The Furies (the Erinyes in Greek) act as antagonists throughout Aeschylus’s Oresteia Trilogy in different ways. Called “tragedy’s talismanic daemons” by Ruth Padel (161), the Furies’ role transitions throughout the trilogy of plays from ethereal force to direct opposition and back again. This paper tracks the Furies’ story throughout The Oresteia Trilogy as a slow burn—often parallel to the main story, but also weaving in and out of the narrative. In addition, this paper seeks to explain not only the origin of the Furies and their obsession with human blood, but also their resolution as Athena venerates them, raising them up from the Underworld, where they previously served as chthonic deities of vengeance, to become the Eumenides (“Benevolent Ones”).
In Agamemnon, the Furies are non-corporeal antagonists, frequently blamed as the personification of the curse against the House of Atreus or otherwise cited as bringers of misery. In The Libation Bearers, the Furies are still non-corporeal, existing mostly in Orestes’s head as the metaphysical force behind his grief, torturing him as punishment for matricide. In The Eumenides, the Furies finally enter our physical reality, showing up as the accusers in Orestes’s trial after tracking Orestes down by smelling his dead mother’s blood in the air near him and following droplets of blood that he has been leaving behind with every footstep.
In Agamemnon, when Cassandra is driven to prophecy by Apollo, she first describes the Furies:
Up there on that roof there sits a chorus—it never leaves. They sing in harmony, but the song is harsh, predicting doom. Drinking human blood has made them bold—they dance in celebration through all the rooms. The house’s Furies cannot be dislodged. Sitting in the home, they chant their song, the madness that began all this, each in turn cursing that man who defiled his brother’s bed. (Aeschylus 15)
When Cassandra mentions the man defiling his brother’s bed, she is speaking of the origination of the formal curse on the House of Atreus. In case the audience is not familiar with this situation, Aeschylus has Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus, explain:
Know you that my father, Thyestes, brother to Atreus, challenged his authority. So Atreus expelled him from his home and city. But Thyestes in his misery returned…. He arranged what seemed a celebration—a feast with plentiful meat, but served my father flesh of his own children. Thyestes, in total ignorance, took the food he did not recognize, and ate the meal which, as you have witnessed, destroyed the race. When Thyestes learned the abominable thing he had done, he screamed, staggered back, and vomited up the butchered flesh. Then, kicking down the banquet table, called down on the House of Atreus an unbearable curse….” (21)
This curse on the House of Atreus is personified by the Furies; however, at this point Cassandra is the only one who can see the Furies, due to her sensitive psychic nature as an oracle.
Johnston notes in his translation of The Oresteia that the Furies are “ancient she-demons who avenge blood crimes” (10). When the Furies first actually appear in The Eumenides, they exclaim, “I smell human blood—I could laugh for joy!” (Aeschylus 53) The Furies’s obsession with blood is no random decision on Aeschylus’s part, for blood has played an integral part in the Furies’s story since their beginning.
Aeschylus did not invent the Furies—indeed, when the Chorus of Argive elders first mention the Furies, they are given no formal introduction. Instead, they are referred to as “black agents of revenge” that “wear down and bring to naught the fortunes of a man who prospers unjustly. They wear him out, reverse his luck, and drag him down at last among the dead” (Aeschylus 5-6). No formal introduction is necessary because the audience was already familiar with the Furies.
The mythology of the Furies’ creation was described by Hesiod in his poem Theogony, nearly 300 years before Aeschylus wrote The Oresteia Trilogy:
“Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes….” (ll. 176-206)
This is describing the birth of the Furies after Cronus castrated his father Uranus and threw his genitalia into the sea. The Furies sprang forth from the Uranus’s genitalia’s blood that dripped onto Gaia. So even from their very beginnings, blood plays an important part in the Furies’ story.
The Furies are described as terribly frightening creatures. “Ancient tradition has it that on the play’s premiere [the Furies’s first appearance on stage] struck so much fear and anguish in the audience, that a pregnant woman named Neaira miscarried on the spot” (New World Encyclopedia). Aeschylus describes them as having their own theme music, which can be imagined to be eerie and terrifying. When Orestes is going mad in The Libation Bearers, he describes the Furies he sees:
“No! – They’re here – Look, you women – over there – like Gorgons draped in black – their heads, hundreds of writhing snakes – I can’t bear it … This is no illusion of horror, no! They’re real! My mother’s furious hounds! Snarling for revenge! … Lord Apollo! They attack me! Hordes of them! Their eyes drip blood . . . it’s horrible!” (Aeschylus 23-24)
In a sense, the Furies are proto-vampires. Ruth Scodel notes, “In myth, the Erinyes are born of blood, but they are also vampires who drink the blood of those they torment” (96). Today, however, we might call them demons. In fact, Amerasinghe calls their resolution the “poetic image of the ritual of exorcism” (181). In The Libation Bearers, after Orestes kills his mother, he knows he is mad and he actually sees the Furies that have been haunting his house for generations. “We have thus the second stage in the process of exorcism-the external manifestation of the malignant spirit” (Amerasinghe 182). In the third play, the Furies follow Orestes’s blood-trail to present themselves at his trial. “Lurking in the background from the very beginning, they have now come out into the light of day, and we are ready for the third and final stage—the exorcism” (Amerasinghe 182). However, rather than driving the demons back to Hell, as is done in a typical exorcism, Athena elevates the Furies and completely reverses their roles:
“Vest these Furies with crimson robes and pay them homage. Then, follow with your torches, so these Eumenides, these Benevolent Ones, in the love they bear this land, can ever more bring our city strength and great good fortune” (Aeschylus 23)
After this, the Furies—now known as Eumenides—again fade into the ether, becoming invisible to all but the oracles; this time, however, they are more like their Roman counterparts, the Dirae, than the chthonic deities of vengeance they once were.
Aeschylus’s transformation of the Furies into the Eumenides is a part of mythology that is accepted or ignored by his contemporaries as they see fit. Sophocles uses them in Trachiniae, “in which we can see most clearly an Aeschylean conception of the Erinyes” (Winnington-Ingram 212). However, “what Aeschylus did with the Erinyes in the closing scene of Eumenides is not included by Sophocles in his play…” (Winnington-Ingram 215). During the latter part of Sophocles’s life, he wrote Oedipus Coloneus, “and it could be that towards the end of his career Sophocles had given new and deep thought to his predecessor’s Oresteia” (Winnington-Ingram 215). It is here that Sophocles acknowledges the Furies’ Aeschylean transformation, as he has Oedipus take his final rest in a grove of the Eumenides.
Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Ian Johnston. Richer Resources Publications, 2007. Print.
Amerasinghe, C. W. “A Note on Form and Meaning in The Orestreia.” Greece & Rome, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 179-184. Cambridge University Press, 1964.
Hesiod. Theogony, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
New World Encyclopedia. “Aeschylus”. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
Padel, Ruth. In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self. Princeton University Press, 1994. Print.
Scodel, Ruth. An Introduction to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
Seaford, Richard. Introduction to The Oresteia, trans. George Thomson. Everyman’s Library, 2004. Print.
Winnington-Ingram, R.P. Sophocles: An Interpretation. Cambridge University Press, 1980. Print.