Thursday, May 07, 2020

Precarious Odyssey: Apollo vs. Athena in the Oresteia

The approach Athena takes toward the Furies (Erinyes) in Eumenides stands in sharp contrast to Apollo's reaction.

Encountering the Furies, Apollo is infuriated. He'd cast them out of the Universe if that were possible -- threatening them with discovering themselves "on the receiving end of a winged flashing snake" (180). His capacity for cruelty, detailed by Cassandra in Agamemnon -- is here seen in action. Speaking to the Furies he says,
. . . your place is where the punishments are beheading, gouging out of eyes, cutting of throats, and where young men's virility is ruined by destruction of seed; where there is mutilation and stoning, and where those who are impaled beneath their spine moan long and piteously. [190] Do you hear what sort of feast is your delight? You are detested by the gods for it. The whole fashion of your form sets it forth. Creatures like you should live in the den of a blood-drinking lion, and not inflict pollution on all near you in this oracular shrine. [195] Be gone, you goats without a herdsman! No god loves such a flock. 

Here is Athena's first encounter with the daughters of Night:
πώλοις ἀκμαίοις τόνδ᾽ ἐπιζεύξασ᾽ ὄχον 
καινὴν δ᾽ ὁρῶσα τήνδ᾽ ὁμιλίαν χθονὸς 
ταρβῶ μὲν οὐδένθαῦμα δ᾽ ὄμμασιν πάρα. 
τίνες ποτ᾽ ἐστέπᾶσι δ᾽ ἐς κοινὸν λέγω: 
βρέτας τε τοὐμὸν τῷδ᾽ ἐφημένῳ ξένῳ,410 
ὑμᾶς θ᾽ ὁμοίας οὐδενὶ σπαρτῶν γένει, 
οὔτ᾽ ἐν θεαῖσι πρὸς θεῶν ὁρωμένας 
οὔτ᾽ οὖν βροτείοις ἐμφερεῖς μορφώμασιν. 
λέγειν δ᾽ ἄμομφον ὄντα τοὺς πέλας κακῶς 
πρόσω δικαίων ἠδ᾽ ἀποστατεῖ θέμις.
As I see this strange company of visitors to my land, I am not afraid, but it is a wonder to my eyes. Who in the world are you? I address you all in common—this stranger sitting at my image, and you, who are like no race of creatures ever born, [410] neither seen by gods among goddesses nor resembling mortal forms. But it is far from just to speak ill of one's neighbor who is blameless, and Right (θέμις) stands aloof.
Her first sense is of wonder (θαῦμα) -- something new, other, is here - the effect of that otherness preempts aesthetic disgust or moral revulsion.

Orestes purified by Apollo 360 BC
To be sure, Apollo saved and helped purify Orestes so that he could "stand trial." But with the Furies he lacks all patience. For Athena on the other hand, what's afoot is too important to simply cut bait. As she looks into the dark faces of these unknown and possibly irrational creatures, the very possibility of Democracy is at stake.

Consider the courtroom scene, in which the trial of Orestes seems designed to make us think about the challenges inherent in the process of arriving at good judgments.

For the trial, Apollo puts into play a model of the judicial process; Athena gathers the audience of jurors -- the best men of the city.

Apollo scripts the scene. At once he's
  • the self-admitted mover behind the killing of Clytemnestra, 
  • the attorney for Clytemnestra's killer, and 
  • the self-appointed expert witness testifying to the mother's role in human conception.  
Yet despite his Peter Sellers-like versatility and self-assured presentational skills, neither Apollo's words -- which he claims come (unedited and unredacted) from Zeus -- nor his clever technical arguments count for much. The jurors are evenly divided; only Athena's arbitrary rule regarding tie votes saves Orestes from a guilty verdict.

Athena takes a completely different tack.

To assure the possibility of Dike in the all-too-human realm of the polis, she knows she has to go deeper -- beneath the creature called "human" to the unreflective stimuli working on that creature from below. Her dialog with the Furies pits her wits against the blood instincts of feral creatures of the hunt.

She's aware that the efficacy of the judicial process -- with its panoply of trained experts, articulate lawyers, esteemed authorities, diligent scientists and unimpeachable witnesses -- can be hobbled to the point of uselessness by the untutored emotions, peeves, shoulder chips, biases and all random progeny of ignorance that possess crowds and drive multifarious families to extreme ends.

The rational process of Dike that Apollo and Athena provide has no surefire method to parry the forces of unreason. Yet the journey of the Oresteia is about the precarity of a navigation from the sovereign oikos bound by human blood to another, much larger order: that of the polis whose very existence depends on its ability to administer divine justice

Hence the need for persuasive power, theatrical charm, negotiating chops, strategic sleight of hand, prudent foresight, and perhaps above all, good-humor and patience. It's clear that the Furies rise from somewhere that is neither the oikos nor the polis. They don't share the same language, frame of reference, or ability to reflect that humans share - somewhat - with gods.

To achieve the end of shoring up a precarious order which the gods are in this kairotic moment seeking to entrust to human reason, Athena has to come to terms with unreason.

This seems a place to pause for a bit.

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