Aeschylus was a dramatist who lived in the ancient Greek city of Athens. He treats his native city with honor in a drama entitled “Eumenides.”
“Eumenides” is a somewhat unusual tragedy. No one dies, and it has a happy ending. However, it is the third play of a trilogy in which there is plenty of murder. In the first play entitled “Agamemnon,” the title character comes home to Argos in triumph, but his homecoming is spoiled when he is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra. In the second play of the trilogy, Orestes avenges the death of his father by killing his mother Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, her accomplice.
“Eumenides” begins with a monologue by the priestess of Apollo at Delphi. It is the start of a new day, and she addresses the gods in prayer before she enters the temple. She especially prays to the deities who have successively presided over the shrine at Delphi: the primeval prophetess Earth, the goddess Themis, the Titaness Phoebe, and the god Apollo, who currently presides over the shrine. She then enters the temple, where she will attend to those who wish to consult the oracle.
However, after entering the temple, she runs back outside screaming. A man has taken refuge at the principal altar. His hands are dripping with blood. He is holding a drawn sword and an olive branch tufted with white wool, which is a symbol showing that he is a suppliant. In front of him, a number of hideous women are sleeping.
The scene then shifts to the interior of the temple. The suppliant is Orestes. The hideous women are the Furies. Aeschylus does not give their names, but other sources call them Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera. Perhaps there are more than three Furies in this play, since the Furies function as the chorus in this drama.
Apollo is also present. He warns Orestes that the hags will continue to pursue him, but he promises his continued protection. He instructs Orestes to go to Athens, the city of Pallas Athene, and grab hold of her statue as a suppliant.
After Orestes leaves, the ghost of Clytemnestra enters. She complains that the shades of the dead have been reviling her as a murderess, while the gods do not seem to care about the matricide that her son has committed. She tries to awaken the sleeping Furies so that they can continue persecuting Orestes. After several attempts, she finally succeeds in awakening them.
It is the function of the Furies to take vengeance on those who commit certain crimes, especially the murder of blood relatives. Matricide is especially irksome to them. They upbraid Apollo for the help that he has given to Orestes.
When Apollo asks why they did not persecute Clytemnestra when she killed her husband, they excuse themselves on the grounds that a husband is not a blood relative. Apollo deprecates their indifference to marriage and points out that their principles are unjust.
The Furies leave in pursuit of Orestes. Apollo also leaves to help his suppliant.
In the next scene, Orestes is clinging to the statue of Athena in the city of Athens. The Furies arrive on the scene, saying that they are tracking their prey, just as a hound tracks a wounded fawn.
Orestes relates that Apollo has purified him from the stain of murder with the blood of a slaughtered swine. Moreover, he believes that time purifies everything, so he is now appealing to Athena with a guiltless voice. Orestes promises that if Athena, the patroness of Athens, helps him, Argos will always be a faithful ally of Athens in the future.
The chorus of Furies replies that neither Apollo nor Athena can save him. In a lengthy choral section, they claim that it is their ancient prerogative to punish people like Orestes, and they complain about Apollo’s interference with their prerogatives.
When Athena appears on the scene, the Furies present their case against Orestes. Athena wishes to hear the other side of the question, and she asks the Furies if they will accept her decision. They agree.
Orestes then points out that he is guiltless because of the purification that he has undergone. Moreover, the murder of his mother was an act of vengeance for the murder of his dear father. Finally, Apollo himself had commanded him to avenge his father’s murder.
Athena thinks it unwise to make a quick decision. She appoints the best-born Athenian citizens to hear the case.
As the trial begins, the Furies interrogate Orestes. Orestes admits that he murdered his mother, but he points out that he did so at the advice of the oracles of Apollo. He also mentions the guilt of Clytemnestra. He then appeals to Apollo, asking him to present his evidence.
From Apollo’s testimony, the judges learn that the command to avenge the death of Agamemnon ultimately came from Zeus. To explain why Zeus wanted Orestes to kill his mother, he points out that Agamemnon was exalted by a royalty conferred on him by Zeus. He then describes the murder of Agamemnon, emphasizing the hypocritical flattery employed by Clytemnestra before doing the deed.
After some altercation between Apollo and the Furies, Athena tells the judges to vote. She tells them that this trial will set a precedent. From then on, there would no longer be blood revenge when murder is committed, but there would be a trial before judges on the Athenian Areopagus.
While the votes are being cast, the Furies point out that if they are slighted, they can manifest their anger against the land. In turn, Apollo enjoins respect for the oracles, which come not only from himself, but also from Zeus.
In case of a tie, Athena would cast the deciding vote. She announces that she will vote for Orestes. Since no mother gave birth to her, she is entirely in favor of the father’s cause. (According to Hesiod, Athena emerged from the head of Zeus at birth. Metis, the first wife of Zeus, would have given birth to Athena, but Zeus swallowed Metis before Athena was born.)
The vote does indeed end in a tie. So Orestes is acquitted by Athena’s tie-breaking vote.
Before returning to Argos, Orestes pledges that the Argives will never invade the territory of Athens.
Athena still has to deal with the Furies, who have threatened to devastate Athenian territory. She reasons with them at length. She promises to give them better privileges to replace the privileges that they have lost as a result of the precedent set by the acquittal of Orestes. She promises that henceforth no Athenian family would prosper without their favor. The Furies then agree to become propitious Athenian deities. For this reason, they are no longer Furies, but Eumenides, which means that they are gracious goddesses characterized by kindness and good will.
The play ends as the Eumenides are being escorted to their new abodes.
Since I do not own a copy of the original Greek, this summary has been based on an English translation by F.A. Paley in an anthology entitled “Greek Drama.”
“Greek Drama”; Moses Hadas, editor
“Theogony and Works and Days” by Hesiod; M.L. West, editor