I finished reading The Eumenides over dinner at the Palliser a little while ago, and I think it was the best play of The Oresteia. By this point in the plays, Orestes has killed his mother because she killed his father, Agamemnon. He commits the murder in The Libation Bearers, and at the very end of that second play, is pursued by the Furies. The Eumenides picks up with Orestes pleading with Apollo for help; the Furies have been pursuing him mercilessly.
The Furies are a lot more furious and horrible than I imagined. This is what Apollo says to them:
Heave in torment, black froth erupting from your lungs
vomit the clots of all the murders you have drained.
But never touch my halls, you have no right.
Go where heads are severed, eyes gouged out,
where Justice and bloody slaughter are the same…
castrations, wasted seed, young men’s glories butchered,
and the victims wail for pity –
spikes inching up the spine, torsos suck on spikes.
They sound pretty horrible. They are very old gods of vengeance, and because Orestes has killed his mother, his own blood, they are after him. I was fascinated by how they’re portrayed:
The clear trail of the man. After it, silent
but it tracks his guilt to light. He’s wounded –
go for the fawn, my hounds, the splash of blood,
hunt him, rake him down.
Oh the labour,
the man-killing labour. My lungs are bursting…
over the wide rolling earth we’ve ranged in flock,
hurdling the waves in wingless flight and now we come,
all hot pursuit, outracing ships astern – and now
he’s here, somewhere, cowering like a hare…
the reek of human blood – it’s laugher to my heart!
And this – this made me think that they were positively vampiric:
No, 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.
And so very much about vengeance.
But Orestes appeals for a trial, and Athena arrives with a jury to listen to what the Furies have to say and then to Apollo’s arguments. Orestes is acquitted – Athena declares that if the votes are tied, he goes free. The Furies are, understandably, furious. Orestes skips out, promising that he’ll never wage war against Athens and then getting the heck out of there before anybody changes their minds about not letting the Furies eat him. The Furies then tell Athena that if they can’t have Oreste, they’ll ravage all of Athens, then. So there.
And this is where it gets really poetic. Athena calls for them to ‘lull asleep that salt black wave of anger’ and give up the vendetta business and become protectors of the city, offering them land and suggesting that they do something more with themselves. The Furies are still pretty furious. But Athena’s speech to them is wonderful:
I will bear with your anger.
You are older. The years have taught you more,
much more than I can know. But Zeus, I think,
gave me some insight, too, that has its merits.
If you leave for an alien land and alien people,
you will come to love this land, I promise you.
As time flows on, the honours flow through all
my citizens, and you, throned in honour
before the house of Erechtheus, will harvest
more from men and women moving in solemn file
than you can win throughout the mortal world.
Here in our homeland never cast the stones
that whet our bloodlust. Never waste our youth,
inflaming them with the burning wine of strife.
Never pluck the heart of the battle cock
and plant it in our people – intestine war
seething against themselves. Let our wars
rage on abroad, with all their force, to satisfy
our powerful lust for fame. But as for the bird
that fights at home – my curse on civil war.
This is the life I offer, it is yours to take.
Do great things, feel greatness, greatly honoured.
Share this country cherished by the gods.
Do great things, feel greatness, greatly honoured. What a perfect line – the call to become something more than vengeance and vendetta, to move from that to becoming a protector, to bring justice to the world…oh, it’s perfect.
This is the life I offer, it’s yours to take: do great things, feel greatness, greatly honoured.