CHARACTERS: The Pythia (priestess of Apollo), Apollo, Orestes, Athena
CHORUS(ES): Furies (ancient goddesses of vengeance); Athenian men and women
SETTING: the temple of Apollo at Delphi; the Acropolis at Athens; the Hill of War (Areopagos) at Athens
The Pythia arrives at Apollo’s temple to find a man with bloody hands (Orestes) inside surrounded by horrible sleeping creatures (Furies). Apollo sends Orestes to Athens to seek judgment there and then drives the Furies out of his shrine, regarding them as no better than animals. Orestes reaches Athens and takes refuge at the statue of Athena, followed by the Furies who surround him with a song of binding. His appeal to Athena is answered by her arrival, but surprisingly she does not reject the Furies outright and submits Orestes’ case to a jury of twelve Athenian men. In the subsequent choral ode we begin to realize that the Furies have some justice on their side (“there are times when fear is good”). Apollo appears to defend Orestes and answer the charges of the Furies, who have the better of the arguments. The vote is evenly split, and Athena breaks the tie in Orestes’ favor, because, although female, she is always “for the male.” Orestes leaves swearing eternal friendship between Argos and Athens, while Athena and her citizens must deal with a chorus of angry Furies, who feel that these younger gods are robbing them of their rights. Athena persuades them to make their home in Athens, as guardians of order and bestowers of fertility. The Furies become Eumenides (“the Kindly Ones”) and a court of law (the Areopagos Council) replaces the vendetta of blood justice.
Whereas Agamemnon has a slow pace and an archaic feel, this play positively races. By line 240 we are already in Athens, with much behind us and more to come. The structure is bold, two scene-changes and at one point the stage is completely bare. With the twelve jurors and another sub-chorus of women, the scene must have been crowded at the end. Where Agamemnon was set deep in the past world of myth, Eumenides bridges past and present and stops just short of present-day Athens. It was a brilliant coup by Aeschylus to make the Furies real and have them appear as the chorus, even more brilliant to identify them with the Eumenides (“the Kindly Ones”) and thus alter the structure of the moral universe. The trilogy is also about coming home: Agamemnon comes home to die, Orestes to kill his mother, but in this play Orestes can now go home and the Furies finally find a home, in Athens. Topical Athenian issues are close to the surface: a controversial treaty with Argos in 462, the reform of the Areopagos Council (founded in this play by a god) which many regard as the beginning of true democracy, and the prayer of the Furies (“civil war shall not thunder in our city”), at a time when Athens was on the brink of internal conflict. Aeschylus does not take sides; this is not propaganda, but brilliant drama, made more compelling by the contemporary issues.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005