The Eumenides is the last surviving play in Aeschylus’ Orestia. In Agamemnon, Agamemnon, King of Argos, who returns victorious from the conquest of Troy, is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra. In the second play, The Libation Bearers, their son, Orestes, at the instigation of Apollo, exacts retribution for his father’s death by killing Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. In the third play, Eumenides, Orestes is hounded by Furies, ancient gods who avenge matricide. Orestes seeks help from Apollo, who is unable to deter the Furies, but assists Orestes in getting to Athens, where he throws himself on the mercy of Athena. Athena determines the matter is of sufficient gravity to warrant a trial. The Furies go along with her course of action even though they maintain nothing short of revenge on their terms will suffice. And they argue that effective deterrence is necessary for the social order to function.
From the Richmond Lattimore translation:
There are times when fear is good.
It must keep its watchful place
at the heart’s controls. There is
in wisdom won from pain.
Should the city, should the man
rear a heart that nowhere goes
in fear, how shall such a one
any more respect the right?
Refuse the life of anarchy;
refuse the life devoted to
The in-between has the power
by God’s grant always, though
his ordinances vary.
I will speak in defense
of reason: for the very child
of vanity is violence;
but out of health
in the heart issues the beloved
and longed-for, prosperity….
The man who does right, free-willed, without constraint
Shall not lose happiness
nor be wiped out with all his generation.
But the transgressor, I tell you, the bold man
who brings in confusion of goods unrightly won
at long last and perforce, when ship toils
under tempest must strike his sail
in the wreck of his rigging
He calls on those who hear not, caught inside
the hard wrestle of water.
The spirit laughs at the hot hearted man,
the man who said “never to me,” watches him
pinned in distress, unable to run free of the crests.
He had good luck in his life. Now
he smashes it on the reef of Right
and drowns, unwept and forgotten.
The jury issues a split verdict, and Athena casts the deciding vote in favor of Orestes, in part because she was persuaded by Apollo’s argument that women are mere vehicles for the seed of the father, and in part to affirm the principle of mercy. The Furies threaten to ravage the land, but after considerable persuasion by Athena and a bit of a bribe, they relent.
So the Furies, the representatives of an old, unforgiving order, were willing in the end to yield. That attitude seems to be less and less in evidence in our supposedly far more advanced civilization.