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.
Familial Bonds ThemeTracker
Familial Bonds Quotes in The Eumenides
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.