The last of Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy, The Eumenides follows Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers in chronicling the (mis)fortunes of the house of Atreus, rulers of Argos. While Agamemnon focuses on the titular character’s return from the Trojan War and his murder by Clytaemnestra, and The Libation Bearers tells the story of Orestes’ return to Argos and his revenge for his father’s murder, The Eumenides is more judicial in its tone and style, staging the trial of Orestes contested between the Furies and Apollo with Athena officiating.
The Eumenides picks up the problem introduced by The Libation Bearers of divine conflict between the Furies—ancient deities representing a culture built on blood feuds and debts—and Apollo—one of the new Olympians who has set himself against the will of the Furies. Orestes—hero of The Libation Bearers—sought Apollo’s blessing and protection in his quest to kill Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus for murdering his father Agamemnon, and Apollo had sanctioned the vengeance, but by ancient tradition the Furies hunt down those who slaughter their parents and torment them to death. So the central play of the trilogy sets the stage for the conflict between the old and new gods in the final play.
The last play of the Oresteia centers on the trial of Orestes, which plays out as a power struggle between the ancient and incredibly powerful Furies, representatives of the bad old days of violence, and the new god Apollo who seeks to overturn the powers of the women. Between these two forces steps Athena, patron goddess of Athens, home of Aeschylus and his audience, and so a key admirable figure for them. Athena sets up a trial, in which both sides get to make their cases before the Athenian citizens making up the jury, and she enforces their decision at the end, which favors Orestes and Apollo. However, Athena—unlike Apollo—knows that the Furies are not simply to be spurned as outdated relics of an old system. Instead, she offers them a new position within a socio-cultural system based on the rule of law rather than on blood vengeance. Athena offers the Furies the chance to become protectors of Athens, and in exchange for their protection of the city and its crops and goods, the citizens would honor them and offer generous sacrifices. Thus the Furies transition into the Eumenidies: the Kindly Ones.
The play opens with the Pythia, Apollo’s priestess, making a prayer honoring several of the gods—Zeus, Poseidon, Dionysus, Athena, and especially Apollo. She goes into the place of prophecy and comes immediately out to relay the horrible scene in the temple. She tells the audience of a man whose hand drips with a blood abhorrent to the gods, but who is dressed in the white robes and olive branch of a suppliant, he is surrounded by terrible Gorgon headed women sleeping. She concludes that Apollo must purge his temple of these abominations, and as she leaves Apollo opens the doors to his temple and tells Orestes that he will not fail to fulfill his promise to the suppliant, and that he abhors the Furies who will drive Orestes across the land. Apollo sends Orestes to Athens, to the shrine of Athena to seek her protection and help in addition to that of Apollo, and Hermes guides Orestes off; Apollo also leaves. The Furies remain asleep, but the ghost of Clytaemnestra appears and tries to urge the Furies to awake and pursue Orestes. She complains of the desolation of her afterlife without honors or due reverence, and reminds the Furies both of her curse and of their ancient role as punishers of matricides. She yells at the deities until they begin to wake, at which point the ghost of Clytaemnestra vanishes and the leader of the chorus of Furies urges her followers awake. As individuals, the chorus laments the escape of Orestes, promising to continue their pursuit of the matricide in spite of Apollo, and even at the god’s peril. At this Apollo re-enters dressed for battle, with his golden bow and arrows and threatens the Furies if they don’t leave his temple. He tells them to go back to their hideous domain of death and gore. The leader of the Furies tells Apollo that he is responsible for the carnage Orestes wreaked upon his mother and her lover, explaining that Apollo had supported Orestes and after the crime welcomed him to the temple. Apollo asks why the Furies pursue matricides but did not condemn Clytaemnestra when she murdered her husband, and they explain that spousal murder does not violate blood ties and so does not offend their ancient laws as much, to which Apollo replies that such a murder offends Hera, queen of the gods and patron goddess of marriage. The Furies proclaim that they will never give up their hunt for Orestes, and Apollo says that they can pursue him to the shrine of Athena, where she will decide between the two parties. Next we see Orestes at the shrine asking for Athena’s protection. The Furies enter—in what was supposedly a terrifying scene—and hunt for Orestes, gradually closing in on him hugging the legs of Athena’s statue; the Furies make their case condemning matricide, and Orestes protests that his guilt has been purged by Apollo’s sacrificial ceremony. After Orestes calls again on Athena, the Furies begin a long chant/song about their role as revengers, their alignment with the night, and their domains of blood and violence. AT the end of this song, Athena appears dressed for battle and says that she has heard a suppliant and come from a village near Troy which has been dedicated to her by the victorious Hellenes. She asks who all these figures—Orestes and the Furies—are and why they surround her shrine. The leader of the Furies explains who they are and what their ancient role as enforcers of blood debts entails. Athena insists on hearing Orestes’ side of the story before coming to a conclusion about the justice of the whole affair, and the Furies agree to let her act as judge and to abide by her verdict. Athena then asks Orestes to explain himself and his desire there, and he clarifies that he does not need his guilt purged because Apollo has already done so, then he explains that his father was Agamemnon—whom Athena knew well from the Trojan War—and was disgracefully murdered by his wife and her lover, and so Orestes sought the aid of Apollo who blessed his quest for matricidal revenge. Athena declares that the matter is too important for her judgment, and so she declares that there will be a trial judged by Athenian citizens. Although the Furies agree to this trial, they are reluctant lest an acquittal for Orestes opens the door for mankind to commit all kinds of crimes that had once been subject to ancient punishments, and they fear for the decline of their power. Athena sets up the court with the jury, and as she is preparing Apollo appears to speak on behalf of Orestes. The Furies open the proceedings, and rather than making a speech (as was customary in Athenian court proceedings) they choose to question Orestes about the murder, to which he openly admits having killed his mother, but says that he was supported in his just actions by Apollo and the spirit of his father. Apollo agrees that Orestes had his blessing, and asserts that the Oracular blessing comes not only from Apollo himself, but also relates the will of Zeus, thereby suggesting that the king of the gods endorsed the murder. He describes how disgraceful it was for a man like Agamemnon to be murdered by stealth in his home by his wife, rather than to die gloriously on the battlefield. The Furies protest that it cannot be just for a son to spill his mother’s blood, even in revenge for a father because both parents raised the child; Apollo counters arguing that the woman is simply a receptacle for the baby which actually comes just from the man’s seed, and that Athena is proof that the male parent (in her case, Zeus) is all that is needed to produce a child. Athena asks if all the arguments have been made, and has the jury vote on guilt or innocence in the traditional Athenian way, by dropping a stone into one pot to signify guilt or the other pot to signify innocence. She praises the legal and democratic nature of this system as the voting proceeds. After her speech, both the Furies and Apollo threaten the jurists with their eternal displeasure if the vote goes against them. The votes are even, and Athena breaks the tie in favor of Orestes. Orestes declares his joy at being found innocent and explains that he intends to return home to rule in Argos, and that because of Athena’s verdict he will create a lasting alliance between Argos and Athens (though the alliance with Argos specifically was fairly recent, not necessarily dating to Greek antiquity). After Orestes and Apollo go, the Furies accuse Athena of rigging the vote to erode their power, and they promise to lay waste to Athens and the surrounding region. Athena assures them that they did not really lose and asks them to put aside their ancient fury in exchange for honors from the Athenians. The Furies repeat their lament and Athena again asks them to calm themselves, reminding them that she is the only deity other than Zeus allowed to wield his thunderbolts, but moving swiftly on to assure them of faithful sacrifices if they bless Athens. The Furies reassert that they have been disgraced, and Athena asks them to both share their wisdom with her—being older goddesses and having gained wisdom—and to be open to listening to her wisdom given by Zeus. She promises them a bountiful share of the harvest each year if they will support Athens. The Furies again bewail their shaming, and Athena again reassures them, reminding them that to destroy Athens would be unjust. She assures them that they will have a vast amount of power in the new system, and the Furies begin to warm to the idea. She tells the Furies to develop a new song, one of joy and harmonious support, rather than conquest, and the Furies sing this new song with Athena at their head. Athena and the Furies call down blessings on Athens—which must of course have been very popular when the play was performed in that city—before Athena’s women enter the stage with materials to make sacrifices to the Furies. The play ends with the women singing songs of praise to the (former) Furies, now the Eumenides—the Kindly Ones.