The Eumenides

Ah, you gotta love the Furies. “And now my lungs are blown with abundant and with wearisome work, mankilling.” Legend has it that at the initial performance of Aeschylus’ play, their site was so fearsome that a pregnant woman in the audience suffered a miscarriage and died. Theirs is a poetic language of violence and terror, and there are few more terrifying figures in literature. Yet there’s a point to their terror — the fear they generate in men is meant to be a constraint on pride and criminal thought. “Men’s illusions in their pride under the sky melt down, and are diminished into the ground, gone before the onset of our black robes.”

They probably don’t generate as much critical attention as the Furies or the other main characters, but you gotta feel for the citizens who are called by Athena to serve on the jury. They’re verdict on Orestes’ killing of Clytamnestra is a choice between the Furies and the gods Apollo and Athena. Which is worse — risking the violent wrath of the ancient, vindictive Kindly Ones, or the disapproval of the young, powerful dieties? Aeschylus gives the jury a break by having them split their vote evenly, leaving Athena to intervene divinely and spare Orestes. For me it’s all a little too neat at the end, Athena appeasing the Furies by giving them a seat of honor in her city, but it’s the language of the Furies that I’ll always love about this piece. “There are times when fear is good. It must keep its watchful place at the heart’s controls.”

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