Wednesday, July 23, 2014

TFBT: The Eumenides of the Oresteia

The Eumenides is the third play in the series.  So far Agamemnon returned victorious from Troy, his wife rolls out the red-carpet, wraps him in an amazing bathrobe, pushes him into the tub and stabs him to death.  Their sole remaining daughter Electra pines for the return of her brother Orestes and for vengeance upon her father’s killers.  Orestes returns, kills his mother’s lover, and threatens to kill his mother.  She warns
him the Erinyes; the ancient goddess of vengeance will hound him to death if he becomes a mother-slayer.  He kills his mom and the Erinyes appear. He flees to the temple of Apollo at Delphi.  Now, at Hour 25 we are discussing the third and final play, The Eumenides  In my reading I concentrate on the Erinyes rather than the mortal-story line.

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.


  1. I suppose the Erinyes did not need to appear in person, as long as mortal proxies were doing their job. They had not shown up visibly during the long vendetta in the house of Atreus, but everybody knew that they were tenants in the home (as you said). They did not appear to Agamemnon because they knew that, as soon as he would attempt to return after Iphigenia's sacrifice, Clytemnestra would "drive him from his home" to Hades. However, nobody would avenge the murder of Clytemnestra (she had apparently been an unpopular ruler), so the Erinyes had to appear and do the job themselves.
    The Erinyes themselves may not be concerned with murder of non-blood relatives, but I suppose other Underworld/Night forces (generally unnamed, sometimes lumped together with Erinyes) had this job, esp. if the victim called to them. When Pelops killed his accomplice Myrtilus and was cursed by him, Pelops' progeny suffered for generations. So I believe Cassandra's appeal was not pointless.

    Do you have any ancient text that Zeus distributed jobs to gods at Mecone? Because I read this often, but never with the original source quoted.

  2. In my story, Athena never gets the keys to the thunderbolt storeroom, but this is considered at some moment, because of complications caused by Zeus' philandering.
    Zeus chooses his mortal "lovers" mainly among king's wives and daughters. Trying to combine business with pleasure, he claims that it is beneficial for gods if mortal kingdoms are ruled by his sons. Hera of course does not buy this theory.
    Things get complicated at Thebes, as usual. Because the crown prince Polydorus is weakly, Zeus guesses he would not live for long and his sister Semele would become epicleros. So he impregnates her. However, something unexpected happens. While with other mortal women Zeus has always had to resort to rape or making them drunk, Semele falls in love with him. Zeus tells her who he is, but she does not believe. She considers him a stranger knowing some secret entry to the palace, and says that his claim to be Zeus is an insult to her feelings and her intelligence.
    Zeus, shattered by the new experience of being loved, decides to prove his identity by launching a thunderbolt in Semele's presence. (The thunderbolt is an RPG-like weapon.) He discusses his plan with the expert in love matters Eros, and Eros strongly advises him to leave the thunderbolt at home (cf. Lucian). Hera overhears the conversation and manipulates the protective lid of the thunderbolt. This leads to a premature, disastrous explosion behind closed doors.
    After this incident proves Zeus' inability to use thunderbolts responsibly, Olympians discuss placing them in charge of Athena. Zeus, however, angrily rejects the proposal, which is not only offensive to him but would inevitably put an end to his absolute power.
    The latter event happens anyway a short time later, with the Asclepius affair and the murder of thunderbolt producers.