Pythia, the priestess of the god Apollo at his temple in Delphi, enters and begins her morning prayer. She honors her patron god and Mother Earth. She praises Apollo, along with Zeus, for bringing civilization to a savage land. She also prays to Athena, the goddess of wisdom; Dionysus, the god of revelry and wine; and Poseidon, the god of the sea. She then prays to Apollo to grant her a prophecy, before addressing the audience directly, telling them that any Greeks among them should enter into her temple, where she will tell the future.
As in all of Aeschylus’ works, the playwright takes great care to emphasize the power of the gods. The prayer of Pythia also brings up another vital theme: the power of civilization. Within the narrative, the symbol of civilization will be Athens, while its opposite will be the savage and unrelenting Furies. As the narrative continues, audience members know that civilization and justice will inevitably prevail.
Pythia enters her temple, but then emerges immediately, terrified by an unseen horror. She describes how she walked into the sanctuary only to find a man (Orestes) inside waiting to be purified at her altar. He is covered in blood, but holding an olive branch topped with a tuft of wool (a signal that he comes in peace) at the Navelstone (thought to be the center of the Earth). Around the man, monstrous women (the Furies) are sleeping, whose appearance drives Pythia to tears. She prays to the god Apollo to cleanse his house, and then exits.
As is often the case in Greek tragedy, the audience hears about a bloody and/or disturbing sight before actually witnessing it themselves. In this case, that sight is Orestes, still drenched in his mother’s blood. His physical state clearly emblemizes his moral culpability in his mother’s death—a guilt that he hopes for Apollo to cleanse. Pythia’s fear reminds us that only the gods can remedy the situation.