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Eumenides – Resolution of Conflict in Aeschylus’ Oresteia

The Resolution of Conflict in Aeschylus’ Oresteia

Aeschylus, was a master dramatist – he liked to portray conflict between persons, human or divine, or between principles.1 His trilogy of plays, the Oresteia, develops many conflicts that must be resolved during the action of the Eumenides, the concluding play of the trilogy. The central theme of the Oresteia is justice (dike) and in dealing with questions of justice, Aeschylus at every stage involves the gods.2 The Oresteia’s climactic conflict in the Eumenides revolves around justice and the gods – opposing conceptions of justice and conflicting classes of gods. This essay will describe and discuss these conflicts and, more importantly, the manner in which they are resolved so that the play, and indeed the entire trilogy, might reach a satisfactory conclusion.

The conception of justice associated with the Erinyes is that of the ancient lex talionis – the law of retaliation akin to the biblical ‘an eye for an eye’. They are primitive female deities, born of Earth. Their chief function is to hound anyone who murders a blood relative and to seek vengeance for that crime by visiting violent death upon its perpetrator. The Olympian deities are champions of the justice of Zeus, their master. The justice of Zeus is more progressive and discriminating than the lex talionis – it never sees the innocent punished.3 In the Eumenides, Apollo is representative of the newer and younger Olympian deities and he speaks on Orestes behalf at the trial. The trial of Orestes takes place when the fate of Orestes cannot be decided by the conflicting powers. Orestes is guilty of murdering his mother, Clytemnestra; hence the Erinyes are baying for his blood as a just and rightful penalty. …

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…RAM, R. P. (1983). Studies in Aeschylus. Cambridge


1. Lloyd-Jones (1971), 89.

2. Sommerstein (1989), 19.

3. Cohen (1986), 46.

4. Aeschylus, Eumenides 626-628.

5. Sommerstein (1989), 21.

6. See Winnington-Ingram (1983), 125 on the controversial, but not very consequential, question of whether Athena casts a vote or merely lays down the principle of acquittal if the votes are equally divided.

7. Winnington-Ingram (1983), 167. Rejected by Lloyd-Jones (1971), 94.

8. Cohen (1986), 46.

9. Winnington-Ingram (1983), 128.

10. Winnington-Ingram (1983), 128 based on THOMSON, G. (1946). Aeschylus and Athens. London, 288.

11. Aeschylus, Eumenides 750-752.

12. See Aeschylus, Agamemnon 61-65.

13. Sommerstein (1989), 23-24.

14. Aeschylus, Eumenides 514-517.

15. Aeschylus, Eumenides 991-996.

Progression from Evil to Good in Oresteia

Progression from Evil to Good in Oresteia

Aeschylus’ use of darkness and light as a consistent image in the Oresteia depicts a progression from evil to good, disorder to order. In the Oresteia, there exists a situation among mortals that has gotten out of control; a cycle of death has arisen in the house of Atreus. There also exists a divine disorder within the story which, as the situation of the mortals, must be brought to resolution: the Furies, an older generation of gods, are in conflict with the younger Olympian gods because they have been refused their ancient right to avenge murders between members of the same family. The Oresteia presents two parallel conflicts, both of which must be resolved if harmony is ever to be desired again. As one can expect, these conflicts eventually do find their resolutions, and the images of darkness and light accompany this progression, thereby emphasizing the movement from evil to good.

The use of darkness imagery first emerges in the Agamemnon. In this first play of the trilogy, the cycle of death which began with the murder and consumption of Thyestes’ children continues with Clytaemestra’s murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra. The darkness which is present in the beginning of the story is further magnified by the death of Agamemnon. This is illustrated when Clytaemestra says, “Thus he [Agamemnon] went down, and the life struggled out of him; and as he died he spattered me with the dark red and violent driven rain of bitter savored blood” (lines 1388-1390). Clytaemestra has evilly and maliciously murdered her own husband; thus the image of the dark blood. The darkness is representative of the evil which has permeated the house of Atreus, and which has persisted with this latest…

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…ing themselves the Eumenides, or Benevolent Ones, these gods have progressed from symbols of evil darkness into symbols of bright goodness.

In his trilogy the Oresteia, Aeschylus’ use of darkness and light imagery coincides with his progression of themes. Orestes, who represents light, brings and end to the vicious cycle of dark death continued by Clytaemestra. He illuminates the dark evil in the house of Atreus. Likewise, Athene and Apollo bring the Furies out of their dark, blood-lusting ways and into an order of justice and reason, transforming them into the brightly clad Benevolent Ones. In the end, goodness prevails over evil just as light conquers darkness. Aeschylus effectively makes use of his images to emphasize this movement.

Works Cited:

Aeschylus. “The Oresteia.” Aeschylus: The Oresteia. Tran. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

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