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Eumenides | Prologos | Summary

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Summary

The play opens outside Apollo's temple in Delphi, Greece. The Priestess prays to Apollo before she prophesies. She begins by retelling Apollo's origin story, beginning with Earth, "the first of prophets among all gods," and continuing with Apollo's journey to Mount Parnassus and gift of prophecy from his father, Zeus. She also credits the goddess Athena and the gods Pleistus and Poseidon. The Priestess hopes her prophecy will be more insightful than ever before, and tells any Greeks in attendance to draw lots and wait to enter the temple.

When the Priestess goes into the temple, however, she leaves immediately in shock. She's seen something too horrible for her to believe. As she collects herself, she begins to describe to the audience what she saw. A man sat on the "central navel stone" of the temple's inner shrine, a space reserved for Apollo's worshippers. She recognized the man as someone "the gods despise." He held a bloody sword in one hand and an olive branch in the other.

Sleeping women surrounded him, women who look more like "Gorgons" or monsters than human beings. The women are black-colored with "loud rasping snorts," pus oozing from their eyes, and clothing inappropriate for the temple. The Priestess says Apollo will handle the situation—she knows he has the power to heal.

The scene changes to the inside of Apollo's temple. The man on the stone is revealed to be Orestes, and the sleeping women to be the Furies. Apollo enters from the inner shrine in the back of the temple. He offers Orestes his continued protection. The Furies may look threatening, Apollo says; they're "born for evil" and bound to chase Orestes wherever he goes. But Orestes should keep traveling until he reaches Athena's city, where justice will find a way to save him. Apollo confesses he encouraged Orestes to commit the crime of killing his mother. Orestes says Apollo should practice compassion as well as justice.

Apollo calls the god Hermes to accompany Orestes to Athens. Urging Orestes not to let fear defeat him, Apollo sends the two on their way and returns to the inner shrine.

Clytaemnestra's ghost enters to wake the Furies. She wants justice; she's haunted by the ghosts of those she killed (her husband, Agamemnon, and Cassandra, a Trojan princess captured by him after the fall of Troy) but knows she's a victim of cruelty too. No ghosts torment her son Orestes for killing his mother. Clytaemnestra has made sacrifices to the gods in hope of vengeance. Now Orestes has escaped on the Furies' watch. It's their job to make him pay.

She continues to call on the Furies, who mutter in their sleep. Once they begin to wake, she exits.

Analysis

The play opens on an important day. The Priestess, the oracle of Apollo, emerges from the temple a few days a year to answer visitors' questions about the future. She is famous beyond Greece for her skills in foresight. The Greek visitors are asked to "draw lots and enter," as the Priestess notes. But because of the horrifying sight in the temple, this won't be an ordinary day of prophecy.

The Priestess's introductory speech introduces us to the themes and characters in the play. The authority and origin stories of the gods, for instance, will become important in the climactic scenes. She mentions the original, oldest gods—Earth and the Titans—out of reverence, and the significance of older gods threads through the play as well. The Furies' hounding of Orestes is a driving engine for the plot.

The mention of the shrine of Athena, or Pallas Athena, foreshadows Athena's role. The shrine to Pallas and the Corycian cave ("Corycia's rocky caves") are sacred locations that would have been familiar to the Greek audience. The Corycian cave was a spot associated with the gods Pan and Dionysus, and the Dionysian festival, where Eumenides was first performed, took place close to the cave. In many versions of the legend, Orestes is driven mad by The Furies and, unable to reconcile his crime with its cause, retreats to the woods outside this very cave. There he is met by the Maenads, virgin revelers drunk on the wine of Dionysus. Frenzied by the sight of a man, they tear him to pieces and end his tragedy. The location thus provides visual suspense for the audience as they wait to see the outcome of the trial.

The Priestess is shocked at the sight of Orestes partly because of where he is sitting. He's "right on the central navel stone," a stone signifying the center of the world to ancient Greeks. Zeus determined the spot in Delphi to be Earth's center by sending two eagles to fly in opposite directions and marking the point where they both returned. Also called the omphalos stone, the navel stone is the throne of the Earth deity, and it symbolizes sacredness and order. The stone is "the seat reserved for suppliants" who want mercy from the gods. When Orestes marks the stone with blood, he shows he's still pursued by his crimes.

The olive branch Orestes holds shows his desire for exoneration. He will later tell the jury he has "no regrets" about killing his mother. But without help from the gods, he knows he's doomed to death at the hands of the Furies, if he's not dragged to the underworld alive. He can't go home to Argos, so he has no homeland, and after the deaths in the first two plays he has no real family either. Group identity was strong in ancient Greek culture. Loyalty to the oikos, the household, and the polis, the city, shaped self-image. Without either Orestes is hopeless. Aeschylus is setting his tragic hero up for an arc of redemption, which will signal a shift from the tribal cycle of vengeance to a system of democracy in Athens.

By describing the Furies before they appear on stage, Aeschylus builds audience anticipation. Once the Priestess describes what she's seen, the stage is set for the audience to look—expectantly and fearfully—toward the doors of the skene or backstage area for the "black and totally repulsive" monsters. Violence and murders couldn't be shown on stage in ancient Greece, so the audience relied on the reactions of the performers to feel the impact of pivotal violent events.

The Prologos is intended to set up ideas, themes, and symbols that will recur in the rest of the play. The blood on Orestes's hands and the slashes on Clytaemnestra's heart emphasize the tribal cycle of vengeance. Orestes's betrayal hits Clytaemnestra in the heart. The tension of old gods versus young gods arises in Apollo's description of the Furies as "ancient children." He knows they're older gods, but he doesn't have much respect for them. Although he fails to realize it, he needs Athena as much as Orestes does to mediate with them on his behalf; otherwise his efforts to defend his suppliant will be in vain.

Apollo is counting on "the force of speech, the spell-binding power in words" to exonerate Orestes. He wants civilized, rational, human methods to solve the problem of justice. In a courtroom, speech has power to change fates, and Apollo's own speech will help turn Athena's verdict in Episode 3.

Meanwhile the Furies resemble animals both in appearance and in action. They act on instinct, like bloodhounds on the hunt. And their task is emotional and primal, as Clytaemnestra emphasizes in her angry, urging speech. She hopes their "blood-filled breath" and "fires in [their] bodies" will do the work she can't. Clytaemnestra still subscribes to the old codes of vengeance. She's made sacrifices to the gods; she feels she's earned the defense of the Furies. When she says Orestes has "jumped the centre of your nets" she returns to the language of animal captivity, which she used when defending her murder of Agamemnon earlier in the cycle.

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