Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Part III: The Eumenides (The Kindly Ones)


     The shift of location in this third play of Aeschylus' trilogy takes us to one of the most important sacred cities in ancient Greek culture.  Even non-Greeks respected the shrine and oracle of Phoebus Apollo at Delphi.  What does the place look like?  Thanks to Google Maps, you can see it as the eagle does.  Though the buildings are largely destroyed, their foundations and basic outlines are visible from the air.  Just use Google Maps to locate "Delphi, Fokida, Greece."  That's the modern tourist town below the old shrine, which you can drag the map to upward and to the right.  Find "the Athenian Treasury."  That structure still stands, and is located on the path travelers would pass as they approached the shrine, itself, the rectangular structure immediately above it (in altitude, too--note all the switch-back trails going up and up).  The shrine, where the Pythia sits on her tripod over the vaporous crack in the Earth pronouncing her riddling prophecies, is the large rectangular structure.  (The "Sybil's Rock" nearby appears to be a later folk-invention; a priestess who had that temple would have no reason to leave it to crouch on a middling boulder in the weeds.)  Just above that, you will see a fan-like structure that emerges from a white marble circle in the ground.  What is it?  Further to the left and much higher (note all the switch-backs and the rarity of little teeny tourists on that path), is another rectangular structure even larger than the shrine.  What is it?  (Hint: The white rectangular band at the top of it (again marble) is a row of bleacher seats.)  Does this help you piece together the way the Greeks mentally understood drama's relationship to prophecy and the body?

     Then, at line 334, the scene changes again to the Akropolis of Athens, namely the Erechtheon or old temple of Athena.  Unlike the better known Parthenon, or temple of Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin, vs. Athena Nike or Athena the Victorious), the older temple to Athena Polias (Athena of the City) is evidence of another form of her cult worship.  Think about the Christian Trinity or the many forms of Buddha for modern theological parallels of a deity with more than one manifestation.  See Fagles' note re: the olivewood sculpture of Athen, which has not survived, that was the main point of worship, vs. the larger than life marble statue Phidias created for the Parthenon.   For Professor Janice Seigle's Hampton-Sidney College Web page of annotated images of the Erechtheum, click here.  By the time you have finished "The Eumenides," Aeschylus' political and aesthetic strategy for bringing the play's action from Argos to Delphi to Athens should be leading you to some conclusions about this dramatic trilogy's aesthetic structure. Authority is moving from the past to the present, from ancient and bloody institutions to socially constructed institutions, from merciless Earth goddesses to merciful human courts like the Athenian Areopagus.  If you are really thinking big, you will notice that the Areopagus was the site of the Apostle Paul's 49 CE sermon to the Romans in which he claimed Jesus was the deity referred to by the place's mysterious inscribed invocation, "To the Unknown God."  Was his choice of location well informed?




tudy Questions


 1)  Are the Furies within Orestes, or outside him?  (Or both?)


2)  What is the leader of the Furies' argument against Apollo?


3)  Compare the makeup of the three primary Choruses of the Orestia.   What do they represent, and what is the dramatic effect of having  them in the plot?  Think about their genders and ages and relative powers.  (Especially note that the Chorus in Libation Bearers performs a crucial plot-changing act in telling Aethisthos to leave his bodyguard behind when visiting the "messengers, and the Furies are, after all, chthonic (Earth-born) deities as old as humanity.)  Also, what effect does Aeschylus achieve by introducing a fourth chorus near the end of the play (see 9 below)?


4)  What is the central crisis of this play?  What is there to  lose in letting Orestes go free from the Furies' vengeance?


5)  What do you think of Athena's reasoning about her vote?  What does it mean to say that Athena was not born of  woman, but given birth to by her father?


6)  What threat is implied in the Furies' curse?  What has revenge done for human culture in the past, and what might be the consequences of living without fear of their pursuit?


7)  When the goddess Athena makes the Furies the Eumenides, how  would you interpret the significance of that transformation and  its agent?  What does Athena mean when she says to them, "No  single house shall thrive except by you"?


8)  How is the end of the play a political anthem?  What are  Aeschylus' goals for Athenian culture?


9)  How do you interpret the introduction of a second chorus,  "The Athenian Women" into the dramatic structure of this play?   How does it relate to the gender conflict underlying the Orestia?


10)  Greek drama has been described as closely linked to sacred  ritual, and as the practical tool of a playwright acting as a  social engineer.  How does the end of The Eumenides support both  ideas?  Think of how Aeschylus' argument for changing a law of vengeance to a law of kindness would succeed if it were made a part of either American political party's presidential election platform.


11)Both Aeschylus and Stesichorus of Himera intentionally rewrite pre-existing myths to achieve goals appropriate to  their own eras' needs.  This might be one of the Oresteia's basic messages about how we should cope with the sometimes crushing inheritance we receive from the past: appropriate it and rewrite it.  Literary discusions of "canon formation," the process which determines the important "literature" of a culture, often undertake the same task in the modern era, choosing which works of literature to keep in print, to assign students to read, to put into literary anthologies.  On an unconscious level, whole cultures also are rewriting their mythos in a process studied by Claud Levi-Strauss, the founder of cultural anthropology, who specifically chose the Theban myths centered on Oedipus as his chief example in "The Structural Analysis of Myth."  He saw myths as cultural explanations of otherwise impossible to explain phenomena in life: birth, death, suffering, fate and causation, all the experiences we need to understand but which reason alone cannot encompass.  Myths engage the irrational and intuitional parts of the mind to do what reason cannot.