Early in the Eumenides, however, Apollo does harbor Orestes at Delphi and arrives to support him in Athens. Of Apollo’s intentions there is no more doubt. Nevertheless, an unanticipated problem emerges regarding his effectiveness. Apollo may be said to save Orestes only indirectly—that is, by taking him to Athens where other agents perform the task Apollo himself cannot fulfill alone. Moreover, after Orestes is acquitted there is still more to be done to resolve the general problems of which Orestes’s plight had been a specific instance. Apollo plays no part in that final resolution; he presumably withdraws with Orestes. (But the stage direction to that effect in some editions in conjectural—Apollo simply disappears from the play.)
By dramatizing the reason for these limitations, the Eumenides creates a contrast that illuminates the agent who eventually does what Apollo cannot. The key is his attitude toward the Furies. He cannot speak to them without reviling them. When they claim they have rights as gods and a proper function to perform, he can only sneer. His only wish and command regarding them is that they be gone. The point is not that Apollo as a character is irascible. However anthropomorphic he may be, he is not a person, he is a god—and as such he is the representative of a specific complex of principles in the universe. He has to react to the Furies as he does because he is Apollo. The Greeks conceived of him as fostering the higher development of civilization, sponsoring codes of law, inculcating high moral principles, and favoring philosophy. The play itself clearly associates him with social order, civil law, and rational intellect. And all of these the Eumenides undoubtedly represents as good things. Good, and necessary. But, more startlingly, especially to the component of the original or any audience dedicated to progress through rational reform, the play’s vision of Apollo also represents these good things as not in themselves altogether sufficient, even for their own perpetuation.
That this is so, and why, is evident in the clash between two arguments: the one the Furies give as to why Orestes’s crime is greater than Clytemnestra’s, and the one Apollo gives as to why Clytemnestra’s crime is greater than Orestes’s. When asked why they pursue Orestes for killing his mother but did not pursue her for killing her husband, his father, the Furies reply, “She had not the same blood as the man she killed.” This is a true statement, but not an acceptable argument, at least to half the audience, and least of all to Apollo in his capacity as embodiment of the principle of social order. It is unacceptable to Apollo in this specific instance because Agamemnon was king. But it is equally incompatible with the principles Apollo represents as a general argument. Because even if Agamemnon had been a private citizen, it would have been his role to maintain order in his family so that its internal relationships reflected and contributed to the larger order of society—which Agamemnon may have been resolved to do on his return, whatever his own past transgressions against the family may have been.
Moreover, the Furies’s disregard for the nonsanguinary bond that does exist between husband and wife is unacceptable to Apollo for another reason: it is because that bond is one of contract, of agreement rather than blood relationship, that marriage is a social institution, reciprocally sustaining of and sustained by the social order. Marriage is the most fundamental of those various voluntary commitments out of which society is made.
Against the Furies, the play juxtaposes Apollo’s argument as to why Orestes’s crime is not so great. He advances it with notable complacency:
This too I will tell you; mark the truth of what I say!
She who is called the child’s mother is not
its begetter, but the nurse of the newly sown conception.
The begetter is the male, and she as a stranger for a stranger
preserves the offspring, if no god blights its birth.
Even, however, if some audience members may have considered this physiologically accurate, the trilogy has already made it irrelevant. Even if the mother’s blood is not involved in conception, it nourishes the fetus in the womb, as does her milk post-partum. The viper image in the Libation Bearers derived its horrifying power from the perverse conjunction of the animal fang that draws blood and the human mouth that draws milk. Whether the natural fluid that gives the son life is blood or milk or both makes no difference. Orestes as viper becomes hideous as his blow spills the life of that being from whom he had drawn his own life.
Moreover, it is from that point that he becomes hideous to himself. For when it is perceived, at the end of the Libation Bearers, that Orestes has become entangled in the net of guilt, it is he who insists that it be recognized. Orestes reintroduces the drapery that Clytemnestra had exhibited at the end of the Agamemnon. But in the son’s case there is this difference: the net motif has been sustained by tangles of fabric in Artemis’s and Clytemnestra’s symbolic productions. But they have used them to make manifest the guilt of someone else. Orestes does that also. He calls for the robes in which his father was killed to be displayed as evidence of his mother’s guilt and thus his own exoneration. But it is also he who orders that the net be spread out around himself. And as it is extended, the lines converge upon him at the center, pointing to his own entanglement in the skein of evil. Ironically, his own symbolic pageantry implicates him rather than exonerating him.
If this demonstration is unconscious on Orestes’s part, that in itself is significant. For it is out of his deeper consciousness that the Furies now emerge. When they appear to him immediately following his encirclement by the net, they arise out of his mind. They can be seen by no one else, on stage or in the audience. Orestes’s reliance upon Apollonian rationality in reconciling himself to his act has proved insufficient. Part of his own nature has rebelled against it. Elsewhere in the trilogy, the Furies have represented a force in nature, the cosmos, human society, and tradition; now they also represent something in the self. No previous murderer in the Oresteia has experienced guilt to this degree. And the reason, as the scene implies, is that no previous crime has been so terrible. Matricide is a crime against nature which cannot be borne because it violates the most fundamental of natural bonds.
Here then is the trilogy’s answer to Apollo’s glib assertion that the mother does not count. The audience, which has so shortly before experienced the conclusion of the Libation Bearers, can hardly fail to see this: Apollo’s argument does not take into account fundamental human instinct—something which, since he is a manifestation of rationality itself, he cannot comprehend. The trilogy is working to generate in the audience a more comprehensive consciousness, sufficient to criticize both Apollo’s argument and the restricted mentality that can produce or accept it. So far neither the Furies nor Apollo has the answer. Each sees part of the truth but neither can see the whole, due to what at this point seem to be the inherent limits of both their natures.
Apollo’s assertion regarding the autonomy of the male in procreation may also be seen as undercut within the Eumenides itself. The only attempt he makes to provide evidence for his position is by pointing to the visible Athena:
and I shall offer you a proof of what I say.
There can be a father without a mother; near at hand
is the witness, the child of Olympian Zeus . . .
>and she was not nurtured in the darkness of the womb,
but is such an offspring as no goddess might bear.
It is necessary to observe that Athena never unambiguously opposes this or Apollo’s other statements regarding her male-oriented Olympian nature. On the contrary, in her own words she seems repeatedly to concur. For example, at the time of casting her lot in favor of Orestes’s acquittal, Athena explains her act this way:
For there is no mother who bore me;
and I approve the male in all things, short of accepting marriage,
with all my heart, and I belong altogether to my father.
Therefore I shall not give greater weight to the death of a woman,
one who slew her husband, the watcher of the house.
Here Athena does verbally confirm Apollo’s claim that she was “not nurtured in the darkness of the womb.” And this statement by Athena is one of those that Jane Harrison is deploring when she laments on behalf of women that “we cannot love a goddess who on principle forgets the earth from which she sprang . . . always from the lips of the Lost Leader we hear the shameful denial.” No one should casually dismiss any opinion from a scholar whose contributions have been as valuable as those of Professor Harrison, the distinguished classical anthropologist and historian of Greek religion. But it seems possible to suggest that a fuller response to Athena’s lines is to recognize them as generating the questions—for men or women—of can we, how can we, should we, why should we, love such a goddess?
The denial in question is Athena’s omission of a response to Apollo’s description of her birth that would give the full story: Zeus overpowered the Titaness, Métis. She conceived a daughter and Earth prophesied that if she conceived again she would produce a son who would depose his father. So Zeus swallowed Métis and was seized by a headache. Haephestus split his skull, and Athena emerged full grown. As Fagles and Stanford observe, “the myth may demonstrate the fatherhood of Zeus but it hardly excludes the motherhood of Métis, even her irrepressible vitality in the face of the Father’s typical violence.” Apollo’s partial version need not be presumed to indicate that anyone else has forgotten or is repressing the full story. The myth was a cultural property, familiar from Hesiod and otherwise, so Apollo’s distortion by omission here may be providing the audience with further evidence of the limits of his mentality.
In any case, Athena’s nature must be comprehended through her behavior as well as her utterances and her silences—her behavior toward the Furies first of all. They have initially agreed to her arbitration because, as they say, “we reverence you as worthy and of worthy parentage”—a line which Kitto renders as “We pay you honor worthy of the honor you have paid us” and Fagles translates “We respect you. You show us respect.” What is significant here is not only that Athena is conciliatory to the Furies but that she can be, as Apollo cannot. If his inability is an attribute of his limited nature, her ability is a manifestation of a more comprehensive one. In terms of ability to balance the claims of instinct and reason, one may term this wisdom (which was associated with Athena’s mother Métis). In terms of participation in both the male and female principles by which those poles of consciousness are represented here, one may call it androgyny.