The Justice of Athena

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Victor Salvado
English R1A: Performing Revenge

The Justice of Athena

In the Greek trilogy of revenge The Oresteia, Aeschylus actively utilizes literary symbols to suggest significant parallels between the representative system of justice reflected in the play and the prevalent democratic attitudes of 5th century Greek society. The goddess Athena is instrumental in drawing these parallels, as it is she who establishes the unbiased court system in which Orestes is tried. However, Aeschylus also shows the necessity of divine intervention in the resolution of the plot, which is an apparent contradiction of Athena’s legal system. Although this evaluation is valid, a more emblematic reading of the text reveals that Aeschylus in fact portrays divine intervention as a stabilizing component in the plot that Greeks should recognize and ultimately try to simulate in their own system of law. In order to relate the importance of this stabilization, Aeschylus opts to portray Athena and her legal system as an implicit analogy to Greek governance rather than a direct depiction, and thus is able to explore striking similarities between the two doctrines of justice.

In The Eumenides, Athena acts as the mediator and eventual catalyst for the resolution of the trial of Orestes, setting the scene for rational discussion and a fair judgment. When Orestes and the Furies arrive at her shrine, Athena decides to host a public trial in order to display an unbiased system of justice to the people of Athens. Athena expresses her disinclination to monopolize the final decision of this trial, stating “Embrace the one? Expel the other? It defeats me / 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” (496). Here, she expresses her idea of creating a court with a jury to judge Orestes. As the patron of the city of Athens, Athena vies to teach the citizens how to construct a lawful, sound government that is capable of putting an end to the cyclical nature of bloodshed. Her emphasis on appointing “judges of manslaughter” and founding a “tribunal” indicates her specific intention of ending the cyclic nature of revenge in society, and strong rhetoric such as “for all time to come” designates the unending applicability of this on restricting vengeful actions in the future. Athena goes further to explain, “And while this court of judgment fills, my city, / silence will be best. So that you can learn / my everlasting laws. And you too, / that our verdict may be well observed by all” (576). This proclamation expands Athena’s intended area of influence past just Athens onto Greek society in general. She wants Athens to be a beacon for the rest of Greece to follow, where the powers of persuasion and rational discussion dominate human impulses such as revenge-taking. Athena’s usage of the phrases “everlasting laws” and “our verdict may be well observed by all” in these passages emphasizes her belief that counter-instinctive principles such as peaceful conflict resolution are beneficial to society. However, the divine intervention displayed towards the conclusion of the trial is contradictory to this supposition, and brings to bear the idea that such a system of justice is not necessarily infallible.

Although the need for divine intervention in Orestes’ trial seems to undermine the justice and impartiality of the verdict, a more symbolic interpretation of this divine intervention reveals that it is in fact a vital stabilizing mechanism in the plot. At the end of the trial after Orestes and Apollo have given their statements, Athena comes to a decision, saying “My work is here, to render the final judgment. / Orestes, / I will cast my lot for you… / I cannot set more store by the woman’s death - / she killed her husband, guardian of their house. / Even if the vote is equal, Orestes wins” (749). This eventually tips the vote in the favor of Orestes...
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