The Oresteia Unplugged, Part 4: The Eumenides
The third and final play begins at Apollo’s temple. Pythia, Apollo’s priestess, extols the gods in their proper order. She appears to conclude with Apollo, who she says speaks for Father Zeus. But a surprising addition is waiting: “But Athena at the Forefront of the Temple crowns our legends” (Fagels 21). Pythia enters the temple, but quickly returns weak and trembling. She has seen Orestes, hands still dripping of his mother’s blood, and she has seen the Furies. The Furies are like women but inhuman; no wings, black, repulsive. They have a heavy, rasping breathe, their eyes ooze a sickening discharge, and their very clothing is a sacrilege. Pythia turns to Apollo and begs him to cleanse his temple. Apollo assures her that he will never fail her, “I shall not weaken towards your enemies” (Lattimore, 66). We then discover that the Furies were actually asleep when Pythia discovered them; Apollo had “beaten them down with sleep” (Fagles, 70).
Apollo declares the Furies disgust him and that they were born for destruction. At this, we hear from Orestes for the first time. He has been kneeling underneath Apollo for purging, to be cleansed of his matricide, but now he objects to Apollo’s judgmental language. Orestes rebukes his redeeming God, “My lord Apollo, you understand what it means to do no wrong. Learn also what it is not to neglect” (Lattimore, 85) Apollo apparently did not hear or understand, and proceeds to give Hermes to Orestes as a guide to Athena’s temple, where Orestes is to receive the final help he needs.
After Orestes leaves, Clytaemnestra’s ghost goes to the Furies who are sleeping in Apollo’s temple. She urges them to awake and avenge Orestes’ matricide. Now Clytaemnestra claims the Furies as her own spirits and reminds them of all the sacrifice they ate and drank from her hand. She pleads with them and commands them. “What have you yet got done, except to do evil?” (Lattimore, 125). “Get him, get him, get him” (Lattimore, 130). When the Furies finally arise, they utter disjointed statements that go from theological claims to prophetic vision, from accusations for the gods to cries of pain: One calls out, “The miles of pain, the pain I suffer…” (Fagles, 145). Another Fury cries, “I can feel the executioner’s lash, its searing deeper, sharper, the knives of burning ice” (Fagles, 160). Another laments, “I can see the Navelstone of the Earth, it’s bleeding, bristling corruption, oh, the guilt it has to bear” (Fagles, 166).
Apollo enters in the midst of all this verbal eruption and in spite of Orestes’ rebuke remains pitiless towards the Furies:
Heave in torment, black froth erupting from your lungs,
vomit the clots of all the murders you have drained.
but never touch my hall, you have no right.
go where heads are severed, eyes gouged out,
where Justice and bloody slaughter are the same…
castrations, wasted seed, young men’s glories butchered,
extremities maimed, and huge stones at the chest,
and the victims wail for pity –
spikes inching up the spine, torsos stuck on spikes. (Fagles, 180 – 188)
Apollo concludes, “No god has such affection as to tend this brood.” (Lattimore, 197).
From there Aeschylus moves us to the final setting of the Oresteia, the Acropolis in Athens. Orestes is clutching the idol of Athena. Praying to her, he explains that he does not come for purgation since he comes “not unwashed of hand.” (Lattimore, 237) Now that he has arrived, he awaits only the consummation of his trial (Lattimore, 243). But the Furies have tracked him down and begin demanding justice: “You must give back for her blood from the living man…” (Lattimore, 264) “each with the pain upon him that his crime deserves.” (Lattimore, 271). Orestes responds with a statement we can remember from the first play, “I have suffered into truth.” (Fagles, 274) Apollo has killed a swine and has begun to wash the stain of his mother’s blood. It is with “pure lips” that Orestes then calls out “Athena, help me!” (Lattimore, 287) “So may she set me free from what is at my back.” (298). But the Furies persist. “We rise in flames against him until the end” (Fagles, 320) “…whose blood at last could wipe the motherblood away.” (Lattimore, 326). They then proceed to chant their “hymn of fury,” they chant a “frenzy.” (Fagles, 345) There is repetition in the stanzas and all this has already been introduced as a “dance” (Fagles, 307). The Furies are dancing out their rage (370). Aeschylus appears to be referencing ancient liturgical violence; from the dark night of their past, these civilized Athenians recall who they are, where they have come from. “…moaning rumor tells how his house lies under fog that glooms above.” (Lattimore, 379). They are haunted with their past. How can Athens free them from this? How can they find a theological solution to the Furies that possess them? The Furies declare, “our ancient power still holds” (Fagles, 404). Blood for blood, this is the ancient binding law, and the Athenians know their guilt. The oikos of the polis is cursed.
The solution comes when Athena herself enters the stage. . . .
TO BE CONTINUED