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Aeschylus – The Eumenides

July 11, 2013

The Eumenides is the final play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy. The play concludes the theme of blood revenge with the founding of justice through trial by jury.

Following straight on from The Libation Bearers Orestes continues to be tormented by the Erinyes. Orestes committed matricide in part for revenge but also at Apollo’s request and as such returns to Delphi seeking a solution to his torment. Apollo advises Orestes to go to Athens to ask for Athena’s help:

Sit down and hold in your arms her ancient image. And there, with judges of your case and speeches of persuasive charm, we shall find means to release you completely from your labors. For I persuaded you to take your mother’s life. (79 – 84)

Apollo, in order to provide Orestes with time to get to Athens, puts the Erinyes to sleep. Whilst they sleep Clytemnestra appears to them and commands them to wake and continue their pursuit of Orestes, whom they find in Athens praying to Athena. The Erinyes torment Orestes and remind him of their power:

For this is the office that relentless Fate spun for us to hold securely rash murders of kin come upon mortals, we pursue them until they go under the earth; and after death, they have no great freedom. (335-340)

The image brought to mind during this speech is of the Erinyes closing in on Orestes, preparing to take their own revenge. Before this act can play out Athena appears to Orestes and the Erinyes. Orestes as a supplicant to Athena has his prayer for assistance granted and a trial commences; Apollo acts on behalf of Orestes and the Erinyes for Clytaemnestra. The jury are equally split on whether Orestes is innocent or guilty, resulting in his acquittal. The Erinyes, unhappy with the verdict, declare that the Gods:

Have ridden down the ancient laws and have taken them from my hands! And I—dishonored, unhappy, deeply angry— on this land, alas, I will release venom from my heart, venom in return for my grief, drops that the land cannot endure. From it, a blight that destroys leaves, destroys children—a just return— speeding over the plain, will cast infection on the land to ruin mortals. I groan aloud. What shall I do? I am mocked by the people. What I have suffered is unbearable. Ah, cruel indeed are the wrongs of the daughters of Night, mourning over dishonor! (778-792)

Athena manages to placate the Erinyes through a thinly veiled threat, as she knows where the key to Zeus’ thunderbolts is kept (826-827), but also by offering them a new position of honour:

I promise you most sacredly that you will have a cavernous sanctuary in a righteous land, where you will sit on shining thrones at your hearths, worshipped with honor by my citizens here. (801-807)

The Erinyes accept Athena’s offer and proceed with her to their new home.

The Erinyes are the perfect representation of the central theme of the Oresteia. They believe that blood can only be appeased with more blood in a never ending cycle of revenge (ultimately the only outcome to end such a cycle would be the death of a whole blood line). This, as they say to Athena, is their ‘ancient law’ (778). The preceding plays provide a sense that this form of justice is unsustainable and as such must come to an end. The Erinyes ultimately represent an old order of gods whose rule needs to cease in order for civilisation to progress. The involvement of the Olympian Gods in this transition of legal systems legitimises the process and lays waste to the Erinyes claims over justice.

Aeschylus has presented the audience with a trilogy demonstrating the importance of justice. This is achieved through the move from uncivilised ancient acts of revenge in Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers to the progressive justice delivered through a fair trial by jury in Eumenides. Aeschylus appears to use the movement from Mycenae to Athens as a representation of the overall theme. The archaic acts of blood revenge all happen in Mycenae and justice prevails in Athens the progressive city.

Bibliography

Aeschylus The Eumenides in Aeschylus Translated by H.W. Smyth Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.

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From → Greek Tragedy

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