On Monday, when buying my groceries, the clerk at Trader Joe’s asked me what was keeping me so busy on the holiday, I told him I was working on my dissertation. When he learned I was studying Mythology, he asked about my favorite myth. I hesitated, as it is not always easy to pick a favorite. I settled on Athene’s role in Odysseus’s homecoming, reuniting that wily traveler with his son yearning for paternal guidance. But, I could just as well have said Beowulf, any number of the stories from Tolkien or perhaps the story of Ganesh from the Hindu tradition.
Had he asked me that question twenty-four hours later, I would have replied quickly, the Eumenides, how Athene works to effect the acquittal of Orestes (for murdering his mother to preserve his father’s honor) and so transforms the Erinyes, the Furies, into the the eponymous beings, the Happy (or Gracious) Ones. Not long after buying my groceries, I realized that before completing the current chapter of my dissertation, I must first re-read Aeschylus’s play. And as I did, it easily solidified its place as my favorite Greek drama–and quite possibly my favorite play ever written.
I did not realize until I re-read the play how central its theme was to the current chapter–and maybe even my dissertation. For we see Athene not only at her moderating best, but also at her most cunning, showing deference to the Furies, eager for Orestes’ blood, so that they might allow her to preside over the trial where she could acquit a man who, like her, honored his impetuous father.
Our critics could learn from the owl-eyed goddess who, unlike her wise brother Apollo, showed respect to the Furies, trying to understand their motivation. Yes, they were her adversaries, but by not gloating in her victory over their venomous vow of vengeance, she was able to transform them into more benign beings.
Toward the end their leader told her, “Your magic is working . . I can feel the hate,/the fury slip away.”
Would it that we could find an Athena who could effect a similar magic on some of our critics.