One my projects this fall has been a collaboration with 8th grade social studies teacher, Darcel Deodato. Darcel is one of the teachers who participated in the long-term teacher education program that Julie Della Torre and I wrote about last spring. We are both back at the school, but this year we are each working intensively with only two teachers.
Eighth grade students in New Jersey study Civics. They learn about forms of government and, specifically, the organization of the United States government. When Darcel and I discussed how to embed storytelling into this curriculum, we decided to focus on stories that would help students think about why people need laws and how government serves society. Over the summer, I thought about a lot of stories: stories about justice being served, stories about the miscarriage of justice, and stories about people taking justice into their own hands. In the end, I decided to begin the year by telling the students the ancient Greek story of the trial of Orestes in Athens.
As I was preparing my lessons, I spent quite a bit of time trying to craft the myth into a tellable tale. This is always an issue when you’re working with a long and complex story, but with this particular story, I began my work with the goal of making it less graphically disturbing. The story of Orestes comes near the end of the Legend of the House of Atreus, a cursed family whose generations were blighted by murder, cannibalism, and incest. The horror begins when a first ancestor, Tantalus, cooks his son and serves him to the gods. It ends, five generations later, with Orestes in the court of Athens, on trial for matricide.
Orestes was the son of Agamemnon, the king who led the armies of Greece against Troy. The story of Agamemnon and his immediate family is beyond tragic. Not only was his sister-in-law, Helen, the cause of that bloody, drawn-out war, but he, himself, felt obligated to kill his oldest daughter, as a sacrifice to Artemis, before his armies even left Greece. While he was at war, his wife, Clytemnestra (Helen’s sister), took a lover (who was Agamemnon’s cousin) and plotted revenge for her daughter’s death. Upon his return from Troy, Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon and, in turn, their son, Orestes, killed her to avenge his father.
The murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are the subject of a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus. In the last play, Orestes, haunted by his mother’s ghost and tormented by her Furies, the Erinyes, seeks the help of the goddess, Athena. When Orestes arrives in Athens, instead of passing judgment, herself, Athena asks the help of the citizens of Athens to end the cycle of blood-for-blood revenge. She creates a jury to decide the case of Erinyes vs. Orestes.
At first, I thought I would follow Aeschylus and cut the pre-Agamemnon generations out of my story, but as I worked, I realized how important the stories of the early ancestors are to one of the most significant results of Orestes’s trial: Athena’s persuasion of the Erinyes, chthonic goddess of retribution and guardians of family bonds, to remain in her city. I began to think that a listener needs to hear about the horrible crimes of Tantalus and his descendants to understand why society needs the presence of these goddesses and, while Aeschylus’s audiences would have known the family history, my audience would not. Ultimately, I decided to tell the story from the beginning.
The unit took five class periods. The story worked in the social studies curriculum. Not only did it introduce the idea of a judicial system based on trial by a jury of peers, it was also relevant to the lives of the students who live in a city where neighborhoods are torn apart by retaliatory gang killings. As the story unfolded, we stopped to allow time for students to discuss the moral issues involved. For example, students debated Agamemnon’s choices at Aulis. Should he kill his child so that the Greek Armada could sail to Troy? This discussion raised important questions: Is it ever justifiable to take a human life to further a cause or ideal? What about if taking one life might save others? We also talked about ‘laws’ that seem basic to our human instincts, like those against murder and incest. Students spoke passionately about these questions.
Near the end of the story, before I told the outcome of the trial, Darcel divided the class into prosecution and defense teams who presented arguments for each side based on the story and our related discussions. During the debate, six students sat as jurors. The outcome of the 8th grade trial differed from that of the original. The jury felt strongly that Orestes should be punished for his deed. The next day, students did a dramatic reading of the trial scene from Aeschylus’s play (We used Peter Meineck’s translation which is easy to read and lends itself to performance.) and discussed its outcome. Much of this discussion focused on Athena’s appeasement of the Erinyes and why it was important for her to persuade them to become guardians of the city.