Friday, May 01, 2020

The path of good speech

Near the final lines of Eumenides, Athena asks 


Do they not then intend to find
the path of good speech?
From these terrible faces
I see great profit for these citizens;

The goddesss has pretty much sealed the deal with the Erinyes. Right after this speech, the priestess and various attendants enter, bringing sacrificial animals, torches, purple robes and young temple servants. The chorus of Furies sings χαίρετε χαίρετ᾽ -- "Rejoice rejoice" together with a sense of "Farewell" -- as they are about to take the path to their new house in a deep, large cavern nearby.

Our group started the Agamemnon in September 2018, and we read the last lines of Eumenides Wednesday. I would happily echo the Furies' χαίρετε χαίρετ᾽ even as I admit that the scope of Aeschylus' achievement warrants an instant return to Ag. line 1. Even for our intrepid group that would be a bit of a challenge.

Short of that, however, any effort on my part to write about the Oresteia probably won't amount to much. Instead of a "close reading" of this mountainous work, I'll address one question that might prove useful as a point of entry -- simply this: The last "act" of Eumenides -- from the moment an acquitted Orestes leaves the courtroom until the entire cast dances off the stage -- consists of a single act of persuasion. Nearly a quarter of the play's length, it has the Furies turn away from their ancient ways to be welcomed into the heart of Athens.

Everything Athena (along with Apollo, Hermes, the Pythia) has done to put in place a civic judicial form is only effected if these ancient hags can accept Athena's deal. Yet the scene often receives relatively short shrift, with more attention given to the courtroom scene that precedes it.

Mainly Athena and the Furies square off after the humans and other gods have left. The Erinyes remain Furious that their age-old mission to torment the killer of a blood relative, in this case a matricide, has been aborted. Without some coming to terms, the stability of Dike, the judicial mechanism of a juried trial established by the Goddess, is unstable.

This in itself is noteworthy. The new Court of the Areopagus is not a fait accompli, the result of irresistible divine power. Its very possibility depends upon a coming to terms with the Furies.

How do you win over a creature of Night that only knows how to inflict vengeful pursuit, rampant plague and infinite pain? How do you convince it to "find the path to good speech?" And in these elemental hideous faces, associated with cruel butchery and torture as Apollo had described with vehement disgust, what prompts Athena to "see great profit for these citizens?"

I'll try to make some headway in a couple of upcoming posts.

Birth of Athena

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