Progression Towards Light
Aeschylus’ use of darkness and light as a consistent image in the Oresteia depicts a progression from evil to goodness, disorder to order. In the Oresteia, there exists a situation among mortals which has gotten out of control; a cycle of death has arisen in the house of Atreus. There also exists a divine disorder within the story which, as the situation of the mortals, must be brought to resolution: the Furies, an older generation of gods, are in conflict with the younger Olympian gods because they have been refused their ancient right to avenge murders between members of the same family. The Oresteia presents two parallel conflicts, both of which must be resolved if harmony is ever to be desired again. As one can expect, these conflicts eventually do find their resolutions, and the images of darkness and light accompany this progression, thereby emphasizing the movement from evil to good.
The use of darkness imagery first emerges in the Agamemnon. In this first play of the trilogy, the cycle of death which began with the murder and consumption of Thyestes’ children continues with Clytaemestra’s murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra. The darkness which is present in the beginning of the story is further magnified by the death of Agamemnon. This is illustrated when Clytaemestra says, “Thus he [Agamemnon] went down, and the life struggled out of him; and as he died he spattered me with the dark red and violent driven rain of bitter savored blood” (lines 1388-1390). Clytaemestra has evilly and maliciously murdered her own husband; thus the image of the dark blood. The darkness is representative of the evil which has permeated the house of Atreus, and which has persisted with this latest gruesome act of murder. Because darkness results from the death of Agamemnon, Aeschylus clearly illustrates that this murder was nothing but pure evil. As long as this type of evil continues to be practiced in the house of Atreus, darkness will continue to emerge. The Oresteia has not yet seen the light.
The beginning of the progression from darkness to light can initially be seen in the second play of the trilogy, The Libation Bearers. Orestes is the embodiment of this light, a beacon signalling a possible end in the evil that has infected the house of Atreus. It is true that Orestes, in revenge for Agamemnon, kills his mother Clytaemestra. Yet the darkness that is expected from such a murder, a matricide, is negated by one of the main reasons that Orestes commits the murder: his fear of the wrath of Apollo, who has ordered him to commit the deadly act. Aeschylus provides Orestes with a justification for his action in the form of the oracle from Apollo. For not only does Orestes’ murder of his mother fail to differ greatly from Clytaemestra’s murder of Agamemnon, but it can in fact be seen as a worse crime because of the blood ties. Therefore, in order to convincingly prove his assertion that Orestes is justified in killing his mother, Aeschylus must include the order from Apollo, who by no mere coincidence is the god of light. With the divine support of the light god on his side, Orestes is the beginning of the progressive illumination towards goodness and order in the Oresteia.
Another example of Orestes’ introduction of light into a story of darkness occurs later in The Libation Bearers. The chorus is describing the dream that Clytaemestra has had of giving birth to a snake, which represents Orestes. The chorus sings of Clytaemestra’s fear as she awakens from the nightmare: “She woke screaming out of her sleep, shaky with fear, as torches kindled all about the house, out of the blind dark that had been on them” (lines 535-537). Aeschylus describes the house of Clytaemestra, the rightful house of Atreus and the Atridae, as dark; this darkness has been caused by none other than her own murderous deeds. She has dreamt of the coming of her son Orestes to avenge his father, and the torches that light up the house signal this coming. Clearly, Orestes is the man who will restore light to the house of Atreus.
Orestes is looked upon by those characters sympathetic to his plight (namely Electra and the chorus of The Libation Bearers) as the