Libation Bearers: Novel Summary
(in the Greek text—the translations vary)
The scene is the mound that marks the grave of Agamemnon and the space around it. Orestes and Pylades enter. Orestes prays to Hermes, begging for help, now that he has returned from exile, and he calls out to his father. He offers a lock of his hair to the river Inachus and lays another lock on his father’s grave, since he was not able to be there when his father was buried.
Orestes sees a group of women in black coming to the grave, and guesses that they are bringing libations of the kind meant to appease the dead to offer to his father. He recognizes his sister Electra among them, the deepest in grief. He prays to Zeus to help him avenge his father’s death; then he bids Pylades hide with him until it’s certain what the women are doing.
The Chorus of slave-women sing that they have been sent to bring libations, and that they are tearing their cheeks, beating themselves, and tearing their robes [as was the custom for mourners]. The reason for the bringing of libations is a dream of terror that came in the night, interpreted by the dream interpreters to mean that the dead are angry and want the blood of their killers. The godless woman [Clytemnestra] has sent the slave-women here to try to pacify the dead, but how can they utter the prayer she wants them to? Blood has been spilt and the house is in darkness because of the death of its master—what offering can atone for that? Once reverence for the king ruled the people, but now fear rules. But justice comes, sooner or later. The guilty are forever stained by the blood they have shed. Virginity once lost cannot be regained, and a hand polluted by blood can never be cleansed. Speaking as one they say, As a slave, I must obey even unjust commands and hide my disgust, but I weep in secret.
Electra speaks, asking the Chorus to give her advice. What can she say as she makes these libations? How can she say that they come from a loving wife, or speak the usual words that ask for benefits in return for these gifts? Shall she pour them out in silence and throw away the container in disgust? The Chorus share her hatred; let them give her advice. The Chorus Leader, revering Agamemnon’s grave, advises her to pray for good for all those who hate Aegisthus: for herself, for them, and for Orestes. As for those who did the murder, pray that someone may make them pay their lives for the life they took. Electra asks whether it is impious to ask for such a thing, and they assure her that it is right to ask evil for enemies who have done evil.
Electra prays to Hermes to convey her prayers to the gods below the earth and to Earth herself. She calls on her father, asking him to pity her and bring Orestes home. She and Orestes have both been sold by their mother in exchange for Aegisthus. Electra herself is treated like a slave, and Orestes is in exile, while her mother and Aegisthus live in luxury on what Agamemnon’s labors won. She also prays that she may be much more self-restrained than her mother and in her deeds more reverent toward the gods. As for the enemies, she asks that may someone come to exact vengeance for her father, and carry out justice by taking life for life. She says that this prayer for evil she puts into her prayers for good.
Finally, Electra bids the Chorus sing a hymn for the dead as she pours the libations. The Chorus sing of their longing for an avenger.
The Libation Bearers is the second play of Aeschylus’s great trilogy, his Oresteia. The play takes its name from the Chorus, as is often the case in Greek drama: the Chorus enter the play as libation bearers. Unlike the first play, the Agamemnon, the second one is generally not performed alone. Its meaning depends to a great extent on the Agamemnon; so many details of it seem designed to create a contrast between the way vengeance is carried out in the second play and the way it is carried out in the first, so that it may make sense on all levels that the vengeance carried out in The Libation Bearers may be the last bloody act, and not just one more killing in the endless chain of blood for blood. At the same time, this play seems designed to leave us with the sense that the old kind of justice is once again involving the one who executes it in a terrible deed, one that demands punishment. Some scholars emphasize the first aspect of the play, some the second, but whether we are more struck by the similarities between the carrying out of justice in the two plays or the differences, we are seeing this play as its first audience saw it, in the light of our response to the Agamemnon.
As Clytemnestra told Agamemnon in the first play, Orestes was not there to welcome his father when he came home because she had sent Orestes to stay with the king of Phocis, in case any disorder happened while Agamemnon was away. (Delphi, the seat of Apollo’s oracle, was on Phocian territory, and Apollo and his oracles have a major role in this play.) At the opening of The Libation Bearers, some years seem to have passed since Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra, and the rule of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus has not been a popular one. Now Orestes has returned to Argos with his friend Pylades, son of the king of Phocis. As we learn later, Apollo has threatened Orestes with horrible suffering if he does not kill his mother, as well as Aegisthus, and he has returned to do that. One way of seeing the play is based on the belief that many of the people of Athens were as horrified as we are at the idea that it could be right for a man to kill his mother and go on to a peaceful and happy life as king of his country, as the old legend, at least in some versions, seems to be saying. Aeschylus saw a way to portray the events of the legend in such a way that that ending could seem acceptable, even an occasion for rejoicing. Only in the last play of the trilogy is the full resolution reached, but the first steps are taken here, in the first scene of The Libation Bearers: those who hate Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and pray that revenge may be taken on them for Agamemnon’s death are very different from Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, and are portrayed in a completely different way.
The full meaning of what happens in the opening scene is challenging for a modern audience to grasp. Agamemnon is no longer simply the human being of the first play of the trilogy, the rightful and beloved king, yet guilty and an inheritor of guilt. He is one of the powerful dead, a “hero,” who can bring blight or blessing on the land. The “heroes” of ancient Greece were not simply exemplary human beings; indeed, they were often not exemplary at all, but in some way their lives had shown a power greater than that of an ordinary human being, and that power was believed to be even greater after death. In fact, once dead, they had some of the powers that saints have been (and are) thought to have by many Roman Catholics. From the perspective of the original audience, Clytemnestra is right to fear Agamemnon’s wrath, and foolish to think insincere offerings can appease him. At the same time, Electra and the Chorus know that Agamemnon has power to help them.
What is striking is the contrast between Electra in this play and Clytemnestra in the first. Clytemnestra shows no sign of any hesitation in killing Agamemnon; before his death, she plays her part with power, and after his death she rejoices. She has been completely taken over by hatred. Certainly Electra hates her mother, but she hesitates to call up Agamemnon’s power against her; she prays to be different from her mother; and she recoils from the idea of asking that an avenger take life for life. Yet that is the only justice available. Still, when she prays that it may come to pass, she calls it a prayer for evil. There is a dawning consciousness that what still seems inevitable and necessary is not therefore right.
There is also a powerful contrast in mood between the opening of The Libation Bearers and the opening of the Agamemnon. In the first play, no one dares to speak what they know of the evil in the palace that threatens the returning king, but we sense it building. The feeling is claustrophobic, ominous. Here, the hatred and the deed that must be done are out in the open, and we see a woman who has no desire to take power, who wants to avoid doing wrong, yet who must pray for the only form of justice available.