The scene is now Athens and the ancient temple of Athena. Orestes prays to Athena, with his arms around an image of Athena. Following Apollo’s orders, he has undergone various purifications, and now comes to Athena for help. The Chorus of Furies enter, and the Chorus Leader speaks. We are on his scent, we have tracked him over land and sea, she says, and the whole Chorus sing, we must find him, not let him escape unpunished.
They see Orestes and sing that he has his arms around the image of Athena and wants to stand trial, but they can’t tolerate that—he has spilled his mother’s blood, and they want to suck his blood. They will suck him dry and take him living to the Underworld, they threaten. In Hades Justice pays back all impious actions.
Saying that he has learned when to speak and when to keep silent, Orestes in a long speech maintains that he has been thoroughly purified: his pollution was washed away by the ritual Apollo ordered, and time has faded the blood on his hands as well. As he has traveled, he has stayed with many hosts without polluting them, and now he has come pure to Athens. If Athena helps him, his land of Argos will be a faithful ally of Athens forever. Wherever she is, she, being a goddess, hears him, and may she come and set him free from the persecution of the Furies.
The Chorus Leader tells him that neither Athena nor Apollo can save him—he is their prey and they will feast on him; now they will sing a song that will bind him. First the Chorus chant how just they are, pursuing only those with bloody hands, and then they “join hands in the dance” (307) and sing their binding spell.
First they call to their mother, Night, telling of Apollo’s attempt to rob them. Then they sing the recurring refrain of this choral ode, singing of the power of their song to drive the victim mad and wither him. This is the office Fate has given them. They cannot hurt the gods, but no matter how mighty a killer may be, they can ruin him. Zeus will have nothing to do with us, they sing, but we wither the glories of all we pursue and we dance them to destruction:
The glories of men, for all their splendor beneath the light of day,
wither away and vanish below the earth, dishonored,
before the onslaught of our black raiment and the dancing
of our feet, instinct with malice.
For in truth leaping
from on high, with heavy fall
I bring down my foot;
my legs trip the runner,
swift though he be, with an irresistible doom.
They continue, The gods do not honor us, but men cannot resist us. Mortals all feel “awe and dread” (390), and so we have honor, even though we live in the darkness under the ground.
Orestes longs for freedom; the Furies want to drive him mad and bind him forever. Clearly the ritual purification he has undergone has not been enough to set him free. If one looks at the play from the point of view of depth psychology, Apollo seems to embody rationality, or at least a more superficial level of wisdom, and to be all male and Olympian. Something more is needed, something embodied in Athena, and what that is will become clearer later. Whatever it is, it means real freedom. The Furies are thus the embodiment of everything that keeps a human being trapped in guilt, even driven mad by guilt, and their song and dance in this scene should have a quality of frenzy, the wildness of which is suggested by the passage quoted. Orestes keeps silence, and it would seem right to play him as sitting holding on to the image of Athena, unshaken in the middle of the frenzy, since he is clearly not driven mad by the Furies’ song, as they hope.
When Orestes promises that Argos will be a faithful ally of Athens forever if Athena will help him, Aeschylus brings this play and all its cosmic implications into direct relationship with the events of his own day; Athens had traditionally been an ally of Sparta, and at the time the play was first produced, she had shifted her alliance to Argos. One of the play’s great accomplishments is that it works on all levels: it brings universal cosmic forces on stage, and it is directly relevant to the most urgent of contemporary political questions. The change in scene from Delphi to Athens is unusual for Greek tragedy, and it reflects the shift from a retelling of a myth of the heroic age told more or less as it had always been told to a re-visioning of that myth in terms directly relevant to its first audience.