Study Guide

The Eumenides Memory and The Past

By Aeschylus

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."