Study Guide

The Eumenides Guilt and Blame

By Aeschylus

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.