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The Erinyes in Aeschylus’ Oresteia

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posted on 2021-11-12, 11:30 authored by Werner, Cynthia

This dissertation explores the Erinyes’ nature and function in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. It looks at how Aeschylus conceives the Erinyes, particularly their transformation into Semnai Theai, as a central component of the Oresteia’s presentation of social, moral and religious disorder and order. The dissertation first explores the Erinyes in the poetic tradition, then discusses the trilogy’s development of the choruses, before examining the Erinyes’ / Semnai Theai’s involvement in the trilogy’s establishment of justice and order and concluding with an analysis of why Aeschylus chooses Athens (over Argos and Delphi) as the location for trilogy’s decision making and resolution. Chapter One explores the pre-Aeschylean Erinyes’ origin and primary associations in order to determine which aspects of the Erinyes / Semnai Theai are traditional and how Aeschylus innovates in the tradition. It further identifies epithets and imagery that endow the Erinyes / Semnai Theai with fearsome qualities, on the one hand, and with a beneficial, preventive function, on the other. The discussion of the development of the choruses throughout the trilogy in Chapter Two takes three components: an examination of (1) the Erinyes’ transformation from abstract goddesses to a tragic chorus, (2) from ancient spirits of vengeance and curse to Semnai Theai (i.e. objects of Athenian cult) and (3) how the choruses of Agamemnon and Choephori prefigure the Erinyes’ emergence as chorus in Eumenides. Of particular interest are the Argive elders’ and slave women’s invocations of the Erinyes, their action and influence upon events, and their uses of recurrent moral and religious ideals that finally become an integral part of the Areopagus and the cult of the Semnai Theai. The Erinyes’ / Semnai Theai’s role as objects of Athenian cult supports the institutionalised justice of the Areopagus, putting an end to private vendetta, promoting civic order and piety and rendering the city and its citizens prosperous as a result. Chapter Three explores how the Erinyes’ transformation into Semnai Theai relates to the Oresteia’s development from conflict and disorder to harmony and order. It examines a selection of the trilogy’s speech acts, emotions and attitudes, socio-religious practices and laws and their relationship to the Erinyes’ function as goddesses of vengeance and curse and objects of Athenian cult. It suggests that Athens’ reception of the Semnai Theai runs analogous with the removal of corruption and perversion from the key terms analysed in the chapter (i.e. curse and oath, fear and reverence, sacrifice, the guest-host relationship and supplication, and laws); the promotion of social, moral and religious norms that benefit the polis is integral to the Semnai Theai as objects of Athenian cult. Chapter Four examines Athens’ ability to settle differences without violence in the trilogy; it explores the polis’ capacity to resolve the trilogy’s cycle of vengeance and curse, particularly to placate the Erinyes, and relates Athens to Argos as a hegemonic city and to Delphi as Panhellenic centre of worship. The dramatic events at Athens positively represent the polis’ ideology and hegemony: addressing the social and political situation at 458BC, the trilogy’s final scenes advocate internal civic harmony, encourage alliances and metoikia, and the pursuit of imperialistic strategies to project Athens as Panhellenic leader.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Davidson, John; Püetz, Babette