Whoever Zeus may be, if this name is pleasing to him, by this name I address him. I can compare with him, measuring all things against him, none but Zeus, if from my mind the vain burden may be cast in sincerity. Not even he who in time past was great, bounding in boldness irresistible, he shall not even be counted, since he was of the past; and he who then came into being is gone, having met his victor in three falls. But he who gladly sings the triumph of Zeus shall hit full on the target of understanding; of Zeus who put men on the way to wisdom by making it a valid law that by suffering they shall learn. There drips before the heart instead of sleep pain that reminds them of their wounds; and against their will there comes discretion. There is, I think, a grace that comes by violence from the gods seated upon the dread bench of the helmsman. (lines 168-183)
This famous passage, traditionally known as the Hymn to Zeus, occurs in the middle of the Choruss account of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia. Does it express faith that the winning by Zeus of the supreme power (which first belonged to Ouranos and then to Kronos) represents a principle of growth at work in the world, seen in human terms in the human capacity to learn from suffering? Not everyone agrees on that interpretation, above all because the Chorus are describing an event so bewildering that it seems hard to believe they could have such a faith under the circumstances, but the interpretation does seem to fit the Oresteia as a whole.
Hell to ships, hell to men, hell to cities. (689)
The translation given in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, third edition, of a famous line. The Chorus, having heard from the Herald of the destruction of the Greek fleet by a storm, brood on how perfect Helens name is. They use the likeness of that name to the Greek word for “destroyer” to punningly describe what she has done. A more literal translation would be “Ship-destroyer, man-destroyer, city-destroyer.”
And at first I would say there came to Troy a temper of windless calm, and a delicate adornment of wealth, a soft dart of the eyes, the flower of love that stings the heart. (739-743) In the same choral ode as the previous quotation, the Chorus evoke the effect of Helen on Troy in the beginning-before the destruction started.
Long has there been current among men an ancient saying, that a mans great prosperity, brought to completion, has offspring, and does not perish childless; and that from good fortuned for a family there is born insatiable woe. And I am apart from others, alone in thought; for the impious act begets more after it, like the stock from whence they come. For the fate of houses that walk straight in the paths of justice is a fair offspring of their former fate. (750-762) Again in the same choral ode, the Chorus declare their faith that it is not too-great prosperity that brings misfortune, but only impiety, injustice. The term “house,” as so often, is used for “family.” The implication may be that the storm did not come upon the Greek fleet because they had been too fortunate in taking Troy, but because they had left the path of piety and justice in the way they acted in taking Troy.
At once let his path be spread with purple, that Justice may lead him to the home he never hoped to see! And for the rest, may forethought not overcome by sleep accomplish all justly with the gods aid as it is fated! (910-913) The deeply ironic command and prayer of Clytemnestra, as she completes her speech welcoming Agamemnon home.
There is a sea-and who shall dry it up? that breeds a gush of much purple, precious as silver, ever renewed, for the dyeing of garments. And a store of such stuff by the gods grace, king, is here for us to have; the palace does not know poverty. (958-962) As Agamemnon walks to the palace, Clytemnestra delights in her victory over him in persuading him to walk on the precious purple tapestries. The dye used was very expensive, and did indeed come from the sea, from a particular kind of shellfish; the color was closer to crimson than to our purple, and the double meaning seems to be that the house has had a wealth of blood poured out and is about to have more. The passage is famous for its sinister quality.
If you have to endure slavery, be grateful that your masters have ancient wealth; those who gain money they never hoped for are cruel to their slaves. Here you will receive what custom says is right. (1042-1046; my own version) Clytemnestra is trying to persuade Cassandra to enter the house. As an interesting footnote, at least one Southerner before the Civil War underlined this quotation in his Aeschylus, and it has been taken to indicate the scorn such a man would have felt for those who mistreated their slaves. If so, the underliner was ignoring the context-we know the kind of treatment Clytemnestra had in mind for Cassandra.
Alas for the affairs of men! When they are fortunate, one may liken them to a shadow; and if they are unfortunate, a wet sponge with one dash blots out the picture. And I pity this far more than that. (1327-1330; Robert Fagles translates the last line, “And that, I think that breaks the heart.”) Cassandras last words, before she goes to meet her death.
So did he fall and quickly breathed away his life and spouting out a sharp jet of blood he struck me with a dark shower of gory dew, while I rejoiced no less than the crop rejoices in the Zeus-given moisture at the birth of the bud. (1388-1392) Clytemnestra describes Agamemnons death and its effect on her.
Taunt [reproach, charge] is now met with taunt, and it is hard to judge; the plunderer is plundered and the slayer slain. But it abides, while Zeus abides upon his throne, that he who does shall suffer; for it is the law. Who shall cast out the brood of curses from the house? The race is fastened to destruction. The Chorus responds to Clytemnestras defense of her action; she has just said that Iphigeneia will welcome Agamemnon in the Underworld. This is the last word they say in this interchange with Clytemnestra, and it is an admission that there has been justice in what she has done, yet a forecast of more vengeance to come. She expresses her hope that the bloodshed is over; then Aegisthus enters.