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Interactive Curriculum Resource: HomeThemesAuthorsTexts • Sample Series

The Libation Bearers - Aeschylus


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Themes: ActionThe City, FamilyFearJustice, Prophecy, Vengeance


Years have passed since the conquering king Agamemnon was killed by his wife Clytaemnestra. Their son, Orestes, returns from exile with his friend Pylades to Argos. He leaves two locks of hair at his father’s grave; seeing the Chorus of slavewomen approaching, he hides with this prayer: “Dear god, let me avenge my father’s murder- / flight beside me now with all your might!” (21-22). The Chorus repeats what old women in the royal house have said, that “The proud dead stir under earth, / they rage against the ones who took their lives” (44-45); meanwhile “that godless woman” sends the slavewomen to pray for her. 


Lamenting that the “ancient pride” is gone from all people, who instead pray for “success, more god than god himself,” the Chorus warns that “Justice waits and turns the scales” (56-61). They invoke “the blood that Mother Earth consumes”; this blood “breed revenge / and frenzy goes through the guilty” (66-68). The Chorus leader and Electra (daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, sister to Orestes) discuss for what the daughter of Agamemnon should ask the gods. As she prays first to the god Hermes, and then to her dead father, Electra lists the injustices: “Mother has pawned us for a husband, Aegisthus, / her partner in her murdering. I go like a slave, / and Orestes driven from his estates while they / they roll in the fruits of all your labours /…O bring Orestes home, / with a happy twist of fate, my father” (138-144). 


Orestes reveals himself, and tells Electra how an oracle of Apollo warned if he does not avenge his father’s death, horrific pestilence will strike, and “assaults of Furies spring / to life on the father’s blood” (288-289). The Chorus of slavewomen, together with the daughter and son of Agamemnon, gather at the king’s grave to pray for vengeance. “It is the law,” the Chorus sings, “when the blood of slaughter / wets the ground it wants more blood” (394-395). 


When asked by the returning prince why Clytaemnestra sent libations to her dead husband’s grave so long after the murder, the Chorus explains that his mother had a bad dream. She dreamed she gave birth to a snake and when it nursed at her breast it drew blood. Orestes responds that this dream must be about him: “As she bred this sign, this violent prodigy / so she dies by violence. I turn serpent, / I kill her. So the vision says” (535-537). 


Disguised as foreigners, Orestes and Pylades bring news that Orestes has died. Clytaemnestra welcomes Orestes without realizing who he is. The old nurse of Orestes laments, crying that Clytaemnestra dissimulates her joy at the news of the death of her son: “she looks at the maids and pulls that long face / down deep her eyes are luaghing over the work / that’s done” (724-726). Inside the palace, Aegisthus is killed; Clytaemnestra holds her breast up to her son in an attempt to dissaude him from kill her. Although Orestes hesitates momentarily, upon being reminded by Pylades about the threats of Apollo and the oaths he has sworn, the son chooses to take vengeance on the woman who killed his father. Displaying the robes wrapped around the bodies of the two slain as Clyteamnestra had displayed the same robes in which she had entangled Agamemnon and Cassandra, Orestes announces that he “pursued this blood death with justice, / mother’s death” (980-981). He is already haunted by what he had done, however; “I loved her once / and now I loathe, I have to loathe…” he falters. The play ends with Orestes suddenly voicing terror at a spectacle unseen by others in the vicinity: “Women— look—like Gorgons, / shrouded in black, their heads wreathed, / swarming serpents! Cannot stay, I must move on” (1048-1050). He flees this dark vision; the Chorus asks “Where will it end? — ? where will it sink to sleep and rest, / this murderous hate, this Fury?” (1075-1077). The Libation Bearers brings us to question what is justice, what part does the divine have in human affairs, what do the blood ties of family mean, and how do the relations between people affect the larger city and community. 


Opening questions:


At first Electra is reluctant to agree with the Chorus that she should pray for someone to kill her mother and Aegisthus (lines 120-124); but later she prays to Zeus to “crush their skulls! Kill! Kill!” (390). What has happend to make Electra drop her reticence? 


His nurse calls “the sweetest, dearest plague of all our lives!” (735), and also calls him “the hope of the house” (766). Is he either a plague or a hope, and why? 


The Chorus says “It is the law: when the blood of slaughter  / wets the ground it wants more blood” (394-396). What sort of law is this, and what does it look like as seen in The Libation Bearers? Is it the only law seen in this play?

Suggested Pairing:


The Oresteia - Agamemnon, The Eumenides by Aeschylus; Poetics by Aristotle 

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