(in the Greek text—line numbers in the translations vary)
The scene of the play is at first in front of the temple of Apollo in Delphi, the home of the Delphic oracle. The Pythia, the priestess of Apollo who delivers his oracles, prays before entering the shrine. First she names the gods who have been worshiped at this temple, and tells the story of a peaceful succession: Gaia (Earth) was the first prophet, then Themis, then Phoebe, and Phoebe gave the seat as a birthday gift to her namesake, Phoebus Apollo. When Apollo came to take his seat here, he was escorted by those sons of Hephaestus who make roads that tame untamed lands. Zeus inspired him with prophecy, and Apollo speaks for Zeus. Then she names the other gods revered at Delphi, and finally Zeus himself, and so goes in to take her seat and prophesy as Apollo leads her.
She comes out again, terrified, scarcely able to stand. On her way to the innermost sanctuary, she saw a man with blood on his hands and his drawn sword seated on the navel stone as a suppliant, and in front of him, asleep, a troop of women more appalling than Gorgons or Harpies, black and with blood dripping from their eyes, in unseemly rags. Apollo must handle this himself.
She leaves, and Apollo and Orestes enter. Apollo promises Orestes that he will not abandon him. Now these horrible creatures are asleep, but they will continue to hunt Orestes, and he must fly from them, going to the city of Athena and asking her help. There we will find judges and the words needed to charm them, he says; there release will come, “for it was I who persuaded you to slay your mother” (line 84; all quotations not otherwise attributed are from the literal translation of the Oresteia by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, published by the University of California Press in 1979). Orestes tells Apollo to be sure to take care of him, and Apollo asks Hermes to guide him and look after him.
Apollo and Orestes leave, and the ghost of Clytemnestra enters. She speaks to the Furies, though the audience (at least according to some editions) can’t see them yet. She reproaches them for sleeping and letting their quarry escape, while she has to suffer dishonor in the Underworld. She has given them so many offerings, and they still act like this! The Furies whine in their sleep after each reproach she makes, and then finally they speak in their sleep, urging each other to seize Orestes. Clytemnestra urges them to stop pursuing him in their sleep like dreaming hounds but to wake up, feel the strength of her reproaches, and catch up with Orestes, breathe blood on him, and shrivel him up.
The Eumenides is the third and final play of Aeschylus’ great trilogy, known as the Oresteia, which he composed, choreographed, directed, and acted in, competing with other such trilogies in the great yearly competition held in fifth-century Athens. The first play, the Agamemnon, tells the story of the revenge killing of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra, with the support of her lover Aegisthus, when he returns from the Trojan War; the second play, The Libation Bearers, tells the story of the revenge killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus by the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Orestes. Unlike The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides is sometimes performed alone, but it takes on much more meaning in light of the rest of the trilogy. In this play, Aeschylus faced the challenge of retelling the last episode of an ancient story of blood-for-blood vengeance that had been handed down for centuries in such a way that it would have meaning for a fifth-century BC audience, who were at least as horrified as a modern audience is by the idea that a man can kill his own mother and go on to rule his country in peace. One of the ways the play gives the largest possible meaning to the story is to bring on stage the cosmic forces—that is, the gods—that have been at work unseen in the two earlier plays. In fact the Furies, constantly referred to in the first two plays, here make up the Chorus, and the play is named for them—Eumenides, which may be translated “Gracious Goddesses,” or “Kindly Ones”—so they were often called, as a way of gaining their favor. Though they are scarcely kindly at the beginning of the play.
Of all the three plays in the trilogy, this one raises the most difficult questions. The tale the Pythia tells about the gods who held the seat of prophecy at Delphi before Apollo is quite different from the most common version of the story, in which Apollo wins his seat by battling and killing a huge evil female serpent that had been wreaking destruction among human beings. That conflict was an episode in what was often seen as a battle between the Olympian gods and the older chthonian deities—deities associated with Earth. Yet the chthonian deities were still worshiped in fifth-century Greece, and other versions of the way the Olympians moved into the ascendancy they clearly held were possible. The Greeks did not have one sacred book that gave an authoritative account of the doings of the gods, and poets felt free to compose their own version of the ancient stories. (Myth comes from mythos, the Greek word for story.) So here Aeschylus has the Pythia tell the story of a peaceful succession, one in which the older (and female) deities are honored, even as the suggestion is that the new Olympian, Apollo, is associated with the progress of civilization, since he is escorted by road builders. No monsters to overcome, no problems—until the Pythia staggers out of the temple, overwhelmed by the horror of the chthonian deities she has found there.
These particular chthonian deities are the Furies, the Avengers, sometimes seen as daughters of Earth, sometimes (as in this play) as daughters of Night, who punish crimes against blood kin (especially parents), breaking of oaths, violation of the guest-host bond, and injury to suppliants. In Greek they are called the Erinyes, and they are often thought of as embodied curses, especially the curses of a parent harmed by a child.
Apollo may have received his seat at Delphi peacefully, as the Pythia tells the story, from his grandmother Phoebe, one of the older chthonian deities, but he has nothing but scorn for these daughters of Night, and claims that they are “loathed … by men and by Olympian gods” (73), existing only to do “evil” (71). If one remembers that in the previous play Orestes describes how Apollo threatened him with horrible suffering at the hands of his father’s Furies if he did not kill his mother, Apollo’s attitude may seem a bit unfair. What is clear is that Apollo considers Orestes’ deed to have been justifiable homicide, and therefore (according to the accepted practice of the time), Orestes can be free of guilt and pollution by undergoing ritual purification. The Furies utterly reject the possibility that anything can justify matricide. They hold rigidly to the demand of blood for blood, as does the ghost of Clytemnestra.