“The Eumenides” by Aeschylus

[Unless otherwise stated, all excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

The first two plays of The Oresteia trilogy had dramatised a tragic impasse: the justice of the gods demanded that crimes be punished, and that humans should be the implements of the gods’ will, and carry out the punishment; but this punishment is also a crime, and the humans who mete it out must also be punished in turn. Any resolution of the drama that spans across these three plays should resolve also this impasse. Which, of course, by its very nature, cannot be resolved.

Much debate has raged over the nature of the resolution presented by The Eumenides, the final play in this trilogy. For some, it dramatises a decisive step forward: instead of the primitive code of personal vendetta and blood-letting, we have instead a civil institution that determines these matters: it is a step from darkness and barbarity towards enlightenment and civilisation. Other voices dissent. Would the horrors that have led to this point not have taken place had courts of law then existed? Are these horrors now things of the past, to be looked upon merely as relics of more savage times, and of little concern to our present lives? Of course not. And it would be absurd to think that Aeschylus was foolish enough to think that they were. So where is the progress?

And yet, there must be some progress, somewhere: otherwise, this vast drama could not have a resolution, and the torchlit parade of triumph with which the play ends would merely be hollow. Just what the nature of this progress is will, no doubt, continue to be debated, but, as in any major work of art, we should, I think, beware of any interpretation that is too simplistic: such an immense trilogy of plays was not, after all, written merely to demonstrate a thesis – whether that thesis extols progress from darkness into light, or whether it declares that any perceived progress is merely a semblance rather than reality. Aeschylus’ vision, both moral and artistic, was greater than either.

The play itself has a tripartite structure, with its centre of gravity lying in the middle section, which is the longest. This middle section is the earliest surviving example we have of a courtroom drama. But we have, before that, a sort of prologue, taking up about quarter of the play; and after the middle section, we have an epilogue, taking up another quarter of the play (these proportions are quite easy to determine when you have line numbers). The prologue sets up the issues that are debated in the courtroom drama; the epilogue addresses the issues that the courtroom drama had left unresolved. Such a structure, so satisfying in its symmetry, is very different from what we had in either of the two earlier plays; but then, this is a very different play.

However, one feature it shares with the other two plays is that the chorus does not appear immediately. In Agamemnon, we had, before the entrance of the chorus, a monologue delivered by a watchman keeping guard on the battlements of Argos; in The Libation Bearers had started with Orestes and Pylades at the grave of Agamemnon; and now, in The Eumenides, we have not one, but three scenes before the entry of the chorus. The chorus’ entry, when it comes, is possibly the most dramatic entrance in any Greek drama – maybe in any drama – for this chorus are the Furies themselves, the Erinyes, the most feared, the most horrific, of all beings. At the end of The Libation Bearers, Orestes had seen them, but we hadn’t: here, not only do they appear in the flesh, they are on stage for most of the duration of the play.

In the first of the three scenes preceding this entrance, we see a priestess of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. She first enters the temple, and, almost immediately after, emerges again in terror of what she had seen:

A sight too terrible to see or speak about

has sent me back out of Apollo’s hall;

I have no strength, I cannot stand –

I run, but on my hands and knees, not on my feet.

Inside, she had seen a suppliant, “a man abominated by the gods” (Orestes, we may guess); and around him, sleeping, were the Furies, with “disgusting streams of filth pour[ing] from their eyes”.

After the priestess’ terrified exit, we have a brief scene with Orestes, and with Apollo himself. Clearly, we are inhabiting a very different dramatic world now from what had been presented to us in the earlier plays: there, the presence of the gods, like the presence of the Furies, was felt, but not seen. Here, Apollo is as visible as the Furies soon prove to be. He too, like the priestess, inveighs against the disgusting Furies, “hated by mankind and by the gods”, and tells Orestes to go to “Pallas’ city”, Athens, where “we will have men who can judge this case”. This is a departure indeed from the earlier plays. There, it had been the will of Zeus, the will of the gods, that had determined human affairs: now, a god himself speaks of the judgement of men being the deciding factor.

There is another scene before the delayed entry of the Furies, and this is what may be termed a coup de théâtre: for there now enters the ghost of Klytaimnestra (or the “dream-image of Klytaimnestra”, as Ewans prefers to call it), as commanding and as terrifying dead as she had been alive. She enters in a rage, urging the sleeping Furies to awake, and to torment the son who had murdered his mother. Now, and only now, is the stage prepared for the entry of the Furies themselves: that which had so terrified the priestess, that had so disgusted Apollo, the audience gets to see in the flesh. Unlike the previous plays of this trilogy, this play can accommodate as real, physical presences, the gods, the ghost (or the “dream-image”) of the dead, and the Furies themselves. Whether we see them as real entities, or as symbolising different aspects of the human mind, they are all here, solid presences on stage. The Furies, of course, form the chorus, and, as in Aeschyus’ earlier play Suppliants, they are no mere spectators commenting upon the action: the chorus here are direct participants in the drama. Collectively, they may even be considered the principal protagonist: the play, after all, is named after them.

Apollo re-enters, and, making no attempt to hide his revulsion, commands the Furies to go: but they are not subject even to the gods’ commands: they answer back. It is their duty to torment the man who had murdered his own mother, as it is Apollo’s duty to protect the man who had, following the god’s own instruction, avenged the death of his father.

The prologue is now complete. We may move now to Athens, Pallas’ city, where Orestes has come, seeking absolution. The stage is, quite literally, set for the great confrontation.

We see Orestes now in Athens (space is as fluid here as it had been in The Libation Bearers), at the altar of the goddess Athena; but the Furies are in close pursuit. Orestes claims that he has been purified of the pollution of matricide, but that means nothing to the Furies, who assail him with accusations and with hideous threats:

… This is a song

for one who is doomed,

a blow to the heart that smashes the mind,

a song of the Furies to bind his wits,

a horrible sound to parch his brain.

We need not believe in the literal existence of the Furies to see in this a description of one driven mad with guilt: Orestes is in terror of incipient insanity, and the terror is real. Even after death, the Furies warn, they will continue to torment his mind.

It is at this point that Athena herself enters, in answer to Orestes’ call. She engages first with the Furies, but, unlike her brother Apollo, she addresses them with courtesy:

… you do not look like any other race,

not kin to any goddesses the gods have seen,

nor are you similar in shape to mortal women …

But to speak ill of guests who’ve done no harm,

that is not right; it would be far from just.

Athena expresses no disgust, no revulsion: not even distaste. But, after questioning the Furies on their cause, she feels that the story they tell is not the full story, and that if justice is to be done, a more balanced account must be considered:

You’d rather be renowned for justice than be just in all you do.

The Furies are stung by the accusation, but, mollified perhaps by Athena’s graciousness, they agree to trust her to help arrive at a just solution. Athena turns now to Orestes, and, after hearing his self-justification, decides that the matter is “too large” to be settled by the judgement of a single human; and that

… even I have not the right

to judge the issue in a case of murder where hot tempers rage

And so she summons, as her prophetic brother Apollo had foreseen, what Athenian audiences (and, for that matter, ourselves) would recognise as a court of law:

I will choose blameless men of Athens,

judges of murder, faithful servants of the law

which I will fund for all time as the bedrock of their plighted oaths.

Then must you call your witnesses, and show your proof –

sworn testimony which will aid your case.

No longer, then, the inscrutable will of Zeus, but, rather, the consensus of a representative selection of humans. And should we think this an unwonted diminution by Athena of the powers of her father, we should remember what the chorus of Argive elders had said so forcefully in Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy:

There’s nothing to refer to

except Zeus…

Zeus is all there is. Nothing happens, nothing can happen, that isn’t the will of Zeus. Whatever is determined by other gods – by Artemis, by Apollo, by Athena – is all part of the will of Zeus himself. The power of Zeus to make judgements in these matters is not abrogated by Athena’s action, but delegated, and that delegation must itself be the will of Zeus.

The Furies now embark upon a chorus, confident of their victory. How can their case be denied, after all, when Justice is the end? For Justice cannot exist without Fear. Banish Fear, and Justice itself would cease to be:

There is a place where Fear is good,

and needs to stand as silent guardian

on watch over the mind;

it’s right that pain should teach good conduct.

How could any man or city that does not

nurture an element of fear inside the heart

still worship Justice?

At the start of the proceedings, Apollo makes a sudden and unexpected appearance: he has come, he says, to testify on behalf of Orestes, who is his suppliant. Orestes is then cross-examined by the Furies in a stichomythic passage. Orestes admits to having killed his mother, but goes on to offer justification: firstly, he was following the oracle of Apollo himself; and secondly, Klaitemnestra herself had been guilty of murder: he had merely been meting out just punishment, in accordance with divine will. Why, asks Orestes quite reasonably, did the Furies not torment Klaitemnestra for the murders she had committed? The Furies reply that her victims had not been her blood relations

Apollo now testifies on Orestes’ behalf, and, again in contrast to the courteous Athena, he is abusive and intolerant, refusing even to recognise the Furies’ case. He begins his testimony with a self-aggrandising speech proclaiming his own greatness: he is a prophet who never lies. The oracular command to kill Klaitemnestra that he had given Orestes was the will of Zeus himself, and that cannot be overridden. But, counter the Furies, how could Zeus give a greater weighting to the death of a father than to the death of a mother, when he had himself imprisoned his aged father Kronos? Apollo, here caught out, reverts to abuse:

You utterly revolting beasts, hated by all the gods…

Imprisonment can be reversed, Apollo continues, but death cannot. But this leads him into another contradiction: should not the death of the defendant’s mother therefore be punished?

Apollo’s response to this is somewhat unconvincing, especially to the modern audience. The mother, he says, is no real parent: she merely nurses the foetus in her womb. The true parent is the father. If modern audiences find this claim absurd, it is not something that had been entertained by the Furies either: in their earlier cross-examination of Orestes, they had explicitly stated the contrary:

You murderer, did she not nurture you

within her womb? Do you renounce the life-blood given by your mother?

Orestes, for his part, had not denied the blood-kinship.

Apollo ends his testimony by openly offering Athena a bribe: if Orestes is set free, if “he might be pledged to you for the rest of time”, then Athena would

… gain this man, goddess, as your ally,

and his heirs – and it would be so evermore;

all his descendants would be faithful to the pledge made here.

But this is a pledge Orestes had himself made earlier quite freely:

And now from a pure mouth I solemnly entreat

Pallas Athena, ruler of this land, to come

and be my helper; she will gain without a war

me, my country, and my citizens

as just and faithful allies for the rest of time.

Athena now gives a speech not merely to the Athenians on stage, but also, one imagines, to the Athenians in the audience. The institution she is founding is one to be maintained and revered, so they may live their lives “neither anarchic, nor beneath a tyrant’s rule”. As Ewans says in his notes, at this point in the earlier plays – that is, at the point immediately preceding the dramatic resolution – Kassandra, in Agamemnon, had foreseen someone coming to revenge the murders she knows are about to be committed; and Klaitemnestra, in The Libation Bearers, had warned her son of the Furies who would spring from her spilt blood to torment him. Athena, in sharp contrast, speaks of hope.

But the path towards hope is not clear. The Furies, in their previous chorus, had spoken of the concept of Justice breaking down if Fear is to be banished. If the Furies are to be defeated, how can there be hope for a city that is not “anarchic”?

Aeschylus addresses that question in the epilogue, but first, the jury must cast its votes. And here, we run into what, I gather, is quite heated scholarly debate. Athena states that should the vote be evenly split, then Orestes must be given the benefit of the doubt (this was, I gather, the practice of Athenian courts). This is entirely correct on her part: the rules of the vote must be made clear before the vote takes place. But does the jury consist of an even number of men? Or does it consist of an odd number of men, with Athena joining them to make up an even number? For Athena certainly votes: she says so explicitly, and says further that she is casting her vote for acquittal. But is hers the casting vote when an even number of jurors had failed to arrive at a decision? Or is hers the vote that results in an even split?

W. B. Stanford, in his notes for the translation by Robert Fagles, argues for the former, citing an essay by George Thomson. The argument he presents is, briefly, this: for Athena to mediate successfully with the Furies after the trial, she must command their trust; and if her vote effectively overturns a verdict made by the mortal Athenians of the jury, she is unlikely to command any trust at all. But Ewans, in his own notes, disagrees with characteristic combativeness. Among other things, he insists, the Greek text where Athena announces her own vote cannot be interpreted to indicate that her vote is a casting vote only, to be used if, and only if, the jurors fail to reach a verdict.

As ever, I shall refrain from entering such scholarly debate: as a layman in these matters, and as one who cannot even read the original text, this is not for me to judge. But I will note that every translation I have consulted renders Athena’s announcement, made after the other jurors have voted but before the counting, makes quite clear that hers is not a casting vote:

It is my task to cast the final judgement here;

and I will give Orestes’ cause this vote.

(Translated by Michael Ewans)

My work is here, to render the final judgement.

Orestes, I will cast my lot for you.

(Translated by Robert Fagles)

It is my task to render final judgement here.

This is a ballot for Orestes I shall cast.

(Translated by Richmond Lattimore)

It is now my office to give final judgement;

and I shall give my vote to Orestes.

(Translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones)

The last vote is mine

and I cast it – for Orestes.

(Translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish)

It is my place to give my judgement last:

And I shall cast this vote in favour of Orestes.

(Translated by Oliver Taplin)

Leaving aside the very strange syntax adopted by Lattimore, what Athena says is clear in all these translations: we are at a point before the votes are counted, and she is casting her vote now, with not a hint that this is to be used only in case of a tie.

Whatever the solution is to this, the votes are counted; the jurors (including or not including Athena, depending on interpretation) are split; Orestes is, therefore, acquitted; and Apollo, his task now achieved, departs as abruptly as he had arrived. But all is far from settled. We enter now into the last act of this three-act structure – or, according to the line numbers, the final quarter of the play.

The Furies, previously so confident, cry out in anguished rage. But they had previously agreed freely to put their trust in Athena, and they cannot go back on it now. They pour out their fury in terrible threats, and then in self-pitying lamentation:

We are deprived of all we live for; in our misery

our anger will be terrible, and we’ll let

the arrows fly out from our hearts

to cause this country suffering in return –

unbearable! The blight will drip

to kill your plants and children.

Justice! Justice!

I will rush down into the plain, and pour into the earth

the stain that will destroy all human life.

I’ll weep. What shall I do?

They laugh at me. In Athens I have suffered

terribly.

We are the miserable, greatly suffering Daughters of the Night;

no-one respects us, so we grieve.

Their occupation’s gone.

Athena does not leave the scene, as Apollo had done, and her reason for staying does not appear to be fear of the Furies’ threats: rather, it is because she acknowledges the justice of their cause. She reminds them that they had not been defeated: the votes had been evenly split. Orestes is freed, but not exonerated. But, as if to underline the impotence of their anger, the Furies repeat their threats and their lament, word for word.

Athena mediates with them. She proposes a new role for the Furies: they may become the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones. They may live in Athens and bring blessings upon the city, and be respected and revered. Her powers of persuasion are great: the Furies agree, and the play – and the entire dark, blood-drenched trilogy – ends with a triumphant torchlit parade.

What are we to make of this ending? Many have found it somewhat anti-climactic, given all that has gone before. Is this really how all the darkness, all the terror, is resolved? Does this answer the seemingly unanswerable questions that the previous plays had posed? Is this really a progress into light from the darkness in which we had begun? Or is it just a cop-out?

We must, I think, refrain from making simplistic interpretations here. The two alternatives – that there has been a decisive progress towards civilisation, and its opposite – both seem to me far too simplistic to offer a satisfying resolution to this sequence of plays. We must look further.

And we must note two points. Firstly, Athena, unlike Apollo, had recognised the validity of the Furies’ case: instead of summarily judging in favour of Orestes, she had said quite explicitly that the issue was too complex for any single man, or even for any single divinity, to resolve:

… even I have not the right

to judge the issue in a case of murder where hot tempers rage

Secondly, the Furies, in accepting Athena’s proposal, do not change their nature. And neither is their power diminished. At three separate points, Athena clearly indicates this:

I have inspired these goddesses both great and hard to please

to settle here; for they have power

in all affairs of men.

If anyone encounters them

he doesn’t even realize they’ve struck him down.

For all the errors of his ancestors

drag him into the net, and silent death,

for all his mighty noise,

turns him to dust beneath their rage.

Later:

A Fury can do much, and has great power

both with the gods above and those below;

and in the world of men, it’s clear they always work their will

right to the end; some they give cause to sing,

to others a life dimmed by tears.

And later still:

From these terrifying faces

I see great advantage for my citizens;

for if you always honour them

they will be happy, you will be happy,

everyone will see that Athens is a land

where Justice rules.

Athena acknowledges here what the Furies had themselves proclaimed earlier: there is a place where Fear is good.

The progress celebrated at the end of the play is not the emergence of civilised institutions from the dark barbarism of private vengeance and retribution; rather, it is the delegation of moral judgement from Zeus to humans. No longer are humans subject to the frequently inscrutable will of the gods: they must determine among themselves, and for themselves, where moral good lies; they must determine who is guilty, and who is to be acquitted; they must determine when to punish, and what that punishment should be. For without this last element, without punishment, justice could not exist – neither divine justice, nor human. We cannot do without Terror: we cannot do without the Furies.

But is this, too, perhaps, too simplistic an interpretation? After all, the goddess Athena had, at best, intervened when humans had been unable to reach a decision; at worst, she had overturned the humans’ decision. Either way, divine intervention was required, and the delegation of moral law to humans has proved imperfect. The further one looks into this, the more complex it all appears. Perhaps there is no resolution. What resolution can there be, after all, that could requite the terror of Kassandra as she enters the House of Atreus, where she knows she will be butchered? Her cries of terror resound still, even after the peroration of the final triumphant torchlit procession.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on The Eumenides]

9 responses to this post.

  1. I think that exposing the moral ambiguity of these myths, the shaky foundational stones of his Athens, was precisely Aeschylus’ project. He didn’t intend to settle anything. He was giving the historical pot a stir, asking his audience to think.

    Reply

    • My own view – for now, anyway – is that Aeschylus was dramatising the delegation of moral judgement from gods to humans. As a dramatist, he found great drama in depicting the complexities surrounding the issue. He didn’t feel compelled to resolve the moral issues, but he had to provide a satisfactory resolution in dramatic terms.

      Reply

      • I’m not convinced that the Greeks sought dramatic resolution in their plays. I don’t think they looked at form and/or balance the way we might. Exploring the conflicts within the situations was what mattered.

      • I think a point of resolution towards the end is needed to give the drama shape. The Eumenides could not have ended, say, immediately after the trial scene, as there were at that point too many issues as yet unresolved: ending the drama there would have been unsatisfactory. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any Greek drama that lacks such a point of resolution. The point, surely, is the nature of the resolution the dramatist offers.

  2. “The point, surely, is the nature of the resolution the dramatist offers.”

    I don’t see any reason to assume that. Why isn’t the point of the drama the dramatic action and exploration of character that makes up the bulk of the play itself? I’m not sure there’s any evidence that the Greeks looked for resolution or cared about loose ends. Perhaps Aeschylus’ primary interest in writing the Eumenides was the opportunity to place the Furies onstage and have them bewail the loss of their power. If the play had ended with the Furies crying out against Athena, that would’ve been a powerful moment and we’d all be talking about the power of that moment. Maybe it ends with the dance of the Kindly Ones because Aeschylus’ chorus complained that there wasn’t enough dancing in the play, or because Aeschylus thought that ending would win him the prize.

    I’m sorry to be argumentative, but I can’t help thinking you’re trying to shoehorn the plays into Aristotle’s ridiculous theory of unities, which does nothing but misshapes the plays.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Scott Bailey on April 6, 2022 at 4:43 pm

    “Medea” ends with a plot device, not a moment of resolution. A marriage or two is resolved, but none of the moral questions have been. I suppose Medea resolves to put some stick about.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Scott Bailey on April 6, 2022 at 4:59 pm

    I am really just arguing with Aristotle and picking on your post as a proxy battlefield, sorry.

    Reply

    • Hello Scott, I think your comments require a more considered response than the ones I’ve been giving so far. I’m a bit tied up right now, but I’ll certainly get back to you before the weekend.
      Cheers,
      Himadri

      Reply

    • Hello Scott, do please excuse my delay in responding.

      I don’t think I was trying to defend Aristotle’s Poetics (not that it needs defending anyway – and certainly not from an ignoramus like me!) From what I understand of it, his prescriptions of what makes for satisfying drama do not correspond with my own experiences. When I am affected by a tragic work, I do not, for instance, feel that I have been “purged” of anything. And I am dubious about the formulation of the downfall of a tragic protagonist due to something called “hamartia”, since there are many plays where I cannot detect anything that could reasonably be called “hamartia” (Hercules, say); others where there isn’t a downfall (e.g. Philoctetes); and even some plays where I can’t even readily identify a tragic protagonist (The Women of Troy).

      However, I am very interested in the shape of a drama. It is hard to be prescriptive (or even descriptive) on this matter, as there are so many different ways in which a play may be shaped; and a dramatist sufficiently gifted may, no doubt, think of new ways of shaping. But there must be a shape of some kind.
      I think I have been too imprecise in speaking of “resolution”. I accept and agree that all the themes raised in the drama need not necessarily be resolved: a drama can end with the sense that the themes raised can’t be resolved. So the Three Sisters don’t get to Moscow, say, and Godot doesn’t comes, and so on. But even if there is no thematic resolution, there does, I think, need to be a dramatic resolution – that is, a point which, if not reached, there would be a sense of incompleteness.

      Sometimes, this dramatic resolution coincides with a thematic resolution, but that certainly need not be the case. If The Eumenides had ended immediately after the acquittal of Orestes, that would have made, I think, for an unsatisfactory dramatic shape – not because the themes remain unresolved (I think, actually, that The Oresteia leaves many themes unresolved), but because the drama would have remained unresolved.

      I find it hard to be more descriptive than this, simply because, as I said, there are so many possible ways of shaping a drama. But whatever the play, it has, I think, to reach a point which, if not reached, would give a sense of incompleteness. “Resolution” is not, I accept, a good word to describe this point; “dramatic climax” might be better – I’m not sure. But your contentions that there need not be a thematic resolution; that loose ends are permissible, etc. – absolutely: I have no quarrel with any of that.

      Reply

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