Summary of The Libation Bearers
(second play in Oresteia trilogy)

The Libation Bearers begins some years after the end of the Agamemnon. The play opens at the tomb of Agamemnon. Orestes enters, having grown up and returned in secret from exile. He cuts off two locks of his hair, the first dedicated to the local river as a sign that he has reached maturity, the second dedicated in mourning to his father Agamemnon. Orestes and his companion Pylades hide themselves when a chorus of women, the libation bearers of the title, enters along with Orestes' sister Electra. This chorus of slave women brings libations to pour on the grave of the dead Agamemnon, displaying the traditional signs of mourning ("Cheeks marked with crimson, gashed, / nails plough furrows fresh and deep") and complaining about Clytemnestra ("that godless woman") who sent them to appease the ghost of dead king. Electra asks the chorus how she should perform the rite, since Clytemnestra has sent them to lessen the spirit's wrath against her, and yet both the chorus and Electra hate her. The chorus says that Electra should pray for a man or daimon to come and "kill those [Clytemnestra and Aegisthus] who killed" (line 121). Electra prays that Orestes will come home, that she be granted "the discretion my mother lacks," that her own hands be kept "clean and pure," and that "Justice kill the killers!" (lines 130-151). Electra then notices a lock of hair on the ground, and wonders whether it might belong to Orestes.

Orestes steps out of hiding and a recognition scene ensues. Throughout The Libation Bearers, Aeschylus uses much of the same imagery he employed in the Agamemnon. For example, Agamemnon is still described as an eagle, while Clytemnestra is still a viper:

[Orestes says] Behold our cause!
Look on the brood bereft of their eagle-sire,
who died entwined in the coils of a vicious viper.
Look on the starving orphans, ravaged by hunger,
too young to carry their father's prey to shelter. (lines 246-250)
Notice also the subtle slanting of gender perceptions here: the male eagle Agamemnon is depicted as providing "prey" (spoils of war from Troy?) to fledgling chicks, an activity normally associated with females. After a speech in which Orestes reveals that Apollo's oracle has sanctioned his attempt at revenge, Orestes, Electra and the chorus sing a long kommos ["a striking"] or lyric dialogue of lamentation. James C. Hogan notes that this lament is designed "to conjure the aid of the daimonic powers for the children as they try to reclaim the house for themselves. Their supplication subverts Clytemnestra's attempt to appease the dead and aims to capture the attention and dynamic power of the underworld for their revenge" (117-118).

The chorus begins the kommos by claiming that "Justice" (dike) "screams / and demands her price" for revenge: "Bloody blow pays bloody / blow. 'The doer suffers,' / sounds the saying, three times old" (lines 309-314). You probably will have noticed that this language echoes and even repeats the revenge-rhetoric of the Agamemnon (see lines 250-251, 532-37, 1528-9, and 1564). According to Plato's Laws, the ancient priests said that Justice

ordained that the doer of such a deed [murder of a family member] must of necessity suffer the same as he has done: if ever a man has slain his father, he must endure to suffer the same violent fate at his own children's hands . . . for of the pollution of common blood there is no other purification, nor does the stain of pollution admit of being washed off before the soul which committed the act pays back murder for murder, like for like, and thus by propitiation lays to rest the wrath of all the kindred. (quoted in Hogan 118) In the next play, The Furies (Eumenides), we will see that the Furies also believe that Apollo's purification of Orestes is invalid: only Orestes' blood will satisfy the debt. Like Telemachus in the Odyssey (1.272-80), Agamemnon's children wish that he had died more gloriously at Troy. They pray to Zeus and the Earth to "force vengeance / up from below, rain down Ruin" (p. 84, lines 382-83) on the murderers. The Chorus describes how Agamemnon was dishonored after death: "He was mutilated of manhood, / and she buried him like this" (lines 439-440). Apparently, Greek murderers were in the habit of cutting off the extremities of murdered people and tying them under the armpits so that the ghost of the murdered person would not pursue and haunt the murderer.

After the kommos, Orestes asks his dead father for the "power over the House" (line 480), while Electra asks him not to wipe out the last children of the house of Atreus. Orestes wonders aloud why after all these years Clytemnestra has decided to send the slave women to propitiate Agamemnon's ghost. The chorus answers that Clytemnestra was troubled by a terrible dream: she dreamed that she gave birth to a snake and wrapped it in swaddling clothes. When she tried to nurse the snake, it tore her breast, sucking blood along with the milk (line 533). Orestes interprets this dream correctly: "I am the snake, / I will be the one to kill her and fulfill this dream" (lines 549-550). (Notice how the serpent imagery has turned here.) Orestes outlines his plan of attack: he and Pylades will pretend to be travellers from far-off Phocis, gain entry to the house, and kill the murderers.

The scene moves to the palace door, and when Orestes knocks, a servant fetches Clytemnestra. Orestes tells her that he is a traveller from Phocis and that a fellow Phocian told him to stop by Argos and tell the rulers there that Orestes has died. After praising hospitality ("Where can we find more kindness than the ties / that bind the guest and host?" [lines 702-03]) Orestes and Clytemnestra go in the palace. Aegisthus is away from home, but Clytemnestra has sent Orestes' old nurse to find him. The chorus tells the nurse that she should tell Aegisthus to return quickly--no need to come with bodyguards. He arrives alone and enters the palace.

A cry is heard within, and a "servant of Aegisthus" comes out with the news that Aegisthus has been killed. Clytemnestra comes out, asking what all the commotion is about. When she finds out, she says, "we killed by deceit and by deceit we die. / Quickly, bring me the man-killing axe" (lines 888-89). Before the servant can return with the axe, however, Orestes and Pylades come out with swords drawn. Clytemnestra pleads for her life, using the maternal imagery of her dream:

Wait, my child! My son, have you no feelings?
This breast once nurtured you, cradled your sleep,
your soft mouth sucked the milk that made you strong. (lines 896-98)
Orestes asks Pylades what he should do; Pylades answers with his only lines in the whole play, reminding Orestes to obey the oracle of Delphi and to carry out his sworn oath: "Better to be hated by every man on earth than hated by the gods" (lines 900-902). Orestes tells his mother that he means to drag her in the house and sacrifice her "at his [Aegisthus'] side . . . [since] "you thought him better than my father . . . you hated the man you should have loved" (lines 904-907). There follows a dialogue between Orestes and his mother. She asks him twice if he is not afraid of a mother's curse, and he answers that she threw him away (and thus is not much of a mother) and that he would not escape his father's curse if he failed to kill her. To extenuate her guilt, Clytemnestra brings up Agamemnon's infidelities, but she fails to mention the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Aeschylus conveniently suppresses the dead sister in order to work out the cycle of revenge. After Clytemnestra says, "Ah! I suckled this serpent, I gave it life!" (line 928), she is hustled into the palace and killed.

The chorus sings that even though they mourn for the deaths of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, Justice has come at last to the house of Atreus and that Orestes' murders will end "the might curb that yoked this House" (line 962). After the choral ode, the palace doors open, revealing Orestes standing over the two bodies, while attendants display the bloody robe in which Agamemnon was entangled and killed. Visually, the scene echoes the one in Agamemnon where Clytemnestra stands over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra (see Agamemnon, lines 1372-1398). Like his mother before him Orestes justifies his deeds, pointing to the bloody robe (which he calls a "this hideous contrivance that fettered my father" [line 981]), and calling Clytemnestra "A deadly serpent, a venomous viper" (line 994). Unlike his mother, however, Orestes takes no pride in his deed: "I grieve for our family, the things that were done, the suffering. / But do not envy me, I have won a tainted victory" (lines 1016-17). The word "tainted" here translates the Greek word miasma, telling the audience that Orestes still has incurred blood-guilt.

Orestes himself says that he does not know "how it will end" (line 1021), but he announces his intention to travel to Delphi to be purified of this miasma by Apollo. The last scene of the play is quite effective. Orestes sees the Furies who have been called by his mother's blood to avenge her murder, but no one else sees them. Orestes says that they are real, not "sights" (line 1053). He says that they are "Like Gorgons! / Black-clad, writhing with snakes!" (lines 1048-49). Orestes exits, presumably pursued by "the hellhounds of [his mother's] hate" (line 1054), and the play ends with the chorus asking "When will it end? When will it be calm? / When will it sleep, this fury, this Ruin?" (lines 1074-76). ("Ruin" = Atê).

Works Cited

The Furies (Eumenides) Notes and Questions
[Re-read "Apollo" (packet 13-14).]

Eumenides = "the kindly ones." In the course of the play, the chorus of Furies turns into the kinder, gentler Eumenides. At the first production of the play, the Furies' costumes were reportedly so terrifying that they caused several members of the audience to faint.

The vase painting at right depicts Orestes sitting in front of the omphalos stone at Delphi. He still holds the sword he used to kill Clytemnestra. Apollo purifies him of the blood-guilt (miasma) by dousing Orestes with the blood of a pig. The Furies lie sleeping at the left--at the far left you can just see Clytemnestra's ghost trying to wake them and rouse them to action. 

Eumenides bell krater, South Italian, c. 375 BC (Louvre, Paris)

(117, lines 2-8) Gaia . . . Themis . . . Phoebe For a commentary on this myth making, see the introduction, pp. vii-viii. Read "Apollo" (packet 13-14) for the more usual version of how Apollo came into possession of the oracle at Delphi.
(121, line 79) the city of Athena = Athens.
(124, line 166) the center stone = the omphalos, or navel-stone at Delphi.
(125, line181) winged serpents = arrows. Note snake imagery.
(line 189) mutilated = cutting off hands, nose, etc.
(129, line 281) The mark of mother-killing has been washed out. Orestes has been purified by Apollo. Remember that the word used in Greek to describe religious purification or purging is catharsis.
(131, line 322) Leto's child = Apollo.
(lines 397-98) Scamander's / shores = environs of Troy. Athena says she recently took possession of newly-conquered Troy.
(139, line 534) Outrage is Impiety's true child. = Hubris comes from not obeying the gods.
(147, line 717) Ixion = first murderer (like Cain), he was pardoned by Zeus. Later, he tried to rape Zeusí wife Hera, for which he was perpetually punished.
(158, line 1011) guests = metoikoi or "metics," foreigners living in Athens (not full citizens) who were yearly clad in crimson robes and allowed to march in the Panathenaic procession, as do the Furies (now Eumenides) in lines 1025-1031. At this annual festival. a new robe was carried in procession to the goddess Athena's temple-home (the Parthenon) on the Acropolis. Compare / contrast to Agammenon's red carpet and bloody robe.

1. Often in this play, the Furies and Apollo act like lawyers arguing a case. Which client does each represent and why?

2. Why won't the Furies accept Apollo's purification? (See pp. 129, 136-7.) Why do you think the Furies are outcasts among the gods? Do you agree with their charge that Apollo is the one who bears all the blame (line 200)?

3. What will establishing a court do for Athens?  In what ways might it change the system of justice? (See pp. 125-135, 141-45.)

4. If the Furies and Apollo are lawyers, what role do you think Athena plays?  Is it a suitable role for her?

5. Outline the main arguments of the Furies (126-29, 138-40), Orestes (128-29, 136-37, 142-43), and Apollo (143-45). According to the Furies, what would happen if Orestes were allowed to go free (137-9, 147)? Do you think these are good arguments? What do you think of Apollo's ideas in lines 625-673? In what ways does Apollo act like or unlike the god that Cassandra described in the Agamemnon?

6. What do you think of the reasons Athena gives (lines 734-41) for her decision? Do you think her decision is the right one? Why or why not? [See introduction xxxiii-xxxvi and note the jury-tampering on pp. 147-48.]

7. Take a vote to decide whether you think Orestes should be acquitted. Why do you think he's guilty or not guilty? (In our terms? In Greek terms?)

8. Why do you suppose the Furies decide to accept the position Athena offers them? What calms their anger? (Remember Achilles.)

9. How could you see Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes as tragic heroes? What are their reversals and do any of them undergo what Aristotle calls "a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate"?

10. What do the gods want in this trilogy?

11. How many kinds of justice are presented in the trilogy? Which is the best kind, according to Aeschylus?

12. Compare and contrast the notions of justice and revenge presented in Aeschylus' trilogy with those depicted at the end of the Odyssey.

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