The Eumenides
By Aeschylus (525-456 BC)
A Study Guide
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Mythology Background
Plot Summary
Figures of Speech
Greek Theater: Structure
Author Background
Complete Free Text
Part 1 of Trilogy
Part 2 of Trilogy

Introduction: The Eumenides as Part of The Oresteia Trilogy 

.......The 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 Choephori, Choëphoroe, 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. 
.......Although 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. 

Mythology Background

.......Aeschylus 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:
.......Agamemnon 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. 
.......One 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 abomination. 
.......So 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. 
.......Thyestes then fathered another son, Aegisthus. When he grew up, he and Thyestes killed Atreus. Thyestes then seized the throne of Atreus and became King of Mycenae.
.......Meanwhile, 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 doomthe curse pronounced by Thyesteshovered 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 Artemisoffended because Agamemnon had killed an animal sacred to herstayed 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 loverAegisthus, the son of Thyestes. Together, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus plotted Agamemnon's murder while he was fighting at Troy. 
.......When 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. 
.......After 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.

Plot Summary
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:
    Blow forth on him the breath of wrath and blood,
    Scorch him with reek of fire that burns in you,
    Waste him with new pursuit-swift, hound him down!
.......After 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.
.......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. 
.......When 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.
.......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:
    She with a specious voice of welcome true
    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 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 "gracious ones." 

.......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. 

Protagonist: Orestes
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 Clytemnestra's 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.


.......The climax of the play is the verdict that exonerates Orestes.

Main Themes of the Oresteia Trilogy

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 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. 

Gender Rivalry

.......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 Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers
.......Both 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

.......Aeschylus 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

.......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:

    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. 
Figures of Speech
.......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]
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 hands: synecdoche

–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: apostrophe]
Herald of upper and of under world,
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.

Author Information
.......Aeschylus (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 costumes. 

Greek Theater: Structure

Definition and Background

.....The 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. 
....."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
.....(1) A 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. 
.....(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.