Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Eumenides by Aeschylus.

The Oresteia (458 B.C.) ♔

The Eumenides (Εὐμενίδες) is the final play of Aeschylus' trilogy The Orestia. So far we've seen how Orestes' mother Clytemnestra along with her lover Aegisthus killed Agamemnon, Orestes father (Agamemnon) and then how having plotted with his sister Electra and friend Pylades, Orestes killed Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, revenging his father (The Libation Bearers). We left off from The Libation Bearers with Orestes immediately being pursued by The Furies. 

Les remords d'Oreste by Philippe Auguste Hennequin (1800).
In The Eumenides Orestes continues to be tormented by the Furies, known also as the Erinyes: the deities of vengeance, or the personification of the anger of the dead. After wandering as an outcast he consults the Oracle of Delphi: Apollo. Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, first encounters the Furies:
Terrors -
terrors to tell, terrors all can see! -
they send me reeling back from Apollo's house.
The strength drains, it's very hard to stand,
crawling on all fours, no spring in the legs...
an old woman, gripped by fear, is nothing,
a child nothing more.
Orestes and the Erinyes by Gustave Moreau (1891).
She leaves and we see Apollo with Orestes, surrounded by Furies who are sleeping under a spell: Hermes stands near by; Apollo tells Orestes he is unable to help him but directs him to Athena, the goddess of law and justice, and he will be accompanied by Hermes. As they leave the ghost of Clytemnestra appears to wake the Furies up.

When Orestes reaches Athena he is again surrounded by the Furies, and he begs Athena to help him. There is a trial with a judge, Athena, and twelve jurymen. Apollo speaks on behalf of Orestes and the leader of the Furies speaks on behalf of Clytemnestra. As the jury cannot reach a verdict (they are equally divided) Athena finds in favour of Orestes: thus vindicated he returns to his home as king. The Furies are persuaded to accept the judgement and Athena renames them 'the Eumenides', or 'the kindly ones' and they are to be honoured by the people of Athens, they will not only punish the bad but reward the good.

And so Aeschylus' tragedy ends happily. The curse of the House of Atreus and the cycle of revenge killings is at an end. The Eumenides is an interesting play in its concern with a system of justice - the trial of Orestes headed by Athena, so the sheer darkness of the previous plays, Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers is absent. The Furies, however, are indeed terrifying, and they serve not only as personifications of anger as I said but also physical manifestations of Orestes' guilt. The Oresteia is a very complicated trilogy in its themes of revenge, guilt, and justice, and though there is a definitive ending the subjects are not dealt with in a simple way. There are arguments and counter-arguments all equally compelling. But above all the lesson from The Eumenides and indeed the whole of The Oresteia is that mercy should and will prevail.

Finally, I must mention Proteus (Πρωτεύς): this is a satyr play which would have followed Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Only two lines of it have survived, however:
A wretched piteous dove, in quest of food, dashed amid the winnowing-fans,
its breast broken in twain [translated by Herbert Weir Smyth]
It's believed that this play would have been based on Book IV of Homer's The Odyssey in which Agamemnon falls out with his brother Menelaus (who travelled with Nestor); Menelaus, on the voyage home from Troy, finds himself off the coast of Egypt where he consults Proteus, a seer and god of the sea, to learn of his future fame and fortune. Proteus would tell him, among other things, of the death of Agamemnon and how to return home. Menelaus would have been aided by the satyrs, who would have served also as a chorus.

So, there ends Aeschylus' The Oresteia. I have wanted to read this for quite some time but it's been one of those books that I find quite intimidating. I loved it, and though it was hard it is a very rewarding read on many levels. I'm very happy I've finally tackled it!

The Libation Bearers

♔ Surviving Plays of Aeschylus ♔
The Oresteia (458 B.C.)
 Agamemnon The Libation Bearers | The Eumenides


  1. congratulations on completing the project! i've been schizo about ancient greek lit. it's good because it's the first real lit in the mediterranean/european canon, but it's bad because it's so bloody and revengeful and gross. come to think of it, i guess life is like that. hmmm. must be i prefer cloud cuckoo land to reality(i've been accused of that from time to time and it must be true...).

    1. Thank you! I'm in such a Greek phase right now - I'm trying to reign myself in a little because I think if I read one play after another I'd get things confused, but I do enjoy them. Maybe if you don't want the bloody stuff try Aristophanes or someone? The comedy is also enjoyable :)

      Cloud cuckoo land - an underrated place - I much prefer it too!


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