The scene shifts to a court within Athens. Athena enters, along with the ten citizens whom she has chosen as members of the jury. She orders a herald accompanying her to call together the Athenian people to watch the trial.
In Greek myth, this moment marks the first ever trial by jury. Athenian audiences would have recognized the importance of the scene they were witnessing.
Orestes enters, and Athena directs him to the Stone of Outrage. The Furies enter, and Athena places them at the Stone of Unmercifulness. She herself stands between two urns in which the jury will cast votes to determine Orestes’ guilt or innocence.
The trial proceeds with great formality and symbolism. Most important of all are the urns for the jury, emblems of the fair and evenhanded justice that Athens created, in which one’s vote was anonymous.
Apollo enters, and Athena questions why he is there. Apollo responds that he has come as a witness for the defense, explaining that he commanded Orestes to kill Clytemnestra, and subsequently purged the mortal of all guilt. He urges Athena to serve justice.
This trial, with a jury, witnesses, and a judge (in the person of Athena) will be surprisingly familiar to modern American readers—proof of the influence of Ancient Greece on today’s civilization.
Proclaiming that the trial has begun, Athena offers the Furies—the “prosecution”—the first speech. The leader of the Furies starts to question Orestes, asking if he killed his mother. He agrees that he did. They ask how he killed her, and he responds that he cut her throat at the urging of the god Apollo. The Furies are outraged that a god would condone a murder, but Orestes responds that he has “no regrets.” He also expresses faith in his father, Agamemnon, whom he says “will help me from the grave.” When the Furies indict him for killing his mother, Orestes responds that he did so in order to avenge his father. He then questions why the Furies did not turn on Clytemnestra, but they again respond that she did not share blood with Agamemnon. When Orestes wonders whether he is related to his own mother, the Furies react with wrath.
The device of the trial allows Aeschylus to explore the complex and thorny issues of crime, guilt, vengeance, and justice in an in-depth and three-dimensional way. After all, both Orestes’ and the Furies’ sides have merit. The Furies believe that Orestes, as the only surviving criminal, deserves to be punished, while Apollo and Orestes believe that since Orestes’ mother was herself a murderer, her crime essentially wipes out his. The issue of gender also becomes increasingly important here. Orestes clearly values his father’s life over his mother’s, a mindset that fits the Ancient Greek status quo, but which the female Furies find appalling.
Orestes begs Apollo to explain to the jury why he killed Clytemnestra, adding that his murder was really justice. Apollo agrees, asserting that Orestes was in fact doing the will of Zeus, the omnipotent “Olympian Father,” who is always just. The Furies are scornful, unable to believe that Zeus would order a son to murder his mother. Apollo, outraged, describes the trap that Clytemnestra laid for her husband, and the horrific, dishonorable way that she killed him.
Orestes goes a step further here, claiming that not only is his punishment by the Furies unjust, but his “crime” was itself justice, because it punished a criminal and was divinely sanctioned. It is important to remember, however, that Orestes’ murder of Clytemnestra was also a vengeful act, which makes the case even trickier. To further complicate things, Clytemnestra’s original murder of Agamemnon was also partly an act of vengeance—punishing Agamemnonfor sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia during the Trojan War.
The Furies are skeptical that Zeus would care more about a father’s murder than a mother’s. They remind Apollo and Athena that Zeus defeated his own father, Kronos, in order to gain control over Mt. Olympus.
The Furies use Greek myth to argue their case. Within Classical mythologies, there are many instances of sons overthrowing their fathers for power including—most prominently Zeus himself.
Apollo, outraged by the Furies, insults them once again, hissing that the gods “detest” them, and threatening them with the power of Zeus. The Furies are defiant, asking if Apollo intends to force Orestes’ acquittal, and reminding him that doing so would not be just. They speak again of Orestes’ defilement, and of the “mother’s blood” that is on his hands.
Once again Apollo loses his temper, displaying how the gods, too, are often childish and subject to overpowering emotions. Apollo has no good rebuttal to the Furies’ (valid) point that Zeus himself was essentially a patricide, but instead can only respond with insults and threats. The Furies, meanwhile, hold true to their beliefs—even though they are monstrous, it is difficult not to admire their moral tenacity.
Apollo rebuts the Furies’ claim that mothers are as important as fathers. He claims that while women may carry children, men provide the “spark of life.” He goes on to say that a father can create children without a mother, using Athena (who famously was born out of Zeus’s head) as an example. He then attempts to flatter Athena, saying that Orestes and his kin will honor her for generations.
The strong and disturbing misogyny of Ancient Greece is in full effect here. Apollo essentially argues that women are simply not as important as men, and that fathers have a greater claim over their children than mothers do. That this argument is successful should be appalling to modern readers.
Athena asks the Furies if they have anything else to say, and they respond that they do not. Apollo reminds the jury to be just and honest. Athena then explains to the jury that they are presiding over the first-ever murder trial in Greece. She explains to the Athenians that their city will now exist as a beacon of justice and civilization, unpolluted by corruption or dishonesty. She urges them to be pious, righteous, and loyal to their city.
This passage is one of the most important in the play, as it again draws a direct connection between unbiased, civilized justice and the polis of Athens. Athenian audience members watching this scene would have (presumably) felt proud of their city, and honored to be a part of it.
As the citizens cast their ballots, the Furies grow anxious, threatening that they can curse Athens if they choose. Apollo shoots back that the Furies should fear the wrath of both himself and Zeus. The Furies respond that Apollo is meddling in “works of blood,” and they repeat their plan to “crush the land” of Athens should the trial go against them. Apollo threatens that if they do so, the Furies will be disgraced. As he continues to mock them, they again call him a “young god,” reminding him of their age and power.
In contrast to Athena and her articulation of fair, logical justice, the Furies are still thinking in terms of vengeance, threatening to punish the entire city of Athens if the trial doesn’t go their way. They display their territorial and jealous nature here, again illuminating the conflict between the older, more primitive gods and the younger, more powerful Olympians.
Athena comes forward to cast her ballot, and announces that she has been swayed in Orestes’ favor. She explains that she will always honor men above women, since she was born from only a father—and therefore she cannot value a woman’s death more than a man’s. Even if the jury’s vote is equally split, says, Orestes will win his trial.
As the ballots are tallied up, Orestes prays to Apollo and wonders what will happen. The Furies, meanwhile, pray to their Mother Night. Apollo again reminds the Athenians to “honor Justice.”
This moment within the play shows the close connection the Greeks drew between divine intervention and justice—although humans might try to dispense justice, ultimately the gods must sanction any decision they make. This makes for many complicated moral quandaries, as the often-childish and immoral gods are thus the deciders of what is objectively right and wrong.
The votes have been counted, and the lots are equal— therefore, Athena announces, Orestes will go free. Overwhelmed, Orestes cries that Athena has saved his house, and returned him from exile. He vows to honor her in Argos, as well as Apollo and Zeus, and swears that this decision has brought about a new era of friendship between Argos and Athens. Even after he dies, he asserts, the two cities will live in peace and harmony. Orestes bids the Athenians farewell, before exiting with Apollo.
Although Orestes wins the day, another vital point within this passage is the fact that the vote is tied. This displays both the difficulty of the case, and the evenhandedness of Athenian justice. Even when faced with monstrous goddesses threatening to curse their city, the Athenian citizens did not display bias, but carefully considered the question before them and voted with their consciences. Orestes’ joy is not just for himself but for his whole family—the house of Atreus has been cursed for generations, and Athena’s decision has now seemingly broken the cycle of bloody vengeance that had decimated the family.
Both enraged and terrified, the Furies curse the “younger gods” for violating the “ancient laws” of vengeance, and robbing them of their power. They vow to make Athens sterile, enraged by how it has made them, the daughters of Night, into a mockery.
The diplomatic Athena, however, has another solution. She reminds the Furies that they are not disgraced, as the vote was tied. The real outcome, she asserts, came from Zeus. She goes on to ask the Furies not to make Athens barren. Instead, she promises the Furies a place as the patron goddesses of the city, a position in which people will revere and adore them.
Once again, Athena shows how logic and fairness will inevitably win the day. She reminds the Furies that they received justice, and that their case was considered fairly. She then goes a step further, offering to transform the Furies from embodiments of vengeance to patron goddesses of Athens, a metamorphosis that symbolizes a permanent shift from bloodthirsty vengeance to a more civilized form of justice.
Too wrathful to hear Athena’s words, the Furies again curse the younger gods for their lack of respect for “the ancient laws.” They lament their lost birthright and power, again threatening to spread poison throughout the soil of Athens. They then cry out for justice, asserting that it will only be fulfilled if all mankind is destroyed. Athena again tries to reason with them, telling the Furies that they can use their power for good, caring for people rather than destroying them. She also reminds them that she is the favorite child of Zeus, and the only one with access to his thunderbolts. She urges the Furies to join her as patrons of Athens. The land, she tells them, is rich, and they will receive offerings from it forevermore.
Although Athena speaks reasonably and persuasively (and includes a veiled threat of Zeus’s thunderbolts), the Furies are still ruled by rage and emotion. They continue to equate vengeance with justice, and this time their rage spills out to apply to all mankind. These speeches are also full of praise for Athens, as Aeschylus flatters his audience, making them feel patriotic and proud of their city.
The Furies begin to calm down, but are still humiliated by their disgrace, calling out to their mother Night for their lost, ancient powers. Athena, however, speaks to them respectfully, telling the Furies that they are older and wiser than she is. She tells them about all the wonderful aspects of Athens, promising that they will grow to love it and that Athenian citizens will honor them. She describes Athens as a land of peace and prosperity, and tells the Furies that a happy, fulfilling life is theirs for the taking.
Although audiences and readers might find the Furies petty and merciless, it is difficult not to sympathize with their plight. As goddesses of vengeance, their entire existence has centered around punishing criminals. With that taken away from them, how are they supposed to define themselves? Athena, however, offers the Furies a new role, essentially putting an end to their identity crisis.
As the Furies repeat their lament once more, Athena again tells them that they are gifted and valuable, and that she respects them. She begs that “the spell of my voice” may “appease your fury” and pleads with them to stay. If they refuse, she adds, they should at least spare Athens from their threatened plague—to curse the city, she asserts, would be unjust.
It is crucial, in this passage, that the powerful Athena presents herself as a suppliant to the Furies, begging them rather than ordering them to be merciful towards Athens. By showing the goddesses respect, the canny Athena helps to change their minds.
Interested at last, the leader of the Furies asks Athena if she will really share her home with them. The goddess responds that no home in Athens will thrive without honoring them. She asserts that for all time to come, Athenians will revere the Furies. As she speaks, the Furies feel their anger slipping away. Athena, meanwhile, urges them to “take root in the land.” She then utters a blessing to bind the Furies to Athens, praying for prosperity for her favorite city, and for everlasting peace. As she does so, the Furies begin to dance around her, vowing to protect the city forevermore and praising its “rich black earth.” Athena continues, saying that the approval of the Furies will ensure blessings for the people of Athens, and that only impious men will know their anger.
Athena’s willingness to share her power is proof both of her confidence, and of her devotion to Athens. She cares so much about protecting her city that she is even willing to share it with the Furies. This scene is crucial because it depicts the Furies’ moment of transformation, in which they transition from goddesses of vengeance to goddesses of protection and blessing. This change is represented in their choral song and dance. While they used to pray for vengeance and bloodshed, they now wish to bless Athens and make it prosperous.
The Furies continue their prayer, promising fertility and prosperity for the land of Athens. Athena praises the blessings of the Furies and commands all Athenians to do the same. The Furies pray for Athenian prosperity, promising to share their blessings at the hearths of Athenian homes. Athena exhorts her citizens to note and praise the blessings that the Furies have brought, and she praises Zeus for changing the Furies’ minds.
This passage clearly articulates the relationship between the Ancient Greeks and their gods—it was a reciprocal bond, in which the gods gave protection and prosperity in exchange for praise and offerings. The Furies have never been praised before, and so they welcome this new relationship with delight.
The Furies pray that war will never touch Athens, and that only joy and love will rule the city. Athena is overjoyed that even these embodiments of rage can be transformed, and urges her citizens to exalt them. The Furies join her, telling the Athenians to rejoice in their blessings, as they are beloved by not only Athena, but by Zeus as well.
Aeschylus here articulates a mindset that could be called Athenian exceptionalism. Athenian audiences viewing this play believed that Athens was the most civilized, glorious, and powerful nation in the world, and this passage confirms that view. Athens is portrayed as such a wonderful place that it can transform even bloodthirsty monsters into benevolent, caring figures.
An entourage of Athenian women enters in order to lead the way to the Furies’ temples below the earth, where they will be offered gifts and sacrifices. The Furies sing the praises of Athens and Athena, and imagine the prayers and reverence that they will receive. Athena’s entourage brings forward crimson robes in which to dress the Furies, and they light torches to lead the goddesses through the city. A procession forms that includes both actors and audience. As this takes place, the Athenian women sing praises to the “good spirits” (now the Eumenides, formerly the Furies) who will bless their houses from deep under the earth. Calling them “Awesome Spirits,” the women tell the Furies to dance with triumph. They pray for everlasting peace between Athens and its newly benevolent protectors, and praise Zeus and Fate for creating such an auspicious union.
Although The Eumenides is technically a tragedy, and part of a tragic trilogy along with Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers, the play actually ends with celebration and ritual, a symbol that order has been restored to the universe. “Tragedy” was a looser term in Ancient Greek drama, and didn’t necessarily mean that the play always ended with death and sorrow. The celebration taking place onstage eventually spills into the audience, a reminder that this play was actually performed at an enormous Athenian religious festival. Thus Aeschylus ends his series of plays both by confirming Athenian supremacy and might, and celebrating the bond between theater and religion.