The Furies, Or The
Loosing Of Orestes
by Alfred Church
The gift of prophecy Earth
had at the first, and after her Themis; and after her
Phœbe, who was of the race of the Titans, and Phœbe gave
it to Apollo—who is also called Phœbus—at his birth. Now
Apollo had a great temple and famous upon the hill of
Delphi, to which men were wont to resort from all the
earth, seeking counsel and knowledge of the things that
should come to pass hereafter. And it came to pass on a
day that the priestess—for the temple was served by a
woman, whom men called Pythia—when she went into the
shrine, after her custom, in the morning, saw therein a
dreadful sight. For by the very seat of the God there
sat a man, a suppliant, whose hands were dripping with
blood, and he bare a bloody sword, and on his head there
was a garland of olive leaves, cunningly twined with
snow-white wool. And behind there sat a strange company
of women sleeping, if indeed they could be called women,
that were more hideous than the Gorgons, on which if a
man looks he is turned to stone, or the Harpies, of
which they say that they have the faces of women and the
bodies of vultures. Now this man was Orestes, and the
blood that was upon his hands was the blood of his
mother Clytæmnestra, whom he slew, taking vengeance for
his father King Agamemnon, and the women were the
Furies, who pursue them that shed the blood of kindred,
and torment them even unto death. But the priestess when
she saw this sight fell down for fear and crawled forth
from the temple. And when she was gone there appeared
Apollo himself. Now Apollo had counselled Orestes that
he should slay his mother, and so avenge his father's
blood that had been shed. And now he spake, saying,
"Fear not, I will not betray thee, but will keep to thee
to the end. But now thou must flee from this place; and
know that these, the hateful ones, with whom neither God
nor man nor beast consorts, will pursue thee both over
the sea and over the land; but do thou not grow weary or
faint, but haste to the city of Pallas, and sit in the
temple of the goddess, throwing thy arms about the
image, and there will I contrive that which shall loose
thee from this guilt."
Gifts Of PhŒbus
And when the God had said
this, he bade his brother Hermes (for he also stood
near) to guide the man by the way in which he should go.
So Orestes went his way.
And straightway, when he was gone, rose up the spirit of
Queen Clytæmnestra, clad in garments of black, and on
her neck was the wound where her son smote her. And the
spirit spake to the Furies, for these were yet fast
asleep, saying, "Sleep ye? What profit is there in them
that sleep? Shamefully do ye dishonour me among the
dead; for they whom I slew reproach me, and my cause,
though I was slain by my own son, no one taketh in hand.
Do ye not mind with what sufferings, with what midnight
sacrifices upon the hearth in old time I honoured you,
and now, while ye sleep, this wretch hath escaped from
Suppliant To Apollo.
Then they began to stir
and rouse themselves, the spirit still goading them with
angry words till they were now fully awake and ready to
pursue. Then there appeared the God Apollo with his
silver bow in his hand, and cried, "Depart from this
place, ye accursed ones. Depart with all speed, lest an
arrow leap forth from this string and smite you so that
ye vomit forth the blood of men that ye have drunk. This
is no fit halting-place for you; in the habitations of
cruelty is your best abode, or in some lion's den,
dripping with blood, not, verily, where men come to hear
the oracles of truth. Depart ye, therefore, with all
"Nay," said they; "hear,
King Apollo, what we would say. For thou art verily
guilty of this matter."
"How so? So much thou
"Thou badest this stranger
slay his mother."
"I bade him take vengeance
for his father's blood."
"And thou wast ready to
answer for this deed?"
"I bade him come for
succour to this shrine."
"Yet they who attend him
please thee not?"
"No, for it fitteth not
that they should approach this place."
"Yet 'tis our appointed
task to follow him that slayeth his mother."
"And what if a wife slay
"Between wife and husband
there is no kindred blood."
"Thou dost dishonour,
saying this, to great Heré that is wife to Zeus, and to
all love, than which there is nothing dearer to men."
"Yet will I hunt this man
to the death, for the blood of his mother drives me on."
"And I will help him and
But in the meantime
Orestes fled with all speed to the city of Athens, and
came to the temple of Athené, and sat clasping the image
of the goddess, and cried to her that he was come at the
bidding of Apollo, and was ready to abide her judgment.
But the Furies followed hard upon him, having tracked
him as a dog tracks a fawn that hath been wounded, by
the blood. And when they were come and had found him in
the temple, they cried that it was of no avail that he
sought the help of the Gods, for that the blood of his
mother that had been shed cried against him from the
ground, and that they would drink his blood, and waste
him, and drive him a living man among the dead, that all
men might shun to do such deeds in time to come.
Then said Orestes, "I have
learnt in many troubles both how to be silent and how to
speak. And now I speak as a wise man biddeth me. For lo!
the stain of blood that is upon my hand groweth pale,
and the defilement is cleansed away. Therefore, I call
to Athené that is Queen of this land, to help me,
wherever she be; for though she be far, yet being a
goddess, she can hear my voice. And helping me, she
shall gain me, and my people, and my land to be friends
to her and to her people for ever."
But not the less did the
Furies cry out against him that he was accursed and
given over to them as a prey; for that they were
appointed of the Gods to execute vengeance upon
evildoers, of whom he was the chief, seeing that he had
slain the mother that bare him.
But while they thus cried
out against him, there appeared the Goddess Athené, very
fair to see, with the spear of gold in her hand; and she
spake, saying, "From the banks of Scamander am I come,
for I heard the cry of one that called upon my name. And
now I would fain know what meaneth all this that I see.
Who art thou, stranger, that sittest clasping this
image? And who are ye that are so strange of aspect,
being like neither to the Gods nor to the daughters of
Then the Furies made
answer, "We will tell thee the matter shortly, daughter
of Zeus. We are the children of Night, and we are called
the Curses, and our office is to drive the murderer from
Then said the goddess,
"And whither do ye drive him?"
"We drive him to the land
where no joy abideth."
"And why do ye pursue this
"Because he dared to slay
"Did aught compel him to
"What should compel a man
to such wickedness?"
"There are two stories to
be told, and I have heard but one."
And when they had thus
talked together for a while the Furies said that they
would abide by the judgment of the goddess. Whereupon
she turned herself to Orestes, and bade him set forth
his case; who he was, and what deed he had done. To
which he made this answer: "I am a man of Argos, and my
sire, King Agamemnon, thou knowest well; for he was
ruler of the host of the Greeks, and by his hands thou
madest the great city of Troy to be no city. Now this
man perished in a most unrighteous fashion, when he was
returned to his home, for my mother, having an evil
heart, slew him foully in the bath. And I, coming back
to my country, from which in time past I had fled, slew
her that bare me. This I deny not. Yea, I slew her,
taking vengeance for my father. And in this matter
Apollo hath a common share with me, for he said that
great woes should pierce my heart if I recompensed not
them that had done this deed. But do thou judge this
matter; for with thy judgment, whatsoever it be, I will
Then the goddess said,
"This is a hard matter to judge; for thou, Orestes, art
come as a suppliant to this house, being innocent of
guilt, and I may not reject thee. And yet these have a
suit which may not lightly be dismissed; for haply, if
they fail of that which they seek, they will send a
wasting disease upon this land and consume it. But
seeing that this great matter has fallen to me to deal
with, I will do this. Judges will I choose, binding them
with an oath, and they shall judge in all cases,
whensoever one man hath slain another. And this will I
stablish for all time to come. Do you, therefore, call
witnesses and proofs with oaths for confirmation
thereof. And I will choose such as are worthiest among
my citizens, righteous men, who will have regard unto
their oath, and they shall judge this matter."
So they went all of them
to the hill of Ares, where the cause should be judged.
And twelve men that were worthiest in the city sat on
the seat of judgment, and Athené came forth and said to
the herald that stood by, "Blow the trumpet, that the
people keep silence, and that this cause may be tried
justly, as is meet."
Then came forth Apollo.
And when the Furies saw him they cried, "What hast thou
to do with this matter, King Apollo?"
And he said, "As a witness
am I come, for I commanded this man to do this deed."
Then Athené commanded that
the Furies should speak the first, being the accusers.
So they began saying to Orestes, "Answer what we shall
ask thee. Didst thou slay thy mother?"
"I slew her. This I deny
"How didst thou slay her?"
"I drew my sword, and
smote her on the neck."
"Who counselled thee to
"Apollo counselled me;
therefore I fear not; also my father shall help me from
"Shall the dead help thee
that didst slay thy mother?"
"Yea, for she also had
slain her husband. Say, why did ye not pursue her while
"Because she was not akin
to him she slew."
"Not akin? then was I not
akin to her. But do thou bear witness, King Apollo."
Then said Apollo, "I am a
prophet and lie not. Never have I spoken about man or
woman or city save as my Father Zeus gave me to speak."
Then said the Furies, "How
sayest thou? that Zeus gave this command that this man
should slay his mother?"
"'Twas even so. For think
how basely this woman slew her husband, his father. For
she smote him not with an arrow, as might some Amazon,
but when he was come back from the war, full of honour,
in the bath she entangled him, wrapping a robe about
him, and so slew him. Wherefore this man did
righteously, taking vengeance for the blood that was
shed. And as for this kinship that ye say is between a
man and his mother, hearken to this. Had Pallas here a
mother? Nay, for no womb bare her, seeing that she came
from the head of Zeus her father."
Then said Athené, "It is
enough. Judges, judge ye this cause, doing justice
therein. But first hear the statute that I make
establishing this court. On this hill did the Amazons in
old time build their fortress when they waged war with
King Theseus and the men of this land; and hence it is
called the hill of Ares, who is the god of war. And here
do I make this as an ordinance for ever, that it may be
a bulwark to this land; that judges may sit herein, keen
to avenge the wrong, not blinding their eyes with gifts,
but doing true judgment and justice between man and man.
And now rise, ye judges, from your place, and take these
pebbles in your hand, and vote according to right, not
forgetting your oath."
So the judges rose up from
their place and dropped the pebbles into the urns,
Apollo on the one side and the Furies on the other
urging them with many promises and threats. And at the
last Athené stood up and said, "'Tis for me to give the
casting vote; and I give it to Orestes. For I myself was
not born of a mother; wherefore I am on the father's
side. And I care not to avenge the death of a woman that
slew her husband, the ruler of her house. Now, if the
votes be equal, Orestes is free. Take the pebbles from
the urns, ye to whom this office is given. And see that
ye do it justly and well, that no wrong be done."
So they that were
appointed to this took the pebbles forth from the urns
and counted them. And lo! the votes were equal on this
side and on that. And Athené stood forth and said, "The
man is free."
Thus was accomplished the
loosing of Orestes.