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Eumenides | Episode 2 | Summary

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Summary

Athena enters—she was in Troy to take ownership of property she won in the Trojan War, but she heard someone summoning her and rushed back to Athens. She doesn't recognize Orestes or the Furies. But she's heard the Furies' severe accusations against Orestes, which seem unjust if he's done no wrong.

Athena requests an explanation, and the Chorus Leader says she'll explain everything. Though Athena has heard of the Furies before, she doesn't understand their mandate for vengeance. The Chorus Leader explains why they are chasing Orestes. Athena asks why Orestes would kill his mother in the first place, and the Chorus Leader replies there's no excuse. Athena says she's only heard one side of the story. When the Chorus Leader mentions Orestes's oath and confession to the deed, Athena responds "no one should use oaths/to let injustice triumph." The Chorus Leader agrees to let Athena deliver the final verdict.

Athena then asks Orestes to respond. Orestes wants to clear up any of her doubts about him. Though he's a criminal, he's been purified in a cleansing ritual according to the law and is no longer a "suppliant in need of cleansing." He introduces himself as an Argive citizen and Agamemnon's son. He tells Athena Agamemnon returned from fighting in the Trojan War only to be murdered by his wife and Orestes's mother, Clytaemnestra, who blamed Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to appease the offended goddess Athena. Orestes, in exile at the time, came home to avenge his father's death. He notes Apollo is responsible too. Apollo encouraged him and threatened repercussions if he did not act. Orestes, like the Chorus, will defer to Athena's decision.

Now that Athena's heard both sides, she thinks the case is too complex for her to judge alone. Since Orestes has been purified, he's innocent according to Athenian law. But she can't ignore the importance of the Furies' role, and she knows they'll harm the city if they don't get the justice they want. Both options—acquittal and conviction—are "disastrous." Nevertheless, Athena plans to select a jury of Athens' finest men. She tells each side to prepare witnesses and evidence for their case.

Analysis

Athena is one of many characters to invoke customs and propriety, but because Orestes and the Furies are in her territory—the city of Athens—she has the final say. The Furies respect her, referring to her by her family lineage as the "Daughter of Zeus," and she doesn't fear them. They recognize her jurisdiction and her status as a goddess, not an interloper in their affairs, as they perceive Apollo to be.

She brings a level head to the proceedings, asking about the logistics of Orestes's punishment: "Once the killer flees, where does he finally go?" She also thinks the crime is more complex than it first appears. Orestes may have feared for his own life, or he may have been forced. She immediately demonstrates the shrewd thinking of a judge.

Still The Furies don't have room for Athena's type of nuance in their thoughts. They value oaths and family loyalty. A criminal who breaks an oath must pay for his crime no matter what. The Chorus Leader sarcastically points out Athena's "mind for subtleties." Athena sees gray areas where the Chorus sees black and white.

Orestes's argument proves he's engaging in black-and-white thinking too. He's gone through the proper purification rites with Apollo, so he should be free to go. He seems confident in his love for his father and disdain for his mother, describing Clytaemnestra's "black heart" and "devious hunting nets" in a way that recalls images of the black Furies. But Orestes's willingness to let Athena decide whether or not he committed a "righteous act" means he still may doubt he did the right thing.

Like Orestes Athena is faced with an impossible choice. If she convicts Orestes, she's broken her own laws, gone against Apollo's judgment, and possibly invited the wrath of Orestes's city Argos. If she acquits him, she's offended older goddesses, brought suffering to her homeland when the Furies inevitably take revenge, and let a murderer who confessed to the crime walk free. Even by leaving justice to a human court she's taking a risk.

The situation is fraught with tension and emotion, like the court transition in Greece in the 5th century BCE, which inspired Eumenides. Ephialtes's overthrow of the aristocrats and newly created democratic court was not popular with everyone, and its implications reverberated beyond Greece. No one knew whether the demos or common people could make responsible decisions themselves or whether chaos would ensue.

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