Aeschylus’ Eumenides is a play about an institutional innovation and a paean to the goddess of the city. It is an account of the origin of Athens’ Supreme Court and a love poem to Athena and her people and places.

This poet, however, loves for cause and with a thoughtful passion. This people, the ”Attic folk,” schooled by their divinity, have the wisdom to domesticate dread and to innovate moderately. My aim will be to flesh out and give precision to these notions, in sum to delineate the idea of a reverent revolution.

I ought to confess at the outset that I love this play, but that Greek tragedy, as a genre, is alien to me. In his youthful work, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1870), Nietzsche propounds a stark opposition between Socratic and tragic culture. He writes: ”And now one must not hide from oneself what is hidden in the bosom of this Socratic culture: an optimism that deems itself limitless.” (Ch. 18) I recognize myself as a minor instantiation of the Socratism that Nietzsche fears and despises, this—I might say, American—optimism that wants to nullify deep tragedy by the light of reason and neutralize fate by the devices of ingenuity. When I read a Greek drama, I immediately fall to considering how its “tragedy” could have been forestalled. I think to myself: “What little bit of good sense could have circumvented this mess?” Moreover, I feel my way into the inwardness of the tragic heroines and heroes and find myself repelled by their super- and sub-human lack of what one might call life-intelligence. A few years ago I was having lunch with a colleague, Jonathan Badger, who had just lectured on Sophocles’ Antigone, and expressing to him my view of that tragic heroine as a teenage monster. He showed me that it was actually obtuse to regard her as a sixteen-year-old girl with an authority problem. She is not a fiercely rebellious teenager but a human token designed to be caught in an ultimate, unresolvable clash of fearfully fundamental forces, a cosmic rift—here the one between family and city, between blood and politics. Tragedy, he was saying, is not about characters in situations but about catalysts of sub-rational and super­ human clefts in a world in which no man, woman, or girl can do the right, the saving thing. I saw his point.

One reason, then, that this drama, the Eumenides, speaks to me lies in what it is not. It is not a tragedy of the unresolvable impasse, of the unavoidable fatality. It is surely a drama, since drama is Greek for an eventful deed. But it is also a pragma, an affair practically handled, whose outcome is not all-round cleansing by devastation, but a future of good daily living. Socrates, who is, according to Nietzsche, the late­-coming destroyer of deep-delving dark tragedy, was a boy of eleven when the Eumenides was first shown. Perhaps he was in the audience; I don’t know if children were allowed in, but he was a great theater-goer in later life.[1] This much can be said: His severe critique in the Republic (383B) of the tragedians, including Aeschylus, can’t stem from this play. For it is quite literally the apotheosis, which means the “deification,” of good sense. Aeschylus invests this drama of sweet reason, of moderation triumphant, with exhilarating solemnity and participatory splendor. I mean that precisely. Whereas in most tragedies the audience looks on and reacts, perhaps recoils, at the fate of kings and heroes, in this play all Athens is on stage: The spectators see themselves as part of the play. And whereas in most Greek tragedy the audience faces fearful and pitiful depths, in this play it is carried to joyful heights by an act of prudence that subverts tragedy. The final tone of the play is that of a city led by a goddess whose wisdom is touched with glory. So now I have broached the matter of the first part of my subtitle:

Part 1. Whole-hearted Patriotism

Except for a brief prologue in Delphi, where lay the omphalos-stone, the navel of the world, the Eumenides is set in Athens, where, it will be shown, resides the world’s wisdom. In Delphi the scene is the sacred enclosure of Apollo’s temple; in Athens it is Athena’s temple on the High City, the Acropolis, and then on the rock facing the Acropolis, Ares’ Hill, the Areopagus.

This Athena, the Athena of the play, is Athena Polias, the City-Athena, the Democratic Athena. She is not, to be sure, the protagonist of the drama, which is a choral band; she is, however, its chief individual actor. I don’t know if there are any other plays in which a divinity is the sole main character; it is, to say the least, a remarkable moment in stagecraft.

Athena is on stage together with her people, the “Attic folk,” the Athenians, first with a few, then with the whole town. These people are named from their city, and their city is named from its goddess. But here is a wonderful fact: As in English, so in Greek, Athens is a plural: Athenai, “the Athenas.” I will return to this name, but now I want to point out that no other great Greek city I can think of is thus named from its divinity-not Sparta, nor Corinth, nor Argos at the center, not Syracuse in the west or Miletus in the east of Greater Greece.

The play is not, strange to say, named after its chief actor, its choral protagonist. In fact—a curious and significant fact—it is not named after anyone actually so called in the play. There are no “Eumenides” in the Eumenides.

Let me draw back here to place the play Eumenides in its trilogy, the Oresteia. The Agamemnon is the first of the three. It is a model tragedy in the familiar sense. The hero, just returned from the conquest of Troy, is killed by his wife Clytemnestra. She has her reasons; it is an open question whether she assassinates or executes him. I am reminded of that fine movie, Witness for the Prosecution, which ends with the wife stabbing her iniquitous husband in the courtroom; Charles Laughton, playing the winning but unwitting Queen’s Counsel for the defense of the guilty husband, who will now defend the wife, terms that deed not a murder but an execution.

The second play, the Libation Bearers, is a bridge drama. The exiled son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Orestes, returns clandestinely to kill his mother. Again it is an open question, the question for the final play, the Eumenides, whether his deed is polluting matricide or rectifying revenge.

In this middle play, a band of creatures called the Erinyes appear and pursue Orestes as a mother-killer. Or rather they don’t appear, for although they are on stage, they are visible only to Orestes, “dark-gowned and twisted round with swarming snakes,” while to the women bearing the drink offerings they are mere “notions.” (doxai, L.B. 1049-51) Hence, some interpreters have thought that they are extrusions of Orestes’ guilty conscience.[2] If so, they are matricidal­-guilt phantasms only while the mother’s blood is not yet dry. In the last play they have material lives and are plain to sight, to hearing and even to smell—they exhale stink (Eu. 53).

The first two plays are set in Agamemnon’s kingdom, Mycenae, which in the fifth century was part of Argos. Now, in the Eumenides, the scene shifts from Argos to Athens via Delphi.

I observe here that this final play of the trilogy will have none of the practically prescriptive features Aristotle ascribes to tragedy in his Poetics, the very features the Agamemnon has to perfection: no colorably good human being of high station with a tragic flaw, no so-called unity of time and place, no audience purification by pity and fear. (Ch. 13, 5, 6) Instead the play’s occasion, Orestes, is a small-gauged victim of circumstance, the protagonist divinities are beyond human flaw, the play includes the world as its venue and covers months or years in its time.

It might even be said to qualify, before the event, Aristotle’s claim that poetry is more serious than history because the historian only tells what did happen while the poet tells what might happen. (Ch. 9) Now this poet so fuses, in his mythopoetic drama, what did and what might happen that the opposition between history and poetry is in effect canceled.

For the Eumenides is a revised story of an origin, of a founding, not a speculation about what might in general happen, but a story about what might in particular have happened. So, indeed does most imaginative writing, but this drama gives a mythopoetic account of the founding event of a real institution, the Areopagus, the High Court of Athens. It is intended to give the meaning of the Court’s present. This is not factual history conjectured from evidence by research but the dateless past recovered through a vision of its present consequences—not fact but nonetheless, or better, therefore, truth. I shall try to explain myself later. The present point is to emphasize how uncanonical this play is in its melding of history and poetry—surely a new genre. And that brings me back to its name.

Eumenides is the title by which the play was known in antiquity; there is some agreement that it was Aeschylus’ own.[3] I’ll suppose that it was, since that leads to a thought­-provoking and so perhaps intended consequence.

The play-going city, virtually every male citizen and resident, knew well who these Eumenides were. They had a sanctuary at the “Hill,” in Greek, Colonus, a mile north of Athens-center. It was the place where in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus the patricide Oedipus will be said to have found refuge and release, as will the matricide Orestes on Ares’ Rock, the Areopagus.[4] These divinities were also known to have a more central home, in the cleft beneath the Areopagus, facing northeast toward the Acropolis. And they were called variously the Awe-inspiring, the August Ones. People were evidently mindful of the literal meaning of Eumenides, an adjective formed from eu, “well,” and menos, “disposition.” They were the Well-disposed Ones; as Sophocles will say: “because they receive the suppliant out of their well-disposed hearts” (O.C. 11. 39, 89, 486).

These gracious goddesses are thought of with respectful and even with affectionate trust. I will venture a comparison. Although refugees like Oedipus and Orestes aren’t exactly “huddled masses,” yet I am reminded of Emma Lazarus’s poem inscribed on the main entrance of the Statue of Liberty, which announces that she receives those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”[5] Just so the Eumenides represent the capacious, burden-removing and, I might say, diversity­-welcoming aspect of Athena’s city—as we will see.

Now these well-disposed ones were on the playbill, or whatever apprised the theatergoer of the dramatic fare for the day.

And behold! the creatures that form both the chorus and the character confronting the protagonist have the very opposite name. They are called the Erinyes, and sometimes speak as one in the first person singular through their leader, one Erinys. (e.g. 951) They too don’t act as does the usual tragic chorus; for example, the old burghers of Argos in the Agamemnon are sidelined to ineffectual, mildly wise commentary. But these are a fierce lot.

Everyone knew them as well. In English they are called the “Furies.” Their Greek name may derive from eris, “strife,”[6] but the facts are lost in the mists of age. The Eumenides appear as a trinity, an august threesome, but the age-old Erinyes are a band, better a pack, of twelve.[7] They are horror incarnate, frightful and disgusting, dressed darkly in rags, with rheumy eyes, foul breath and snakes through their hair. Apollo’s Pythian priestess, who opens, the play is soon seen running out on all fours from their sight, which is Gorgon-like, but even more, bitch-like. When we first see them they are asleep, panting and slobbering in their dream of hunting their victim down:

Labe, labe, labe; phrazou!

Catch, catch, catch-mark him! (130)

The oldest manuscript of the play that we have, the Medicean Codex of the later tenth century, includes a life of Aeschylus which claims that he did yet another unheard-of thing: By letting the Erinyes “loose without order into the orchestra, he so scared the people that infants expired and women miscarried.”[8] I don’t think infants and pregnant women were in fact in the theater, but as I imagine it, the effect was—how shall I put it?—participatory.

The business of the Furies was the opposite of the releasing Eumenides. They held the world bound in the constraints of order and justice. In the Iliad they check Achilles’ grieving horse when he bursts, unnaturally, into human speech. (19.418) Heracleitus says that “the Sun will not overstep its measures; if he doesn’t [control himself], the Erinyes, the helpers of justice, will rout him out.” (Fr. 94) Clearly these dreaded beings guard the rightful courses of nature. Such natural order is called justice, dikê. These guardians of dikê are born of Earth in Hesiod’s Theogony (184) and of Night in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, of obscure darkness in either case.

As the action developed, the spectators began to understand that they were witnessing a terrific conversion: The Erinyes were turning before their eyes into Eumenides. They were transformed in bearing and garb—most significantly, as we will see—but also in number, although the play does not say so. Had I been the choregos, the producer, of the play I would have had the transformation include the fading away of the twelve-pack Erinyes into the threesome Eumenides; the Eumenides would in fact, make a terrific movie script. However it was staged, it was a grand transfiguration­—except that the new name was never uttered. Why not? Something near enough is said of them in the play: The reformed Erinyes are given the adjective euphrones, “well­ (or kindly)-minded.” These frightening faces, Athena says to her citizens, will be of great profit to you, if you, being kindly-minded, honor them, the Kindly-minded. (euphronas euphrones, 992) As I imagine it, all of Athens, sitting there in enthralled solemnity, was meant to experience a dawning recognition: “But these transfigured horrors are our Kindly Ones, our Well-disposed deities, our Eumenides, that live on the other side of the hill not far from this theater!”

By the end of Aeschylus’ century, the name Eumenides is simply a euphemism for Erinyes[9]—very likely Aeschylus’ doing, but not in his spirit. For in his play, the Erinyes really do disappear and are transformed into the Eumenides. Athena and her people know how to turn the dreadful females into the Gracious Ladies, how to make the horrors holy. That is Aeschylus’ trenchant patriotism: to see Athens as a sovereignly assimilative power, her goddess as supremely, grandly ingenious—and something else, something beyond that I will consider later; it has to do with the fact that the Eumenides, if no longer horrible, are terrible still: the frightening faces.

The learned name for any causal account, and thus for Aeschylus’ mythical history, is aetiology, from aitia, a “reason or cause,” and logos, a “rational account.” Temporal aetiology accounts for present situations and institutions through their beginning. Primal times are explanatory times; to recall them is to recall the present to its sense of itself. Aeschylean aetiology, however, is not done by what we call archaeology or history, the unearthing of buried artifacts or the researching of old documents. It is rather the projection backward into the timeless past of an originary vision, of the origin as it appears now to the mytho-poetic sight.

Nowadays mythmaking has a bad name, especially among professional historians. It is an accusation. For example, there is a well-known book entitled Inventing America.[10] In its Prologue, the author, Gary Wills, analyzes Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” of 1863. “Well, now,” he says, “that is a very nice myth,” a “useful falsehood,” and a “dangerous thing.” It is a reprehensible piece because, among other things, in the exalted biblical language of “four score and seven years ago” Lincoln traces the birth of the nation back to 1776 and so to the Declaration of Independence and to its self-evident truth “that all men are created equal.” Wills, however, thinks he knows that this date of origin is deceitfully false. It was not until the final ratification of the Constitution in 1789 that we became a nation, and thus our conception was not in an idea but in all sorts of practical manipulations, messy and even unholy. What is more, Wills likes better that view of our country which sees it as the product of practical compromises than that which envisions its birth in a whole-hearted ideal because such ideals are never “straight-minded,” to borrow a word from the Eumenides. They always have, he thinks, a subtly pernicious hidden agenda, in Lincoln’s case the establishment of a “civil religion,” which made us falsely feel that we could save and redeem the world.

I cite this book only to sharpen by contrast the contours of both Aeschylus’ and Lincoln’s kind of patriotism, which does not consign its country’s present to ever-disputable, secular historical fact, but derives it from a primal act that contains timeless truth. Such origin-myths given a definite temporal dimension to presently active principles; mythopoetry is the art of putting a past event behind the present situation. This is truth-telling of a high order and has nothing in common with the falsification of facts—which Aeschylus did not have in any case. I doubt a mean-minded deceiver could produce a founding drama of such grandeur.

It is time to say what, in general, I take to be the difference between falsified fact and mythologized aetiology and wherein the deep truth of the latter lies. Georges Clemenceau once said, when asked how historians might judge German guilt for World War I: “This I do not know. But I know for certain that they will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.” For the reverse is a brute fact and its denial a brute falsification. On the other hand, an idealized account of the originating event, the ideal founding of a current institution—especially if it is endangered—is not a subversion of fact, but a revelation of truth; namely, of the true meaning and the ideal function deeply embedded in that institution, as the civic poet discerns it. It is not a refashioning of the historical past for the benefit of the present but a penetration into the present for the recovery of the primordial plan.

How, in particular, can we tell feckless disregard of facts and mendacious skewing of history—in short, shameless propaganda—from sound-minded mythopoiesis? Strangely enough, language usually tells. Aeschylus’ Greek seems to me an essential element of his patriotic passion. It is as far as any diction can well be from what will one day be the crude formulas of propaganda; it has the ring of truth. The marvel is that any of his Athenians understood him, for his language is so high and subtle, so grand and flexible, so archaic and neologistic, so bold and complex that most of us who suppose that we knew at least a little Greek have to puzzle the text out laboriously with recourse to every aid available.

I will give a few examples of his word-making, poetry practiced on the very elements of language: bdelyktropoi, “of a loathsome turn” (52); palaiópaides, “elderchildren” (69); dysodopaípala, “of-a-rough-and-rocky-road” (387); brotoskópon “man-watching.” (499) All these words are so new and sound so ancient; this diction is magnificent without being grandiloquent—though, to be sure, the reverently irreverent Aristophanes displays Aeschylus and Euripides in Hades hurling eleven-syllable masses of “tight-riveted words” at each other. (Frogs, 824) The Athenian audience, at any rate, loved it in all its stiffness and inventiveness, and they seem to have caught the hyper-intricate choral meters and savored the gorgeous staging.

For the Oresteia won first prize. Aeschylus wrote between seventy and ninety plays—we only have seven—and won first prize twenty-eight times; some of these were posthumous, since after his death the people of Athens decreed funds toward the revival of his plays.[11]

The Eumenides was first performed in 458 BCE, and it was rooted in the present of that year. There are at least four references to the current situation. To begin with, when Athena first appears she says that she has heard Orestes’ call from far-off Troyland, where she had been taking control of territory assigned to her by the Greek victors. Not only is she presenting herself as a divinity with far-flung possessions, but to the Athenian audience, she must have been heard, in these early days of the Delian League that would turn into Athens’ empire, as asserting dominion over the cities of the Troad, a claim Athens was then in fact pursuing.[12]

Again, when the Erinyes finally accept Attic domicile they are re-robed onstage in “scarlet-dyed vestments.” (phoenikoba ptois…esthêmasi, 1028) As they had been promised, they become “fellow-dwellers,” metoikoi in Greek. (869, 1011) These “metics,” resident foreigners, something like our green-card holders, were just at this time being recognized as of major importance to Attic prosperity. They participated in the great civic processions dressed in scarlet robes.[13] Aeschylus is expressing the inclusiveness of Athena Polias’s city, or, put less amiably, he is endorsing the expansionism of post-Persian Athens.

A third topical reference lies in Orestes’ grateful oath, pledging Argos to perpetual peace and alliance with Athens (764), a matter of considerable current importance to a city embarking on just that audaciously expansive foreign policy. The fourth case I will mention concerns the Areopagus High Court, whose founding is the central event of the Eumenides. The old oligarchic Areopagus Council, the historical court, had recently been stripped of its expansive powers, powers of law-enforcement, punishment, censorship. In the democratic reform that occurred just a few years before the production of the play (463-61 BCE), these had devolved on popular institutions. Aeschylus, evidently a moderate democrat, here appears to endorse this reduction of the court’s brief to cases of murder, since he represents Athena as instituting it for just that purpose.

Aeschylus himself was deeply engaged in the city’s life, and it was a factor in his fame. The year after winning first prize for the Oresteia, in his late sixties, he left Athens for Sicily, probably to execute dramatic commissions,[14] and died there soon after at seventy. The people of Gela, where he was buried, set him a grave marker with an inscription calling him Athens’ pride and noting that he had fought at Marathon.[15] But he had fought also at Salamis, the other of Athens’ two great single-handed battles against the Persian invaders. At Salamis the Athenians fought in ships under the view of Xerxes the King. Eight years later, in 472, a very young Pericles was the producer of Aeschylus’ Persians, which takes place in Xerxes’ court at Susa after the Salaminian defeat and is the grandest case of empathy for a vanquished enemy that I know of.

The time of his life as a whole and of this, his last recorded winning play, was altogether the high time of his city. When he was five years old, the Pisistratid tyranny was overthrown in favor of the Athenian democracy to which we might well be said ultimately to owe our own political being. When he wrote the Oresteia, the Persians had been ejected from Greece for over two decades, and the perils of Attic imperialism were looming, though yet avoidable. When Aeschylus left Athens in 457, the rebuilding of the mighty old temple of Athena Parthenos, destroyed by the Persian occupiers of the Acropolis and rebuilt with tribute money paid by Athens’ client states to the Delian League, money meant to protect them from the Persians, and in fact soon to be stolen by the Athenians—this ominous and glorious Periclean project was yet ten years off. So also was the restoration after the Persian sack of the Erechtheum, Athena Polias’s house, being talked of but very far from even being begun.[16] This precinct, alluded to in the play (855), was Athena Polias’s special seat, where was housed her primeval statue of olive wood, the one that will play a role in the drama, the one that miraculously survived the Persian burning of the High City. And it was here that the testimonials of the contest between her and Poseidon for the possession of Athens were shown, a salt pool struck from the rock by the sea god and by it an olive tree sprung up from the rock at the behest of the city goddess.[17] It may be that the olive tree was a witness to Athena’s trumping wit, which won her the city: A salt pool is put to real use as brine in which olives are marinated to make them edible.[18]

As I imagine it, Aeschylus felt his city to be at a cresting time, with some depths of danger and more heights of hope looming. 458 BCE was a time of crisis for Athens—krisis in the Greek sense, a time for judgment when a provident poet­-lover of his country would be inspired to foresee the glories and driven to forfend the disasters of the future.

I want to observe here parenthetically that, while even a sketchy knowledge of current events—sketchy, that is, compared to what any Athenian spectator would know as a matter of course—could serve to make the play’s strong footing in the real present more pointed, a perceptive reader is likely to sense this too, albeit impressionistically. The play speaks for itself, as do all great works.

Besides the astonishing language and the expansive spirit of the drama, the town folk who sat there took in astonishing new interpretations of the world they knew: the origin of the Delphic oracle as well as of the names both of the Areopagus and of the Eumenides, the comparative stature of their goddess and Delphi’s Apollo, the origin of their claims on Argos’s loyalty.

But again and again, and above all, they saw the magisterial management of their city’s affairs by their goddess, the maternal virgin goddess, the peaceable warrior goddess, flexible and firm, the child close to her Father who is the highest, the universal divinity. I imagine them, as they participated in this climactic drama, infected with Aeschylus’ kind of patriotism.

There are, as I said, different patriotisms, unsound and sound. There is “chauvinism,” bigotry and exclusiveness, born of poverty of spirit and clumsy anger. And then there is a liberal patriotism based on moral consanguinity. Thus Lincoln says that those who adopt the moral principle of “that old Declaration of Independence” can claim to be “blood of the blood.”[19] And there is also a community of customs and friendly feeling. And last but not least there is the land itself; the hills surrounding the city of Athens are sung as “violet-crowned” (iostephanoi) and the continent of America is sung for its “purple mountains’ majesty.” But first and above all there is a founding wisdom. Thus the third stanza of ”America the Beautiful” qualifies patriotism:

America, America, God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy good in brotherhood, thy liberty in law![20]

Thus, too, Aeschylus’ patriotism is first and finally focused on his citizens’ moral virtue: They are “sound-minded [or in the usual translation ‘moderate’] in good time” (sophronountes en chronoi, 1000);[21] this is the most exalted praise their new co-dwellers know to give Athena’s people.

With this quotation I come to the drama itself as an exemplar of the second part of my subtitle:

2. Moderate Modernity

“Modernity” means literally “just-nowness,” from Latin modo, “just now.” This literal meaning suggests one defining aspect of modernity—there are others—that fits the Aeschylean re-visioning of Athens’ goddess. In this sense, modernity is an ever-recurrent moment in human history; it is the mode of rationality practically applied. A given situation goes from onerous to insupportable and human ingenuity finds a—usually radical—device for bettering man’s estate in the here and now, an impatiently swift solution; this modernizing reason is bent on rectifying the condition just now. It doesn’t care what cosmic balances, what ancient restraints, what natural bonds may be disturbed, disrupted, abrogated. Such enlightened reason is bright-eyed and light­-headed in its universalizing impulse and in its disrespect for the ancient obstacles. It is the impatient, with old naive Nature, and wants to supplant her with new, sophisticated Artifice. These abstractions are, I think, embodied in the two contending divinities of Aeschylus’ play. The earlier part shows how Athena aids the new rationality, represented by Apollo, in winning its case against the old justice; the later part shows how Athena moderates this dangerous victory by inviting the old powers into her city and teaching her people how to be soundly rational by respecting the claims of a primeval cosmic equipoise, awful though it may be in aspect. The Eumenides, being the last drama of a trilogy,[22] supervenes on a long chain of dramatic events. To recount it in skeletal form: Before the Oresteia begins, Atreus, Agamemnon’s father, has killed Thyestes’ sons and served their flesh to their father at a banquet. Agamemnon himself has sacrificed his and Clytemnestra’s daughter to speed on the Greek expedition to Troy. In the Agamemnon, his wife, Clytemnestra, and Aegistheus, a surviving son of Thyestes, have killed Agamemnon on his victorious return from Troy, each for a compelling reason. In the Libation Bearers, Orestes, Clytemnestra’s and Agamemnon’s son, has killed her and Aegistheus to avenge his father and preserve his own succession. Now in the Eumenides, Clytemnestra’s ghost is clamoring for Orestes’ death as a matricide. That last killing would be the end of the Atreides, the House of Atreus, and the vacating of the curse on it for Atreus’s deed. Thyestes’ progeny had already been erased. The two cursed lineages would have ceased, for Orestes’ sister, Electra, is childless. Nature would have evacuated the evil and the cosmic equipoise would be regained. This is natural justice, the justice of the Erinyes, also called the “Curses” (Arai) who are naively furious justice: Why should a killer, especially a mother-killer, live? It is against the logic, the measures, of nature.

Ordinary mortals, on the other hand, tend to be of two minds. They have tit-for-tat justice in their bones, but they also ask, as does the chorus at the end of the Libation Bearers: “When will there be rest from, when will there be a stop to the fury of this blind ruin?” (ate, 1076) They long for an imposed intervention, a forcible cut-off that ends the natural course, the logical working out of the accursed drama.

This natural justice has the name dikê, or as its enforcers sometimes say: eytheia dike, “straight justice.” (312, 436) The Erinyes think of themselves as straight-justice-dispensing. The word dikê with its derivatives is the dominating sound of the play: dikaios, endikos, dikastes, dikephoros, orthodikaion, adikein—the text bristles with it, and the ear rings with it. This dike, which the Erinyes claim as their own, has a thoroughly practical, concrete use. It means old custom and usage; it will henceforth mean the actual lawsuit brought and the effective judgment rendered; but above all, it means the order and right of things. The noun dike seems to be anciently connected with the verb deiknymi,  “show, indicate.” The Erinyes say: “Come, let us join in the dance since it seems right to display our hateful muse,” for their office is to do “straight justice,” justice horrid but perspicuous. (307) The Erinyes’ dikê, the justice of reciprocity, a life for a life, is plainly indicated by brute fact, particularly when blood relations are involved.

Dike, the concrete justice of the Erinyes, is therefore not dikaiosyne, Just-ness, the thought-invoking object of inquiry mooted in Plato’s Republic. The question behind the play is indeed “What is justice?,” but it is engaged by the parties to a trial and by judicial decisions. The accuser is dead Clytemnestra, appearing as a specter (eidolon), the defendant her live son Orestes, the venue the Areopagus court of ten juror-judges with Athena as arbiter; the advocate for Clytemnestra is the band of Erinyes, for Orestes, Delphic Apollo.

So the play begins in Delphi and right away there is revisionist mythmaking, Aeschylean aetiology. The Pythia, the priestess of Apollo’s oracle, comes out of the temple just to tell the story of Apollo’s taking possession of Delphi. All the world knew that it had been a violent business,[23] but the Pythia paints the picture of a smooth, unforced inheritance. In this tale, Apollo is a welcome civilizing god, the “prophet” of Zeus. He appears as a divinity of easy—no, facile­—dominion, a god whose people have been trained to suppress the darker circumstances of his installation in Delphi.

The priestess goes back in and soon runs out again, totally freaked out, as our students would say, by the creatures that sit inside on stools, asleep, slobbering and snoring. She exits. The temple doors are now open and we see them: the Erinyes. Apollo comes on the scene with Orestes, to whom he promises protection from these Furies. He tells him to flee from them over land, sea, and islands, but finally to go as a suppliant to Pallas Athena’s city for “relief from his pains.” He ends: “For I persuaded you to kill the mother-body.” (84) Orestes sets out on his long expiatory flight.

Clytemnestra’s specter appears and upbraids the sleeping Erinyes for neglecting their pursuit. They wake up to dance and sing the first of several choruses that have a terrible kind of dignity and induce a repelled sort of pity. They sing to Apollo: “You, the young male, have ridden down the old female divinities” (daimonas, 150) by the respect you show for a godless man. “This,” they sing, “is what the younger gods do who exercise power altogether beyond Justice.” (162) Apollo responds by reviling them. They then bandy words, a foretaste of the arguments they will mount before the Areopagus, where both will claim to have justice on their side.

It is a long time later. We are now in Athens, on the Acropolis. Orestes has arrived to sit, as he had been ordered by Apollo, as a suppliant with his arms around the old olive wood statue of Athena, the one kept in the Erechtheum. He insists that he is no longer polluted because Apollo has purified him and that, moreover, his guilt has been blunted by time and travel. The Erinyes are still in hot pursuit. When they see him clasping the statue, they sing out a horrible song: They will suck red clots of blood from his limbs in requital for mother-blood, “Everyone receives the justice he deserves….” Hades “oversees all in his recording-tablet of a mind.” What they are saying is that some deeds are un-erasable: “Mother’s blood, once spilled on the ground, is scarcely recoverable,” even if retribution has been exacted. (261 ff.) Orestes claims, on the contrary, to have worked off his guilt through travel and “time that, growing old along with everything, purifies it.” (286)

And now, the lead-Erinys announces the “Binding­-Hymn.” It is a furious, long, stamping dance, an incantation for enchaining the mind. (370, 332) It asserts the Furies’ power and right to pursue even into Hades those who commit inexpiable crimes of blood.

Athena flies in, answering Orestes’ call. Aeschylus was admired for his staging; she surely arrives, a dea ex machina, by some cranelike device. But neither machines nor words make the wonder of this moment; it is rather the spectacle itself: Here is Athena’s old bretas, the olive bole that Orestes is embracing. Here is the possibly winged (1001) goddess herself, the divinity on which Orestes has called. He sees her, the spectators see her, the splendid deity vis-à-vis her presumably primitively carved, homely statue.[24] How could the sight of both together help but lead to reverent reflection? The city was full of statuary Athenas. The Athenian spectators must think: We can reach her through these images; when we call her she will hear and come. But they must, at the same time, feel reminded that their wooden board, their marble statues, and their clay statuettes are just that: images, not the goddess herself. And that is exactly what distinguishes their worship from idolatry. For an idol is to the worshiper not an image, but the spirit itself, prayed to, not through. These Athenians, presented by their first playwright with the wooden token and the real goddess face to face, were being invited—whether they followed the call or not—to think about the patent defectiveness and the mysterious power of those increasingly perfect representational artifacts that their normally invisible goddess was eliciting from them.[25] Indeed, thoughtful spectators might realize—once the magic of the performance had faded—that the “living” goddess who had been juxtaposed onstage to her venerably featureless effigy was herself a piece of Aeschylean poetry and stagecraft. Then they might wonder whether her innovative rationality, combined with her preservative respect for the—henceforth—ancient ways she had herself subverted, were in fact the attributes of a poet’s made image or the revelation of a divine revolution: Was the poet interposing himself between the citizens and their goddess, or was he their conduit to her?

Athena descends and notices the Furies. Apollo had reviled them and driven them from his temple: “Out, I am ordering you….You belong where there are judgments and butcheries of head-lopping and eye-gouging, and where the green youth of boys is ruined by destruction of seed” (186)—Aeschylean language for castration, high poetry to render the immoderate tone of the self-righteous young god.

Here is Athena’s reception for them. She says that she is not afraid of, but she is amazed by these creatures, which are unlike any other race, not seen among gods or comparable to humans in shape. Then she catches herself: “But to speak ill of someone close by us because he is misshaped does not approach what is just…” (413)

The Erinyes introduce themselves. They are called the “Curses,” and are the children of Night who live beneath the earth. They begin the argument. Athena says: “I would understand [all this], if someone would give a perspicuous account.” (420) Athena wants to hear from both sides in lucid speech. She admonishes the Furies not to insist on formalisms. The Furies begin to trust her and entrust their case to her decision. So does Orestes. The gist of the case is, on the Furies’ side, a rationally connected double demand: that a mother-killer should be hunted down even into Hades and that their own just prerogative to execute this charge should not be abrogated. On Orestes’ side, too, there is a double argument, which is not so rationally coherent, though Orestes has had a “smart teacher” (sophos didaskalos, 279) in Apollo. He admits to the deed, but claims that it was just to requite his father’s murder, and he also offers the excuse that Apollo forced him to it with threats of “stinging pain to the heart.” (466)

Once again something simply amazing happens. Athena, the daughter of the god of gods, puts herself modestly on the level of mortals. She says: “The affair is too great for some mortal to think he can adjudicate it…Nor is it right for me to decide a judicial case concerned with a killing so acutely anger-filled.” On the one hand there is before them a purified suppliant, on the other, the undeniable charge of the Furies who will, moreover, should they lose the case, poison the ground for ever. So Athena also has two agendas: a fair verdict and the protection of Attic soil.

She issues an ordinance “for all time.” (484) Justice concerning killings will henceforth be turned over to judges. Dike will go to dikastai; Justice is turned over to juries; the natural course of just requital is turned into a case-at-law, and the avenging Erinyes are to plead before a court. Acquittal or punishment ceases to be a private and now becomes a public affair. A British Lord Chief Justice said: “One…object of punishment is to prevent…the victims of crime from taking matters into their own hands.”[26] Athena’s institution of the high court of Athens is a revolution in human affairs, the kind of event I call modern, or, better, modernizing. It means the overthrow of ancient ways in the interest of a reasonable procedure, a crucial characteristic of which is the growth of public power, the expansion of what in our quintessentially “modern times,” the times in which modernity becomes the established mode, is called the state.

But what if the accuser loses the case, if a guilty defendant escapes punishment on technicalities and the righteously aggrieved party is left helplessly furious? What if the humane, exculpatory rationality of the human court leaves the world out of kilter? We will see how Athena mitigates this inevitable consequence of institutional justice, the conversion of capital Justice as a power into lower-case justice as a process.

But first there is that initial, that mythic trial before the Areopagus. Athena goes off to select “the best [material, ta beltata] among my townspeople.” (487) I don’t think she means the aristocrats or oligarchs. Aeschylus’ locution betokens that the juror-judges are just the fittest citizens. Aeschylus, recall, is a defender of Athenian democracy.

While she is gone, the Eumenides sing again, a song of despair and threatened withdrawal: “Now come the overturnings, the revolutions (katastrophai ), wreaked by new ordinances—if the hurtful justice of this mother-killer is to dominate.” (490) “I shall”—they sing as one—”permit every violent ruin” (moron). Let no one cry out ‘O Justice! 0 thrones of the Erinyes!’ …since the House of Justice has indeed collapsed.” (511) And then in the middle of their lamenting threats they make a demand that justifies my picture of them as intended by Aeschylus to be the representatives of the aboriginal justice of equilibrium:

Approve neither the anarchic life
nor the tyrannized one…
God grants the power to everything middling.
I speak the proportionate word. (symmetron epos, 531)

Athena, who was not there to hear them, will—wonderfully—repeat their words.

But first the trial. The scene seems to have shifted to the chambers of the Areopagus court. Trumpets sound; the people stream in; the court sits. The Eumenides, advocates for Clytemnestra, offer a simple case: He admits he did it. The opposition’s claim that Zeus, Zeus who overcame his own father, has more regard for a father’s than a mother’s death is implausible. Moreover, Clytemnestra, in killing her spouse, did not kill a blood relation, a mitigating circumstance for her. Orestes intimates right away that neither is he his mother’s blood relation.

Apollo now speaks for Orestes. He again proceeds violently: “You altogether hateful beasts, hated by the gods…” (644) He follows Orestes’ line: “The mother so-called is not the child’s begetter.” (658) He goes on to speak as a scientist to common folk, dispensing fancy then-modern biology, according to which the mother has no part in the embryo except that of a nurse.[27] He cunningly mentions that the male can even engender entirely without a mother. He cites the daughter of Zeus, Athena herself, as a case. It is a smart lawyer’s move, but once again, disregardful of the Erinyes. For Aeschylus has-against tradition-made them the children of Night, and she, Hesiod tells us, can bear “having slept with no one” (Birth of the Gods, 213); the Furies themselves (probably) have no father.

I interrupt the account here to point to a curious circumstance that must have crept into every spectator’s mind: Apollo’s argument, which in fact abolishes mothers, insofar as they are nothing but carrying wombs, is cleverly made in a drama that is enacted, except for Clytemnestra appearing as a specter and the Amazons appearing in a story, mainly by childless females whose status is above, below, beyond natural womanhood: the Pythian priestesses who open the play, the Erinyes who are transformed in its course, the consecrated guardians of Athena’s statue who lead the exit march. Above them all thrones Athena Parthenos, the Virgin. (999)

Why? Well, first this is a sacral drama, and the great Olympians are served by virgins. But more significantly, the two protagonists, female-gendered but non-bearing, are, on the one hand, male-like powers, the one of fiercely spirited engagement, the other of majestically large objectivity. Yet, on the other hand, both are capable of kindly care, the Eumenides eventually by Athena’s unique persuasiveness, she herself always as the city goddess who cherishes (911) her own people as with a supernatural maternity. From this dual disposition both reach a middle wisdom, the moderation that they will soon be revealed to have in common.

The pleading is done. Athena addresses her citizens while the court deliberates. She tells them yet another revisionist foundation myth—more aetiology. The place where the court of juror-judges; that will exist for ever, is deciding its first murder case, the kind for which she has instituted it, is called the Areopagus, ”Ares’ Rock,” because there the army of Amazons from Asia that attacked Athens in the time of Theseus sacrificed to Ares. (683) Again, all the world knew the current explanation of the name, which was that Ares, having killed a son of Poseidon for trying to rape his daughter, was tried on this hill for murder by a jury of gods. I assume that he was acquitted, as Orestes will be.

Why this new tale? One notion is that Aeschylus wants Orestes’ trial to be the initial case of the new Areopagus court.[28] But if the earliest court consisted of the twelve Olympian gods, Athena’s institution of a mortal court of ten would still be original enough, and if Ares had indeed been acquitted, the precedent might be welcome. I think Aeschylus revises the naming event of this court’s home to remind his audience of the more recent Asian army that had entered the city just over three decades ago, that of the Persians. Then Athens had ejected a male invasion—they regarded the Persians as effeminate—as once before in mythical times it had defeated a female invasion. Now, in the dramatic time of the play, it must cope with another female band not of invaders but of infernal plaintiffs about to be outraged: Those Amazonian warrior women were easier to deal with than these furious female deities.

She uses the pause in the drama to make a consequent point: Reverence this Areopagus! Don’t muck up—she uses strong language—your own bright water. Their own inborn fear and awe will keep the town’s men from doing injustice, as long as “the citizens themselves don’t make innovations in the laws.” (epikainontôn nomous, 693)[29] While in the course of instituting novelties, she warns her people against innovation!

And then, in the most significant moment of the play, she goes on to say exactly what the Eumenides have said in her absence: “I counsel the caring townsmen to revere neither the anarchic nor the tyrannized way, and not to throw all that is dreadful out of the city. For who among mortals, fearing nothing, is yet imbued with justice?” (697).

She and the Furies together seem to be doing a long-term end-run around Apollo, although she is about to help him win his current case. Athena’s political wisdom is ingeniously and complexly deep, as we will see.

After the jurors have voted and before the votes are counted, Athena makes a consequence-fraught announcement. If the vote is tied, Orestes will be acquitted because her pebble is going into the urn for acquittal. Her reason is stupefyingly simple and unprincipled: “I support everything male—except for the matter of getting married [here speaks the virgin goddess], and I am very much my Father’s child.” (736)

This is another remarkable moment. Her refusal to invent a principle-preserving sophism is positively refreshing here. After all, she has a deeper reason that she is wise not to articulate before the Furies: to stop the descent of killing, to put an end to this murderous lineage without actually eradicating it. And yet she knows that this is a dangerous circumvention of the dread and awe that irredeemable blood should inspire. And that is, as ever, only one of two wise intentions. The other is to establish by precedence a permanent ordinance: the judicial compromise that will resolve an insoluble situation. The equality of votes, five to five, which she surely foresees—or so I imagine—betokens the inability of human beings to resolve this matter by themselves, to be of one dispositive mind, any more than the deity could deal with it alone. She knows that she is to be the tie-breaker; she must supply the casting vote, and it is for ever—and still for us—in favor of acquittal. When humans are equally divided in mind, civilization says: Let him go. Give him the benefit of the doubt. And ever after, in the goddess’s absence, her tie­ breaking vote, cast for clemency,[30] will be present in every court, and so will she. (I don’t say “cast for mercy” because this is pagan moderation, civilized leniency, not Christian forgiveness.) Furthermore, Athena’ s rule tends toward slowing innovation in deliberative assemblies: Positive action is defeated by a tie.[31]

So Orestes is acquitted, and he, full of gratitude and promises for an Argive alliance, quits the scene with his divine advocate.

Athena is left with her assembled people—and the absolutely infuriated Furies. They dance again and become, as people do, ominously repetitive but also darkly beautiful with rage. They again speak as one, fixated on the locution of being ridden down by the younger gods and iterating their lament:

I am she who is unhonored—she who is wretched,
deeply angered
in this land—Oh!
I emit poison, my heart’s poison in payment for pain
in unbearable drops on the ground. (780, 810)

And again the goddess does something astonishing, something no other divinity, I imagine, would or could attempt and accomplish: She undertakes to calm the Furies, to gentle them. She speaks to them between their laments. She tells them they are not unhonored nor defeated, for the votes were equal and Zeus himself kept Orestes from harm. This is tact—half the jurors, she points out, were for them; moreover, not their antagonist Apollo, but the god of gods himself ordered the outcome. Here she gently reminds all of her closeness to Zeus; she alone knows the keys to the chamber where his thunderbolt is sealed. (827) It is the subtlest of threats. But above all she has begun to make her daring offer: Be “augustly honored and be co-dweller (synoikêtôr) with me.” (833) She is inviting the Furies into her city!

They still rage repetitively. “For me to bear this, oh!—for me of such ancient good sense to dwell in this earth is a dishonoring defilement,” they say twice over. (838, 871)

Athena bears it patiently, though she tells them understatedly, “Zeus has not done badly by me either in giving me good sense.” She promises more, a place for them close to her own Erechtheum, the prize of the country’s first fruits, and honors over any they might have from mortals elsewhere—if they will not afflict her places with incitements to bloodshed, drunken rages, fighting-cock hearts, and rash intractable aggression. “Let our wars be external!,” she says, since it is not war she denounces but civil war. (861) “I won’t weary of telling you,” she goes on, “so you can never say that by me, the younger, and my city-holding mortals, you, the ancient deity, went unhonored and were made a stranger on this soil.” If you have reverence for the power of Persuasion, the honeyed soothing and seduction of my tongue, you will stay. (881, cf. 970)

Suddenly, as one, they cave in: “Queen Athena,”—now first they call her queen, as had Orestes before them (235)—”what settlement do you say you have for me?” (892) Why? Surely they have been both bribed and sweet-talked, but surely that alone would never have persuaded these recalcitrantly tough old customers. I think what gets to them is not only Athena’s tactful rhetoric, which she takes so far as to incriminate herself as one of those hated younger gods, though one who is deferential to the ancient ones, whom she has begun to address in the singular as one deity. (848) No, it is above all her genuine understanding of their indispensable function. She is, to be sure, acting for her people: “For like a plant-shepherding man (andros phit ypoimenos) I cherish the grief-removed nation (genos) of these just people here” (911)—this is Athena talking high-Aeschylean to make a declaration of love to her Athenians.

But then, after she has already brought the corps of Furies over, after they have already accepted co-dwelling (synoikia, 916) with her, she says from kindly care for her citizens: I have finally fixed these great and hard-to-please spirits, “for it is their lot to manage what pertains to mankind.” (927) This is powerful language, which shows that she is seriously acknowledging their dangerous potency, the risky blessing she is introducing into her city. Her wise management of these managers reminds me of what is perhaps the crucial line in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: Bassanio says to the vengeful Jew: “Can no prayers pierce thee?” and Shylock answers: “No, none that thou hast wit enough to make.” (4.1.128) Athena has wit enough and wisdom to pierce the avenging Furies, and that is because she, unlike Apollo (or Bassanio), can summon a real, a reverential respect for them: “Great power has the Lady Erinys.” (950)

They sing antiphonally, the Erinyes of blessings to be bestowed, Athena of the blessings to be received, telling her citizens to be ever well- (or kindly-) minded toward these Well- (or Kindly-) minded ones,” the Euphrones—which is as close as she seems to wish to come to naming the Eumenides. There is a great exit procession: the Areopagites, Athena’s acolytes, her Athenians, and finally the goddess herself, conducting the Erinyes, now dressed in the scarlet of resident aliens, marching as metics (1028), to their permanent home beneath Ares’ Rock. Here is the third strophe of the exit march, sung by the Erinyes, now, without need of naming, recognized by all the spectators as their Eumenides:

Chairete, chairet’ en aisimiaisi ploutou, 

Chairet’ astikos leos. 

iktar hemenoi Dios 

Parthenou philas phil0i, sophronountes en chronoi; 

Pallados d’ypo pterois 

ontas azetai Pater.

Rejoice and farewell[32] in the happiness of wealth, Rejoice, townspeople
Seated close to Zeus
Friends of the friendly Virgin Moderate in good times
Under the wings of Pallas Athene
As you are, the Father respects you. (996-1002)

Of course, the whole theater was, though seated, marching along, a light trochaic tread, solemn but relieved, grave, and exhilarated. This was surely a high moment of sound-minded patriotism founded on whole-hearted trust in the wisely innovating goddess.[33]

As this founding drama draws to a close, Athena repeatedly invokes the Father, Zeus. Through her, her people are near to him. I think this means that though she acts locally, in this Attic land, on this Athenian High City, at this Rock of Ares, she is instituting a larger way, she is thinking universal Zeus-like thoughts for other places and later times.

Sôphronountes en chronoi the new neighbors say of Athena’s people: They “are being temperate, sound-minded, moderate.” All these terms are acceptable renditions of sôphronountês, which is, moreover a present participle, a verbal form signifying a continuing action. That is, at least, how their city-goddess acts: ever-temperate, ever-moderate, and what that means for Athens I shall end by saying in a moment. But why en chronôi, “in time, just in time, in good time”—all of these are possible meanings? It has seemed to readers a puzzlingly reserved phrase, a note of restraint sounded among these transports of reconciliation.[34] Perhaps what the Erinyes mean is that moderation is neither inbred nor learned in a day, especially not in its ongoing realization, the very temporality suggested by the verbal form: being actively moderate—thinking soundly over time.

Under Athena’s wings they keep learning. What is this­—their, her—moderation in this forever critical situation, life lived literally with the Erinyes beneath?

Let me begin to answer by recapitulating Athena’s acts of moderation and innovation: Apollo, to win his case, cites new science which in effect says, “There are no mothers;” Athena, ensuring the same outcome, refers instead to her unique case of motherlessness and abstains from inhumanly radical generalizations. Faced with repulsive creatures, Apollo insults and expels them. Athena rather controls her repugnance and accords them more courteous treatment than, I imagine, they have ever received since dark Night bore them; she soothes and invites them. Saddled with a case in which primevally simple and humanly compromised justice confront each other, she magisterially accepts the case but modestly recognizes that neither her people nor she can resolve the matter alone. Consequently, she founds a novel institution, a court for cases of killing, thus both making justice a public rather than a family responsibility and corroborating Athens as a place of refuge and resolution. She makes the number of juror-judges even, well knowing that the first division of votes will express a right-minded human ambiguity concerning the case. She assumes the office of tie-breaker to give this verdict to the god-driven killer who is the first to come before the Areopagus court, tacitly ordaining the rule that in subsequent cases, when the mortals decide in her absence, equal votes will moderate primitive severity by signifying acquittal. Having thus of necessity offended the Furies, she goes persuasively—and sincerely—far in acknowledging their priority and power, honoring them with titles: She names, or rather titles them, finally, the August Goddesses ( Semnai Theai) , and grants them prerogatives-in effect a share in the supervision of her city. Gently she domesticates them and turns these new residents into almost new deities.

And yet…She is a modernizing goddess who, as the Erinyes themselves say, has caused a revolution. But when she takes the tremendous risk of domesticating these justly vengeful deities and making them officially metics, that is, co-dwellers, it is their intention she converts, not their nature: They are, as everyone knew, now the Eumenides, the Well­-Intentioned, the Kindly-Thinking Ones. But they are still angry Erinyes as well: Their dark character as children of Night is not canceled but preserved [35] in that cave in Ares’ Rock, beneath the Areopagus Court.

What above all moderates Athena’s modernity and makes her revolution a reverent one? It is that she knows and honors the ancient dread. When the Erinyes lament that the new young gods ride them down, she, though herself a member of the new generation of gods, knows what that means: The others, at least this Apollo, are too brightly shallow to feel it, to feel the fear that the world will become unbalanced if holy terror fails.

Even as she is establishing that work of reason, the human jury sitting in judgment, where the public decides by the numbers and the perpetrator goes humanely free when there is doubt, even as she is freely innovating, she tells her Areopagites: “Their reverence for the court and the inborn fear of the townspeople will keep them from doing injustice… as long as the citizens don’t make innovations in the laws.” And then, she gives her counsel, the gist of which I will quote once again: not to revere either anarchy or despotism,

And not to throw all that is dreadful out of the city.
For who among mortals, fearing nothing, is yet imbued with justice? (698)

This dread, this fear that the citizens are bidden to preserve, is a deep awareness of—one might even call it a kind of trust in—the terrible consequences of lightly letting old laws lapse and forcibly bringing in a new rational relief that leaves the primal Justice of reprisal out of kilter.

A penultimate question: Are the Erinyes creatures of conscience? Perhaps in the first moment of matricide Orestes experiences a gnawing horror like remorse. For in the Libation Bearers only he sees the Furies. But they soon materialize, and in the Eumenides the whole city sees them. They are there not to express a haunting sense of guilt but to recall a world-dislodging deed, and they are not evocations of the perpetrator but emissaries of the victim. The Erinyes are, indeed, never renamed in the play, but at the very end the people in the procession give them one last fitting adjective: euthyphrones, “straight-thinking.” (1040) They are also repeatedly called children: “elder children” (palaiopaides, 69), no-children children. (paides apaides, 1034) There is in fact something naively, frighteningly, undeflectably direct about these ancient children; they demand straight simplicity like young children when they are in the holy terror mode, when they are fixed on the brute fact of an inequity: “Why is he allowed…?” No, they are not extrusions of the perpetrator’s conscience. But neither are they expressions of the victim’s outrage. The Erinyes are rather exhibitions of a cosmic power. They are, by Aeschylus’ fiat, daughters of Night. “Murky Night” has borne, as Hesiod tells in his Birth of the Gods, many daughters, among them Nemesis, Blame and Woe, Destiny and the Fates,

Who pursue the transgressions (paraibasias) of men and gods,
Nor ever do these goddesses cease their dread anger
Before they have given evil attention to anyone who has gone wrong. (213-25)

The Erinyes belong among the divine powers who keep the world from going out of joint [36] by rectifying imbalances. Born from murky dark, they bring a dreadfully simple clarity of accounting: Do and pay.

Such are these anciently young spirits, while Athena is the newly young deity, and yet they come together over cosmic and civic politics. Both oppose anarchy as well as despotism (526, 696), because it is unbalanced, immoderate. Yet, Athena Polias is an altogether modern, modernizing goddess, a civic deity who innovates, makes political revolution in the modern mode still current with us: She transfers moral responsibility to public institutions, decides by the numbers, that is, by voting, resolves issues by rational fiat, encourages perspicuous speech in both parties: ”Answer me with something intelligible.” (442, 420) But she is in complete sympathy with the Furies’ cry that precedes their proscription of political extremes:

There is a place where the dreadful is well (to
deinon eu),
and, as overseer of the heart,
it ought to stay seated there.
It is of profit
to be moderate in narrow straits. (517)

So both connect moderation with the welcoming of dread. For certain blood spilled simply is irretrievable (1175) and some deeds are forever irredeemable. And the Apolline solution to “invent” what he calls “engines of relief ” (82) racks up debts in that economy of things that the Erinyes call Justice. What Athena understands is that this truth must be invited in and kept in mind: that continuous propitiating mindfulness by the beneficiaries of abrogated requital is required. This is not straight Justice but it is clement civilization. In that knowledge consists Athena’s moderate modernity.

Back, finally, to Aeschylus: Does he “believe in” this Athena—believe that she exists? I answer abruptly, from the bafflement of a post-pagan and the enthrallment of an all-but-worshiper: He loves her as he loves his city, and love makes moot the question of existence—at certain high moments.

This essay was originally published here in November 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It originally appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 50, No. 2, 2008) and is republished here with gracious permission.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Ms. Brann writes: “These reflections on the Eumenides originated in a seminar on board the MJY Callisto, Captain Yannis Stupakis, sailing the Aegean Sea in October of 2006. The passengers were all members of the St. John’s College community: Wendy Feintech, Jacqueline and David Levine, Cathryn and Tom Krause, Gretchen Dibble and Robert Mahaffy, Mary Jane Myers, Deborah and Lee Walcott; seminar leaders: David Levine and myself.

I thank my colleague Mera Flaumenhaft for her suggestions and for making me aware of her gratifyingly like-minded essay, “Seeing Justice Done: Aeschylus’s Oresteia,” in her book, The Civic Spectacle (Lanham: Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield: 1994), especially pp. 27-41.”


Conacher, D. J., Aeschylus’  Oresteia: A Literary Commentary. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press (1987).

Lloyd-Jones, Hugh, The Eumenides by Aeschylus: A Translation and Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall (1970).

Paley, F. A., The Tragedies of Aeschylos (Edition and Commentary). London: Whittaker and Co. (1879).

Podlecki, Anthony J., Aeschylus’  Eumenides (Edited with an Introduction, Translation and Commentary). Warminster, England: Aris and Phillips Ltd. (1989).

Sommerstein, Alan H., Aeschylus, Eumenides (Edition and Commentary). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1989).

Verrall, A. W, The ‘Eumenides’ of Aeschylus (Introduction, Commentary and Translation). London: Macmillan and Co. (1908).


[1] There is even an old story that Socrates helped Euripides make his plays, who was consequently called by a later comic writer “Socrato-rivet-patched” (sokratogomphos, Diogenes Laertius, 2.18).

[2] Podlecki, p. 8.

[3] Verrall, p. xxxvi.

[4] It may be that the idea of bringing Orestes to Athens arose from the fact that in the Odyssey he comes from Athens to avenge his father (3.307).

[5] Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus” (1883): “… ‘Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore …’.”

[6] Podlecki, p. 7.

[7] Sommerstein, p. 109, on !. 142.

[8] Paley, p. xxxv.

[9] E.g. Euripides, Orestes, l. 35 (408 BCE); Sommerstein, pp. 11-12.

[10] Gary Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, New York: Vintage Books (1978), p. xiv ff. A thorough rebuttal of Wills’s facts: Harry V Jaffa, “Inventing the Past: Garry Wills’s Inventing America and the Pathology of Ideological Scholarship,” The StJohn’s Review 30 (Autumn 1981), p. 94 ff.

[11] Paley, p. xxxvi; Sommerstein, p. 18.

[12] Podlecki, p. 163, on l. 398.

[13] Podlecki, p. 92, on l. 1028.

[14] Meanly implausible reasons were later given for this, his second Sicilian voyage, such as his defeat by young Sophocles or his having revealed the Mysteries (Paley, p. xxv). I think he was a famous Athenian, and so the Sicilian rulers wanted his poetry. There is no reason to think he was an expatriate; it’s hard to imagine after the Eumenides .

[15] Paley, p. xxxvi.

[16] The Delian Treasure was seized and brought to Athens in 454 BCE.

[17] Herodotus, Persian Wars, 8.55.

[18] This piece of Athenian wit was told me by Seth Benardete half a century ago. It seems mythopoetically true.

[19] Abraham Lincoln, “Speech in Reply to Douglas at Chicago” July 10, 1858)

[20] Pindar, Fr. 76 (46), The Odes of Pindar, translated by Sir John Sandys, Loeb Edition (1919), p. 556, n. 1. Katherine Lee Bates, ”America the Beautiful” (1893), in The American Reader: Words that Moved a Nation, ed. Diane Ravitch, New York: Harper-Collins (1990), p. 184.

[21] Could it possibly be that this, the moral of the play, is not at the thousandth line by accident? To be sure, not all line counts agree. No, not likely.

[22] In fact, the Oresteia is the only complete surviving trilogy.

[23] Podlecki, p. 129, on 11. 5-8.

[24] I don’t know whether such a scene is ever repeated. In Euripides’ Hippolytus, for instance, where Aphrodite’s and Artemis’s statues seem both to be on stage, the deities themselves are not seen but only heard  (86).

[25] The philosophical culmination of the reflection on image and original is in Plato’s Sophist (240 ff.). Athena was the patroness of arts and crafts.

[26] Lord Lane (1986), quoted as an epigraph in Sommerstein.

[27] In the Generation of Animals Aristotle will elaborate this proto-thesis into a full-blown theory: The mother is an infertile male who contributes merely the receptive material to the embryo (1.19-20; 4.1).

[28] Verrall, p. 126, on 11. 686-93 with sources; Sommerstein, pp. 2-3; p. 273, on ll. 685-90.

[29] These lines are said to be the most controversial ones in the play (Sommerstein, p. 216). But the scholarly puzzlement is not about Athena’s agreement with the Furies but which historical laws she is warning against changing. Is the passage attacking the democratic reform of the Areopagus? There are long discussions in Conacher (p. 199 ff.) and Sommerstein (p. 216 ff.). My notion is that Aeschylus’ warning is not against a particular historical case but against an ever-recurrent human event: radically rational innovation.

[30] To me it is pretty clear that Athena casts the tie-breaking rather than the equalizing vote, because 1. there are 10 complete exchanges between Apollo and the Erinyes, one speech for each act of voting (Verrall, p. 130, on ll. 714-33), and 2. if Athena were evening the vote to bring about acquittal, the procedure for the court—that a tie acquits—would have had to precede its institution.

[31] Robert’s Rules of Order (1915),  46.

[32] Chairete means both “farewell” and “rejoice.”

[33] Thucydides tells of a high moment of similar gloriously exhilarating solemnity. It happens to be an actual celebration, the send-off that the Athenian people give their Sicilian expedition, also with trumpets, prayers, paeans. But as the Eumenidean exit is thoughtfully future­ fraught, the Sicilian send-off is—to the reader who knows the end—fecklessly doom-inviting (Peloponnesian War, 6.32).

[34] The commentators are stumped and so have a lot to say.

[35] I would venture to say this only in a note: The Hegelian term aufheben, which means at once canceling, preserving, and raising up, fits this case.

[36] Thus Heidegger translates dike into German as Fug, “fit.” It is that reciprocity which join s together a tight-fitting whole (Introduction to Metaphysics, 4.3). There is a German idiom: mit Fug und Recht, “with full right.” Moreover Unfug means “mischief.”

Editor’s note: The featured image is “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” by Carl Rahl, and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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