The stories were old when Homer sang of Agamemnon leading his warriors on the plains of Troy. They were even older when Aeschylus wrote his trilogy of plays, dramatizing Agamemnon’s victorious return from Troy, his murder by his wife Clytemnestra and all that followed from that event.
This edition (translated and with an introduction by Philip Vellacott) of The Oresteian Trilogy includes the three plays: Agamemnon, The Choephori (libration bearers) and The Eumenides (the Furies or “the kindly ones”).
Clytemnestra got a bad rap. First the gods instructed Agamemnon to sacrifice their daughter. As Clytemnestra complains:
Why, once before, did you not dare oppose this man?
Who with as slight compuction as men butcher sheep,
When his own fields were white with flocks, must sacrifice
His child, and my own darling, whom my pain brought forth –
he killed her for a charm to stop the Thracian wind!
Everyone criticizes her for trickery, when it was by trickery that Agamemnon induced her to bring their daughter to Aulis for the sacrifice. And worse follows, as Apollo commands the surviving son, Orestes, to kill his mother, then blames the whole mess on Zeus. Enter Athena, who takes over the situation and holds a trial to determine justice. What may be justice from one point of view may be an injustice to another. Athena recognizes this but casts her vote for patriarchal supremacy:
No mother gave me birth. Therefore the father’s claim
And male supremacy in all things, save to give
Myself in marriage, wins my whole heart’s loyalty.
Therefore a woman’s death, who killed her husband, is,
I judge, outweighed in grievousness by his.
Note the fine print regarding Athena’s own rights. She also shifts judgment regarding homicides from the Furies, the avengers who always obey set rules, to a jury of Athenians who will apply human standards to future cases.
I read the three plays as about an evolution from individual acts of vengeance to civic responsibility for administering justice. The Furies are the emotional response to an injury, a life for a life without regard to circumstances. Athena gets Orestes off on a technicality — Clytemnestra’s life is less valuable her husband’s — but note what she accomplishes. Previously, everyone dodged responsibility. Agamemnon killed Iphigenia because Artemis required it; Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon because she was entitled to revenge; Orestes killed Clytemnestra because Apollo commanded it; Apollo commanded it because Zeus prescribed it; the Furies demand blood because those are the rules. Stop! Athena orders. We in Athens, as citizens, will decide these matters and the Furies can become enforcers of what the Athenians decide.