Study Guide

The Eumenides Summary

By Aeschylus

The Eumenides Summary

The play begins outside the temple of Apollo in Delphi. This temple was home of none other than the famous Oracle of Delphi, where the god was thought to dispense wisdom through the mouth of the priestess of the temple. In the opening scene of the play, this priestess is just showing up for work.

When she opens the temple doors and goes inside, however, she finds something terrifying: a man armed with a sword is sleeping inside; surrounding him, also sleeping, are the Furies, horrible goddesses of vengeance. (What the priestess doesn't know, but the audience does, is that the sleeping man is Orestes, who has come to Delphi to be purified after killing his mother, Clytemnestra, at the end of the previous play, Libation Bearers.) The priestess is terrified at what she has just seen, and runs away.

At this point, two figures emerge from the temple. One is Orestes, who has just woken up, and the other is… the god Apollo. As if this weren't proof enough that Orestes and Apollo are best buds, Apollo now tells him, "Hey, I've got your back. Go to Athens and ask the goddess Athena for help. There you will have a trial, and I will defend you. Don't worry: everything's going to be cool." That sounds good to Orestes, and he heads offstage in the direction of Athens. Apollo heads offstage shortly afterwards.

But then, just when things started to look too good to be true, who should appear but… the Ghost of Clytemnestra, Orestes's dead mother. Clytemnestra heads inside the temple of Apollo and wakes up the Furies. She whips them into a frenzy and tells them to go get Orestes. Then the Ghost of Clytemnestra leaves, but the Furies are still furious… so much so that they start dancing and singing a song about it.

At this point, Apollo reappears, now armed with a bow and arrow. He tells the Furies to scram. But the Furies aren't about to back down without a fight. They get in a big argument with Apollo, whom they accuse of being the one who got Orestes to kill his mother in the first place. Apollo admits as much, but says that what he did was justified. After some back and forth about this, the Furies finally head offstage, headed for Athens. They are determined to hunt Orestes down and bring him to justice—i.e. tear him to shreds.

After Apollo exits, the stage is briefly empty. A moment or two later, Orestes comes back onstage; his opening words—a prayer to the goddess Athena—show that, presto-chango, the scene has switched from Delphi to Athens. He doesn't have very long to catch his breath, however, before the Furies appear onstage as well. They are tired of chasing Orestes around. Orestes barely has time to make one last, desperate prayer to Athena before the Furies sing their "binding song." What's that? Just what it sounds like: a magical song that makes Orestes stuck fast, unable to move.

Things are looking bad for Orestes, but just then the goddess Athena herself shows up, in answer to his prayers. After figuring out what all the commotion is about, Athena suggests that they put the matter to a trial. The Furies and Orestes both agree. Surprisingly, Athena says that this matter is too big even for a goddess to decide: she says that she is going to gather a jury of Athenian citizens to hear the trial; she will simply sit as judge. While Athena goes off to round up the jurymen, the Furies sing a song expressing their anxiety about this whole trial business. They would much rather tear people to pieces than piece together legal arguments.

When the Furies are done singing, Athena comes back onstage, with the jurymen and a herald. Then, as if on cue (okay, so it's a play: it is on cue), Apollo shows up, and announces that he will act as Orestes's defense attorney. Then, after Athena makes a speech about how the law-court she is now establishing will last for all time, the trial begins.

First, the Furies cross-examine Orestes. Orestes admits that he killed his mother, and says that he did so following the commands of Apollo. He also says that his mother had it coming to her (because she killed Agamemnon, Orestes's father), and, unexpectedly, that she isn't related to him by blood anyhow. Now the Furies question Apollo. Apollo backs up everything that Orestes says, and elaborates on Orestes's point that his mother wasn't related to him. Apollo says that mothers are only incubators of embryos, and that only fathers are truly parents.

Shortly afterward, the trial proper wraps up, and the votes of the jurymen are tallied. While they are being counted, Athena announces that she's voting for Orestes, because she is biased in favor of men. As it turns out, the jury was split, but Athena's vote is the tie-breaker, meaning Orestes can go free… which is exactly what he does, pledging to make Argos and Athens allies forever.

The Furies aren't too pleased about this outcome, but after a lot of persuasion, Athena convinces them to accept it. At the same time, she convinces them to stay in Athens as goddesses in charge of helping good people and punishing bad people (instead of just punishing). From now on, instead of just being "Furies," the goddesses will be known as "The Kindly Ones," a.k.a. the Eumenides.

  • Section 1

    • So, here's the scoop: at the end of Libation Bearers, Part II of the Oresteia trilogy, Orestes ran off to the Greek city of Delphi to be purified of the crime of killing his own mother.
    • (For more information on this crazy back-story, check out Agamemnon and Libation Bearers, Parts I and II.)
    • The play begins in Delphi, outside the temple of Apollo.
    • This temple was famous in ancient times because the priestess or "prophetess" of the temple (we'll meet her in a second) was an oracle: she would supposedly channel the mind of the god to provide humans with insight into the past, present, or future. In fact, it was the oracle of Apollo that first told Orestes to kill his mother, because she killed his father.
    • The first person to come on stage—as we just announced—is the Prophetess of Apollo. She makes prayers to various gods and goddesses, especially those in charge of the arts of prophecy.
    • Then, she heads into the temple to get ready for that day's oracle-dispensing—you know, start the coffee pot going, check Instagram, and so on.
    • The priestess goes inside the temple (offstage), but she's only there for a moment before she comes back out (onstage) completely terrified.
    • She says that she saw a man lying asleep inside the temple. In one hand, he was carrying an olive branch with sheep's wool wrapped around it. This was in keeping with protocol for visitors to the temple (sort of like wearing a yarmulke before going into a synagogue, or removing your shoes before entering a mosque or Hindu or Buddhist temple).
    • In his other hand, however, the man held a sword, dripping with blood. Major no-no.
    • But that wasn't the worst of it. The Prophetess also tells us that, sleeping in a ring around Orestes, were the horrible Furies. These loathsome ladies are spirits of vengeance; the Prophetess tells us, among other things, that they have horrible breath and rancid fluid oozing out of their eyes.
    • Yuck. We can see why the Prophetess is upset.
    • The Prophetess prays for Apollo to take care of the problem, and runs offstage.
  • Section 2

    • Then, who should come out of the temple but… Orestes himself. (Maybe the Prophetess woke him up when she entered the temple—we aren't told.)
    • But wait—there's someone else with him. It's—it's—the god Apollo!
    • Orestes says to Apollo, "Hey man, you're great with being just and all, but how's about standing up for your friends?"
    • Then Apollo tells him, "Hey, no worries, I've got your back. Oh yeah, one thing though, I forgot to mention: those crazy Fury ladies are going to condemn you to agony and madness."
    • At this point, Orestes has got to be rolling his eyes and saying, "Oh, perfect" to himself. But then Apollo comes to the point:
    • "So here's what you've got to do," says the god: "Go to Athens and throw yourself at the mercy of the goddess Athena. Then we'll have a nice little trial to clear up this whole problem. And don't forget: I'm the one who told you to kill your mom. If anyone's got a problem with that, they can talk to me."
    • That seems good enough for Orestes, because he runs offstage, on his way to Athens.
    • Then Apollo calls out to his brother, the god Hermes. Because Hermes is the god of travelers, Apollo asks him to watch over Orestes while he is on his journey to Athens. Then Apollo goes back into his temple.
  • Section 3

    • At this point, who should show up to spoil the party but… the ghost of Clytemnestra, Orestes's mother, whom he killed at the end of the previous play in the series (called Libation Bearers).
    • Clytemnestra calls out to the Furies, who are still sleeping inside the temple.
    • She says, "Hey, shake a leg will you! Get up! It's me, Clytemnestra! All the other dead people keep on disrespecting me; it must be because you haven't punished Orestes yet for killing me. Don't you remember all the sacrifices I made for you back when I was alive? Come on! Have at it!"
    • Still half-asleep, the Furies cry out from inside the temple (in Collard's translation): "Seize! Seize! / Seize! Seize! Put your mind to it!"
    • But that isn't very helpful. Clytemnestra wants them to help her, after all.
    • Finally, after telling the Furies off one more time, Clytemnestra's ghost floats offstage.
    • Now, still groggy, the Furies come out of the temple and array themselves in front of it.
    • The Furies form themselves into a Chorus and start dancing and singing. In their song, they complain about how Orestes got away from them; they blame Hermes, the god of trickery. (From Libation Bearers, Part II of the Oresteia trilogy, we already know that Orestes and Hermes are tight.)
    • In general, they think that the world is going to Hades in a hand basket because the young gods (like Hermes and Apollo) are turning against the older gods (the Furies themselves). Kid-gods these days, eh?
    • They think that Orestes needs to be punished for what he has done and blame Apollo for letting him escape.
  • Section 4

    • Now Apollo comes back on stage; this time, he is armed with a bow and arrows.
    • Apollo tells the Furies to scram.
    • But the Furies aren't going to be scared away quite so easily.
    • Instead, they demand that Apollo take responsibility for making Orestes kill his mother. Apollo says, "Sure, I told him to do it through my oracle." Then Apollo also admits that he told Orestes to take sanctuary in his temple after he had done the deed.
    • When Apollo then tells the Furies to get out of his temple, they reply that they're only doing their job: to "drive matricides from their houses." (210)
    • But then Apollo says, "Oh yeah? Well what about somebody who killed her own husband? What would you do about her, huh? Tell me that, if you're so smart."
    • "At least someone who kills her own husband isn't killing someone from her own blood," the Furies reply.
    • In response, Apollo points out that the Furies' attitude contradicts the vows made at marriage; he seems to be saying that, at marriage, two people become "one flesh" as the Christian tradition calls it (clearly, this is a more universal idea than just Christian). The way he sees it, if you kill the person you're married to, it is killing your own blood.
    • From that, Apollo goes on to accuse the Furies of being inconsistent: if they're so fixated on getting Orestes, why don't they care about the fact that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon?
    • The Furies don't have much of a comeback to that. Instead they say, "It's our job. Sorry, can't talk, gotta go chase Orestes now—bye."
    • And with that, the Furies race offstage to follow Orestes to Athens.
    • Apollo swears to stand by Orestes, through thick and through thin. Then, he too leaves the stage.
  • Section 5

    • Now Orestes comes back on stage; he begins with a prayer to the goddess Athena, and his words reveal that the scene of the action has now changed to Athens.
    • Orestes prays for Athena to protect him; he points out that he has already been partially purified of his crime, both by Apollo, and by his wanderings over the earth.
    • Everything looks like it's going fine and dandy, but then who should show up but some uninvited guests—the Furies. Ugh.
    • The Furies mock Orestes and say that they have come to drink his blood for what he did. Oh, that's pleasant.
    • Orestes tells the Furies to buzz off. He's purified, he says; then, he prays to Athena for help, saying that he will make Argos allies with Athens, if only she'll help him with his pesky Fury problem.
    • In response, the Chorus of Furies says, "Well, you've sure got a lot of nerve." To prevent him from making any more trouble, they decide to entrap him with a magical "binding-song." (What's that? A magical song that binds you. Just watch and see.)
    • First, the Furies join together in a chant. The words of the chant express how just they are: they only bring terror and destruction on people who deserve it.
    • Then they switch into full-on song-and-dance mode. They start by calling out to their mother—the goddess of Night—and complaining that the child of Leto (Leto is Apollo's mother) has stolen their prize (Orestes) away from them.
    • The rest of their song explains how punishing wrongdoing was their special task given to them by Fate. Of course, this just makes them complain all the more about having Orestes snatched away by Apollo. They also recount how Zeus, the king of the gods, refused to have anything to do with them, and wouldn't let them approach the other gods.
    • Interwoven with all this, the Furies repeat special spells to trap Orestes, as part of the binding-song.
  • Section 6

    • Then, all of a sudden, the goddess Athena shows up. She explains that she had business in Troy that she was taking care of. Then she says, "Wait a minute—who are all these weird people hanging out here? Don't worry; I won't judge you before you let me know what's up."
    • When the Furies reveal their identity, Athena says, "Oh yeah, I know who you guys are."
    • Then the Furies explain how they are pursuing Orestes because he murdered his mother. Athena doesn't accept this as an answer, however. She wants to know why Orestes killed his mother.
    • The Furies don't think that's relevant. After some arguing back and forth, Athena finally suggests that they put the matter to a trial.
    • The Furies are cool with that, so long as they get some respect (they seem to be a little insecure in that department).
    • Then, Athena turns to Orestes, and asks if he would be willing to put the matter to a trial.
    • Orestes replies that he has been purified of the crime because he has performed sacrifices. Then he explains how his mom (Clytemnestra) killed his dad (Agamemnon), which is why he (Orestes) killed Clytemnestra.
    • For good measure, he also mentions how the god Apollo put him up to it. With that out of the way, he says, that, sure: he's up for a trial.
    • Then Athena says something unexpected. She says that this is too big a deal for her—a goddess—to judge on her own.
    • Instead, she is going to appoint a jury of mortal Athenians to help her out. This will be the beginning of an institution, responsible for presiding over murder trials, which will last for all time (or so she says).
    • Then she tells Orestes to go get his witnesses and get his case together, while she rounds up the best citizens of Athens to sit on the jury.
    • Then Athena leaves the stage.
  • Section 7

    • Now, the Chorus of Furies begins singing another song.
    • They begin by saying that they think it's really, really bad news that Athena is bringing in a court of law to solve this problem.
    • They think that this will mean the end of justice.
    • The gist of the rest of their song is that respect for Justice is only instilled through fear. If Orestes escapes a harsh punishment, so their argument goes, mothers and fathers will forever be at risk of suffering violence at the hands of their children.
    • At this point, Athena comes back in. Now she is accompanied by a herald, a trumpeter, and a group of citizens that have been appointed as jurors.
    • She tells everybody to shut up so that the appropriate proclamations can be made.
    • Then Apollo walks into the scene.
    • Athena tells him to say what he's got to say.
    • Apollo says, "I'm a witness. Oh yeah, and I'm also Orestes's lawyer. You see, I'm the guy that made him kill his mom. And now I'm here to argue on his behalf."
    • Then Athena turns to the Furies to make their case. They start by questioning Orestes, asking him if he killed his mother, how, and why. He says that Colonel Mustard did it, in the library, with the lead pipe—no, wait, that's not it. He says that he, Orestes did it, with a sword, because Apollo's oracle told him to.
    • Orestes justifies himself by saying that the spirit of his father, Agamemnon, approves of what he has done from beyond the grave. Then he asks the Furies how come they didn't pursue Clytemnestra for murdering his father.
    • The Furies reply that at least she didn't kill someone of her own blood.
    • Then Orestes says, "Oh yeah? Well, is my mother really someone of my own blood?" (Uh, nice comeback, Orestes. This is clearly becoming rather childish.)
    • The Furies ask Orestes if he has anything to back up his skepticism; it quickly becomes clear that he doesn't, when, instead of answering, he turns to Apollo and says, "Time for you to make your case, buddy. Tell them that I was justified in doing it."
    • Apollo starts off by repeating the idea that it was his oracle that told Orestes to kill Clytemnestra. This time, however, he puts a different spin on it—by saying that, through his oracle, he never prophesied anything that was against the will of Zeus.
    • Because Zeus is the god in charge of Justice, this is the same as saying that whatever Apollo's oracle told someone to do would automatically be the just thing.
    • But the Furies aren't going to let him off that easy. Instead, they say, "Oh yeah? Well why the heck would Zeus allow Orestes to kill his father, but not care at all that Clytemnestra was his mother?"
    • Apollo's answer is, simply put, sexist and patriarchal. It boils down to saying that Agamemnon was a great man, a king; for such a person to be killed by a woman, through trickery, is so shameful, that other considerations (like, that Clytemnestra was Orestes's mother) simply don't matter.
    • The Furies still aren't convinced. They say, "How can Zeus care so much about the death of a father when he put his own father, Cronus, in chains?"
    • "Easy," says Apollo. "You can undo chains; you can't undo killing someone."
    • The Furies stop arguing at this point, and just go back to their original outrage. They simply can't believe that Apollo could be arguing that somebody who killed his mother, his own blood, could go back to rule in the house he grew up in.
    • This is when Apollo brings out the big guns. Are you ready for this? Apollo argues that a mother isn't actually a blood relation to her child. She just keeps the embryo warm and nurtures it until it's time to give birth. According to Apollo, only the father is truly a parent.
    • And then, believe it or not, Apollo says he actually has proof of this. He points to Athena, saying that she was born from a man, but no woman.
    • And actually, from the point of view of mythology, this is true: Athena was born straight from the forehead of Zeus.
    • Then Apollo turns to Athena and tells her that he will make Athens an awesome city, and will make Argos be its ally.
    • There is a lot of nudge-nudge wink-wink going on here—Apollo is trying to pile on the enticements for her to let Orestes off the hook.
    • Athena then suggests turning the matter over to the jury to decide. The Furies and Apollo are cool with that; they have each made their arguments as best they can.
    • Athena then turns to the jurors and gives them a long speech. She tells them that the court she has just established is to last for all time; it will be known as the Areopagus (literally "hill of Ares"; this hill was sacred to the god of war).
    • Athena tells them that the citizens should always be fearful of this court; because only through fear will they act justly.
    • By this combination, she trusts that the people will not live in anarchy, nor will they live under despotism.
    • When Athena is done speaking, Apollo and the Furies keep hassling each other. Basically, the Furies are angry because they think Apollo represents a new generation of gods upsetting the old order, and they bring up various examples from the past to back this up. Apollo answers that now, and in those past examples, his actions were justified.
    • Now Athena speaks. She says that she is casting her vote in favor of Orestes. Why? Out of sexism, plain and simple.
    • As Collard translates these lines: "I do so because there is no mother who gave 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." (736-738)
    • When the votes are tallied, it turns out there is a tie. But because Athena is the judge, she gets to break the tie in favor of Orestes. Thus, he is able to go free.
    • Orestes is understandably pleased with this verdict. He begins by thanking Athena, Apollo, and Zeus; then he says, once again, that his city of Argos and Athens will be BAFs (Best Allies Forever).
    • Then Orestes says bye and heads offstage along with Apollo.
  • Section 8

    • Who does that leave onstage? Well, Athena for one, and the jury of Athenians… but also the Furies. And boy are they ticked off.
    • Immediately, the Furies start dancing and singing: the content of their song expresses their total rage at what has happened. They interpret this as the effort of the younger gods to overturn everything that the older generations of gods (including themselves) stand for. They threaten to poison the crops of the Athenians, and generally bring havoc on the land.
    • In response, Athena reminds them that they submitted to the judgment willingly, and that the trial was fair. She promises to give the Furies a home in Athens, where they will be honored as divinities. But, in return, they must promise not to destroy the Athenians' crops, and so on.
    • But the Furies don't listen; they just repeat the same complaints and threats from before.
    • Athena then repeats more or less the same message; this time, however, she weaves into it the fact that she is the only one of the gods who has the keys to Zeus's lightning stash.
    • Although she doesn't spell it out, it's clear that she is warning the Furies that she could strike them with lightning if they get out of line.
    • But the Furies don't listen; they just keep grousing.
    • Then Athena repeats her promise to make the Furies goddesses in Athens. She is careful to speak respectfully towards them, honoring them for being older.
    • But she is also firm: she tells them that, if they do stay in Athens, they can't stir up any trouble between the citizens. There's already war with other cities, no need to start it within the city.
    • The Furies keep complaining.
    • Then Athena comes to the point. She tells the Furies that she will keep making them good offers over and over again. They are free to take her up on them or reject them, as they see fit. But, for the very same reason that they have received these offers, they can't make any trouble for the Athenians.
    • Then the Furies say, "Wait, tell us again. What sort of honors are you promising us?"
    • After some back and forth, Athena explains that she wants them to change their job. She wants them now to be goddesses responsible for bringing good things to good people.
    • The Furies say—through singing—that they accept this. Then, Athena, also singing, says that this is good. She points out that the Furies will still bring harm to people who are bad (or whose ancestors did bad things).
    • Then the Furies sing again; they say that they will not destroy Athens, and pray for good things to happen to the city.
    • Athena sings again, basically repeating what she just said: that the Furies will still punish evildoers, but they will also reward people who do good.
    • The Furies keep singing too; they pray for good things to happen to Athens.
    • Things keep going back and forth like this for a while. Strikingly, the Furies even pray for an end to revenge-killings among the citizens, because it is destructive of civic order.
    • After a bit more of this back and forth, Athena invites the Furies to follow her to their new home. This home will be under the ground.
    • Athena makes a long speech about all the good stuff that is going to come about once the Furies take up their new role.
    • The play ends when a Chorus of Women Temple-Servants takes up Athena's theme, now in the form of prayers of welcome for the new goddesses.
    • Cue uplifting music. The End. Roll Credits.