Libation Bearers: Lines 510-652
The Chorus Leader praises all that has been said as a proper honoring of the dead by lament, since no lament was raised when Agamemnon was buried, and urges Orestes to act now. Orestes agrees, but first wants to know why Clytemnestra has sent her futile offerings to the tomb of Agamemnon. The Chorus Leader was there, and can tell Orestes the dream Clytemnestra was terrified by: she dreamed she bore a snake, wrapped it up as a baby is wrapped, and nursed it. It bit her breast and sucked out blood with milk. She screamed, lamps were lit, and she sent funeral libations to try to avert the danger the dream pointed to. Orestes prays that the dream may be fulfilled—he sees himself in it. The snake was born from the same womb from which he was born, wrapped as he was wrapped as a baby, and nursed from the breast he nursed from, with milk mixed with blood. The meaning is that his mother must “die by violence, and it is I that turn into a snake / and slay her, as this dream announces” (549-550).
The Chorus Leader prays that it may turn out that way, then asks him to tell his friends what to do. Orestes lays it out: Electra is to go inside and to keep his secret, so that as Aegisthus and Clytemnestra killed a hero by cunning, they may die by cunning, as Apollo has foretold. Orestes and Pylades will come to the door of the palace, pretending to be strangers and speaking the Phocian dialect. If the doorkeepers don’t let them in, since the house is troubled, they will wait, so that passers-by may wonder why Aegisthus is not receiving the suppliants [as all good men know they should do]. If Orestes enters and finds Aegisthus on Agamemnon’s throne, or Aegisthus returns and finds him, Orestes will kill him instantly, and the Fury of the house will drink blood again. Electra is to keep watch in the house, and the women of the Chorus are to be silent or speak, depending on what’s needed.
Orestes, Pylades, and Electra leave, and the Chorus sings and dances, reflecting on ancient stories. Many terrors there are in earth and heaven, but who can describe the horror of men’s reckless daring or women’s passions and the ruin they bring? When women are overcome by shameless passion, unions between men and women are ruined. Passion can drive a woman to kill her own son, as the mother of the hero Meleager was driven by the passion of her grief for the death of her brothers to burn the brand on which Meleager’s life depended. Scylla, yielding to her passion for a golden necklace, betrayed her father to his death. Among these often-told stories of horrible deeds by women belongs the story they themselves have seen acted out, as, influenced by her passion for the coward Aegisthus, Clytemnestra killed her warrior husband. Worst of all, there is the story of how, driven by the passion of jealousy, the women of the island of Lemnos killed all the men. When Justice has been trampled, Justice strikes home with a sword. The Furies have brought a child to this house so stained by blood to atone for the pollution.
The image in Clytemnestra’s dream brings out the full horror of the situation—the deep intimacy of the relationship between the avenger and the woman he will kill. When Orestes accepts the dream’s version of events and sees himself becoming a snake in order to kill his mother, how can we not see a deep ambivalence in his attitude to what he feels he must do? He had seen his mother as a snake—the viper who strangled the eagle—and now he will become a snake. What hope is there? Just this—he is conscious of the horror of what he is doing. Snakes are not conscious.
At this point, encouraged by the Chorus Leader, all his focus shifts to how to do the deed. In the Agamemnon, we know evil is being plotted, but we never see the plotting—here, though what Orestes is planning is deception and trickery, the planning at least is out in the open. It is, however, interesting that, having just heard the dream and even prayed that he may fulfill its horrible prophecy, Orestes says nothing about the killing of his mother. His whole focus is on the killing of Aegisthus—again, a suggestion that something in him draws back from matricide.
With Orestes’ words to Electra, giving her as her sole mission the keeping of silence and a keeping of good watch that has no clear purpose, Electra disappears from the play, never to return, even in the third play of the trilogy. Earlier versions of the story do not mention her. Later versions tell us that she married Pylades, but Aeschylus has no interest in that kind of happy ending for her. Her love of her father and hatred of his killers have had their influence on our feelings, as has her joy at Orestes’ return. That she takes no part in the rest of the action may have been intended to say more about Orestes and how different he is from Aegisthus than about Electra herself. In the last scene of the Agamemnon, Aegisthus answers the taunts of the Chorus, who accuse him of cowardice for not killing Agamemnon himself but having a woman (a woman who is his wife!) kill him, by explaining that such deception was easier for a woman. As an hereditary enemy, he would have been suspected. Orestes’ plan shows how feeble that excuse is—all Orestes has to do is disguise himself. It never occurs to him to ask Electra to kill either Aegisthus or their mother, and he longs to slay Aegisthus, not by making him helpless by wrapping him in a robe in his bath, but face to face. Critics have often spoken of the change from the claustrophobia of the first play to the openness of the second play, and this contrast makes its own contribution to that shift.
The choral ode that ends this scene also ends this half of the play, in which there has been only preparation for action. All the crimes of passion the ode describes are horrible violations of the natural order of the universe—that a mother should kill her own son, a daughter her father, a wife her husband; that all the women of a society should kill all the men. It is the stuff of nightmare. Yet the deed that the Chorus sing will end the pollution in this case is equally the stuff of nightmare. How can there be any real hope in this kind of justice? Yet all the contrasts between the first play and the second, perhaps especially the change in mood, suggest there is hope.