Eumenides as Part of The Oresteia Trilogy
Eumenides is a stage drama that was first performed in Athens, Greece,
in 458 BC, along with two other plays: Agamemnon
and The Libation Bearers (also called
and Choephoroi in English transliterations from Greek).
These three plays make up a
set known as The Oresteia, considered Aeschylus's finest work and
one of the greatest works in world literature.
they are separate plays–each one complete in itself–the second play (The
Libation Bearers) continues the story of the first (Agamemnon)
and the third play (The Eumenides) continues the story of the second.
In addition, the plays share a common theme: how the justice system of
ancient Greece evolved from a crude, "eye for an eye" system to a civilized
system with courts and trials. In ancient Greece, three plays with a related
theme and plot were called a trilogy. We still use this word today
to identify three plays, novels, films, etc., with related themes and continuing
plots. The first three Star Wars movies are an example of a modern
trilogy. The title of the Aeschylus trilogy is derived from the name of
a pivotal character in The Libation Bearers–Orestes.
based the plot of The Eumenides and the other plays in The Oresteia
(also spelled Orestea) on a mythological story well known to Greeks
of his time. Because Aeschylus focused his plays only on parts of this
story, readers need to be familiar with the parts not included in the Oresteia
in order to gain a full understanding and appreciation of The Libation
Bearers. Following is an abbreviated account of the myth, as well as
information from the first play, to bring readers up to date on what took
place before the beginning of The Libation Bearers:
was the son of a man named Atreus. When Agamemnon and his younger brother,
Thyestes, were adults, Atreus became King of Mycenae, a city in southern
Greece on a peninsula today known as the Peloponnese. Atreus then drove
his brother out of the city when the latter challenged him for the throne.
One account of this tale says Thyestes had first seduced Atreus’s wife,
Aërope, to gain possession of a lamb with a golden fleece that conferred
on its owner the rulership of Mycenae. When Thyestes left the city, he
took with him Atreus’s child, Pleisthenes, and reared the boy.
day, Thyestes sent Pleisthenes on a mission to kill Atreus. But the murder
plot was foiled and Pleisthenes was killed. Atreus did not immediately
realize that the man who tried to kill him was his own son. However, after
he discovered to his horror the identity of the assailant, Atreus hatched
a plot to get even with his brother: He invited Thyestes to a banquet,
pretending he was ready to reconcile with his brother. The main course
turned out to be the cooked remains of the sons of Thyestes. Thyestes ate
heartily of the fare. After he learned of his brother's treachery, he laid
a heavy curse on Atreus and his descendants to get even for this unspeakable
it was that the son of Atreus, Agamemnon, inherited the sin and guilt of
his father, just as Christians of later times inherited the sin and guilt
of Adam and Eve.
then fathered another son, Aegisthus. When he grew up, he and Thyestes
killed Atreus. Thyestes then seized the throne of Atreus and became King
Agamemnon went on to become King of Argos, a city in the Peloponnese, and
later became general of all the Greek armies when Greece declared war on
Troy. However, a cloud of doom–the curse pronounced
by Thyestes–hovered over Agamemnon everywhere.
It eventually manifested itself at Aulis, a Greek port city where Agamemnon's
fleet had gathered to debark for Troy. There, the Olympian goddess Artemis–offended
because Agamemnon had killed an animal sacred to her–stayed
the winds, making it impossible for Agamemnon and his armies to sail to
Greece. The only way to gain favorable winds, she said, was to sacrifice
his young daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon did so and even gagged his daughter
so that, with her last breath, she could not curse him for this deed. Her
death enraged Agamemnon's wife, Queen Clytemnestra. After Artemis quickened
the winds and Agamemnon sailed off to Troy, Clytemnestra never forgot what
Agamemnon did. While he was fighting the Trojans, she took a lover–Aegisthus,
the son of Thyestes. Together, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus plotted Agamemnon's
murder while he was fighting at Troy.
the Greeks at long last defeated the Trojans and Clytemnestra received
word that Agamemnon would soon return home as a conquering hero, Clytemnestra
set in motion the murder plan. It is at this point that Aeschylus picks
up the story in the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, in which
the playwright tells how Clytemnestra carried out her plan with the help
of Aegisthus. The chorus in that play predicts that an avenger will come
to mete out justice against Clytemnestra. This avenger is Clytemnestra's
son, Orestes, the main character of The Libation Bearers. According
to Greek myth, Orestes was just a child at the time of Agamemnon's murder.
Fearing for his life, his sister, Electra, and his nurse secretly smuggled
him out of the palace and sent him to his uncle, the King of Phocis, who
reared Orestes alongside his own son, Pylades.
Orestes attains young manhood, he returns to Argos to avenge the death
of his father, a part of the story which is the subject of The Libation
Bearers. In that play, Orestes kills Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, an
act which provokes the Furies. These are female deities who hunt down and
exact vengeance against persons they believe have committed a grave crime,
such as murder. Goaded by the ghost of Clytemnestra, they pursue Orestes
from Argos to Delphi, where Orestes takes refuge in the temple of Apollo,
a god who is friendly to him. It is at this point that Aeschylus takes
up the story in The Eumenides, the third and final play of the trilogy.
Michael J. Cummings...©
seeks refuge from the Furies at the famous temple of Apollo in the town
of Delphi on Mount Parnassus. There, the temple oracle–a priestess who
pronounces prophecies to suppliants–stands outside the shrine praying to
various gods. She asks them to inspire her with the knowledge she needs
to answer the questions of petitioners who come for guidance.
she enters the temple, she spends only a moment inside before coming back
out, horrified at what she saw: Orestes, bloodstained with a sword in hand,
crouching at the altar while the terrible Furies–divinities of vengeance
with coiling snakes for hair–sleeping nearby.
doors of the temple are now open, revealing the horrid sight. Apollo, the
god of prophecy then appears with Hermes, the messenger god. Apollo tells
Orestes to leave for Athens while the Furies are sleeping. There, at the
temple of Athena, goddess of wisdom, he is to petition for a trial at which
Apollo will plead his case. Hermes will accompany him to protect him from
the Furies, who will pursue him after they awaken.
Orestes leaves, the ghost of Clytemnestra appears. She rouses the Furies
and scolds them for letting Orestes slip away, then says:
Blow forth on him the breath
of wrath and blood,
shaking off their sleep, the Furies–deities whose existence came about
long before that of Apollo and the other gods of Olympus–denigrate Apollo
as one of the new order of gods who befoul the old order of justice, which
requires violent revenge. Apollo condemns them for hounding Orestes on
behalf of the spirit of his mother, then orders them out of his shrine.
They resume their pursuit of Orestes.
Scorch him with reek of
fire that burns in you,
Waste him with new pursuit-swift,
hound him down!
Athens a year later, Orestes enters Athena’s temple, followed by the relentless
Furies. Orestes begs the goddess for deliverance from their wrath; they,
in turn, say that he will never escape them. When Athena appears, the chorus
explains the situation to her. She then orders a trial before the citizens
of Athens and establishes a court on the Areopagus (Hill of Ares, the god
of war) at which the trial will be held. She herself will act as judge.
the court convenes, the Leader of the Chorus–one of the Furies–questions
Orestes like a prosecuting attorney.
Orestes asks the Leader why the Furies did not pursue Clytemnestra, the
Leader replies that she was not a blood relative of Agamemnon but that
Orestes was, a fact which they imply makes him more guilty than Clytemnestra
and therefore more deserving of punishment. It seems that the Furies are
getting the better of Orestes, first by getting him to confess to matricide
and second by responding cleverly to his question. Orestes then turns to
Apollo for help.
whose word, whose craft, wert thou impelled?
of him who here attests me.
bade thee thy mother slay?
and thro' him less ill I fared, till now.
testifies that he never spoke a word that Zeus, the king of the gods, did
not first approve. In other words, Zeus approved of Apollo's command that
Orestes kill Clytemnestra. After all, he says, Agamemnon was a great king
and a warrior who deserved better than to die at the hands of a woman:
She with a specious voice
of welcome true
jury of 12 citizens returns a tie vote, 6 to 6, but Athena breaks the tie
by voting for Orestes and sets him free. The curse on the House of Atreus
thus ends, as does the era of violent and bloody justice. At the same time,
the era of law and civilized justice begins. When the Furies protest the
court’s decision, threatening to release the "venom of vengeance" throughout
the land, Athena invites them to make their home in Athens as guardians
of the city who receive the honor and respect of the people. They accept
the invitation and promise to bring blessings upon the city. Henceforth,
they are no longer to be known as the Furies but instead as the Eumenides–the
Hailed him, returning from
the mighty mart
Where war for life gives
fame, triumphant home;
Then o'er the laver, as
he bathed himself,
She spread from head to
foot a covering net,
And in the endless mesh
of cunning robes
Enwound and trapped her
lord, and smote him down.
action takes place in Delphi, Greece, and in Athens, Greece. Delphi is
on a slope of Mount Parnassus, northwest of Athens, about six miles inland
from the Gulf of Corinth. In ancient Greece, it was the site of a famous
temple dedicated to Apollo. Petitioners from all the regions of Greece
visited the temple to request prophecies and guidance from the temple's
oracle, a priestess (called the Pythia) who spoke for Apollo.
Antagonist: The Chorus
of Furies, Representing the Old System of Justice
Orestes Son of Agamemnon
and Clytemnestra. His mother killed his father. In turn, Orestes killed
his mother to avenge the death of his father. The spirit of his mother
then invoked the Furies.
Priestess of Apollo Called
the Pythia, this priestess presides over Apollo's temple at Delphi.
Chorus of Furies
Deities who exact vengeance against wrongdoers. They are terrifying to
behold, for they have coiling snakes for hair. They pursue Orestes after
he kills Clytemnestra.
Ghost of Clytemnestra
Apollo God of prophecy
and protector of Orestes.
Athena Goddess of
wisdom. She establishes a court at Athens for the trial of Orestes.
Attendants of Athena
paramour and son of Thestes, who pronounced the curse on the House of Atreus
Twelve Athenians They
vote for or against Orestes at the end of the trial.
climax of the play is the verdict that exonerates Orestes.
Themes of the Oresteia Trilogy
Retribution and Revenge
gods of ancient Greece required humankind to pay for its sins. Sons and
daughters of sinners could inherit the sins of their parents, just as the
descendants of Adam and Eve were destined to inherit original sin in Christian
theology. But of course each Greek also had free will, enabling him or
her to choose good or evil. Agamemnon inherited the sin of his father,
Atreus, in the form of a curse pronounced on Agamemnon by his brother,
Thyestes. In the Aeschylus play, Agamemnon thus seems doubly cursed. On
the one hand, he bears the guilt of his father; on the other, he bears
his own guilt for sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, and for participating
in the destruction of Troy’s holy places. One could argue that the circumstances
forcing him to decide whether to sacrifice his daughter arose as a result
of the curse pronounced on the House of Atreus by Thyestes. Whatever the
case, Agamemnon lives under the weight of inherited sin and sin that he
wills. Of course, killing his daughter and defiling Troy’s altars are not
his only sins; he also commits adultery and indulges his own pride by walking
on the purple carpet. After Clytemnestra murders him, she defends her action
by saying she represented the gods carrying out a divine sentence. But
it is obvious that she is also a human avenger getting even for the murder
of her daughter and for Agamemnon’s infidelity. Ironically, Clytemnestra
has also been unfaithful–with the son of the man who was wronged by Atreus.
At the end of the play, the chorus declares that another avenger will appear
to exact revenge against Clytemnestra.
Evolution of Personal
Vengeance Into a Civilized Court System
very early Greek history, as well as in the myths and legends recounted
by early Greek writers, it was up to individuals to mete out justice for
wrongs committed against them. Courts and trials as we know them today
did not exist. In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra takes justice into her
own hands; she believes she has a right to kill Agamemnon in retaliation
for his killing of their daughter, Iphigenia. In her own mind, Clytemnestra
has tried and convicted her husband. When she kills him, she becomes an
executioner. In short, she personifies the entire justice system. In The
Libation Bearers, Orestes–with the support of his sister, Electra–assumes
the role of judge, jury, and executioner, condemning and killing his mother
to avenge the death of his father. In
The Eumenides, the Furies
attempt to avenge the death of Clytemnestra. However, two powerful gods,
Apollo and Athena, intervene. Athena establishes a court to try Orestes
for his alleged crime. Apollo testifies for Orestes and the Furies against
him. In the end, Orestes is exonerated, and the court system replaces the
old "eye for an eye" system.
Agamemnon, Argos is a male-dominated society that reduces women
to subservient roles. However, Clytemnestra is a strong woman who
rules the kingdom while Agamemnon is away. When he returns from the war
to resume his rule, Clytemnestra is expected to yield to him. It may well
be, though, that Clytemnestra is wedded to the throne, as it were, and
has decided to kill Agamemnon not only as an act of vengeance but also
as an act of ambition. This motif receives further attention in The
Libation Bearers. In this play, Clytemnestra is described as a tyrant
who oppresses the citizens of Argos and enslaves her own daughter. It almost
appears as if testosterone, not estrogen, drives her. When Orestes plots
her death, he cites reclamation of the throne from a woman as one of one
of his goals. After killing Clytemnestra, Orestes is pursued by female
deities, the Furies, and saved by a male deity, Apollo. Of course, a female
deity has the last word: In The Eumenides, the goddess Athena votes
to acquit Orestes, the pacifies the enraged Furies. Her action not only
establishes a new order of justice but also reconciles the warring sexes.
Importance of Heeding
the Will of the Gods
Agamemnon, the title character faces doom in part because he sometimes
failed to respect the gods and their laws. First, he killed an animal sacred
to Artemis (an act alluded to but not described in detail in the Aeschylus
play). For this offense, she prevented Agamemnon and his armies from gaining
favorable winds for their voyage to Troy. The only way for him to reverse
her action, she decreed, was to sacrifice his daughter. Second, he exhibited
excessive pride on several occasions as commander of the Greek forces.
Third, he allowed his soldiers to desecrate the holy places of Troy. After
his return to Argos, he allowed his pride to get the better of him again,
this time by walking in triumph on the purple carpet. Pride was considered
a grave sin in ancient Greece because it placed too much emphasis on individual
will, thereby downplaying the will of the state and endangering the community
as a whole. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes hesitates when the
time comes to kill Clytemnestra. His friend, Pylades, convinces him of
the necessity of the act by reminding him that Apollo ordered the killing.
In The Eumenides, everyone–including the Furies–accepts the will
Fickleness of the Gods
gods of Greek mythology could be fickle and hypocritical, just like humans.
Not infrequently, they violated laws which they commanded humans to obey.
For example, they frequently committed infidelity. They also lied, promoted
violence, and displayed inordinate pride. In Agamemnon, the goddess
Artemis exhibited hypocrisy when she withheld favorable winds from Agamemnon
for killing one of her sacred animals. To understand her hypocrisy in this
case, one must understand what her roles were. First, she was a protector
of wild animals while also serving as the patron deity of hunters. She
herself was a huntress. Yet she penalized Agamemnon for doing what she
often did: kill an animal. Second, as a virgin goddess, she was the patron
of chastity. Yet she told Agamemnon that she would not cancel her penalty
unless he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, a virgin. Artemis thus exhibited
hostility toward two humans she was supposed to favor: a hunter and a virgin.
In Agamemnon, Aeschylus does not explicitly address the issue of
divine hypocrisy, but he does allude to it–intentionally or unintentionally–in
Infidelity: A Motif in
and The Libation Bearers.
Agamemnon and Clytemnestra commit adultery–he with Cassandra, whom he brings
home from Troy as a captive, and she with Aegisthus, the son of the bitter
enemy of Agamemnon’s father. Although Agamemnon's infidelity is not the
main reason that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon, it helps her to drive her
weapon into his skull. Before Orestes kills Clytemnestra in The Libation
Bearers, he cites his mother's his mother's infidelity with Aegisthus
as one of his motives, although it is not the main motive.
Darkness and Light
uses images of darkness and light to symbolize the emergence of Greece
from the primitive age of personal revenge and vigilante justice, during
which powerful monarchs ruled city states, to the civilized age of law
courts, during which the people ruled through democracy. In the Oresteia,
the transition from one age to the other begins in the first play, Agamemnon,
when the watchman observes a mountain-top signal fire lighting the night
sky to alert Argos that the Trojan War has ended. Dawn follows shortly
thereafter. From then on, images of darkness and light vie with each other,
symbolizing the cultural and social struggle taking place.
There is a kind of birth
going on, and there are labor pains. The newborn child finally sees the
light of day, for good, in the third play of the trilogy.
Animal and Insect Images
Agamemnon, eagles, hares, spiders, and other creatures exhibit the
behavior patterns of humans, figuratively speaking, and thus become symbols
for those humans. For example, spiders and snakes are associated with Clytemnestra
because she has spun a web of treachery (like a spider) and has poised
herself (like a coiling snake) to strike at Agamemnon. Eagles that prey
on a pregnant hare are associated with Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus,
because they are fierce warriors destined to destroy Troy (the hare) and
its future (the hare's offspring). In the third play of the trilogy, The
Eumenides, the spider-web metaphor appears again when the god Apollo
describes how Clytemnestra trapped Agamemnon:
She spread from head to
foot a covering net,
And in the endless mesh
of cunning robes
Enwound and trapped her
lord, and smote him down.
plays of Aeschylus are rich in a wide range of figures of speech that infuse
his writing with dignity and majesty. Here are examples from Agamemnon
and The Libation Bearers.
Paradox, Hyperbole, Synecdoche
As saith the adage, from
the womb of Night................[womb of
Night: metaphor, personification]
Spring forth, with promise
fair, the young child Light.....[womb of Night
/ child Light: paradox
Ay–fairer even than all
hope my news–.......................[fairer
even than all hope: hyperbole
By Grecian hands is Priam's
city ta'en!.......................[by Grecian
–Speaker and play: Clytemnestra
in Agamemnon, referring to the Greek victory over the Trojans
O mighty Hermes, warder of
the shades,..................[O mighty Hermes:
Herald of upper and of under
Proclaim and usher down
my prayer's appeal
Unto the gods below, that
they with eyes
Watchful behold these halls.
My sire's of old–
And unto Earth, the mother
of all things,...................[Earth, the
mother: personification, metaphor]
And loster-nurse, and womb
that takes their seed.
–Speaker and play: Electra
in The Libation Bearers while praying at the tomb of Agamemnon.
(525-456 B.C.) was the first of ancient Greece's
great tragedians. Because of the standards of excellence he established
and because of innovations he made in the staging of Greek drama, he is
often referred to as the "father of Greek tragedy." Before Aeschylus wrote
and staged his plays, Greek drama consisted primarily of choral songs,
recitations, and dances, as well as dialogue expressed by a single actor
who generally played more than one part. (The actor wore a mask that signified
which character he was playing at a given time. When he switched characters,
he changed masks.) Aeschylus added a second actor, enabling the first actor
to engage in dialogue with the second actor and providing greater latitude
for plot development. He also increased the dialogue portions of plays,
reduced the lyrical portions of the chorus, and designed stage sets and
Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage,
and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring
the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dionysia, the Greeks
danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories. One
day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue,
to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done
so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging
them in a theater.
contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the ‘tyrant' whom
the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival
into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters
of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals,
and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate
Major Sections of the
tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron
faced the east to allow the audience to view plays–usually staged later
in the day–without squinting.
stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the
midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors.
orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
Other Theater Sections
Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and
sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became
a background showing appropriate scenery.
Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.
Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from