Episode 29: The Mound and the Furies

Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy, 3 of 3: The Eumenides. Pursued all the away to Athens by the monstrous Furies, will Orestes prevail, or be torn apart?

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The Oresteian Trilogy, Part 3: The Eumenides

Carl Rahl - Aeschylus Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1852) eumenides

Carl Rahl’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1852).

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 29: The Mound and the Furies. This is the third of three episodes on the most famous works of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, a trilogy of plays called the Oresteian Trilogy, which premiered in the spring of 458 BCE in the city of Athens. If you want to start the story from the beginning, Episode 27 is the place to look.

The last we saw Orestes, he was being pursued by the Furies, the bloodthirsty deities who were emblems of vengeance to the Ancient Greeks. The name of the third play is The Eumenides, which is an alternative name for the Furies, those spirits of revenge for the dishonored dead. Whatever we call them – the Eumenides, or the Furies – these creatures, at the outset of the play we’re beginning today, symbolized of blood for blood. These monsters sought the life of Orestes because he had done something shocking – Orestes had cut his own mother’s throat. And so as we come to the end of the story, we wonder just what Aeschylus’ audience was wondering. Will Orestes escape the wrath of the Furies? Or will he be eaten alive? Or will something altogether different happen? In the next hour and change, you’re going to find out, as we open the pages of the final play in the Oresteian trilogy, The Eumenides. [music]

Review: Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy Thus Far

Let’s do a quick recap. The whole Oresteian trilogy is about a family, a family called Atreus. This family has a violent streak. Past members have killed children and fed them to parents, they have murdered uncles, and killed in-laws, and started wars. The family’s leading warmongers are Agamemnon and Menelaus – the aggressors who set in motion the Trojan War. And following the war at Troy, Agamemnon, after ten years, finally headed home. This is the situation at the outset of the Oresteian trilogy’s first play, titled Agamemnon. The king comes home, a captive Trojan princess in tow, and rather than being honored and welcomed, King Agamemnon is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, who also kill the poor innocent Trojan princess. That was the end of the first play, Agamemnon. The second play, The Libation Bearers, picks up a few years after the king’s murder. Agamemnon’s son Orestes comes home, reunites with his sister Electra, and after the siblings commiserate and conspire for a while, Orestes kills his mother and her lover. This murder- the murder of Clytemnestra – is what sets the pack of Furies on Orestes. That’s the end of the second play, and a brief summary of the story so far. First play, king gets killed by the queen. Second play, queen gets killed by the son. Third play – well, you’ll find out.

So I want you to enjoy the story of The Eumenides – again the third and final play in this trilogy – I want you to enjoy this story as much as possible. In my opinion, it’s the most magnificent part of the whole story, and has some of the most rousing, powerful speeches in world theater. In order for this to happen, I actually want to first tell you a bit about the three settings of the play. I think knowing the settings of this third play will make jumping into it very easy. Ready?

The Three Settings of Aeschylus’ Eumenides

So, first setting. The play is going to start at the temple of Apollo at Delphi. You’ve probably heard of Delphi – let’s talk about what its significance was. According to legend, Olympian Zeus once released a pair of eagles from the extreme eastern and western ends of the earth’s surface, and told them to fly toward the center. The place where they met, Zeus decreed, would be the center of the world. The two eagles, after covering great distances, met over a place called Delphi, where a rock called the omphalos, or navel of the world, was found. It is a spectacular location, and you can still go there today – a rugged and rocky promontory, surrounded by sun blasted mountains and the shrubby trees. From the earliest times, the natural magnificence of the site of Delphi made it a holy place in the Greek imagination. And by the era of classical Athens, Delphi was home to a grand temple of Apollo. The temple at of Apollo at Delphi, which is the legendary center of the Greek world, is the first setting of the play that we’ll explore together today. And Apollo, the god of truth, prophecy, poetry, and healing, will be a major character in this play.

Next setting. The Acropolis at Athens. This raised outcrop is the historical heart of Athens – I’ll talk a bit more about it when the play gets there, but the Acropolis would have been a familiar sight to every single Athenian in the audience, because they were actually sitting on the side of it as they watched Aeschylus’ play in the spring of 458 BCE. So, first setting, Temple of Apollo at Delphi, second setting, the Acropolis at Athens.

Now, third setting. I really wanted to talk about the third setting in order to introduce the main idea of this episode. The third setting is where the climax of the whole trilogy takes place. This is a tiny bit confusing, because I already told you about the omphalos rock – the rock supposedly at the center of the world. But the third setting of this play takes place on top of a much bigger rock – and this second rock is called the Areopagus. As Aeschylus actually explains in the play, Areopagus means the “Rock of Ares.” The Areopagus rock, like the Acropolis and the temple at Delphi, is a real place – the Areopagus is a giant chunk of stone near the Acropolis in Athens. It was a famous location, for many reasons, and it was associated with the state judiciary system. We’ll talk about that a bit later. Anyway, the culmination of the Oresteian trilogy is going to place atop this well known landmark in Athens, a landmark which Aeschylus’ audience would have associated with their own recently updated legal system. So those are the three settings – the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Acropolis of Athens, and the Areopagus rock in Athens. This rock takes us to the main idea that will anchor this episode.

The main idea of this episode is in its title – Episode 29: The Mound and the Furies. The core of this third play – again The Eumenides – is going to be a trial. Literally, a courtroom trial, with a defendant and defense, a plaintiff and prosecution, a judge, and a jury. Orestes is going to be the defendant, and the prosecutors are going to be the Furies – those divine agents of blood for blood revenge. It’s all pretty simple. The key to The Eumenides, though, and really the whole Oresteian trilogy, is that it is a story about an old system of vigilante justice – the Furies, and the dark history of the House of Atreus, and then a new system of tribunals run by citizen juries, emblematized by the rocky mound of the Areopagus. This new tribunal system was only a few years old when Aeschylus first staged these three plays, and I’ll tell you about it a bit later. Overall, though, as we move into The Eumenides, keep in mind that the philosophical heart of these three plays is a rift between the new ways of justice – the mound, and the old ways of justice – the Furies. So that’s the main idea, and title of this episode. The Mound and the Furies – a competition between two forms of justice. Knowing these settings, and these overarching themes, you can now get maximum enjoyment out of the gripping story, and majestic language of Aeschylus’ play, The Eumenides. And as with the first two shows, I’m quoting from the Robert Fagles translation, published by Penguin in 1979. [music]

Horror at the Temple of Apollo

The Oresteian Trilogy, Part 3: The Eumenides
temple of apollo at delphi

The ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where the beginning of Aeschylus’ Eumenides takes place.

It was morning at the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The doors were open slightly, so that one could look out and see a vertical sliver of mountainous shrub lands and crags. The surrounding mountains were so rugged that the opening lines of the play call them “razorbacks.”1 And through this small opening, onto the stage stepped the Pythia. The Pythia was possibly the most powerful woman in the Greek world. The Pythia was nothing other than the living oracle of the deity Apollo. When people came to consult the oracle at Delphi, they spoke with this woman. The Pythia’s lineage as a prophetess extended far into the past. Once, Delphi was called Pytho, and even in this remote, antique time, the progeny of the Pythia had offered visions of days past and things to come. So the oracle at Delphi was called the Pythia. When she communicated with Apollo, she fell into a state of frenzy, and her semiconscious ramblings were decoded and interpreted by the male priests. The Pythia, and the temple at Delphi, open Aeschylus’ play The Eumenides – a generic Greek location for us, perhaps, but for them the center of the world – a pinnacle where humans could commune with the gods.

The prophetess Pythia stood in the temple doorway and prayed. She recollected Apollo’s first coming to Delphi, and made proclamations that honored Zeus and mighty Athena. She invited the audience into the temple, and stepped out for a moment to do something. But before anyone could enter, she staggered back through the doors and collapsed onto her knees, her eyes wide with terror. The Pythia gibbered, crawling, and managed to struggle to her feet. She’d seen something ghastly outside. A youth stood at the omphalos, or navel stone, which rested at a sacred spot on the temple grounds. Only, in addition to the customary olive branch that one held there for ritual purification, the youth also held a sword, and his hands ran wet with blood.

And all around him there were, the Pythia said – there were things. A ring of them, twined amidst the offertory benches, asleep, but still guarding the young man. They were like gorgons, maybe, said the Pythia, but not quite. They were worse. The Pythia described them.
These [she said] have no wings,
I looked. But black they are, and so repulsive.
Their heavy, rasping breathing makes me cringe.
And their eyes ooze a discharge, sickening,
and what they wear – to flaunt that at the gods,
the idols, sacrilege! even in the homes of men.
The tribe that produced that brood I never saw. (233)

The youth that the Pythia saw, and the monsters that she described, are the two opposing forces in the play. The youth was Orestes, who had killed his mother Clytemnestra on the order of the god Apollo, and who had come to the temple of Apollo at Delphi to atone and seek safe haven. He sought safe haven there at the temple because of the creatures that pursued him. And these monsters, once again, were called the Furies. Hideous agents of vigilante justice, the Furies were there to exact revenge on the murderer Orestes.

The Pythia priestess knew that the scene was too much for her to handle. A youth who had slaughtered his own mother. And divine monsters who’d trailed him, all the way from Argos! It was all out of the Pythia’s pay grade. So she announced that Apollo himself would need to help adjudicate, and, proclaiming this, the Pythia left the temple. At that moment, the great palace doors opened, revealing the scene that the Pythia described – Orestes praying at the Navelstone of the world, wreathed by furies. Only now, the god Apollo stood over the crouched shape of Orestes.

Apollo promised Orestes that he’d help the young murderer, whom he’d told to kill Clytemnestra. “I will never fail you,” said Apollo. “I will show no mercy to your enemies!” (233). The male god regarded the Furies with indignation. He had caused them to fall asleep, so that they would not – at Delphi, at least, be able to hurt Orestes. “[T]hese obscenities!” Apollo said.
They disgust me.
These grey, ancient children never touched
by god, man or beast – the eternal virgins.
Born for destruction only, the dark pit,
they range the bowels of Earth, the world of death,
loathed by men and gods who hold Olympus. (234)

The Furies, Apollo said, were indeed a force to be reckoned with, but the god promised that he’d help Orestes. Only, Orestes would need to go to Athens, under the guard of the god Hermes. In Athens, Apollo promised, Orestes would be judged, and vindicated, by the goddess Athena. [music]

The Furies Awaken

And so Orestes and Hermes left Delphi, bound for Athens. Apollo vanished into the confines of a sanctuary. And still, around the Navelstone there lay the twisted shapes of the Furies, sleeping. The creatures would have remained asleep, but for the appearance of a new figure onstage. It was the ghost of Clytemnestra, the murdered mother of Orestes. Queen Clytemnestra could not sit by idly in Hades while her ruthless son was acquitted. Queen Clytemnestra’s ghost began to try and wake them.

Gustave Doré’s illustration of the Furies from Canto 9 of Dante’s Inferno.

She told them that she had experienced great pain from people she’d loved and trusted. Clytemnestra’s ghost showed the furies the gashes on her body and told them to carve similar ones into themselves. The dead queen railed against the furies, telling them that she’d given them plenty of libations and honey and other offerings, and now they were ignoring her. Her murderous son was going to get away with it. The Furies muttered in their sleep, and the ghost of Clytemnestra redoubled her efforts to wake them, until finally, they began opening their eyes. They looked around for Orestes, saying, all at once, “Get him, get him, get him, get him[!]” (236). And Clytemnestra urged them on. “You,” she shouted, “blast him with your gory breath, / the fire of your vitals – wither him, after him, / one last foray – waste him, burn him out!” (236). The ghost of the queen vanished, and the lead Fury awakened the others. They moved like a pack of animals, rushing toward the Navelstone to see Orestes gone, sniffing and making hunting calls.

One of them growled about all the pain she’d experienced. Another prated that their quarry had escaped – he’d snuck right through their clutches. The Furies rushed around the stage, and they were certain about one thing. The younger gods – the Olympians – were an unjust and cruel bunch. “Such is your triumph, you young gods,” a Fury exclaimed, “world dominion past all rights. / Your throne is streaming blood, / blood at the foot, blood at the crowning head – / – I can see the Navelstone of the Earth, it’s bleeding, / bristling corruption, oh, the guilt it has to bear” (238).

Apollo, said the Furies, was guilty of great crimes. Once, before the Olympians, the old deities, the children of the elemental titans, had ruled the lives of gods and men alike. The Fates had once scripted everything, deciding the course of each person’s life. Only now, Apollo and the others like him were meddling in everything, raveling themselves in the affairs of humans, and being more interested in men and women than honoring the old traditions. Orestes, said the Furies – whatever Apollo planned – Orestes would never, never be forgiven.

Suddenly Apollo appeared in full armor. He held his bow and brought out arrows and demanded that they leave. He told them that they weren’t welcome at Delphi. And he maligned them in a long execration.

Hearing Apollo’s curse, the Furies then began arguing with Apollo in earnest. Their leader made a serious accusation. She said that Apollo had killed Clytemnestra – Apollo had ordered it done, and so his guilt was unequivocal. The Furies snarled that Orestes’ crime was unforgivable because it was committed against a family member. Clytemnestra, on the other hand, had killed her husband – not a blood relation. Apollo was unconvinced, and said that Athena would oversee the final trial, and so the Furies rushed off to catch their prey.

In their absence, Apollo voiced a short monologue. I like to think that at this point maybe he was thinking to himself, “Hmm. Oh, boy. Maybe I shouldn’t have told that guy to go and kill his mom. That’s kind of messed up. Yeah, I totally let my anger against Agamemnon from back during the Trojan War cloud my judgment. Kind of blew that one. Heh.” But he didn’t say that. Instead, he said, “I will defend my suppliant and save him. / A terror to god and men” (241). So, in this scene you can begin to see the essential trial structure that will dominate the rest of the play. Orestes, the defendant. Apollo, the defense attorney. Clytemnestra’s ghost, the victim. The Furies, the prosecution, and, as you’ll see in a minute, Athena, the judge. Those are the essential components of one of the earliest courtroom drama stories in literature – a courtroom drama story that, at this point, changes scenes, to the city of Athens. [music]

The Pursuit to Athens

The center of classical Athens in Aeschylus’ time was the Acropolis, a rocky promontory about a hundred yards behind the theater of Dionysus. So the play’s first set – the temple of Apollo at Delphi, would have been recognizable to most of the people who watched the Oresteian trilogy in the spring of 458 BCE, since it was purportedly the center of the world and stomping grounds of the most famous oracle in Greece. But the play’s second set – the Acropolis, would have been recognizable to every single person in the theater, because that was where they were actually, physically, sitting. I mean the theater sits on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis, so if they didn’t know what the Acropolis was – uh – they were weird. Or really wasted. Anyway.

Atop the Acropolis in Aeschylus’ set is an ancient temple of Athena with a statue of her at its center. And at this statue knelt the battered, harrowed criminal Orestes. Orestes prayed for Athena to accept him there, and said that he was done with violence. “My murderous edge is blunted now,” he said, “worn down at last” (241). Almost as soon as Orestes appeared there, though, the Furies hurried onstage, sniffing and letting loose their hunting cries, until they found his trail. They said that the smell of his blood rang in their hearts like laughter.

And then the Furies screamed that Orestes would pay for his crimes. They would guzzle the blood from his veins, and in Hades he would suffer all the pains he’d inflicted onto others. Yet in spite of these threats, Orestes kept his composure. He said Apollo had begun the process of washing his mother’s blood from his hands. And he petitioned Athena to help finish the process.

The leader of the Furies interrupted Orestes’ pleas to Athena. The leader of the Furies said Orestes wouldn’t be saved at all – his blood would be drained until all his color was gone, and his bones would be chewed by demons. The Furies sung a long, frightening chorus – and one of its core ideas was that when a person committed a certain class of severe crime, that person was theirs under any circumstances, regardless of the gods. [music]
[D]own on the man we swoop, [said the Furies,]
for all his power black him out! –
[We] wrench our mandate from the gods.
we make ourselves exempt from their control. . .
And all men’s dreams of grandeur
tempting the heavens,
all melt down, under earth their pride goes down –
lost in our onslaught, black robes swarming,
Furies throbbing, dancing out our rage. . .
[W]e are the great fulfillers. . .
disgraced, degraded, drive our powers through;
banished far from god to a sunless, torchlit dusk,
we drive men through their rugged passage,
blinded dead and those who see by day. . .
And so it holds, our ancient power still holds. (246-8)

That, again, is from the Robert Fagles translation, published by Penguin in 1979 – and I seriously recommend you pick up a copy of the book, because it really is all that awesome. So, the Furies repeated their unbudging resolution. They would have Orestes’ blood, and in Hades he would atone for his misdeeds. There would not be a compromise.

Athena Hears the Cases

Just as the furies finished their threats and drew perilously close to Orestes, onto the stage strode the goddess Athena. Her armor gleamed and in her hands she clutched her great shield and spear. Athena took in the assembly on the Acropolis quickly. She’d just come from Troy, she said. After some prefatory dialogue, the Furies told Athena why they were there. Orestes, they said, had killed his mother. And now, Orestes had to pay. But Athena, ever wise, began asking them questions. Had Orestes been compelled to do so? she asked. Would they let her question the defendant? The Furies said they respected Athena’s judgment, just as she respected them.

Gustav Klimt Athena eumenides

Gustav Klimt’s Athena (1898). Aeschylus’ version of the goddess, particularly in the Eumenides, is somewhat softer and more compassionate than Homer’s.

The goddess Athena turned to the battered Orestes and told him it was his turn. What, Athena asked, did Orestes have to say for himself?

Orestes told her he wasn’t guilty. His crime, he said, was absolved. He described where he was from. He told Athena about how his father Agamemnon had been murdered by his mother Clytemnestra. Orestes admitted that he’d killed his mother – out of love for his dead father, and emphasized “Apollo shares the guilt – / he spurred me on, he warned of the pains I’d feel / unless I acted, brought the guilty down” (252). Following his explanation, Orestes said he’d accept whatever verdict Athena delivered.

The goddess considered the situation. She could tell, she said, that Orestes had atoned, and that he would no longer seek to do anyone any harm. This prompted Athena to forgive Orestes and bring him into the fold at Athens. But on the other hand, if Athena denied the Furies their bloody form of justice, they would plague the world with their wrath. It was, Athena said, a difficult case. Again and again, she looked at Orestes, and then the Furies, and said she was at an impasse.

But after considering the matter further, Athena said she knew what she would do. “[T]he matter comes to rest on us,” she said. “I will appoint the judges of manslaughter, / swear them in, and found a tribunal here / for all time to come” (252). Athena said she would find a group of distinguished Athenians to help adjudicate the case, and left. In her absence, the Furies prophesied darkly about what would happen if Orestes were acquitted. If they are ignored, the Furies foretold, then justice itself would be ignored. Their lengthy speech attested that they were more than just gory avengers. The Furies said that they were a part of the balance of the world – they were a force that severed off the parts of humanity that committed egregious crimes against others. And the Furies advised the audience to always honor their parents, and guests, and be good to others, because if they acted treacherously, the Furies would come for them. [music]

The Final Trial the Areopagus

The scene shifted again – this time, to the Areopagus rock, a giant stone just a hundred yards northwest of the Acropolis. Just as Aeschylus’ audience in 458 BCE would have recognized the temple of Apollo at Delphi and the Acropolis, they would have recognized the Areopagus rock, because it was one of their city’s major landmarks. It was, as I said earlier, a site in Athens where trials were carried out.

Areopagus aeschylus eumenides

The Areopagus, or rock of Mars, in present day Athens, with the nearby Acropolis in the background, a crucial location for the Eumenides. Note that the Areopagus is the large rock in the lower left of the picture – a few hundred feet west of the western side of the Acropolis. Photo by Templar52.

On the great rock, Athena led a herald and a group of ten distinguished citizens to serve as the jury for the case. The herald blew the trumpet. [sound] The jury took its place in front of the play’s audience. Side note, by the way, the courtroom drama of this part of the play would make it so that if you were sitting there in the theater, you felt like you were a spectator at a real trial, since you were sitting behind the ten jurors. Aeschylus’ play The Suppliants, which premiered a few years before the Oresteian trilogy, also has a public tribunal at its center. Anyway, so Athena had the Furies and Orestes stand on opposite sides of the stage. And Athena herself stood in the middle, so that she could orchestrate the trial. In a moment of silence, Orestes stood there, all alone, opposite the shadowy pack of Furies. It seemed as though he’d face their prosecution on his own, but then Apollo suddenly entered. Athena demanded to know why Apollo was there, and Apollo explained himself. He was a witness, he said. And he added that he was partly culpable for the murder of Clytemnestra, and that as far as he was concerned Orestes’ hands had already been purged of the blood of the murder. For all these reasons, Apollo said, he would stand by Orestes. And Athena indicated that she understood.

The prosecution was first, and the Furies began their questions. Yes, Orestes said, he had killed his mother. He admitted to the Furies that he’d cut her throat with his sword. It had been at the command of Apollo. An atrocious crime, the Furies said, far worse than Clytemnestra’s. Clytemnestra killed her husband, but at least, the Furies specified – at least Agamemnon hadn’t been her blood relation. Orestes asked Apollo to weigh in.

I imagine the unwritten stage directions here. A long and dramatic pause. Because the case that’s been made against Orestes has been pretty devastating so far. So a long pause, and Apollo took a deep breath, and then began his explanation. Zeus, he said, had compelled him – Zeus had compelled Apollo himself – to drive Orestes to matricide. Apollo told the Furies there was no way around Zeus’ mandates. Apollo told the Furies that the decision that Clytemnestra had to be murdered was “[Zeus’] justice – omnipotent, I warn you. / Bend to the will of Zeus. No oath can match / the power of the Father” (259). Apollo then drew his own portrait of Clytemnestra. She had cruelly, deceptively murdered a nation’s king – a magnificent, victorious king, at that.

And it was time for the Furies. The Furies were not impressed. In fact, their rebuttal was a powerful one. Zeus, the Furies reminded Apollo, had also killed a parent. Zeus had murdered his father, Kronos. The Furies weren’t interested in what Zeus had decreed. How, they asked, was Orestes supposed to take the throne of his kingdom, having committed a dreadful crime? What kind of precedent did it set? There were older and more primal codes of justice than the caprices of the newfangled Olympian gods, they said. The furies were ancient things, and remembered these codes. And they said to hell with Zeus and his pack of young siblings.

Charles Meynier - Apollo (1798) aeschylus

Charles Meynier’s Apollo (1798). The deity presides over the final trial in Aeschylus’ Eumenides.

Then Apollo gave the speech about motherhood that I quoted in the last episode. The gist of that speech is the flagrantly unscientific Ancient Greek doctrine that women are just storage containers for babies – that sperm, and sperm alone is the source of life. The core of this speech is the famous (and absurd) line “The man is the source of life – the one who mounts” (260). That was Apollo’s case – killing your own mother wasn’t such a big deal, was it? A mother was just something that got mounted, and planted – men were the progenitors of all life – men created life all on their own.

After making this exceptionally dubious point, Apollo presented his evidence – Athena herself. Hadn’t she been born directly from a man? Of course she had! The great Athena had never been sullied by being in a womb. And, Apollo concluded, he had brought Orestes to the great Athena, so that Athena would have a powerful devotee, and the house of Atreus, purified by divine trial, would be bonded with Athena forever after.

Athena asked if the Furies and Apollo had finished making their cases. They had. It was time for the jury of ten distinguished Athenians to decide the fate of Orestes. The Furies had nothing else to add. Neither did Apollo. Athena urged the citizens to make a fair judgment. And as the jury moved to cast their votes, Apollo and the furies went at one another with threats. The Furies warned the god of prophecy “You dabble in works of blood beyond your depth. . . / You brought them down, the oldest realms of order, / seduced the ancient goddesses with wine” (263-4). And in turn, Apollo growled that he was defending a just man.

Then Athena made a surprising move. The jurors were still in the midst of casting their votes, and suddenly, Athena announced, “Orestes. . .I will cast my lot for you” (264). Her reasons, she said, were that no mother had borne her, and that she honored males, like her father Zeus, as the true engenderers of life. Athena proclaimed that because of her vote, Orestes would not be found guilty in the event of a tie between the jurors’ votes. And indeed, once the votes were cast, they tied, and Athena proved the tiebreaker. Orestes was acquitted. [music]

The Furies Become the Eumenides

Orestes, hearing the court’s decision, announced his gratitude toward the city of Athens. He said that his home city, Argos, would never make war on Athens henceforward. Orestes, and his triumphant patron Apollo, stepped down from the Areopagus rock.

The Furies, needless to say, were not happy with the verdict. They promised destruction and vengeance – the young gods had commandeered their authority, and there would be hell to pay – mankind would perish in an ocean of blood. What would Athena say to this? Well, being the wise goddess of Athens, Athena had a pretty decent, circumspect response.

The Furies hadn’t lost, Athena said. They’d tied, and been on equal footing with Apollo. It was Zeus, Athena said, who’d made her cast her lot. Athena told the Furies that there was no reason to run rampant over the face of the earth, exacting vengeance. The world needed them, and people would revere them as always. The Furies protested, but Athena again said to please not poison the land with their retributive violence.

Athena urged them to “Lull asleep that salt black wave of anger – / awesome, proud with reverence, [and] live with me” (268). Athena promised that they would be honored, that they would have the first fruits of the harvest. The Furies would have their own temple there, in Athens, and rather than running rampant and exacting revenge, the Furies would be honored by devotional offerings. More than anything, wise Athena urged, Greeks needed to stop killing Greeks.
Here in our homeland never cast the stones
that whet our bloodlust. Never waste our youth,
inflaming them with the burning wine of strife. . .
Let our wars
rage on abroad, with all their force. . .
But as for the bird
that fights at home – my curse on civil war. (269)

So, Athena begged them to soften their ancient, destructive rage. They were older than her, she said, and wiser, but they needed to understand – that if the persuasive power of her speech was good for anything at all – they needed to understand that the killing had to stop. The cycle of anguish had to end. If the Furies could do that, they would have a home in Athens forever, and every family forever after would need their wisdom, and their age old understanding of justice.

And finally, the Leader of the Furies said that Athena’s speech was having an effect – that she was conscious of her ancient rage diminishing. The Furies asked Athena to give a binding speech, and Athena said in place of vigilante killing she sought tranquility, and joy, and sunshine blooming all over Greece.

And the Furies prayed, saying that goodness would come like the waves followed the waves; like greenery issued forth from the dark fields in the spring sunshine. The Furies prayed that Greek soil would never see Greeks fighting Greeks, and Athena urged the audience to be kind to the wise Furies, who would in turn be kind to them. Athena said the time had come for the Furies to go to their new home. A group of female torch bearers appeared. The old deities would dwell deep beneath the rocks of Athens, and far from being agents of chaotic revenge, they would be the cornerstone of the city’s stability and harmony.

Athena’s entourage brought forth crimson robes and placed them on the Furies, and all of the torches blazed brightly as the old gods were consecrated anew. Soon, Athena began leading the Furies from the stage and out of the theater, and into the real city of Athens, along with the actors who had played the judges. As the procession left the theater, a group of Athenian women sung a final chorus. They blessed the transformed Furies, and urged those in the audience to sing their own blessings. The final chorus urged the audience to exult amidst the torch fire, to cry out in victory, and to dance, and the play closes with a repeated encouragement to “Cry, cry, in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on!” And that’s the end. [music]

An Unexpected Happy Ending in Aeschylus’ Trilogy

Some tragedy, huh? No corpses onstage at the end. No weeping. Just singing and joy. It’s really one of the happiest endings in literature. The first play, Agamemnon, ends with the killing of a king and his innocent captive concubine. The second play, The Libation Bearers, ends with a son killing his mother, who is a queen. That’s all pretty damned tragic. Then the third play, The Eumenides, ends with the blood soaked agents of violent retribution being changed into gentle local deities, and the gory history of the House of Atreus being concluded for good. The word Eumenides, by the way, means “kindly ones,” and so the Furies – which were scary, frenzied monsters at the play’s beginning – the Furies are changed into the kindly ones. The Eumenides. At the core of the Oresteian trilogy’s happy ending is the fact that Athena not only stops the killing in the House of Atreus. She also stops the agents of bloody vengeance in the lands of Greece, and sets up something more like a functional justice system, forever after.

View from the Acropolis in Athens with Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, Acropolis Museum, and city towards the horizon, 2017

Looking out over the city of Athens from the top of the Theater of Dionysus. Photo by Gregor Hagedorn.

Now, I added some music to the end of the play, because the final choruses would have been songs with dancing. Possibly even interactive songs, since the final chorus is urging the real audience of Aeschylus’ play to voice their own praises. And it must have been quite a sight on that spring evening on 458 BCE – the sun would have been going down, or have already gone down on stage right, and the Athenian women who close the whole show would have been singing a joyous chorus by torchlight, urging the Furies to dance, urging the audience to sing and dance, all in the spirit of kindness and harmony between all Greeks. I bet people were giving one another spontaneous handshakes and hugs in the audience at the joy of being Athenian, and being Greek, and living in a time of peace after so many years, after so much very real chaos and anarchy. You know, the history podcaster Dan Carlin is always talking about what it would be like to see this or that historical massacre or battle in cinematic widescreen – “What would it have been like to stand there and see the mass executions of the Khans? We just can’t imagine that!” – you know, that kind of thing. We all wonder the same thing, of course, and Dan’s about the best in the world when it comes to making history live and breathe. But it’s also good to think of happy moments in history. Happy moments like the final five minutes of Aeschylus’ play, and the five minutes afterward, when almost every single person in the audience must have been grinning ear to ear, and strangers were nodding at one another with a sudden profound depth of shared hope and feeling of unbreakable togetherness, and the symbolism of the play was suddenly becoming real. I would like to see that, in widescreen, all those smiles in the starlight, and lyres glowing in the flare of torches, and people going off into the balmy evening together, and moonlight down on the Saronic Gulf at low tide. A great play is like that – it ends like that – pow – like wreathes of magic smoke, and everyone looks at each other like, “Whoa, did that actually happen? was that real?” – and it did – and it was was! – it was, and it will never happen again. Not with the same people and not in exactly the same way. Theater is real magic, man. Well, anyway, I would like to see that in cinematic widescreen, with high definition audio. A whole city of real people, in an outdoor theater, inspired by the notion that we, like Orestes, are not irremediably cursed to repeat the misdeeds of our forefathers, but that civilization can grow, and adapt, and improve us all. Even if once in a while it takes a bit of a wrong turn.

Again I recommend that if you have time, you get a copy of some of Aeschylus’ plays for yourself. As I said, I’ve used the translation by Robert Fagles, published by Penguin in 1979. Translators often know writers better than anyone. In a retrospective summary about translating Aeschylus’ work, Fagles writes, “I found him a burly, eloquent ghost, with more human decency and strength than I could [ever] hope to equal” (7). I think if you get a chance, and you get should a copy of the Oresteian trilogy, or a volume of Aeschylus’ other plays – the Seven Against Thebes, The Persians, The Suppliants, or Prometheus Bound, you’ll see what Fagles means. Reading Aeschylus is like running your hands over a knotty, shaggy piece of wood – dense and with the grains all running together. His style, as Fagles reproduces it in English, is jagged and strange – it’s like Aeschylus is trying to wring every last drop out of language by sheer force and is willing to sacrifice smoothness and grace for sharpness and power. If you read the Oresteian trilogy yourself, I think you’ll be hooked by the first shadowy monologue of Agamemnon, in which the night watchman says he’s been waiting for the king for so long that he knows all the stars in the night sky.

So we’ve finished the whole Oresteian trilogy. And ultimately it is a story like many others we’ve heard before in this podcast. We’ve heard it in the Mesopotamian creation story the Enuma Elish. We’ve heard it in the old Canaanite story of the god Baal. We’ve heard it in the books of Genesis and Job. Most of all, we’ve heard it in Hesiod’s Theogony. It’s a story that seems to be everywhere. Marduk beats Tiamat. Baal beats the Litan. Yahweh beats the Leviathan. Zeus beats Kronos. It’s the story of the old, primeval gods being replaced by a younger pantheon. The old gods are colossal but unpredictable – they are revered, but their chaotic natures lead to death and destruction being dispensed randomly, century after century. Only, at some point, along comes a new force – singular or multiple, of deities, and these new gods triumph over their awful predecessors, and a new, stable, just order is established forever after. In the plays of Aeschylus, this storyline shows Athena and Apollo overmastering the dreadful Furies – the young Olympians supplanting the old children of the first titans.

These stories that we’ve been reading about multiple generations of gods show a view of time that is progressive. There was an initial period of chaos, followed by a period of order. These stories are shorthand for the tumult of childhood impulsiveness preceding the composure of adult discipline. But more than anything, the stories of multiple generations of gods are also stories about human civilization. We began in a chaotic welter – life was violent and unpredictable. But as civilization took hold, the frenzied violence and randomness of human existence was replaced by something else. This something else, like Marduk, or Baal, or Yahweh, or Zeus – this something else could have its own brand of austerity and oppressiveness. But overall it was preferable to what had come before. This story of younger gods supplanting older gods is way down at the root ball of world literature. And it’s ultimately at the core of Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy, too.

But I don’t want to just stop there. This story of new gods replacing old ones – of a mound of new enlightened policies replacing the furies of the old ways of justice – this story might be a pervasive mytheme in much of the ancient literature we’ve looked at. But I want to go a little bit deeper. Because by the 400s BCE, when Aeschylus wrote his plays, the story of new gods replacing old ones was already at least three centuries old. The miracle of Aeschylus’ most famous trilogy isn’t so much that he tells of this divine power transition. The miracle of the Oresteian trilogy is that these plays take the ancient story of this divine power transition and apply it to a historical event that had actually taken place in Athens – just a few years before. Now, I’m going to tell you what that event – that rather miraculous event – was. [music]

Aeschylus’ World in the 450s BCE: Ephialtes and the Heliaia

In those joyous final moments of The Eumenides, when the homicidal Furies have been changed into beings called “the kindly ones,” many of the Athenians who watched the play would have been thinking about something that had happened very recently in their city’s history. This was a political transition that had taken place in the late 460s. So when you learn about Athenian democracy in school, the story that gets told is that a bunch of guys stood around in a huge meeting place, scratching their beards, listening to each other’s speeches, and taking votes on things. Then if you get into a bit more detail with Athenian democracy, you learn some of the things we covered in the last episode – that women were systematically confined and oppressed, that slavery was still widespread, and that even for the male citizens the system was a de facto plutocracy, with power most immediately available to elites. That’s I guess what you could call level two of basic facts about Athenian democracy. Level one, elementary school factoid. Level two, revisionist bullet points. As we step into level three, though, we start to encounter a much longer and more complicated story.

The gist of this story is that although democracy was established in Athens just before the 400s BCE, this new political system was rolled out slowly, and it was resisted, and campaigned against – it gained ground, and it lost ground over the course of the 400s, according to Athens’ economic fortunes, its military conflicts, and of course the unique personalities of its more prominent citizens. In the late 460s, though, something very consequential happened – something which probably influenced Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy. This was a series of political reforms spearheaded by an extraordinary Athenian lawmaker named Ephialtes.

The reforms of Ephialtes, for historians, generally mark the onset of the most democratic period of ancient Athenian history.2 During most of Ephialtes’ career, and the life of Aeschylus, by the way – but during most of Ephialtes’ career, a council existed called the Areopagus. The Areopagus council was named after the Areopagus rock, or the Ares rock – the rock on which the climax of Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy takes place. The Areopagus council was essentially an old guard of elites who wanted minimum citizen participation in government and maximum insider advantages for the wealthy. So, against this set, in a flurry of activity in the late 460s, Ephialtes prosecuted the more egregious offenses of key members of the Aeropagus council and he began some political restructuring that became foundational to Athens’ future. Ephialtes, not wanting elites to continue to have all the power, lowered property holding requirements for public officeholders. He set up laws to ensure that officeholders were monitored by state agencies. This next one is a doozy. Ephialtes set up a system so that public officeholders would be paid for their work, thus making public office a viable career option for those outside of the aristocracy.

Recinto de la Heliea. Stoa de Atalo al fondo. Ágora de Atenas

The inner court of the Heliaia, north of the Acropolis, with the Stoa of Attalos in the background. The new court would have been in the minds of the original audience of the Eumenides.

All of these reforms unsettled the Areopagus council’s traditional means of doing business. The Areopagus was an old boy’s club, and it transferred power between elites regardless of interests and abilities. Ephialtes’ reforms for officeholders did much to make Athens’ bureaucracy into a functional, meritocratic system staffed by a diverse lot of citizens who were expected to be good at their jobs. But Ephialtes’ most deadly strike against the Areopagus’ council was to remove almost all of its judicial powers.3 Rather than letting the Areopagus council remain the combined executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government, Ephialtes spread these powers amidst a large citizen council, and turned the judiciary powers of the Areopagus council over to the Heliaia, a body of 6,000 citizens that functioned as the principal court of the city. The Areopagus still had some judicial powers, but only as a court for murder trials. The de facto judicial power, however, was with the 6,000 citizen strong Heliaia.4 Did Ephialtes give meaningful judicial power to thousands of his fellow citizens? Heliaia, he did. Love that – uh – mnemonic device, by the way – it’s a good way to remember the name of Athenian democracy’s later tribunal system, the Heliaia.

Anyway, by 462, these reforms were largely pushed through the legislature, and the Heliaia was starting to get up and running in earnest. Now, the whole process took place during a diplomacy crisis with Sparta, and the instability of the international situation probably helped instigate the radical legislative changes. Naturally, not everyone was happy. The powerful old boy’s club who had suddenly been deprived of their privileges found that the old ways of money flowing through the city had changed, and would continue to change in a way more consonant with the welfare of the median citizen. And in 461, Ephialtes was murdered. We don’t know who killed him. But his death didn’t stop the reforms that he’d put in motion. Power had been largely removed from the old Aeropagus council, redistributed amidst a larger number of citizens, and a system of checks and balances had been established. In the history of statecraft, then, Ephialtes stands in ancient history shoulder to shoulder with Cyrus the Great, Augustus, and Diocletian. Aeschylus and his democratically minded fellow Athenians, when Ephialtes died, knew that one of their greatest citizens had fallen – but not before setting up something truly miraculous, and truly unique, in world history up to that point. [music]

The Heliaia and the End of the Oresteian Trilogy

Let’s get back to the Oresteian trilogy. All of these political transformations happened just a few years before the premiere of Aeschylus’ most famous plays. If the reforms were pushed through in 462, we can imagine that it took a few years for the new systems to be set up and the power transfers to fully take place, so the spring of 458 BCE would have been the moment in Athens when citizens had really started feeling empowered by the reforms of Ephialtes.

So the core of this trilogy is a story about a transition – a transition from the old, chaotic, bloody justice system of the Furies to a new justice system, let by citizens and Athena herself, and headquartered in Athens. Now, the Oresteian trilogy is, as I said a minute ago, another tally mark amidst literature’s many stories of old pantheons giving way to new ones. But it’s also a figurative story about specific political transitions that had taken place in very recent history. The city, Aeschylus and his audience knew, would no longer be ruled over by a band of old, moneyed noblemen whose performance in office was spotty, egocentric, and ineffectual. And, analogously, at the end of Aeschylus’ plays, Greece as a whole no longer had to fear the whims of a pack of elder gods. In Aeschylus final play, the citizen jury climbs up on the Areopagus to judge Orestes’ trial. And, analogously, in the actual city of Athens, thousands of Athenian citizens had recently ascended into a judiciary system previously under the auspices of the Areopagus council. So, the Oresteian trilogy, with its mythical tale of Athena and Apollo outmaneuvering the Furies, is also a play about the inception of a modern justice system and much more inclusive democracy in the city of Athens.

As Athena and her assembly lead the Furies – now transformed into the “kindly ones” or Eumenides – off of the fake Areopagus set onstage and into the real city, maybe, symbolically, to the real Areopagus rock, as all of this happened Aeschylus’ audience was smiling in part because they felt that they were watching a true story. The Areopagus rock was no longer a symbol of aristocratic mismanagement. A real, just trial had taken place on top of it, and it was now a place of empowerment for the common citizen. A period of chaotic, imperfectly administered justice was over. A new period of more orderly justice had begun. The newly cleansed Areopagus rock was its symbol. The mound had triumphed over the furies.

Aeschylus, Greek Tragedy, and Women Cast Aside

There’s just one thing. Not everyone finishes the Oresteian trilogy clapping their hands in glee at its overall faith in human progress. There are a couple of things, really, and one person, who get swept under the rug, and have to take one for the team. As Aeschylus’ audience went off by torchlight under the cover of springtime stars, they might have forgotten about her. But you and I won’t.

Klytaimnestra Erinyes Louvre Cp710 aeschylus

Clytemnestra and the Furies in a scene earlier in the Eumenides, when Clytemnestra is trying to wake them at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. From an Apulian red figure bell-krater, dated circa 380–370 BCE. These female characters, killed or relegated by the trilogy’s end, have continued to haunt Aeschylus’ audience since ancient times.

What about Clytemnestra? What about that commanding woman who massacres her brutal, hubristic husband? I think she should get an award for killing Agamemnon. Clytemnestra’s ghost appears at the beginning of the third play, asking for justice – she demands that the Furies awaken, take up their ancestral role, and avenge her death. But by the time the play gets to Athens, Clytemnestra is gone. She’s talked about, of course. To Apollo, Clytemnestra’s crime was heinous because it involved the killing of a man, and a king. But – again to Apollo – Orestes’ crime in killing his mother was a lesser offense, because, as a woman, Clytemnestra was little more than a storage vessel for King Agamemnon’s fully formed seed.

You have to accept all of this malarkey for ending of the three plays to feel morally satisfying. And just as Clytemnestra’s crime is demonized more than Orestes’, purely because of her gender, the plays also vilify women in the forms of the Furies themselves. The Furies are ugly, and dirty. They are passionate and aggressive, but at the same time ineffectual and feeble before the representatives of Zeus. And ultimately, just as Clytemnestra is disregarded for the sake of Orestes, the Furies are transformed and stuck in a closet for the sake of Zeus’ commands. In both cases, what is old and frenzied and disposable is female, and what is new, permanent and rational is male. I mean it’s not exactly shocking, considering the gender politics of fifth-century Athens. But for modern readers especially, the ghost of Clytemnestra continues to haunt the stage at the play’s end.

Just as much, I think the old Gods linger in your imagination after you finish the play. Many of the most sublime speeches in the final of the three plays come from the Furies. At one point, before their transformation, the Furies warn Athena and Apollo that “[A]t birth, I say, our rights were so ordained. / The deathless gods must keep their hands far off – / no god may share our cups, our solemn feasts. / We want no part of their pious white robes – / the Fates who gave us power made us free” (246). The Furies are wild. But they’re free. They were born before the laws and restrictions of the younger gods. The old, primeval gods like the Furies reigned over a period of turmoil and radical liberty. Generally, in Aeschylus, the old gods are a terrible and violent lot, best consigned to posterity. But, just as civilization occasionally fantasizes about life in a state of nature, Aeschylus was obviously fascinated by the fearsomeness and pandemonium of the period before the ascendency of the Olympian gods. Pages and pages of the play are made up of the Furies’ speeches – their threats, their musings, their berserk dances and hunting cries. They’re the type of villains who are so spellbinding that they threaten to steal the show and become the protagonists, like an Iago or an Edmund.

Aeschylus had dealt with the old gods before. His play Prometheus Bound is about the titan Prometheus, chained to remote mountains as punishment for trying to thwart Zeus. Prometheus Bound shows a much more critical attitude toward the younger gods – in Prometheus Bound Zeus isn’t a welcome bastion of novel order – instead, Zeus is a tyrant and whoremonger. So the very last point I want to make is this. The Oresteian trilogy has a pretty straightforward attitude toward progress. The new gods have squished the old gods, and a new political system has replaced an old one, and it’s all good – the mound, again, has beaten the Furies. But Aeschylus himself, and his contemporaries, could be much more ambivalent about the progress of Athenian civilization. They could also look back and think that before those tall columns, with their straight lines and stout orderliness, there was an older time, violent, free, and majestic in its chaos. [music]

Ancient Greek Plays and the Time of Legend

And so as ancient Greek theater marches onward, its playwrights will continue to be fascinated by the discord, and the anarchy, of the distant past. The Athenians who came to see Aeschylus’ plays, and their children, and their children’s children – these people might have liked their democratic city, with its 6,000 seat strong citizen tribunal system, and its salaried bureaucracy. They loved their goddess Athena, and the Eumenides, or “kindly ones” that dwelt near the Acropolis, and guaranteed fair trial and clemency to all. But when Athenians went to the theater, they didn’t want Eumenides. They usually wanted Furies.

The existing plays of Aeschylus and his successors that have come down to us – these plays are not a set of stories about everyday life in democratic Athens. These plays are about times of legend, and pandemonium – they’re about larger-than-life figures and the extraordinary experiences that they have. These plays are full of blood and thunder, gods, and death, and special effects. In the next show, we’re going to begin a group of three plays by Aeschylus’ younger contemporary, Sophocles. There are many famous plays that have come down to us from Ancient Greece, but the play Oedipus the King might be the most famous of all. You might think you know this play – this play that’s supposedly about a man who kills someone he shouldn’t, and marries someone he shouldn’t. But there is infinitely more to the story of the damned King Oedipus than his awful and trademark sins. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and if you want to hear a song, I’ve got one coming up. If not, see you next time.

Still here? Alright, so, check this out. I got to thinking about those Furies. They are, I think, the most memorable thing about The Eumenidies, which is titled after them, of course. Those Furies are so overfilled with rage for most of the play, and they’re hustling all over the stage presaging blood and gore and death all the time. In Aeschylus’ hands, I think they are some of the most haunting figures in ancient Greek literature. I got to thinking about those Furies, and I decided to write a song about them. This tune takes the Furies and imagines them singing a song about who they are, and what they do, in multipart vocal harmony over some rock instrumentation. This one is called “Flap Flap Flap, They’re the Furies,” and it’s – uh – one of the more ridiculous songs I’ve ever recorded. Which is definitely saying something. So thanks again for listening to the shows on Aeschylus, next time we’ve got Oedipus the King and here comes “Flap Flap Flap, They’re the Furies.”

1.^ Aeschylus. The Orestia. Translated by Robert Fagles, with an Introductory Essay, Notes and Glossary by Robert Fagles and W.B. Stanford. New York: Penguin Books, 1979. Kindle edition, p. 231. Further references are noted parenthetically.

2.^ See, for instance, Chapter 6 of Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996. Kindle Edition.

3.^ Once Ephialtes’ reforms were pushed through, John Hale writes, the old Areopagus council only oversaw “two kinds of cases: homicides and injuries to the sacred olive trees.” Hale, John. Lords of the Sea: How Athenian Trireme Battles Changed History. Gibson Square. Kindle Edition, 2014. Location 1751.

4.^ These courts were “manned by juries of male citizens over thirty years old, chosen by lot to serve for a year,” and Thomas Martin calls them “The most significant of the Ephialtic reforms.” See Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996. Kindle Edition, Location 1629.