parallel, λέβης is both the urn Orestes carries, reportedly with his own ashes (Cho. 686), and Agamemnon’s fatal bathtub (Ag. 1129). Erinyes’ eyes drip with ooze (Eum. 54) as they are to whither Orestes dry (κατισχναίνουσα, Eum. 138); they threaten to sterilize the earth by pouring poisonous rain (Eum. 782ff). Therefore, liquids poured in revenge are just as destructive inasmuch as they cause desiccation. In Cho. 760 Orestes’ body is the circular conductor of fluids: sucking his milk and consequently soiling his diapers comes to the same telos because he will bring death to the the one who gave him life.

Symptomatically, baby Orestes cannot control intake and discharge: he cannot say if he is hungry, thirsty, or needs to urinate (εἰ λιμὸς ἢ δίψη τις ἢ λιψουρία, 756). I interpret the imagery of infant metabolism, an independent mechanism of reflexes (αὐτάρκης, 757), as a metaphor for the curse of cyclical wrongdoing in the Oresteia. The adult Orestes is caught in a cycle beyond his control, where suffering injustice inevitably leads to inflicting one—and vice versa. The baby Orestes’ circulation of fluids manifests the leitmotif of the trilogy: the doer must suffer (δράσαντα παθεῖν, Cho. 313). Just as feeding must produce dirty diapers, the vivid imagery of Cho. 760-765 confirms that one must swallow one’s own discharge in return.

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