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Eumenides | Context

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Orestes's Saga in the Oresteia: The Tragic Hero

Eumenides is the final play in Aeschylus's Oresteia cycle, three plays telling the story of a cursed Greek royal family, the House of Atreus. The cycle is named after Orestes, a young man from Argos, Greece, who plays a pivotal role in the family's unraveling.

The first Oresteia play, Agamemnon, dramatizes the murder of Orestes's father—the king and war general Agamemnon—after he returns victorious from the Trojan War. Orestes's mother, Clytaemnestra, murders Agamemnon to consolidate power with her lover, Agamemnon's brother Aegisthus. She also seeks to avenge the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia at Agamemnon's hands as he sought to appease the goddess Athena, whom he offended. The Trojan princess Cassandra, whom Agamemnon takes as a war prize after the fall of Troy, is also killed. Orestes is in exile and does not appear on stage during Agamemnon, but the Chorus hints he will return to avenge his father's death.

In the second play, The Libation Bearers (Choephoroi in Greek), Orestes does just that. Commanded by the god Apollo, he returns to the city of his birth and murders Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus with help from his sister Electra. With this murder he continues the cycle of "blood for blood," or vengeance through retributive killing, which has haunted his family. Eumenides, in turn, shows Orestes seeking mercy for his crime. The goddess Athena, with the help of a court of Athenians, uses Orestes's case to end the cycle of bloodshed and set up a democratic model for justice.

Orestes is often considered a tragic hero, a character whose errors in judgment lead to his downfall. Aristotle calls the tragic hero's judgment error hamartia, or a fatal flaw. Hamartia can refer to both a hero's moral deficiencies and an impossible situation forcing the hero to make a difficult choice. It can even mean an excessive character trait, such as virtue or zeal, that imperils the hero. Inevitably his hamartia leads to catastrophe.

Orestes fits a few other characteristics of Aristotle's tragic hero:

  • The hero's flaws lead to a reversal of fortune or peripeteia—the "plot twist" in many Greek tragedies, where things change for the main character.
  • The hero realizes the reversal came as a result of his own actions, a process called anagnorisis.
  • The hero is punished in an act of justice or revenge.
  • The hero suffers more than he deserves.

Orestes kills his mother under duress, out of obligation to Apollo. He's the kind of tragic hero trapped by circumstance. Aristotle's Ethics makes exceptions for "involuntary acts": crimes forced upon the perpetrator, or crimes the perpetrator commits without knowing. Orestes's fate is influenced by multiple forces outside of his control, including divine vengeance and the curses of his ancestors. Eumenides, and the Oresteia as a whole, explores the question of how much personal responsibility Orestes bears for his crimes.

This is not to suggest that Orestes kills his mother unknowingly or unwillingly. Instead he is bound by fate and by the natural law of vengeance to do so. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, that he fulfills his destiny and faces the consequences of doing so. He is thus considered the hero of the saga because of the degree to which he suffers for actions that were forced upon him and that he chooses to accept.

Aeschylus's version of the House of Atreus saga is one of the most well known. Many playwrights, including T.S. Eliot and Eugene O'Neill, have since been inspired by the legend. Writers before Aeschylus drew from the ancient saga as well. But only Aeschylus uses Orestes to illustrate the dawning of democracy and what this new government means for humanity.

Athenian Democracy and the Role of the Courts

Eumenides is the first courtroom drama. It's set in Athens, the city considered the birthplace of Western democracy. Aeschylus shows the transformation of an ancient, vengeful justice system into a court-led system governed by wisdom and the will of the people. He drew inspiration from a sweeping reform in the Athenian government in 461 BCE.

The Areopagus, the Greek court named after the Hill of Ares in Athens, held immense power in ancient Greece. It wasn't always a democratic court. Before 461 BCE magistrates and aristocrats, known as archons, ran and ruled the Areopagus. These wealthy rulers made decisions for the working-class citizens of Athens.

Turbulent times in Greece led to a shift in government. Farmers, hoplites (citizen soldiers), and other working Athenians wanted decision-making power themselves. In 461 BCE Athens was in the middle of a conflict with Sparta, and the current ruling class became unpopular. Citizens threw their support behind a radical Athenian democrat named Ephialtes.

Ephialtes used his authority to reform the Areopagus. He replaced the archons with a popular assembly, a council of Athenian citizens known as the Council of 500, and courts of law. He established the practice of choosing large juries by lottery drawings, similar to today's practice of choosing voters for jury duty. Athenian juries were open to male citizens over thirty years old. Juries then comprised hundreds of people, and trials lasted only one day, making it more difficult for the rich to bribe jurors ahead of time. The demos or common people of Athens then ran the city. The only place where the old Areopagus still ruled was in homicide court. Though Ephialtes was assassinated by his opponents, his system remained for over 150 years.

Aeschylus uses many characters in Eumenides as metaphors for Greece's political revolution. Athena's confident establishment of the court reflects Ephialtes's changes. The Furies' anger and fear of no longer being able to maintain order mirrors the archons' angry reaction to the new court. Orestes, caught in the middle, represents an accused Athenian on trial. The setting of the Areopagus was the real physical location of the Athenian courts, on a low rock outcropping in Athens known as the Hill of Ares or Mars Hill.

Ancient Greek Theater

Actors performed the Oresteia at a Greek theater festival called the Great Dionysia, a weeklong playwriting competition honoring the god Dionysus. Best known today as the god of wine and revelry, Dionysus was also the god of theater. Playwrights received an award for best tragedy, and Aeschylus won the award more often than any other playwright.

Audiences watched a cycle of three plays (such as the three plays of the Oresteia) usually followed by a satyr play (bawdy tragicomedy) in one day. The performance spaces were large enough to accommodate hundreds of actors on stage as Chorus members and hundreds more in the audience—as many as 14,000 people. Actors performed in the orchestra area and entered from the skene, or backstage area, usually a building or tent. Only three actors performed non-Chorus roles, switching costumes and masks as needed.

While his fellow playwrights Sophocles and Euripides used the Chorus to reflect on the play's action, Aeschylus integrated the Chorus into the plot. He was also the first playwright to introduce a second actor and expand the potential of dialogue. Eumenides, in particular, breaks with Greek dramatic tradition by making the Chorus members—the Furies—vital characters to the plot who experience change and growth.

The structure of a Greek tragedy is generally built on five parts:

  • The Prologos, or prologue, introduces the play's background, characters, settings, and themes.
  • The Parodos, or opening choral ode, introduces the Chorus.
  • The Episodes feature action and dialogue that moves the plot forward.
  • The Stasimons contain choral reflections following each episode.
  • The Exodos (EX-uh-doss), or exit scene, ends the play.

The Transformation of the Furies

The Furies are also called the Erinyes, which translates to the "name that cannot be spoken." Greek superstition held that to speak their name was to invite their presence and risk their ire. To win the favor of these frightening goddesses, Athena addresses them as the Eumenides or "kindly ones." As children of Mother Night, they are some of the oldest goddesses in the Greek pantheon. They're related to the Titans, ancient Earth gods overthrown by celestial Olympians like Apollo, Athena, and Zeus. The Furies live in the Night, a place underneath the flat Earth and sometimes equated with the underworld where shades of the dead reside, to which Apollo's chariot descends each night, ascending to Earth only to pursue criminals.

Bestial or animal-like creatures, the Furies are compared to bloodhounds, snakes, lions, goats, and other animals. The Priestess thinks they resemble the Gorgons, monsters in Greek mythology often depicted with wings and snakes for hair. Medusa is the most famous Gorgon. The costumes in the original performance were as graphic as the descriptions. One biography of Aeschylus recounts terror in the audience when the Furies came on stage. The Furies wore all black, the snakes in their hair oozed blood, and pus dripped from their eyes. According to the biographer's account, women in the audience fled and some pregnant women had miscarriages out of fright.

Aeschylus shows the Furies becoming a force for good after they take ruling positions in Athens. But their home is still in the underworld, implying their role has not changed completely. The Furies represent old, retributive ways of avenging wrongs. Their version of justice is tribal or clan based; people pay for crimes against family, and the city doesn't intervene. Athena, with help from Apollo, changes the justice system to city-based court trials, although she still acknowledges the important role of the Furies in preserving family duty and loyalty. The play dramatizes Athens's journey to democracy and deals with questions of morality, free will, inheritance, justice, and civic participation along the way.

Matriarchal versus Patriarchal Societies

The play can be read as the thematic and possibly historical shift from a tribal, matriarchal way of life on the Grecian islands to a social, patriarchal existence, particularly through the conflicts embodied in its characters. The Furies are all female, and they appear as a tribe in the form of the Chorus. They sing and chant together, in one voice, demanding their ancient, primitive right to blood vengeance for a blood murder. In particular they assert their rights as daughter of the Earth mother goddess to avenge Clytaemnestra's death at the hands of her son.

In contrast Athena, Orestes, and Apollo all act as individuals interacting with society within a legalistic, rule-bound system. Several times, the Furies accuse Athena and Apollo of being young and of not understanding their ancient claims. Athena acknowledges her youth in her attempts to appease them, while she recognizes that a social system of justice that incorporates "Reverence and Terror" is better for the people than pagan fears of an incomprehensible and ultimately untenable one.

Apollo, however, insists on his right to manage his suppliants as he sees fit. Orestes came to Apollo first, both for advice and later for purification. Apollo and Athena are both children of Zeus, who overthrew the Titans from whom the Furies descended. As such Apollo claims the Furies no longer have standing among men. Further he claims that their ancient, primitive claim on motherhood and blood ties no longer adheres in a court of law established by Athena, a goddess without a mother, sprung from Zeus's head. Finally he takes the radical position that it is the father who plants the seed and not the mother who nurtures it who is ultimately owed the child's highest loyalty.

While Athena does not go so far as Apollo in his final claim, she casts her tie-breaking vote for Orestes, and in appeasing the Furies she robs them of their power to terrify people into submission. Instead they transform into benignant goddesses who care for and nurture Earth and whose gifts may be attained through prayer and offerings.

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