Libation Bearers: Lines 164-305
Electra sees the lock of hair that Orestes has left on his father’s tomb, and she and the Chorus Leader together come to the conclusion that it can only be a lock of her brother’s hair. Only Orestes would pay such a tribute to their father, and besides, the hair is very like hers. Perhaps he has sent it to honor his father. The Chorus Leader weeps to think that he doesn’t dare to come home himself. Electra shares their weeping. Certainly her mother, her father’s murderer, could not have sent it! Yet how can she be sure? Then she sees the tracks of feet that resemble her own, and doesn’t know what to think.
At that moment Orestes and Pylades come out of hiding, and Orestes tells her to thank the gods that her prayers have been fulfilled, and to pray that she may be as fortunate in the future. Electra is suspicious at first, but finally Orestes convinces her that he is indeed her brother, and she is overcome with joy. She loves him with a fourfold love—with the love that had gone to her father, to her mother (since for her real mother she can feel only hate), to her ruthlessly slain sister, as well as with the love of a sister to a true brother. May Power and Justice and Zeus help them!
Orestes answers with a prayer to Zeus to look with favor on them. Their father has perished like an eagle in the coils of a viper, and they are left like deserted nestlings. Their father sacrificed generously to Zeus, and who will serve Zeus if the god does not raise up their father’s royal house?
The Chorus Leader urges caution. Someone may see and carry word to those in power. But Orestes trusts Apollo’s oracles, which threaten him with horrible suffering at the hands of the Furies sprung from his father’s blood if he does not avenge his father’s death. Those who don’t take vengeance for a father’s death are seen as polluted and can have no fellowship with other human beings. Must he not believe the oracles? Even if he doesn’t, he has to take vengeance: there is the god’s command, there is his sorrow for his father, there is his desire to regain his possessions, to take up the rule of Argos and not leave the city subject to the two women who now rule it—for Aegisthus has the heart of a woman. But Orestes will soon make him know whether Orestes does.
Greek tragedy became more realistic, less ritualistic, after Aeschylus, and later playwrights seem to have found the beginning of this scene laughably unrealistic—as though a sister and a brother would have similar hair, or similar footprints! But it would be a shame to let such concerns keep us from feeling the powerful depiction of hope beginning to dawn for Electra, and then hope fulfilled. Again, her sincere welcome of the brother she loves stands in the greatest possible contrast with Clytemnestra’s long, hypocritical welcome of Agamemnon. Interestingly, though, her speech contains the only mention in the first half of the play of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia. To Orestes she gives not only the love of a sister for a brother, but all the love previously given to her father, her mother, and her sister who was ruthlessly slaughtered.
The image Orestes uses in the speech in which he replies also recalls Agamemnon’s guilt, yet in such a way that we are struck by the contrast between father and son. In the Agamemnon, the omen of the twin eagles tearing the body of the pregnant hare served as an image of the cruelty of the complete destruction visited on Troy by Agamemnon and his brother, a cruelty that formed part of the guilt that wove around Agamemnon like a net, dooming him. But Orestes compares Electra and himself, not to eagles, but to nestlings, robbed of their father, who has “perished in the coils and meshes / of a dread viper” (all quotations not otherwise attributed are from the literal translation of the Oresteia by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, published by the University of California Press in 1979; here, from lines 247-8). Orestes is innocent in a way Agamemnon was not, even though he is faced with the killing of his mother as the only way to see justice done. Moreover, from a psychological perspective, we can say that the Furies sprung from his father’s blood with which Apollo’s oracle has threatened him are the living embodiment of the guilt he will feel if he does not avenge his father. No threat of Furies hung over Agamemnon, impelling him to sacrifice Iphigeneia, nor was she in any sense guilty—he had only his feeling that he could not let his army down.
Finally, Orestes is the rightful heir. If he becomes king, he brings lawful order back to Argos, and he longs to do that. How important legitimate rule is, is underlined in the first choral ode of the play, when the Chorus sings of the way fear now rules the people, not awe before a rightful ruler. We also see that even slave-women like the members of the Chorus suffer more under the rule of tyrants such as Aegisthus and Clytemnestra and long for a lawful ruler.