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Aeschylus’ Erinyes as Suppliant Immigrants: Enchantment and Subjugation

Allannah Karas

Valparaiso University

The ending of Aeschylus’ Oresteia in the trial of Orestes and the pacification of the Erinyes, is often lauded as an immense achievement for democratic Athens against the system of blood vengeance embodied by the Erinyes (Tzanetou 2012, Roth 1993, Buxton 1982). Yet, when examined from the point of view of the Erinyes as suppliant immigrants, the last scenes of the Eumenides take on new significance. The Erinyes enter the play on the offensive, hunting down Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra. When Athena, however, sets up a murder trial for the occasion, she not only by-passes the Erinyes, but she strips them of one of their primary functions in safe-guarding inter-family relationships. At this, the Erinyes are not only enraged, but by the end of the Eumenides, they emerge as homeless, threatened (and threatening) suppliants in a foreign land. As a result, Athena’s conciliatory attempt to dialogue with the Erinyes after the trial (Eu. 778-915) turns into a proposal for their “naturalization” in Athens. The Erinyes are offered new status as resident-aliens (metics) in exchange for the surrender of their current anger and their age-old powers. What, however, does this arrangement truly look like from the Erinyes’ perspective? This question deserves greater consideration.

This paper reassesses the complexity and ethical implications of Athena’s persuasion of the Erinyes as suppliant immigrants through a close analysis of the forceful and ambiguously magical qualities of Athena’s speeches, particularly in her reference to the goddess Peitho (often translated “Persuasion”). Ultimately, I argue, Athena offers the Erinyes a duplicitous welcome into Athenian society. While recommending the Erinyes a new mode of life and great honors, Athena simultaneously veils the potentially oppressive nature of her proposition and, in a certain sense, forces the Erinyes to consent through the enchanting power of Peitho. In this way, the Erinyes’ incorporation into Athenian society calls into question the justice and integrity of this society itself.

Erinyes can be understood as suppliants (and therefore also as potential immigrants) on the basis of the similarities which have been traced between the Erinyes and the Danaids in Aeschylus’ Suppliants (Bachvarova 2009, Zakin 2009, Rechenauer 2001). Such similarities include the threat of pollution which they pose to the local people, the animal imagery with which they are associated, and fear which they inspire due to their alien status. Also, like many modern immigrants, by the end of the Eumenides, the Erinyes stay in the city placated with symbolic offerings, words of praise, and freedom regarding fertility, but at the same time stripped of their autonomy and the right to demand accountability within the social structures of their new home.

I also argue that it is primarily with cajoling promises, veiled threats, and a direct appeal to the magic of the goddess Peitho (Eu. 885) that Athena is able to win over these disgruntled, fearsome elder deities. Athena’s appeal to Peitho, for example, is effectively a request for help with a seductive process (Rynearson 2013, Porter 2005, Rosenzweig 2004), but one which is more sinister –or at the very least, more erotically ambiguous—than is commonly acknowledged. And it is precisely to this enchantment that the Erinyes, in the end, submit (Eu. 900). 

While the last scenes of the Eumenides are often interpreted as a triumph of justice and patriotic celebration of democracy, it is only through the machinations of Peitho and the deceit of Athena that the Erinyes are induced to relent from their anger. They then submit to a life hidden beneath the Areopagus, where all murder trials will henceforth be held without them. Their abode, while close to Athena’s sanctuary, will forever be in its shadow; and, from here, these suppliant immigrants continue to bless the land with fertility into perpetuity: safe, secure, and subjugated.

Session/Panel Title

Theatre of Displacement

Session/Paper Number

85.3

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