Athena, Athens, the Areopagus, and the Furies

Centuries ago, when the magnificent Parthenon of the Athenian Acropolis was new-built, the temples gaily painted, sacrificial offerings burning and the savory smoke drifting from their halls, their proud columns all echoing high glory undimmed by long passage of impartial time: on a sweet-scented night, the dark cast back by dancing fires’ light, the citizens parade through their city, to its high hill. In celebration of their Panathenaia, they bear offerings – animals for the feast, water and honey, and a new ceremonial cloth – to the Goddess, merciful daughter of Zeus who saved their city, and for whom it is named. All this is to honor Athena. Yet, Pallas is not the single object of honor: her city is honored also, and the people thereof; it is not Athena alone who is glorified in this festival, but rather Athena-in-Athens – the Goddess through her work in her polis. Both the conclusion of Aeschylus’ Oresteia and the grandeur of the Parthenon serve to glorify this Athena-in-Athens; yet the shadows cast by both betray the darkness of each one’s origins, a shadow which lived on in Athenian hearts and could never be cast out. The city may be criticized on account of this; but more important is the realization that the Furies were not subdued after all.

It cannot be argued that the glory and honor rendered to the Goddess’ city by both works is great. In the Oresteia, after the first two bloody plays, the third is itself a grand paean to the greatness of Athena, and her Athens. (She even calls it thus, “my city,” in Eumenides ll. 490.) She gives legitimacy to the Areopagus, great court of the polis, and the authority to decide what is just in cases of murder:

“Too large a matter, some may think, for mortal men to judge. But by all rights not even I should decide a case of murder – murder whets the passions. … But since the matter comes to rest on us, I will appoint the judges of manslaughter, swear them in, and found a tribunal here for all time to come. My contestants, summon your trusted witnesses and proofs, your defenders under oath to help your cause. And I will pick the finest men of Athens, return and decide the issue fairly, truly – bound to our oaths, our spirits bent on justice.” (Eumenides ll. 484 – 505)

It is only in this court, established and given power directly from the divine, that Orestes’ case can be settled, and the cycle of blood running rampant, destroying the house of Atreus can be stopped. “O Pallas Athena – you, you save my house,” the acquitted Orestes exclaims. “I was shorn of the fatherland but you reclaim it for me. Now any Greek will say, ‘He lives again, the man of Argos lives on his fathers’ great estates. Thanks to Pallas, Apollo and Zeus, the lord of all fulfillment, Third, Saving Zeus.'” (Eumenides ll. 768 – 774) Most importantly, it is only by Athena that the vengeful Furies’ wrath can be assuaged, and only the Goddess’ city that they can be persuaded to defend. Forgetting their former rage, they cry:

“I will embrace one home with you, Athena, never fail the city you and Zeus almighty, you and Ares hold as fortress of the gods, the shield of the high Greek altars, glory of the powers. Spirit of Athens, hear my words, my prayer like a prophet’s warm and kind, that the rare good things of life come rising crest on crest, sprung from the rich black earth and gleaming with the bursting flash of sun.” (Eumenides ll. 927 – 938)

Likewise is the Parthenon – the high Greek altar – testament to Athens’ greatness. The sheer magnitude of the construction, its very mass, raises high Pallas’ name; higher even than the towering, gilded idol of Athena Parthenos. The grandeur of Athens as a state is implied as well, the whole construction having been funded by the polis. The Panathenaia, also, coming to its conclusion in this, the holiest precinct of the city, celebrates Athena-in-Athens more explicitly than anything else. The citizens’ unity and preeminence are everywhere to the fore. Upon the Parthenon itself, the frieze seems to depict the glorious occasion of Athena’s favor of her city, given victory over invaders in the time of Erechtheus. The whole creation is triumph of geometry over rock: civilization provided by Athena-in-Athens over the relative barbarism of foreigners, even other Greeks.

Yet, though both the majestic temple and the sweeping tragedy sing the praises of Athens, their song can be deceptive. Woven in the lyric of the Parthenon’s hymn, though softly spoken, is the story of the dark deeds done for the Goddess’ favor in myth, and of the less-than-flattering truth of the building’s origin. For all its splendor, the Parthenon was paid for with others’ money: tribute demanded by imperial Athens of her Delian League. Thus the jewel of Athens’ prestige was raised up by the subjugation of her neighbors. Likewise, the unity of the citizens came at the expense of their division from others: foreigners and slaves. As Professor Tony Iaccarino has suggested, the Athenians’ solid notions of freedom are inseparable from the slavery with which they were juxtaposed; the “social death” of slaves allowed for the political life of citizens. So too did the sharply drawn line between insider and outsider provide for the in-group of the Athenian citizenry to have had such strength to celebrate with their voluptuous festival. And to top all, the very sculpture on the Parthenon tells the whole story of Erechtheus and the first Panathenaic procession, both wonderful and terrible.

Joan Connelly makes a sturdy case that the Parthenon frieze does indeed represent the occasion of Erechtheus’ sacrifice of his daughter (which in turn effects the deaths of his other two daughters, on account of their mutual oaths that, should any one of them die, the two remaining would follow) to prevent the fledgling city from falling to the hands of the invading Eumolpos. Though Athena’s favor is paid for with the blood of virgins, spilled by their father, no doubt in the context of extolling the excellence of the Athenian state, this act was presented as one of virtuous self-sacrifice for the greater good, and thus as worthy of praise. (It was obviously worthy of memorialization, if naught else.) However, a conflict of paradigms exists between regarding a father slaying his own children in sacrifice as acceptable, and as blasphemous. Such an act would previously been thought to draw the wrath of the Furies, as it did in the Oresteia, where Agamemnon’s own sacrifice of his daughter served as another link in the chain of bloodshed hanging down from Pelops to his great grandson, Orestes. That story too, though concluding with accolades from the evidently subjugated Furies, casts a telling shadow.

In the Eumenides, the court was unable to settle the case of Orestes on their own: the jury was hung, almost laughably coming to no decision when Athena had so recently appointed them to decide what she acknowledged that by rights, she could not. The ultimate fallibility of mortals’ courts – even those of the Athenians – is seen right from the start, as is the necessity of divine authority to legitimize their verdicts. And as for Orestes – what foundation can there be to his exoneration if the court that freed him lacks its own? For indeed, the rectitude of the Areopagus’ ruling relies solely on the justness of Athena in giving it to the court; and that justness is called into question by the dire Furies. These wrathful daughters of Night hail from the elder generation of Gods; their office by far precedes that of Athena, Apollo, and all the younger Olympians. Upon Athena’s announcement that Orestes will be tried by a law court, subjected to mortal, rather than their immortal, justice, the enraged Furies vehemently complain:

“Here, now, is the overthrow of every binding law – once his appeal, his outrage wins the day, his matricide! One act links all mankind, hand to desperate hand in bloody licence. Over and over deathstrokes dealt by children wait their parents, mortal generations still unborn.” (Eumenides ll. 506 – 513)

And after Athena’s verdict (for it really is more hers than the Areopagus’) is delivered, the Furies’ wailing, enraged lament reaches fever pitch; destruction and dusty dearth would be upon Attica, but for Pallas’ persuasive ability. This persuasion of the old avengers would lend the Athenian court its needed validity, were it not itself essentially bogus: it is entirely out of sync with its mythological surroundings. Presuming that an eldritch force, lasting as long as the vast Night which gave it birth, could be subsumed for the sake of a mortal city, or any work of man, borders on the hubristic. Aeschylus’ account of the Furies’ reconciliation with Athena and her city, beneath its exaltation, seems to be an attempt to put off thoughts of the ultimate destruction that awaits everything that is created; a wishful fantasy that Athens will escape that fate shared by all: the return to dust.

All these conflicting points may draw criticism to Athena’s Athens: the Parthenon, the city’s crown jewel, paid for with other’s money; the mythological prevailing of the city at the cost of the lives of Erectheus’ daughters; the unity and freedom of the Athenian citizens secured by the separation of outsiders and the bondage of slaves; and the mythic fallacy of the Furies, ire incarnate, putting off their rage. Now, though, such criticism is only for the debate of scholars; for the Goddess’ city is gone, its geometry returned to rock, having succumbed to the earth. What we who live today had best learn from all this is to recognize that our cities and grand works too have a darker side to match their light, and that even though the Gods may grant us favor today, tomorrow they may retract it. Looking on the ruins of the Parthenon, we ought to humble ourselves, knowing that we shall likely meet the Furies ourselves, and follow long-gone Athens into the dark of Night.

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