Study Guide

The Eumenides Fear

By Aeschylus


(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.