The Eumenides, by Aeschylos

Thus God and fate are reconciled

One evening recently I read Aeschylos’ whole Oresteian Trilogy, and then a week later I re-read its last play, the Eumenides, to see if I could resolve any of the questions that that first reading had left in my mind. – I’m not wholly sure I did.

As always when we get older, reading Greek Tragedy seems mostly a matter of unlearning – or at least questioning – all the nonsense we were taught about Greek tragedy when we were young.

And what were we taught when we were young about the Oresteia?

Here’s Cliffs Notes, which I think is a fair summary of our misconceived opinions:

The main idea of The Oresteia is that injustice and such primitive instruments of morality as the blood-feud must be eliminated if human society is ever to attain to a high level of social organization, which can only be done by the introduction of a public morality and civil legal processes. A compromise must be reached between those old ideas that are good and those new ideas that are good.

Perfect, of course, for your school-child who has little experience of life and is in search of a neat explanation which he can repeat back to his examiner in exchange for merit. But let’s try for a better explanation, eh?

Let’s say we only consider Orestes’ speeches in the Eumenides; what then does the play seem to be about?

Despite being the main (only?) character in the play, Orestes doesn’t really get that much to say; and going by the above explanation, not much of it seems to the point either. Since he’s murdered his mother, he’s spent his entire time wandering round Greece, throwing himself as a suppliant before the altars of the gods, carrying out purgative rituals to wash the pollution of blood-guilt from him, and now he finds himself at Athena’s altars in Athens. All his speeches are him saying, “I am no longer polluted by my mother’s murder, for I have washed myself clean by ritual observance.” The only other time he speaks in the play is when he is cross-examined by the Furies in the “Athenian court of justice”, where he admits matricide, says that Apollo told him to do it, believes Apollo will help him now, and then, when pressed on whether he thinks it was really ok to kill his mother, hasn’t got an answer and asks Apollo instead to explain why it was justified. Finally, after the “court” rules in his favour, he thanks them, glad that now he is free from the pollution and can go back home to Argos.

So then the play is about a man who has murdered his mother, recognises that in doing so he has committed a “sin”, and penitently seeks absolution for this crime, which is then granted to him?

Yes, in essence.

But what about all these other things in the play, like the gods, and the Furies, and the Athenian legal process, and the blood-feud, and these old and new ideas? And why did you put “sin” in inverted commas?

Well, you see, people tell me that the Greeks had no concept of “sin” and “guilt”, even though they constantly use both words we would translate as such and concepts we would understand as such. Matricide is certainly conceived of in the play as something beyond the pale; it’s not a crime in the ordinary sense (like Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon) but something that is taboo and makes the man who commits it polluted. The Furies which pursue Orestes are not in the play an embodiment of blood-feud – they make this very clear: the only reason they are interested in persecuting Orestes is because he has killed his mother; Aegisthus (Orestes’ cousin, whom he killed at the same time) is never even mentioned in the Eumenides, despite being a significant element of the blood-feud in the Choephori (preceding play).

The idea of an unending cycle of blood-feud, which is indeed a significant element in the Choephori, is only once hinted at in the Eumenides, by the Chorus of Furies:

Fate’s enemy, my enemy too,
Shall not give sanctuary to sin.
Orestes is accurst, and he,
Though he seek refuge with the dead,
Shall find no place where guilt is free;
Soon there shall come, of his own kin,
A like Avenger, to renew
Fate’s curse upon his branded head.

“Fate’s enemy” here refers to Apollo. Orestes’ fate is that he must pay for matricide – or the wider doom of the House of Atreus, if you like, for their previous taboo crimes (eating own children etc.) – the Furies are certainly seen as allied to / agents of fate – and Apollo, by even allowing him access to his temples (from which he should be excluded, since his crime is too great), is attempting to avert that fate. But even this is not the concept of blood-feud itself, but the specific and deserved curse of the House of Atreus, persisting through the generations. In general though, the Furies are less specific about the future, merely suggesting that Orestes will never escape his guilt, even after death. This connection of the Furies to fate also informs their most important general characteristic: that they are implacable (at least, under general circumstances). It doesn’t matter how much you pray at their altars or what rituals you undertake – you cannot evade their demand.

Now, to a modern reader, it’s difficult to escape the idea that the Furies are all in Orestes’ mind: that they form that part of his own conscience which he cannot convince, even by his purgative rituals, of his own innocence. Could people in the ancient world have seen this too? I find it hard to conceive that they didn’t; that this idea entirely escaped them; that even in writing it Aeschylos was unaware of what he was doing.

(I turned to E.R. Dodds’ The Greeks and The Irrational (a book I increasingly regard with scepticism, I must admit), to see what he might have to say on the matter, and indeed he speaks of our friendly Erinys (Furies) thus: “Yet they are objective, since they stand for the objective rule that blood must be atoned; it is only Euripides and Mr. T.S. Eliot who psychologise them as the pangs of conscience”. – Hmm, objective eh? As objective as any other anthropomorphisation of a human concept, no doubt. But even if to the Greeks they are objective and outside our mind, they still associate them with the human experience of guilt. And no, they don’t really stand for the rule that “blood must be atoned” (the Furies, as mentioned before, aren’t the least bit interested in Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon, for instance – they explicitly state that they couldn’t care less); they stand for the idea that there are certain crimes which cannot be atoned.)

Here’s another thing worth noting. In neither the Agamemnon (first play) nor the Choephori do any of the gods appear as characters, though their presence around the action is constantly invoked by the human characters calling upon them and interpreting their desires and intentions. In the Eumenides on the other hand, the characters in the play are almost entirely gods – Apollo, Athena, the Eumenides themselves, even the ghost of Clytemnestra – while Orestes is the only human character, and the one with whose actions and conduct all these gods are solely concerned (there is the introductory Pythian priestess too, though I’d incline to see her as something of a conduit to this world of the gods). The effect of this, it seems to me, is to distance us from the idea that the Eumenides is taking place in the real world at all; we can deny too that it is taking place in Orestes’ mind; but it does seem to be taking place in some sort of religious sphere abstracted from the reality of the previous two plays.

The play then centres on a conflict among the gods (old and new) over whether an act which is so heinous there can apparently be no absolution can be absolved. The new gods (who are in general placable, though not necessarily easy to placate) say that it can be absolved; the old gods (the Furies) deny it. So we have our court case with its “civil legal processes”; Athena brings in twelve Athenians jurors to adjudicate; and we listen to both sides of the case.

This brings in another element I haven’t yet mentioned. You see, Orestes didn’t just kill his mother for no reason; he killed his mother because Apollo had told him to do so, and more importantly had threatened him with eternal torment if he didn’t. His crime this time would be that he let his father’s murder go unavenged – something Apollo regards in the same light the Furies regard matricide. So Orestes has been put into a position where there was no right move he could make. The court case then becomes a brief argument over which particular sin takes precedence.

And what do our marvellous rational jury decide, thus encapsulating the new dominion of civil law over barbarity. – What’s that? Oh, they can’t reach a majority decision, so a god has to decide it for them. And what does the god decide: she decides on balance that killing a mother to avenge a father is ok; – that is to say, and I think it’s worth repeating, that the outcome of the court case is: it’s ok to kill someone, so long as it’s to avenge the killing of someone else. – Which is going to stop this culture of blood-feuds, right?

What it does end, however, is the particular curse on the House of Atreus, which possibly was the real point all along. For I don’t think the Eumenides does offer a resolution to the question of law in society; it offers only a resolution to the events of the two previous plays.

Oh, there’s lots more I could write about this play. Why’s there no real drama in it and it’s just religion from beginning to end? What all that stuff is about after Orestes is acquitted? Why’s there so much about religion in Greek plays anyway? Are there other plays which shine a light on this one? What about Sophocles’ Ajax? Isn’t that on the same topic? And what about Oedipos at Colonos? Why’s there all this ritual cleansing, and can we find some connection between this and the concept of drama – of art – itself?