By Aeschylus (525-456 BC)
A Study Guide
Introduction: The 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.
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:
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
.......Orestes 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.
.......After 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.
.......The 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.
.......After Orestes leaves, the ghost of Clytemnestra appears. She rouses the Furies and scolds them for letting Orestes slip away, then says:
Scorch him with reek of fire that burns in you,
Waste him with new pursuit-swift, hound him down!
.......In 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.
.......When the court convenes, the Leader of the Chorus–one of the Furies–questions Orestes like a prosecuting attorney.
But by whose word, whose craft, wert thou impelled?
By oracles of him who here attests me.
The prophet-god bade thee thy mother slay?
Yea, and thro' him less ill I fared, till now.
.......Apollo 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:
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.
.......The 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.
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.
.......The climax of the play is the verdict that exonerates Orestes.
Retribution and Revenge
.......The 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
.......In 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
.......In 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 of Athena.
Fickleness of the Gods
.......The 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 choral songs.
Infidelity: A Motif in
and The Libation Bearers
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.
Animal and Insect Images
.......In 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:
And in the endless mesh of cunning robes
Enwound and trapped her lord, and smote him down.
.......The 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.
Metaphor, Personification, Paradox, Hyperbole, Synecdoche
As saith the adage, from
the womb of Night................[womb of
Night: metaphor, personification]
–Speaker and play: Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, referring to the Greek victory over the Trojans
Apostrophe, Personification, Metaphor
O mighty Hermes, warder of
the shades,..................[O mighty Hermes:
–Speaker and play: Electra in The Libation Bearers while praying at the tomb of Agamemnon.
Definition and Background
....."A 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 them.
Major Sections of the Theater
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors.
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
Other Theater Sections
.....Skene: 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.
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.