The Eumenides

"The House is Breathing Murder": The Cycle of Pollution in the Oresteia College

The Oresteia opens with a plea from a watchman: “I ask the gods for release from this misery” (3). This petition reveals the plight of many Aeschylus’ characters. The curse on the house of Atreus is one of corruption, and it is a curse that cannot be broken by the mortal members of the house. They are the ones who have caused it, and they now are part of a cycle of misery and death. Only gods can fix the misery of those in the house of Atreus. In the Oresteia, Aeschylus uses a cycle of pollution in the house of Atreus to construct the need for intervention from a greater power – a god – so that the cycle can be broken, and the house of Atreus can be purified.

In Agamemnon, the language Aeschylus uses in Cassandra’s speeches illustrates the theme of pollution in the house of Atreus. Before entering the house to receive her death she speaks to the Chorus:

CASSANDRA. The house is breathing murder, with the drip of blood.

CHORUS. How? Not so! That is the smell of sacrifices at the hearth.

CASSANDRA. The vapor is just like that from a tomb; it’s so evident!

CHORUS. No Syrian splendors for the house in your description! (37)

Cassandra’s mention of the house itself “breathing...

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