The Eumenides

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Themes and Colors
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
The Power of the Polis Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Eumenides, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Familial Bonds Theme Icon

At the core of The Eumenides sits a conflict of familial bonds. Orestes, after all, has killed his mother Clytemnestra in order to avenge her murder of his father Agamemnon. The question of the play, then, is not whether or not Orestes committed this crime (he never denies his guilt), but whether he deserves to be punished for it. The Furies unequivocally believe that the bond between a mother and child is sacred, and that no excuse Orestes offers can purge his guilt. Apollo and Orestes, meanwhile, believe that Clytemnestra sacrificed any allegiance her son owed her when she killed his father. The trial of Orestes thus basically becomes about which parent—mother or father—should matter more to a child. In the end, in a display of typical Ancient Greek sexism, Athena and a jury of Athenians decide that the father takes a privileged role, and that Orestes is therefore blameless. His father’s death, in essence, wipes out his mother’s.

The question of family ties, however, goes deeper than simply a question of mother versus father. Ancient Greek mythology often takes on the topic of cursed families, and one of the most famous is the “House of Atreus.” Orestes is the last survivor of this royal family (along with his sister Electra, who is absent from this play), has been cursed for generations, with relatives seeking revenge on each other in a variety of horrific ways. The events of The Eumenides, however, finally put a stop to this curse. In fact, at the end of the play, the exiled Orestes is even able to return to his familial kingdom of Argos, his guilt erased and his birthright restored. Thus The Eumenides is not simply about the salvation of one man, but of an entire family. With the end of Orestes’ trials and tribulations comes the end of the curse on the house of Atreus—an event that signals the restoration of order and prosperity to a previously tangled and tragic situation.

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Familial Bonds ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Familial Bonds appears in each section of The Eumenides. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Familial Bonds Quotes in The Eumenides

Below you will find the important quotes in The Eumenides related to the theme of Familial Bonds.
Lines 64-234 Quotes

You—how can you sleep?
Awake, awake—what use are sleepers now?
I go stripped of honour, thanks to you,
Alone among the dead. And for those I killed
The charges of the dead will never cease, never—
I wander in disgrace, I feel the guilt, I tell you,
Withering guilt from all the outraged dead!
But I suffered too, terribly, from dear ones,
And none of my spirits rages to avenge me.
I was slaughtered by his matricidal hand.
See these gashes—Carve them in your heart!

Related Characters: The ghost of Clytemnestra (speaker), Orestes, The Furies
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 97-107
Explanation and Analysis:

The Furies sleep, exhausted from chasing Orestes, even as their prey is spirited away by Apollo and Hermes. As they slumber, however, the ghost of the murdered Clytemnestra emerges and berates them for failing in their task.

Her speech helps audiences and readers to understand the Furies' motivation, and their purpose in life. In their worldview, the dead cannot rest until they are avenged. Clytemnestra is a tortured ghost precisely because her murderer (and son) still lives, unpunished, despite having corrupted his familial bond with his mother.

Clytemnestra's appearance also emphasizes the vivid presence of the dead in The Eumenides, a fact that is true in many Greek dramas. To the characters in the play, the dead are still an active and powerful presence, and letting them down or going against their wishes can have terrible consequences. 


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Marriage of man and wife is Fate itself,
Stronger than oaths, and Justice guards its life.

I say your manhunt of Orestes is unjust.
Some things stir your rage, I see. Others,
Atrocious crimes, lull your will to act.

Related Characters: Apollo (speaker), Orestes, The Furies, The ghost of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Page Number: 215-221
Explanation and Analysis:

As Apollo and the Furies continue their debate, they touch on the difference between the bonds of mother and child, and those of man and wife. The Furies argue that because Orestes killed his own flesh and blood, he is at fault. Apollo, however, responds that the connection between a husband and a wife is fated to be, and that their bond is guarded by "Justice" itself. (Implicit in these arguments is also the sexism that undergirds Greek society at the time—Apollo is seen as more "correct" here because Clytemnestra not only violated a sacred bond in killing her husband, but also acted distinctly un-feminine.) This debate illustrates the tangled web of allegiances that vengeance creates. Although Apollo and the Furies are each trying to convince the other, they will never actually agree on who is in the right.

Apollo also brings up another crucial concept: the idea of justice. In accusing the Furies--goddesses of vengeance--of being unjust, he is implying that there is a difference between vengeance and justice. This attitude differs from Apollo's beliefs in The Eumenides' prequel, The Libation Bearers, in which he commands Orestes to perform an act of vengeance (killing his mother) in order to bring about justice. This shift highlights the evolution in The Eumenides towards a system of justice, rather than a system of vengeance.

Lines 235-566 Quotes

You’ll give me blood for blood, you must!
Out of your living marrow I will drain
My red libation, out of your veins I suck my food,
My raw, brutal cups—
Wither you alive,
Drag you down and there you pay, agony
For mother-killing agony!
And there you will see them all.
Every mortal who outraged god or guest or loving parent:
Each receives the pain his pains exact.

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Orestes, The ghost of Clytemnestra
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 262-269
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Furies find Orestes cowering at the shrine of Athena, they threaten him, demanding their vengeance. Their brutal, bloody language vividly illustrates their violent worldview. The language they use also illuminates their eye-for-an-eye mentality. The Furies' logic is very simple: since Orestes has shed his mother's blood, his blood must be shed in turn. Or in their words: "Each receives the pain his pains exact."

This point of view contrasts with that of Apollo and Orestes, who believe that since Orestes was avenging his father, he does not deserve to be punished for his own murder of his mother. It is this debate that will become central as the play continues. 

Oh I can hear the father now
Or the mother sob with pain
At the pain’s onset…hopeless now,
The house of Justice falls.

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker)
Page Number: 525-528
Explanation and Analysis:

As the trial begins, the Furies take the stand first and begin to testify. They do so by painting a picture of a world without justice, referencing fathers and mothers betrayed by their offspring, and the "fall" of the "house of Justice."

This argument, though vivid, also illustrates the Furies' fundamental failure of understanding. They believe that justice and vengeance are the same thing, and that a world without vengeance is the same thing as a world without justice. In contrast, Athena understands that justice is fair and rational, while vengeance is bloody and senseless. The Furies, however, come from an older world, one without courts of law, judges, or juries. Having devoted their whole existence to vengeance, they are unable to understand a world in which reason and justice would prevail but vengeance would fall by the wayside. 

Lines 567-1043 Quotes

You’d force this man’s acquittal? Behold, Justice!
Can a son spill his mother’s blood on the ground,
Then settle into his father’s halls in Argos?

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Orestes, Apollo, The ghost of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 659-662
Explanation and Analysis:

After Apollo has testified in Orestes' favor, the Furies once again take the stand, mocking what the god has just said. While Apollo has argued that Orestes in fact carried out justice by killing his mother, the Furies find this argument laughable. To them, the fact that Orestes has killed his mother is unforgivable. They believe that he should be cast out of society altogether, rather than eventually take his father Agamemnon's place as king of Argos. 

The Furies' powerful argument illustrates the true difficulty of this case. Although Orestes seeks justice, he himself is a murderer, and an agent of vengeance. Apollo calls for justice, but the Furies point out his hypocrisy, given his investment in vengeance in this play's prequel, The Libation Bearers.

The woman you call the mother of the child
Is not the parent, just a nurse to the seed,
The new-sown seed that grows and swells inside her.
The man is the source of life—the one who mounts.

Related Characters: Apollo (speaker), Orestes, The ghost of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Page Number: 666-669
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of the trial, Apollo tries to explain why the death of Orestes' father outweighs his murder of his mother. In doing so, he turns to a common Ancient Greek idea about parenthood: that a child is incubated in the womb of its mother, but truly belongs only to its father, who provided the "seed" for its conception.

Although tremendously sexist (and unscientific), it is this argument that eventually wins the day. Apollo has essentially proved that Orestes' familial bond to his father was more important than that to his mother; and that therefore, it made sense for him to turn against his mother after she killed his father. 

It is important to note that the trial of Orestes v. the Furies, along with the ideological struggle of justice v. vengeance, also contains the age-old struggle of male v. female. Just as Apollo proves that male trumps female in terms of family ties (and social power), so too will male triumph over female in the trial (which is judged only by men), as Orestes prevails over the Furies. 

I will cast my lot for you.
No mother gave me birth.
I honour the male, in all things but marriage.
Yes, with all my heart I am my Father’s child.
I cannot set more store by the woman’s death—
She killed her husband, guardian of their house.
Even if the vote is equal, Orestes wins.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), Orestes, The ghost of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Zeus
Page Number: 750-756
Explanation and Analysis:

With the jury split down the middle, Athena casts the deciding vote for Orestes. Greek myth has it that the goddess was born from her father Zeus' head, hence her statement that, "No mother gave me birth." Although she is a woman, Athena still believes that children belong to their fathers, and views men as the dominant gender.

Given these facts, Apollo's argument--that a father matters more to a child than a mother--has been successful, and Orestes wins. Although modern readers may view this reasoning as appallingly sexist, ancient audiences would have approved of it as traditional and correct.

It is important, too, that Athena casts the dividing vote in the trial. The Athenian court is as even-handed as the justice that it serves: blind and impartial. They have clearly understood the difficulties of the case, and it is up to Athena, a god, to make the final decision. The brand-new Athenian court is a fair and balanced one.