When I got down out of the tree I crept along down the river bank a piece, and found the two bodies laying in the edge of the water, and tugged at them till I got them ashore; then I covered up their faces, and got away as quick as I could. I cried a little when I was covering up Buck's face, for he was mighty good to me.*
This spring I spent a lot of time with Schiller's ballad The Cranes of Ibycus (best ever [and possibly only!] German Romantic/Ancient Greek murder mystery in verse). In the pivotal scene, a rowdy Greek audience crowds into an open theater to watch a performance. On the stage, singing their song of vengeance, is the chorus of Furies, torch-bearing, gaunt, their heads crowned like Medusa's with writhing serpents. By the illusion of the theater they seem to stand at a scale larger than human, and the audience half-forgets that they are actors as they channel their divine role. And under that spell the relentless pursuit of vengeance to which the Furies dedicate their song suddenly has unexpected consequences in reality.
The play being performed here is, presumably, Aeschylus' The Eumenides, climax of the Oresteia trilogy. Right now the whole story's worth a closer look.
As the Greeks assemble their fleet to embark for the siege of Troy, the goddess Artemis sends unfavorable winds and prevents them from sailing. A seer reveals to their war-leader, Agamemnon, that the only way to appease Artemis is for him to sacrifice the life of his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. At length he agrees, and does so. This act is to mire the fate of his entire family in a recurring cycle of revenge for many years to come. But the winds shift, and the Greek fleet sets sail.
Ten years later, when Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, his wife Clytemnestra stabs him to death in his bath in revenge for their daughter's killing. Years later again, Orestes and Electra, the surviving brother and sister of Iphigenia, agree that by Apollo's order Clytemnestra must also die for murdering their father. Orestes kills his mother, and her ghost incites the Furies to hunt him down and wreak their vengeance.
The Furies, the old goddesses of retribution and vengeance, track down Orestes and demand that Athena and Apollo give him over to them. Instead, Athena yields the judgment to the people of Athens, instituting the first-ever trial by jury. The Furies and Apollo each make their cases to the jury for prosecution and defense. The jury votes: tied at six to six, so Athena casts the deciding vote in favor of Orestes.
So Orestes goes free. The Furies have not won their victory. But Athena tells them that they have not lost, either. By putting their drive for vengeance in subordination to the process of law, they gain a permanent place of honor in the city, and the right to dispense blessings to its people. The Erinyes, the Furies, have become the Eumenides, the Gracious Ones; and the city of Athens becomes the stronger for it.
Anger is natural. Anger at someone who has hurt you; has hurt your friends; your family. So it's easy to fall into a cycle of retribution. Nobody is immune to that risk. Not in Greece, not in America. When Huckleberry Finn stayed at the house of the Grangerfords they were hospitable, kind hosts to him - well-mannered, keeping a lovely home, loyal to family, generous to strangers, raising quirky and likable kids. None of that meant they wouldn't let their feud with the Shepherdsons drop them right into the same fate as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.
And vengeance propagates itself over generations, like an ivy-vine grasping out for one tendril-hold after another - Iphigenia, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes, some Grangerford who killed some Shepherdson. Or maybe it was the other way about, who knows by now? Young Buck and Joe. A big stem of ivy choking off a maple can easily get as thick as your arm. Looking at the process analytically, you'd have to say it's got what it needs to keep itself going for a good long time. That's what the Oresteia is all about - using the new idea of impartial law to break the cycle and give a new generation a chance to live fresh lives without the weight of the past dragging them down.
Of course, this all depends on the rule of law staying... lawful. Due process. Equal protection under the law. Right to a fair trial. As Athena says, the agreement's a two-way street, and those who enforce the law have particular obligations that had better be met. Otherwise you're liable to end up back with the Furies. And in the end that doesn't work out well for anyone.
Now for the first time, people of Attica,
Judge a murder-case, and hear my words.
For ever from this time for Aegeus' children
This court will sit for justice to be heard,
On Ares' hill, this Areopagus...
So in this place will reverence for the law
And kindred fear of doing injustices
Restrain the people of Athens, day and night
Provided they themselves do not pollute
With evil influence their justice code.
Would you quench your thirst in Justice's healing stream?
Then do not foul it - keep it flowing clean.**
Athena put a lot of work into this project. Don't mess it up.
*Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Chapter 18
**The Eumenides, by Aeschylus. Translation by Timothy Chappell