The Eumenides

The Eumenides Summary and Analysis of Lines 566-753

From the re-entrance of Athene with jurors and herald to the reading of the verdict. (Lines 566-753)


Athene re-enters, with the jury of twelve citizens and a herald. She instructs the herald to blow his trumpet, so that all of the citizens of Athens will watch the proceedings, which will form the basis of the court for all time. Apollo enters, to testify on Orestes' behalf. Athene presides over the trial. The Furies question Orestes about his mother's murder. When they accuse him of being guiltier than Clytaemestra because he killed someone of the same blood as himself, Orestes asks Apollo to guide his response.

Apollo argues with the Furies, implying that Zeus authorized Clytaemestra's death and describing in detail the way that Agamemnon was murdered. The Furies say that the Olympians are hypocritical for prioritizing the death of the father, for Zeus himself put his own father in shackles. Apollo cannot veil his disgust for the Furies as he argues that there is a great difference between shackling a man and murdering him. Apollo also argues for paternal rights, saying that the father, as the one who plants the seed, is the only true parent. A person can have a father and no mother, and as proof of this idea Apollo points to Athene, who was born from her father's skull instead of the womb of her mother. Therefore, Orestes' murder of his mother must be seen in light of the killing of Orestes' father.

Athene asks if the arguments have all been made. When the two parties agree that all has been said, Athene takes a moment to establish this site as the site for the court in all time to come. She advises the citizens of Athens to shy from anarchy and from tyranny alike; she warns them of the danger of corruption and the sanctity of law. She also tells them that fear must be a part of justice. The court will be like a sentry for the city of Athens, protecting her citizens from injustice and violence.

The jurors begin to deliberate over the verdict, and the Chorus and Apollo both swagger and speak of their strength, and the consequent dangers of upsetting them. Athene seems unshaken by the threats; she casts her ballot in favor of Orestes, being without a mother herself. She admits that she is always sides with the male. Her vote will decide Orestes' fate if the jurors are tied. There is a moment of suspense, as Orestes frets about what the verdict will be and the ballots are counted. Athene announces that the ballots are tied: Orestes is free.


Remember that Aeschylus was an Athenian; his city was particularly devoted to the goddess Athene, and she is depicted here as majestic and wise. She uses the problem of Orestes as an opportunity to establish a new institution for justice, for the protection of her city and its people.

Athens was a democracy, although one with a very limited electorate. A relatively small number of free male citizens ran the government; women did not vote, nor did slaves. Limitations of their democracy aside, Athenians considered themselves more free and wise than their neighbors. They had a strong distrust of dictatorship, although they were known to have dictators during times of instability. Athenians believed that rationality and deliberation were the most useful tools for making a decision, and that decisions are often best made in council. Not even Athene considers herself up to the task of deciding Orestes' fate. She brings in twelve jurors, hoping that a group of people together will be wiser than one judge alone. Her choice reveals the democratic sentiments of Aeschylus and his city. Athene has the citizens of Athens attend the trial, so that they can see for themselves the methods for dispensing justice. Here, the stage parallels life: just as the citizens of Athens onstage watch the trial, the real-life citizens of Athens are sitting in the audience watching the artistic representation of the trial.

The section foreshadows the shift in scope we will see in just a few short moments. Orestes is becoming less central to the action; he barely speaks at his own trial, and instead has Apollo answer for him. The clash at the trial is not between Orestes and the Furies, but between Apollo and the Furies. The meaning is clear. Apollo and the Furies, and all the forces they represent, are battling; Orestes' character is hardly significant. Drama here is not drama of character, but drama of forces: history, progress, and myth. Orestes steps back and asks Apollo to speak for him. Apollo is a symbol for the male, the rational, the young, and the civilized. The Furies represent the female, the violent, the old, and the primal. These two forces clash over Orestes' fate, and the Furies themselves say that more is at stake than one man. The trial will set a precedent for how justice is to be dispensed for all time to come.

The arguments made at court reveal the Athenian love for rhetoric and the art of debate. Although Apollo's argument for the supremacy of a father's rights is totally unscientific, he structures his argument like a good public speaker. He responds to the cross examination of the Furies with energy and confidence.

Although Athene represents a reconciliation of the opposing forces represented by Apollo and the Furies, Aeschylus' vision is very patriarchal. Part of Athene's beauty, as we see it here, is that she always, by her own admission, sides with men. Male power and female power have struggled against each other throughout the trilogy; this clash of feminine and masculine strengths has been one of the constant themes of all three plays. Throughout, Aeschylus sets up male power as correct and right. Agamemnon and Orestes are the rightful rulers of Argos, whatever their sins; Clytaemestra, no matter what her justifications, upsets the right order of the world when she tries to sit on the throne. In The Eumenides, divine female power has many shape. The Furies represent an ancient, primal, feminine power. The Pythia recounts the history of Apollo's temple and the position of prophet, and, significantly, all of the deities who previously held Apollo's position were female. But they have handed power and the prophetic gift to Apollo. And the Furies, despite the respect that their age warrants, have been outcast by Zeus himself, the greatest and most powerful being, the ultimate father and god. In Athene, we see a reconciliation of male and female nature. She is a powerful female, but she is viewed as benevolent in part because she uses her power and wisdom to support male authority. She is her father's daughter, literally: she was born of his skull rather than from the womb of a woman.

Aeschylus does not seek to seriously question this patriarchal order. He views it as correct, desirable. He makes place for feminine power and authority, but it must be secondary to and supportive of male-dominated order. We should not feel the need to apologize for Aeschylus' views on gender, nor should we accept it as adequate in light of modern perspectives on gender and equality.

He was a man of his time, and the beauty of his vision is his faith that the existence of seemingly opposing forces is a source of strength and hope rather than despair. Athene calls on her people to remember that terror and justice go hand-in-hand. Fear has a role in preserving order. Her advice about fear and justice foreshadows the offer she will make to the Furies. The theme of integration and reconciliation works on many levels, and Aeschylus sees the combination of terror and reason as justice's strength rather than its downfall. Closely connected is the theme that man needs to come to terms with the savagery of the past, with the power and energy of the primal, rather than destroy or efface these forces. The Furies will not be destroyed at the end of the play, nor will they remain outcasts. They must be incorporated into the new order.

Athene supports Orestes, and the jurors are tied. This close verdict shows that Aeschylus recognizes the complexity of Orestes' case; this complexity is exactly the reason why courts are necessary for the dispensation of justice. The complex circumstances surrounding Orestes' case require the wisdom of the many: the collective judgment of the jurors and Athene is far superior to the judgment of one or the blunt instrument of revenge.