The Judgment of Athena in Oresteia

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The Judgment of Athena in Oresteia

Athena resolves the conflicts of the Oresteia with an ambiguous judgment that seems to satisfy all parties involved. However, in any conflict, at least one party must make sacrifices to work toward a resolution. Athena achieves her paradoxical result by misleading Apollo to think that he has received total victory in judgment and by offering compensatory powers to the Erinyes, thus creating an illusion of satisfaction for all amidst a reality of compromise.

Athena first addresses Apollo's argument of the superiority of paternity, but she allows compromise by never fully admitting that Clytemnestra's murder was morally justified. Initially, Athena announces, "I approve the male in all things... Therefore I shall not give greater weight to the death of a woman" (Eumenides 737-739). This is Athena's judgment, and it sets Orestes free not on the basis that he acted justly, but on the basis that she can "not give greater weight to the death of a woman." By using litotes, Athena belies sympathy for the female in her seemingly male-favoring judgment. In fact, the victory for Apollo and Orestes is far from complete. Before the judgment, Orestes meets the Erinyes and cries out, "O lord Apollo, see, they multiply; and they drip from their eyes a hateful stream" (Libation Bearers, 1056-1057). The Erinyes, a manifestation of the guilt Orestes feels for his mother, drive Orestes to the brink of sanity and exile him to Athens. Athena's judgment does not morally justify the murder; it only relieves Orestes of his suffering. The fact that Athena never dictates that Orestes acted with justice marks a compromised victory for Apollo and Orestes.

The Erinyes are initially compromised by their loss of h...

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...ey progress to their new status in an Olympian context. However, for this change to come about, Athena must give up a significant portion of her own power in Athens to share equal power with the Erinyes. Unlike most judges, Athena makes personal sacrifices to resolve the conflict, and she benefits with greater protection for her city.

Gender plays a major role in the conflict, and in her judgment, Athena satisfies both parties by announcing victory for Apollo and his argument for the importance of paternity, then acting to augment the power of the Erinyes and maternity. Ironically, Athena never acheives the purpose for which Apollo and Orestes originally sought her: she never concretely identifies which party acted with justice. By avoiding moral absolutes, Athena is able to satisfy everyone involved, including herself and her city, despite inherent sacrifices.
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