Study Guide

The Eumenides Religion

By Aeschylus


(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 opening words of The Eumenides. The Prophetess of Apollo gives a detailed account of how the oracle at Delphi passed through the hands of various gods until it finally fell to Apollo. ("Loxias" is another name for Apollo.) Why do you think Aeschylus would have chosen this as an opening? What is significant about emphasizing Apollo's role as an oracle, and why would the Prophetess want to emphasize the close connection between Apollo and Zeus?

(Prophetess): "These gods are the prelude to my prayers, and I give special honour in my words to Pallas Before the Temple; and I do reverence to the nymphs of Corycus' rocky cave, welcoming to the birds, the haunt of gods. Bromios has promised this place—and I do not omit his mention—since the time he led his Bacchants in an army as their god, scheming a death for Pentheus like a hare's. Next, with invocations to Pleistus' waters, to mighty Poseidon and to Zeus most high, the fulfiller, I go to take my seat on the throne as prophetess." (20-29)

You know the old schoolyard rhyme, "First is the worst, second is the best"? In these words of the Prophetess, we learn that the first gods to be mentioned weren't the ones she considers most effective, but rather that they served as the "prelude" before she could get to the gods who really matter: Pallas (a.k.a. Athena), the nymphs of Corycus, and Bromios (a.k.a. Dionysus), followed by Poseidon and Zeus. This mixture of gods both high and low suggests that the Prophetess doesn't just take inspiration from Apollo, but gets help from a wide range of divinities.

(Orestes): "Lord Apollo, you know how not to do injustice; and since you have knowledge, learn also how not to be neglectful." (85-86)

This provides an example of a theme you'll find throughout the plays of the Oresteia. What we see here is the basically "contractual" nature of Ancient Greek (and Roman) religion—where "contractual" is just a fancy name for "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." When Orestes tells Apollo "not to be neglectful," he is basically saying, "Hey. I offered you lots of sacrifices and stuff, but I'm not seeing anything in return. What gives?"

(Ghost of Clytemnestra): "You licked up many enough things from me, libations without wine, plain offerings of appeasement. Meals too, solemnized by night in burning altar-hearths, were my sacrifices, at an hour shared by no god; and yet I see all these heeled and trodden down, while the man has made his escape and is gone like a young deer, and lightly at that: he bounded from your nets' midst, with a great mocking leer at you. Hear me! I have been talking about my existence; give it thought, you goddesses under the earth! I am Clytemnestra, and I call on you, in your dream!" (106-116)

What do you think: in this play are the gods obligated to serve mortals that ply them with tasty sacrifices?

(Chorus of Furies): "Don't you try to curtail my prerogatives by what you say!"

(Apollo): "I wouldn't even consent to have your prerogatives."

(Chorus of Furies): "No, because you're accounted great in any case, with a place by Zeus' throne. I will pursue this man for justice, however, because a mother's blood is drawing me on, and I will hunt him down." (227-231)

Here we see an interesting dynamic, which comes from the Greeks' polytheism ("polytheism" is the practice of believing in multiple gods). That's because the different gods of the Greeks had different jobs, different histories, and could command differing levels of respect. Here, the Furies reveal that they don't want to budge an inch in their pursuit of Orestes, because that's their job and they can only get respect for doing their job. They say that Apollo can't see things from their perspective, because he already has enough respect that the outcome of one little problem with Orestes doesn't matter so much.

Basically, it looks like things boil down to the Furies' being insecure. Now, insecurity is a pretty human problem, and not one we typically associate with gods. What does it say about the Greeks' view of the gods that they had these human foibles? If the gods have such foibles, what does that say about their ability to deal out justice effectively?

(Orestes): "Now my lips are pure as 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. So, whether she 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." (287-298)

Here we see that "you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back" idea once again. Orestes is promising Athens and Athena lots of cool stuff if Athena will help him out in his current troubles. Now, think about what would happen nowadays if a criminal defendant promised a judge a lot of cool stuff in return for letting him or her off the hook. That wouldn't be considered okay, would it? Does this suggest that there are problems associated with having a goddess as a judge in your law-court? Would things be any better without her?

(Chorus of Furies): "O mother who bore me—O Night

my mother—as retribution for the blind and the seeing,

listen! Leto's child does dishonour to my rights,

taking from me this cowering wretch, a victim sanctified by right

to expiate his own mother's blood." (321-327)

Here we see the Furies being insecure because a new god is muscling in on their rights. The problem for poor Orestes is that he is caught in the middle; in order for the Furies not to lose their position in the hierarchy of gods, they have to be permitted to inflict horrible punishments on Orestes. That doesn't sound very fair, does it? If not, could this be Aeschylus's way of signaling that the change in the hierarchy of the gods at the end of the play (when the Furies become the "Kindly Ones" or "Eumenides") is justified?

(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 […]." (397-401)

In these lines, the goddess Athena reveals some of her special goddess superpowers: no matter how far away she is, she can hear Orestes praying to her for help. What does the fact that Athena leaves in the middle of being honored by the "Achaean leaders and chieftains" say about her relationship to Orestes, the city of Athens, and the principle of justice?

(Athena): "To judge this matter is greater than any mortal thinks—and I certainly have no right to decide between pleas about shed blood where angers are sharp, especially since you, Orestes, have been submissive to custom and come in supplication to my temple purified and harmless; and I respect you as giving the city likewise no cause for blame—but these persons have an allotted role not easy to dismiss, and if they do not get an outcome which brings them victory, poison from their proud spirit will later fall to the ground and be the land's intolerable, everlasting sickness. This is how the matter stands: both courses, for you to stay, Orestes, and for me to send you away, bring harsh pain if there is to be no wrath against me. 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." (470-484, 489)

At first glance, Athena's lines here seem weird. Even if it really is harder to pass judgment upon Orestes "than any mortal thinks," it is hard to see how she makes the jump from that idea to saying "I certainly have no right to decide between pleas about shed blood where angers are sharp." Why the heck not?

One possibility has to do with the specific context of these lines, with gods ranged on both sides of the issue. If Athena decides in favor of Orestes, she will anger the Furies; if she decides against him, she will anger Apollo. Could setting up the jury of the Athenians be a way of passing the buck, so that they will share the blame for any decision she does make?

On another note, it is interesting that Athena is especially pleased that Orestes has not defiled the temple, and thus has brought no pollution on the city. This doesn't really have anything to do with whether Orestes was right to kill his mother or not—it just gets him in Athena's good books from the start. This brings us back to the "you scratch my back, I scratch yours" idea of Greek religion. Does it raise any questions about the fairness of Orestes's trial?

(Orestes): "O Pallas! O saviour of my house! You have restored me to my home when I was deprived of my father's land. Among the Greeks they will be saying, "The man is again an Argive, and living on his father's property"—thanks to Pallas, and to Loxias, and to him the third, the Saviour, who accomplishes everything, who from proper regard for my father's death has brought me safety, on seeing these advocates for my mother." (754-761)

Here is yet another example of the Greeks' "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" approach to religion. Orestes has just gotten off the hook, and now promises to give the gods extra tasty sacrifice treats.