Life As A Hedgepig
Friday, 13. February 2004
Annotation on "The Oresteia"

This is the first paper for my latest class, "Visions of Justice." The teacher's only comment was "Good Work!"
I found the Oresteia heavy going, especially on first reading. The parts I am reading on the second round are starting to make more sense; I especially am enjoying The Eumenides. The court set up by Athena is clearly recognizable as the predecessor to our own modern American court, both in form and spirit.

"My contestants,
summon your trusted witnesses and proofs,
your defenders under oath to help your cause.
And I will pick the finest men of Athens,
return and decide the issue fairly, truly--
bound to our oaths, our spirits bent on justice."

This sums up how our process still works in a nutshell. Our process is a little fancier, true, and the paperwork certainly takes longer! But the essentials are all here. Even this:

"Call for order, herald, marshal our good people…
And while this court of judgement fills, my city,
silence will be best."

This is certainly the equivalent of the officer of the court calling "Order in the Court" at the beginning of our legal proceedings.

"The trial begins! Yours is the first word--
the prosecution opens."

The prosecution also opens in our criminal trials, although the order of our trials differs a little from Orestes' trial, in that the Furies had offered their equivalent of an opening statement before Athena convened her jury. And they go straight to questioning the accused, rather than bringing witnesses to the crime. But Orestes is not disputing the facts, so prosecution witnesses are not necessary--and the Furies themselves are witnesses in this case.

That would not be allowed in a modern court of law; a prosecutor who was also a witness would have to recuse himself (or herself) from taking part in the proceedings as an officer of the court; on the other hand, Orestes is certainly facing his accusers!

Orestes is also not asked to swear an oath to tell the truth--but consider that Athena is running this court. Who would lie to a goddess? Oaths were apparently sometimes used in Greek legal proceedings, but in this case are not sufficient to determine Orestes' guilt or innocence. In fact, this is an important point in the development of the Athenian legal process that Aeschylus is telling us about :

" the evolution of oaths from their ritualistic power to exonerate the criminal to their power to sanctify the evidence, hence to ensure a valid trial."

And that is certainly the case with oaths in our legal system.

After the Furies are done questioning Orestes, he calls his witness (defendants acting as their own counsel has a longer history than I would have thought). And the defense witness, Apollo, does affirm the truth of his testimony:

I say, to you and your high court, Athena.
Seer that I am, I never lie."

The prosecution questions the defense witness:

"Zeus, you say,
gave that command to your oracle? He charged
Orestes here to avenge his father's death
and spurn his mother's rights?"

The evidence and arguments being done, the case is turned over to the jury:

"…You must rise,
each man must cast his lot and judge the case,
reverent to his oath. Now I have finished."

The final determination of this trial does diverge from our own; in this case, when the jury is deadlocked, Athena breaks the tie and declares Orestes to be acquitted. In our system, we get hung juries and mistrials; although when a case gets to the Supreme Court, it is decided by majority vote.

Though we have disobeyed one of Athena's injunctions:

"…Never pollute
our law with innovations."

as we have taken parts of our legal system from other times and places besides ancient Athens; still, I think Athena would recognize our system as the spiritual descendant of the one she originated.

And though Athena tamed the Furies, the families of victims still sometimes seem to call on them: "Gary Ridgway is an evil creature who I would condemn to many long years of anguish and despair."

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