Study Guide

The Eumenides Quotes

  • Justice and Judgment

    (Apollo): "Do not weary […] by brooding on this ordeal, but go to Pallas' city and seat yourself there, clasping her ancient statue; and there we shall have judges for this matter, and words to win them over, and find means to release you once and for all from these miseries." (78-83)

    Isn't the whole point of trial by jury supposed to be that it's impartial? Doesn't an impartial judgment usually mean that you don't know in advance what the judgment is going to be (because the judge and jury have to listen to each case patiently)? If so, then what do we make of the fact that Apollo is convinced that he will find "words" to "win […] over" the judges to Orestes's side and "find means to release [him] once and for all from these miseries"? Is Apollo just trying to cheer Orestes up, or is he really so cynical about the whole judicial process?

    (Clytemnestra's Ghost): "Hey! Stay asleep, then, do! And what's the use of your sleeping? Here am I dishonoured like this among the other dead because of you, and with the slain ceaselessly reproaching me for those I killed; and I wander in shame. I tell you solemnly that they accuse me very much; and that although I have suffered so terribly from my closest kin, not one divine power is angry on my account, although I was slaughtered by the hands of a matricide." (94-102)

    By bringing the Ghost of Clytemnestra onstage, Aeschylus shows us that Orestes's actions in killing his mother were not merely abstract—there was a real victim involved, who gets to express her feelings in these lines. This reminds us that there is right on both sides of an argument.

    (Chorus of Furies):

    "Such things as these are done by younger gods

    with power wholly beyond justice

    at the throne dripping with murder

    all round its foot, all round its head.

    I can see before me

    the earth's navel, which has taken

    bloodshed on itself, a ghastly defilement to have." (162-168)

    These lines remind us that the Furies in the play always portray themselves as speaking in the name of justice. Of course, if you actually look at what they mean by justice, it's pretty terrifying. Like, we don't know exactly what "justice / at the throne dripping with murder / all round its foot, all round its head" means, but it sounds pretty freaky. The problem for Apollo, Athena, and the other characters in the play will be convincing the Furies that their interpretation of justice isn't the only one.

    (Apollo): "It is quite improper that you approach this temple—go rather where justice is decapitation and gouged-out eyes, and slaughtered throats; where boys' downy virility is foully destroyed by castration; where extremities are amputated and stonings done; and where men impaled up into their spine moan long and piteously. Do you hear? This is the kind of festivity for which your fondness makes you abominable to the gods." (185-191)

    Here, once again, we see the conflict between different ideas of justice. By listing all these horrible tortures and punishments, Apollo implies that the Furies' idea of justice isn't justice at all.

    (Apollo): "A man and wife's marriage-bed once under destiny is greater than any oath, with justice as its guardian. If therefore you are lax in exacting payment from them when they kill each other, and in watching over them with your rancor, I say you are driving Orestes into exile unjustly. I know that you lay the one thing very much to heart, but evidently you pursue the other more gently. Pallas however will watch over the pleas in this case."

    (Chorus of Furies): "I will never leave this man alone!" (217-225)

    So what's Apollo saying here? Basically, it looks like he's accusing the Furies of being inconsistent. How can they be chasing down Orestes, planning to kill him, when they didn't do anything to punish Clytemnestra for killing her husband Agamemnon? That looks pretty unfair, doesn't it? And what's unfair can't be just, can it? The Furies' lame comeback ("I will never leave this man alone!") certainly looks like they're just trying to avoid getting beaten in the argument.

    (Chorus of Furies):

    "And when I have withered you I will lead you off below, alive,

    to pay the penalty for the matricide and its horror.

    You shall see too every other mortal man who has sinned

    in not reverencing a god or a stranger

    or his own parents,

    each one with his just deserts.

    Hades is mortal men's great auditor

    beneath the earth;  

    with the written tablets of his mind he watches over everything." (267-275)

    Here, the Furies express a belief in divine justice. The god of death (Hades) presides over a kingdom of dead souls who have all gotten their own "just desserts." This still places the Furies in opposition to the view of justice put forward at the end of the play, however, which is (partly) in human hands.

    (Chorus of Furies): "We think we are straight in our justice:

    no anger from us comes against those

    who hold out pure hands,

    and each walks through his life without harm;

    but to any who sins like this man here

    and conceals bloody hands,

    we appear as true witnesses in support of the dead,

    exacting payment for bloodshed from authority." (312-320)

    Once again, the Furies claim to be just because they are equal in how they dispense justice. In this case, their claim boils down to the famous boast of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that "we always get our man." But doesn't this just open them up to the same complaint that Apollo made: that the Furies are actually inconsistent because they didn't hunt down and punish Clytemnestra for killing Agamemnon?

    (Athena): "Whoever are you? I speak to all in common, both this stranger seated at my statue [a line missing], and you who are like no kind of begotten things, neither belonging to goddesses seen by gods nor yet resembling human forms. But to speak ill of people at hand who give no cause for blame, is to assume a right far distinct from justice." (408-414)

    Here, Athena basically says that she isn't going to judge anybody before she knows all the facts. How does this contrast with Apollo's words to Orestes earlier in the play?

    (Chorus of Furies): "Catastrophe now is coming

    from new ordinances, if a justice

    which is harm to justice shall prevail

    for this man here, the matricide.

    This day's work will at once accustom

    all men to licence;

    and much veritable suffering, which their own children

    will inflict, lies waiting for parents

    in time hereafter." (490-498)

    These are the Furies' words right before the trial gets started. As you can see, this isn't just an ordinary question of guilt or innocence, but actually pits two very different conceptions of justice against one another—that of the Furies and that of Apollo, Orestes and Athena. Is there any advantage to the view of justice that the Furies represent, or are we kind of forced to sympathize with the other side?

    (Apollo) (to the jurors): "I shall say to you, who are here by Athena's great ordinance, that [the blood of Clytemnestra] was shed justly; and as prophet I shall not lie. I never yet said at my prophetic throne, not about man, not about woman, not about city, except what Zeus the Olympian Father might command. I tell you plainly: understand how strong this just plea is, and heed the Father's will; an oath is in no way stronger than Zeus." (614-621)

    Here Apollo makes a different type of argument for the justice of Orestes than the ones we have seen so far. Here, he says what Orestes did was just (a) because Apollo told him to do it, (b) because Apollo never lies, but only say what Zeus "might command," and (c) because whatever Zeus "might command" would be just. (The last point, (c), is just implied by Apollo's words; he doesn't come out and say it directly.)

    Now, this last, implied point, actually begs a question. Is what Zeus commands just because Zeus would never command anything other than what is just already… or is what he commands just because he commands it? This brain-teasing question has been part of the history of Western thought for a long time. If reading Aeschylus's play makes you interested in it, you should read Plato's dialogue called the Euthyphro, which treats the problem in some detail. But don't be surprised if even Plato doesn't offer a final answer to this problem…

  • Revenge

    (Prophetess): "In front of this man an amazing band is asleep, of women, sitting on the chairs—no, I do not mean women, but Gorgons; but on the other hand I can't compare them to Gorgon-figures. I did see those in a painting once before, carrying off Phineus' banquet; these however have no wings to be seen; and they are black, utterly revolting in their manner, snoring out a breath which is unapproachable, while their eyes run with a loathsome fluid. Clothing of this form is not right to be brought near gods' images or into men's houses. I have not seen the race this company is from, nor the land which can boast of nurturing this progeny without harm or sorrow afterwards for its labour." (46-59)

    Aeschylus makes the Priestess describe the Furies as some pretty nasty ladies. Could this be his way of commenting on the nastiness of revenge as a social practice?

    (Apollo): "And now you see these rabid creatures overtaken (gesturing towards the closed door): they have fallen into sleep, abominations that they are, maidens in old age, ancient children, whom no god mixes with, nor man, nor beast, ever. It was for evil's sake that they even came into being, since their sphere is the evil dark of Tartarus under the earth; and they are objects of hate to men and the Olympian gods—but make your escape from them nevertheless, and do not soften! For they will drive you throughout all the long mainland as your steps take you constantly wandering the earth beyond the ocean and the cities round which it flows." (67-77)

    Here, we see Apollo continuing the theme from the previous quotation: you don't want to get mixed up with the Furies. Now we learn that even the gods won't have anything to do with them. Could this be Aeschylus's way of signaling that he is disgusted by the social practice of revenge killing?

    (Clytemnestra): "Hey! Stay asleep, then, do! And what's the use of your sleeping? Here am I dishonoured like this among the other dead because of you, and with the slain ceaselessly reproaching me for those I killed; and I wander in shame. I tell you solemnly that they accuse me very much; and that although I have suffered so terribly from my closest kin, not one divine power is angry on my account, although I was slaughtered by the hands of a matricide. See these blows, see them with your heart!—the mind asleep is given clear light by the eyes. You licked up many enough things from me, libations without wine, plain offerings of appeasement. Meals, too, solemnized by night in burning altar-hearths, were my sacrifices, at an hour shared by no god; and yet I see all these heeled and trodden down, while the man has made his escape and is gone like a young deer, and lightly at that: he bounded from your nets' midst, with a great mocking leer at you. Hear me! I have been talking about my existence; give it thought, you goddesses under the earth! I am Clytemnestra, and I call on you, in your dream!" (94-116)

    These lines are interesting because they reveal a special relationship between Clytemnestra and the Furies. The question that is left open is when Clytemnestra made these "offerings." Did she make them after she killed Agamemnon, in an attempt to buy off the Furies and prevent them siding with her son, Orestes? Or did she make them before she killed Agamemnon, in an effort to bring the spirits of vengeance on to her side.

    Back-story: Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon in part because he killed their daughter Iphigenia. Remember, too, that the Furies don't buy into Apollo's wacky theory that husbands and wives are related by blood to each other (217-224) but mothers aren't related to their children (657-667). Also, the Furies are mainly in charge of punishing murders committed against members of one's own family: from their point of view, what Clytemnestra did to Agamemnon was justified.

    The CHORUS OF FURIES moan from within.
    (Clytemnestra): "Moan, then, do!—while the man is already far away in his escape! Suppliants are no friends of mine!"

    The FURIES moan again.

    (Clytemnestra): "You are too sleepy, you have no pity for my suffering! This is the mother Orestes murdered, and now he is gone!"

    The FURIES groan.

    (Clytemnestra): "You groan, you are sleepy—be quick and get up! What work is set for you except to wreak evil?"

    The FURIES groan again.

    (Clytemnestra): "Those conspirators with authority, Sleep and Weariness, have enfeebled the dreadful serpent's energy!" (117-128)

    The Furies are tired out after having to follow Orestes on his winding course all the way from Delphi to Athens. Could this be a way of saying that, as time goes on, the urge to get revenge diminishes? And what about the fact that Clytemnestra urges them on to continue their revenge: could this be Aeschylus's way of saying that, from the victim's perspective, nothing short of revenge is good enough?

    (Chorus of Furies): "Look, here he is himself, with no defence,

    clasping the statue of the immortal goddess:

    he wants to undergo trial for his accountability!

    That is not possible; a mother's blood on the ground

    is not to be recovered—horror, no!

    What soaks into the earth when shed, is gone!

    (to ORESTES) You must repay us with a gruel of red

    to slurp from your limbs while you live;

    I shall want my food from you by drinking this grim draught […]." (257-266)

    The Furies think that revenge is the only way to go. Even a trial is unacceptable to them. Orestes had simply better pay up, and fast, in their (not so) humble opinion.

    (Chorus of Furies): "We drive murderers from their homes."

    (Athena): "And where has the killer an end to his flight?"

    (Chorus of Furies): "Where happiness has no currency at all." (421-423)

    Trial? Fat chance. The Furies know in advance what they want: Orestes's death… and they don't plan on letting up until they've made it happen.

    (Chorus of Furies): "You younger gods! The ancient laws—
    you have ridden them down! You have taken them out of my hands for yourselves!

    I am dishonoured, wretch that I am; my heavy rancour releases on this land—woe to it!—

    a poison, a poison from my heart to requite my grief,

    dripping from below the earth, intolerable. From this

    a canker destroying leaves, destroying offspring—O Justice [Justice]!—

    will sweep over and strike the land

    with a blight killing men." (779-787)

    Here we see, once again, the incompatibility of the Furies' idea of justice and that of the characters who side with Orestes. The Furies are simply 100% convinced that they're right. When the trial ends with Orestes being acquitted, the Furies don't say, "Oh, well, justice was done, he gets to be let off." No. They say that justice itself will bring utter destruction on the land of Athens. Now, is this really justice? Or are they just calling their anger, frustration, and desire for revenge against the city that offended them "justice" because it sounds nicer that way?

    (Chorus of Furies): "What then do you bid me invoke for this land?" (Athena): "Such things as attend victory not badly won, and for these to come from the earth, and from the waters of the sea, and from the heaven; for the winds to come to the land blowing their breath amid happy sunshine; for an abundant, thriving yield for citizens from soil and beasts not to fail with time; and for safety for its human seed. May you bring more to birth who are reverent—because like a man husbanding his crops I cherish this nation of righteous men in freedom from sorrow. Such things lie with yourselves; and in war's glorious conflicts I shall myself not tolerate a lack of honour among men for this city and its people's victories." (902-915)

    What Athena asks the Furies to do now is the opposite of what they did before: giving good things to good people instead of just giving bad things to bad people. What does this say about revenge? Is revenge bad simply because it just increases the amount of human misery? Or is it bad for other reasons?

    (Chorus of Furies): "I pray too that faction, insatiable for harm,

    never clamours for this city,

    nor the dust drinks its people's black blood

    from counter-killings in rage,

    in retribution,

    the city's ruin its eager pursuit;

    may they reciprocate joys,

    resolved on sharing friendship,

    and show hate with a single mind:

    for this remedies much among men." (976-987)

    Here we see that the Furies have completely changed their tune. Now that they are involved in the goings-on of the city, they want to make sure everything runs smoothly. The Furies make a prayer to ward off "counter-killings in rage, / in retribution" (279-280). Basically, they're saying that civic peace can't really exist if revenge is tolerated.

    (Athena) (to the FURIES): "Come! Hasten below the earth while these solemn sacrifices are made!

    Keep ruin in check and away,

    but send what gives the city advantage, for victory! (1007-1009)

    This continues the theme of the complete turnaround of the Furies at the end of the play. What do you think of the fact that the Furies are supposed to live underground, though? Is that a kind of punishment for being so revenge-happy?

  • Religion

    (Prophetess): "With first place among the gods in this prayer I give special honour to Earth, the first prophet; and after her, to Themis, for she was the second to sit at her mother's oracle here, as one story has it. The third to have this office assigned—it was at Themis' wish and with no violence to anyone—was another of Earth's daughters by Titan, Phoebe. She it was who gave the office as a birthday gift to Phoebus, who has his name from hers. He left Delos with its lake and spine of rock; he beached on Pallas' shore where the ships put in and came to this land and his seat at Parnassus. The sons of Hephaestus escorted him here with great reverence and made a road for him, taming an untamed land. After his arrival the people magnify him in honour, as does Delphos, this land's lord and helmsman. Zeus inspired his mind with skill, setting him as the fourth prophet on the throne here; so Loxias is his father Zeus' spokesman." (1-19)

    These are the opening words of The Eumenides. The Prophetess of Apollo gives a detailed account of how the oracle at Delphi passed through the hands of various gods until it finally fell to Apollo. ("Loxias" is another name for Apollo.) Why do you think Aeschylus would have chosen this as an opening? What is significant about emphasizing Apollo's role as an oracle, and why would the Prophetess want to emphasize the close connection between Apollo and Zeus?

    (Prophetess): "These gods are the prelude to my prayers, and I give special honour in my words to Pallas Before the Temple; and I do reverence to the nymphs of Corycus' rocky cave, welcoming to the birds, the haunt of gods. Bromios has promised this place—and I do not omit his mention—since the time he led his Bacchants in an army as their god, scheming a death for Pentheus like a hare's. Next, with invocations to Pleistus' waters, to mighty Poseidon and to Zeus most high, the fulfiller, I go to take my seat on the throne as prophetess." (20-29)

    You know the old schoolyard rhyme, "First is the worst, second is the best"? In these words of the Prophetess, we learn that the first gods to be mentioned weren't the ones she considers most effective, but rather that they served as the "prelude" before she could get to the gods who really matter: Pallas (a.k.a. Athena), the nymphs of Corycus, and Bromios (a.k.a. Dionysus), followed by Poseidon and Zeus. This mixture of gods both high and low suggests that the Prophetess doesn't just take inspiration from Apollo, but gets help from a wide range of divinities.

    (Orestes): "Lord Apollo, you know how not to do injustice; and since you have knowledge, learn also how not to be neglectful." (85-86)

    This provides an example of a theme you'll find throughout the plays of the Oresteia. What we see here is the basically "contractual" nature of Ancient Greek (and Roman) religion—where "contractual" is just a fancy name for "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." When Orestes tells Apollo "not to be neglectful," he is basically saying, "Hey. I offered you lots of sacrifices and stuff, but I'm not seeing anything in return. What gives?"

    (Ghost of Clytemnestra): "You licked up many enough things from me, libations without wine, plain offerings of appeasement. Meals too, solemnized by night in burning altar-hearths, were my sacrifices, at an hour shared by no god; and yet I see all these heeled and trodden down, while the man has made his escape and is gone like a young deer, and lightly at that: he bounded from your nets' midst, with a great mocking leer at you. Hear me! I have been talking about my existence; give it thought, you goddesses under the earth! I am Clytemnestra, and I call on you, in your dream!" (106-116)

    What do you think: in this play are the gods obligated to serve mortals that ply them with tasty sacrifices?

    (Chorus of Furies): "Don't you try to curtail my prerogatives by what you say!"

    (Apollo): "I wouldn't even consent to have your prerogatives."

    (Chorus of Furies): "No, because you're accounted great in any case, with a place by Zeus' throne. I will pursue this man for justice, however, because a mother's blood is drawing me on, and I will hunt him down." (227-231)

    Here we see an interesting dynamic, which comes from the Greeks' polytheism ("polytheism" is the practice of believing in multiple gods). That's because the different gods of the Greeks had different jobs, different histories, and could command differing levels of respect. Here, the Furies reveal that they don't want to budge an inch in their pursuit of Orestes, because that's their job and they can only get respect for doing their job. They say that Apollo can't see things from their perspective, because he already has enough respect that the outcome of one little problem with Orestes doesn't matter so much.

    Basically, it looks like things boil down to the Furies' being insecure. Now, insecurity is a pretty human problem, and not one we typically associate with gods. What does it say about the Greeks' view of the gods that they had these human foibles? If the gods have such foibles, what does that say about their ability to deal out justice effectively?

    (Orestes): "Now my lips are pure as I call reverently upon Athena, this land's queen, to come to me with her help; and without warfare she will gain myself, and my land, and the Argive people as her true and ever-faithful allies. So, whether she is marching straight forward or standing defensively to aid her friends in Libyan places along Triton's flow, her natal stream, or surveying the plain of Phlegra like a manly captain bold in command, I wish she may come—a god can hear even when far away—to set me free from what I have here." (287-298)

    Here we see that "you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back" idea once again. Orestes is promising Athens and Athena lots of cool stuff if Athena will help him out in his current troubles. Now, think about what would happen nowadays if a criminal defendant promised a judge a lot of cool stuff in return for letting him or her off the hook. That wouldn't be considered okay, would it? Does this suggest that there are problems associated with having a goddess as a judge in your law-court? Would things be any better without her?

    (Chorus of Furies): "O mother who bore me—O Night

    my mother—as retribution for the blind and the seeing,

    listen! Leto's child does dishonour to my rights,

    taking from me this cowering wretch, a victim sanctified by right

    to expiate his own mother's blood." (321-327)

    Here we see the Furies being insecure because a new god is muscling in on their rights. The problem for poor Orestes is that he is caught in the middle; in order for the Furies not to lose their position in the hierarchy of gods, they have to be permitted to inflict horrible punishments on Orestes. That doesn't sound very fair, does it? If not, could this be Aeschylus's way of signaling that the change in the hierarchy of the gods at the end of the play (when the Furies become the "Kindly Ones" or "Eumenides") is justified?

    (Athena): "From far away I heard a cry summoning me from Scamander, where I was taking first possession of a land which the Achaean leaders and chieftains had assigned to me for ever […]." (397-401)

    In these lines, the goddess Athena reveals some of her special goddess superpowers: no matter how far away she is, she can hear Orestes praying to her for help. What does the fact that Athena leaves in the middle of being honored by the "Achaean leaders and chieftains" say about her relationship to Orestes, the city of Athens, and the principle of justice?

    (Athena): "To judge this matter is greater than any mortal thinks—and I certainly have no right to decide between pleas about shed blood where angers are sharp, especially since you, Orestes, have been submissive to custom and come in supplication to my temple purified and harmless; and I respect you as giving the city likewise no cause for blame—but these persons have an allotted role not easy to dismiss, and if they do not get an outcome which brings them victory, poison from their proud spirit will later fall to the ground and be the land's intolerable, everlasting sickness. This is how the matter stands: both courses, for you to stay, Orestes, and for me to send you away, bring harsh pain if there is to be no wrath against me. But since this matter has descended suddenly upon us here, [I shall appoint] judges for murder-cases, with respect for oaths under an ordinance which I shall lay down for all time, [a line missing] with no transgression of their oath through unjust minds." (470-484, 489)

    At first glance, Athena's lines here seem weird. Even if it really is harder to pass judgment upon Orestes "than any mortal thinks," it is hard to see how she makes the jump from that idea to saying "I certainly have no right to decide between pleas about shed blood where angers are sharp." Why the heck not?

    One possibility has to do with the specific context of these lines, with gods ranged on both sides of the issue. If Athena decides in favor of Orestes, she will anger the Furies; if she decides against him, she will anger Apollo. Could setting up the jury of the Athenians be a way of passing the buck, so that they will share the blame for any decision she does make?

    On another note, it is interesting that Athena is especially pleased that Orestes has not defiled the temple, and thus has brought no pollution on the city. This doesn't really have anything to do with whether Orestes was right to kill his mother or not—it just gets him in Athena's good books from the start. This brings us back to the "you scratch my back, I scratch yours" idea of Greek religion. Does it raise any questions about the fairness of Orestes's trial?

    (Orestes): "O Pallas! O saviour of my house! You have restored me to my home when I was deprived of my father's land. Among the Greeks they will be saying, "The man is again an Argive, and living on his father's property"—thanks to Pallas, and to Loxias, and to him the third, the Saviour, who accomplishes everything, who from proper regard for my father's death has brought me safety, on seeing these advocates for my mother." (754-761)

    Here is yet another example of the Greeks' "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" approach to religion. Orestes has just gotten off the hook, and now promises to give the gods extra tasty sacrifice treats.

  • Guilt and Blame

    (Apollo): "And now you see these rabid creatures overtaken (gesturing towards the closed door): they have fallen into sleep, abominations that they are, maidens in old age, ancient children, whom no god mixes with, nor man, nor beast, ever. It was for evil's sake that they even came into being, since their sphere is the evil dark of Tartarus under the earth; and they are objects of hate to men and the Olympian gods—but make your escape from them nevertheless, and do not soften! For they will drive you throughout all the long mainland as your steps take you constantly wandering the earth beyond the ocean and the cities round which it flows." (67-77)

    In Libation Bearers (the prequel to The Eumenides) some people think that the Furies should just be interpreted as figments of Orestes's troubled imagination, not as actually existing deities. Do you think the same interpretation is possible in The Eumenides? If so, how would these words from Apollo factor into your interpretation?

    (Apollo): "The fact is, I did persuade you to kill your own mother! Remember that; do not let fear overcome your mind." (84, 88; in some editions and translations of the play, these two lines are separated by Orestes's words at 85-87; in the Collard translation we use, however, they're brought together.)

    Why do you think Apollo gives Orestes this warning at this point? Doesn't it seem as if he is telling him not to let the issue of the Furies get to him too much, so that he doesn't lose his mind? If so, this would point to the difference between the theme of "Justice and Judgment" and that of "Guilt and Blame."

    Justice and Judgment has to do with whether somebody is found guilty in a court of law; but you can still feel guilty and blame yourself even if you have been acquitted in a court of law. Apollo's warning has to do with feelings of guilt and blame Orestes might harbor toward himself.

    (Chorus of Furies): "I myself get abuse, which came in dreams

    and struck like a chariot-driver

    with his goad held in the middle,

    deep to my heart, deep to my core.

    I can feel the scourging,

    brutal as a public hangman's,

    cruel, so very cruel, a frozen agony to have." (155-161)

    Irony of ironies: the Furies, the spirits who are hounding Orestes and trying to drive him mad with guilt feel guilty because they haven't succeeded in catching him. How might this insight into the Furies' emotions relate to the question of whether they really exist or not?

    (Orestes): "Queen Athena, I have come at the command of Loxias. Be kind in your reception of one accused—no polluted suppliant, nor one with hands not cleansed, but with his guilt already blunted and also worn away in other men's houses and journeying with them. Land and sea alike I have crossed in observing Loxias' oracular injunctions; now I approach your house and statue, goddess; and I shall keep watch here where I am, and await the outcome of judgment." (235-243)

    This quotation highlights the difference between "Justice and Judgment" and "Guilt and Blame." Even though Orestes has not stood trial for his crime, he still feels that his guilt has been "blunted and also worn away." By what, you ask? His answer to that question is strange: "in other men's houses and journeying with them."

    What could he mean by that, do you think? Another question: how is the way Orestes deals with his guilt the same as or different from the way someone might today? Once you've given that question some pondering, you might want to ask yourself if the way in which Orestes deals with his guilt means that he—and the ancient Greeks—think about guilt in a different way from how we do now.

    (Orestes): "The bloodshed is now drowsily asleep and wasting away from my hand, with the pollution of my mother's killing washed off; for while still fresh it was driven out at the hearth of the god Phoebus in a purification where young pigs were killed. It would be a long story for me from its beginning, all the people I approached harmlessly with my company; time cleanses everything as it ages." (280-286)

    Here Orestes continues explaining how he has been purified of his guilt. This time he goes into more detail: it happened through a ritual of "purification where young pigs were killed." That sounds pretty gross—whatever floats your boat, Orestes.

    How is the way Orestes deals with his guilt the same as (or different from) the way someone might today? What does the way in which Orestes deals with his guilt show about what he thinks guilt is? Just as a side note, we think it's really cool how Orestes is amazed at the people he has been able to approach "harmlessly," as though his guilt risked polluting anyone he came into contact with (this was a Greek cultural belief). What does Orestes's relief about this say about his character in general?

    (Orestes): "Queen Athena, first I shall remove the great anxiety in your last words. I am no suppliant for refuge, and I had no pollution on my hands when I sat by your statue; and I will tell you a great proof of this. There is a custom that a man with murder on his hands does not speak until the slaughter of a suckling beast makes him all bloody, by a man who can cleanse from bloodshed. Long ago I was given this purification at other men's houses, with beasts as well as river-water. This concern of yours is thus to be dismissed, I tell you; and you shall quickly hear the facts of my descent." (443-454)

    Orestes once again explains how he has been purified at other men's houses, and also by a special ritual involving animal slaughter. Why can't the play simply end there? Why does the play have to go on to show Orestes being tried in a legal context? In thinking about this question, you might want to ask yourself: what would be the consequences for a society if all people had to do after killing someone was go to some strangers' houses and bathe in some pig's blood?

    (Chorus of Furies): "See how you are pleading for this man's acquittal! When he has shed his mother's blood—his own kin's! —on the ground, is he then to live in his father's house in Argos? And what altars is he to use—the public ones? What brotherhood will admit him to its rituals of sprinkled water?" (652-656)

    Here we see the Furies picking up the idea of guilt-as-pollution that we saw Orestes exhibit when he bathed in pig's blood. But, if they're so wrapped up in this particular idea of guilt, why don't they accept the fact that Orestes has already been purified?

    (Athena): "You are not dishonoured—and do not from excessive anger blight the land of mortal men, goddesses that you are! I too have my trust—in Zeus; and what need I say? Besides, I alone of the gods know the keys of the house in which his lightning is sealed—but there is no need for it: be ready to let me persuade you, and do not throw out a wild tongue's threats against the land, for all things which bear crops to do badly. Lull the waves of your black anger in its bitter force to sleep, for you are to be honoured with awe, and be the sharer of my home. When you have the first-fruits of this great land for evermore, sacrifices made for children and for marriage's fulfillment, you will be grateful for my speech." (824-836)

    Here we see how the theme of Guilt and Blame can flow pretty easily into the theme of Forgiveness. So what's the connection? Well, basically, Athena has to get the Furies to forgive Orestes—and herself and Athens, for letting him go. But the problem with that is that the Furies have tied up their pursuit of Orestes very closely with their own self-respect. By letting Orestes off the hook, they risk blaming themselves for losing face, and the guilt that results from that could be disastrous. Only by treating the Furies nicely, by giving them an opportunity to save face, can Athena get them to forgive and forget, without causing Guilt and Blame for themselves, and pain for everyone else.

    (Athena): "I will not tire in telling you the good things, so you may never say you are dismissed from this land without honour or hospitality, an ancient goddess rejected by a younger one, myself, and by the mortal men who hold the city. No, if you hold Persuasion sacred in her majesty, who gives my tongue its soothing and winning way—well then, please remain; but if to remain is not your wish, you would not be right to let any wrath or rancor weigh down upon this city, or harm for her people. You may have a settled holding in this land and be rightly held in honour for ever." (881-891)

    Here Athena tries to use persuasion to bring the Furies on board to the new way of doing things. What is the importance of getting the Furies to actively agree to the new state of affairs in eliminating their feelings of guilt and blame at not having captured and punished Orestes?

    (Chorus of Furies): "Greetings, and rejoicings again—I repeat my wishes—

    all of you here in the city,

    both deities and mortals!

    While you manage Pallas' city,

    and hold in reverence

    my settling among you,

    you will have no blame for life's fortune." (1014-1020)

    This quotation is similar to the previous quotation. Here, we see that Athena's rhetoric has been successful; the Furies are totally on board in terms of helping the new city, and feel no sense of guilt or blame for what has happened. In a way, this totally makes sense—you can't have ideas of guilt without forgiveness. The Furies' turn to total forgiveness might just be the flipside of their old nature.

  • Fate and Free Will

    (Prophetess): "Next, with invocations to Pleistus' waters, to mighty Poseidon and to Zeus most high, the fulfiller, I go to take my seat on the throne as prophetess. And now I wish they may grant me better success by far than at my entrances before. If there are any here from among the Greeks, let them come as the lot assigns them, in the normal way; for I give my prophecies as the god may lead me." (27-33)

    In these words, the Prophetess reveals that her prophecies are in accordance with the will of the god. Does this mean that she gives information about what is fated? If so, do people have free will in choosing to obey, or disobey, her?

    (Apollo): "The fact is, I did persuade you to kill your own mother! Remember that; do not let fear overcome your mind." (84, 88; in some editions and translations of the play, these two lines are separated by Orestes's words at 85-87; in the Collard translation we use, however, they're brought together.)

    Here, Apollo reminds Orestes that he "persuaded" Orestes to kill his own mother. What does this statement say about Orestes's free will in the matter? How would this be different if, instead of "persuade," Apollo had used a word like "instructed" or "suggested"?

    (Chorus of Furies): "A prophet with pollution sitting at his hearth,

    he tainted its inmost place at his own urge, at his own call;

    his honour of men against the gods' law

    has also destroyed the Fates so ancient in birth." (169-172)

    Now things are getting complicated. The Chorus of Furies is talking about somebody who has "destroyed the Fates" (172). But how the heck can you do that? Well, it helps if you're a god—and it just so happens that the Furies are talking about the god Apollo, giving him a hard time because he welcomed "pollution" (i.e. Orestes) into his temple (169). If gods can act against the Fates, does that mean that ordinary mortals can too?

    (Chorus of Furies): "Lord Apollo, hear me in my turn. You are yourself no mere accomplice in these things, but you have been the single agent completely, as taking the whole responsibility."

    (Apollo): "How so then? Extend your speech that far in length."

    (Chorus of Furies): "Was it your oracle's injunction for the stranger to kill his mother?"

    (Apollo): "It was my oracle's injunction to bring vengeance for his father. Of course!"

    (Chorus of Furies): "And then did you promise to give refuge to the murderer with the blood still fresh on him?"

    (Apollo): "It was also my order to turn to this temple in supplication." (198-205)

    Here, the Furies take Apollo to task for helping Orestes in his revenge plot. Or, rather, instead of helping him, they think he has "been the single agent completely, as taking the whole responsibility" (199). If that's so, then it sounds like Orestes didn't have any free will when he killed his mother. But then why are the Furies hounding him so much? Is it just because Apollo is too strong, and they want to pick on somebody smaller than their own size? (This sounds convincing to us.) Or do the Furies simply not care whether Orestes acted freely or not? Is their attitude simply "You did the crime, you do the time"?

    (Chorus of Furies): "This role was allotted, spun off

    by Fate in a piercing blow, for us to possess securely:

    mortal men whose own wanton acts cleave fast to them,

    these are ours to accompany until each comes down below the earth;

    and after death he is not too free." (334-340)

    Here the Furies offer an interesting new perspective on the idea of free will. They show how the free will of people later in life becomes limited by the actions they committed earlier in life, which then "cleave fast to them." Now, if anyone warns you against "closing doors on yourself," you can tell them that they are hounding you like the Furies. Still, just because they're the Furies doesn't mean they don't have a point, right?

    (Athena): "Is it flight like that with which you howl and harry this man?"

    (Chorus of Furies): "Yes; he saw fit to shed his mother's blood."

    (Athena): "When no necessity overcame him, or did he fear someone's rancor?"

    (Chorus of Furies): "What can be great enough to goad a man into killing his mother?" (424-427)

    Even in modern courts of law, "necessity" is a standard criminal defense (426). For example, if you were charged with burglary because you had to break into a pharmacy after hours to get medication to save someone's life, you could claim that you were acting out of necessity, instead of free will. Compare Athena's views here with those of the Furies from the previous section. Is it just a coincidence that Athena's matches up more closely with modern notions of responsibility?

    (Orestes): "And when I came back home myself, an exile for the time before, I killed the mother who bore me. I shall not deny it, in retribution for the killing of my dearest father. For this, Loxias shares a common responsibility, for he warned me of pains to pierce my heart like goads if I should take none of this action against the guilty ones. But whether I acted justly or not, it is you who must decide the case; for however I come out of it, I shall accept your decision." (462-469)

    Here, Orestes says that he isn't responsible for killing his mother because Apollo threatened him with a ton of bad things if he didn't do it. Is this the same as saying that Orestes acted without free will? In any case, does the question of free will versus fate have anything to do with whether an action is just or not?

    (Apollo): "I have come both to give evidence—for this man is legally a suppliant and refugee at my hearth, and I am his purifier from bloodshed—and to support his case myself. I am responsible for the killing of his mother." (576-580)

    Now, typically, Apollo, if you take responsibility for somebody killing somebody else, that means that you have to suffer some punishment as a result. But that doesn't seem to be happening in this case. In the next quotation, Apollo says that he only prophesies what Zeus tells him to. Does that mean that Apollo thinks that neither he nor Orestes was acting with free will, and that they're both off the hook?

    (Apollo) (to the jurors): "I shall say to you, who are here by Athena's great ordinance, that [the blood of Clytemnestra] was shed justly; and as prophet I shall not lie. I never yet said at my prophetic throne, not about man, not about woman, not about city, except what Zeus the Olympian Father might command. I tell you plainly: understand how strong this just plea is, and heed the Father's will; an oath is in no way stronger than Zeus." (614-621)

    Here we see how adept Apollo is at passing the buck. It looks like he's saying that he can't be blamed because he just carries out Zeus's will, and since Zeus is the king of the gods, that's pretty much like saying he doesn't have any free will, right?

    Well, not exactly: notice that Apollo says that he prophesies the sorts of things that Zeus "might" command. So… is Apollo really just sitting around scratching his head, trying to figure out what Zeus might say?

    (Chorus of Furies) (to the jurors): "Our company here is very heavy for the land! I advise that you do it no dishonour in any way."

    (Apollo) (also to the jurors): "I too command you, to go in dread of my own and Zeus' oracles, and not to render them fruitless." (711-714)

    Aha! Just when you thought you had this fate and free will business all figured out and were ready to go have some dinner… Aeschylus sends some trouble your way. Look at what Apollo says at the very end of this quotation here: respect my oracles and the oracles of Zeus, and don't "render them fruitless" (714).

    But wait a second: if oracles are predictions about the future, and hence of what is fated, how would it even be possible for somebody to invalidate them by acting against them? Notice that Apollo isn't even talking to gods here: he's talking to the mortal jurors. Does this mean that the free will of mortals can overcome Fate? Yikes.

  • Memory and The Past

    (Chorus of Furies): "And do you then abuse us for escorting him on his mission here?"

    (Apollo): "Yes, for you are not fit to come to this temple."

    (Chorus): "But this is our prescribed duty!"

    (Apollo): "What prerogative is this? Make a boast of your fine privilege!"

    (Chorus): "We drive matricides from their houses." (206-210)

    One of the major conflicts in The Eumenides is between the past and the future, between the old way of doing things and the new. The Furies represent the old way of doing things, where you hunt down any evildoers and punish them severely: no Ifs, Ands, or Buts. Apollo and Athena and the jurymen of Athens represent the new one, where trials allow for a more nuanced understanding of how crimes came to be committed.

    People are always afraid of what's new. Just look at the Furies: they don't have any better reason for hunting down Orestes other than that it's their "prescribed duty" (208). Those Furies are living in the past, man.

    (Orestes): "Now my lips are pure I call reverently upon Athena, this land's queen, to come to me with her help; and without warfare she will gain myself, and my land, and the Argive people as her true and ever-faithful allies." (287-291)

    Okay, now things are going to get a little complicated. That's because there are two levels of "Memory and The Past" involved in this play, depending on whose perspective you look at. On the one hand, there is what is in the past from the perspective of the characters in the play.

    For an example of this, look at the quotation above: from the perspective of the Furies, their special duties were given to them in the past. But there are also references in the play to events that were in the past from the perspective of Aeschylus and his audience, but were actually in the future from the perspective of the characters in the play.

    This quotation from Orestes falls into the second category. That's because, around the time that Aeschylus wrote this play, Athens had become allies with Argos. So, when Orestes promises to make the Argives (the people of Argos) allies with Athens, that's kind of Aeschylus's way of showing how events from recent memory had their origins back in the mists of time—in the mythical, heroic world depicted in his Oresteia trilogy.

    (Orestes): "I am an Argive, and you do me well to enquire about my father—Agamemnon, the men's commander in their fleet, with whom you yourself made Troy's city of Ilion a city no more. He did not die well, when he came home, but my black-hearted mother killed him, trapping him in embroidered stuffs to cloak his sight, which witnessed his murder in his bath. And when I came back home myself, an exile for the time before, I killed the mother who bore me, I shall not deny it, in retribution for the killing of my dearest father." (455-464)

    Here we see how Memory and the Past can continue to play an active role in the present. By presenting his version of the past Orestes is able to put a good spin on his own actions. In this way, he hopes to win the sympathy of the jury. At the same time, however, these lines give subtle clues about how hard it is to know anything for certain about the past.

    How so? Look at the way Orestes describes his mother murdering Agamemnon by "trapping him in embroidered stuffs to cloak his sight"; it is these fabrics ("stuffs" is an old word for fabric) that "witnessed his murder in his bath" and no one else. By this point in The Eumenides, Orestes seems to have made up his mind about what happened—but that still doesn't change the fact that he wasn't there when Clytemnestra did it.

    But since this matter has descended suddenly upon us here, [I shall appoint] judges for murder-cases, with respect for oaths under an ordinance which I shall lay down for all time, [a line missing] with no transgression of their oath through unjust minds." (482-484, 489)

    There are a lot of references made in The Eumenides to a specific historical event that happened not long before the play was first performed. These were the reforms of a dude named Ephialtes, a prominent politician in Athens. One of the things this Ephialtes guy did was take away most of the power of the Areopagus—a conservative council of former-politicians that controlled a lot of Athenian business. When Ephialtes took away the Areopagus's political power and made it more democratic, he still let the Areopagus keep one of their oldest responsibilities: judging murder cases, especially those involving members of the same family. See any parallels with The Eumenides here?

    (Athena): "Make your proclamation, herald, and keep the people back! And let the Etruscan trumpet which pierces [to the heaven] be filled with human breath and sound its shrill note clearly to the people! While this council is filling up, it helps for the whole city as well as these parties to be silent and to hear my ordinances for all time, so that the case may be well judged." (566-573)

    These words from Athena also fit into the Future-From-The-Perspective-Of-The-Fictional-Characters-But-Past-From-The-Perspective-Of-Aeschylus-And-His-Audience category. By having the goddess Athena proclaim that the law court will last for all time, that's kind of Aeschylus's way of saying, "Yup, the Council of the Areopagus is awesome."

    (Apollo): "Pallas, I shall make your city and your people great in other ways, as I know how, but above all I have sent Orestes here as suppliant at your temple's hearth to pledge loyalty for all time, and for you to gain him as your ally, goddess, and those after him; and in order that these things should remain to eternity, for the Athenians' later generations to honour the pledges sworn." (667-673)

    Yes, another entry in the Future-From-The-Perspective-Of-The-Fictional-Characters-But-Past-From-The-Perspective-Of-Aeschylus-And-His-Audience category, or FFTPOTFCBPFTPOAAHA for short (we won't be using that acronym very often… or ever).

    How so? This one goes back to the idea of the recent (from the perspective of Aeschylus and his audience) alliance between Athens and Argos. This was also referenced in the quotation from lines 287-291.

    (Athena): "In this place the city's reverence and the fear which is its kin will keep them from wrong-doing, by day and night alike, if the citizens themselves make no innovation in the laws through evil infusions: if you pollute a clear spring with mud you will never find a drink." (690-695)

    Now, here's an interesting idea. Athena has just made a huge change in the way business is done, by establishing a court of law to judge murder cases. But then she wants this change or "innovation" to be the last one. She instructs the citizens of the future to be absolutely devoted to what will be for them the past: the laws that she has just created. Cool, huh?

    (Chorus of Furies) (to Apollo): But you concern yourself with matters of blood when they are not your province! The prophetic shrine you occupy will no longer be pure of taint."

    (Apollo): Was father Zeus mistaken in his decision when Ixion supplicated him after the first blood-killing?

    (Chorus of Furies): "You say not; but if I do not win the case, I shall be heavy company for this land in the future."

    (Apollo): "But you are without honour among the gods both new and old; the victory will be mine.

    (Chorus of Furies): "You acted like this in Pheres' house too; you persuaded the Fates to make men immortal."

    (Apollo): "Was it not right to benefit a pious man, above all when he was actually in need?"

    (Chorus of Furies): "You destroyed the age-old dispositions! You distracted the ancient goddesses with wine!"

    The Furies' whole attitude is basically conservative: we should keep things as they are because that's how they've always been. End of story.

    (Orestes): "Now I will go to my home, after I have sworn on oath to your land and people here, for the whole greatness of future time, that no helmsman of my country will come to bring war against it, well-armed and equipped. Though we shall ourselves be in our tomb by then, we shall bar the road with impossible disasters for those who transgress my oaths sworn now; we shall bring despair and ill omens to their passage, so that they repent of their effort; but if oaths are fully kept and if they always honour this city of Pallas with their army in alliance, we are to be more kind towards them." (762-774)

    Here we see another reference to the alliance between Athens and Argos, which was in the (recent) past from the perspective of Aeschylus and his audience, but which is in the future from the perspective of the characters in The Eumenides. Orestes's words here, in which he tells the Athenians never to depart from the oaths they are about to make, basically boil down to: "I'm about to (or in the process of) making some serious changes. Once I've made them, though, you'd better not change my changes. You'd better be conservative for the rest of all time. Only I get to be the innovator." How do you like them apples?

    (Athena): "You are not dishonoured—and do not from excessive anger blight the land of mortal men, goddesses that you are! I too have my trust—in Zeus; and what need I say? Besides, I alone of the gods know the keys of the house in which his lightning is sealed—but there is no need for it: be ready to let me persuade you, and do not throw out a wild tongue's threats against the land, for all things which bear crops to do badly. Lull the waves of your black anger in its bitter force to sleep, for you are to be honoured with awe, and be the sharer of my home. When you have the first-fruits of this great land for evermore, sacrifices made for children and for marriage's fulfillment, you will be grateful for my speech." (824-836)

    Yes, another entry in the Future-From-The-Perspective-Of-The-Fictional-Characters-But-Past-From-The-Perspective-Of-Aeschylus-And-His-Audience Category. This one is about how the Furies got their new role as the "Kindly Ones" a.k.a. "Eumenides."

  • Fear

    (Prophetess): "Terrifying! Terrifying to describe, and to see with one's eyes—things to send me back out of Loxias' house, so that I have no strength and cannot stand upright. I am running on my hands, without the quickness of feet and legs. An old woman in terror is nothing—no more than a child." (34-38)

    These words from the Prophetess of Apollo show the incredible power of Fear: it can even make us act physically in ways that we never would ordinarily. This comes in the woman's description of herself as "running on [her] hands without the quickness of feet and legs." Remember that this is a play, so the actor would acting out this movement at the same time that he (all actors in ancient Greece were male) was describing it. This means that we've got a double-whammy of emphasis here just to make sure you don't miss the point. When the Prophetess is in terror, it's almost as if she loses what is human about her, and becomes almost an animal, running on all fours. Why do you think Aeschylus emphasized this gesture in this way?

    (Chorus of Furies): "A man does not know he falls, the maiming takes his wits away;
    such a darkness of pollution hovers over him.

    Rumour and much groaning speak of a murk misting over his house." (377-380)

    If you've ever seen the movie Dr. Strangelove, you'll know that "The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret." Basically, the idea is that the point of punishing people is lost if they don't know it's going to happen. On the other hand, when people do know that they are going to be punished for doing bad things, they become afraid, and this can prevent them from doing bad things. What do you think about the fact that the Furies boast about how "A man does not know he falls" when they swoop down and attack him (377). Doesn't that just show that they haven't really thought their job through?

    (Chorus of Furies): "Who can there be of mortals
    not in holy awe and fear of this,

    in hearing from me

    fate's decreed ordinance, a power bestowed

    by god to the full? An ancient privilege

    is resting with me, and I meet with no dishonour

    although I have my station

    below earth, in dark without sunlight." (389-396)

    It looks like the Furies are your typical bullies. If they can't get respect any other way, they're only too happy to make you respect them using fear.

    (Athena): "From far away I heard a cry summoning me from Scamander, where I was taking first possession of a land which the Achaean leaders and chieftains had assigned to me for ever, root and branch, a great portion from their captured spoils, a gift picked out for Theseus' sons. From there I have come in swift pursuit with unwearied feet, wingless and with the fold of my aegis flapping. (starting in surprise) I see strange company here for this land! I have no fear but the sight amazes me." (397-407)

    The Furies are some pretty scary ladies. What do you make of the fact that Athena isn't afraid of them? Could that just be Aeschylus's way of showing us how awesome she is?

    (Chorus of Furies): "There is a place where terror is good,

    and a watch on minds by fear

    seated above.

    It is well

    to learn wisdom through grief.

    Would any that nurses no terror

    in his heart's clear light—

    both men and city the same—

    revere Justice still?" (517-525)

    When the Furies say that "It is well / to learn wisdom through grief" they are picking up a theme that has recurred throughout the trilogy so far (320-321). Here, though, they closely tie this idea to fear. Once you have suffered some horrible punishment, you're not likely to do bad things again, right?

    (Athena): "In this place the city's reverence and the fear which is its kin will keep them from wrong-doing, by day and night alike […]." (690-692)

    Here we see that Athena believes that fear has its place in maintaining order in the city. Does the fact that Athena agrees with the Furies on this point suggest that Aeschylus agrees with her? What's your take on this issue?

    (Athena): "I counsel the citizens to maintain with their respect what is neither anarchic nor despotic, and not to throw all fear outside the city—for who among mortal men is righteous if he fears nothing? If you go righteously in dread of such a revered body, you may have a bulwark to keep land and city safe such as none of mankind have, either among the Scythians or in Pelops' regions. Untouched by desires for gain, revered, quick to anger, the land's wakeful guardian of those asleep, this council I now establish." (696-706)

    Here we find an even stronger statement from Athena showing that she agrees with the Furies that fear makes men righteous. Why do you think she thinks this? Does the play encourage us to accept this point of view? If so, are there limits on how much fear is a good thing, or is it no-holds-barred?

    (Chorus of Furies): "You younger gods! The ancient laws—

    you have ridden them down! You have taken them out of my hands for yourselves!

    I am dishonoured, wretch that I am; my heavy rancour releases on this land—woe to it!—

    a poison, a poison from my heart to requite my grief,

    dripping from below the earth, intolerable. From this

    a canker destroying leaves, destroying offspring—O Justice [Justice]!—

    will sweep over and strike the land
    with a blight killing men." (779-787)

    How would you characterize the emotions of the Furies in these lines? We'd say they sound pretty fearful. Do you agree? This is pretty ironic, given that spreading fear is the name of their game. When it comes down to it, though, the Furies are just plain terrified that someone might take their job away from them.

    (Athena): "You are not dishonoured—and do not from excessive anger blight the land of mortal men, goddesses that you are! I too have my trust—in Zeus; and what need I say? Besides, I alone of the gods know the keys of the house in which his lightning is sealed—but there is no need for it: be ready to let me persuade you, and do not throw out a wild tongue's threats against the land, for all things which bear crops to do badly. Lull the waves of your black anger in its bitter force to sleep, for you are to be honoured with awe, and be the sharer of my home. When you have the first-fruits of this great land for evermore, sacrifices made for children and for marriage's fulfillment, you will be grateful for my speech." (824-836)

    Here we see Athena taking a more nuanced approach to the use of Fear in getting what she wants. The Fear part is slipped in casually, when she just happens to mention that, "I alone of the gods know the keys of the house in which [Zeus's] lightning is sealed." But then she follows that up by offering the Furies a lot of sweet stuff. This combination of threats and promises is a classic example of the "carrots and sticks" approach.

    (Athena): "Are they minded to find a path for their tongues to be kind?

    From their fearsome countenance

    I see great benefit to these citizens.

    (to the jurors) If with goodwill towards goodwill you always do them great honour,

    you will be wholly pre-eminent for keeping

    both land and city on the straight way of justice. (987-995)

    Even after the Furies have taken on their new role, Athena suggests, striking fear will still be an important part of their duties.

  • Gender

    (Prophetess): "With first place among the gods in this prayer, I give special honour to Earth, the first prophet; and after her, to Themis, for she was the second to sit at her mother's oracle here, as one story has it. The third to have this office assigned—it was at Themis' wish and with no violence to anyone—was another of Earth's daughters by Titan, Phoebe. She it was who gave the office as a birthday gift to Phoebus, who has his name from hers. He left Delos with its lake and spine of rock; he beached on Pallas' shore where the ships put in and came to this land and his seat at Parnassus. The sons of Hephaestus escorted him here with great reverence and made a road for him, taming an untamed land. After his arrival the people magnify him in honour, as does Delphos, this land's lord and helmsman. Zeus inspired his mind with skill, setting him as the fourth prophet on the throne here; so Loxias is his father Zeus' spokesman." (1-19)

    These are the first words of the play. Does anything strike you as weird about them? Okay, we know that one weird thing is that Aeschylus's killer opener is just a list of the gods who were in charge of the oracle of Delphi. But how about the fact that Apollo is the first male divinity to be lord over Delphi?

    Now think about the play as a whole, in which, you know, some Furious ladies are chasing down a guy who killed his mother—only to have that guy get acquitted based on a blatantly sexist argument and the vote of a judge who explicitly sides with men in all things. The play as a whole shows a society becoming increasingly patriarchal. How does this speech relate to that?

    (Apollo): "And now you see these rabid creatures overtaken (gesturing towards the closed door): they have fallen into sleep, abominations that they are, maidens in old age, ancient children, whom no god mixes with, nor man, nor beast, ever. It was for evil's sake that they even came into being, since their sphere is the evil dark of Tartarus under the earth; and they are objects of hate to men and the Olympian gods—but make your escape from them nevertheless, and do not soften! For they will drive you throughout all the long mainland as your steps take you constantly wandering the earth beyond the ocean and the cities round which it flows." (67-77)

    Notice that, among the ways in which Apollo describes the Furies as disgusting, he places special emphasis on the fact that they have not had any children. (Don't think there isn't a double meaning in that word "mixes with.") What does this say about Apollo's views on the proper role of women in society? Do you think the play as a whole agrees with his opinion, or not? In thinking about this question, you might want to broaden your perspective to look at the earlier two plays, Agamemnon and Libation Bearers.

    (Apollo): "And you, Hermes, my own blood-brother by the father we share, keep guard over him; be quite true to your name and bring him on his way, shepherding this suppliant of mine. Zeus respects this sanctity in outcasts when they are sped among men with good fortune as escort." (89-93)

    Note that, when Apollo calls Hermes his "blood brother by the father we share," he could be using the same standard of relatedness that comes up again in his defense speech at the trial. There, he says that only fathers are related to their children by blood, because mothers are merely incubators of embryos. And Apollo and Hermes have different mothers, and so are only be related by blood through their father, Zeus. (Apollo's mother is Leto; Maia is the mother of Hermes.)

    (Chorus of Furies): "I can see before me

    the earth's navel, which has taken

    bloodshed on itself, a ghastly defilement to have." (166-167)

    The "earth's navel"? What the heck are they talking about? So glad you asked. Actually, the earth's navel—bellybutton if you prefer—was a stone placed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. This stone is commonly called in English by its Greek name, "omphalos," which is just the Greek word for bellybutton. You can see a picture of the omphalos of Delphi here.

    Why Delphi? Because the people of Delphi considered themselves the center of everything, that's why. Seriously, we're not kidding.

    So, if the omphalos of Delphi was the center of the world, what's that have to do with gender? Well, check out the first quotation from this section. There, you'll see that the Earth is imagined as a female goddess. How do these pieces fit together? Think about it, Orestes, dude who killed his mother, is lying on the omphalos or bellybutton-stone of the Earth, which reminds us of an umbilical cord, which reminds us that the Earth is the mother of us all.

    Basically, the way the Greeks thought of the gender of the Earth gives Aeschylus an opportunity to work a really cool metaphor into the Furies' song. By touching the omphalos of Delphi with the blood of his own mother, Orestes is defiling the entire earth, the entire idea of motherhood, and all of nature.

    (Apollo): "What then of a woman who does away with her husband?"

    (Chorus of Furies): "Such killing would not be murder of one's own blood."

    (Apollo): "You quite dishonour the pledges given Hera and Zeus for a marriage's fulfillment! You make them of no account! Cypris too is rejected with dishonour in your argument, Cypris the source of what is dearest to mankind. A man and wife's marriage-bed once under destiny is greater than any oath, with justice as its guardian. If therefore you are lax in exacting payment from them when they kill each other, and in watching over them with your rancour, I say you are driving Orestes into exile unjustly." (211-221)

    Notice anything weird about this speech? Maybe you won't, if you were raised in a Christian tradition, or another tradition that regards a husband and wife as becoming "one flesh" after marriage. But even if you don't think that's weird, how about the fact that what Apollo says here seems to flat out contradict what he says later in his speech to the jury, about how mothers aren't related to their children?

    When he calls sex "the source of what is dearest to mankind" (216), he doesn't mean just sex itself, but also the children that result from it. (This is the interpretation of Christopher Collard, on p. 207 of his Oxford World's Classics edition of the play.) But if marriage-vows make husbands and wives share the same blood, and that union results in children, wouldn't that mean that the children should be blood-relations to their mothers? This looks like Apollo is twisting his arguments around to suit the needs of the moment.

    (Orestes): "So, whether [Athena] is marching straight forward or standing defensively to aid her friends in Libyan places along Triton's flow, her natal stream, or surveying the plain of Phlegra like a manly captain bold in command, I wish she may come—a god can hear even when far away—to set me free from what I have here." (292-298)

    Orestes's words are striking for how they portray Athena in distinctively masculine activities. Athena's predisposition towards typically male activities will become important later on in the play, when she explicitly tells everyone that she is voting for Orestes because she is biased towards men.

    We're not asking you to explain the entire belief system and religious history of ancient Greece (even scholars haven't got all that figured out), but do you have any thoughts on why the Athenians might have been fascinated by a goddess like Athena, or why she is so relevant as a main goddess in this play? In thinking about this, you might want to consider the generally patriarchal bent of the play; given these attitudes, doesn't Athena kind of seem like the exception that proves the rule—like, sure, she's a woman, but she's a woman who, more than any other, blurs the gender lines, inhabiting more male characteristics?

    (Chorus of Furies): "Zeus, do you say, granted your telling Orestes this oracle, that in vengeance for his father's killing he was to hold his mother's prerogatives of no account?"

    (Apollo): "Yes, for it is not the same that a man of noble birth, magnified in honour by the sceptre which is Zeus' gift, should die, and that by a woman's hand, not from any furious strike of an arrow like an Amazon's, but in the way any furious strike of an arrow like an Amazon's, but in the way you are about to hear, Pallas, together with those sitting to decide by vote upon this matter. Because—when he came from the campaign, his trafficking done mostly for the better, she welcomed him with loyal [a line missing] when he was completing his bath, and at the vessel's edge she threw a cloak over him like a tent; she fettered her husband in cunning, endless robing and cut him down. This is the man' death now told to you, a man absolute in his majesty, the commander of the fleet; it is the ending of my speech, to sting to anger the people appointed to determine this case." (622-639)

    From the general gist of his speech, it almost sounds like Apollo is less angry at the fact that Agamemnon was killed than at the fact that he was killed by a woman. Do you think that Orestes has the same attitude? For most of the trilogy, we've been assuming that it was especially painful to kill Clytemnestra because she was his own mother—but is it possible Orestes could have been extra motivated to kill her out of outrage at what she had done? Just food for thought.

    (Apollo): "I have this to say as well, and you are to understand that what I shall say is right. The so-called mother is no parent of a child, but nurturer of a newly seeded embryo; the parent is the one who mounts her, while she conserves the child like a stranger for a stranger, for those fathers not thwarted by god. I will show you proof of this argument: there can be a father without a mother; a witness is close at hand, the daughter of Olympian Zeus [a line missing] nor nurtured in the darkness of a womb, but the kind of child no goddess could give birth to." (657-666)

    Well, there you have it. Only fathers are parents, not mothers. The more you know. Ugh. Idiots.

    In any case, before you get in a big huff about how sexist the ancient Greeks were, just think: if Aeschylus thought everybody in his audience already thought this, would he really have made it the climactic moment of the play—make that trilogy—for somebody to argue it? Is that what he'd really have been going for: the climax of the Oresteia comes around and everyone's like, "Yeah, yeah, we know, the mother's not a parent, whatever."

    We find that a little hard to believe—and so do some of the other characters of stage (the Furies, hint-hint). So, it seems pretty clear that even Aeschylus knows this is a wacky idea. So why does Apollo make the argument? Is he just improvising, making up something on the spot to get Orestes off the hook? Maybe. But what would the consequences be if people in Athens started widely believing in it?

    (Athena): "Now hear my ordinance, people of Athens, who are judging the pleas in the first trial for shed blood. For the future too this council of jurors shall always exist for Aegeus' people; it shall have its seat on this hill, the Amazons' position and camp when they came in an army against Theseus, and at that time fortified here a new and high-walled city over against the acropolis, and made sacrifices to Ares, from which it is named Ares' rocky hill." (681-690)

    Okay, so at first glance, this doesn't look like it's got much to do with gender. But let's take a second glance. We notice that this hill marks the point where Theseus, the first king of Athens fought a war against the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women. Wait a minute… men fighting against women… doesn't that sound a bit like a lot of other stuff in this section? We sure think it might. What does it say about the New Athenian Order established at the end of this play that its major law-court is on the site of a battle between the sexes?

    (Athena) (coming forward now the jurors have finished voting): It is my business in this case to give my judgment last; and I shall cast this vote of mine for Orestes. (She drops it into one of the urns.) I do so because there is no mother who have me birth, and I approve the masculine in everything—except for union with it—with all my heart; and I am very much my father's: so I will set a higher value on the death of a woman who killed her husband, a house's guardian." (734-740)

    There you have it, pure sexist prejudice on the part of Athena, patron goddess of Athens. Is there any other good argument for letting Orestes off the hook, aside from this sexist one? If not, why do you think Aeschylus chose to give this idea such prominence at the end of his Oresteia trilogy?

  • Family

    (Chorus of Furies): "Son of Zeus there!

    You are turning to theft!

    Young god against old, you have ridden me down;

    and the suppliant has your respect, a man godless

    and harsh to his parents;

    you stole the matricide away—you, a god!

    Which of these things will be said to be just?" (149-154)

    This isn't strictly a family-issue here, but the gods are all distantly related, so it still counts. It also touches on an issue that is common to most families: conflict between generations. At many points in the play, it seems like the Furies are less mad about the specific fact that Orestes is getting off lightly than they are about Apollo and the other younger gods (like Athena) taking away their hard-won respect.

    (Apollo): "What then of a woman who does away with her husband?"

    (Chorus of Furies): "Such killing would not be murder of one's own blood." (211-212)

    The undercurrent of these lines is that it is worse to kill somebody who is "of one's own blood" than it is to kill some random person (212). This may sound pretty obvious, but, just for argument's sake, why do you think this is so?

    (Apollo): "You quite dishonour the pledges given Hera and Zeus for a marriage's fulfilment! You make them of no account! Cypris too is rejected with dishonour in your argument, Cypris the source of what is dearest to mankind." (213-216)

    At this point in the play Apollo paints an interesting picture of family life. He suggests that it isn't just as a result of inherited blood-relations. Instead, he argues that the vows a man and woman take when they are getting married make them part of a single family. Which do you think is Apollo's true opinion: this, or the argument he makes in the court-room scene, which has the effect of cutting the ties binding women to the rest of their families?

    (Chorus of Furies): "We are Night's eternal children, and in our home beneath the earth we are called Curses."

    (Athena): "I know your descent and your names in their meaning." (416-418)

    Here, just like people tend to do in ancient Greek literature, the Furies identify themselves by their parentage. So, what's your guess: is Night a god or a goddess? If you guessed goddess, you're right: Night ("Nyx" in Greek) was thought of as a female divinity. Now, of course, if Apollo were pressing his case at this point, he might try to argue that the Furies' can't really be Night's children, because mothers aren't parents. The fact that the Furies identify themselves in terms of their family relation to their mother shows that they still stand by the more sensible view of parentage, rather than being swayed by Apollo's bogus argument.

    (Athena): "Is it flight like that with which you howl and harry this man?"

    (Chorus of Furies): "Yes; he saw fit to shed his mother's blood."

    (Athena): "When no necessity overcame him, or did he fear someone's rancor?"

    (Chorus of Furies): "What can be great enough to goad a man into killing his mother?" (424-427)

    Here, too, we see how the Furies take family relations much more seriously than Athena does. The Furies seem to be implying that there is no possible excuse that could justify killing one's own mother. Athena doesn't seem to agree. Maybe just because Athena didn't have a mother she can't understand? What do you think?

    (Chorus of Furies): "In all things I say to you:

    respect the altar

    of Justice; and do not,

    with an eye to profit, insult and kick it down

    with godless feet, for retribution results;

    an end is appointed and waits.

    Let a man therefore rightly put first in honour

    the reverence due to parents,

    and respect attentiveness

    to a house's guests which does them honour." (538-548)

    Once again, we see how the Furies are deeply concerned with family. Here, they put emphasis on the "reverence due to parents" (546) as one of the most important ways in which human beings can "respect the altar / of Justice" (539-540). When the Furies lose their case, does that mean that Aeschylus thinks people shouldn't respect their parents?

    (Orestes): "I have my trust; and my father sends me support from the grave."

    (Chorus of Furies): "Yes, put your trust in corpses now you have killed your mother!"

    (Orestes): "I did so because she incurred a double pollution."

    (Chorus of Furies): "How so? Explain this to the jurors."

    (Orestes): "In killing her husband she killed my father." (598-602)

    Okay, so we think that Orestes's argument here is kind of crazy. He seems to imply that, because a member of a family has multiple roles, if that person is killed, multiple people have a claim to avenge him or her. At the very least, Orestes's words suggest that you would incur a separate guilt-stain matching up to each one of the familial roles played by the person you killed.

    This, in itself, is a little crazy, but isn't it also self-contradictory from Orestes's own perspective? If you must honor each of the multiple roles incarnated in an individual person, then how could Orestes avoid self-contradiction, or disregarding his role as son of his mother?

    (Orestes): "But why didn't you drive her in flight while she was alive?"

    (Chorus of Furies): "She was no blood-kin of the man she killed."

    (Orestes): "And am I blood-kin of my mother?"

    (Chorus of Furies): "How else did she nurture you in her womb, you foul murderer? Do you disavow a mother's blood, your nearest and dearest?"

    (Orestes) (turning to APOLLO): "Now is the time for your evidence, Apollo, to set out on my behalf whether I killed her justly. I shall not deny I did it, as it is the fact; but you are now to give your judgment whether in your opinion this blood seems justly shed or not, so I may tell them here." (604-613)

    It also seems safe to say that Orestes is being pretty nonsensical here. Even if you disavow a relationship, that just means disavowing the social ties of the relationship, right? Just because you swear to something doesn't mean that you can take away a blood relation, can you?

    (Chorus of Furies): "See how you are pleading for this man's acquittal! When he has shed his mother's blood—his own kin's! —on the ground, is he then to live in his father's house in Argos? And what altars is he to use—the public ones? What brotherhood will admit him to its rituals of sprinkled water?" (652-656)

    Once again, the Furies put forth their theory that nothing at all can excuse shedding the blood of a family member, let alone one's mother.

    (Apollo): "I have this to say as well, and you are to understand that what I shall say is right. The so-called mother is no parent of a child, but nurturer of a newly seeded embryo; the parent is the one who mounts her, while she conserves the child like a stranger for a stranger, for those fathers not thwarted by god. I will show you proof of this argument: there can be a father without a mother; a witness is close at hand, the daughter of Olympian Zeus [a line missing] nor nurtured in the darkness of a womb, but the kind of child no goddess could give birth to." (657-666)

    If you check out our discussion of this quotation under the theme of gender, you'll see that we make some arguments that this wasn't the prevalent view in Aeschylus's day. The questions we asked there still remain, however: (1) Why does Apollo make the argument? (2) Is he just improvising, making up something on the spot to get Orestes off the hook? (3) What would the consequences be if people in Athens started widely believing in it?