Pooh’s Think

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The Oresteia Unplugged, Part 5: The Eumenides Cont.

. . .The solution comes when Athena herself enters the stage. She has just now returned from Troy, overseeing its destruction. She has fought for the cause of Agamemnon. In response to the Furies’ attempt to assert their power and snatch their victim, Athena replies that she can “accept the facts, just tell them clearly.” Athena quickly interrupts the Furies, “Here are two sides and only half the argument” (Lattimore, 428) The Furies object, but Athena charges that they are only interested in the name justice and not the act of justice. (430). After this charge, the Furies immediately become tame. With no warning, pause, or explanation, the Furies become submissive and respectful to Athena’s wisdom. “Teach us. You have a genius for refinements” (Fagles, 444). “Certainly. We respect you. You show us respect” (Fagles, 449). Apollo has been shown wrong; the Furies have found mercy with the gods, and this transforms them. Athena then turns to Orestes, who now defends further; he appeals to Apollo, who he says shares his guilt. Orestes concludes by asking Athena to judge. “I am in your hands. Where my fate falls, I shall accept.” (Lattimore, 468).

But Athena says that she is unable to judge. Perhaps Orestes has been sufficiently purged, but the Furies will ruin the land if he is let go. Therefore, Athena swears in judges for the first manslaughter tribunal ever. The Furies plead their case first. They explain that at times terror helps (517), and at times it helps to suffer into truth (519). Further, a life of balance, of Measure, requires the life and work of the Furies. The Furies are the key to Athenian democracy: “Refuse the life of anarchy; refuse the life devoted to one master.” (Lattimore, 526) Apollo enters and responds in behalf of Orestes. Apollo argues that the two murders are very different. Clytaemnestra was murdered by a man with no real blood connection, whereas Agamemnon was murdered by a woman, his very wife. Apollo expands his argument:

“The mother is no parent of that which is called her child,
but only nurse of the new-planted seed that grows.
The parent is he who mounts.” (Lattimore, 658-660)

With this final argument, the case is brought to a close. As the judges cast their ballots, Athena makes a speech. She commands her people to reject anarchy and tyranny, but rather to worship the mean. “I advise my citizens to govern and to grace, and not to cast fear utterly from your city.” (Lattimore, 698). One must know fear to be righteous. Stronger the fear, the stronger the city’s walls. The court of law must take the role of the Furies: “majestic, swift to fury, rising above you as you sleep” (Fagles, 719). Her argument for the fury of the law courts of Athens is the same argument the Furies give for their own justice.

Athena casts her lot: she favors Orestes! She has accepted Apollo’s argument. Orestes was not bound in blood to his mother; she was just another woman, another container for the seed of man. Athena explains that since no mother gave her birth (she came forth directly from Zeus), she honors the male. The lots from the judges turn out equal, and so Athena has decided the case.

The Furies respond ferociously, but Athena promises them a high place in the new world; she will give them sparkling thrones, and promises them the reverence from the people. The Furies continue to object, but Athena continues patiently; she will appease their fury through the “majesty of persuasion” (Fagles, 894). And it works. The leader of the Furies confesses, “I think you will have your way with me. My hate is going.” (Lattimore, 900). Orestes is restored and declares that Argos is now to be ruled by the courts of Athens. The Furies become loving creatures, desiring to bless mankind. They have given up their fury to the courts of Athens. Their dance of death becomes a dance of joy. The words of the Chorus of the first play are fulfilled: “Cry, cry for death, but good win out in glory in the end.” The women of the city of Athens now shout for joy: “Cry, cry in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on.”

And so the ending is a pleasant one. The city is at peace. But what is the foundation of this peace? And what is its price?

January 8, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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