Study Guide

The Eumenides Religion

By Aeschylus

Religion

If there's one thing The Eumenides tells you, it's that honoring the gods pays off. Even though Orestes did probably the most horrible thing you can think of—killing his own mommy—the fact that he was carrying out Apollo's orders makes it a-okay.

Also, Orestes keeps obeying Apollo's instructions, like coming to pray at his temple carrying the appropriate olive-branch-wreathed-in-wool. As a result, Orestes gets a powerful force on his side, a deity that ends up saving him from the wrath of the Furies and the Athenian law court. Of course, you don't want to honor just any gods—you want to honor the gods on the winning side. So, even though we learn from the Ghost of Clytemnestra that she always honored the Furies, her cause ends up losing out to the more powerful divinities.

Questions About Religion

  1. Would you characterize Orestes as a religious (or pious) person? If so, does this help him out over the course of the play?
  2. The play shows how religion can trap mortals between a rock and a hard place: if they side with one set of gods (Apollo) that can put them at odds with another set of gods (the Furies). Does Aeschylus's play give any clues on how to resolve this mess?
  3. The gods in this play sometimes seem pretty arbitrary and childish. How does this jibe with their godly job of doling out justice?
  4. If you have read the earlier plays of the Oresteia, why do you think Aeschylus waited until the third play to bring any gods and goddesses onstage?

Chew on This

Aeschylus's The Eumenides depicts a profound transformation in the relationship between mortals and the gods. In the time before Orestes's trial, mortals who got caught between competing groups of gods had no way out. After Orestes's trial, the gods get put into proper hierarchy, obedient to the orders of Zeus.

Apollo's argumentation at the trial is so wacky, and Athena's decision is so sexist and arbitrary, that Aeschylus's The Eumenides shows us that nothing has really changed after Orestes's trial. It's still all about which gods you've got on your side.

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