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Blood and Seed: Gendered Metaphors of Justice in The Eumenides

The Eumenides opens with a scene of primordial horror: man – savage and sword-wielding, his hands dripping with the blood of woman – is surrounded by slumbering women – black, oozing, indecent, and wild – whose very presence is threatening. Into this already tense scene enters the ghost of the murdered woman: not only a woman either, but a mother, whose heart has been gashed open by this man to whom she gave birth. The Olympian god Apollo had earlier put these wild women (the Furies) to sleep: the ghost-mother is here to demand that they awaken to unleash their bloodlust upon her son, the matricidal man.

Before declaring my thesis, it is necessary to make known two assumptions that I have about this opening scene. Firstly, the play presents the spilling of the woman-mother’s blood as being pollutive both to the family and to the polis, resulting in a disturbance of both natural and socially constructed order in need of remedy. Secondly, it is significant that the tension around understandings of justice is presented as gendered: it matters (at least within the world of the text) that in the eyes of the man, the killing of Clytemnestra is an act of retribution, justifiable in response to her killing of Agamemnon, whereas in the eyes of the woman, it is injustice because it is matricide.

Having openly declared these two assumptions, I will now make two consecutive arguments in this paper. The first argument is that The Eumenides presents us with two competing systems of justice that correspond to binary gender metaphors:[1] more specifically, within this text the justice of the Furies’ corresponds to metaphors of femininity and pertains to the familial whereas the justice of the Olympian gods corresponds to metaphors of masculinity and pertains to the polis. The second argument is that the text resolves this gendered conflict through the coerced submission of the feminine to the masculine.[2] To illustrate these claims, this paper will trace the motifs of blood (feminine) and seed (masculine) as they occur in the text in their relation to and expression of these conflicting systems of justice.

It is helpful to begin the first argument with a general overview of the gendered tension specific to these motifs. Before the trial of Orestes, when the (male) Olympian god Apollo questions the Furies as to why they were moved to seek vengeance against matricide but not the earlier instance of mariticide, the Furies reply that the latter is not “the shedding of kindred blood.”[3] Apollo responds to this by claiming that such a statement overlooks the significance of consummated marital union which signifies a kinship of sorts that is “bigger than oaths” and “guarded by right of nature.”[4] This line of reasoning has no effect on the Furies who insist that argument will not dock their privilege: indeed, the Furies say “nothing will make me let that man go free…the motherblood drives me, and I go to win my right upon this man and hunt him down.”[5] Here we see an initial example of the incompatibility of the Furies’ primitive[6] claim on the blood of Orestes (literally[7]) as based on natural blood ties with the Olympian claim regarding the significance of socially constructed ties: the Furies are unwilling to or incapable of expanding their understanding of familial justice to bonds which transcend blood, such as marriage, and seem indifferent to claims of obligations predicated on the basis of seed.[8]

To further clarify, the Furies no doubt recognize the naturalness of sexual intercourse, but have no claims on “marriage” which is fundamentally a social institution corresponding to the social order and thus specific to the life of the polis beyond just the blood-life of the couple. As a comparative example from Greek literature, recall how the marriage bed of Odysseus and Penelope lay at the center of the city: this is a particularly apt comparison given that Athene will later describe Clytemnestra’s act of murder as not just the killing of a husband but moreover the killing of the “lord of the house” who also, in this case, is king of the city.[9] Later in the text, when Orestes is vindicated, he tells Athene that she has “kept my house alive”[10] by which he means not just his family line but also, inseparably, that line of kingship specific to the holding of “the helm of my state.”[11] There is also this direct link between seed and state (seed symbolizing state) in the resolution of the relationship between the Furies and the Olympian gods: Athene has the Furies agree to will bless, rather than curse, the land and that this blessing will involve keeping the “human seed” alive.[12] The subtext to this particular claim is the (flawed) understanding that the woman is not parent but “nurse of the new-planted seed that grows”[13] such that the Furies are, at the end of the play, to function as the womb of civilization, providing a nurturing space in which to keep alive the seed of civilization implanted by the Olympian gods.

The latter point about Furies-as-womb will be later developed in the second argument, but for now, suffice it to say that the Furies-as-womb is the result of a gendered power-play, not a pure synthesis of blood/seed metaphors. This leads to the second observation which is that though it is true that the Furies cannot see justice as framed in the social order, which pertains to the polis, it is equally true that the Olympian gods do not see justice as it pertains to the natural blood-ties of which the Furies are so aware. Athene is rather blunt about this, stating openly that “there is no mother anywhere who gave me birth” and thus “but for marriage, I am always for the male”[14] which is apparently reason enough for her to side with Orestes over Clytemnestra. Reflected in these words is an admission of a lack of a specific gendered[15] experience (namely being daughter to a mother) which Athene admits conditions her own understanding of and approach to justice both generally (“I am always for the male”) and in this case particularly.[16]

At the beginning of this paper, I spoke of gendered metaphors as the focal point, not biology as such, which means that for the purposes of the paper, I am most interested in what blood symbolizes (as literary motif). In this text, I think blood symbolizes menstruation. The woman-mother is one who bleeds and it is in this, her bleeding, that she prompts existential dread in the man. On the one hand, in a true, if not always literal, sense, he recognizes that his origin is tied to her blood, his first home is within her blood, at his birth his blood mixes with hers. On the other hand, there are few things more alien to his experience than the particular way her body is so unlike his. Further, his evolutionary instincts tell him that the sight of blood signals violence, danger, and death, and the sight of her blood is thus more uncanny precisely because it so natural to her and so strange and threatening to him.

As a defense of the plausibility in reading the text this way, recall that the Furies who are described as oozy and indecent, are also called “lewd creatures” and “repulsive maidens.”[17] When Apollo orders the Furies to leave his sacred sanctuary, he says: “The whole cast of your shape is guide to what you are, the like of whom should hole in the cave of the blood-reeking lion, not in oracular interiors, like mine nearby, wipe off your filth.”[18] This idea of womanly impurity as a barrier to sacred space or even full participation in the polis echoes through ancient civilizations, not least of which in ancient Israel and its specific regulations regarding how the “unclean” menstruating woman must undergo specific purification rites to deal with socially (within the polis) what is a natural phenomenon (in her body).[19]

Notably, these words of Apollo follow right after his gender-subverting threat of violence and this begins to usher us toward the second argument regarding the play’s resolution. Earlier in the text, the Furies are described as “mother-snake”[20] and Apollo turns this on its head, telling the Furies that they must leave or they will feel “the flash and bite of a flying snake launched from the twisted thong of gold that spans my bow…”[21] The connection between snakes, blood, and women is next made explicit, for Apollo says that the bite of the bow-snake would “make you in your pain spew out the black and foaming blood of men.”[22] That blood is described as black here, rather than red, allows us to retroactively realize the connection of blood in that first scene with the sleeping Furies when they are described as “black and utterly repulsive” whose “dress is such as is not right to wear in the presence of the gods’ nor even into any human house.”[23] Further, in this same first scene, lest we miss the connection between repulsive black and improper dress with blood-as-menstruation, we are told that it is not even accurate to call them “women” insomuch as “their shape is not the same”[24] which, as we have later seen, is recalled in Apollo’s words that “the whole cast of your shape is guide to what you are.”[25] In this ancient imagination, the hierarchy seems to be as follows: man is the form of humanity, woman is a deficient man, menstruating woman is deficient woman.[26]

The image of the bow and the implicit image of a piercing arrow are also significant: the seed is planted and the blood is spilled.[27] The second argument, regarding submission of the woman (the Furies) to the man (the Olympian gods) makes sense within this context. While the Greek understanding of reproduction is flawed in positing that the woman contributes nothing and is merely the host of the man’s seed, it is also true that in the marital act it is the man who gives and the woman who receives and then houses the generated life, and the gendered metaphors of justice correspond accordingly in the text. In this argument, it is significant that Apollo uses gendered language to threaten violence as a means of securing his conception of social justice and likewise significant that Athene later uses the threat of Zeus’ lightning bolts as a mean of threatening the Furies into submission.[28] Thus, to conclude both arguments at once, understanding these gendered motifs reveals the significance of the resolution with which the text presents us:[29] namely, the women Furies wrapped in purple [other translations have crimson] cloaks (symbolizing blood) led in processional back into the darkened womb of the earth, ready to receive and nurture the seed of civilization implanted in them by the Olympian gods[30] and, symbolized therein, the natural and familial system of justice placed in full submission to the socially ordered justice of the polis.

 

End Notes:
[1] It is important to note the language of metaphor here: I do not want to make an objective claim regarding whether or not the ontological realities of “maleness” and “femaleness” – whether that is defined in terms of anatomy, gender, or both – lead (in life or in the text) to different conceptions of justice. Rather, in this paper, I am exploring masculinity and femininity as simply differentiated associations of various archetypes and metaphors which provide or lead to distinctive conceptions of justice within the text.
[2] It is, of course, debatable how satisfactory this resolution actually is, and that might vary by reader.
[3] Aeschylus; trans. Lattimore; The Eumenides; pg. 142
[4] Ibid. pg. 142
[5] Ibid. pg. 143
[6] Used technically and not in a pejorative sense.
[7] Ibid. pg. 144: “You must give back for her blood from the living man red blood of your body to suck…”
[8] Orestes being the “seed” of his father, implanted within the context of the marital act, is obligated to avenge his death by both nature and society. The Furies do not recognize this reality and the obligations which logically follow.
[9] Ibid., pg. 61
[10] Ibid. pg 162
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid. pg. 167
[13] Ibid., pg. 158
[14] Ibid., pg. 161
[15] I hesitate to use gender here as it is largely socially-constructed and with the Furies we’re dealing with the natural not the social. Nevertheless, this quote centers around Athene’s experience of herself and of her own perceptions about gender and thus it seems appropriate to say that this judgment is gendered in nature rather than sexualized.
[16] An interesting argument can be made, however, that it is precisely that Athene is a woman that allows her to make space for the Furies in the polis in a way that Apollo seems unwilling to do. Sadly, I couldn’t find anything in the text to make this reading apparent, but I do think it is worth mentioning here.
[17] Ibid., pg. 137
[18] Ibid. pg. 141
[19] Leviticus 15; notably, in the Israelite context, there are also male-specific purification rites related to seed.
[20] Ibid., pg. 139
[21] Ibid. pg. 141
[22] ibid.
[23] Ibid., pg. 136
[24] ibid.
[25] Ibid., pg. 141
[26] I’m likely reading outside ideas into the text, but also I think the text suggests and supports such ideas.
[27] At least as a trope.
[28] Ibid., 164
[29] Again, whether or not this is an objectively satisfactory resolution is debatable and beyond the scope of this already elongated paper.
[30] Ibid., pg. 171

 

 

References:
Aeschylus, and Richmond Lattimore. Aeschylus I: Oresteia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.