The scene changes to the Acropolis, the main square of Athens, where Orestes kneels before the shrine of Athena and prays for her to shield him from the Furies. He explains that Apollo has sent him to her, and says that he will await her decision in his future trial.
The narrative now moves to Athens, the dominant setting in the play. Orestes’ immediate visit to Athena’s shrine cements for the audience the close bond between Athena and her city. It also shows Orestes, the hero, as suitably pious and humble.
The Furies enter, exulting that they have found Orestes at last. Noting that he has hurt himself in his flight, they vow to continue tormenting him, and to punish him for trying to escape them. They remind Orestes of the mother’s blood that he spilled, and assert that they must now take his blood as payment, threatening to suck the marrow out of his bones. They also tell Orestes that even in death, he will be punished eternally for his wrongdoing.
In this passage, the Furies clearly articulate their idea of vengeance (which, in their minds, is the same as justice). They believe in a strict one-to-one ratio of crime to punishment: blood for blood, torment for torment, and death for death. Audiences and readers understand how simplistic this view is, but to the Furies, their conception of vengeance defines their entire way of life.
In response, Orestes explains that suffering has made him wise. He describes how Apollo has purged him of his sins, and how he can feel his mother’s blood fading from his hands. He calls upon Athena once again, asking her to come in peace and save him from the wrath of the Furies.
In contrast to the Furies, Orestes possesses a more complicated view of guilt and vengeance. He believes that the god has purified him, and though he once was guilty, Apollo’s blessing has made him clean once more. Nothing has changed about the murder he actually committed—the only thing that has changed is a god’s perspective on it. But because Apollo is a god, this makes Orestes’ morally-ambivalent act now supposedly blameless.
The leader of the Furies spits back that neither Apollo nor Athena will be able to save Orestes. She waits for him to reply, but he prays in silence—full of rage, the Fury vows to eat him alive. The Furies join together in a wrathful dance, singing about the joys of vengeance. They explain that they are justice embodied, and that they only punish sinners and murderers. They then pray to their mother, Night, to avenge the dead, and to help them defeat the young god Apollo. Their hymn spirals into a frenzy as they assert that the Fates themselves gave them their power. The gods, meanwhile, must stay away from their domain. They then curse Orestes once again, vowing that he will not go to trial because “no god can be our judge.” Last, they praise their own power, calling themselves “unappeasable.”
Again, we witness the jealousy and bitterness that the Furies feel towards Olympians like Apollo and Athena. Aeschylus then uses a, innovative theatrical device, turning the choral ode (in which a Chorus, or group of actors, prays to a god)—which audiences would have expected to further comment upon the plot and praise the gods—as an opportunity for the Furies to expand on the importance of vengeance. Here again, Aeschylus gives the audience insight into the Furies’ mindset. This understanding will be important for comprehending both sides of the future trial.
Athena enters, armed for combat, and sees Orestes and the Furies at her altar. She asks who they are, and the Furies explain that they are “the children of the Night.” They go on to ominously tell her how powerful they are, calling themselves “destroyers of life” and asserting that Orestes is a murderer. Athena wonders if Orestes was forced to commit such a crime, but the leader of the Furies says that no man could be forced to kill his mother. Athena, however, says that she must hear both sides of the story, and that she must serve justice. The Furies reply that if Athena truly serves justice, they will allow her to judge the case, because she has shown them respect.
Athena’s entrance deliberately comes directly after the Furies’ wrathful dance, in order to contrast their vengeful disorder with her justice and logic. It is significant, too, that she first turns to the Furies and asks them to tell their story. She shows respect and understanding for the monstrous goddesses—who are her elders—unlike Apollo, who displays only scorn and hatred for them. Athena is rewarded for her logical approach when the Furies decide to allow her to judge their case.
Athena then turns to Orestes, asking him to tell her his story, and whether he has come to her to be cleansed. He, however, asserts that he does not need to be purged, because Apollo has already forgiven him for his sin. Orestes then goes on to explain his history, recounting how his mother, Clytemnestra, killed his father, Agamemnon. He boldly states that he did indeed murder his mother in revenge, but adds that Apollo commanded him to do it. Lastly, he too states that he will abide by Athena’s decision.
Always evenhanded, Athena next seeks to hear Orestes’ side of the story. It is significant, too, that Orestes does not deny the crime he has committed, or the guilt that he felt for it. Still, he believes himself to be pure and innocent because of Apollo’s approval. His mindset demonstrates the power of the Olympian gods—they can make even murder morally acceptable.
Athena contemplates the difficult decision before her: on one hand, she acknowledges that Orestes has come to her as a suppliant, and that she should show him mercy. On the other hand, she fears that if the Furies do not win the trial, they will attack Athens, spreading venom and disease wherever they go. Finally Athena decides that she will appoint “the finest men of Athens” as a jury, and that they will decide the case.
It is significant, here, that while Athena worries about Orestes’ guilt or innocence, she also fears the harm that the Furies may do to Athens. Athena is the patron goddess of Athens, and closely tied to the city-state, or polis. Her concenr emphasizes the vital importance of keeping Athens safe at any cost—a value that Aeschylus would have wanted to teach his audience.
After Athena exits, the chorus of Furies begins to worry that Orestes will be found innocent. They imagine a world in which they are powerless, and fear that the justice that they believe they bring will die out completely, giving way to anarchy. They plead with humanity to show restraint in their lives, and to avoid committing acts of impiety and violence. Their tone then turns threatening, as they urge humans to revere divine power or to face their wrath. Reckless men, they warn, will always come to grief.
Once again, Aeschylus allows us to understand the Furies’ worldview. They do not believe in vengeance instead of justice—rather they believe (misguidedly) that vengeance and justice are one and the same. In fact, the Furies have a fairly strong moral compass, if a simplistic, brutal worldview. They do not seek to torment all of humanity, only those who have committed crimes and deserve punishment.