The Chorus of Furies sing and dance their anger and grief against the “younger gods” who have trampled on “the ancient laws” (778) and dishonored the Furies themselves. They threaten to blast the land with diseases that will kill crops and children. They see themselves as mocked and bemoan their fate. Athena speaks, begging them not to take it that way—they have not been defeated, because the votes were equal. And Zeus and Apollo took responsibility, so that it was reasonable for Orestes to be spared. She tells them not to blight the land. She promises them an honorable place there and reverence from her citizens.
The Chorus repeat exactly their first song of wrath and grief, and Athena speaks again, assuring them that they are not dishonored and that they should not blight the land.
I, for my part, have trust in Zeus, and—why need I speak of it?—
I alone among the gods know the keys of the house
wherein is sealed the lightning.
But there is no need of it; let me persuade you.
She urges them to “lull to repose the bitter force of your black wave of anger” (832). You will be honored here, she says: whenever marriages are celebrated and children are born, you will receive sacrifice in my city.
The Chorus of Furies again dance and sing their grief and rage, that they, possessors of ancient wisdom, should be dishonored. They cry out in their pain, and call on their mother, Night, claiming that the cunning gods have taken away their ancient honors and made them count for nothing.
Athena says she will be patient, since they are older and in that way wiser. But Zeus has given her some wisdom too, and she warns them that if they leave Athens, they will long for it, for with time it will become more glorious, and they will receive more here than any other city could give them. Don’t madden my young men with the spirit of civil war, she begs them; there will be plenty of opportunity to satisfy the passion for glory in foreign wars. This is the choice she offers them: remain in Athens and they can do good and receive good and be honored.
Seeming not to have heard, the Chorus repeat exactly their second song of wrath and grief.
I shall not weary of telling you of the good things I offer,
that you may never say that by me, who am younger,
and by the mortals who hold this city, you, an ancient goddess,
were driven off dishonored, an exile from this land.
No! If you revere Persuasion’s majesty,
the power to charm and soothe that sits upon my tongue,
then you should remain! (881-87)
She continues, And if you don’t want to stay, still you can’t in justice hurt the city, since you can have eternal honor here if you choose.
Finally the Chorus Leader speaks, asking exactly what it is that Athena is offering. She explains that no house will be able to prosper unless it pays them reverence, and she promises that this power of theirs will last forever. The Leader feels her anger calming, and finally asks what blessings Athena wants the Furies to bestow.
Such blessings as may gain no evil victory:
And these shall come from the earth and from the waters of the sea,
and from the sky, and the blasts of the wind
shall pass over the land with sun-warmed breezes:
and the increase of the earth and of the herds, teeming with plenty,
shall not cease as time passes to prosper for the citizens;
and so also shall the seed of mortals be preserved. (903-9)
And she asks them to make the righteous prosper more, whom she also especially favors. These blessings they can give; she herself will give the city glory and victory in battle.
The Chorus sing and dance their acceptance and their blessings. They will bring no dishonor on this city dear to the gods. They pray for what they have to give—the blessing of fertility. Athena chants her own accomplishment in bringing these powerful deities to settle in Athens. The man with whom they are angry doesn’t know why he is suffering, but they are paying him for old crimes and will destroy him.
Again the Chorus sing, praying for what they have to give: safety from destructive wind, heat, and pestilence for trees and crops, rich flocks, rich mines to honor the gods with. Athena addresses her chant to the judges, asking them if they hear what the Furies have to offer. They have great power; they bring joy to some and misery to others.
The Chorus sing that they forbid the early death of young men, and they pray that young women may find husbands, appealing to their sisters (also daughters of Night) the Fates, who assign the fates of all. Athena chants her joy at the blessings they are giving Athens; she loves Persuasion for having guided her when they refused at first; Zeus who presides over peaceful assemblies conquered, and now instead of strife there will be rivalry in doing good forever. Here is the literal translation:
I cherish Persuasion’s eye,
for having guided my tongue and lips
when I met their fierce refusal.
But Zeus of the assembly prevailed’
and victory attends our rivalry
in good things forever! (970-975)
The Chorus sing their prayer that the evil of civil strife may stay away from Athens, and all the horrors of civil war, when murder is avenged by murder. May the people love the common good and give joy to each other, joining in common hatred of the city’s enemies. This cures many human ills. Athena chants her praise for these who see so well; in their dread faces she sees great good for her citizens. If you are kind to these kindly ones and always honor them, she tells her citizens, you will follow justice and make the city great.
Saying farewell, the Chorus bid the people of Athens rejoice, dear as they are to Zeus and Athena, and ever growing in wisdom. Athena echoes their farewell, bidding them rejoice, then chants that she will go ahead of them to show the caverns where they will dwell by the light of the torches of their escort. (The escort consists of a group of women of all ages who carry crimson robes, and perhaps the judges form part of it too.) She adjures them to keep under the earth whatever is harmful, and to send up all that can help the city. She urges the escort to lead the way. Once more the Chorus bid both gods and mortals in the city farewell.
Athena thanks them for their blessings, and says that she, along with those who guard her image, will escort them by torchlight to their place under the earth. Speaking to the women of the escort, she tells them to clothe the Furies with crimson robes. Then the escort, moving in procession with the Furies behind Athena, sing the brief final choral ode:
Home, home, o high, o aspiring
Daughters of Night, aged children, in blithe processional.
bless them, all here, with silence
In the primeval dark of earth-hollows
held in high veneration with rights sacrificial
bless them, all people, with silence.
Gracious be, wish what the land wishes,
follow, grave goddesses, flushed in the flamesprung
torchlight gay on your journey.
Singing all follow our footsteps.
There shall be peace forever between these people
of Pallas and their guests. Zeus the all seeing
met with Destiny to confirm it.
Singing all follow our footsteps.
(1033-47; the translation is by Richmond Lattimore, from his translation of the Oresteia, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1953.)
Orestes is free, the horror of blood-for-blood vengeance has given place (at least within the city of Athens) to a new institution for deciding cases of homicide, Athens has a new ally in Argos, and a new age has begun. Why can’t the play end before this last scene?
One answer to that question is that we have yet to see the power of that goddess who makes civilized life possible, when her power replaces that of violence—the goddess Persuasion. Any force that plays a crucial role in human life could be thought of as divine in the ancient world, and what is more crucial than the patient persuasion that converts enemies into friends and makes it possible for a city to be unified and to prosper? When change comes in a city’s institutions, and some threaten to resist it with violence, the best hope for reconciliation lies in persuasion. That was true of Athens in Aeschylus’ day, and by celebrating the persuasion of the Furies, Aeschylus points to the hope he has for Athens in his own day. No wonder he has Athena express such gratitude to Persuasion and to Zeus as presider over assemblies (where the great speakers like Pericles could exercise persuasion).
Another deeper answer to that question may play the largest role in making the Oresteia a play with universal meaning, however alien some aspects of it may seem to a modern audience. Again, this is the perspective of depth psychology.
The Furies cannot simply be dismissed in disgrace, as we move into a new “enlightened” age that is above the barbarism they represent. They embody something real in the human psyche, something real in the universe. It is something we do not want to be taken over by: we do not want to become Furies, as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra did. Yet it is something we must honor. It is only because Athena honors the Furies that a trial is able to happen at all. But that is not enough. The Furies must be completely accepted, at the deepest level, and then and only then can the energy they embody be available to be used for creation rather than destruction. Apollo wanted the Furies to stay underground in the darkness, far away from the light and order of the world ruled by the Olympian gods—to use the language of psychology, he wanted them thoroughly repressed. Athena has the Furies enthroned underground, escorted there by a torchlight procession that brings light into the darkness. To put it another way, Athena herself combines male and female characteristics, and in honoring the Furies she can be seen as honoring the dark side of the feminine.
The great final celebratory procession seems to have been designed to remind Athenians of the great Panathenaia, the oldest and most important festival in Athens, a procession held every year to celebrate the birth of Athena and her gifts to Athens. The transformation of the Furies to the Eumenides is symbolized by clothing them in crimson cloaks; during the Panathenaia, the resident aliens in Athens, “guest workers” allowed to stay in the city because of the strengths they contributed, were clothed in crimson. Certainly the procession that ends the play was dear to the Athenian people; when, at the end of the fifth century, Aristophanes, in his comic masterpiece The Frogs, portrays Aeschylus escorted up from the underworld to save Athens, the procession is reminiscent of this one. Athens fell to Sparta a year later; this great Greek tragedy survives, to remind us what it takes for a tragedy to have a joyful ending.