The Eumenides - Aeschylus
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The Eumenides, by Aeschylus, takes up the story of Orestes where it ended in The Libation Bearers. Opening in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, this play invites its audience to consider the plight of this young man who killed his mother, and to listen to the arguments of the Furies who pursue him.
The Pythia, priestess of Apollo, describes what she sees: “a man—an abomination to god— / he holds the seat where suppliants sit for purging //…But there in a ring around the man, an amazing company— / women, sleeping, nestling against the benches… // Gorgons I’d call them… // so repulsive… / their eyes ooze a discharge, sickening” (42-57). The man, appealing to Apollo for help, is Orestes, who killed Clytaemnestra in vengeance for the death of his father. He is surrounded by the Furies who seek to avenge the death of Orestes’s mother. The god Apollo reassures his suppliant: “I will never fail you, through to the end / your guardian standing by your side” (66-67). He expresses disgust for the Furies: “These grey, ancient children …// Born for destruction only… / they range the bowels of Earth, the world of death, / loathed by men and the gods” (72-76)
This opposition between Apollo and the Furies, and their differing opinions about what should happen to Orestes, frames one of the central questions of this play: what is justice?
Orestes appeals to Apollo for protection, saying, “Lord Apollo, you know the rules of justice, / know them well. Now learn compassion, too.” While Orestes invokes the protection of this god, however, the Ghost of Clytaemnestra also invokes divine help (from the Furies); “I go stripped of honour… / I wander in disgrace” she reminds the sleeping goddesses from the underworld, “I was slaughtered by his matricidal hand” (99-103).
As the Furies awake, they call Apollo a “common thief,” accusing him of disrespecting their domain: “Young god, you have ridden down the powers / proud with age” (150-152). They claim that since Orestes killed his mother, it is not just for him to go free. Apollo scorns the dark goddesses, commanding them to leave his temple and to return to “where heads are severed, eyes gouged out, / where Justice and bloody slaughter are the same…” (184-185). A seemingly impossible disagreement ensues; the Furies contend Orestes shed his mother’s blood and therefore must be avenged; but when Apollo reminds them that the mother had killed Orestes’s father, the Furies respond that a wife killing her husband is not a murder that destroys one’s own flesh and blood. Apollo maintains that “Marriage of man and wife is Fate itself. / stronger than oaths, and Justice guards its life” (215-216).
So both sides claim “Justice” is on their side. The situation seems impossible.
The action moves to the Acropolis in Athens, where Orestes supplicates the goddess Athena. The Furies demand “blood for blood,” revealing the trespasses that draws their punitive actions: “Out of your living marrow I will drain / my red libation…// drag you down and there you pay, agony / for mother-killing agony! —And there you will see them all. / Every mortal who outraged god or guest or loving parent: / each receeives the pain his pains exact” (262-269). An important order among humans is preserved by the enforcement of the Furies; those who break the laws of piety, hospitality, or familial reverence have a painful visit from these frightening goddesses to look forward to.
Athena enters, greeting Orestes and the Furies with courtesy and hospitality. Both the Furies and Orestes ask respectfully for the goddess to intercede. After listening to both sides, she acknowledges what a serious case is before her: “Too large a matter, / some may think, for mortal men to judge. / But by all rights not even I should decide / a case of murder” (483-486). To settle the matter, Athena decides to appoint judges, and founds a tribunal “for all time to come” (499). When, after witnesses and arguments are heard, the ten citizens chosen to be judges are divided; Athena throws the deciding vote, and Orestes goes free.
The Furies are irate, repeating their lament of the disrespect shown them by the “younger gods.” Athena patiently persists in her persuasive, respectful speeches to them: “By all my rights I promise you your seat in the depths of earth, yours by all rights — / stationed at hearths equipped with glistening thrones, / covered with praise” (816-818). The Furies are gradually softened by Athena’s promises, and they become the kindly ones, guardians of marriage and the family; instead of the singing of sorrow heard through the previous two plays of this cycle, The Eumenides ends with joy: “Cry, cry in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on!”
Athena says at Line 495, “A crisis either way.” What is the crisis?
Orestes claims, “I have suffered into truth” (274). What does this mean, and is it true?
Download the March 23, 2021 seminar:
The Oresteia - Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus; Poetics by Aristotle