Barry’s Blog # 395: The Family Curse, Part Eight of Nine

Sing sorrow, sorrow, but good wins out in the end – Aeschylus

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. – Richard Rohr

Whoever isn’t busy being born is busy dying. – Bob Dylan

The Eumenides

In the final play of the trilogy Orestes, pursued by the Furies, traveled from Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi to Athens. The gods had referred his fate to Athena and a jury of mortal men. When their vote came out even, the Goddess cast the tie-­breaking vote in favor of Orestes, and the Furies were propitiated by a new religious cult.

How do we resolve the conflict between fate and justice? The Furies (or Erinyes in their primitive form) argued that fear consequent on wrongdoing is the basis of law, humility and respect, that without loyalty to kin there is chaos; while Apollo, defending Orestes, appealed to duty. The play also presents a secondary theme, the older, matriarchal order vs. the newer, patriarchal one. The Furies, bloodthirsty in their desire for revenge, insisted on the fact against the idea, ignoring Orestes’ motivations. Apollo responded with arrogance and threats. Richard Lattimore describes the resolution:

Athene, whose nature reconciles female with male, has a wisdom deeper than the intelligence of Apollo. She clears Orestes but concedes to the detested Furies what they had not known they wanted, a place in the affections of a civilized community of men, as well as in the divine hierarchy. There, gracious and transformed though they are, their place in the world is still made potent by the unchanged base of their character…Man cannot obliterate, and should not repress, the unintelligible emotions. Or again, in different terms, man’s nature being what it is and Fury being a part of it, Justice must go armed with Terror before it can work…Thus, through the dilemma of Orestes and its resolution, the drama of the House of Atreus was transformed into a grand parable of progress. Persuasion…has been turned to good by Athene as she wins the Furies to accept of their own free will a new and better place in the world.

But we continue to ask, in which direction does the energy move? Who are these women? “Fury” comes from the Latin “to rage”. They may represent a part of ourselves that rages against other parts of ourselves. The Erinyes, according to Hesiod, were the daughters of Earth and sprang from the blood of the mutilated Ouranos. Aeschylus calls them daughters of Night. In Sophocles, they are daughters of Darkness and Earth. Their names are Alecto (unceasing in anger), Tisiphone (avenger of murder) and Megaera (Jealous). They rise from their home below to punish the worst transgressions.

The underworld is the unconscious. The Erinyes emerge from the deep self, forcing themselves upon ego consciousness with vitally important messages, although the whole history of humans and gods as told in these eight generations describe our infinitely varied attempts to ignore them. The messages are simple: Something is terribly wrong here! You have unfinished business to deal with.

We may experience them variously as guilt or shame, depending on whether we feel, deep inside, that we have done something wrong, or that we are something wrong. All our ego defenses are attempts to avoid these feelings and the pain that arises with them. However, as we have noted, since they present us with the reality of our original childhood wounds, they also offer opportunities for healing.

As above, so below. Orestes’ struggle mirrored the earlier experience of his initiator Apollo, who had also confronted the female principle. He had come to Delphi as a child, where he killed Python, its original guardian, and expiated his crime by serving the mortal Admetus for eight years. Apollo knew a thing or two about restitution, or restorative justice.

But Orestes experienced the symbolic death of his old self and the descent into madness.

Perhaps his grief was not merely for himself but for both his criminal ancestors and his descendants. (We recall the Native American Haudenosaunee /Iroquois tradition that the decisions we make should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.) Yet only after years of atonement would Athena and the elders of Athens judge him as sufficiently transformed to be admitted to the community of mature adults, the polis.

How has time moved?  At the beginning of the play, Apollo’s priestess described the tormented Orestes, surrounded by the sleeping Furies “with blood dripping from his hands and from a new-drawn sword.” But the implication is that much time has passed. In myth, one day can equal many of our years, wrote Edith Hamilton:

When next he came to his country, years had passed. He had been a wanderer in many lands, always pursued by the same terrible shapes. He was worn with suffering, but in his loss of everything men prize there was a gain too. “I have been taught by misery,” he said. He had learned that no crime was beyond atonement, that even he, defiled by a mother’s murder, could be made clean again…the black stain of his guilt had grown fainter and fainter through his years of lonely wandering and pain.

The Erinyes arose from their sleep for one final dispute. Or perhaps if healing occurs in a spiral pattern, they arise periodically as the initiate approaches each new stage. Having directed Orestes to flee to “Pallas’ Citadel” (Athens), Apollo prophesied that suffering will turn intelligence into wisdom:

Thus you will be rid of your afflictions, once for all. For it was I who made you strike your mother down.

Apollo claimed that “the wanderer has rights which Zeus acknowledges.” The movement is from the head-intelligence he symbolizes to the heart-wisdom of Athena.

Orestes was, in a sense, playing with fire, evoking his devils along with his angels. The Erinyes could shift back and forth from guilt-messengers to shame-messengers:

Cursed suppliant, he shall feel against his head another murderer rising out of the same seed.

In the final scene, Orestes came as a suppliant to the statue of Athena on the Acropolis,

…blunted at last, and worn and battered on the outland habitations and the beaten ways of men.

The Furies threatened to drag him down to Hades, but Orestes responded that he had already experienced the most profound suffering:

I have been beaten and been taught. I understand the many rules of absolution, where it is right to speak and where be silent. In this action now speech has been ordered by my teacher, who is wise. The stain of blood dulls now and fades upon my hand. My blot of matricide is being washed away. When it was fresh still, at the hearth of the god, Phoebus (Apollo), this was absolved and driven out by sacrifice of swine, and the list were long if I went back to tell of all I met who were not hurt by being with me. Time in his aging overtakes all things alike.

Orestes had accomplished the initiatory transition from “Hero” to “Warrior”. Robert Moore described these two archetypes:

There is much confusion about the archetype of the Hero…The Hero is, in fact, only an advanced farm of Boy psychology – the most advanced form, the peak, actually, of the masculine energies of the boy, the archetype that characterizes the best in the adolescent stage of development. Yet it is immature, and when it is carried over into adulthood as the governing archetype, it blocks men from full maturity…the Hero is overly tied to the mother (and) has a driving need to overcome her.

By contrast, the Warrior is an aspect of mature, initiated masculinity, capable of protective, restrained, aggressive action in the service of a transpersonal goal:

When the Warrior is connected with the King, he is consciously stewarding the “realm,” and his decisive actions, clarity of thinking, discipline and courage are, in fact, creative and generative.

“The list were long” of those whom Orestes had met and not harmed. Though fully capable of aggressively passing on the energy, he had remained focused on his goal of transformation through grief. By the beginning of the play, Orestes had already achieved his healing. The trial that followed merely confirmed this truth:

lt is the law that the man of the bloody hand must speak no word until, by action of one who can cleanse, blood from a young victim has washed his blood away. Long since, at the homes of others, I have been absolved thus, both by running waters and by victims slain.

The waters were his own tears, and the victims were parts of himself, for, as Bly writes, “Some deaths stand for the naiveté that dies when the son accepts the father’s world.”

The Erinyes grudgingly mirrored lines spoken in Agamemnon:

There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.

At this point I acknowledge that feminist scholars, for good reasons, have long considered the Oresteia a foundational text of patriarchy and can offer many statements by both Apollo and Athena as proof. But we also need to understand that myth can provide many levels of meaning. I encourage readers to stay focused on the symbolic meaning.

On one level, the verdict of innocence (even if it took Athena’s tie-breaking vote) was certainly a condemnation of the feminine; but on another it was further confirmation of Orestes’ transformation. The sacrifice of his innocence had resulted in the achievement of his father’s blessing, symbolized by his assumption of the throne of Argos:

Among the Hellenes (Greeks) they shall say: “A man of Argos lives again in the estates of his father…”

Finally, Athena persuaded the Erinyes to accept their own initiation into a new role in society and religion.

The focus of events had shifted from Argos, city of conflict, to Athens, city of wisdom. In yet another process of enantiodromia, the Erinyes were transformed into something very much like their opposites. They became the Eumenides, the “kindly, well-disposed ones”. At the end of the play, their rite de passage from Erinyes to Eumenides was symbolized by a grand procession through Athens. Subjectively, this is confirmation that grief fully experienced can lead ultimately to healing. Edith Hamilton concludes:

“…I have been cleansed of my guilt.” These were words never spoken before by any of the House of Atreus. The killers of that race had never suffered from their guilt and sought to be made clean…with the words of acquittal the spirit of evil which had haunted his house for so long was banished. Orestes went forth from Athena’s tribunal a free man. Neither he nor any descendant of his would ever again be driven into evil by the irresistible power of the past. The curse of the House of Atreus was ended.

Read the conclusion, Part Nine here.

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