The Eumenides

The Eumenides Summary and Analysis of Lines 140-234

From the waking of the Furies to the scene change from Delphi to Athens. (Lines 140-234)


The Eumenides wake up, and begin to howl. They cry out that Apollo has robbed them of their rightful prey, a man who has committed the terrible sin of matricide. The Furies accuse Apollo of injustice and offending the old order, saying that by championing Orestes the Olympian god stains his own shrine. Apollo enters again, not bothering to hide his disgust for the Furies. He tells them to leave his temple.

The Furies accuse Apollo of wrongdoing, reminding him that he was the one who commanded Orestes to kill Clytaemestra. Apollo is responsible, and he has had the nerve to offer sanctuary to the killer. He has prevented the Furies from doing their duty, which is to punish matricides. Apollo asks about Clytaemestra's wrongs: the woman killed her husband. The Eumenides respond that the murder was not committed against one who was related to her by blood. Orestes' sin is worse, because he killed his own kin. Apollo argues that the bond of marriage is sacred, and for the Furies to punish one murder and not the other makes void their claims of righteousness. Orestes' case will be put before Pallas Athene, and the great goddess will be the judge. The Furies insist that nothing will stop them from hounding Orestes. Apollo insists, with equal force, that he will protect Orestes.


We see the clash between the old and the new deities. The Eumenides protest Apollo's interference, as he seeks to deny or beat back powers older than himself. The Furies insistence on Orestes' guilt has its own logic, as does Apollo's insistence on the guilt of Clytaemestra; their different arguments reflect their natures. The Furies emphasize the sacredness of kindred blood while Apollo emphasizes the sacredness of the marriage bond. The older, primal goddesses are defending the bond that is in the blood; it is the more basic and primitive link, between child and parent, that even animals recognize. The marriage bond is much newer than the bond of blood; marriage is the product of civilization and social constructions, and Apollo defends its sanctity eloquently. He symbolizes rationality and civilization, while the Furies are symbols of the primal and primitive.

Apollo characterizes them as evil, but it is only because his nature is difficult to reconcile to theirs. His disgust for them is understandable, but it is also unhelpful. The Furies are brutal, but they are part of nature, and their arguments have their own logic. He can overpower them, but he cannot destroy them; Apollo's limitation parallels the ways that civilization and rationality cannot eradicate primal instincts. Later in the play, Athene will be able to reconcile the primal power symbolized by the Furies with the rationality and civilization represented by the Olympians.

The debate about Orestes shows the difficulty of assessing a man's guilt or innocence. The history of the House of Atreus is an example of how murder and violence escalate out of control. Without recourse to courts, vengeance is the way to try to get justice. This play will end with the establishment of a court to judge homicides; civilization and rationality will provide a way to control violence and dispense justice. Gods and men work together to create an institution in which murder cases can be weighed and judged.