The Eumenides

The Eumenides Summary and Analysis of Lines 235-565

From the scene change to the re-entrance of Athene with twelve jurors and a herald. (Lines 235-565)


The scene changes from the temple of Apollo at Delphi to the Acropolis in Athens, before Athene's temple and statue. Orestes takes the suppliant position at the feet of Athene's statue, asking her to help him. The Furies enter, hot on his trail. They find him seeking protection from Athene, and they tell him that only his blood can answer for the blood of his mother. The Furies torment him with promises of the suffering he will endure at their hands. The exhausted and terrified Orestes defends himself, not denying the charge of matricide, but defending his character and saying that Apollo has cleansed him of his guilt. He now calls on Athene to protect him, showing faith that she can hear him no matter where she may be.

The Chorus gives a long response. They tell Orestes that he is theirs to devour, and the Olympians cannot protect him. The Eumenides are agents of the most basic and ancient form of justice. The blood that Orestes spilled can only be paid for by the spilling of his own blood. The torment of guilty mortals has been the Furies' office from the first moments of the world. They seek to bypass the authority of Zeus, who has declared them outcasts. The guilty receive their punishment; the Furies are strong and cannot be appeased with words.

Athene enters and asks the identity of Orestes and the Eumenides. Athene listens to the grievances of the Furies, but suspects that they tell only half the truth about Orestes. She will ask him herself; the Furies trust her to adjudicate the case. Orestes insists that he is no supplicant, and that he has been absolved of the blood on his hands. Orestes tells her his story; the goddess Athene acknowledges his rights, but also acknowledges the position of the Furies. The matter is too difficult even for her to judge. She goes to select a group of men to sit in council and judge Orestes' case; it will be the foundation for a jury that will judge all future murder cases.

The Chorus sings again, claiming that if Orestes goes free the values and laws of the new gods will be proven false. Fear and violence are a part of justice, and the Furies make sure that the guilty do not go unpunished.


The Eumenides are one of the most interesting Choruses in all of the Greek tragedies. Usually, Choruses are made of benign onlookers: the citizens of the city, or the servants of the household. The Chorus provides exposition and rushes of beautiful poetry. Here, the Chorus is composed of Orestes' antagonists. Instead of beautiful odes praising nature, the Furies deliver terrifying and intense songs of death and destruction. They are not exactly evil, but they are dark and brutal. Aeschylus use of the Chorus in this play shows the incredible range of his poetic imagination. The Eumenides is overall an extraordinarily optimistic work, presenting a powerful and hopeful vision of the relationships between man and god, past and present. The play provides a happy and harmonious ending to the Oresteia. But from the mouths of the Furies, Aeschylus is able to deliver many dark and intense images. The tone of the play is balanced between optimism and terror, with fear dominating the play's first half and optimism and rationality dominating the second half. The beginning of the trial marks this shift in tone.

Another interesting aspect of the Furies is that they repeat entire long passages verbatim. The effects are numerous. For one, the repetition is hypnotic and eerie. Their song to Orestes is a song of the hunt, and the repetitions amplify the intensity of the Furies' emotions. It also fits in nicely with the Furies' age and primal nature. There is something primitive and ritualized about them; when they repeat whole passages verbatim, they seem even less human, more removed, more mythical. They become mysterious speakers of intense, ferocious, and mysterious incantations. After the reading of the verdict later in the play, the repetitions are used to achieve a somewhat different effect.

The Furies are absolutely essential to the action; it is impossible to tell the same story without them. In many plays by Sophocles and, to an even greater extent, Euripides, the Chorus is not an absolutely essential part of the action. For these later playwrights, it often seems possible to rewrite the play without the Chorus while keeping the fundamental elements of the plot intact. That is not the case for The Eumenides.

Note the difference between the ways that Apollo and Athene treat the Furies. Apollo has nothing but disgust for them. Athene treats them respectfully, but she also insists on being fair to Orestes. The central theme of this play is the struggle/conflict between opposites, and the reconciliation of those opposites. Athene herself is a symbol for that kind of reconciliation. She is female, but she is also a warrior: Aeschylus has her enter dressed in full body armor. She is as rational as her half-brother Apollo, but she is also compassionate and does not react with disgust at the sight of the Furies. She is woman, but she is born of her father: according to myth, she sprang from her father's skull. She is the goddess of wisdom and crafts as well as warfare, making both the creative and the destructive within her jurisdiction. She reconciles the best attributes the Greeks traditionally ascribed to the masculine and the feminine. Note that the Furies listen to her and speak to her with tremendous respect. They trust her to stand as fair judge over Orestes' case.

The theme of purification comes up again and again, with the Furies insisting that Orestes is still stained by his mother's blood, while Orestes claims that Apollo has already purified him. Orestes insistence on his innocence goes so far as to make him claim proudly that he is no supplicant (even as clasps Athene's idol in the suppliant position). As a man free of guilt, he has come simply to rid himself of the Furies. But Athene seems to think that Orestes is indeed a supplicant, because she quietly labels him as such a few moments after he claims that he is not one. Though Orestes claims repeatedly that he has been purified, citing the rituals of cleansing and the sacrifices he has made at Apollo's shrine, the rituals seem to have been insufficient. For one thing, his sacrifices were made to Apollo, and Apollo is not the god he needs to appease. At the beginning of the play, Aeschylus suggests symbolically that Orestes still bears the stain of guilt: when the Pythia sees Orestes, his hands are stained with blood. The blood on the hands is a repeated image of The Eumenides. It is the Furies' favorite phrase for describing Orestes guilt, and Orestes' hands literally stained with blood in the play's opening suggests that he has not yet been purified. His continuing impurity suggests the need for a new step in humanity's development. Ancient rituals and sacrifice of animals are not adequate to deal with Orestes' actions. It will take the rational methods of a court to settle this matter once and for all. Through the deliberations of a court of justice, Orestes will be purified. Reason and civilized institution will wash away the bloodstains on the House of Atreus, ending the supernatural power of the Curse.

Justice will come about through the courts, but the Furies represent an important face of justice. When Athene leaves to gather the jurors, the Furies sing of the vital role that they play in the world. Fear, they argue, is part of justice. To deny the Furies' rights is to invite anarchy. The relationship between justice and fear is another important theme of The Eumenides. Part of Aeschylus' vision is that fear, violence, and punishment are necessary tools of justice. Athene's incorporation of the Furies into Athens' pantheon shows recognition of this fact. The negative side of fear and violence is that when these forces are the only tools of justice, unalleviated by reason and compassion, violence gets out of control. The self-perpetuating Curse on the House of Atreus is the prime example of this phenomenon.