The story of The Furies in the play we read in class ends on a very interesting note that raises many questions I don’t really know how to answer. In the end, Orestes is acquitted of the charge of matricide when the vote of the Athenian mortals is split evenly and Athena’s deciding vote falls in his favor. Orestes swears the everlasting devotion of himself and his people to Athena and Apollo and his friendship to the people of Athens, and then exits the stage.
Remaining for the conclusion of the play and the final act in the drama is the goddess Athena and The Furies. Their exchange is strange to me. Athena is the patron goddess of Athens. She represents culture, wisdom, strategic warfare, and the arts. In a symbolic sense, Athena IS Athens. She is the embodied spirit of the city and it’s people and the ideals they (literally) deify.
So the goddess, the spirit of the city conceptualized and embodied, has sat as high arbiter of the dispute and has ruled in favor of Orestes. And yet The Furies demand for their right of vengeance is something she cannot deny and instead must appease. Just as Athena symbolically represents the ideals of wisdom and culture/civilization, The Furies are the embodied representations of hatred, pain, and vengeance. Rather than rebuking and banishing The Furies, the play ends with Athena acknowledging their right and appeasing them by giving them a position of high honor in the city.
The play is carried out by these larger than life, mythological symbolical figures. So what does it mean that the embodied spirit of wisdom, the embodied spirit of the city itself, decides to acknowledge the right of vengeance and exalt it and honor it within the city?
Vengeance is in the end thwarted at the hands of Wisdom, but is given a high and honored position within the city in order to secure peace. I believe this is the theory of the play; the supposition it is making about the nature of justice. The play believes that vengeance is real and powerful and cannot be denied. It must be respected and honored if peace is to be secured, but it must always be ruled over by wisdom, and cannot always be indulged if the proper conditions for redemption and mercy have been met, as they were by the sacrifices of Orestes.
One thought on “Symbols of Ideals”
I love that you led off your post by signaling interest in a question you had trouble answering – that’s the best kind of question for literary analysis, of course! I hope we can talk more in class about how and why the Furies’ vengeance is cast differently from the kind of vengeance involved in Orestes’ actions. One of the reasons this ending is so tricky is that Athena calls an end to a blood feud that could go on indefinitely, but she calls it at the expense of one side – so what makes it OK that the Furies have to sacrifice their version of retributive justice when Orestes/Apollo got to satisfy theirs?