The doors to the temple open, revealing Orestes, who prays as the Furies sleep. The god Hermes watches as Apollo appears, swearing to protect Orestes and to destroy his enemies. Apollo curses the Furies, explaining that he has momentarily lulled them to sleep. He admits that they disgust him, and says that they are loathed by both gods and men. He urges Orestes to continue running from them until he reaches the citadel of Athena in Athens. The goddess Athena will then judge his case and decide whether or not he is guilty of matricide (for killing his mother, Clytemnestra). Orestes responds that he trusts Apollo to do what is right. Apollo reveals Hermes, asking him to guard Orestes and to shepherd the mortal man to Athens. Apollo exits, followed by Hermes, with Orestes following them.
This scene marks the first appearance of Apollo, a complicated figure within the play. As Orestes’ patron, he is a protective and beneficial influence, protecting his chosen mortal at every turn. At the same time, he is undoubtedly responsible for Orestes’ crime of matricide, and for the torments that he is suffering now. In addition to Apollo’s shared guilt, he also harbors a deep hatred and contempt for the Furies, one that causes him to insult and incite them at every turn (in contrast to the reasonable and calm Athena).
The ghost of Clytemnestra appears on top of the Navelstone, cursing the Furies for their laziness. She tells them that they have disgraced her in death, and that the souls of those she killed are taunting her. Showing them the ghostly gashes on her skin made by Orestes’ blade, she begs them to seek vengeance. Clytemnestra then recounts how she used to make offerings to the Furies when she was alive, and asks them why they have let Orestes go free, describing how he is mocking them. Last, she commands the Furies to wake up, and the ghastly goddesses begin to moan. The Furies talk in their sleep, as Clytemnestra continues to exhort them to avenge her. She then vanishes.
In a world where the dead have an immense amount of power over the living, it is unsurprising that the domineering Clytemnestra has returned from the grave to demand vengeance. Her appearance helps the audience to understand the Furies’ motives—if they do not punish mortals, they are themselves punished (although it is unclear why Clytemnestra has such power over goddesses), and they even feel physical pain. While these figures are still grotesque, we now understand better why they are so driven and merciless.
The Furies awake, and their leader commands them to search for Orestes—they are appalled to find that he has fled. They describe the pain that they are suffering since their prey has escaped them, and go on to curse Apollo for allowing Orestes to escape. They ask why the god would help a criminal, and remember their terrifying dream of Clytemnestra. They lament the fact that the Olympians—the young gods—control the world. They then see that the Navelstone is stained with blood, and cry that Apollo has defiled his own temple.
Within this narrative, the Furies represent an older, more primitive order of gods, one envious of the Olympians (Zeus, Apollo, Athena, etc.) for their prestige and power. Much of the play, in fact, can be seen as a conflict between the old, savage world and the new, civilized one. The Navelstone, meanwhile, acts as a stark symbol for Orestes’ guilt, and also shows how closely connected the gods are to this family conflict.
Apollo emerges from his temple with his bow and arrow to drive back the Furies. He commands them to flee his temple, and threatens to shoot them. He once again curses and mocks them, calling them monsters and describing the horrors that happen when justice and vengeance are one and the same. Telling them that all the gods despise them, he says that the Furies will forever be outcasts. The leader of the Furies, however, fires back, telling Apollo that he is responsible for Orestes’ crime of matricide. They ask why he dares to stop them when they are doing their duties as goddesses of vengeance. When Apollo argues that they should also take revenge on a wife who kills her husband, they respond that such a murder does not “destroy one’s flesh and blood.” Apollo is shocked by their lack of respect for marriage, calling their hunt for Orestes “unjust” and telling them that Athena will determine Orestes’ guilt. The Furies, in response, say that they will never let Orestes go free. They exit to pursue Orestes, as Apollo vows to protect him.
In this scene we witness just how cruel and unforgiving Apollo is to the Furies. Apollo is a god, a figure whom mortals should fear and revere, yet at the same time, he is an arrogant and flawed figure, letting his pride get the better of him as he mocks and berates the goddesses who are tormenting his favorite mortal. This is a disturbing reality common to the Ancient Greek gods—they are all-powerful, but also jealous, lustful, and must be constantly flattered and appeased by mortals. Here we also receive insight into the Furies’ worldview. While Apollo believes that a wife killing a husband is the worst crime imaginable—most likely because it involves a woman overthrowing a man—the Furies believe that the worst crimes are committed against your own flesh and blood. To them, Orestes’ matricide was worse than Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband.