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Eumenides | Episode 1 | Summary

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Summary

Apollo returns and orders the Chorus of Furies out of his temple. He says they belong where "justice equals slaughter," and he doesn't want them infecting his shrine.

The Chorus Leader accuses Apollo of killing Clytaemnestra himself through his commands to Orestes. Apollo claims he only wanted Orestes to avenge his father, Agamemnon, whom Clytaemnestra murdered. In fact he told Orestes to return to Delphi and atone for his crime. He still wants the Chorus out of his temple, but the Chorus Leader says they've been assigned there; they hunt down men who kill their mothers.

Apollo wonders why the Furies won't punish Clytaemnestra for killing her husband since they're so committed to justice. The Chorus Leader replies Clytaemnestra didn't commit "blood murder in the family." Apollo argues marriage is just as strong as blood. He says the Furies can go after Orestes if they want to. He'll protect Orestes himself.

The scene changes to Athens, outside Athena's temple. Orestes, arriving as an outcast, approaches the statue of Athena and begs for the goddess's mercy. He knows he'll be on trial for his crimes.

Then the Furies arrive in Athens. They've tracked Orestes by his scent. The Chorus Leader proclaims they've finally found him after roaming Earth. They're not going to let him go. The Furies surround Orestes and talk in overlapping dialogue. They demand Orestes's blood as payment for his crime, threatening to drag him alive to Hades where other criminals live.

Orestes feels he's been ordered to speak. Apollo, he says, has purified him from his guilt through the blood sacrifice of a pig. Now Orestes begs Athena to acquit him. The Chorus Leader replies neither Apollo nor Athena can save him now. She grows angry when Orestes won't answer her, and she guides the Furies to begin "a spell to chain you."

Analysis

Throughout the first two Oresteia plays the audience has heard about the gods and seen their impact through human characters. In the third play the audience gets to see how divine forces interact with one another and how they use and abuse their powers. The Olympians are finally speaking with humans directly. Orestes's case, and the case of the House of Atreus, is an opportunity for the gods to come into open conflict and decide the future of Greek government.

Apollo's golden arrow is one of his most legendary symbols, a weapon that could bring plague and death. The threat of "glittering winged snakes" from arrows that "bite" brings a visceral, animalistic edge to his hatred of the Furies. Snakes stand for consumption and evil. He gives several bestial metaphors for the Furies, a "flock without a shepherd" living in a "blood-soaked lion's den." When the Furies describe Orestes as "a victim fattened up" they show, like animals, they're hungry to consume.

Apollo contrasts the Furies with vulnerable humans, particularly young males, who produce new life and vitality in a city; the underworld is "where youthful men are ruined by castration." Apollo's later argument for Orestes's acquittal will further show the value he places on male lives. Apollo's view of family hierarchies conflicts directly with the Chorus's view. When the Chorus Leader says avenging a father is not worth killing a mother, Apollo truly doesn't see why not. He doesn't view female and male lives in the same light. And he observes the Furies' logic doesn't make sense; they don't care about a husband murdering a wife, so how can they defend family unity now?

The Chorus, on the other hand, has a hard-wired view of who is and is not considered family. They believe family is determined by blood relations, not marriage or human contract. Only "blood murder in the family" counts as an unforgivable crime. Orestes hasn't avenged his father; he's killed his mother. The argument between Apollo and the Chorus Leader is one of the play's many examples of stichomythia, or rapid exchanges of dialogue between two characters in a Greek drama. Stichomythia moves the plot forward and enhances the possibilities of the second-actor scenes Aeschylus introduced.

The dilemma of how to punish Orestes raises universal questions about family. Who is considered your family, and what do you owe them? Which actions against a family member can't be forgiven? Was Orestes's loyalty to one parent really more important than his loyalty to the other? The tension between older and newer views of family arises when Apollo says marriage is a familial bond, bound by justice as much as a blood bond. As he points out, "Zeus and his queen Hera" are bound by marriage too, and they're the heads of the gods. The older, tribal view of family is useful in hunter-gatherer socioeconomic units. However, for a civilization to expand, family relations must grow to include extended family, and concepts of blood vengeance must be set aside.

Eumenides gives the audience a glimpse into how the gods negotiate over human lives and fates, and which actions they choose to avenge. By saying the Furies belong where "justice equals slaughter," Apollo makes his own comment about the deaths in the House of Atreus. Though he ordered Clytaemnestra's and Aegisthus's deaths himself, Apollo seems to want a change in the blood-for-blood justice cycle. He has faith in Athena's ability to organize a fair trial. He's given Orestes the opportunity to "expiate" or atone for his crime without causing any more death. Orestes has already accepted responsibility, Apollo thinks—he's paid enough.

And when Orestes says "my avenging zeal has lost its edge" he hints he, too, is sick of the blood vengeance patterns. He thinks he's learned enough to make a change; "my misery has been my teacher." As a tragic hero he's suffered more than he should. The audience still doesn't know if the jury will feel the same way. But they may feel sympathy for Orestes, who seems desperate and lost.

The Chorus Leader wants Apollo to accept responsibility for his own role in the crime. The Chorus recognizes the limitations placed on humans when gods order them to commit certain actions, so she claims Apollo is just as guilty as Orestes. The audience may wonder what justice Orestes really deserves. If Apollo told him to commit the crime in the first place, and he couldn't disobey a god without consequences, is Orestes guilty or just unfortunate? The play asks readers to consider whether humans are pawns at the mercy of gods and curses, acting out predetermined behaviors, as the rest of the Oresteia suggests, or are masters of their own fate.

Still the Chorus's job is to punish the human criminal no matter what. They call on "Hades, mighty god of all the dead" for the final judgment, since death is inevitable for mortals. The Chorus fixates on permanence and natural order. A mother's death is permanent, and so is her role as creator of life. Once shed, her blood is a "flowing stream" that "disappears forever." Crimes against parents, those who give life, are unforgivable. As bestial as the Furies are, they do have a firm and even understandable moral code.

By calling Orestes a "stranger" who will die "abandoned and alone," the Furies reinforce the image of Orestes as perpetual exile, chased out of every city and unable to return home to Argos. Orestes admits he's been traveling across "all well-beaten pathways known to men." Orestes doesn't see himself as a man without a country, however; he's still an Argive at heart, even if he can't return. He invokes homeland and community loyalty (loyalty to the polis, or city) when he offers Athens the protection of the city of Argos. Orestes's promise to Athena of "true allies" in the Argives, as well as his request for her to "appear unarmed," may constitute both a promise and a threat—if the verdict doesn't go his way, he will send Argos to war with Athens.

Orestes's reference to Athena as "some bold commander" reinforces Athena's association with male authority and her defiance of gender norms, which proves crucial to the trial's outcome.

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