The final play in Aeschylus’ Orestia is Eumenides. Eumenides means “kindly ones” and at the beginning of the play they are not kind because they are the Furies (Erinyes – “the angry ones”).
The play begins in Delphi at the temple of Apollo. The Pythian goddess stands outside saying her morning prayers, then enters into the temple in order to receive the prophecies from Apollo. Inside by the altar is a horrible sight: Orestes, asleep and surrounded by the sleeping Furies. Apollo appears and explains that they are there because of him. He has put them all to sleep. Next he awakens Orestes and tells him that he must go to the temple of Athena in Athens and prostrate himself at the feet of her statue. Orestes races off while the Furies still sleep.
The ghost of Clytemnestra appears and chastises the Furies for falling asleep on the job. If the Furies weren’t pissed off before they are now. The Furies are ancient goddesses who were around before the current lot of Olympic gods were even conceived. It is their job to avenge kinship murder especially if the murder was matricide (Clytemnestra was not chased by Furies for killing Agamemnon because there is no blood tie between husband and wife). They have been chasing Orestes all over Greece, driving him mad. Now the upstart Olympian gods are interfering and they are not happy:
These are their doings,
the young gods!
Seize power and rule beyond justice!
Their throne drips blood,
bloody feet, bloody heads,
their altars run blood!
stained with pollution,
evil blood from evil men,
All that blood refers to the animals sacrifices (and sometimes human) that the Olympian gods demand. Interestingly, not but a few pages prior to this one, the Pythian priestess called the Furies evil. Who is really evil here?
Eventually everyone ends up in Athens. Athena appears. Much is made of this play because Athena sets up a court of law and acts as judge. The men of Athens act as jury. The Furies act as the prosecution and Apollo is the attorney for the defense. The ballyhoo over this is because it is the creation myth of the legal system and trial by jury. As glorious as that may be, the creation of trial by jury tramples the rights of women and establishes a legal foundation for patriarchy and misogyny.
After both sides of the argument are heard, Athena has the jury, all men remember, cast their vote. It comes out a tie because the jury can’t decide whose threats they fear more, those of the Furies or those of Apollo who puts the wrath and will of Zeus behind them. While the jury may not have been rigged, the judge, Athena, who claims she stands for Justice and wisdom, has the tie-breaking vote and she is not impartial:
Since the last vote is mine,
I cast it for Oresetes.
no mother gave me birth, and so I honor
the male principle above all.
Except for my virginity,
I am all things my father’s child.
And so I will give preference to the
death of a woman who kills her husband,
the master of the house.
The Furies are, well, furious. But Athena is not finished with them yet. Somehow she manages to convince them that if it is honor they want they should become fertility goddesses and help the city of Athens prosper. The Furies agree and their black and bloody terror-inspiring robes are changed for radiant purple ones as they are escorted to a cavern below the city where they are to live and make nice.
What is praised as justice is a travesty of justice. The rights, anger and voices of women are effectively silenced and pushed into a hole in the ground. As Hugh Denard notes in the introduction:
Athena has… succeeded in having inscribed a law for all time that females of the family are expendable in the pursuit of male glory. At the same time, in Athena’s universalization of Athenian justice, we see the ancient, powerful female divinities subordinated to the male rule of Zeus, all the more sinister and final for having been achieved through the agency of Zeus’ warrior-daughter Athena. There’s curious circularity to all this when we note that in Agamemnon, Klytaimnestra was already a protector of paternity: Did she not, ultimately, punish Agamemnon for his failure as father?
But, we must understand that even though Agamemnon was punished for his failure as a father, in the eyes of the court of Athena, he was entirely within his rights since Agamemnon killed his daughter in order to obtain glory for himself and the men of Argos.
What a depressing play this ended up being. I have, however, now managed to read all the surviving plays of Aeschylus. I am glad I did. The one I liked best is Prometheus Bound with Agamemnon coming in a close second followed by The Persians, the play that got this who Aeschylus thing going in the first place. I’m going to take a little break from the Greek plays for a few weeks, but I plan on launching into Sophocles’ plays next.