The Chorus of this play is constituted by the Eumenides, also called the Furies. Primal goddesses, the Furies are as terrifying as they are ancient. Zeus, king of the gods, has made them outcasts. The current gods, the Olympians, are much younger than the Furies. Just as Zeus' father, Cronus, overthrew his father with force, Zeus overthrew Cronus with force and drove the ancient gods and goddesses into a deep Pit far below Hades. Zeus is the patriarch of this current generation of gods and goddesses, the Olympians. The Furies harbor great bitterness against these new gods, who seek to overturn ancient ways and laws. (For more detailed sketches of the various gods and goddesses in the Greek pantheon, see the character list for the Iliad.)
Although Apollo characterizes the Furies as evil, that is a simplification of their nature. Certainly, the Furies are savage and brutal, but they believe in their own form of justice. A man who commits great sin, such as matricide, must be hounded and brutally punished. Fear, the Eumenides argue, is a necessary weapon to hold back anarchy. It is the Eumenides' job to punish the wicked, and it has been their job since almost the beginning of time. Their appearance is terrifying: hair of snakes, eyes dripping blood, skin withered and black, breath that smells of corruption. But the great goddess Athene, herself one of the young and rational deities, recognizes that the Furies represent an important aspect of Truth. The Furies, emblems of a more brutal past, cannot be eliminated. They must be reconciled to the new order.
The Furies hunt Orestes for the murder of his mother. Their job puts them at odds with the god Apollo, who is Orestes' main proponent.
Son of Agamemnon and Clytaemestra. Brother to Electra. On Orestes falls the tremendous burden of history and the Curse on the House of Atreus. Exiled and deprived of his inheritance by his mother, in The Libation Bearers he returned to avenge his father's death. He was ordered by the god Apollo to slay Clytaemestra and her lover, Aegisthus. Doing so was supposed to win back Orestes' throne, restoring Argos' rightful heir to power, but almost immediately after the murder the Furies appeared to punish Orestes for the crime of matricide. The play opens with Orestes seeking sanctuary and purification at Apollo's temple; from there, he flees to Athens to be judged in a trial run by Athene.
Also called Pallas, Pallas Athene, or Tritogenia (third-born). Daughter of Zeus. Goddess of war, wisdom, and crafts. Athene is a brilliant goddess, favorite child of the king of the gods. She was born from his skull instead of from the womb of woman. Besides Zeus, Athene alone has access to the keys that unlock the place where Zeus' thunderbolts are kept. She is especially worshipped in the city that takes its name from her. Athens, homeland of the three tragedians, was especially devoted to the goddess Athene.
In The Eumenides, Athene is the judge at Orestes trial. She is a rational goddess, young and intelligent like her half-brother Apollo, but she possesses greater wisdom than he.
Also called Phoebus or Loxias. Son of Leto and Zeus. Apollo is the god of the oracle at Delphi. He is the spokesman of his father, Zeus. Besides Athene, he is probably the most powerful deity among the children of Zeus. He is a god of music, explanations, and prophecy. He commanded Orestes to slay Clytaemestra, to put right the city of Argos. He is now Orestes' tireless proponent.
Mother of Orestes and Electra. Late wife of the late Agamemnon. Grand, dignified, and ruthless, Clytaemestra now ruled as tyrant over the city of Argos after she murdered her husband Agamemnon. She deprived her children of their status and exiled Orestes, in part because she feared that he would avenge his father's death. The fear proved accurate; in The Libation Bearers Orestes murdered her.
Her ghost appears near the beginning of the play to waken and incite the Eumenides. Clytaemestra's spirit is angry and hateful but also a pathetic figure: she goes dishonored among the dead because she killed her husband, and she now clings to the hope for revenge.
The Pythia, Priestess of Apollo
The Priestess of Apollo opens the play, singing of the history of the temple and praising the gods. She enters the temple but immediately comes out again, terrified by the sight of Orestes sitting in the suppliant chairs surrounded by the sleeping Furies.
Composed of the women of Athens. At the end of the play, this Second Chorus escorts the Eumenides to their new home beneath the earth of Athens. They sing of the new arrangement their goddess had made with the Furies, which has been brought to pass by Destiny and Zeus.
Messenger of the gods and guardian of travelers. Silent part. Apollo asks Hermes to help Orestes get from Delphi to Athens.
Jurors, Herald, and the Citizens of Athens: Silent parts. The people of Athens are present at the trial, so that Athene's proceedings can form the basis of all trials to come.
The Eumenides Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Eumenides is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.