Athena between Apollo and Dionysius: Aeschylus’ Oresteia, The Eumenides

The last part of Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy the Oresteia  is the Eumnides (The Kindly Ones), which is not really a tragedy. No one dies, or even falls form a position of good fortune. The hero does not have some failure of judgement which leads to disaster, of a kind often accompanied by discovery of some painful truth. The tragedy is in the back story. Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War, because he sacrificed their daughter to raise a wind for the fleet. These events themselves have a backstory in the life of Atreus, the father of Agamemnon. The Eumnides is the story about how law can replace violent revenge as a basis of sanctions against those who cause harm, who violate the basic law of the cosmos, or nature or the gods. Orestes was  driven to take revenge against Clytemnestra by the message from Apollo that he himself would be polluted if he did not kill his polluted mother. Clytemnestra appears as ghost demanding revenge through the furies.

The furies are determined to punish Orestes, causing horror to the God Apollo, who is disgusted by their appearance and their pleasure in sadistic violence. He thinks they belong to the underworld, so exist in contrast with the beautiful Olympian gods associated with the world of sensation, not deprivation of the senses.  His Priestess at the Oracle of Delphi is shown to inhabit some strange dark world though, the underworld nature of the fate is not just connected to the fates. When Apollo seeks her protection, she sees a very strange sight, Orestes with the fates, who are described as very ugly looking bird things. The sanctuary provided by the oracle is one were Orestes is present with his sword covered in his mother’s blood, and with a vine leaf crown, connected with some white wool, and the dreadful fates, right next to him but unable to harm him.

Orestes goes to Athens for judgement, turning the play into a justification for Athenian leadership in Greece, and the dominance it exercised over ‘allies’, which included turning Athenian courts into the highest court for all allied states. In going to Athens, Orestes he puts himself under the divine judicial protection of Athena., the presiding deity at Athens, the Parthenon temple was built by Pericles in Golden Age Athens around the cult of Athena who had a giant statue at the Parthenon. The Furies pursue Orestes to Athens, and Athena organises a trial of Orestes where the vote is divided between the Furies and citizens of Athens, with Athena herself having the casting vote. The vote split between the Athenian citizens (presumably male) and the Furies. Athena casts her vote on the side o Orestes using arguments  referring to the supposed great link between child and father than child and mother. Athena herself was born from the head of Zeus, so we could see her position as the product of a strange start to life, though what she also says is very normal for Greek thought of the time. Orestes himself had very little to do with either parent, his father Agamemnon went away for war for 10 years when Orestes was a child. Orestes never sees him again, and had not seen his mother either for a long time (maybe 10 years) since she sent him into exile on the departure of Agamemnon, until he kills her in revenge for the death of the father he hardly knew. So the arguments about closeness to parents are strange in relation to Orestes’ own life. Athena’s casting vote frees Orestes to be King of Argos with Athenian permission, and places the male above the female. However, Athena does have something to offer the Furies. They are given new form and new residence, so that they are less repugnant and less associated with a dark and fearful underworld. They become the Eumenides, the kindly ones, who judge and enforce law with less of the cruel fanaticism they exhibited as Furies. This is all part of the mythical foundation of a historical court in Athens, the Areopagus, a very long lasting institution in Athens, which St Paul visited.

Eumenides  combines different forms of the sacred, exploring different levels of the divine. The Furies are an obscenely ugly and evil expression of the divine,. Their presence at the Pythian Oracle in Delphi with Orestes who they wish to tear apart suggests a world of fear that a beautiful princely personage call victim in an instant to terrible forces of suffering and destruction, which higher divine forces try to keep within bounds. In that part of the play, the Furies are compared with devotees of Dionysius tearing apart a king. There is a suggestion then of the conflict of Apollo and Dionysius which Nietzsche saw as the heart of tragedy. The tension between Orestes and the Furies is a displacement of that conflict as is the tension between Orestes and his mother Clytemnestra. That the resolution of the conflict is left to a goddess suggests some ambiguity within the official Athenian way of thinking apparently endorsed in the play. Athena is Apollo and Dionysius?

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