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InAn Oresteia, the classicist Anne Carson combines three different versions of the tragedy of the house of Atreus A iskhylos'Agamemnon, Sophokles'Elektraand Euripides'Orestes. After the murder of her daughter Iphigeneia by her husband, Agamemnon, Klytaimestra exacts a mother's revenge, murdering Agamemnon and his mistress, Kassandra. Displeased with Klytaimestra's actions, Apollo calls on her son, Orestes, to avenge his father's death with the help of his sister Elektra. In the end, Orestes is driven mad by the Furies for his bloody betrayal of family. Condemned to death by the people of Argos, he and Elektra must justify their actions or flout society, justice and the gods. Carson's translation combines contemporary language with the traditional structures and rhetoric of Greek tragedy, opening up this ancient tale of vengeance to a modern audience and revealing the essential wit and morbidity of the original plays. "Carson calls her bookAn Oresteiaas opposed to theOresteia. This isn't the trilogy of Aeschylus. Rather, the book consists of plays by three different authors: Aeschylus'Agamemnon, Sophocles'Electra, Euripides'Orestes. Each takes up some aspect of the House of Atreus, whose members, relations and dependents included not only Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and Helen, but Orestes, Electra, Menelaus, Cassandra . . . Many of them, predictably, came to a bad end. Half a century separatesAgamemnonfromOrestes, and Carson, who supplies an introduction to each play, offers interesting speculation about how shifts in tone and perspective may reflect developments in Athenian history. Perhaps equally striking, however, is the continuity in her trilogy. In American poetry, anyway, 50 years is a long time (it would bridge the gulf between, say, Robert Frost and John Ashbery), and Carson's intelligent compilationanOresteiaattests to our enduring fascination in watching the highest-born families laid low."Brad Leithauser,The New York Times Book Review
Anne Carson teaches at the University of Michigan.
Table of Contents
It's like watching a forest fire. Big, violent, changing every minute and the sound not like anything else.
Every character in Agamemnon sets fire to language in a different way. Klytaimestra is a master of technologies, starting with the thousand-mile relay of beacons that brings news of the fall of Troy all the way from Asia to her in the first scene. She reenacts the relay in language that is so brilliant and so aggressive, she is like a conqueror naming parts of the world she now owns. She goes on to own everyone in the play--the chorus by argument and threat, Agamemnon by flattery and puns, Aigisthos by sexy cozening--with one exception. Kassandra she cannot conquer. Kassandra's defense, which is perfect, is silence. When Klytaimestra demands to know whether this foreign girl speaks Greek, Kassandra does not answer--for 270 lines (in the original text). Klytaimestra exits.
There is no reason why Kassandra should speak Greek. She is a Trojan princess who has never been away from home before. In fact, she will turn out to command all registers of this alien tongue--analytical, metaphoric, historical, prophetic, punning, riddling, plain as glass. But Apollo has cursed Kassandra. Her mind is foreign in a much deeper way. Although she sees everythingpast, present and future, and sees it truly, no one ever believes what she says. Kassandra is a self-consuming truth. Aiskhylos sets her in the middle of his play as a difference you cannot grasp, a glass that does not give back the image placed before it.
As a translator, I have spent years trying to grasp Kassandra in words. Long before I had any interest in the rest of Agamemnon, I found myself working and reworking the single scene in which she appears with her language that breaks open. I got some fine sentences out of it and thought to publish them, but this seemed vain. I dreamed of her weirdly mixed with the winters of my childhood and imagined a play where someone like Björk would sing wild translingual songs while sailing down a snowy river of ancient Asia Minor. But other people have tried such things and anyway the play already exists. It is Agamemnon.
Eventually I accepted that what is ungraspable about Kassandra has to stay that way. Aiskhylos has distilled into her in extreme form his own method of work, his own way of using his mind, his way of using the theater as a mind. The effect is well (if inadvertently) described by the painter Francis Bacon, who (talking about his own method of painting) says:
It seems to come straight out of what we choose to call the unconscious with the foam of the unconscious locked around it ...
Francis Bacon makes his paintings, as Kassandra makes her prophecies, by removing a boundary in himself. He wants to access something more raw and real than the images articulated by his conscious mind. Interestingly, he finds reading Aiskhylos especially conducive to this end:
Reading translations of Aeschylus ... opens up the valves of sensation for me.
Perhaps this is because Aiskhylos knows how to get these valves open too. Not just in the Kassandra scene but everywhere in Agamemnon there is a leakage of the metaphorical into the literal and the literal into the metaphorical. Images echo, overlap and interlock. Words are coined by pressing old words together into new compounds--"dayvisible" (54), "dreamvisible" (308), "manminded" (9), "thricegorged" (1116), "godaccomplished" (1127). Metaphors come, go and reappear as fact; for example, the figurative "dragnet of allenveloping doom" that the Greeks threw over Troy (267) materializes as the very real "dragnet--evil wealth of cloth" in which Klytaimestra snares Agamemnon to kill him (1138-39). Real objects are so packed with meanings both literal and metaphoric that they explode into symbol, like the red carpet or cloth over which Agamemnon walks as he enters his house (608-49).1
Francis Bacon says that his own images "work first upon sensation then slowly leak back into the fact,"2 and he speaks of a need to "return fact onto the nervous system in a more violent way."3 He means a violence deeper than subject matter:
When talking about the violence of paint, it's nothing to do with the violence of war. It's to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself ... the violence of suggestions within the image which can only be conveyed through paint ... We nearly always live throughscreens--a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that I have been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.4
This violence is intrinsic to Aiskhylos' style. He uses language the way Bacon uses paint, especially in the Kassandra scene where he stages the working of her prophetic mind--the veils, the screens, the violence, the clearing away. She is a microcosm of his method.
Francis Bacon thinks of himself as a realist painter, although he admits this requires him "to reinvent realism."5 Aiskhylos is a realist too. They both have an instinct "to trap the living fact alive" in all its messy, sensational, symbolic overabundance. Let's return to the red carpet that Aiskhylos unrolls as if in slow motion in the famous carpet scene (608-49) that carries Agamemnon into his house and his death. This amazing red object can be interpreted as blood, wealth, guilt, vengeance, impiety, female wile, male hybris, sexual seepage, bad taste, inexhaustible anger and an action invented by Klytaimestra to break Agamemnon's will. As a woven thing, it reminds us that women are the ones who weave and that weaving is an analogy for deceptiveness. Klytaimestra will use cloth again when she snares Agamemnon to kill him. As a red or purple-red object, the cloth is bloodlike but also vastly expensive and ruined by trampling. Agamemnon fears that this action will look insolent or impious or both--he feels all eyes upon him. As a cause of dispute between husband and wife, the red cloth unfolds her power to master him in argument and outwit him in battle. For this is a battle, and when he enters the house, he has lost it. Notice he enters in silence while she comes behind. Then she pauses and turns at the doorway to deliver oneof the most stunning speeches of the play ("There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?" 650ff.). It is a truism of ancient stagecraft that the one who controls the doorway controls the tragedy, according to Oliver Taplin.6 In Agamemnon this is unmistakably Klytaimestra. The carpet scene is like a big red arrow Aiskhylos has painted on the play to underscore the fact.
Violence in Agamemnon emanates spectacularly from one particular word: justice. Notice how often this word recurs and how many different angles it has. Almost everyone in the play claims to know what justice is and to have it on their side--Zeus, Klytaimestra, Agamemnon, Aigisthos and (according to Kassandra) Apollo. The many meanings of the word justice have shaped the history of the house of Atreus into a gigantic double bind. No one can stop the vicious cycle of vengeance that carries on from crime to crime in its name. The bloodyfaced Furies are its embodiment. I don't think Aiskhylos wants to clarify the concept of justice in any final way, although lots of readers have seen this as the intention of his Oresteia overall. So far as Agamemnon goes, no definition is offered. The play shows that the word makes different sense to different people and how blinding or destructive it can be to believe your "justice" is the true one. This is not a problem with which we are unfamiliar nowadays. As Kassandra says, "I know that smell" (886, 983).
(in order of appearance)
CHORUS of old men of Argos
KLYTAIMESTRA wife of Agamemnon
AGAMEMNON king of Argos
KASSANDRA Trojan princess, prophet, prisoner of war
AIGISTHOS paramour of Klytaimestra
SETTING: The play is set at the palace of Agamemnon, also known as the house of Atreus, in Argos. Agamemnon has been away for more than ten years at the Trojan War. It is the middle of the night. A watchman is lying on the palace roof.
WATCHMAN : Gods! Free me from this grind!
It's one long year I'm lying here watching waiting watching waiting--propped on the roof of Atreus, chin on my paws like a dog.
I've peered at the congregation of the nightly stars--bright powerful creatures blazing in air,
the ones that bring summer, the ones that bring winter, the ones that die out, the ones that rise up--and I watch I watch I watch for this sign of a torch, a beacon light sending from Troy the news that she is captured.
Those are the orders I got from a certain manminded woman.
But whenever I take to my restless dreamless dewdrenched bed
I cannot close my eyes--fear stands over me instead of sleep.
And whenever I think to sing or hum a tune to stay awake then my tears fall.
This house is in trouble.
The good days are gone.
How I pray for change! A happy change. A light in darkness.
Hold on! There you are! Fire in the night! Blazing like day!
You make me dance for joy!
I must send news to Agamemnon's wife to rise from bed, to shout aloud
for this amazing light--if Troy is really taken as the beacons seem to say.
I myself will start the dancing.
For if they are in luck, I am in luck--we're throwing triple sixes!
Oh how I long to see the master of this house and touch his hand!
For all the rest, I keep silent. Ox on my tongue.
This house if it could talk would tell a tale.
But me--I talk to those who know and then
I lose my memory.
CHORUS : Ten years now since Priam's one great adversary--
Menelaos plus Agamemnon: twin royal power sanctioned by Zeus-- sent forth from this land a thousand ships to fight their fight.
Loud was the cry--they screamed "War!" as eagles scream when they wheel in air and thrash their wings for grief high above the nests of children lost.
All that care lost.
But some god hears the cry, some Apollo or Zeus or Pan, and sooner or later sends down vengeance.
So it was Zeus--god of host, guest, strangers, hospitality--sent the sons of Atreus against Alexander for the sake of a woman with too many husbands.
There were heavy struggles and knees pressed in the dust, Trojan spears smashed and Greek spears smashed.
Now things are where they are.
And will end where they're destined to end.
Not by burning things in secret, not by libations poured in secret, not by tears will you turn away the wrath of offerings that were unholy.
But we, old and useless as we are, left behind by the army, bide our time here, propped on childstrength.
The marrow leaps not in our breast.
Ares is absent.
Old age goes its way withered, on three legs,weak as a child or a dream dayvisible, wavering.
But you, daughter of Tyndareus, Queen Klytaimestra, what's happened, what news, what rumor, what message persuades you to send round orders for sacrifice?
All the altars in the city high and low, heavenly and earthly, blaze with offerings.
Everywhere torches shoot up to the sky, coaxed by holy unguents and royal oils.
Tell what you can. Heal my anxiety for it flashes from darkness to hope and chews me up inside.
Power comes into me!
I am breathed full by the gods of strong song: how the two Atreid kings, the twin command of Greece, were sent with spears against the land of Troy by this one omen--the king of birds appearing to the king of ships.
A black eagle and behind it a white one, whirling in the open air to drop upon a pregnant hare.
They ate the hare, they ate her womb, they ate her unborn young.
Sing sorrow, sorrow, but let the good prevail.
Then the prophet of the army saw the haredevouring birds were two, saw the warmongering Atreids were two, and he unfolded the omen:
In time this expedition will capture Priam's city, will slaughter all its cattle before its walls.
Only let no hatred from the gods darken down upon this army--this bridle forced onto the mouth of Troy.
For holy Artemis you know feels pity and anger at the predators of Zeus who fell upon a cringing hare.
She hates the feast of the eagles.
Sing sorrow, sorrow, but let the good prevail.
Gracious as she is to the tender cubs of lions, delighting as she does in savage beasts still helpless at the breast, she calls out for this omen to be realized--both its favor and its blame.
But I pray Apollo will prevent her raising adverse winds to keep the Greeks from sailing:she wants to instigate another sacrifice, a lawless joyless strifeplanting sacrifice that will turn a wife against a husband.
For there lives in this house a certain form of anger,a dread devising everrecurring everremembering anger that longs to exact vengeance for a child.
So spoke Kalchas to the kings.
Sing sorrow, sorrow, but let the good prevail.
Zeus! whoever Zeus is--if he likes this name I'll use it--measuring everything that exists I can compare with Zeus nothing except Zeus.
May he take this weight from my heart.
The god who was great before Zeus is not worth mentioning now.
The one who came after that is past and gone.
Zeus is the victor! Proclaim it:
Zeus put mortals on the road to wisdom when he laid down this law:
By suffering we learn.
Yet there drips in sleep before my heart a griefremembering pain.
Good sense comes the hard way.
And the grace of the gods (I'm pretty sure) is a grace that comes by violence.
So then the captain of the Greek ships, blaming no prophet,chose to veer along with the blasts of fortune.
His men could not sail, his men were starving, on the shore of Chalcis in the region of Aulis where the roaring tides go back and forth.
Winds from the north came bringing idle time they did not want, bringing hunger and days at anchor enough to drive men mad, sparing neither ships nor cables, every minute longer than the last, grinding this flower of Greek men to nothing.
And the seer cried out Artemis!--an answer more bitter than the question.
The sons of Atreus smote the ground and wept.
And Agamemnon spoke:
Hard for me to disobey.
Hard for me to cut down my own daughter, prize of my house, defiling a father's hand with a girl's blood at the altar.
Which of these is apart from evil?
How can I desert my ships and fail my allies?
Their desperation cries out for a sacrifice to change the winds, a girl must die.
It is their right.
May the good prevail!
Then he put on the yoke of Necessity.
His mind veered toward unholiness, his nerve turned cold.
It is delusion makes men bold, knocks them sideways, causes grief.
Sacrificer of his own daughter he became.
To further a war fought for a woman.
To pay off his ships.
Her prayers and cries of Father! her young life they reckoned at zero, those warloving captains.
Her father said a prayer and bid them seize her high above the altar like a goat with her face to the ground and her robes pouring around her.
And on her lovely mouth--
to check the cry that would have cursed his house--he fixed a bridle.
Her robe fell to the ground.
She cast a glance at each of her killers, like a figure in a painting speaking with her eyes,for she used to sing to them around her father's table.
blessing their libation in her pure girl's voice--
what happened then I did not see and cannot tell.
Let's just say Kalchas was no liar.
Justice tips her scales so that we learn by suffering.
But the future--who knows? It's here soon enough.
Why grieve in advance?
Whatever turns up, I hope it's happy--
in accord with her wishes, our one-woman citadel and bulwark.
I am here to reverence your power, Klytaimestra.
When the king is away one must honor the queen.
So you got good news?
Tell me, unless you don't want to.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Good news. Joy surpassing all your hopes!
The Greeks have captured Priam's town!
CHORUS : What do you say? I can't take it in!
KLYTAIMESTRA : Troy belongs to us! Clear?
CHORUS : My tears fall for joy.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Your eye is loyal.
CHORUS : And is there proof? Have you evidence?
KLYTAIMESTRA : I have. Unless some god fooled me.
CHORUS : You're persuaded by visions in dreams?
KLYTAIMESTRA : I would not trust a mind asleep.
CHORUS : Some rumor then?
KLYTAIMESTRA : You think me a child?
CHORUS : When was the city destroyed?
KLYTAIMESTRA : In the night, this past night.
CHORUS : What messenger could come so fast?
KLYTAIMESTRA : Hephaistos, god of fire! He sped forth a blazing flame from Ida!
Beacon after beacon as the fire messenger moved from Ida to the rock of Lemnosto the crag of Athos third, and skimming high above the sea it shot across like joy, the burning pine torch as another sun, to the watcher on Makistos, who delayed not, nor was he asleep, so the beacon sent its sign to sentinels of Messapion who lit a heap of heather and sped the message on. Not yet growing dim
it leapt the plain of Asopos right as a moon to the cliff of Kithairon and roused a successor of sending flame, which the watchers did not ignore but made an even bigger blaze that flashed over the Gorgon's lake and reached Mount Aigiplanktos urging the mandate of fire further.
Then they kindled a huge beard of flame that overleapt the Saronic Gulf and swooped down bright upon the peak of Arachnaios, nextdoor neighbor to us here, and plunged at last onto the roof of Atreus--this fire
that traveled all the way from Ida.
This was my lightbringing strategy, torch to torch over the entire course.
Victory for both the first and the last.
Such is the proof and evidence I offer you,sent by my husband from Troy to me personally.
CHORUS : To the gods I will give thanks, lady, later. But tell me your whole story uninterrupted. I am amazed.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Troy is ours on this day. Within that city, I imagine, sounds a cry that does not blend--oil and water poured together do not like each other, you could say, they stand aloof.
So the voices of vanquished and victor are distinct upon the ear.
Some fall on the bodies of their husbands, fathers, brothers and cry out grief from throats no longer free.
The others, famished after allnight battle, search for any breakfast they can find. No billets, no order, just chance.
But quartered now in captured Trojan homes, escaped from frost and dew, they'll sleep like happy men the whole night through without a watch.
And if only they reverence the gods and temples of that city these captors will not fall captive in turn.
Let no mad impulse strike the army to ravish what they should not,overcome by greed. They're not home yet.
Yet even if they make it home without offending gods the agony of those who died may wake again--I pray no sudden shift to evil.
Such are my woman words.
May the good prevail.
I'm ready for blessings, many blessings.
CHORUS : Woman, you talk like a sensible man.
Now that I've heard your proofs--and they're good proofs--I shall address the gods with gratitude for our success.
O Zeus king, O night of glory you have thrown over the towers of Troy a net so vast no man could overleap it, a dragnet of allenveloping doom.
I reverence great Zeus, the god of host and guest who bent his bow against Paris and did not miss.
People talk about "the stroke of Zeus."
Trace the meaning.
Zeus acts as Zeus ordains.
Do you think the gods ignore a man who steps on holy things?
That man is impious whose daring goes beyond justice, who packs his house with wealth in excess.
Now me, I'm a moderate person.
But a man of excess has no shelter.
He kicks the altar of Justice out of sight.
Persuasion drives him on--she is child of ruin.
There is no cure. The damage is plain--it shines like bad bronze, black on the touchstone.
Like a boy lost in dreams such a man brings disgrace on his city.
No god hears his prayers and if you befriend him, Justice will take you down.
Such a man is Paris, who came to the house of Atreus and outraged his host by stealing his wife--
Helen who bequeathed to her people clang of shields, press of spears, throng of ships.
Helen who brought ruin to Troy instead of a dowry.
Lightly, lightly, she went through the gates and the seers wailed aloud:
Alas for the house! Alas for the house and the men of the house!
Alas for the marriage bed and the way she loved her husband once!
There is silence there: he sits alone, dishonored, baffled, mute.
In his longing for what is gone across the sea a phantom seems to rule his house.
Any image of her is hateful to him. Without her eyes all Aphrodite is gone.
Dreams bring him grief or delusional joy--dreamvisible she slips through his hands and never comes back down the paths of sleep.
Such is the sorrow throughout that house.
But grief sits at the hearth of every house where a man sailed off to war.
Many things pierce a woman's heart: in place of the man she sent out she knows she'll get back a handful of ash.
Ares who exchanges bodies for gold, Ares who holds the scales of war, sends home to the wife the dust of her man packed in an easy little urn.
And the lament goes: What a master of battle he was!
How beautifully he died! while some people snarl under their breath All for the sake of another man's wife!
in resentment against the Atreidai, those champions of justice.
And what about those who lie over there--under the ground at Troy, planted in enemy soil?
The citizens' talk is heavy with anger. They want to see a penalty paid.
I'm anxious--I'm not sure what lurks in the dark.
Certainly the gods see all this killing.
And the Furies destroy a man who prospers unjustly, they grind his life away to nothing.
Dangerous to be big or famous--there strikes the thunderbolt of Zeus!
I prefer to remain obscure.
I'm no sacker of cities!
Let me keep my little life to myself.
But this beacon sends rumor racing through the town.
Is it true? Who knows? Some lie sent by gods?
What man is so childish or daft that his mind takes fire at news of a beacon then falls to despair if a word is changed?
On the other hand isn't it just like a woman to want to rejoice before anything is clear.
The female skin is much too porous.
And her gossip dies in a day.
Well, soon we'll know about these lights and fires and beacons, whether they're true or just some fantasy.
But look, I see a messenger coming from the shore, branches of olive on his head.
Covered in thirsty dust.
This man will make things clear--using words, not fire and smoke.
He'll tell us whether to celebrate or--or what I don't like to say.
MESSENGER : I greet you, ground of my fathers, land of Argos.
In this tenth-year light I come to you.
Many hopes are shattered, one is left:
I never dreamed that at my death I'd be buried in the place I love best.
Rejoice my homeland, rejoice light of the sun, and you highest Zeus and you Pythian Apollo--may you launch no more arrows against us.
You were hostile enough on the banks of Skamander, Apollo, now our savior!
I greet all the gods here, especially Hermes patron of messengers.
You who sent us out, welcome us home, this remnant of the army.
O royal halls, O beloved roof, O holy seats and gods that face the sun, receive your king with glad eyes at last.
He is come, bringing light in darkness, Agamemnon.
Welcome him well for he deserves it, he has dug up Troy with the shovel of Zeus, the shovel of Justice.
The soil of Troy is worked down to nothing.
Her altars are vanished, her temples are gone.
The seed of the land is utterly desolate.
Such a yoke did our king throw around Troy!
And now he is home, a blessed man, worthy of honor beyond all the living.
Neither Paris nor Troy can boast their deed was greater than their suffering.
That rapist-robber lost his plunder and razed his father's house to the ground.
Double the price did the sons of Priam pay for their crime.
CHORUS : Glad welcome to you, messenger of the army.
MESSENGER : Glad indeed. If gods want me to die, I'm ready now.
CHORUS : Did longing for your home afflict you there?
MESSENGER : Oh yes, oh yes, so that my eyes are filled with tears.
CHORUS : A sweet affliction then.
MESSENGER : How so?
CHORUS : The feeling was reciprocal.
MESSENGER : You mean you longed for the army?
CHORUS : Oh often we sighed from a dark heart.
MESSENGER : Why dark?
CHORUS : Silence is the only safe answer to that.
MESSENGER : You've come to fear someone?
CHORUS : Let me borrow your words: I'm ready to die.
MESSENGER : Yes, but it's over now.
And as for all that happened all those years--some of it happy, some of it not--well, who is free from suffering except the gods?
Were I to tell you our hardships--the miserable quarters, narrow gangways, lousy beds and how we groaned on days there was no food!--but it was worse onshore.
Our beds right up against the enemy walls. Rain from the sky, dew from the ground soaking us perpetually, rotting our clothes, filling our hair with vermin.
I could tell you stories of winter so cold it killed the birds in the air.
Or summer heat when the sea at noon lay without a crease--
but why bewail this? Our toil is past. Over.
The dead do not care to rise again.
Why should I count them?
Why pick at old wounds? Goodbye grief!
For us, this remnant of army, it feels like a victory!
So here is our boast: we took Troy finally and nailed plunder to the walls of Greece to glorify our gods.
Praise the city and the generals, you who hear this.
And the grace of Zeus that brought the thing to pass.
That's my whole story.
CHORUS : You prove me wrong, I don't deny.
Never too old to learn.
But all this concerns Klytaimestra most.
KLYTAIMESTRA : I raised my shout of joy a while ago, when the fire first blazed through the night, announcing Troy's fall.
There were of course those who rebuked me saying,
"You've convinced yourself that Troy is sacked because of a beacon!
How like a woman!" They called me insane.
Well, I went on with my offerings:
all through the city women raised the women's cry of jubilation in the temples of the gods, throwing spices on the flames. And now, what need for you to tell me more?
From the king himself I shall learn everything--how best to welcome him oh I'm excited--
what day is sweeter for a wife than when she runs to open the door for her husband back from war?--
bring him this message: come with all speed, you darling of the city.
You'll find your loyal wife just as you left her, guarding the house like a good dog, enemy to your enemies, quite unchanged.
She broke no seal while you were away.
And she knows no more of secret sex or scandal than she does of dipping bronze.
This is my boast.
It's one hundred percent true and worthy of a king's wife.
CHORUS : That's how she talks. You may need an intepreter.
But tell me, messenger, what of Menelaos?
Did he come back safe with you?
MESSENGER : Would that I could lie!
CHORUS : Would the truth were happy!
MESSENGER : He vanished from the army, he and his ship too.
CHORUS : You saw him leave Troy? Or did some storm snatch him?
MESSENGER : That's it, you hit the mark.
CHORUS : And they call him alive or dead?
MESSENGER : No one knows.
CHORUS : Describe the storm.
MESSENGER : I don't like to mar a joyful day with unwelcome news.
It's like mixing two different gods.
When a longfaced messenger comes to a city bringing tales of its army fallen,of a wound cut into the flesh of the people, of men from every house thrown onto the bloody prong of Ares, it's appropriate he sings out a hymn to the Furies.
But when he comes bringing victory to a city of joy--how can I mix evil into that?
How tell of the storm that fell on the Argives from angry gods?
For Fire and Water swore an oath--eternal enemies before--to wreck our fleet.
Steep ruinous oceans rose by night, winds lunged out of Thrace and dashed the ships on one another.
The water went wild. Ships simply vanished.
Like sheep lost to a floundering shepherd.
When dawn came we saw the Aigian Sea abloom with bodies and pieces of wreck.
Some devious god kept us and our hull intact, some forgiving god, with a nudge of the tiller.
Salvation took its seat on our boat and we did not go under, nor run up onshore.
No--we swept out of death into sudden bright daylight scarcely trusting our luck, then took account of a new cataclysm--our fleet in shreds.
If any man of them still breathes, of course he thinks us lost, as we do him.
May it turn out well!
As for Menelaos, expect him.
Some ray of light may find that man alive, if Zeus is not yet inclined to wipe out his family, there's hope he'll come home.
That's the truth.
CHORUS : Who can have named her so perfectly?
What prophetic mind?
Who was it gave to that bride of blood, that wife of strife, the name Helen? For the woman is hell to ships, hell to men, hell to cities.
She vanished out the veils of her bedroom on a western wind and in her wake came men with shields tracking her all the way to the shore of Troy. They beached in blood.
Trouble came to Troy. It had the name wedding, it had the name funeral.
It began in dishonoring Zeus, god of the feast where her wedding song was sung.
Then Troy grew old overnight. Troy changed its tune to one of sorrow. Paris became the bridegroom of doom.
And Helen made misery and death for her people just by living among them.
A man reared a lion cub once in his house.
It was new at the breast, a young gentle thing, tumbling and playing with children, delighting the old. The man took it up in his arms like an infant, nuzzling his hand when its belly was empty.
But time passed. It started to show its lion nature--
made an uninvited feast of slaughtered sheep, spilling blood and havoc from room to room.
That thing was a priest of ruin. Bred in the house. Sent by god.
At first, I think, there came to Troy a spirit of windless calm.
An ornament--a pretty glance, little sting to the heart.
But she swerved aside to a marriage of murder and tears.
She harmed the place, she harmed the people, she was sent by Zeus to the city of Priam: bride as disaster. Bride as Fury.
You know the old saying--Great wealth gives birth to great woe.
Now here is my own opinion:
One unholy deed breeds another unholy deed.
A righteous house has righteous children.
Old hybris makes new hybris.
In the hour of crisis you cannot resist her, you cannot fight back--
an utter unholy recklessness will take you and curse you and ruin your house.
Like mother, like child.
But Justice shines in shabby houses and honors the virtuous life.
From golddrenched halls and unclean hands she turns away--toward holiness. Not wealth, not pomp, not praise.
Justice guides us all.
[Enter AGAMEMNON, with KASSANDRA behind at a distance.]
CHORUS : Enter king, sacker of Troy, son of Atreus--how should I address you?
How can I show you just the right amount of deference and courtesy?
Many people cherish a show of feeling.
They're quite wrong.
You can always find someone to groan along with your misfortune (while the sting doesn't reach his heart) or join in your joy (note the fake smile).
But no smart shepherd is deceived by a fawning flock or its watery love.
Now I have to admit when you sent an army after Helen I wrote you off as a loose cannon.
But I also admit, you did it! You won! And you'll learn in time if you ask the right questions who kept your city safe for you and who did not.
AGAMEMNON : First Argos and the gods of Argos I think it right to greet--those gods who had a share in my return and the justice I took from Priam's town.
They didn't wait for legal arguments but cast their vote straight into the urn of blood.
So much for Troy.
There was an urn of hope but it was empty.
Look, smoke still floats above that city, you can see it.
Storms of ruin there. The ashes stink with wealth.
For this victory we must pay the gods everlasting gratitude.
We threw a noose around Troy's arrogance and--for a woman's sake--
ground the city to powder.
We are the wild beast of Argos, descended from horses, sheathed in shields, that overleapt the towers of Troy, a rawflesheating lion to lap the blood of kings!
That's what I have to say to the gods.
Now you (old men): I hear and I agree with your anxieties.
I see your point.
Few men can praise a friend's success without resentment--
there is a poison settles on the heart and makes it twice as painful when a man in distress has to look on another rejoicing.
I know. I am acquainted with the mirror of society--
why, all those men who posed as loyal friends to me?
No more than ghosts or shadows. Odysseus alone turned out to be a steady tracehorse--
alive or dead as he may be.
For all the rest: we'll call an assembly.
Where things go well, we'll plan how to prolong it.
Where there is need of medicine and healing, we'll cauterize or cut.
Clear out that disease!
So now into my house, my hearth, and greet the gods.
They sent me forth, they bring me back.
May Victory, who came with me, abide and stay.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Gentlemen, citizens, elders of Argos, you, I am not ashamed to tell you of my husbandloving ways.
Shyness diminishes with age.
The fact is, life got hard for me when he was off at Troy.
It's a terrible thing for a woman to sit alone in a house, listening to rumors and tales of disaster one after another arriving--
why, had this man sustained as many wounds as people told me, he'd be fuller of holes than a net!
To die as often as they reported he'd need three bodies and three cloaks of earth--one for each burial.
So often did nasty rumors reach me, I hung up a noose for my neck more than once.
Other people had to cut me down.
That's why our boy--yours and mine--
Orestes, is not standing here, as he should be.
Don't worry. Strophios has him, our Phokian ally, who warned me of problems, your danger beneath Troy but also anarchy at home--
the people throwing off your government.
They love to kick a man who's down.
I'm telling the truth. This is not an excuse.
As for me, my torrents of tears have dried away.
Not one drop left.
My poor eyes ache with weeping and watching all the night--
I watched for those beacon fires myself.
No one else kept vigil as I did.
And the lightest buzzing of a gnat would wake me if I fell into a dream.
There I saw you catastrophized in more ways than there were moments of sleep.
So now, with all that over, with my mind grief free, I salute my man: he is the watchdog of the palace, forestay of the ship, pillar of the roof, only son of his father, land appearing to sailors lost at sea, fine weather after storms, fresh stream to a thirsty traveler.
Is it not sweet to escape necessity!
We've had our share of evils!
And now, dear one, as a special favor to me, I pray you descend from your car without setting foot on the ground--
O King, this foot that wasted Troy!
What are you waiting for? You have your orders--strew the ground with fabrics, now!
Make his path crimsoncovered!
So Justice may lead him to the home he never hoped to see.
Everything else I'll arrange myself with my usual sleepless vigilance--exactly right, gods willing.
AGAMEMNON : Offspring of Leda, guard of my house, you have made a speech to match my absence--long.
But praise of me should come from others.
Don't pamper me with female ways, don't fuss like some groveling barbarian, don't strew my path with anything at all!
You'll draw down envy.
That stuff is for gods.
I am mortal. I can't trample luxuries underfoot. Honor me as a man not a divinity.
Anyway, who needs red carpets--my fame shouts aloud.
Here discretion is key.
Count no man happy until he dies happy.
If I keep this rule, I'll be okay.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Oh come on, relax your principles.
AGAMEMNON : No I will not. My principles are firm.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Would you have done it for the gods to satisfy a vow?
AGAMEMNON : Yes, if some religious expert prescribed it.
KLYTAIMESTRA : What about Priam, if he'd won the war?
AGAMEMNON : Oh Priam would love to walk on stuff like this.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Still you fear the blame of common men?
AGAMEMNON : The voice of the people does have power.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Unenvied means unenviable, you know.
AGAMEMNON : You're like a bulldog. It's not very feminine.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Yet a winner must acknowledge his victory.
AGAMEMNON : And you insist on this victory?
KLYTAIMESTRA : Yes! I do! Bend to me. Please!
AGAMEMNON : Oh all right. Let someone loose my sandals, good slaves of my feet.
and as I tread upon these crimson cloths let no evil eye of envy from the gods strike down on me.
What a shame to trample the wealth of the house and ruin fabrics worth their weight in silver. Well, so it goes.
Take this foreign girl into the house. Treat her kindly.
God looks graciously upon a gentle master--and no one wants to be a slave.
She is choice plunder, picked out for me by the army, my companion on the way.
And now, since I am compelled to do your will, I shall proceed into the house walking on red carpets.
KLYTAIMESTRA : There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?
It breeds the purple stain, the dark red dye we use to color our garments, costly as silver.
This house has an abundance. Thanks be to gods, no poverty here.
Oh I would have vowed the trampling of many cloths if an oracle had ordered it, to ransom this man's life.
For when the root is alive the leaves come back and shade the house against white dogstar heat.
Your homecoming is warmth in winter.
Or when Zeus makes wine from bitter grapes and coolness fills the house as the master walks his halls, righteous, perfect.
Zeus, Zeus, god of things perfect, accomplish my prayers.
Concern yourself here.
CHORUS : Why does this fear float always in front of my heart--
hungry for signs of the future--
singing a prophetic song no one asked for or paid for?
Why can't I thrust it off like a difficult dream?
My confidence drains away from the center of me.
Yet it was years ago the Greek ships tossed their ropes on the beach at Troyand I saw them come home with my own eyes.
Still at the edge of my heart the song of the Furies keeps nagging--
no one taught me this song and it has no music, all the same it shakes me.
My thoughts go round and round.
I know it all means something real but I hope not! I pray not!
Health and disease collaborate, don't they?
They share a wall between.
So a man's fortune runs a straight course then strikes a hidden reef.
Yet if as a precaution we throw overboard a certain measure of wealth, our house doesn't sink, our ship sails on and Zeus keeps sending up field after field of grain to stave off famine.
But the black blood of a man once it falls to the ground who can call it back?
Even the healer who thought he knew how was checked by Zeus.
I am a restrained person.
Otherwise my heart would race past my tongue to pour out everything.
Instead I mumble,
I gnaw myself.
I lose hope.
And my mind is burning.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Get yourself into the house, I'm talking to you, Kassandra.
Now that Zeus has enrolled you in our household, made you a sharer of our water, take your stand by the altar with the other slaves.
Come on, get down here, don't be proud. They say even Herakles once was sold as a slave, ate slave's bread.
And if that is your lot, lucky you--your masters here are solid old money.
New money people are rough on servants.
Now you know what to expect.
CHORUS : [To KASSANDRA.] Your turn. She's talking to you.
You're not a free person:
you'll obey her of course. Or maybe you won't.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Does she talk only "barbarian"--those weird bird sounds?
Does she have a brain?
CHORUS : [To KASSANDRA.] Your best option is to go with her.
Do as she says. Go.
KLYTAIMESTRA : I can't waste time like this in the doorway.
Already the animals stand at the hearth ready for slaughter--
a joy we never hoped to see.
So you get a move on, or you'll miss the whole ceremony.
If you really don't understand a word I'm saying make some sign with your hand.
CHORUS : Of an interpreter she seems, this stranger, to have need.
For her way of turning is that of a newcaught animal's.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Oh she's mad. Hearkens only to her own mad mind.
Brought from a captured city yet she knows not how to take the bit--
she frets her inside mouth away in foam of blood.
I'll not be insulted further.
CHORUS : But I, for I pity you, will not get angry.
Poor creature, come down from there.
Here is necessity. Here is a yoke for you to bear.
KASSANDRA : OTOTOI POPOI DA!
CHORUS : Why do you mix up Apollo with "woe"?
This god does not ever near sorrow go.
KASSANDRA : OTOTOI POPOI DA!
CHORUS : She calls on the god in an unlucky way.
This god has no part in anyone's death day.
KASSANDRA : Apollo
god of the ways
god of my ruin oh
yes you destroy me oh
yes it is absolute this time
CHORUS : She looks about to prophesy and tell her side.
The god is stretching a slave's mind wide.
KASSANDRA : Apollo
god of the ways
god of my ruin where
have you brought me what
house have you got me to
CHORUS : The house of Atreus, look and you'll see.
You can trust me.
KASSANDRA : Godhated so
much knowing together self-
CHORUS : She's keen as a hound tracking a smell.
She'll find blood, she'll tell.
KASSANDRA : Evidence
they shriek children
roasted on spits a father-gorged
CHORUS : Of course we've heard of your talents before.
But we're not in the market for prophets anymore.
KASSANDRA : [scream] what
[scream] what in the world
is this [scream] strange
big as the house
evil in the house
who can lift it who can heal it
help is a world away
CHORUS : Some of this I don't get.
Some of it is old hat.
KASSANDRA : [scream] woman
wash your man in the bath
how can I
soon it will
there she goes
hand over hand is
CHORUS : Riddles all together with oracles tossed.
I'm still lost.
KASSANDRA : [scream] [scream] [scream] [scream] what is this
net of hell no
the wife is the net he's
married to murder here
comes insatiable vengeance
howling the sacrifice
CHORUS : Who is this spirit of vengeance you call to?
Your words make me falter.
It races my heart the yellow fear
as when death is near.
KASSANDRA : [scream] [scream] look
the bull from the cow she
nets him she gores
her deadly black
down he bathes in
death are you listening to
CHORUS : Prophecy usually goes right over my head.
Still it sounds grim what she said.
Oh what good do prophets ever bring?
They tinge with terror the simplest thing.
KASSANDRA : [scream] [scream] evil life evil luck evil I am just this sound look the
cup of my pain is already poured
did you bring me
it for this
was it for this
was it for
CHORUS : You're mad--godstruck godswept godnonsensical and you keep making that sound, it's not musical.
Like the nightingale who wails her lost child, you're inexhaustibly wild.
KASSANDRA : But yes think oh think of the clear nightingale--
gods put round her a wing a life with no sting but for me waits schismos of the double-edged sword: schismos means
a cleaving a cutting a splitting a chopping in two
CHORUS : Where does it come from this godawful panic, this rash hysterical
clang of your prophetic voice rushing over the edge?
KASSANDRA : O marriage of Paris so deadly for everyone else
O river of home my Skamander
I used to dream by your waters now soon enough back and forth on the banks of the river of hell
I will walk with my song torn open
CHORUS : Why are you suddenly speaking clear as day?
A newborn child could construe what you say.
It gives me a bloody pain to hear all the griefs you name.
KASSANDRA : [scream] [scream] [scream] for my ruined city
[scream] for the offerings my father made to save its towers he
killed animal after animal it did no good we suffered anyway and I am soon to hit the ground
I with my thermonous thermonous means hot soul, burning mind, brain on fire
CHORUS : You're back on track.
Some heavy spirit swoops on you and takes your breath--
out comes Death.
(Outcomes? I'm not sure where this will end.)
KASSANDRA : Okay. No longer.
No longer now out from veils like some firstblush bride shall my oracle glance but as brightness blows the rising sun open it will rush my oceans forward onto light--a wave of woes far worse than these.
No more riddles.
Bear me witness:
I know that smell. Evils. Evils long ago.
A chorus of singers broods upon this house, they never leave, their tune is bad, they drink cocktails of human blood and party through the rooms.
You will not get them out.
They are kin to the Furies and sing of original evil, marriage beds that stink of life gone wrong.
Do I miss the mark? Am I a prophet of lies?
Or do you admit I'm a pretty good shot.
Bear me witness:
I see this place I see its ancient sins.
CHORUS : You amaze me. It's as if you were born here.
KASSANDRA : You can thank Apollo.
CHORUS : He desired you?
KASSANDRA : I was ashamed to speak of it before.
CHORUS : Let's not be overdelicate.
KASSANDRA : The fact is we wrestled.
CHORUS : Had sex?
KASSANDRA : I said yes but defaulted.
CHORUS : And you already possessed your gift?
KASSANDRA : My gift. Oh yes. I was the local prophet.
CHORUS : So did Apollo punish you?
KASSANDRA : He made my prophecy never believed.
CHORUS : But we believed y--
KASSANDRA : [scream] I lose my screams they find me again!
The dread work of prophecy buckles me down to its BAM BAM BAM--
do you see them there those young ones who nest by the door
like shapes in dreams
like children murdered
they hold their own flesh in their own hands
and the entrails drip where their father tasted deep.
Yes I can see this and I tell you vengeance is coming--
a soft lion tumbles in the master's bed awaiting him--
how little the great general understands that bitch who licked his hand at the door of the house and what she plans to do.
She has the nerve, she is a killer, female against male.
What should I call her--a kind of snake, a Skylla, a plague, a mother who breathes out war against her own loved ones?
How she shrieked in joy to see that man on her doorstep.
Yet you know it's all the same to me if anyone believes this or not.
Who cares? The future is coming.
Soon enough you'll pity me, you'll say I was a true prophet.
CHORUS : Thyestes feasting on his children's flesh--
I get that one, it makes me cold with fear.
After that you were unclear.
KASSANDRA : I say you will see Agamemnon dead.
CHORUS : Hush, girl.
KASSANDRA : There is no hushing this.
CHORUS : Really? Really? I pray you are wrong!
KASSANDRA : Pray away. They are preparing to kill.
CHORUS : They? Who? What man do you mean?
KASSANDRA : You haven't been listening at all have you?
CHORUS : Just tell me what he's planning to do.
KASSANDRA : And yet I speak Greek all too well.
CHORUS : So do the Pythian oracles but no one understands them.
KASSANDRA : [scream] Again! The fire comes on me.
[scream] For Apollo! [scream] For me!
Look there--see the lioness who beds a wolf when the lion is gone?
She'll kill me, she's mixing a cup of anger and death even now, she's whetting her sword on her husband's head--
she'll make him pay for bringing me home!
So why do I keep this ridiculous costume, these "prophetic symbols" the stick the crown--
be gone! be damned! Enrich someone else's life with doom!
Look, Apollo himself is denuding me--
he watched them mock me in my little prophet's dress, my little prophet's hat.
They called me gypsy beggar starveling, I put up with that.
And now the prophet forces his prophetess down to the killing floor.
Instead of my father's altar a butcher's block awaits me and a hot rip of blood.
I am meat for sacrifice.
But I won't go unavenged.
Another is coming, a son to kill the mother and pay the father's debt--
strangered from this land he will go into exile then come back one day to finish it off.
The gods have sworn an oath on this.
So why call for pity?
I saw Troy fall. I see Troy's victors falling.
Now I go to die. Hello gates of Hades.
I pray for an easy death: one clean stroke and then--
I close my eyes.
CHORUS : That was a long speech. But your wisdom does not falter.
On the other hand, if you know you have an appointment with death why stride so calmly to the altar?
KASSANDRA : There is no escape.
CHORUS : No, you still have time.
KASSANDRA : The day is come. Flight would be pointless.
CHORUS : Brave girl.
KASSANDRA : People never say that to a lucky person do they?
CHORUS : What about the glamour of a noble death?
KASSANDRA : Alas for my glamorous father and his noble children.
CHORUS : What's the matter? Why do you jump back?
KASSANDRA : [scream] [scream]
CHORUS : Why do you scream? You seem suddenly disgusted.
KASSANDRA : The house is reeking blood!
CHORUS : Well yes, they're sacrificing animals at the hearth.
KASSANDRA : I know that smell! It isn't animals!
CHORUS : Incense maybe?
KASSANDRA : Here I go. To raise a funeral song for me and Agamemnon.
My life is over.
Oh my friends, I'm not making a fuss like a bird at a bush--
you can testify to that after I'm dead.
I speak as one about to die:
there will be other deaths in consequence of me, a woman then a man.
Remember what I was.
CHORUS : How I pity you and your death foretold.
KASSANDRA : One thing left.
I want to sing my own dirge.
I pray to the sun, to this last minute of life:
let my enemies pay with blood for what they did to me--
I'm just a killed slave, easy fistful of death.
O human things--
when a man is happy, a shadow could overturn it.
When life goes wrong, a wet sponge erases the whole picture.
CHORUS : No human ever has enough good fortune.
No one ever bars it from his door.
Agamemnon won from gods the right to capture Priam's city.
If he must shed his blood to pay for others in the past
and then by dying pass the debt to others in the future,
who in the world can say that he is safe?
[Cry from within.]
AGAMEMNON : [scream] I am struck!
CHORUS : Silence! Who cries out?
AGAMEMNON : [scream] Again! I am hit a second time!
CHORUS : [severally]--Those screams imply the deed is done but let's go slow.
--My advice is summon the townsfolk here.
--I say burst in and catch them unaware.
--Something like that, something like that, I agree.
--It's obvious they're laying the ground for tyranny.
--And we're wasting time while they defy the goddess named Delay.
--Oh I don't know what to do or what to think or what to say.
--Me neither. Words can't raise the dead.
--Do you want those criminals down on your head?
--Unendurable. Death is better.
--So from two screams we're saying the king's a dead letter?
--Well let's not get upset till we clarify this thing.
--That's my vote. Find out what's going on with our king.
[Dead bodies of AGAMEMNON and KASSANDRA are displayed on the stage with KLYTAIMESTRA standing over them.]
KLYTAIMESTRA : I said a lot of things before that sounded nice.
I'm not ashamed to contradict them now.
How else devise damage for an enemy who passed himself off as a friend?
How else fence up nets high enough to catch him?
It's a long long time I've been pondering this.
Crisis of an ancient feud.
Finally, I say finally!
I stand where I struck with the deed done!
I did it. I make no denial.
So he could neither flee nor save himself
I threw round him a cloth with no way out--a sort of dragnet--evil wealth of cloth.
I strike him twice.
Two screams and his limbs go slack.
He falls. I strike him one more time--three for Zeus the savior of corpses!
And as he sputters out his life in blood he sprays me with black drops like dew gladdening me no less than when the green buds of the corn feel showers from heaven!
That's how things stand, old men of Argos.
Rejoice if you want to. I am on top of the world!
And this man has the libation he deserves.
He filled this house like a mixing bowl to the brim with evils, now he has drunk it down.
CHORUS : Your mouth is amazing.
Who would boast like this over a husband?
KLYTAIMESTRA : Don't squawk at me. I'm not some witless female.
I am fearless and you know it.
Whether you praise or blame me I don't care.
Here lies Agamemnon, my husband, a dead body, work of my righteous right hand.
That's how things stand.
CHORUS : What poison did you eat or drink to make you so insane?
You've cast off, cut off, everything--you will be cityless,
accursed, an object of hatred, toxic to your own people.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Oh now you pull out your code of justice--call me accursed, demand my exile!
What about them? What about him?
This man who, without a second thought, as if it were a goat dying, sacrificed his own child, my most beloved, my birthpang, my own--and he had flocks of animals to charm the winds of Thrace!
Isn't it this man you should have sent into exile, to pay for that polluted deed?
Instead you pass judgment on me!
Well I warn you, threaten me all you like and yes, if you crush me, you'll be giving the orders.
But if some god ordains the opposite, however late, old men, I'll teach you your place.
CHORUS : You swaggering egotist.
Your mind is mad with killing.
I see a stain of blood upon your eye.
But you know one day when you've lost both friends and honor, you'll have to repay blow for blow.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Listen and keep listening: this I swear to you.
By the Justice of my child, by Ruin, by Revenge--
the three gods for whom I slaughtered him--
hope does not walk the halls of fear in me so long as Aigisthos lights the fire on my hearth.
Aigisthos is loyal. A good defender.
My personal shield.
Here lies the man who despoiled me, darling of every fancy girl at Troy.
And by his side the little prophetess who sweetened his sheets.
Sweetened the whole army's sheets, I shouldn't doubt.
They got what they deserve those two.
Yes here he lies. And she like a swan that has sung its last song beside him, his truelove, his little spiceberry.
You know, to look at them kind of excites me.
CHORUS : How I wish that I could fall asleep and not wake up.
Our guardian is gone, the gracious man who for a woman's sake suffered so much and by a woman's hand is now cut down.
Helen! wild mad Helen, you murdered so many beneath Troy.
Now you've crowned yourself one final perfect time, a crown of blood that will not wash away.
Strife walks with you everywhere you go.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Oh stop whining.
And why get angry at Helen?
As if she singlehandedly destroyed those multitudes of men.
As if she all alone made this wound in us.
CHORUS : I call upon the evil demon who besets this house,
who besets the sons of Tantalos, you whose power comes from women, whose voice is like a crow, you perch upon the corpse harshing out your hymn of joy!
KLYTAIMESTRA : Now you're making sense--
to call upon the thricegorged evil demon of this family.
Deep in its nerves is a lust to lick blood and no wound heals before the next starts oozing.
CHORUS : This demon you admire sits heavy on the house, heavy with anger,
a ruinous insatiable thing.
[scream] For the sake of Zeus!
Zeus is the cause,
Zeus is the action.
Whatever happens for mortals without Zeus?
What part of all this is not godaccomplished?
O how shall I lament you O my king?
My heart is full of love.
But you lie in this spider's web leaking out your life--
a death unholy, a bed unworthy, a blade coming out of your own wife's hand.
KLYTAIMESTRA : You call this deed mine?
And I his wife? You're wrong!
Some ancient bitter spirit of revenge disguised as Agamemnon's wife arose from Atreus' brutal feast to sacrifice this man for those little children.
CHORUS : You are guiltless of this murder?
Who is your witness? I don't think so!
Oh yes, some spirit of vengeance may have been your secret sharer.
Ares is black with wading through blood and he will get justice for the clotted gore of children used as food.
O how shall I lament you O my king?
My heart is full of love.
But you lie in this spider's web leaking out your life--
a death unholy, a bed unworthy, a blade coming out of your own wife's hand.
KLYTAIMESTRA : His death was nothing unworthy!
Did he not bring lies and ruin on this house?
My poor little green shoot Iphigeneia--
she's the one who suffered unworthy.
He has nothing to complain about.
He paid by the sword for what he himself began.
CHORUS : I am at a loss. I have no idea where to turn, everything's falling apart.
A storm of blood beats on the roof--no more little drops!
Justice is sharpening a second sword on a second whetstone.
O earth I wish you had wrapt me away before I saw my king sprawled in a bath! Who will bury him? Who will mourn him--you?
You'd have the nerve to sing his lament as if you were doing him a favor?
Who in the world will shed true tears at this man's tomb?
KLYTAIMESTRA : That's not your concern.
By me he fell, by me he died, I shall bury him.
Not with wailing from this house.
No, Iphigeneia will open her arms and run to meet him in Hades--
a father-daughter embrace, won't that be perfect!
CHORUS : She shoots back taunt for taunt.
How to judge? The thief is robbed, the killer pays his price.
But here's the key: while Zeus sits on his throne the doer must suffer. That is the law. Who could drive the curse out of this family?
These people are glued to ruin.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Well, that's a good point.
But I for one propose to swear a truce with the demon of this house.
I'll be content with where we've got to now, hard though it is to bear.
Let the demon go grind out murders on some other family.
I'm happy with a tiny share of the wealth here if I can stop us all killing one another.
AIGISTHOS : O welcome day of justice! Now I can say the gods are handling miscreants as they should, when I see this fellow lying in robes that the Furies wove--
it's payback for his father's crimes.
I am oh! quite pleased.
For Atreus you know, who was ruler of this land and this man's father, drove Thyestes, who was my father and this man's brother--am I making myself clear?--
out of his city and away from his home.
Then when he (Thyestes) returned as a suppliant to his (Atreus') hearth
Atreus set before my dad, with hospitality more zealous than kind, a merry meal of his own children's flesh.
The toes and fingers he chopped up especially small.
Thyestes took a chunk and ate it, not knowing.
That meal ruined our family, as you can see.
He suddenly saw what he'd done, shrieked aloud, fell back
vomiting carnage and called out a curse upon this house, kicking over the table to emphasize it:
May the entire race of Pelops perish this same way!
So that's why you see this man lying here dead.
I planned it. Righteously.
For he exiled me too, along with my poor father, when I was quite young.
Justice brought me back.
From exile I laid my finger on this man, devising every detail of his doom.
And you know, even death would be sweet to me now
I've seen him caught in the nets of Justice.
CHORUS : Aigisthos, your roostering repels me.
You say you intended to kill this man, plotted his pitiful murder all alone.
And I say you're a candidate for stoning. Know it.
The people will bring you to justice.
AIGISTHOS : Don't squawk at me from your seat on the lowest rowing bench:
I run this ship. Know it.
You may be old but you'll learn to control your impulses.
Bondage and hunger are wonderful teachers.
Have you eyes? Don't you see? If you kick against the pricks, you'll hurt yourself.
CHORUS : Woman! You skulk at home while men are off at war.
You foul the bed of our king and plot his death!
AIGISTHOS : You'll be sorry you said that.
You're the opposite of Orpheus, whose voice could charm.
Your silly yelping infuriates me.
But you will be rendered acquiescent.
CHORUS : As if you could ever be my master--you who dreamed of a king's murder but had not the nerve to do the deed yourself!
AIGISTHOS : Well, no. To entrap him was the wife's work, obviously.
An old enemy like me would have been instantly suspicious.
But with his wealth I plan to rule this state and whomever does not obey me
I'll yoke to a heavy collar. Hunger and darkness will break him down.
CHORUS : Given the rot in your soul, why not kill the king yourself?
Instead a woman has polluted our land and our gods.
Does Orestes somewhere look upon the light?
I pray he come back and put you two to death!
AIGISTHOS : If that is your attitude, you'll soon learn--
CHORUS : Come! Men! There's work to do!
AIGISTHOS : [To his guards.] Swords up!
CHORUS : Death, you say! We're ready.
AIGISTHOS : Good, you'll soon taste it.
KLYTAIMESTRA : No, no, no, no, my dear darling, no more evil.
The harvest is in: we have enough pain, enough bloodshed.
Venerable elders, go back to your homes, before you suffer.
What we did had to be done.
And if it ends here, we're content.
Some demon of luck has clipped us with a sharp hoof.
That's a woman's opinion, for what it's worth.
AIGISTHOS : You mean these creatures are permitted to pelt me with insults heedlessly, randomly, treating it like a game?
CHORUS : You won't see men of Argos cringe before a coward!
AIGISTHOS : I'll come after you!
CHORUS : Not if the gods bring Orestes back!
AIGISTHOS : Empty hope! The food of exiles!
CHORUS : Go on, be yourself, grow fat, pollute justice, now is your chance!
AIGISTHOS : One day you'll pay.
CHORUS : Brag away! You're like a cock beside his hen.
KLYTAIMESTRA : Ignore their yelpings.
You and I, as masters of this house, will dispose all things as they should be.
Go to your local church, mosque, or synagogue, and take a look around during worship. Who is leading the service? Who is preaching? Are women mentioned positively, negatively, or at all? Is God described exclusively as Father, as Father and Mother, or in gender-neutral terms? How are the women dressed—are they covered up, even on a scorchinghot day? Wait—where are the women, anyway? Oh, there they are—all the way in back. Or upstairs. Or in another room.
If you’ve witnessed the preferential treatment of men in America’s houses of worship, you will not be surprised to learn that there is an explosion of millions of women in this country rising up and demanding religious equality. More and more, religious women—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—are declaring that they expect to be treated as equal to men in the religious sphere. They want the same meaningful spiritual connections enjoyed by their brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons. They arecritical of their faith’s male-oriented theology and liturgy. They reject the interpretations of their religious tradition that give women a different, and to their minds lesser, status.
These women agree with their priests, pastors, imams, and rabbis that the word of God is revealed in their faith’s sacred writings. And they embrace the word of God. Yet they believe that God always intended for women to be treated as equals to men. The problem is not God’s intention, but rather a distortion of God’s plan.
I am one of these women: I too live with deep conflict. I am com mitted to my religion, but increasingly I am frustrated with the place my tradition assigns me as a woman. In writing this book, I have connected with many of these women, and sharetheir experiences here to raise awareness that conflict and contradiction sometimes can be good things because they can impel positive change. For when there is tension between the desire to be religious and the desire to be treated as equal, religious women inevitably question the status quo, leading them to study the foundations of their faith. This process strengthens religion for everyone involved. Blind faith, on the other hand, weakens religion for everyone involved.
We are living at a pivotal moment. Catholics have been active in the movement for women’s ordination as priests since 1975,and the first woman was ordained as a rabbi three years earlier in the Reform Jewish denomination. In 2006 we saw the installation of the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. But today the movement has deepened. It still pushes for ordination in those faiths where it remains forbidden, but it has widened its focus beyond that one issue. And it encompasses Muslim women, who are also speaking up against women’s discrimination. It has germinated a new class of religious women who are infusing their faith communities with palpable energy. That energy is alive: it is growingand spreading.
These women are not abandoning religion. Nor do they seek to overturn it. On the contrary: they want to stay within their religious heritage but make it better by allowing women full rights. They want to transform religion while maintaining tradition. Many of these women seek out like-minded folks, both men and women, in order to practice their faith together in a way that is spiritually fulfilling rather than spiritually disabling. Others work from within to reform their church, mosque, or synagogue to become more inclusive of women. All of these devout women recognize that religion, when practiced together with a commitment to gender equality, can empower women rather than limit them. At the same time, by creating opportunities for women, they are making their religion stronger and more durable.
Historically, men have monopolized God. Today, women are taking back God for themselves. Says forty-six-year-old Catherine Shannon, a practicing, churchgoing Catholic and stay-at-home mother of four in suburban Connecticut, "I don’t feel equal atall, and I struggle with it. I watched the installation of Pope Benedict XVI on TV, and I found it repulsive. It was all these men—no women. Women are allowed to become ‘Eucharistic ministers,’ but they’re not allowed to consecrate the Eucharist. Only a male priest is allowed to do that. I would feel better if women could do it."
Syeda Reshma Yunus, a forty-seven-year-old traditional Muslim woman who was born in India and lives in California, feels similarly. She is offended that many mosques forbid women from entering and exiting through the main door (a separate door for women is sometimes found on the side or rear of the building) and that nearly all mosques in the United States require the women to worship behind the men. "You know how you’re supposed to come back from the mosque feeling good and spiritually recharged? I never feel that way. When I come back from the mosque, I just want to throw something at those people!"
For her part, Ariele Mortkowitz, a twenty-seven-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman living in Washington, D.C., shares this sense that as a woman, she’s getting the short end of the religious stick. She disagrees with her tradition’s rule that women, but not men, must dress modestly. "You need to cover your hair [as a married woman] and you need to cover your body becausewomen are considered sexual beings. A male friend [not from my community] once said to me, ‘Doesn’t that make you feel good, though, knowing that you are looked at as a sexual being?’ But no, it doesn’t! I don’t want to hide who I am, but I’m supposed to because I’m a source of negative influence for my male counterparts in society."
Many religious people consider these sentiments heretical. When excommunication wasn’t considered punishment enough, the medieval Catholic Church burned heretics at the stake. When women in our country during the colonial period challenged their congregations, their punishment was swift and fierce. In 1638 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated and banished from the colony because she had held meetings in her home to discuss the Sunday sermon and to provide aforum for her own theological ideas. In 1660, a supporter of Hutchinson who preached her own sermons, Mary Dyer, was hangedon the Boston Common. Other women who expressed provocative views about Christianity and the church hierarchy were also hanged, pilloried, or whipped.1 Some were lucky merely to be publicly insulted. In 1848 the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton—an evangelical Protestant who claimed that opponents of women’s rights were misreading the Bible—was stung when she was denounced as an "infidel" by her hometown preacher.
Today’s equality-seeking religious women are sometimes considered heretics and branded as pagan, a term used to describe one who believes in more than one god. After an international conference of mainstream Protestant women, held in Minneapolis in 1993, participants were labeled pagan because they "reimagined" God as possessing both feminine and masculine characteristics. Even today, any religious woman who tries to broach the topic of alternate ways of representing God is at high risk of being silenced as a pagan—which also means one who stands outside the faith community. These women are told thatnothingcan change, because the way things are now is the way God decreed they should be, as revealed in the sacred texts.
Despite the insults flung at them, the women in this book remain deeply religious, faithful people. They are in awe of God as their creator, redeemer, and sustainer, and they wish to live lives that serve their God. By and large, they are mainstream, conventional people—schoolteachers, social workers, office managers, nonprofit directors, lawyers, physicians, church administrators, soccer moms, retired grandmothers. And they appear mainstream: they dress modestly—nothing too attention-grabbing, nothing outrageous. They tend to be particularly well educated (since higher education leads to critical thinking),yet they are also average Americans. For the most part, they just want to be left alone to worship Jesus Christ or Allah orHashem—quietly, without causing a ruckus, without being in-your-face about it. But also with dignity and not as second-class citizens within their faith.
They are activists by necessity. To get to the point where they can worship the way they want to, they know that action is required. And action they are taking. Catholic women are supporting female ordination ceremonies, risking excommunication by the Vatican because the Catholic Church not only forbids female priests but also forbids support and even discussion of the subject. Evangelical Christian women are engaging in serious, high-level Bible study in which they challenge scriptural interpretations that place husbands as heads over wives, who are instructed to be subservient. Muslim women are participating in prayer services in which a woman recites the khutba (sermon) and women pray adjacent to men, not behindthem. Observant Jewish women are attending prayer services in which the curtain dividing the women from the men is pushed aside so that a woman can layn (chant the words of ) the Torah.
I want you to get to know this new breed of devout women—who they are, why they are dissatisfied with their faith, and whatthey are doing about it. Millions of religious women, together with like-minded men, are having an enormous impact on churches, mosques, and synagogues across the United States: they are reshaping organized religion to become more inclusive ofwomen not only as worshippers but as leaders. There are no hard numbers, but everyone involved in the professional world ofwomen and worship agrees that more and more women are standing up for their religious rights. In no small part, these womenare gaining momentum through the Internet, which enables otherwise disparate individuals to come together.
"Women in these traditions are taking a very hard look at the conflict they have been living, between trying to be faithfuland coming against certain elements of their tradition that are baldly unequal to women," observes Cyra Choudhury, the executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Women in Religion. "We are seeing a groundswell. There are regular women, women not engaged in the academy, asking more questions. They don’t necessarily want to become priests or rabbis or imams, but they want their questions answered and they don’t want to just accept the answer, ‘Well, this is thesacred law;this is just what it is.’"
I have chosen to explore five communities of American women struggling for women’s religious advancement: Catholics, evangelical Protestants, "mainline" (nonevangelical) Protestants, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews. Obviously, there are many other communities in which women are similarly rising up. A website called Feminist Mormon Housewives offers a space for Mormon women to vent frustrations with their narrow role. There are disgruntled women in the Eastern Orthodox, Mennonite, and Pentecostalist churches and in the Jewish Conservative movement too, not to mention members of Eastern religions. Ratherthan attempt to tackle all denominations and movements, I limit this inquiry in order to paint a vivid landscape.
In 2006 I traveled to Chicago to attend an international gathering of United Methodist clergywomen to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their full clergy rights. Fifteen hundred women, most of them ordained, converged at the Hyatt Regency convention center at McCormick Place, their numbers limited only by lack of space. This was the last place I expected to find disgruntled voices—the event was, after all, billed as a celebration, a landmark anniversary, a weeklong gala party. Besides, aren’t mainline Protestants very open to women’s new roles?
When I showed up to claim my name tag, I encountered two cheerful volunteers overseeing the registration materials. At first they couldn’t find my name on their list; they leaned over the table and scanned the names, finally locating me under "Media."
"Media? Are you a reporter?"
I explained that I was writing a book about women who are devoted to their faith but ticked off about their status within it.
"Well," said one of the volunteers, a friendly woman with short white hair and vivid blue eyes. She straightened her shoulders and flashed me a wide, welcoming grin. "You’ve come to the right place."
More and more, any place where religious women gather is the right place to find women demanding equality.
What motivates them? To find out, I engaged in intense interviews with women seriously devoted to their faith, living across this country from far-flung rural Oregon to densely packed New York City. To seek them out, I attended five conferences of religious people in support of women’s advancement—in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a conference of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus; in Chicago for the United Methodists’ fifty-year anniversary of clergywomen’s rights; in Milwaukee for the Catholic reform group Call to Action’s annual conference; in Manhattan’s Times Square for the historic Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity; and in Manhattan’s Upper West Side for the tenth-anniversary celebration and conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
Many other women reached out to me after seeing the advertisements I placed in the politically left-of-center Christian magazine So-journers, the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith, the progressive Muslim website MuslimWakeUp!, and the secular liberal journal The Nation. (Many women who read conservative publications also want equality. I chose liberal publications, guessing that in those venues I would have a good chance of finding women willing to speak with me.)
Overall, I spoke with ninety-five women—Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews. Their ages range from nineteen to ninety-five, and they live in twenty-four different states across the country. Some refer to themselves as feminist; others avoid the term as strongly as they wish Eve had spurned the serpent’s fruit. (In this book I describe people and organizations as "feminist" only if they already define themselves in this way.) Except for several interviewees who had left their religious community because they couldn’t reconcile their beliefs with their tradition, all are seriously committed to their religious tradition yet simultaneously believe that women are not treated as they should be. They base their beliefs on their understanding of the sacred texts of their faith.
These women collectively voiced four goals:
1. They want to see women in leadership roles within their church, mosque, or synagogue—even if they personally do not desire to hold such a position themselves. By extension, they believe that women should be permitted to participate in the same rituals available to men. Because conservative religious women do not plunge forward and claim for themselves a responsibility or ritual without authorization from a respected religious authority, they are educating themselves about existing interpretations that favor increased participation by women.
2. They want women represented in the language of their liturgy. In some cases this means wanting God to be described with feminine as well as masculine images (Mother as well as Father, Queen as well as King); in other cases it means simply wanting the liturgy to refer to human women (foremothers) as well as human men (forefathers).
3. They want religious recognition that their physical bodies are normal and not aberrant. Despite the millions of women who are proud of their bodies and enjoy wearing revealing clothes, many other millions—who grew up in religious households—have been taught that the female body, which menstruates, nurtures a growing fetus, gives birth, and lactates, is inherently offensive. Sadly, many women come to believe this is true.
4. They want to be recognized as people created fully in the image of God. The idea that human beings are created "in the image of God" and therefore share some aspects of the divine is very powerful and important in Judaism and Christianity. In Islam, it is believed that humans have the potential to share some characteristics of God but can never fully achieve a mirroring of God.
Genesis 1:27 reads, "And God created the human in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."3 In mirroring God to some extent, humans are elevated. If God is compassionate and just (as all three religions maintain), and if we have the capacity to act as God acts, then we have the power and responsibility to behave in compassionate and just ways. Moreover, if all humans are like God, then all humans must be treated with respect. But what happens if only men are believed to be "in the image of God"? Christian leaders throughout the centuries have argued that only men reflect the divine image, while women require men to complete them to achieve the same status. As a result, many Christians believe that women are not as valuable as men in the eyes of God—and therefore, by themselves, cannot be "saved."
To achieve these goals, much more is required than to "add women and stir." Theology itself—the ideas that undergird the religious practices—must reflect the lives of women too. Since the 1970s, academics in the area of religion andwomen have reexamined and reinterpreted Christian and Jewish theology. More recently, Muslim academics have also turned to women’s issues in theology. They have called attention to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as religions created by men. Whether or not one believes in a supernatural God, there is no arguing against the fact that the architects of each religious tradition were people—men. Historically, women have been shut out of the power structures of each faith. As a result, a male point of view has molded each faith’s core ideas about God and about who has access to the privilege of serving God.
More fundamentally, the three religious traditions have tended to regard women as inferior and subordinate to men. "It is not possible for woman to achieve equality with man," is how the theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza sums up the prevailing belief, "because this is against divine law and biblical revelation."4 There are, to besure, exceptions and ambiguities that also are part of the theology of these religions, but speaking generally, it has beenunderstood that there is a hierarchical relationship between man and woman, that man is the one with the power, and that this is the divine truth.
Woman’s supposed inferiority, it has been explained, is innate or circumstantial, caused by (pick your favorites):
Sin (eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden)
The capacity to sexually arouse men, who might then participate in forbidden sexual relations
Having a woman’s body, which does not reflect the image of God
Having a woman’s body, which is closer to nature than man’s body, and therefore removed from transcendent reason, which is godlike
Having been created second instead of first
The fact that Jesus was a man and not a woman
The fact that God is most often described as male and not female
When you take a step back and examine each explanation, you can’t help but see the flaws:
Adam ate the forbidden fruit too.
Child-rearing responsibilities do not last a lifetime, and besides, doesn’t the capacity to give birth make women more godlike than men?
Men can learn sexual restraint, and if men are natural leaders, why are they so weak?
The Bible says explicitly that both women and men are created in the image of God.
A person can give birth and also possess the ability to reason.
If being first is better than being second, why are animals not superior to humans?
Jesus was not only a man but also Jewish, yet Christians don’t consider themselves inferior to Jews.
The Hebrew Bible (also accepted as sacred by Christians and Muslims), as well as the Qur’an, refers to God in feminine as well as masculine terms and images, and Jesus refers to himself in female imagery.
The whole enterprise of explaining man’s supposed superiority to woman is specious and suspicious.
The feminist theologian Mary Daly was one of the first modern thinkers—along with Valerie Saiving, Rosemary Ruether, Letty Russell, Judith Plaskow, and a few other trailblazers—to analyze the woven bond of sexism and religion. She wrote in 1971,
The Judaic-Christian tradition has served to legitimate sexually imbalanced patriarchal society. Thus, for example, the image of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service to this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in "his" heaven is a father ruling "his" people, then it is in the "nature" of things and according to divine plan and the orderof the universe that society be male dominated . . . Within this context, a mystification of roles takes place: the husband dominating his wife represents God himself. What is happening, of course, is the familiarmechanism by which the images and values of a given society are projected into a realm of beliefs, which in turn justify the social infrastructure. The belief system becomes hardened and objectified, seeming to have an unchangeable independent existence and validity of its own. It resists social change which would rob it of its plausibility. Nevertheless,despite the vicious circle, change does occur in society, and ideologies die, though they die hard.
These are stinging words. Daly was arguing that Christian theology reinforces sexism in society. To put it another way, there is something wrong with Christianity because it is sexist. But she also hinted at the possibility for reform: social change could happen; it just wouldn’to be easy or pretty. At the time she wrote this passage, Daly was personally committed to feminist reform of the Catholic Church. But since 1971 she has changed direction. Today she believes that the Christian tradition is inherently oppressive to women because its core symbols,such as a male Christ, are essentially sexist. She now argues that Christianity cannot be reconciled with the drive for women’s equality—and therefore it must be abandoned.
I disagree. Reform is not impossible. To my mind, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are strong enough that they can withstand a little reform without compromising their core values. The issue is not a matter of "if," but "when." We can reread our sacred texts and interpret them through the lens of women’s equality. There are many truths to our sacred texts, not just one, and we can expose multiple meanings that enrich, not strip away, the validity of our faith.
Even if one is adamant that the divine voice is unalterable, it still cannot be denied that the divine voice always has been, and always will be, filtered and interpreted by humans. It is our job to figure out the most authentic way of understanding this voice, and to do so, we must use human knowledge. Today, we know that women are full human beings with the same intelligence, leadership skills, and spiritual capabilities as men. It is incumbent upon us to use this knowledge in our understanding of sacred texts.
Christian women seeking equality emphasize that Jesus treated women as fully equal to men, that men and women together were equal disciples in the earliest Christian mission, and that Jesus lived his life and suffered his death to be in solidarity with all who had faith, including the marginalized—women, poor, outcasts, sinners. And yet how many Christians today are even aware that their religion valued what we call inclusiveness? Christians must look back at the early history of the church and recapture the gender equality that was part of its foundation.
Muslim women seeking equality similarly point out that the prophet Muhammad treated women very positively, but that throughthe centuries this has been forgotten or ignored. The Qur’an—the Muslim holy text believed to be the literal word of God as it was revealed to Muhammad—gave women legal rights of inheritance and divorce, which was revolutionary in seventh-century Arabia. One revelation addressed women directly (something not done at all in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament) and stated that women and men are morally and spiritually equal. The prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, was a successful merchant and an older woman, and it’s clear that Muhammad held women in general in high esteem. "Islam gave women rights," the author and translator Laleh Bakhtiar tells me, "and the men took them away." Muslim women seeking equality want to return to the attitudes toward women expressed in the Qur’an and through Muhammad’s example.
Observant Jewish women seeking reform remain committed to halakhah, the code of Jewish law, which is built upon a foundation of gender inequality. Nevertheless, these women say that even within halakhah their roles can and should be expanded greatly. They point out that halakhah has always been fluid and flexible and has changed throughout the centuries when rabbis have deemed change necessary. These rabbis have found interpretations in Jewish law to support their changes. If the leading rabbis of today wanted to give women rights, they could and they would.
"The problem with much theology," writes the theologian Judith Plaskow, "is not that it speaks from male experience—it must speak from some experience—but that it claims universality for its particular perspective . . . Theology cannot deal with ‘universal human experience’ not simply because human reason is finite, but also because experience itself is so varied." Plaskow, unlike Daly, does not throw up her hands and walk away. Instead, she calls on groups that have not been represented to speak up so that their insights can be included in "a multifaceted theological exploration of the human situation."6 The challenge is to avoid repeating the error of our forefathers, who presented their own male experiences as universally human ones.
If we accept this challenge, we can achieve our goals. Women can take on leadership roles in their churches, mosques, or synagogues. Women can be represented in the language of their liturgies. Women can be taught that their bodies are normal. Women can be recognized as having been created in the image of God. We can achieve these things. We do not have to abandon our faith communities. We can stay and make them stronger. And for this to happen, we cannot be polite. The religion reporter and papal biographer David Gibson observes that with the Catholic priest shortage, laypeople, women and men, are effectively running the parishes. "If all these people went on strike for one week, the Church would come to a grinding halt."
And for those who would prefer that Catholics go a week without confession before they would allow a female priest, remember that without women, there is no religion. Says the religious studies professor Christel Manning,
Women are still the heart of most families. When parents divorce, mothers usually get primary custody. When Christian families homeschool their children, it is almost always the mother who does the educating. It is the mother who determines how closely a Jewish family will observe the kosher laws. And it is women who, by joining the labor force, are challenging traditional religious gender roles. Women therefore have a powerful influence both on what it means to be [religious] todayand what it will mean for the next generation.
In other words, even if religious leaders don’t care about justice for women, they should give it to them anyway—for the sake of the continuity of their tradition. It is shortsighted not to.
The ancient sage Hillel asked, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" Meaning: If I don’t look out for my own interests, who will? He continued, "If I am only for myself, what am I?" Although I must look out for my own interests, I can’t look out only on my behalf. I must also help others in need. Otherwise, what kind of person would I be? Hillel’s questions point to the conflict between the interests of the individual and the interests of the community to which she or he belongs. So which one takes precedence? The answer is embedded in the great rabbi’s final question: "If not now, when?" Meaning: There will always be conflict between the individual and the community, and this conflict might never be resolved. But that need not stop me—and you—from doing what needs to be done now.
Devout American women of different faiths are arriving at the same conclusion: religion must become more inclusive of women, and action must be taken now. These women are living with an enormous conflict—between their needs and the long-held interpretations of their religious tradition. But they are moving beyond the impasse of conflict to take matters into their own hands.
Even if you feel no personal stake in religion, it has an enormous influence over your life. More and more, religious values influence the political direction of our country. In fact, religion affects everyone in the United States, whether they are Episcopalian, Quaker, Buddhist, Reform Jewish, Wiccan, or atheist. A whopping 90 percent of Americans believe in God.9 Only 10 to 14 percent of Americans have no ties to a congregation, denomination, or faith group.10 Of those with religious ties, the overwhelming majority are Christian. A quarter of adult Americans are Catholic (51 million) and 52 percent are Protestant (105 million), making three-quarters of all adults in this country self-described Christians. Less than 2 percent are Jewish (2.8 million), and less than 2 percent are Muslim (2.35 million).11 The Jewish and Muslim figures are slippery; if a Jew is defined as anyone with Jewish parentage, the number could be as high as 5 million, and many Muslim organizations claim that there are between 5 to 7 million Muslims in the United States. Moreover, for those who are spiritually hungry but turned off by the more popular U.S. religions, there is a smorgasbord of alternate options ranging from Hinduism to Scientology to the mystical religion Madonna strangely calls Kabbalah (it bears only a passingresemblance to the Kabbalah of Jewish tradition).
No matter how you crunch the numbers, it is indisputable that America is a country filled with religious people, the overwhelming majority of them Christian, and that most take their religion seriously. The 2008 presidential campaign was strewn with Bibles. Recognizing that Americans take politicians’ religion into account on election day, each candidate jostled for the position of Most Pious and Authentic Christian. Even Rudy Giuliani, not a religious man, described himself in spiritual terms.
A full third of Americans describe themselves as born-again or evangelical12—the word "evangel" means "good news," and evangelicals believe they are obligated to spread the good news that Jesus can save sinners. Millions of evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of the Bible—that it is without error and that there is only one "true" meaning of the words of the Bible, which was written by God. Among those who hold this belief are some—commonlycalled fundamentalists—who believe that interpretations other than their own are false and not worthy of attention, perhaps even blasphemous. If a Christian strays from the accepted understanding of key biblical passages, she may not have "faith" (appropriate belief in Jesus Christ as savior) and therefore may not be "saved" (brought to heaven instead of hell after death) by Jesus. When Christine, a white thirty-eight-year-old stay-athome mother livingin rural North Carolina, was growing up, she would occasionally tell her evangelical parents that she disagreed with some verse in the Bible. "My parents would tellme, ‘Well, you really need to work on your faith.’"
Many evangelicals are politically right-wing. Some don’t support the separation between church and state, religion and politics. Instead, they make a concerted and often successful effort to align the political and social landscape with fundamentalist Christian ideas. Known as the religious right, they are members of well-organized, politically conservative Christiangroups such as the Christian Coalition, Moral Majority, and Focus on the Family, and along with groups like the Catholic Council, they have massive grassroots support. These groups include enormously influential people with the power to determineand enforce national and state laws, people who want to impose their own vision of what America should look like onto everyone else.
Faith-based politics have led to classrooms in which attempts are made to replace the science of evolution with either "intelligent design" or creationism.13 Religion in politics has tied the hands of medical researchers who want to use fetal stem cells to save existing lives and has led to massive support of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, "Faith Nights" at football and baseball games around the country (not only in the Bible Belt) offer Christian music, giveaways of Christiantoys, and testimonials from the players themselves. Some Christian faculty members at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado have proselytized the cadets, who include Jews and other religious minorities. When George W. Bush tapped Harriet Miers to sit on the Supreme Court in 2005, he indicated to Americans that they could trust her because she is a born-again Christian like himself.
To say that the religious right does not support equality of the sexes would be like saying that Noah’s ark got wet during the flood. Many on the right don’t even support adequate education for females. Because of the political muscle of the religious right, millions of girls do not receive complete information abut sexuality and contraception, as they are subjected to "abstinence-only sex education," which has been shown to be both ineffective and dangerous. Boys don’t receive decent sex ed either, which is also tragic, but it’s the girls who get pregnant. Some of these pregnant girls or adult women seek help in health-care institutions that receive federal funds but do not inform women about their full options, which include abortion.
Not all evangelicals are fundamentalist or politically right-wing. According to Anne Eggebroten, a research scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA, herself an evangelical Christian and one of the founding members of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus in 1974, the religious right "is a cultural movement that gives people a black-and-white world where abortion is wrong and homosexuality is wrong. Their belief is that if you just stay within certain boundaries, you will be safe and happy and have a strong spirituality. And that approach has worked for a lot of evangelical churches." Eggebroten is a white fifty-nine-year-old woman living in Santa Monica, California. When I meet her, she looks relaxed in khaki pants and Birkenstocks, her chin-length gray-blond hair tucked casually behind her ears. But she is anything but laid-back when it comes to her commitment to women’s and gay rights. She is a tireless critic of fundamentalist Christian politics in her columns for Women’s eNews and in her groundbreaking book, Abortion: My Choice, God’s Grace, in which evangelical Christian and Catholic women discuss their decisions to have abortions.She asks me,Why are abortion and gay rights the big issues right now? People didn’t care all that much in the 1950s. The common denominator pushing all of these conservative groups is fear. You have women controlling their own bodies and the empowerment of gays and lesbians. There is a lot going on in society that is still relatively new and scary. So I think there’s a huge appeal to a time that never was when things were safe and nice and women and gays were in their place. There’s a tremendous attraction to that, and I think that it fuels the popularity of forms of faith that give people a clear sense of rights and wrongs and going back to a mythic time when things were easier and answers were clearer. People also want a scapegoat. If they have a scapegoat, they don’t have to look at their own behavior. A lot of fundamentalist preaching is about how bad gays areand how they’re going to take over the world, how bad feminists are and abortions are. If you look at the men who have beenactive in fighting abortion, the way they got into it is the mentality of, "Wow, these people are so bad, but I can save the world!"
Given the political-religious environment today, the inclusive vision of today’s equality-seeking religious women creates not only an alternate way of worshipping God but an alternate way of being a citizen in this country. We believe that those who are politically conservative should not have a monopoly on religion. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Democratic senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appealed to the spiritual side of voters, weaving religious themes into their campaign rhetoric. Although I usually become concerned when politicians invoke religion, because this can lead to theblurring of church-state separation, at the same time I found it refreshing that Democrats were the ones referring to God. Every yearat its annual convention, Planned Parenthood Federation of America holds an optional interfaith prayer breakfast. To me, this is encouraging. No, I don’t think being religious is a prerequisite for being pro choice—or, for that matter, for being anything. Being religious has no bearing on whether someone is a moral, kind, empathetic person or whethershe is cruel and hurtful. Religion is used to justify any and all behavior. But I want people to be aware that many women who support the full range of reproductive health care, including the legal right to an abortion, are religious too.
There is a history of devout women in the United States agitating for social reform. Today’s ticked-off religious women have illustrious predecessors: Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, leaders of the first wave of the women’s rights movement, were raised in religious Households—Mott as a Quaker, Stanton as a Presbyterian. They were vehemently antislavery and called for immediate abolition based on their understanding of God’s law. These women organized the Seneca Falls, New York, convention of 1848, in which they unveiled a Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, that called for women’s suffrage and reform of marital and property laws. Historians date this convention as the beginning of the organized women’s movement in the United States. The two founders were motivated by their understanding of the Bible, which they believed taught the message of equalityof all human beings.
Vivian Gornick, the essayist and biographer of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, reminds us that when the great women’s rights leaderwas coming of age, religion was as inescapable as the air she breathed:
In the Cady household, as in innumerable American homes at the time when she was growing up, there prevailed an unreconstructed Presbyterianism that posited original sin as one given,and the ever-present threat of an eternity spent in hell as another . . . It is hard to overstate the religious cast of this culture. In 1800 the rhetoric of Christianity informed the dailiness of American life, all popular notions of virtue were visibly bound up with a Christian definition of moral obligation, thousands of young men routinely contemplated a life in the church, and in colleges and universities religious thought and practice were thoroughly intermingled with every kind of intellectual inquiry.