Many modern anthologies of classical myth, be it Edith Hamilton’s classic Mythology or your typical mythology textbook, may give the impression that the ancient Greeks all collectively inherited, as though from divine revelation, a monolithic canon of “timeless” tales that they bequeathed unaltered to subsequent “Western” civilization. This is a gross misconception. Originating in oral traditions with complicated connections to religion, individual myths were the product of socially and politically isolated communities and city-states across the Greek mainland and islands, and even myths dealing with the same gods, heroes, and monsters may vary and contradict one another depending on where and when they developed. Even when a sense of panhellenism or common Greek cultural identity took shape in later centuries, the Greeks did not bother arguing over what versions of a myth were orthodox or heretical.
Another often neglected fact about the inheritance of Greco-Roman mythology is that myths are fundamentally shaped by the form, function, and context of the texts, such as 5th-century Athenian tragedies, that come to us sometimes as the earliest, and sometimes only versions of certain myths. The popularity of the tragic versions of a myth may lead to it being misapprehended as the “authoritative” version of that myth. For instance, Medea killing her children appears to be an innovation on the myth by Euripides when he presented it in 431 BCE. Same goes for Aeschylus, who has Clytemnestra kill Agamemnon in his eponymous play, even though we read in Homer’s Odyssey that Aegisthus delivered the deathblow. These artistic choices have deep implications for how audiences interpret the myths, and how artists redeploy them in new media. My point here is that when we engage with the reception of myths transmitted primarily by tragic drama, we must not separate the dramatic form from its mythic content, especially when it is evident that the receivers are accessing those tragic texts directly. And though they might base their retellings on the original tragedies, they are not bound to replicate them “faithfully” either in plot, character, or form. Seneca certainly didn’t, nor Racine, nor Sartre.
What is Attic tragedy? If you already know, skip this paragraph. In Archaic Greece (c. 750-480 BCE), one way myths were told and retold was through the public performance of epic and lyric poetry, the latter form sometimes delivered by a chorus whose members sang and danced. At one point in the late Archaic period, choral lyric poets began to experiment with dramatizing myths, rather than simply telling third-person narratives, by having one of the chorus members separate himself from the chorus in order to engage in dialogue as a character in that myth. This was the first actor, and this development is traditionally attributed to a poet named Thespis (hence the word thespian). This new form was incorporated into the agonistic, competitive society of Greece, particularly the city-state of Athens, where these tragedies were produced in annual competitions during the festival of Dionysus. Dionysus, as a god of irrationality, crossing of boundaries, releasing inhibitions, and transcending the self, became the patron god of the theater, where such actions were explored through the telling of myths that involved transgressions of moral taboos, conflicts of individual and collective, struggles between passion and reason, and the relationship between character and fate. Often tragedies focus on the vicissitudes of powerful families such as the House of Oedipus in Thebes, or the House of Atreus in Argos/Mycenae. Though Aristotle famously prescribed in the Poetics what an ideal tragic plot involves, his prescriptions should not be applied retrospectively, especially to Aeschylus, our earliest surviving author of complete tragic plays.
Aeschylus the Athenian lived from around 524 to 455 BCE, and is credited with introducing a second actor to the tragic medium (Sophocles would later add a third). Though he wrote as many as 90 plays, only seven survive more or less intact. These were Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants, Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides, and Prometheus Bound (though the authorship of this last one is disputed, for reasons we’ll discuss later). The Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides constitute a single mythic narrative, the Oresteia, which is our only surviving tragic trilogy (three plays were produced at once by each of three contestants in the Dionysia festival). Of Aeschylean works, only the Oresteia and Prometheus Bound have any detectable direct influence on heavy metal songs. We will begin with the Oresteia.
The Oresteia trilogy won first prize when it was produced in 458 BCE. It centers on the final episodes of the generational cycles of murder and vendetta that plagued the royal house of Argos, the result of a number of curses originating with the original patriarch Tantalus, who tried tricking the gods into eating the flesh of his son Pelops. Pelops, later divinely resurrected, himself had his family cursed when he betrayed a man who helped him win a chariot race to claim his wife Hippodamia. Pelops’ sons Atreus and Thyestes quarreled for power, culminating in Atreus killing and serving Thyestes’ children to him at a banquet. Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, who led the expedition to Troy, while Thyestes’ surviving son Aegisthus sought vengeance. While Agamemnon was away at Troy, Aegisthus began an affair with his wife Clytemnestra, who never forgave Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia so that the offended goddess Artemis would stop withholding the winds on which his task force could sail to Troy. What I have thus far related is the background that Aeschylus’ audience would have been familiar with as they entered the theater.
In the Agamemnon, the title character returns to Argos after conquering Troy, bringing with him as his captive concubine the princess Cassandra, cursed to utter prophecies no one would believe. His arrival is announced by a series of fire-signals stretching from Minas Tirith to Edoras –excuse me–Troy to Argos. Clytemnestra greets him and persuades him to walk into the palace on a path of red tapestries. Cassandra hesitates to enter, foreseeing the consequences that the chorus of Argive elders is not able to believe. But bravely accepting her fate, she goes in, where she and Agamemnon are duly murdered by Clytemnestra who, now joined by Aegisthus, displays their bodies to the chorus. The horrified chorus prays for vengeance in the form of Orestes, Agamemnon’s son who had been exiled to Phocis as a child.
The second play, Libation Bearers, takes place several years later. Here Agamemnon’s daughter Electra and a chorus of slave women bear offerings to her father’s tomb, because Clytemnestra had a nightmare that she had given birth to a snake that then bit her breast when she tried to nurse it. The now grown-up Orestes and his friend Pylades arrive, and the reunited siblings plot to avenge their father. The disguised Orestes gains entry into the palace with the false news that Orestes was dead. He kills Aegisthus and then confronts Clytemnestra. She pleads with her son not to kill his own mother, and bares the breast that nursed him; but Pylades reminds the hesitating Orestes to obey the oracle of the god Apollo, which had commanded him to avenge his father in this way (notably the only time Pylades speaks in the whole play). Orestes slays Clytemnestra, but is soon pursued by the Erinyes (aka Furies), ghastly underworld goddesses who torment those who kill their own kin.
In the third play, Eumenides, Orestes purifies himself at Apollo’s temple in Delphi, though at the prompting of Clytemnestra’s ghost the Erinyes still pursue him. Apollo bids Orestes take sanctuary with the goddess Athena in Athens, where she establishes the first ever homicide court on the Areopagus hill. Was Orestes justified in killing his mother to avenge his father? The court of Athenian elders splits the verdict, and Athena, who being born of Zeus’ head naturally favors the paternal cause, casts the tie-breaking vote to acquit Orestes. Orestes goes on to rule Argos, while Athena appeases the Erinyes by offering them cult honors in Athens, to be worshipped as “the Kindly Ones” (Eumenides). Though the split verdict betrays the irresolvability of the issue, the trilogy ends on a positive note, celebrating the role of Athens in establishing a public justice system to replace private vendettas. The patriarchal sky-gods, who favor the cause of the king and masculine order, triumph over the feminine underworld goddesses who favored the wife who had usurped that order and brought chaos.
The first metal song inspired by Aeschylus is the track “Agamemnon” on the 1990 album Destination Unknown by the American heavy metal band Arcane. The lyrics recount more or less faithfully the plot of the Agamemnon, alluding to its mythic background and interpreting its moral lessons:
Fire foretells return of the king from the land of Troy
The sin of his fathers rests upon him, demise is his only choice
He sacrificed his daughter to the gods for wind to push his sails
Ten years of battles lie behind him, the shores of home ahead
Agamemnon the gods hold your fate and they won’t let it go
Agamemnon you know you must die, hate the prophecy foretold
A hero’s welcome greets Agamemnon no one suspects his doom
Clytemnestra plots to steal his throne and put Aegisthus in his place
The destiny of man is descending upon the earth
Cassandra prophecises his departure from this world of foolish minds
Clytemnestra thrust her knife three times into his back
Aegisthus waits to take command of the city without a king
A mangod made a man once more brought down by the gods
Apollo tightens his reigns on Mycenae as the sin-drenched city repents
The song begins with the fire signals that herald Agamemnon’s advent, and the phrase “return of the king” suggests that Arcane had identified how J. R. R. Tolkien, ever a popular author in the metal subculture, had borrowed the fire signals from Aeschylus in The Return of the King.
The song then turns to its main theme, that of the interplay of ineluctable fate with the genetic inheritance of the family curse (“the sin of his fathers”), which he perpetuated by sacrificing Iphigenia. This background is given in the original play by the chorus of Argive elders, and later by Aegisthus. But in a significant departure from Aeschylus, Arcane affirm that the king was aware of his fate, perhaps having heard it from the oracle of Apollo (mentioned at the end of the song). This would frame Agamemnon as a tragic hero in the vein of Oedipus, who also had foreknowledge from prophecy. Yet unlike Oedipus, Agamemnon here simply resents his fate rather than trying to avert it, much like the Aeschylean Cassandra begrudgingly accepts hers. Her role in the song, though not mentioned as a fellow victim, is to generalize the disbelief in her prophecies as a condition of the human race, blind in its folly to coming disasters, rather than because of Apollo’s curse.
The final stanza makes clear that this tale is a lesson in hubris, a warning against putting oneself above your mortal station lest you incur the wrath of jealous gods. Aeschylus had suggested this when Agamemnon hesitates to tread on the tapestries: “Do not set a path liable to envy by strewing it with garments; it is the gods one must honor with these things” (Ag. 921-922, my translation). Clytemnestra thus becomes an instrument of the gods in cutting this “mangod” down to size. The final line, then, suggests that Apollo, god of prophecy, was behind this retribution, punishing the city for the sins of its rulers. Arcane’s curious reading of the Agamemnon demonstrates the implications of reading the first play of a connected trilogy in isolation from its sequels. Though Arcane would have read the negative reaction of the chorus to Clytemnestra’s deeds, they read the overall drama as the just punishment of a king who committed infanticide and hubris. Rather than her opponent in the legal case that would have ensued in the Eumenides, Apollo and Clytemnestra are here allied as the twin agents of justice, and that Mycenae/Argos, as a hellenic Sodom, deserved to lose its king. In the broader analysis, “Agamemnon” as the closing track to Destination Unknown circles back to its opening track “Recurrent Inception,” with its meditation on the inevitability of fate. Agamemnon was fated to fall as much as the earth is destined to be swallowed by the dying sun.
While Arcane adapted a single play to a single song at a time when classical reception in metal was limited to that scale, a decade later the turn of the millennium saw a resurgence of cultural interest in classical myth and history, particularly in Hollywood. We have already discussed how metal adaptations of the Odyssey followed this trend, and the same can be said of Greek tragedy with the release in 1999 and 2000 of the double album House of Atreus by the American heavy metal band Virgin Steele. Well read in classical literature, which influenced numerous Virgin Steele songs prior and subsequent to these records, frontman David Defeis composed a comprehensive retelling of the Oresteia, from Agamemnon’s destruction of Troy to the aftermath of the trial of Orestes. What he calls a “barbaric-romantic opera” is comprised of 33 tracks of metallic numbers and orchestral interludes that total over 163 minutes of music. This heavy metal opera was actually performed in Europe from 1999 to 2001 by the Memingen Opera House company and Landestheater Production. To subject this magnum opus to a full analysis would rival in scale Eduard Fraenkel’s commentary on the Agamemnon! Luckily, the band has provided their own full summary, liner notes, and lyrics for Act I and Act II on their website, for those interested. Here I will address some highlights and the bigger picture.
The album’s artwork gives us an idea of how Virgin Steele approach the Oresteia. On first glance, the cover of Act I seems to feature an ancient vase painting, in Laconian or Attic black-figure style. But on closer inspection, it is in fact a modern painting redrawn in that ancient style, the Triumphant Achilles painted in 1892 by Franz Matsch.
The painting depicts Achilles fresh from his victory over the Trojan prince Hector, whose body he famously drags behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. Presenting this modern painting in ancient style is the inverse of what Virgin Steele accomplish with this record, to present an ancient text in a modern medium. Why choose this painting for a story that does not involve Achilles? A hint may come in the liner notes to the song “In Triumph or Tragedy,” in which Defeis identifies a theme in the album, namely that tragedy, the opposite of triumph, “is always the other side of the coin in these situations.” The record begins with Agamemnon’s triumph over Troy, which leads to his tragic death upon his return. Through the victory he gained initially by sacrificing his daughter, he sealed his fate. Defeis would have known from Homer’s Iliad that Achilles chose to return to battle and slay Hector, despite knowing from his divine mother that that choice would ensure his own death.
This theme of triumph and tragedy as two sides of the same coin is reinforced when we look at the cover art of Act II, which is the same painting, but a mirror image of it, contained within a cracked circular shield and stained with blood.
We turn now from visual to lyrical. Defeis’ synopsis in the notes to Act I is a detailed and accurate summary of the Agamemnon and of the background myths of not only Iphigenia and Thyestes; but he also goes back to Tantalus as the originator of the family curse:
The propensity for Evil in the House actually began even earlier with Tantalos, the Founder of the Race. Tantalos, invited the Gods to a banquet at his home, and then for some unexplained reason, he killed, and served his own son to them! This heinous act made the Gods place a curse upon Tantalos and all his offspring, thus the CURSE OF THE HOUSE OF ATREUS!!! This curse, this daimon, makes them sin in spite of themselves. They commit sin after sin, after sin and drown in a rain of Endless Bloodshed!!!
Now, there is no source that says the gods explicitly laid a curse upon Tantalus and his descendants. The actual curse, it seems, comes in the next generation when Pelops betrays and is cursed by Myrtilus. However, Virgin Steele do hit upon the idea both that “the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son,” and that an avenging spirit (alastor daimon) in some way possesses a family that devours itself through the generations. The chorus in the Agamemnon acknowledge this after Clytemnestra reveals that she had murdered her husband: “Oh spirit (daimon) that falls upon this house and the two descendants of Tantalus, and commands through women a power that gnaws at my heart” (Ag. 1468-1471, my translation). This daimon is responsible for the propagation of “sin after sin,” here Virgin Steele giving a nod to Judas Priest’s 1977 album Sin After Sin.
The fast-paced opening track “Kingdom of the Fearless (The Destruction of Troy)” is delivered by a triumphant Agamemnon as he reduces Troy to ash and puts its people either to the sword or in chains. He proclaims the virtuous motives of his cause: “For Honour, for Zeus, for Xenia, for Truth.” He identifies the casus belli as Paris’ theft of Helen from her husband, and Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus, and in this war he not only defends his brother’s honor but also the institution of xenia, the guest-host friendship that Paris had violated. Xenia is under the protection of Zeus himself, and Agamemnon becomes the instrument of Zeus’ wrath. However, the line between being a god’s viceroy and a divinity oneself can easily be crossed:
Die… to Kill… Your Daughter´s now mine
You´re Flesh for the worms
In Bondage you weep/my Hatred will never die
Cry… the Blood Burns Black… in Fury
I will Fear no Man, for I am a God!!!
In these words addressed to king Priam, we see Agamemnon crossing the line into hubris. His abduction of Cassandra to be his concubine is sure to further incite Clytemnestra’s wrath, while his self-proclamation as a god reminds us of Arcane’s Agamemnon, who will soon be reminded of his mortality.
The next song, “Blaze of Victory (The Watchman’s Song)” is where the original Oresteia begins, so precisely, in fact, that it frequently matches the very words with which Aeschylus begins the play, delivered by a watchman perched on the palace roof watching for the signal fire to announce Agamemnon’s victory: “Blessed Gods, Cold Stars, release me from my long suffering.” While not word for word, key elements of the watchman’s speech persist. He suspects that Clytemnestra, who has been regent for the past decade, is plotting some mischief: “that willful, calculating Woman, who plots / And Schemes, like a King!!!” This corresponds to Aeschylus’ watchman claiming that she has “a heart of masculine counsel” (androboulon…kear). Both artists thus remark on Clytemnestra as a transgressor of traditional gender roles, Aeschylus performing for an Athenian society that discourages and debars women from asserting any public influence or visibility. Of course, we must keep in mind that the opinions of dramatic characters are not necessarily the playwright’s own, and Virgin Steele maintain this distance of artist and creation by also suppressing any authorial voice and letting the dramatis personae speak for themselves.
“Through the Ring of Fire” introduces Clytemnestra speaking an inner monologue as she reacts to the news: “Atone for Death with still more Death / Hate guides my Hand as I smile within.” She is possessed by the daimon of familial vendetta, poised to avenge Iphigenia. However, in this possession, she anticipates the act with diabolical pleasure. In “Return of the King” Agamemnon himself arrives, and is greeted both by the chorus of elders, but also by his daughter Electra, who while absent in the Agamemnon plays a significant role throughout this album. Both she and the chorus receive the king with both congratulations for his victory but also warnings of impending doom. “All is not well there is Evil in your House tonight” warn the elders. “Beware thy Queen” warns Electra. Borrowing from Aeschylus’ first choral stasimon, the elders appear to have a clear view of the fatal mechanisms at play:
The Conqueror of Troy wields the Power the Gods have designed
Shedding his Daughter´s Red Blood for one Wanton Bride
A Dowry of Death, Artemis waits by your side
Glory too high is a Dangerous Gift from the Gods
They suggest that Iphigenia was too high a price to pay for the return of Helen, and that excessive glory leads one down a dangerous path: again, triumph and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. Virgin Steele heighten the Argives’ suspicions of the imminent plot to show just how blinded by pride in his victory Agamemnon is, secure in his rule vouchsafed by Zeus. Agamemnon enters the palace, setting up the next song “Child of Desolation,” a power ballad in which Cassandra monologues on the fate she foresees. Rather than trying to futilely persuade the elders of what is to come, she turns inward, bewailing her fate and that of Troy, rejecting her identity as a prophetess of Apollo (“Emblems of Prophecy, I throw them all away;” cf. Ag. 1264-68), and accepting her coming death with only the hope of a proper funeral.
“Great Sword of Flame” is the climax of Act I, and takes us inside the palace that Aeschylus’ audience could only view from outside. Clytemnestra brutally murders Agamemnon and Cassandra: “Open Veins, Tear his Heart, Rip the eyes from his head.” Death scenes that were customarily not depicted on the Athenian stage can take place in heavy metal, which often fixates on body horror and mortality. These lines are also an example of how Virgin Steele rearrange elements of the original trilogy, as they are borrowed from the chorus of slave women in the Libation Bearers, where they tell Electra and Orestes that Clytemnestra had mutilated Agamemnon by cutting off his extremities and hanging them around his neck (Lib. 439). In “The Gift of Tantalos” it is evident that Aegisthus was made present at Agamemnon’s murder (closer to earlier versions, seen on vase paintings, where Aegisthus delivers the death blow) rather than showing up later to declare that his father and brothers had been avenged.
Yet as with Clytemnestra, Aegisthus’ claims of justice are paired with language that undermines his character, as the song ends with a suggestive taunt to Agamemnon “Watch me take her as you die.” The next track “Iphigenia in Hades” demonstrates another rearrangement, as Clytemnestra imagines the meeting in the Underworld between Agamemnon and their dead daughter: “One Child cries in the Depths of Hades / Baring her breast for her Father to see.” This gesture occurs in the Libation Bearers when Orestes confronts Clytemnestra, and in the Iliad queen Hecuba of Troy does the same for her son Hector when he is about to face Achilles. Both mothers bare the breasts that nursed their sons to remind them of their filial bond and duty, Clytemnestra to save herself, Hecuba to save Hector (who is her only protector). Iphigenia doing so for Agamemnon in Hades would have a similar effect, of reminding Agamemnon of the filial bond that he had severed, so that he may spend eternity in shame. This song is sung without guitars or drums, only strings, and is an emotionally tender moment that reminds us that Clytemnestra’s motives were not entirely impure. In contrast, the next song “The Fire God” has Electra cursing her mother as a diabolical “Sorceress” and “Serpent.”
Electra’s prayer for vengeance is where the album takes over the plot of the second play, Libation Bearers, but it is not until Act II, the second album (itself comprised of two discs, thus a trilogy) that Orestes arrives, spurred on by the Apollonian oracle. In the opening track “Wings of Vengeance” Apollo commands him to “Stake the Viper, kill in turn / Win your Kingdom, win the Fame of a God!!!” Again, Clytemnestra is referred to as a serpent, which is symbolic of the chthonic feminine that opposes the Olympian patriarchy in the Oresteia. Apollo promises not only vengeance, but power and glory to Orestes. “Fame of a God” is ambiguous, as it can mean undying glory never to be forgotten, the goal of a classical hero, but it could also point to his father Agamemnon’s boast over the ruins of Troy, “for I am God!” Again, excessive triumphs bring tragedy. With Electra and Apollo urging him on Orestes confronts and kills Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, without a word of hesitation. At this point in the album Orestes is clearly himself possessed by the family daimon, symbolized by the title of the song “Wine of Violence,” as he becomes drunk with madness.
The end of the first disc of Act II ends much as Act I did, but instead of Electra praying for vengeance it is the ghost of Clytemnestra summoning the Erinyes to punish Orestes. This is further rearrangement, as in Aeschylus (near the beginning of the Eumenides) her ghost serves to wake the Erinyes who had already pursued Orestes from Argos to Delphi, where Apollo had temporarily put them to sleep. Orestes flees to Athens where Athena convenes the court of the Areopagus, justifying herself to the Erinyes thus: “There’s no Black and White, Thy Truth is not so keen.” She acknowledges that there is no clear guilt or innocence, and that there is a conflict of what the various parties take as truth, as we have seen. Since the trial itself ,“Guilt or Innocence,” is presented by an instrumental track, we rely on Defeis’ synopsis, which sticks to the Aeschylean plot. But that is not all. While Aeschylus’ Eumenides ends with Orestes’ acquittal and the Erinyes’ appeasement, House of Atreus Act II continues and, like Euripides’ Orestes, completely invents a new episode of the myth. Here is Defeis’ summary:
[A]lthough Orestes may have been granted his freedom and been forgiven, he cannot really seem to forgive himself. On his journey back to his home, he questions all the concepts that he once held dear and lived by for his entire life. He begins to doubt his father’s justification both for the murder of his sister Iphigenia, and for the war in Troy. He questions Elektra’s fanatical blind devotion to Agamemnon. He questions his own motivation for the crime he has committed, and the actions of his mother and Aigisthos. And… he questions and begins to doubt and lose faith in the words of Apollo, the Erinyes, and… all Gods and Goddesses. He concludes that all have behaved badly, horribly, reprehensibly, and decides that he can’t rule the House of Atreus in Agamemnon’s stead. Orestes resolves to kill himself to atone for his and all his Family’s long History of sins and crimes. Only in this way he concludes, can the Daimon of the House be eradicated, and his home, city, state and land be cleansed and purified once more!!! He takes his ancestral blade and plunges it savagely into the deepest recess of his heart… (THE FIELDS OF ASPHODEL and WHEN THE LEGENDS DIE). Athena seeing this implores Zeus to take action to stop this final desperate act, and to shoulder some of the blame for these proceedings himself. (ANEMONE-WITHERED HOPES…FORSAKEN) The God leaves Orestes to his choice and Fate… The Spirit of Orestes, or the idea of the sacrifice which he represents; returns again in RESURRECTION DAY to climax and revel in the Union of all our opposing concepts: Matricide versus Patricide, Man versus Woman, the Elder Erinyes versus the Younger Olympians, and the Ancient argument of New Blood shed for Old Bloodshed, and the Law of the Sword. The Sins of the House are purged by this final death, and a Divine New Vision and Order Arises from the Blood of the Victim like a Beneficent Fury, an Angel of Mercy, embracing the Wounds of the World!!!!!!!!!!!
By fashioning a new ending to the story, Virgin Steele turn the myth on its head. In fact, during the trial scene in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, just before the verdict is announced, Orestes says “now is my end by hanging, or seeing the light” (Eum. 746), meaning that he will hang himself if he found guilty. Virgin Steele see in Aeschylus’ trilogy an unsatisfactory ending. It was a split jury verdict, after all, and the trauma of killing one’s own mother is not simply cured by a judicial acquittal. In his disillusionment, Orestes realizes that he simply perpetuated the demonic cycle of violence and vendetta that had plagued his family for generations. To grant justice to one member would be to deny it to another. The curse was sure to continue into the next generation if he did not stop it. In his choice to commit suicide, he takes on the sins of his family and sacrifices himself to purge his house of blood-guilt. By killing himself, by becoming both perpetrator and victim, he resolves the conflict of opposites that the verdict of the Eumenides had attempted to reconcile. And in light of his resurrection by the gods, Orestes becomes, in Virgin Steele’s eyes, a pagan precursor of Christ, who inverts the sequence of triumph and tragedy to that of tragedy and triumph.
Virgin Steele is a tough act to follow, but like Sophocles and Euripides, who each wrote an Electra, so a couple bands have since tackled the myth of Orestes on a smaller scale. In 2015 the American death metal band House of Atreus, whose lyrical concepts explore a wide range of Greco-Roman mythology and history, lived up to their name with the song “Oresteia: The Unforgotten Scorns” on their debut album The Spear and the Ichor that Follows. Despite the track’s title, it is an impressionistic survey of the crimes of each generation of the royal family, from Tantalus, to Pelops, to Atreus. For Agamemnon’s generation, the sacrifice of Iphigenia is mentioned allusively: “A nefarious zephyr wills its rule, bending sails upon sea chariots, pushing heart-ward the spears into Troy and laying waste her shores in flame.” The lyrics curiously skip over the murder of Agamemnon and jump straight to Orestes. An Athenian tragedian’s audience would have already been familiar with the basic plot of the myth they were presenting, and House of Atreus appear to make the same assumption for their listeners. “Waste naught these falling tears of Orestes. Torn he between vengeance and justice his hands cleansed by Apollo. For a son always kills mother to absolve the weights of his father.” This is a curious interpretation of the myth, as the act of avenging his father by killing his mother is diametrically opposed to justice, yet Apollo’s purification overrides this concern with the notion that patriarchal cause always prevails. Apollo’s purification precludes the trial and the Erinyes are not even mentioned. This is pure realism over idealism.
The most recent band to adapt the Oresteia was the Greek black metal band Kawir, a group know for its devotion to ancient Greek religion, at least in its artistic concept. Their 2017 album Εξιλασμός (Atonement) features several tragic narratives of divine retribution, such as those of Lycaon, Oedipus, and several generations of the royal house of Argos including Tantalus, Thyestes, and Agamemnon. The final track, “Orestes,” completes the tetralogy that ends the album. The lyrics are in modern Greek, which are here translated by Panos Anagnostopoulos, who writes for the Ride into Glory webzine.
In his veins
Runs cursed blood
Of the House of Atreides… The Descendant
The Fates painted his life’s
Thread of Revenge…
The color, pale…
Dishonored, double scarred
By the dark forests of destiny
If his father’s murder,
The Erinyes, his life
THE BACCHAE OF HADES
THEY THIRST FOR BLOOD
THEY PERSECUTE ORESTES…
HIS LIFE, THEY DEMAND!
Aegisthus falls first…
The slave of iniquity… The faithful
Furiously tears his mother’s breasts
Instead of milk, black blood springs…
“No matter how many rivers
ASK… FROM THE GODS…
This song is the basis for the album’s cover artwork, a recolored adaptation of the 1862 painting The Remorse of Orestes by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, which depicts the hero beset by the three Erinyes before his mother’s body even hits the floor.
The song opens with the usual exposition of the genetic curse of perpetual vendetta spun by destiny, which Orestes inherits. In introducing Orestes, Kawir dwell upon his predicament, namely that he is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. In Libation Bearers (296-284), Orestes conveys Apollo’s threat that the Erinyes will pursue him if he fails to avenge his father. Kawir depict his matricide as a more literal fulfillment of Clytemnestra’s prophetic dream, in which she birthed a snake that bit her breast. The Erinyes promptly attack him, as the repetition of the song’s refrain presents them. Their description as “the Bacchae of Hades” is a playful intertext with another tragic play, the Bacchae of Euripides, in which the title Dionysiac madwomen tear to pieces king Pentheus of Thebes. That these maenads include Pentheus’ mother Agave makes the analogy even more apt, as the Erinyes are the manifestations of Clytemnestra’s revenge. The song’s conclusion reflects the band’s religious convictions, that Orestes’ salvation is in the hands of the gods. Like Virgin Steele before them, Kawir dress a Christian concept in pagan clothing. From Apollo and Athena Orestes must seek not purification and sanctuary, but forgiveness.
In the remainder of this piece, we will turn our attention to one of the most popular figures of Greek mythology in heavy metal, the clairvoyant Titan Prometheus. This is the god who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humankind. Zeus punished him by chaining him to a mountain, where an eagle daily devoured his ever-regenerating liver. Prometheus was later freed by Zeus’ son, the demigod Heracles, who reconciled Prometheus with his father. Such is the tale as related by our earliest source for it, Hesiod’s Theogony (507-569). Hesiod’s version of the myth is the basis for one of the first heavy metal adaptations of the Prometheus myth, the song “Prometheus Entfesselt” by the Swedish symphonic metal band Therion, from their 2004 album Lemuria. Its first stanza, written in German, translates to “Climb the highest mountain / Defy the law of Zeus / Steal the torch of fire / Give it to humankind.” With verbs in the imperative, the song encourages Prometheus, as well as the listener, to challenge authority in bringing the light of truth to their fellow humans. The notion of climbing a mountain (presumably Olympus) to steal fire is not in Hesiod, but suggests the association of Prometheus with the Giants who challenged the gods’ authority by scaling Olympus. Such a reading of Prometheus as the enemy of the divine is typical of subsequent metal adaptations of his myth.
But to return to antiquity. Our most elaborate version of the myth surviving from antiquity is the tragic play Prometheus Bound. It is traditionally ascribed to Aeschylus, but its authorship and date of production has been disputed. Critics have pointed out that its negative portrayal of Zeus contradicts his justice in the Oresteia and other plays; but on the other hand, it is possible that the play was part of a tragic trilogy that, like the Oresteia, ended with a reconciliation. Yet the fact that only the one play has survived has had lasting consequences for the reception of the Prometheus myth in modern literature and, yes, music.
The Prometheus Bound begins just after its titular character is convicted of the theft of fire, and the forge god Hephaestus along with Might and Violence (personifications of the means of Zeus’ rule) put Prometheus in chains. The play is comprised of a series of conversations Prometheus has with various visitors, including the chorus of Oceanid nymphs, their father Oceanus, Io, a woman turned into a cow and persecuted by Hera as a rape victim of Zeus, and finally the god Hermes, who tries to extort from Prometheus a prophecy that a son of Zeus will become greater than his father and overthrow him. Prometheus had been instrumental in the Olympians’ victory over the Titans, and he spends much of his dialogue fulminating against Zeus’ betrayal of him, and the injustice of punishing him for the philanthropic act of bringing fire to humankind. Moreover, according to Prometheus, his benefactions included not only fire but the arts and sciences. In a word, he taught humankind to be civilized. The impression left by this play is that Zeus is a cosmic tyrant who hates the human race, while Prometheus is its savior who sacrificed himself, who was essentially crucified, for this philanthropic act.
Unlike the Oresteia, heavy metal’s reception of the Prometheus Bound is for the most part indirect, filtered through the lenses of early modern Romantics such as Goethe and the Shelleys. Romanticism viewed Prometheus as the force of human intellect, creativity, and individuality that strives against religious and political tyranny. While Goethe and Shelley reveled in Prometheus’ misotheism, the latter’s wife Mary warned of its tragic limits in her novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, in which Victor suffers the consequences of stealing the divine spark of life, much as Aeschylus’ Prometheus was punished. The double-edged sword of Prometheanism became identified with the motto of John Milton’s Satan, “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” i.e. the suffering incurred by the liberation of the human spirit is worth it. And here is where Prometheus’ appeal in heavy metal makes perfect sense. Moderns have identified close parallels between Prometheus and the Satan of Paradise Lost, a rebel against God who brought forbidden knowledge to humanity, for which both he and humanity suffered. This identification between Prometheus the Firebringer and Lucifer the Lightbringer is widespread in heavy metal, especially black metal bands steeped in satanic and anti-Christian themes. In its inversion of Christian concepts, metal often invokes Prometheus-Satan, literally or figuratively, as humanity’s true savior.
The association of Prometheus and Satan was popularized in metal by the Norwegian black metal band Emperor. A number of their releases, especially their 1997 record Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, use in their album artwork the Gustav Doré illustrations of satanic scenes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. They then entitled their 2001 album Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise. Its cover artwork adapts the painting 1565 painting Tityus by Titian, which depicts a mythological figure who was also punished by the gods by having a bird (a vulture instead of an eagle) tear at his flesh. It is possible the band mistook the subject of this painting for Prometheus.
Since Emperor released Prometheus, scores of bands have composed hymns to the Titan as an avatar of Satan, and bringer of the fire/light of knowledge with which humanity can make war on religious oppression. Another influential band, the Swedish black/death metal band Dissection, is one such example, with the song “God of Forbidden Light” from their 2006 album Reinkaos:
Dark bringer of light
Giver of eternal sight
Wisdom bringer – We call upon thy name
Bestow upon us thy infernal blessings
Of the inner divine flame
Open our eyes Mighty Father
so that we may see
Guide our steps on the Burning Path
of liberation and ecstasy
Titanic Prometheus – God of forbidden light
Your Black Flame we bear inside as a legacy of your might
Illumination’s father – God of shadowless light
Black Sun of dark mysteries – Restore the dragon’s sight
Mighty god of darkness
All salutations to thee
Your gift of knowledge and rebellion
Will set our spirits free
Lylusay Tateros Volt Sids Lucifer!
Lylusay Tateros Volt Sids Lucifer!
Open our eyes Mighty Father
so that we may see
Guide our steps on the Burning Path
of liberation and ecstasy
Mighty god of darkness
All salutations to thee
Raise the hidden flames within us
Into chaos set us free
This one example sets the pattern, and I need not explore more instances here. If you would like to check out more, a search for “Prometheus” in lyrics on Metal Archives renders a result of 300 songs, most of which make this Prometheus-Satan association.
While the symbolism of the Prometheus myth is pervasive, some bands have engaged with the Aeschylean drama itself. One such is the song “For You” by the Greek heavy metal band Wrathblade. Coming full circle, this is the final track to their 2012 album Into the Netherworld’s Realm, whose opening track “God-Defying Typhoeus” is about another primordial being who challenges Zeus’ dominion. “For You” begins with the words “Titan! Gods’ despiser / Thou hast seen our sad reality / This godly gift was given / To those, miserable and poor.” Prometheus’ philanthropy is juxtaposed with his misotheism. Later in the song comes the stanza:
The rock, the vulture, the chains for thy suffering
Thou granted thy soul, but lo! The thunderer’s rage
Violation of body and soul, everlasting martyrdom
The wrath of brazen gods, thy brabeum is loneliness
As we have seen before, Greek myth is interpreted by a Greek band with Christianizing vocabulary. Prometheus is a martyr persecuted by violent and arrogant gods. With the term “brabeum” we see also a reference to the agonistic culture of ancient Greece, where the brabeion is an athlete’s prize. Yet under the gods’ injustice, Prometheus’ prize is isolation.
The final song we will examine is the most direct adaptation of the Aeschylean play in metal, the 2015 song “Prometheus” by the Greek power metal band War Dance. The track alternates between the narration of Prometheus and Zeus, the latter commanding his minions to chain the Titan, the action that begins the play: “Violence fly and take him away from me / Hephaestus chain him well so he can’t escape.” The remainder of the song is Prometheus monologuing:
I see the Ocean father of river and seas
I see his daughters they are flying with him
It’s all over brother don’t let them cry for me
Swallow your tears sisters and fly far away from me
Endless time to die alive years passing by
I live I die and live again l can wait till the end of time
Pain fury hate vengeance my only friends
War Dance are faithful to the defiant spirit of the Aeschylean Prometheus, who seeks no pity from the beings that visit him, and would rather be alone in his suffering. He shows not a whit of repentance, but maintains his adamant hatred of Zeus. He retaliates against Zeus through his willingness to endure his suffering till the end of time. On this point War Dance do go beyond the Aeschylean text, where Prometheus envies mortals for their ability to end their suffering through death, something unavailable to a god like him. War Dance’s Prometheus has no thought of suicide, for even if it were possible, it would gratify Zeus. War Dance are but the latest example of the consequences of the fraught transmission of ancient literature to the modern world. The absence of the rest of the putative Promethean trilogy denies the readers of Prometheus Bound the rest of the story where Zeus and Prometheus reconcile. They are left only with the Titan’s hatred and defiance, everlasting, thus making him a symbol of uncompromising rebellion.
Despite the popularity of Prometheus, and the sheer scale of Virgin Steele’s Oresteia adaptation, it cannot be concluded that the plays of Aeschylus are widely read in the metal subculture. Only four bands have shown any familiarity with the myths of the house of Atreus, while the plot of the Prometheus Bound is difficult to isolate amidst the wealth of material on Prometheus bequeathed to us from antiquity. No bands appear to have yet engaged directly with the Persians, Seven Against Thebes, or Suppliants. There is untapped potential here, for sure. Nevertheless, Aeschylean tragedy, with its themes of vengeance, sacrilege, and defiance are well suited to adaptation in heavy metal music, which, like those playwrights of Dionysus, explore the darker side of human nature and the strife of the individual against the collective, against fate, against the gods.