Study Guide

The Eumenides Gender

By Aeschylus

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?