As we arrive at the last play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, the House of Atreus is not doing especially well. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are dead, and Orestes has seen better days. The Eumenides opens at the shrine of Apollo, where the prince is surrounded by hideous Furies who have blood dripping from their eyes, snakes for hair, bad breath, bushy armpits, and major attitude.
The Furies are earth divinities who keep order in the world by avenging wrong wherever they find it. Matricide, they figure, is pretty much at the top of their list. Orestes, who was goaded into killing Clytemnestra by Apollo, now stands condemned by a pack of pissed off earth goddesses.
The wonderful thing about the Oresteia, again, is that everyone feels completely justified in taking even the most horrific action. Even better, from their own perspective, everyone’s actions make perfect sense. When rights collide with rights, some sort of arbitration is in order, and Athena, with her winning smile, excellent conflict resolution skills, and can-do attitude, is just the person to deliver. The scene therefor shifts to Athens, where the matter will be settled in court.
At the center of the play, the Furies explain their position: justice depends upon fear of revenge. Should Orestes go free, the whole system will break down. Sons will then murder mothers with impunity. When right is trampled, they say, revenge should “hunt the godless day and night.”
“Be just,” they say “and you will never want for joy.” But the “reckless ones, the marauders, dragging plunder, chaotic, rich beyond all rights,” they will always get what’s coming. “He who lives his life for wealth, golden his life long,” will eventually “ram on the reef of law and drown, unwept.” We are pleased to find that the Furies have a clear position on greed.
As the Furies become increasingly likeable, Apollo sounds more and more like an obnoxious know-it-all. He and the leader of the Furies argue their cases like a couple of third-rate lawyers and unhelpfully resort to name-calling. Orestes looks worried. Apollo finally asserts that regicide is worse than matricide because “the man is the source of life” and the “mother is just nurse to the seed.” He offers Athena herself, who sprung from the head of Zeus, as proof.
This is just the sort of thing that gives dead white males a bad name.
Athena says she has heard enough and casts her vote for Orestes because she “honors the male.” The jury splits down the middle, and her vote carries the decision. Orestes is understandably thrilled, but the outraged Furies plot revenge. Athena, ever the politician, deftly coopts them. The Furies are given a sacred place of honor in exchange for not making her life miserable.
The Oresteia is said to describe the advance of civilization and the dawn of rationality as embodied in the Athenian court. The trilogy moves from blood feud and blind revenge to a formal system of justice, but in the end, what determines justice is simply the idiosyncratic opinion one male-identified Olympian. This, to most, will feel familiar. As numerous 5-4 Supreme Court decisions will attest, power and justice are easily confused.