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Justice in Easchylus' Oresteia

Updated on August 5, 2010

The trilogy Oresteia, written by the Greek play-writer Easchylus (525-456 BC), traces the contradictory origins of the concept of justice. The mythological tale on which the trilogy is based is relatively simple. At the end of the Trojan War, the commander in chief Agamemnon returns home, where he finds his unexpected death at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra. In observance of the law of the time, Orestes -- Agamemnon’s and Clytemnestra’s son -- vindicates his father’s death by killing the assassin, who unfortunately happens to be his mother.

Vase painting: Orestes is in the middle with a sword. The Furies are on the left side. Apollo is holding a pig hanging over Orestes as an act of purification.
Vase painting: Orestes is in the middle with a sword. The Furies are on the left side. Apollo is holding a pig hanging over Orestes as an act of purification.

A legal dilemma

This is where the facts of mythology end and Easchylus’ dramatic genius begins.

Orestes committed a grave injustice in the murder of his mother. The Furies -- the inflexible Goddesses of vengeance who seek justice for Clytemnestra -- now claim his life as a compensation for his mother’s murder. But could Orestes have refrained from killing his mother? Paradoxically, he could have not. Archaic laws mandated that, since Clytemnestra took away the life of Orestes’ father, Orestes himself had the duty to vindicate his father. It was his duty to kill his own mother.

A legal dilemma surfaces here. Murdering one’s own mother is an unacceptable crime for which the Furies seek vengeance and claim Orestes’ life. Yet, had Orestes not killed his mother, he would still have been punishable for not vindicating his father.

Athena and her shield.
Athena and her shield.

Athena's solution: a popular jury

The Furies inexorably chase Orestes and claim his life. There seems to be little room for Orestes’ salvation, but finally, he finds refuge in Athens under the protection of the Goddess Athena. After acknowledging the legal dilemma of which Orestes is victim, Athena decides to institute a trial to resolve the controversy. Both Orestes and the Furies bring arguments in their favor. At last, a popular jury of eleven Athenians gives the verdict. Five jurors vote for Orestes’ acquittal and six for his conviction. In casting the last vote, Athena sides with Orestes, who is ultimately acquitted.

The Furies rebel and threaten Athena with new deaths and destruction. Athena, however, succeeds in persuading them to turn from inflexible Goddesses of vengeance into Goddesses of harmony and Justice. The Furies change name and turn into Eumenides (the “kindly ones”).

Justice: from vengeance to conciliation

In the Oresteia, the notion of justice undergoes a significant transformation. Initially, it is mainly synonymous with vengeance and the Furies are the embodiment of that conception. But this view of justice leads to unsolvable legal dilemmas, such as the one Orestes is trapped in. When Athena comes into play, justice becomes the result of a public trial and of rational discourse in front of a popular jury. No more a matter of inflexible and inexorable vengeance, justice turns into a conciliatory affair, driven by rational arguments and the public participation of jurors. 


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    • Evan Hutchinson profile image

      Evan Hutchinson 7 years ago from The Dirty South

      That's good info. It makes me wanna read it.