Listen to the sad story of mankind:
At first mindless, I gave them mind and reason.
Not in disparagement of men do I speak.
But to show my gifts were governed by good will.
For seeing, they saw not; hearing, they could not listen.
All their lives they passed like shapes in dreams,
Confused and devoid of purpose. . . .
They acted without knowledge, till I came. . . .
Number, chief of sciences, I invented for them,
And how to set down words in writing,
The skill of remembrance, mother of the Muses. . . .
I distinguished the divers modes of prophecy,
And was the first to discern from dreams
What Fate ordains should come to be.
I gave the hidden sense of voices,
Sounds, sights met by chance upon the road.
I guided mankind to a hidden art,
And read to them the intimations of the altar-flames.
Archaic Greece gave way to the Classical Epoch in a rapid movement of light and shadow, filled with exhilaration and fear. As the Hellenes overran and absorbed the earlier Achaeans, values once articulated in the Mysteries and somewhat crudely applied to the social sphere were formulated with a new intellectual awareness and political sensibility. Familial tyrannies were reduced to oligarchies and, in Athens, to democracies. Social divisions that had been set aside only for specific and dramatic purposes – retrieving Helen from Troy, seeking the Golden Fleece in Colchis – were bypassed in bold new alliances forged by expanding commercial and political interests, colonization and a sense of 'Greater Greece', as well as by repeated incursions of Persia. Questions and experiments abounded, at once giving fresh vitality to ancient ideals and generating novel perspectives whilst eroding the foundations of the Mysteries. In the liberating and unnerving thrill of the new order, a few perceptive thinkers saw the dangerous possibility of the Mysteries becoming irrelevant and the necessity of countering the growing gap between knowledge of eternal truths and timely applications in the public realm. Amongst the first to recognize this need and to meet it through a bold transformation of existing materials was Aeschylus, "the father of Greek tragedy".
The life of Aeschylus is almost unknown outside of a general sketch given in an eleventh century manuscript of several plays, now preserved in Florence. Its author and original sources are lost to history. Aeschylus was born at Eleusis in 525 B.C., the son of Euphorion and descendant of the Eupatridae, the old Athenian nobility. His family was no doubt highly respected, accustomed to prominence in civic affairs and, according to tradition, immersed in the Eleusinian Mysteries, sacred to Demeter, goddess of the earth and resurrection of life. Each year an elaborate procession wended its way across forbidding landscapes from Athens to Eleusis, where multitudes witnessed the public celebration of the Lesser Mysteries. The few dedicated and self-tested students of life were admitted to the degrees of the Greater Mysteries, and Aeschylus joined his father in them. Presumably Aeschylus received a sound education, which for a person of his traditional rank included the cultivation of a profound sense of responsibility for the Athenian state.
During the prolonged struggle with Persia from 490 to 479 B.C., Aeschylus fought in the battles of Marathon, Artemisium, Salamis and Plataea. At Marathon he saw his brother Cynaegirus killed in an act of bravery. The brothers fought nobly enough to be memorialized by inclusion in the picture of Marathon in the Painted Porch (Stoa). Whilst no one knows when Aeschylus turned his penetrating intellect to poetic expression, he must have been relatively young, for he first competed for the prize in the Athenian drama festival of 499 B.C. at the age of twenty-six. His first recorded victory occurred in 484 B.C., and between that time and his last cycle of plays, performed in 458 B.C., he won the prize more than twelve times. According to Suidas, Aeschylus wrote ninety plays, of which titles and fragments of over eighty survive. Nonetheless, only seven complete plays remain as a testimony to his exceptional genius.
Aeschylus lived through the spiritual and psychic turbulence that marked the transition from a world familiar to Homer to the one in which Socrates spent his youth. Perhaps from the beginning, and certainly throughout his mature years, Aeschylus sought to express eternal verities in an idiom forged in the consciousness of the time and pointing beyond it. He overcame the inevitable compression of history by transforming ritual into drama, an art form capable of depicting universal truths in temporal forms amenable to contemplation and observation. Aeschylus chose as his medium tragoidia, tragedy, which is literally a goat-song. According to the ancient Greeks, this form of drama received its name either from the sacrifice of a goat when the songs were sung or from the prize of a goat awarded for the best song. Performed in conjunction with the vernal festival of Dionysus, the old song-mimes seemed to have celebrated the resurrection theme in Dionysus the solar god, the lord of universal fertility and the patron of ecstasy – that which breaks the bonds of form.
Even before Aeschylus, few of these performances dealt directly with Dionysus. Thespis introduced spoken verse into the choir, and in 534 B.C. Athens established annual performances of this new art. Peisistratus approved of the addition of a second actor and fixed the chorus at fifteen. The archaic threshing-floor – where kernel is separated from husk – gave way to a semi-circular stage and a standard backdrop. During the course of a day, a playwright would produce four plays, three tragedies and a satyr-play, a light piece featuring the companions of Dionysus. Ancient tragedies might have happy, even glorious, endings, but they never failed to intimate the Mysteries through their earnest probing of the relation of men to gods. The subject of a tragedy is confusion in this relationship, and its conclusion is annihilation or restoration. Myths are given life in dramas which bear the double reflection of a spinning mirror, at once showing men the way of gods, and reflecting back upon man his own unfolding nature.
Taking all these elements, Aeschylus employed their potentials to their fullest, introducing a blend of dialogue, choral commentary, dramatic action and brilliant effects to bring the ancient myths to life. In recognizing time as a moving image of eternity, he displayed before the veil of the proskenion the image of the secret wisdom behind, at once concealing and revealing. Realizing the possibilities of tragedy to a stunning degree, Aeschylus earned the title "father of Greek tragedy". Since ordinary lives are often mixtures of weaknesses, ambiguities, good intentions and bad memories, Aeschylus used the archetypal lives of gods and archaic heroes, whose strengths and errors are clearly marked, to show how the relation between human and divine is unbalanced and restored, as well as the consequences of each. To do this, he asked bold questions about human thought and action and about the nature and meaning of divine responses. Since his characters represent any human being involved in familiar circumstances, idiosyncrasies were minimized, destiny and character highlighted, and within the relatively short span of a play, careful attention from the audience was essential. The result is an archetypal, intense experience that can be applied to the obscure strands of daily life.
Generations of scholars have pondered the order in which Aeschylus wrote his plays and have speculated over tantalizing fragments of those lost to history. Within these uncertainties, it seems that a general picture can be drawn. The Persians was performed in 472 B.C., and Seven Against Thebes in 467. The tetralogy (including the satyr-play) from which the Suppliants alone survives, was probably staged in 466 or 463. The Oresteia, the only intact trilogy, dates from 458, and the Prometheia, known from Prometheus Bound and a few fragments, was written in the last two years of the author's life. Although it is impossible to discern how the thought and composition of Aeschylus evolved over an immensely productive lifetime, his most mature meditations are represented.
In the earlier extant plays, the divine architectonic is not questioned. The rule of Zeus may be harsh and even grim, but the cosmos is comfortable to the extent of being predictable. Past actions have present consequences, and descendants may reap the results of ancestral error. Imbalance does not right itself, but is transmitted through generations aided by the unconscious collusion of those affected. In the Persians, the ghost of Darius reports an old oracle that foretold the downfall of the Persian army through hubris, but Xerxes is driven by his own pride to fulfil the oracle. In Seven Against Thebes, Eteocles, who has lived under a curse, nobly bears the shock of discovering that the city will be attacked by his brother Polyneices. The catastrophe is complete when Eteocles decides to fight with the same angry passion that has inflamed Polyneices. He declares his intention: "Ruler, against one fain to snatch the rule, brother with brother matched, and foe with foe, will I confront the issue. To the wall!" The Leader of the Chorus cries:
O thou true heart, O child of Oedipus,
Be not, in wrath, too like the man whose name
Murmurs an evil omen! 'Tis enough
That Cadmus' clan should strive with Argos' host,
For blood there is that can atone that stain!
But – brother upon brother dealing death –
Not time itself can expiate the sin!
Aeschylus shows that the gods, and especially Zeus, may set the rules of life with terrible alternatives, but the catastrophic imbalance is triggered by man willingly throwing in with a precipitous course.
In the later plays, this perspective is taken for granted and raised to another level. The gods cease to form the cosmic background and running commentary on events; they enter as partisans of different standpoints. Conflict in the human breast is a reflection of war in heaven. If man is the plaything of the gods, he is also the essential instrument through which reconciliation of forces is effected. In the Suppliants the fifty daughters of Danaus flee the fifty sons of his brother, Aegyptus, who desire them as wives. Seeking refuge in Argos, home of their ancestress Io, they resist marriage. In the lost sequel, Aigyptioi, the fifty sons of Aegyptus force the marriage, ignorant of the command of Danaus that each daughter murder her unwanted husband. Forty-nine daughters obey, but the fiftieth, Hypermnestra, refuses to do so out of love. In the third play, also lost, Aphrodite, goddess of love, defends Hypermnestra.
Aeschylus had raised many questions about marriage, love, duty and obedience, and it is impossible to tell how he dealt with them. A fragment of Aphrodite's speech remains, however, as an index of his approach.
Now the pure Heaven yearns to pierce the Earth;
Now Earth is taken with longing for her marriage.
The rains showering from the mating Sky
Fill her with life, and she gives birth, for man,
To flocks of sheep and to the life-giving wheat.
And from that liquid exultation springs,
Perfect, the time of trees. In this I share.
When the social order is in upheaval, it is not enough to cling to ritualistic expressions of value. Homer is no longer suitable as an encyclopaedia of etiquette, much less of ethics. To understand the rights and wrongs of action, one must look to universal origins. In the case of male and female, one must understand the nature of cosmic polarity (represented by Aphrodite) and then choose. Thus Aeschylus called for a new depth of ethical awareness in his audience.
A similar pattern is found in the Oresteia, a trilogy of almost unfathomable complexity. Ancestral wrongs infect the lives of descendants and murder leads to vengeance, a seemingly endless cycle until divine intervention alchemizes the pattern. Here Zeus is portrayed as a mystery which wills that humanity should become wise.
Zeus – if to the Unknown
That name of many names seem good –
. . . . . .
'Tis Zeus alone who shows the perfect way
Of knowledge: He hath ruled,
Man shall learn wisdom, by affliction schooled.
The brothers Atreus and Thyestes became enemies, and when Thyestes wronged the wife of Atreus, Atreus in turn slew his brother's children and served them up at a ghastly banquet. Thus the House of Atreus fell under a curse. His sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, married Clytemnestra and Helen, who was carried away to Troy by Paris. Menelaus called upon Agamemnon to avenge this outrage, and the brothers launched an army. Ill winds sent by Artemis prevented the Grecian fleet from sailing until Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. Having done so, the Greeks sailed to Troy, where they fought for ten years whilst Clytemnestra brooded in Argos. The loss of her daughter for the dubious honour of rescuing Helen deeply affected her, and in time she took Aegisthus, a son of Thyestes, as her lover and vowed revenge on Agamemnon.
Agamemnon, the first play of the Oresteia, centres on this revenge. When Agamemnon returned to Argos with the visionary Cassandra as concubine, Clytemnestra welcomed him and laid out a carpet of royal purple. At first reluctant to tread on a path fit for the gods, he was encouraged by Clytemnestra to display his hubris, and even as he passed into the palace across a purple carpet (symbol of kingship), Cassandra foresaw what would be the outcome. Both Agamemnon and Cassandra were murdered by an exultant Clytemnestra. Even as she calls for an end to bloodshed, the play ends with a foreboding sense of doom. The Choephori takes up the story years later. Orestes had been secreted away when his father, Agamemnon, was murdered, and his sister, Electra, remained in the palace. They met, seemingly by chance, at Agamemnon's tomb, where Electra convinced Orestes that he must kill his mother to avenge his father. At first disguised, Orestes entered the palace with news of his own death. Whilst Clytemnestra was genuinely grieved, Orestes slew Aegisthus, and Clytemnestra divined the truth.
Alack, I read thy riddles all too clear –
We slew by craft and by like craft shall die.
. . . . .
So stands the curse, so I confront it here.
Once Orestes killed his mother, he was pursued by the avenging Furies. In the Eumenides, Orestes, haunted by the Furies, has fled to Athens. There Athena gave the Furies their just due as the forces of retribution in a universe of law, but appeased them by establishing the Areopagus, a court of law to judge crimes. Replacing the blind principle of vengeance with law, Athena persuaded the Furies to assist mankind as the Eumenides, the good graces.
The alchemical transformation of the Furies into the Eumenides is matched by the alchemical transformation of revenge into recompense. Both are ways of Zeus, but as humanity's ethical perception is elevated into a recognition of universal law, the forces in the cosmos are seen in a new light. If humanity is to gain knowledge, its institutions must come to reflect the structure of the living cosmos, the governance of Zeus. The human responsibility for imbalance, set out in the early plays, is here transmuted into the idea of working with divine law rather than in spite of it. Man learns through suffering that makes him more godlike. In the last trilogy, the Prometheia, the mystical ground of this change is revealed. Of the three plays, only Prometheus Bound survives, but there are hints about the contents of Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus Pyrphoros or Fire-Bringer. Using the sevenfold interpretation of the gods, H.P. Blavatsky pointed out that the gods represent divine hierarchies, intelligent forces in nature, races of humanity and principles in the human constitution. As the latter, the Zeus of Prometheus Bound is kama manas, the necessary limits of the projected Ray, whilst Prometheus is Manas aspiring to Buddhi, that which can transcend, even while using, its projection.
In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus as a Titan is older than Zeus, yet also his subject. By giving fire – the universal symbol of spiritual intelligence or true self-consciousness – to man, Prometheus knowingly violated the will of Zeus. He was chained and pinned through the breast to a rocky ledge in Scythia, where the eagle of Zeus daily tore out and devoured his liver. In Greek biological symbolism, the liver represented the seat of the human will, and so Zeus attempted to destroy the will of Prometheus. But the Titan had foreseen all that would follow on his sacrificial act, and though he suffered excruciating pain, he refused to yield to Zeus. In Prometheus Unbound, Herakles, a son of Zeus, freed Prometheus with the secret consent of his father and thereby won his immortality. While the contents of the third drama – most likely a true mystery play – is unknown, in it Prometheus and Zeus were reconciled. Unlike all other tragedies, the Prometheia alone does not involve human beings. It ignores conflict on earth and centres wholly on the celestial struggle.
Aeschylus here showed that there is no dichotomy between the law of heaven and earthly human will. The latter can reflect the former because the two are one. If Prometheus is the hierarchy of solar fathers who quicken mind in man by entering the human vestures, man is the heavenly host incarnate. Man suffers not because he is victim of the gods, but because he is a god. The Prometheia is the story of the inner, and therefore real, life of humanity. Zeus is overthrown from a throne he never held, through the reconciliation of Zeus and Prometheus, two aspects of Necessity, which is at once the dissolution of the ignorance that seemingly separates god and man, destiny and free will, law and action, heaven and earth. The Prometheia is the true story of mankind and as such stands outside of history.
Aeschylus so successfully bridged the gulf that threatened to open between spiritual wisdom and social expediency that he was charged with revealing the Mysteries. So great was respect for him that his denial of knowingly doing so was sufficient for acquittal. Late in life he retired to Gela, where he died in 456 B.C. His tomb was inscribed with the epitaph he wrote for himself: "Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian, who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela; of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak, or the long-haired Persian who knows it well." He made no reference to his writings. Athens honoured him by legislating that anyone who wished to do so could stage his plays in the Dionysian festivals, an exception to the tradition. For centuries after him, he has been known less for his bravery at Marathon than for his soul-courage in telling man who and what he is. Perhaps the epitaph which is most appropriate to him is what he wrote in Prometheus Bound: –
Clearly I set forth all you would learn;
Speaking not in dark riddles, but simply,
As speech is due between friends.
Behold, I whom you see am Prometheus,
The giver of fire to mankind.