Greek Tragedy as a Challenge to Modernism: A Depth Psychological Perspective

by Maria S. Kardaun

July 17, 2011


Far from being a recent invention, depth psychological thinking already features extensively in classical Greek mythology, more specifically in the stage plays of the great Athenian tragedians of the fifth century BCE. In this century large parts of Greek civilization had embarked on a process of rapid modernization, and the tragedians seem to have felt the need to give their artistic comments on these developments. Their (implicit) analysis of how the human mind works is depth psychological in all but name. The paper focuses on the Pre-Socratic world view in general, and on the tragic notion of hybris in particular. Finally it aims to show the underlying depth psychological structure of Aeschylus’ Oresteia.






The story of the classical Greek hero Oedipus is all too well-known. Even though he manages to outsmart the Sphinx, in the end he cannot be described as a successful heroic figure. The same can be said for so many other mythological heroes, and not just the Greek ones; for mythology is characteristically none too generous in providing us with happy endings.

However, in this article we will confine ourselves to some telling examples taken from Greek mythology. There are plenty of ill-fated storylines to choose from: for example, there is the great bronze-age hero Jason, who managed to seize the Golden Fleece but ended up losing everything because of his foolishness and arrogance. Or the Athenian founding father Theseus, for that matter, who greatly improved the lives of his fellow citizens by saving them from the Minotaur and other nasty characters, such as Sinis the Pine-Bender and Procrustes the Stretcher (the latter perhaps being an early symbol of primitive, pointless standardization: in order to make his victims fit some arbitrary measure, Procrustes would either overstretch their bodies or chop their legs off). In his younger years Theseus was a succesful eliminator of monsters, bringing nothing but peace, harmony and order. Yet, as time went by, he was unable to stop brutality, monstrosity and chaos from entering his city again, and his career went downhill. Or we might elaborate on the powerful Mycenean king Agamemnon, who was an effective war leader, but who also had an unpleasant habit of systematically offending and neglecting the feelings of everyone around him. After ten years of war and on the very day of his triumphant return, tragically, though not altogether surprisingly, he was killed by his wife Clytaemnestra and her lover.

Whether they feature in ancient tales by Homer, Hesiod et al., or in the somewhat later legendry of Greek tragedy, most heroes of classical mythology are clearly not to be envied. With the exception perhaps of Ulysses, the central character of Homer’s Odyssey, hardly any of these heroes is portrayed as having had a good life. My paper will attempt to formulate a depth psychological answer to the question as to why this should be.

I hope to make clear that the general worldview seen in Greek mythology, and particularly in Greek tragedy, was very different from our current, (post)modern perspective. The Pre-Socratic Greeks had much less faith in the power of consciousness and rational decision making than we tend to have nowadays. In their view every human achievement, however splendid, always had its downside. They considered that as part of the human condition, and there was no getting round it. For every success you somehow had to pay the price.1

These ideas were all tied up with their polytheistic religion. The Greek gods were a jealous bunch of quarreling deities who tended to begrudge each other their respective successes. For human beings this meant that fulfilling the wishes of one god or goddess could easily cause them to forsake their duty towards other divine figures (not to mention the social problems they might encounter while obeying a particular deity). Life was full of contradictory moral commands, and the more you tried to conform to one particular good, the more likely you were to neglect your other responsibilities and end up being punished.




IA Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-analysis (1917), Freud speaks of three narcissistic traumas that mankind has experienced as a result of scientific research. First of all, it turned out that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe after all but only a tiny planet orbiting the sun. This has been common knowledge ever since Copernicus and Galilei (even though heliocentric theories had been put forward before, for example by the Pythagoreans, but their insights never reached the level of general awareness). Secondly, evolutionarily speaking man is not the ultimate goal of creation, nor its highest achievement. In other words, evolution is not - as religion would have it - a process that was designed for the creation of mankind. This is an insight we owe primarily to the figure of Darwin. And finally, to top it all, man, it seems, is not even master in his own house. In other words, we do not have control of our own psyche because quite a lot of our mental activities actually rule us instead of us ruling them. They can do so because they are hidden from us; they are in the unconscious mind. This humiliating truth has come to us, of course, mainly through the figure of Freud himself.

However, as the Magister himself does not fail to recognize, humanity had been aware of the machinations of the unconscious parts of the soul long before the birth of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis rediscovered - and attempted to make scientifically accessible and acceptable - what literary authors, such as the Greek tragedians, had already sought to convey extensively through their fiction.

As to the term ‘unconscious’, it is relatively new, though not as new as is generally thought: it already appears in Goethe’s draft version of a poem called ‘An den Mond’ (1777). And the notion goes back even further. For example the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz tells us we sometimes perceive things without knowing that we are doing so; in other words we perceive things unconsciously. Immanuel Kant is so extremely reasonable that he guesses that there are actually limits to reason. Kantian Reason (die Vernunft) is guided by so-called Regulative Ideas. As these Regulative Ideas precede Reason, we are not aware of them. Nonetheless, they do determine the contours of our metaphysical thinking. By implication - though not explicitly - Kant accepts that important parts of the human soul are unconscious. Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche are two other great names when it comes to rediscovering the unconscious in our Western civilization.

However, to the Greeks of the Pre-Socratic, that is to say the mythological era, this is all peanuts! In Antiquity, notably in Greek tragedy, the notion of unconscious forces is the most common thing on earth. These ancient stories are all about capricious gods and their hidden agendas, and human beings who suffer from hybris or stupid arrogance. Hybris occurs when you think you know it all, because that is where you slip up: you identify with your conscious views and wishes, and you choose to forget about the rest. Suffering from hybris means being mistaken about one’s own motives and character structure, and most probably also about the will of the gods. In other words, it means being too unconscious about oneself and about the world, and according to the ancient Greeks this type of self-motivated unawareness tends to lead to disaster.

Take for example King Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone: he has decided that the body of his dead warrior-nephew Polynices should not be buried, because prince Polynices attacked his own city and is therefore to be considered a traitor. It is quite clear from the play that the gods completely disagree with Creon’s point of view, and that they in fact demand that the funeral rites for the dead warrior be performed. However, Creon stubbornly chooses to go on deceiving himself. For at least two thirds of the play he keeps telling himself that by denying his nephew a funeral he is doing the right thing, namely executing the will of the eternal gods. It is this persistent self-deception that leads to Creon’s downfall. This is not to say that the protagonist of the play, Antigone, is any less unconscious about her own motives. She too overlooks very important aspects of life and has to suffer the terrible consequences, but her case is more complicated, and we will not go into that here.




Instead I prefer to continue my paper on a more optimistic note. I would like to go into the adventures of a comparatively positive Greek hero with you now – meaning I would like to dwell on the character structure of the figure of Orestes, the son of Agamemon. First however, two preliminary remarks need to be made. As I said before, happy endings are very rare in mythology, and indeed the Orestes myth is perhaps more of a literary invention than it is a traditional mythological folktale. Of course this is difficult to say for certain because, as you may be aware, in Pre-Socratic Greece the line between folktales and literature was very thin: it was only later that literature, religion, mythology, philosophy and science all became so specialized that they finally grew apart. Yet, the story of Orestes does not have that typical folktale flavour about it. The other remark worth making is that, although the story ends relatively well, it would be an overstatement to say that its ending is happy. However, in the context of Greek mythology and tragedy the outcome of the adventures of Orestes is not at all bad, or let us say it is as good as it gets.

The Orestes story belongs to the so-called Trojan Tales which all centre around the siege of Troy. A recurrent theme in these tales is the ‘doom of the Tantalides’, that is to say the family curse that runs through the descendants of Tantalos. Famous, or rather notorious, Tantalides are Pelops, Niobe, Atreus, Menelaos and Agamemnon. In fact, all the members of this family are absolutely atrocious, except for one, namely Orestes.

Orestes, as a descendant of Tantalos, is heir to the well known curse. This means he has a problematic relationship with the gods. His fate seems as hopeless as that of any of his relatives, only Orestes manages to find a solution.

We will now follow the events as described in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a tragic trilogy from the year 458 BCE (and by the way the only trilogy from Antiquity that has survived time practically undamaged). The date bears some relevance, because the middle of the fifth century BCE was the pinnacle of Athenian civilization: this happy circumstance may well have added to the decidedly optimistic undertone in the Oresteia.

Agamemnon, the protagonist in the first part of the trilogy, is forced by powers beyond his control to choose between forsaking his duty as a military commander and sacrificing his own daughter. He chooses the latter, because choice is unavoidable and sacrificing his child seems the lesser of the two evils. Of course, under normal circumstances Agamemnon would never have considered doing anything of the kind. He is by no means a common criminal without moral standards. Yet, if we may rely on the troubled comments by the chorus,2 Agamemnon is definitely to blame, not for his decision as such, but for the cold and disrespectful way in which he performs his horrible duty. He even starts to congratulate himself with having made the perfect choice. It is as if the life of his daughter had suddenly become unimportant and her death were no more than a case of so-called collateral damage. He treats his daughter unnecessarily harshly, sacrifices her as if she were a goat and subsequently convinces himself that he feels no guilt. He is actually pleased with himself, because he believes he has done the right thing.

However, Agamemnon’s arrogance in this matter as well as in some others has an unexpected consequence. By effectively repressing his emotions he dehumanizes himself. He becomes more and more insensitive to the viewpoints of others and starts losing contact with the way the world works. According to the implicit logic of the play, that is what eventually leads to his ruin. From a logical point of view, Agamemnon may have been doing the right thing, but the point is that life is not merely about rational decision making. The irrational is just as important. It is not Agamemnon’s (in itself correct) use of reason, but his complete lack of respect for other crucial aspects of life that the poet Aeschylus apparently feels uncomfortable with.

How differently does the third part of the trilogy then depict the mental attitude of Agamemnon’s son Orestes, who finds himself in the same kind of predicament as his father before him. Again there are incongruous divine powers at work that cause an insoluble moral dilemma, because, following an order from Apollo, Orestes has to revenge the death of his father and hence kill his own mother. However, doing so will inevitably conjure up the Erinyes.

The Erinyes (Furies in Latin) are very old deities. They are three hideous sisters, and like all underworld figures they are typically clothed in black. Their views are fairly traditionalist in character; amongst other things, they uphold the respect for blood relations. Aeschylus calls them daughters of Nyx (the Night), but other sources, such as Hesiod and Apollodorus, claim that the Erinyes sprang from the blood that was spilled at the castration of Uranos by the hand of his son Cronos. The sisters have rather frightening looks: usually they appear with the head or body of a dog (meaning they will hunt you down), a bat’s wings (that is to say they have no difficulties in getting around, they will easily track you down), and hair in the form of snakes (because they intend to bite and poison you). Their eyes are filled with blood, and when they fix you with their stare that is hardly a good sign.

It is because Orestes obeys Apollo and commits matricide that he is persecuted by these creepy creatures. He is pursued through Greece for over a year, his head wrapped in a cloak. He talks to the Erinyes but no one else is able to see them. They order him to do things, for example to mutilate himself by biting his own fingers off (which may perhaps be interpreted as a kind of self-castration in honour of the Great Mother). He goes completely insane and almost commits suicide. In modern language we could say that Orestes suffers from feelings of extreme guilt, nightmares and psychotic symptoms.

Orestes then asks Apollo for help. Apollo had ordered him to commit this terrible crime and it is Apollo who should now tell him how to proceed. Apollo instructs Orestes to go to the sanctuary of the goddess Athene in the city of Athens. Upon Orestes’ arrival Athene sets up the first court of justice (on the Areopagus, a hill in the city). The new court consists of wise old men who shall decide whether Orestes deserves further punishment or not. The trial of Orestes is their first case, and it is a very prestigious one: the divine Erinyes are the prosecutors, and the god Apollo is the attorney of Orestes.

The oldest of the Erinyes is the spokeswoman before court. She claims that Orestes has committed an unforgivable crime, that he belongs to them, that they will victimize him until the end of his miserable days, and that they will never let him go.

Apollo on the other hand maintains that Orestes did the right thing and is not guilty at all. One could say it was no more than his duty to avenge the murder of his father. And besides, there is only one parent who deserves to be designated as such, Apollo says, and that is the father: matricide is irrelevant.

It is an extremely difficult decision that the members of the new court of justice have to make. There are two conflicting ethical claims, and both seem serious, though somewhat one-sided.Apollo claims that there is no guilt at all, and there never has been: under the circumstances Orestes was merely carrying out his duty. In contrast, the Erinyes claim that no circumstances can ever mitigate the seriousness of this crime.

The members of the court then vote, anonymously, placing either black or white pebbles into a small container. White signifies that the charges against Orestes should be rejected and a blackpebble shows a verdict of guilty as charged. The votes are counted, and the results are exactly fifty-fifty! A very close call indeed, but it means that from then on Orestes is free again.

The goddess Athene is the goddess of, amongst other things, sound judgment and it appears that she had personally added an extra white pebble. She decides that Orestes has suffered enough. Her argumentation is that Orestes’ killing his mother was not a decision taken lightly, that there had been a serious clash of duties, that he had found it very difficult act, and that he had been suffering from madness and other misfortunes for a long time. Furthermore, Athene believes that the mechanical chain of murders has to stop.

So, Orestes is set free, but not because the taboo on matricide would suddenly have ceased to exist. On the contrary, Athene takes great care to appease the insulted Erinyes too. She does so by granting them a small temple of their own, and she renames them: from now on they are to be called Eumenides (the Benignant Ones).

As is common in mythological societies such as those found in Greek Antiquity, a new name is a sign of a new identity. Before their transformation, the Erinyes’ favourite activity had been to stealthily creep up on their victims at night. They always had to sneak their way into the consciousness of human beings. Now for the first time they have a home. There they are rightly honoured, because it is now officially recognized that they too represent and defend important values. They make sure that we have feelings of guilt when we should, and this is a great help in keeping us from going beyond our limits; hence their name Benignant Ones. Thanks to Orestes and Athene these processes are now more or less out in the open. (More or less, because the new sanctuary is of course underground, and the rites to keep them satisfied have to be performed in complete silence.) According to the state of affairs depicted in the Oresteia, ever since Orestes had the strength of character to accept and live with his moral guilt, anyone who knows that he has to do something that may displease the Erinyes, can go to their temple and ask them not to grab him from behind. If one is aware of one’s guilt and tries to minimize one’s own transgressions, afterwards accepting responsibility as best as one can, then the Erinyes, who are now the Benignant Ones, might not get quite so infuriated that they start to pursue one at night.

As I see it, this makes the Orestes figure one of the great Greek heroes of modernization. A significant element in the process of modernization consists in getting rid of taboos one by one, and replacing them with free choice. Taboos are essentially unconscious, and therefore compelling and non-negotiable. They can be a serious obstacle to progress. Gradually getting rid of them helps us reshape the world according to our wishes, and this is clearly very much to our advantage (provided we have our wishes more or less under control). Besides, the process of modernization is an inevitable one.

However, I would like to distinguish modernization from modernism. Though the latter may seem to follow naturally from the former, to my mind it is, like all -isms, an exaggeration. Modernism can be characterized as fundamentally not accepting any taboos at all. In modernism there is no room for God or gods, not even a small corner. The modernist myth - because a myth it is, albeit an unconscious one (that is to say, it is a myth that is mistaken for empirical reality) - tends to believe that the world is not in the least a mysterious place, that everything can always be fixed and that we can have any progress we want without ever paying a price for it.

To my mind the paradoxical outcome of the events in the Oresteia - the viewpoints being irreconcilable, yet both parties seemingly victorious! - is a plea for modernization but not at all for modernism. The modernist characters in the trilogy, who seek to do away with the irrational altogether and who hope to design their lives completely according to their clever, all too clever conscious calculations (Agamemnon, his wife Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthos for example), are all represented in a thoroughly negative way.

The same goes for practically all the other protagonists of classical Greek tragedy. The great tragedians of the fifth century BCE, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, were all three facing rather swift changes from a predominantly mythological worldview to a more modern and rationalistic one. These changes were brought about by - or perhaps better: had some striking parallels in - the contemporary developments in philosophy, politics and science. Amidst all these turbulent processes, most classical tragedies take the form of a warning. The audience is warned that life is more complicated than one might think and that the gods have their own weird and wonderful ways. In other words, Greek tragedy warns against overrating the newly won human position, that is to say it warns against hybris.

This becomes particularly clear in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. An underlying theme in the trilogy is the diametrical opposition between the primitive, old-fashioned, regressive Erinyes on the one hand and the demands of a quickly modernizing Athenian society on the other. The Erinyes are the guardians of very old and despised reflexes, and it goes without saying that they do not approve of any changes in the public value system. One could call them maniacal traditionalists.

On the other hand, the ‘enlightened’ father-god Apollo rather radically supports the other extreme, namely the tendencies in fifth century Athens towards excessive rationalization and control. Not for nothing was Apollo the favourite deity of Plato. After all, Plato was in many respects a fanatic modernist who sought to do away with tradition once and for all. To that effect he drew up plans for a totalitarian utopian state that was to be based on rationality alone. A bizarre element of this ideal state is that it even attempts to rationalize its citizens’ unconscious life. The latter are encouraged to think of well-structured, beautiful subjects before they go to sleep, so that they will not be visited by ‘dream visions that are against the law’. That way they are supposed to make better citizens. In line with this rather hysterical overregulation, Plato’s ideal state also attempts to suppress free art in general, and tragedy as a literary genre in particular. So much for the benefits of modernism!

To my mind Greek tragedy is neither traditionalist nor modernist in character. Instead it favours a more realistic, sophisticated middle position, according to the popular Greek proverb meden agan (nothing in excess), which in the fourth century BCE found its philosophical counterpart in Aristotle’s famous ethical doctrine of the golden mean.

Small wonder then that most tragic heroes fail at some point. Accomplishing your heroic task is one thing, but afterwards life goes on, and much more difficult than being a hero is it to excel in the unspectacular virtue of moderation.




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1 Cf. Heine’s often cited verse lines: “Das ist das Los, das Menschenlos, - was gut und groß / Und schön, das nimmt ein schlechtes Ende” (from Es kommt der Tod, 1855). For all his irony, Heine’s (Post-)Romantic ideas about man and his place in the universe are quite akin to those in ancient mythology.

2 The chorus in tragedy is to be seen as a kind of collective figure, representing public opinion. Though the chorus is not always right and certainly not omniscient, it has in most cases a more moderate and also - in light of the general picture of the respective play - a more accurate view than the protagonist. As to the chorus in the Agamemnon, it can be reasonably assumed that it is particularly sophisticated, as it consists of wise old citizens.




To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Maria S. Kardaun "Greek Tragedy as a Challenge to Modernism: A Depth Psychological Perspective". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available April 22, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: December 16, 2010, Published: July 17, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Maria S. Kardaun