AESCHYLUS: Eumenides

AESCHYLUS: Eumenides

  • The Pythian Priestess appears on scene and invokes the gods to guide her prophecies. She enters the interior of the temple, and then returns in great fear. She saw Orestes, who was seeking refuge in the shrine. He still carried the blood-soaked sword. At his feet were the furies, who were asleep. The Priestess describes the furies as abominable creatures that exude poisonous ire from their eyes. She does not know where they come from, nor what kind of creature would rear such things. She exits the stage.
  • The temple opens and the audience sees Orestes clinging to the central altar; the furies are sleeping a small distance away from him; and Apollo and Hermes appear.
  • Apollo assures Orestes that he will never abandon him; he will forever be his guard against the furies that are loathed by both mankind and the gods. Apollo has forced them to sleep. He tells Orestes that the furies will hunt him across the world, and tells Orestes to go to Athens where he will find judges that will deliver him from this affliction.
  • Orestes asserts that Apollo knows what justice bids. Apollo asks Hermes to guard Orestes. Apollo says that Zeus reveres the outlaw’s right. Orestes, Apollo, and Hermes exit. The ghost of Clytemnestra rises from below.She is angry because the furies are sleeping when they should be avenging her murder. She yells at them to awake and “blow forth on him the breath of wrath and blood!” She remarks that the furies are chasing a prey in their sleep, but that they should be chasing Orestes. To the dreamer, dreams are indistinguishable from reality. Only an independent observer can determine whether a person is dreaming.
  • The furies awake and curse Apollo for aiding the matricide son. They wonder who would consider his assistance to be justice. They assert that he is treading on justice rather than fulfilling its laws. Justice is subject to different interpretations.
  • Apollo reenters. He warns them to leave his shrine or he will shoot them with his golden arrows.
  • The furies accuse Apollo of being the sole cause of the matricide because his oracle bade Orestes to kill his mother. Apollo openly acknowledges this. The furies assert that fate has imposed upon them the task of avenging such crimes. Apollo says that their duty is not to avenge a wife who slayed her husband. The furies claim that Clytemnestra’s murder is not one of blood outpoured by kindred hands. Apollo discredits them by illustrating their inconsistency in defending one crime and punishing another.
  • All exit, and the scene changes to Athens. Orestes is seen clinging to the shrine of Athena. He invokes Athena’s protection and states that his guilt has faded after travelling through many lands and further in time away from the matricide.
  • The furies enter and surround Orestes. They sing that all who shed their mother’s blood shall be punished by the shedding of their own blood. They say that they will suck his blood out from his body. They say that Death records every man’s action and judges and requites them after death.
  • Orestes responds that he has atoned for the matricide by offering sacrifices at numerous shrines. He says that Time cleanses all. The furies say that Apollo and Athena will not save him from perishing and becoming the furies’ food. The furies claim that they are the ministers of justice. Their interpretation of justice is that blood atones for blood; new pain for ancient wrong.
  • Athena enters the scene and asks the chorus what they are. They respond that they are the children of eternal night and called the Furies. They tell Athena that they are chasing Orestes because he committed matricide. Athena asks if there is a justification for his deed. The furies ask in disbelief if there is something that could justify matricide. Athena says that a trial must be conducted, and the Furies agree to abide by her decision.
  • Orestes informs Athena that he has atoned for the deed by making the necessary sacrifices. He tells her that he killed his mother to avenge his father’s murder and because Apollo threatened him with fierce agonies if he did not. He also agrees to abide by Athena’s judgment in the case.
  • Athena concludes that Justice even forbids her from judging issues of blood guilt. Does this mean that it is impossible to determine what is just in this type of situation and in others? She says that she must protect Orestes because he is a pure suppliant, but if she denies the Furies their dues by Fate, then their poisonous anger will infect the land. She decides to establish a judicial system composed of a number of judges to decided cases such as this. She will swear them to uphold justice, whatever they may believe that to be.
  • The furies state that the ancient laws are undone if Orestes prevails. Parents will rue this crime. A deed like this will be justified in the future. Death shall smite unrestrained. Men who fear nothing and revere nothing will not worship Justice. Impiety is the sire of wantonness. Only from piety comes well-being, which the desire of every man.
  • Apollo enters the scene and states that he will defend Orestes. Athena tells the Chorus to present their argument first. The Furies ask Orestes if he killed his own mother, yes he relpies. How? By gashing her in the neck with a sword. At whose behest? At the behest of Apollo.
  • Apollo argues that Orestes justly murdered Clytemnestra because Zeus despises a father’s death more than a mother’s. The chorus replies that Zeus cast his own father Cronus into chains. How is Zeus then consistent and just? Apollo replies that chains can be loosed, but a man cannot return to life once his blood is shed. Furthermore the true parent of a child is the father, not the mother who merely hoards the germ of life. Birth may come from fathers without mothers. Athena was born from Zeus’ head. The case is handed to the jury by Athena.
  • Athena enjoins the Athenians to let no man live uncurbed by law or curbed by tyranny, and to never to do an unjust thing. They should also live in awe of the divine because no man can be just without such awe. The twelve judges cast their votes into the urn. Athena casts the final vote in favor of Orestes because she is her father’s child, esches wedlock, and is a champion of men. Thus she does not too heinously regard the murder of a woman who slayed her husband.
  • 6 votes condemn Orestes and 6 votes exonerate him. Thus Athena’s vote in favor of Orestes breaks the tie.
  • Orestes vows that no chieftain of his Argive land will wage war in the future. Otherwise he, though he be dead, will thwart their enterprises and cast them into despair and misery.
  • The Furies determine to curse Athens and bring misery to its citizens. Athena offers them a sanctuary in their honor where Athenians will offer sacrifices to them in the future. The Furies are appeased.
  • Athena states that the father’s sin descends upon the child, and sin is silent death.
  • The Furies banish blight and famine form the land of Athens, and banish vengeance and bane.

“Do not let thy fear prevail above thy will.”

“The sense when shut in sleep hath then the spirit-sight, but in the day the inward eye is blind.”

“Gods and men alike do dread the curse of one betrayed.”

“Time cleanses all.”

“A castaway among the lost, a shadow among shadows.”

“Wisdom is child of pain and born with many a tear.”

“What man, what nation that holds nothing in awe or reverence shall worship Justice?”

“Praise neither the life beyond control nor that which bows unto a tyrant’s sway. Know that the middle way is dearest unto God. For whoso uncompelled doth follow what is just, he ne’er shall be unblest; yea, never to the gulf of doom that man shall come.”

“Bow down at Justice’s shrine, turn thou thine eyes away from earthly lure.”

But he whose will is set against the gods,
    Who treads beyond the law with foot impure,
  Till o’er the wreck of Right confusion broods,—


    Know that for him, though now he sail secure,
The day of storm shall be; then shall he strive and fail
  Down from the shivered yard to furl the sail,
And call on powers that heed him nought, to save,


  And vainly wrestle with the whirling wave.
        Hot was his heart with pride—
        I shall not fall, he cried.
        But him with watching scorn


        The god beholds, forlorn,
    Tangled in toils of Fate beyond escape,
    Hopeless of haven safe beyond the cape—
  Till all his wealth and bliss of bygone day


    Upon the reef of Rightful Doom is hurled,
        And he is rapt away
  Unwept, for ever, to the dead forgotten world.

“You persuaded the fates to let men hide from death.”

“Righteousness doth fend from sorrow.”

23. Who speaks the prologue to The Eumenides? How does this speech generalize Orestes’ predicament into a conflict between old and new conceptions of justice? The Pythian Priestess speaks the prologue of this play. In her speech she prays to the various gods of Greek mythology. At the end she prays to Apollo, who is a prophet and chosen by Zeus to be his advocate. Because Apollo is essentially the instrument of Zeus’ will, he is the instrument of Justice. Thus the new conception of justice is embodied in Apollo, who forgives Orestes, while the old conception of justice manifested in the Furies condemns Orestes.

24. How is dramatic interest shifted away from the fate of Orestes in the conversation between Orestes and Apollo in the first scene of The Eumenides? What conflict is made the central theme of the play? Apollo removes the dramatic interest in the fate of Orestes by foreseeing a time when Orestes will be absolved of guilt in Athens. The drama focuses instead on the new and old concepts of justice as represented by Apollo and the Furies respectively.

25. What purpose is served by the appearance of Clytemnestra’s ghost? Clytemnestra’s ghost links the Libation Bearers to the Eumenides play, and also reinforces the consequence of Orestes criminal act. It is easy to forget about the gravity of crimes as time passes. As a criminal act is removed further from us by time, the emotions that it aroused in us fade. Clytemnestra’s ghost reminds us that Orestes did something very heinous.

26. What are the Furies? What moral principles do they enforce? Why is it that they never attempted to punish Clytemnestra for the murder of Agamemnon? Is the concept of lex talionis also found in the Bible? The Furies are goddesses who curse and torment people who murder blood relations, assuring that the murderers are slayed too. They enforce the moral principle that every crime should be punished by retaliation – lex talionis. They never attempt to punish Clytemnestra for killing Agamemnon because Clytemnestra is not related to Agamemnon by blood. The concept of lex talionis is found in the bible. Exodus proposes an eye-for-an-eye type of retaliation for crimes, while Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, directly rejects this type of penal system, preferring instead to turn the other cheek.

27. What are the two conceptions of justice that are opposed at the trial of Orestes? By whom are they represented? Why does Athena establish a new court for the trial? Why is Orestes eventually acquitted on grounds that are irrelevant to the case? One conception of justice is that Orestes should be killed because he killed his mother. The other conception of justice is that Orestes should be judged by an impartial jury sworn to act according to justice. The jury should consider the circumstances and motivations of the crime, and the consequences of punishment for the crime before judging. The first concept of justice requires a strict adherence to the eye-for-an-eye principle without any regard for mitigating circumstances or undesirable consequences, such as a perpetual cycle of revenge. The two conceptions of justice are represented by Apollo and the Furies. Athena establishes a new court in order to avoid the undesirable cycle of revenge that is the inevitable result of the Furies’ conception of justice. Orestes is acquitted because Apollo and Athena argue that the murder of a man is worse than the murder of a woman. This argument is completely irrelevant to his case. Even if we accept the proposition that the murder of a man is a worse crime than the murder of a woman, Orestes may still be punished for the crime he committed.

28. How does Athena placate the Furies after the acquittal of Orestes? What is the meaning of their new name? What moral principles upheld by them will be maintained in the new social order? Athena placates the Furies by promising them a sanctuary erected in their honor, and the reverence of the people of Athens, who will form a great and prosperous society in the future. The Furies are named the Eumenides or “kindly ones.” They will still be the administers of justice, but will temper their judgment with mercy and compassion.

29. Why does Orestes drop out of the action before the final scene of The Eumenides? What symbolic use has Aeschylus made of the story of the family of Atreus? Orestes disappears from the final action of the play because his fate is no longer the main interest of the drama. In the end, the drama is primarily concerned with reconciling the old system of laws with the new. Aeschylus’ use of the House of Atreus is as a symbol for the ancient society of mankind in which families could be cast into an endless cycle of misery and grief.

30. How is the conflict in The Eumenides resolved? What are the elements of the new social and moral dispensation, and what is its guiding principle? What is the purpose of the glorification of the Athenian way of life at the end of the play? What is the meaning of the closing pageant? The conflict in the Eumenides is solved by conducting a formal trial, in which Apollo argues in Orestes’ defense and the Furies argue in condemnation of him. Twelve Athenian jurors cast their votes after swearing to judge according to justice. The result is a tie, 6 to 6. Athena breaks the tie by casting her vote in favor of Orestes because she is a champion of men and believes that the murder of a woman is not as heinous as the murder of men. The new social and moral disposition is one of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness rather than irrepressible desire for revenge. The guiding principle is that of calm, dispassionate reason. Aeschylus glorifies the Athenian way of life at the end of the play because he was an Athenian, and wrote the play in order to entertain his fellow citizens and encourage them to uphold the way of life that has made their country great. The closing pageant serves to arouse feelings of pride about the Athenian way of life, and persuade the Athenians in attendance that their way of life is best, and is the reason why they are a great society. [It’s typical jingoism]

The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides

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