Study Guide

The Eumenides Family

By Aeschylus


(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?