The Story of the Furies, or the Loosing of Orestes

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.”

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 the net.”

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 speed.”

“Nay,” said they; “hear, King Apollo, what we would say. For thou art verily guilty of this matter.”

“How so? So much thou mayest say.”

“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 her husband?”

“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 save him.”

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 men?”

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 his home.”

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 man?”

“Because he dared to slay his mother.”

“Did aught compel him to this deed?”

“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 be content.”

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 not.”

“How didst thou slay her?”

“I drew my sword, and smote her on the neck.”

“Who counselled thee to this deed?”

“Apollo counselled me; therefore I fear not; also my father shall help me from the tomb.”

“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 she lived?”

“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.

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