Essay: Vengeance is a Dish Best Served Cold

Picture c/o:  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f7/Cannibals.23232.jpg/300px-Cannibals.23232.jpg

by:  A.D. Shaffer

{Graduate studies; originally written for Humanities 510 Spring 2014}

Two brothers, reeking in hereditary guilt, decide to bury the hatchet, and put the past behind them. Atreus, the offended, invites his brother Thyestes, the offender, into his home for a feast in his honor. The main issue of conflict between the two is a woman – Atreus’ wife who was enjoyed by both brothers while belonging to one. While Thyestes raves about the main course, a delicious stew, of which he consumes several bowls, Atreus sits smiling at his vengeful actions. After Thyestes has had his full, Atreus reveals the secret ingredient – Thyestes two children.

Aegisthus, who happens to be the third child of Thyestes, relates the tale and his heritage to the elders at the end of Agamemnon; he said, “Then {Thyestes} recognized, in all / Its loathsomeness, what had been done. With one deep groan, / Back from his chair, vomiting murdered flesh, he fell; / Cursed Pelops’ race with an inexorable curse” (Aeschylus 1683-86). Aegisthus and Clytemnestra believe they have satisfied the blood-curse by killing Agamemnon, but Orestes disagrees and later slays the both of them. Cannibalism, along with murder and adultery, are the offended morals at hand: Atreus murders his nephews, and feeds them to their father because Thyestes has committed adultery with Atreus’ wife. The Oresteia Trilogy exposes the evils of man and warns of avoiding the triple threat of moral violations.

Shocking acts of intolerable behavior were means to determine the boundaries of civilization, and to explain the outcomes as direct and indirect natural reactions to unspeakable moral violations such as cannibalism. Philosophical maxims are displayed through stories, plays, and poems; history defined them as moral exempla (Hook 17).     In Oedipus and Thyestes among the Philosophers: Incest and Cannibalism in Plato, Diogenes, and Zeno, Hook addresses the negative connotation attached to the modern concept of the Ancients’ usage and practice of sacrifice and eating meat. The consumption of meat was a sacrifice to the Greeks, and they believed that blood attracted the gods’ attention. Symbolism is heavily imbedded through the ancient texts. Blood symbolizes life and the loss thereof through sacrifice. While the answer as to why the issues of cannibalism and incest were possibly lost to antiquity, he believes they were defined through literature. Hook said, “They were seeking out examples that would be considered both extreme and incontrovertible to illustrate their tenets” (17). Is it instinctual or moral that man does not eat the flesh of another man? With exceptions for practicing cannibalistic peoples and the insane, only when brought to sheer desperation of survival, does an animal typically resort to cannibalism.

The acts of cannibalism displayed in Aeschylus’ The Oresteia Trilogy, are specific – this supports the case for example per aggrandized situations; i.e. the consumption of his own children by Thyestes was not intentional on his part, Atreus tricked him into the feast. The specifications of rare cannibalism prevent this from being a casual crime. We see kings killing their own children, but not whole towns of hungry cannibals lying in wait. Cassandra sees visions of the horrible acts which are attached to the house of Pelops, she said, “Those children weeping for their own blood shed, / For their own tender flesh, / That cruel, nameless dish / From which their father fed!” (Aeschylus 1139-42). The gods were to protect the innocent; hence, murdering and eating children attracted their wrath and the attention of the Furies.

Certain atrocious acts were deemed so abhorred that one could not pay off the moral guilt with only one lifetime; this resulted in hereditary guilt, the handing down of guilt much like characteristics between father and son. Furley addresses hereditary guilt almost like DNA in a karmic chain. The offending men are pre-destined to pay for their father’s crimes, yet, by temperament and hereditary the chemical balance of their brains may have been off the same way; today would we call them manic depressives? In Motivation in the Parodos of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, hereditary guilt is well defined as “a guilt totally in accord with Greek thinking before the sophistic enlightenment, whereby the cycle of bloodshed, blood-guilt, and further retaliatory bloodshed passed relentlessly down the line of a man’s descendants …” (Furley 112-13). However, the descendants will not rid themselves of the curse by committing additional immoral actions.

Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in honor of Artemis to ensure a successful war with Troy – and was consequently murdered by her mother, Clytmenestra, who is then murdered by Orestes. Fate issues a negative reaction of affects to the accused parties, and Zeus foretold through the prophet “Man must suffer to be wise” (Aeschylus 207). The stain of hereditary guilt taints the very genes of man. Neitzel is quoted that Artemis never intended for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter; she hoped instead that he would quit the battle for Troy in preference to Iphigenia’s life (Furley 111). Furley also notes on Neitzel’s casual benevolence of Artemis, that in theory the goddess who cares for the innocent and children would not want the blood of a virgin on her hands.

Woman committing adultery is vile and detestable by society as her sexual exploitations could reduce her credibility to produce legitimate heirs. Murder is different than justice; murder requires a level of madness while justice is for the good of the state. Cannibalism is not an attractive avenue, unless there is an enormous grudge to be paid off – no, cannibalism, murder, and adultery are not tolerated by a just society.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. “Agamemnon.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature:

The Ancient World, Beginnings – 100 C.E. Book 1. ed. Paul Davis, Gary Harrison, David M. Johnson, Patricia Clark Smith, and John F. Crawford. New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2004. pp. 807-57. Print.

—. “The Eumenides.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature:

The Ancient World, Beginnings – 100 C.E. Book 1. ed. Paul Davis, Gary Harrison, David M. Johnson, Patricia Clark Smith, and John F. Crawford. New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2004. pp. 858-90. Print.

Furley, William D.  “Motivation in the Parodos of Aeschylus’

Agamemnon.”  Classical Philology, Vol. 81, No. 2 (1986),

  1. 109-121.  JSTOR.  Web.  28 May 2014.

Hook, Brian S. “Oedipus and Thyestes among the Phiosophers: Incest and

Cannibalism in Plato, Diogenes, and Zeno.” Classical Philology, Vol. 100, No. 1 (2005), pp. 17-40. JSTOR. Web. 15 Jun 2014.

The Oresteia Trilogy. Dir. Peter Hall. The BBC National Theatre, 1983.

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