Hurray! After two plays full of talk, whining, wailing, praying and poetic flights of fancy about the Erinyes; the ancient ones finally appear on stage. At line 210, a conversation with Loxias explains why they didn’t enter the story line until now.
Erinyes; We drive matricides from their homes.
Apollo; What about a wife who kills her husband?
Erinyes; That would not be murder of relative by blood
Later they sing at 335; “Relentless destiny spun out our fate so that we continuously have the duty to pursue mortals who are saddled with fruitless kin-murders, to pursue them until they go under the earth, and even when they die.” (See 605 also.) So regardless of society’s expectations; the death of a spouse, the death of a slave like Cassandra, the death of a sister-in-law’s bastard like Iphigenia is none of their concern. That is why, although Cassandra had visions of the Erinyes’ response to that nastiness between brothers Atreus and Thyestes, the Erinyes have not actually appeared on stage until now.
At 150, the Erinyes say of Loxias, “you, a youth, have ridden down elder female daemons” To which the son of Zeus responds at 180, “Out of my temple at once, I order you. Be gone, quit my sanctuary of the seer’s art, or else you might be struck by a flying, winged, glistening snake shot forth from a golden bow-string,” At the end of the previous play Orestes describes the Erinyes as Gorgon-like. That means snakes for hair and snakes as accessories. So in affect he is threatening to throw glistening, maybe golden jewelry at them. And rather than forcing them to flee he is delaying their chase of Orestes. There is no mention of fear and trembling on among the Erinyes. Actually, the scene sounds to me like a spoiled little boy threatening his great-aunts with a toy bow and arrow. Then Apollo says the effect of his “snake” will be “you would spit out black foam from your lungs in pain, vomiting the clotted blood you have drawn.” That’s what Erinyes do for a living! (800 But here you are, vomiting your heavy anger on this land.) So, here we have little Apollo threatening to shot creatures who are virtually snakes with more snakes, which will make them throw up, which is what they are planning to do once he gets out of their way and they catch up with Orestes.
The Erinyes catch up with Orestes (and Apollo) at Athena’s temple in Athens. Around line 215 Apollo accuses the Erinyes of dishonoring Hera, goddess of marriage and Aphrodite the goddess of love, by not avenging Agamemnon. Dishonoring another god is a pretty serious charge. At Mecone after the great war between the Titans and the Olympians, Zeus distributed honors and rights to his allies and confirmed the honors of the elder gods. As Artemis says at the very end of Euripides' Hippolytus, “For this is law amongst us gods; none of us will thwart his neighbor’s will”. That being said, Athena and Apollo attempting to infringe on the Erinyes’ rights and honors is just as serious, particularly since they predate the Olympians. To quote them at 349 “These duties were granted to us at birth, and it was also granted that the deathless gods hold back their hands from us” At 389 “What mortal does not stand in awe of these things and tremble, when he hears the law enacted by destiny, the law ordained by the gods for perfect fulfillment? My prerogative is ancient” Athena even acknowledges that “these women have (such) a duty” at 478.
The Showdown Begins
Athena rounds up a jury. They have a trial Apollo swears an oath before testifying at the trail of Orestes (615) by saying, “Since I am a mantis, I will not lie.” (Hera at 23.55 in The Iliad proves he’s a liar on other occasions. His concept of conception proves him a fool here.) The jurors vote. Orestes is declared innocent. Loxias snatches up Orestes and slips out stage left leaving Athena to fend for herself, just like he did when Typhon attacked Olympus.
As Loxias flees, the Erinyes scream, “Younger gods, you have ridden down the ancient laws and snatched them from my hands! And I, wretched, deeply angry, and without honor in this land.”
Athena pleads (800) that they don’t vomit their “heavy anger on this land.” making it sterile and withering the fruit trees. The virgin goddess continues desperately with, “You are not without honor, so do not be moved by your excessive feeling, O goddesses”
At line 825 out of 1035, the Erinyes are finally acknowledged as “O goddesses" by the Olympians rather than “monsters, totally loathsome, hated by the gods! (645)” The Pythia compares them to Harpies and Gorgons. Apollo says they are so vile that, “no god, no man, no (male) beast ever consorts” with them and they are “hateful to men and to the Olympian gods.”
Athena promises them everything imaginable to stay their anger “sanctuaries and sacred hollows” “bright thrones at places of fire-sacrifice”, “honor from the citizens”, to share the Acropolis with her, first-fruits and “fire-sacrifices before childbirth and matrimonial initiation”. Their poisonous anger is their birthright confirmed by Zeus; Athena can do nothing according to the laws of the gods to interfere. So after promising to indulge their anger out of respect for their age and wisdom, Athena adds to the list of honors, “a place in the house of Erechtheus”, “a processions of men and women” and more honor from Athens than from other mortals. “No house will flourish without you. 895”
At line 827 Athena lets slip that she has the keys to the storeroom where her father’s “thunderbolt is kept safe”. The Erinyes didn’t seem to shudder.
It couldn’t have escaped Athena’s notice that the Erinyes had “thrice prayed for, most fair, best–beloved Night” to witness what was happening. (325, 745 and 845) Athena must have known too that Night comes to Olympus. That is the goddess Nyx whom, Homer calls the subduer of gods and men. Of her, even Zeus stands in awe. (Iliad 14. 231) (See Divine Aversion to Death and Nyctophobia for more on this topic.)
Finally at line 900 the elder goddesses end the standoff by saying, “You seem to enchant me, and I am not angry anymore.” The Erinyes then sing a song so full of blessing for the land that they are burdensome to recount. A torch lit procession guides them to their new home.