Finished Aeschylus’s The Eumenides, the final play in the trilogy collectively known as The Oresteia. After the disappointment of The Libation Bearers, I was glad to find this play characterized by the same intensity as Agamemnon, though in a different direction. Where Agamemnon was a play that centered around the deepest possible struggle between men and women, The Eumenides is a play about an epic struggle between the gods.
The Furies (aka the Erinyes) are of the old gods, numbering among those who were cast out when Zeus ushered in a new generation of deities. The Eumenides are ancient, primal gods who exist to exact vengeance for the dead. It is they who power the seemingly eternal cycle of revenge and who desire to punish Orestes for killing his mother, Clytaemestra. Athena intervenes and decides to have a trial to determine if Orestes should be punished. She presides over the trial with Apollo, who demanded that Orestes kill Clytaemestra in the first place, serving as Orestes’ lawyer. The Furies invoke the ancient laws of punishment for matricide; Apollo claims that the man is more important than the woman because Athena was born of Zeus without a mother. The Furies maintain that setting Orestes free will set a precedent in which chaos will rule in the modern world because men who wish to break the laws will no longer have fear in their hearts. The jury is divided equally, so according to the rules Athena had set down before the trial, Orestes is freed and the cycle of blood-vengeance is ended.
The Furies are– umm– furious at the result, first cast out by the young gods and now their remaining power taken from them, and threaten to bring pain and punishment to man. Athena talks them out of their own desire for revenge, convincing them that the most important thing is to strike a balance between fear and justice (life and pain, etc.) and that they can play a role in the new order of things. They resist, but ultimately agree, and Athena renames them the Eumenides (The Kindle Ones) and bestows upon them the power and responsibility to ensure the happiness and prosperity of man.
The conflict between the old and new, both in terms of the gods but also the old ways and the new ways of living according to the will of those gods and specifically Orestes and his mother, is what this play is all about. Apollo may be a hothead who has inspired Orestes to kill his own mother, but he is nonetheless convinced that he was right to do so and that the primitive order maintained by the Furies is one that has to change. He tells them:
Get out, I tell you, go and leave this house. Away
in hase, from your presence set the mantic chamber free,
else you may feel the flash and bite of a flying snake
launched from the twisted thong of gold that spans my bow
to make you in your pain spew out the black and foaming
blood of men, vomit the clots sucked from their veins.
This house is no right place for such as you to cling
upon; but where, by judgment given, heads are lopped
and eyes gouged out, throats cut, and by the spoil of sex
the glory of young boys is defeated, where mutilation
lives, and stoning, and the long moan of tortured men
spiked underneath the spine and stuck on pages. Listen
to how the gods spit out the manner of that feast
your loves lean to.
Athena is a moderating force who recognizes that the world has changed but that man still needs some of the fear that the Furies have inspired:
Strong guard of our city, hear you these
and what they portend? Fury is a high queen
of strength even among the immortal gods
and the undergods, and for humankind
their work is accomplished, absolute, clear:
for some, singing; for some, life dimmed
in tears; theirs the disposition.
In the terror upon the faces of these
I see great good for our citizens.
While with good will you hold in high honor
these spirits, their will shall be good, as you steer
your city, your land
on an upright course clear through to the end.
As the end of the trilogy, The Eumenides finally draws a frame around the much bigger picture of progress in the nature of both men and gods. The actions of Clytaemestra and Orestes together serve as crux and resolution alike: there’s a new order among the gods and the endless cycle of blood vengeance has been ended in a way that remains just.