Beginning of the play to the waking of the Eumenides (Lines 1-139)
We are just outside the sanctuary of Pythian Apollo, in Delphi. The Pythia, Apollo's priestess, sings a prayer that honors the gods who have prophesied from this shrine. The first was Earth, then Themis, then Phoebe, and then fourth was Apollo. Apollo is the fourth in this tradition of divine seers; he is the spokesman of his father, Zeus, king of the gods. The position of prophet has always been passed from god to god peacefully, rather than through force. The Pythia prepares to begin her day as the spokeswoman of Apollo. She enters the temple and almost immediately comes out again, terrified because of what she has seen. A man is seated in the suppliant's seat, his hands dripping with blood, carrying a bloodied sword in one hand and an olive branch wrapped with wool in the other hand. Surrounding him are gorgon-like creatures, dark and revolting, eyes oozing foul liquids. These creatures sleep. The Pythia trusts in Apollo to clear things up.
The temple doors open, revealing Orestes and the sleeping Furies. Apollo and Hermes are there as well. Apollo affirms that he will stand by Orestes' side; it is he who has put the Furies to sleep. He expresses disgust for the Furies, and instructs Orestes to go to the city of Athena. There, he must clasp the idol of Athena. They will find people to judge his case, and Orestes will be purged of his mother's curse. Apollo asks Hermes to escort Orestes, reminding Hermes that Orestes is his suppliant and the wanderer must be treated well in accord with the laws of Zeus. (Note: the Greeks ascribed much importance to the rights of the suppliant. A suppliant was a person in desperate need who put himself at the mercy of another; violation of the suppliant's right to protection and hospitality was a great wrong. The Curse on the House of Atreus began with the slaughter of Thyestes children, and part of the horror of the act was that Atreus violated Thyestes' rights as a suppliant.)
Hermes, Orestes, and Apollo exit. Clytaemestra's ghost enters, bemoaning her fate. Among the dead, she is condemned. No god protects her, but she can still have her revenge if the Furies keep after Orestes. During her life, she gave the Furies offerings; she reminds them of this and asks if the offerings were in vain. She tries to rouse them from their sleep, telling them that Orestes is laughing at them, berating them for being less helpful allies than Apollo. After much prodding, the Furies cry out in their sleep; even in their dreams, they chase Orestes. Clytaemestra makes another attempt to rouse them, inciting them to drive on despite fatigue. She wants them to make Orestes suffer horribly.
The Eumenides' important themes include the contrast or struggle between the old and the new, between savagery and civilization, between the primal and the rational. This theme is expressed in the progression of old to new gods. Although these forces come into conflict, the drive of the play is to reconcile these opposites. The Eumenides opens with a story of peaceful progression from the old to the new. The beautiful song of the Pythia recounts the history of the shrine, which once was in possession of ancient goddesses much older than Apollo. The primal goddesses handed down the position of seer peacefully: this peaceful handover provides a powerful contrast to the violent wars between Zeus and the older Titans. It suggests an alternative to the eradication of the ancient; Apollo is fourth in a proud tradition of peaceful succession.
The Eumenides, or the Furies, are the Chorus of this play. They are ancient goddesses, residents of the Pit, and they are brutal and physically repulsive. The sight of them disgusts the Pythia. They also are repugnant to Apollo, who provides a great contrast to them. He is a younger god, one of the Olympians, and he is a male god of rationality. The Furies, in contrast, are brutal creatures of revenge. They are ancient. Apollo cannot destroy them, but here we see him overpower them. He has put them all to sleep, and the hapless ghost of Clytaemestra has to wake them and shame them into keeping up the hunt. Although everyone speaks of their viciousness and ugliness, Aeschylus takes the edge off the Furies in this opening scene: when we first see them, they are like sleeping babies or old women. They are vulnerable, exhausted, and there is something comical about the way they chase after Orestes in their dreams and talk in their sleep.
Clytaemestra's ghost is embittered and fixated on one thing: revenge. There is something pitiable about her here: when she describes her ill treatment by the other spirits, she speaks of how they have forgotten all of her reasons for doing what she did. By having Clytaemestra speak of how others have forgotten her suffering, Aeschylus is briefly making us remember it. He is aware that Orestes will receive forgiveness for his act while Clytaemestra will go unforgiven. But although he allows us to feel sorry for Clytaemestra, her fate is part of his vision of justice. Justice should not be overly compassionate, or overly understanding. In Clytaemestra's death, order will be restored and the rightful heir will again sit on the throne. But a reader who tries to evaluate Aeschylus on his own terms will see that he has a beautiful vision of order and healing that is hopeful and full of faith. Although we feel sorry for Clytaemestra here, her obsession with punishing her son undermines sympathy. Feeling sorry for Clytaemestra does not necessarily mean hoping that she will get what she wants, which in this case is more bloodshed. And there is nothing rational about her claim that she goes dishonored among the dead because of the Furies' incompetence. Revenge will not restore Clytaemestra to the honored ranks of the dead, but she clings to the idea that it will.
Apollo promises that once Orestes reaches Athena, all will be made right: "You will be rid of your afflictions, once and for all" (l. 83). The implication is that not only will Orestes be cleansed of his mother's curse, but that the Curse on the House of Atreus will finally come to an end. The Olympian gods are intervening in human events, putting an end to a cycle of violence that has gone on too long. Cleansing or purification is one of the themes of this play, and it is made possible by concerted effort between gods and men and reconciliation of the old with the new. Finally, the violence will stop.