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.
Gender Roles Theme Icon

Gender roles play an active part in The Eumenides, and the divide between the sexes is vividly depicted in a series of conflicts. The first of these clashes comes between the female Chorus of Furies and the male Apollo. The lord of light and prophecy, Apollo is outraged that the irrational, vengeful, female Furies dare to defy him. The Furies, in contrast, react with scorn and wrath at the idea of Apollo infringing on their realm of vengeance and punishment. This tension continues when the Furies and Apollo both take the stand at Orestes’ trial, each side trying to convince Athena to turn against the other.

At the trial, a second opposition emerges: one between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, who now represent the roles of mother and father. Orestes is being tried, after all, for matricide, which the Furies consider a terrible sin. Apollo, who ordered Orestes to commit the murder in the first place, feels quite differently, however. He asserts that since Clytemnestra (Orestes’ mother) killed Agamemnon (Orestes’ father)—thus violating the bonds between husband and wife—she thereby released her son of any allegiance to her. Essentially, Apollo is arguing that the life of the woman is worth less than the life of a man.

Apollo then goes even further, asserting that men alone are responsible for the creation of children. As an example, he uses Athena herself, who (so the myth goes) sprang fully-grown from her father Zeus’s head. Her very existence, Apollo states, proves that men alone can conceive children, which means that men deserve their children’s fealty to a greater degree than women do.

Within this complicated web, Athena is a strange and even contradictory figure. On one hand, she is a strong and independent woman—a rare thing within a Greek drama. On the other hand, she sides with the masculine Apollo and Orestes and helps to defeat the female Furies. She states that she is “my Father’s child” and that she will “honour the male, in all things but marriage” (Athena was famously a virgin goddess). Although she is a symbol of feminine power, even the fierce Athena ultimately bows before the patriarchy.

Because of this strict divide between characters and ideas, The Eumenides as a tale of justice and civilization prevailing over vengeance and savagery can also be seen as a story of men prevailing over women. This equation of men with positive aspects and women with negative aspects was a common part of Classical Greek culture, and is found throughout most Greek tragedies.

Gender Roles ThemeTracker

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

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

They disgust me.
These grey, ancient children never touched
By god, man, or beast—the eternal virgins.
Born for destruction only, the dark pit,
They range the bowels of Earth, the world of death,
Loathed by men and the gods who hold Olympus.

Related Characters: Apollo (speaker), The Furies
Page Number: 71-76
Explanation and Analysis:

Apollo visits his protectee, Orestes, who has been tormented by the Furies for killing his mother, Clytemnestra. Reassuring Orestes that he has more power than the Furies, Apollo then turns his anger on the goddesses themselves, voicing his contempt and "disgust" for them, and mocking their ugliness and age.

Apollo's attitude towards the Furies reveals the deep hatred that the Olympian gods feel for the Furies, despite the fact that they carry out the necessary function of avenging interfamilial murders. This mindset towards the Furies, embodiments of vengeance, reveals a change in Apollo since this play's prequel, The Libation Bearers. In that drama, Apollo urges Orestes to avenge his father, and acts as a force that pushes vengeance forward. Here, however, he has turned away from vengeance and violence--a change that indicates a drastic difference in this play's worldview, as opposed to its bloody predecessors.


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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 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.