The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides
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The Eumenides Summary

by Aeschylus

The Eumenides Summary

Knowledge of the Curse on the House of Atreus and the events of Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers is essential for understanding the events of The Eumenides. For a more detailed look, see the ClassicNotes on Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers. The Curse on the House of Atreus began with a feud between two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes. Thyestes was forced to flee. He made overtures of peace to his Atreus, returning with his children, and Atreus pretended to be appeased. He invited Thyestes to a feast, but he secretly slaughtered all of Thyestes' children and served them to Thyestes in a manner that disguised the true nature of the meat. Thyestes unwittingly ate his own children. At the end of the meal, Atreus revealed to Thyestes what he had been eating, and Thyestes called down a Curse on Atreus' house. Thyestes fled with his one surviving child, Aegisthus. Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Agamemnon married Clytaemestra, and Menelaus married Helen. Helen was seduced by Paris of Troy, and she went willingly with him back to his city. Agamemnon and Menelaus organized the chieftains of Greece into a massive force to win her back. The fleet converged at Aulis, but was unable to set sail because the goddess Artemis was angry and kept the weather against them. The prophet Calchas told Agamemnon that to appease the goddess, the king would have to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia. Agamemnon did so, and he and his troops set sail. They waged war on Troy for ten long years, finally destroying the city and butchering or enslaving all of the people there. On the return voyage, Agamemnon's contingent passed through a terrible sea storm, and only Agamemnon's ship survived.

We are now at the events of Agamemnon. Agamemnon returned with a captive mistress, the prophetess Cassandra. While he had been away, his wife Clytaemestra had taken a lover. This lover was none other than Aegisthus, the sole surviving son of Thyestes. Soon after Agamemnon's return, Clytaemestra murdered the king while he bathed. Cassandra was the next victim; the prophetess, convinced that she could not change her fate, walked knowingly towards her own death. Clytaemestra displayed the body of the king and proclaimed that justice had been done. Her motivations were mixed and included a desire for power and her love for Aegisthus, but the queen was also taking revenge for Agamemnon's slaughter of their innocent daughter. Clytaemestra and Aegisthus installed themselves as the unlawful rulers of Argos.

Which brings us to The Libation Bearers. Clytaemestra, fearful that her children might try to avenge their father, reduced Electra to servitude and exiled Orestes. Orestes returned, with orders from the god Apollo to avenge his father's death. Orestes, with help from a group of co-conspirators, killed Clytaemestra and Aegisthus. He displayed the bodies and proclaimed that justice had been done, but ferocious primal goddesses called the Furies appeared. They began to chase after Orestes, to punish him for the killing of his mother.

The Eumenides begins before the temple of Apollo, in Delphi. The Pythia, Apollo's priestess, enters the temple and then immediately comes out again, describing a scene of horror and wonder. Orestes is in the suppliant's chair, and he is surrounded by the Furies, who sleep. The temple doors open, and we see Orestes with Apollo and Hermes, surrounded by the sleeping Furies. Apollo is the one who has put the Furies to sleep. Apollo asks Hermes to escort Orestes to Athens, where Athene will judge his case. Orestes, Hermes, and Apollo exit. Clytaemestra's ghost enters, furious that Orestes has escaped. She wakes the Furies, who howl at the loss of their prey. Apollo re-enters, and he and the Furies argue about Orestes' fate and the nature of justice. The Furies leave the temple to continue their pursuit of Orestes.

The scene changes from before the temple of Apollo to before the temple of Athene on the Acropolis of Athens. Orestes takes the suppliant position before Athene's statue and begs for her help. The Furies arrive, and begin to torment Orestes with promises of what they will do to him. Athene enters, and demands to know what is going on. She asks about the identities of Orestes and the Furies and the details of their dispute. When she hears about Orestes' case, she goes to get twelve jurors and the citizens of Athens. She will use this opportunity to instruct her people: this is to be Athens' first court for the judgment of homicides. Athene presides over the trial, instructing her citizens to watch and learn how a trial should be conducted. Apollo comes to testify on Orestes' behalf.

Apollo does most of the talking for Orestes. He and the Furies argue about justice and the justifiability of Orestes' crime. Athene and the jurors decide in Orestes' favor, but just barely: the jurors are tied and Athene's ballot decides. Orestes thanks Athena and the people of Athens, and then he leaves to go home to Argos. Finally, he is king. Apollo exits with him.

The Furies are outraged by the decision of the court, but Athene tries to reasons with them. Athene offers them a place in Athens. No longer will they be outcasts; from now on, they will be the city's protectors. The Furies are initially skeptical, but they are won over by Athene's gifts of persuasion and the generosity of her offer. The people of Athens welcome the Furies, with the women who attend Athene escorting the Furies to their new home beneath the earth of the city. The women sing praises to Zeus and Destiny, who have brought this marvelous arrangement to pass.

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