The Libation Bearers
By Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.)
A Study Guide
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Mythology Background
Plot Summary
Figures of Speech
Greek Theater: Structure
Author Background
Complete Free Text
Part 1 of Trilogy
Part 3 of Trilogy

Introduction: The Libation Bearers as Part of The Oresteia Trilogy 

.......The Libation Bearers is a tragedy that was first performed in Athens, Greece, in 458 B.C., along with two other plays: Agamemnon and The Eumenides. These three plays make up a set known as The Oresteia, considered Aeschylus's finest work and one of the greatest works in world literature. 
.......Although they are separate plays--each one complete in itself--the second play (The Libation Bearers) continues the story of the first (Agamemnon) and the third play (The Eumenides) continues the story of the second. In addition, the plays share a common theme: how the justice system of ancient Greece evolved from a crude, "eye for an eye" system to a civilized system with courts and trials. In ancient Greece, three plays with a related theme and plot were called a trilogy. We still use this word today to identify three plays, novels, films, etc., with related themes and continuing plots. The first three Star Wars movies are an example of a modern trilogy. The title of the Aeschylus trilogy is derived from the name of a pivotal character in The Libation Bearers--Orestes. The Libation Bearers is sometimes referred to as Choephori, Choëphoroe, and Choephoroi, all English transliterations of the original Greek title. 

Mythology Background

.......Aeschylus based the plot of The Libation Bearers and the other plays in The Oresteia (also spelled Orestea) on a mythological story well known to Greeks of his time. Because Aeschylus focused his plays only on parts of this story, readers need to be familiar with the parts not included in the Oresteia in order to gain a full understanding and appreciation of The Libation Bearers. Following is an abbreviated account of the myth, as well as information from the first play, to bring readers up to date on what took place before the beginning of The Libation Bearers:
.......Agamemnon was the son of a man named Atreus. When Agamemnon and his younger brother, Thyestes, were adults, Atreus became King of Mycenae, a city in southern Greece on a peninsula today known as the Peloponnese. Atreus then drove his brother out of the city when the latter challenged him for the throne. One account of this tale says Thyestes had first seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, to gain possession of a lamb with a golden fleece that conferred on its owner the rulership of Mycenae. When Thyestes left the city, he took with him Atreus’s child, Pleisthenes, and reared the boy. 
.......One day, Thyestes sent Pleisthenes on a mission to kill Atreus. But the murder plot was foiled and Pleisthenes was killed. Atreus did not immediately realize that the man who tried to kill him was his own son. However, after he discovered to his horror the identity of the assailant, Atreus hatched a plot to get even with his brother: He invited Thyestes to a banquet, pretending he was ready to reconcile with his brother. The main course turned out to be the cooked remains of the sons of Thyestes. Thyestes ate heartily of the fare. After he learned of his brother's treachery, he laid a heavy curse on Atreus and his descendants to get even for this unspeakable abomination. 
.......So it was that the son of Atreus, Agamemon, inherited the sin and guilt of his father, just as Christians of later times inherited the sin and guilt of Adam and Eve. 
.......Thyestes then fathered another son, Aegisthus. When he grew up, he and Thyestes killed Atreus. Thyestes then seized the throne of Atreus and became King of Mycenae.
.......Meanwhile, Agamemnon went on to become King of Argos, a city in the Peloponnese, and later became general of all the Greek armies when Greece declared war on Troy. However, a cloud of doom--the curse pronounced by Thyestes--hovered over Agamemnon everywhere. It eventually manifested itself at Aulis, a Greek port city where Agamemnon's fleet had gathered to debark for Troy. There, the Olympian goddess Artemis--offended because Agamemnon had killed an animal sacred to her--stayed the winds, making it impossible for Agamemnon and his armies to sail to Greece. The only way to gain favorable winds, she said, was to sacrifice his young daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon did so and even gagged his daughter so that, with her last breath, she could not curse him for this deed. Her death enraged Agamemnon's wife, Queen Clytemnestra. After Artemis quickened the winds and Agamemnon sailed off to Troy, Clytemnestra never forgot what Agamemnon did. While he was fighting the Trojans, she took a lover--Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes. Together, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus plotted Agamemnon's murder while he was fighting at Troy. 
.......When the Greeks at long last defeated the Trojans and Clytemnestra received word that Agamemnon would soon return home as a conquering hero, Clytemnestra set in motion the murder plan. It is at this point that Aeschylus begins the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, telling how Clytemnestra carried out her murder plot with the help of Aegisthus. The chorus predicts that an avenger will come to mete out justice against Clytemnestra. This avenger is Clytemnestra's son, Orestes, the main character of The Libation Bearers. According to Greek myth, Orestes was just a child at the time of Agamemnon's murder. Because his sister, Electra, and his nurse feared for his life, they secretly sent him to his uncle, the King of Phocis, who reared Orestes alongside his own son, Pylades.
.......After Orestes attains young manhood, he returns to Argos to avenge the death of his father. It is at this point that Aeschylus takes up the story in The Libation Bearers.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005

.......Now grown to young manhood, Orestes returns to Argos with his friend Pylades to avenge the murder of his father, King Agamemnon, by his mother, Clytemnestra. At Agamemnon’s grave, Orestes prays that the spirit of his father will bless him in this task. Orestes lays down two locks of hair–one in tribute to a river god, Inachus, for watching over him and the other in tribute to his father. Orestes sees a group of women in the distance. When he recognizes one of them as his sister, Electra, he and Pylades withdraw to observe the women. 
.......Electra and the others, a chorus of slaves who work in the palace, bear wine offerings, called libations. which Clytemnestra ordered them to pour out in honor of the earth goddess. But the chorus advises Electra to pour the wine on Agamemnon’s grave while praying that an avenger will come to inflict the ultimate punishment, death, upon Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the murderers of Agamemnon. 
.......While she pours out the libations, the chorus chants.

    Mist of death and hell, arise and hear
    Hearken and awaken to our cry of woe!
    Who with might of spear
    Shall our home deliver? 
.......Electra then notices a lock of hair, saying its curls resemble those of her brother, Orestes. She thinks he sent it to Argos as a sign of his grieving. After she also notices fresh footprints near the grave, Orestes then comes forth and reveals himself to her. After she welcomes him warmly, Orestes asks Zeus to aid him in killing Clytemnestra, a task which will not only avenge his father’s death but also free Electra and the citizens of the Argos from the yoke of this tyrannical woman and enable Orestes to claim a throne that rightfully belongs to him. Electra reminds him that there is also another enemy to deal with, Aegisthus, who became Clytemnestra’s lover when Agamemnon was at Troy and who helped Clytemnestra plan and kill Agamemnon. 
.......Orestes, Electra, and the chorus of slave women all pray in turn that the plot against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus will succeed.
.......Curious about why Clytemnestra commanded Electra and the others to pour out wine offerings, Orestes asks for an explanation. The chorus explains that Clytemnestra had a dream about giving birth to a snake that sucked bloody milk from her breast. It so frightened her as an omen of doom, raising her “shivering from her couch,” that she ordered libations poured on the earth to court divine intervention to protect her.
.......Orestes then sets himself to the task before him. Pretending to be a message-bearer from Phocis, he goes to the palace and tells Clytemnestra that Orestes has died. (Clytemnestra does not recognize him, for she has not seen him for many years.) The news saddens the old nurse who reared Orestes. Because Aegisthus is out in the city, the nurse leaves the palace to fetch him at Clytemnestra’s bidding. The chorus intercepts her, telling her to advise Aegisthus not to bring his bodyguards with him. 
.......When Aegisthus appears at the palace, he tells the chorus, standing outside, that he will find out whether this messenger is reporting a mere rumor or whether the messenger himself witnessed the death of Orestes. Shortly after he enters the palace, the chorus hears a loud cry coming from inside. An attendant runs out of the palace to shout that Aegisthus has been slain. Clytemnestra comes out to inquire what the commotion is about. The attendant says, “The dead are come to slay the living.” She now realizes what is happening and asks the attendant to bring the very axe used to kill Agamemnon. Orestes then rushes out with a blood-stained sword. 
    Pylades is with him. Clytemnestra begs for her life.
    Stay, child, and fear to strike. O son, this breast
    Pillowed thine head full oft, while, drowsed with sleep,
    Thy toothless mouth drew mother's milk from me.
.......Orestes, hesitant, asks Pylades what he should do. Pylades reminds him that he has a solemn duty to avenge the death of his father. Even the great god Apollo wills the death of Clytemnestra. After a verbal exchange with his mother, Orestes forces his mother back into the palace. Moments later, he opens wide the main doors as he stands over the corpses of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. In one hand he holds his instrument of vengeance, a sword. In the other, he holds the blood-stained robe Agamemnon was wearing when he was killed. It is proof, he says, that he was murdered.
.......Orestes then sees an unsettling sight:
    Look, look, alas!
    Handmaidens, see-what Gorgon shapes throng up
    Dusky their robes and all their hair enwound-
    Snakes coiled with snakes-off, off,-I must away!
.......They are the Furies, who have the “black blood of hatred dripping from their eyes!” Whenever a human commits a terrible wrong, these ugly female deities rise up from the lower world to exact vengeance against him.  Murder arouses their wrath like no other crime. 
Orestes flees. His destination is the holy place of Apollo at Delphi. There, he will seek protection.
The action takes place in Argos, Greece, at the palace of the late King Agamemnon, now occupied by the woman who murdered him--his widow, Queen Clytemnestra--and her lover, Aegisthus, who helped her plan and carry out the murder. Argos is a city on a mountainous peninsula, the Peloponnese, that makes up southern Greece. The peninsula is south of the Gulf of Corinth and north of the Mediterranean Sea. Argos is in the northeastern part of the peninsula. Citizens of Argos were called Argives
Protagonist: Orestes
Antagonists: Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the Furies
Orestes Son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. He plots the murder of his own mother because she murdered his father. 
Electra Sister of Orestes. She supports him in his plan to kill their mother. 
Chorus of Slave Women They despise Clytemnestra and voice support for Orestes and Electra.
Pylades Friend of Orestes.
Nurse Old woman who reared Orestes and sides with him against his mother.
Clytemnestra Mother of Orestes and murderer of her husband and Orestes's father, Agamemnon. 
Aegisthus Conniving paramour of Clytemnestra.
The Furies Deities who exact vengeance against wrongdoers. They are terrifying to behold, for they have coiling snakes for hair. They pursue Orestes after he kills Clytemnestra.
Main Themes of the Trilogy

Retribution and Revenge

.......The gods of ancient Greece required humankind to pay for its sins. Sons and daughters of sinners could inherit the sins of their parents, just as the descendants of Adam and Eve were destined to inherit original sin in Christian theology. But of course each Greek also had free will, enabling him or her to choose good or evil. Agamemnon inherited the sin of his father, Atreus, in the form of a curse pronounced on Agamemnon by his brother, Thyestes. In the Aeschylus play, Agamemnon thus seems doubly cursed. On the one hand, he bears the guilt of his father; on the other, he bears his own guilt for sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, and for participating in the destruction of Troy’s holy places. One could argue that the circumstances forcing him to decide whether to sacrifice his daughter arose as a result of the curse pronounced on the House of Atreus by Thyestes. Whatever the case, Agamemnon lives under the weight of inherited sin and sin that he wills. Of course, killing his daughter and defiling Troy’s altars are not his only sins; he also commits adultery and indulges his own pride by walking on the purple carpet. After Clytemnestra murders him, she defends her action by saying she represented the gods carrying out a divine sentence. But it is obvious that she is also a human avenger getting even for the murder of her daughter and for Agamemnon’s infidelity. Ironically, Clytemnetra has also been unfaithful–with the son of the man who was wronged by Atreus. At the end of the play, the chorus declares that another avenger will appear to exact revenge against Clytemnestra. 

Evolution of Personal Vengeance Into a Civilized Court System
.......In very early Greek history, as well as in the myths and legends recounted by early Greek writers, it was up to individuals to mete out justice for wrongs committed against them. Courts and trials as we know them today did not exist. In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra takes justice into her own hands; she believes she has a right to kill Agamemnon in retaliation for his killing of their daughter, Iphigenia. In her own mind, Clytemnestra has tried and convicted her husband. When she kills him, she becomes an executioner. In short, she personifies the entire justice system. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes--with the support of his sister, Electra--assumes the role of judge, jury, and executioner, condemning and killing his mother to avenge the death of his father. In The Eumenides, the Furies attempt to avenge the death of Clytemnestra. However, two powerful gods, Apollo and Athena, intervene. Athena establishes a court to try Orestes for his alleged crime. Apollo testifies for Orestes and the Furies against him. In the end, Orestes is exonerated, and the court system replaces the old "eye for an eye" system. 

Gender Rivalry

.......In Agamemnon, Argos is a male-dominated society that reduces women to subservient roles. However, Clytemnestra is a strong woman who rules the kingdom while Agamemnon is away. When he returns from the war to resume his rule, Clytemnestra is expected to yield to him. It may well be, though, that Clytemnestra is wedded to the throne, as it were, and has decided to kill Agamemnon not only as an act of vengeance but also as an act of ambition. This motif receives further attention in The Libation Bearers. In this play, Clytemnestra is described as a tyrant who oppresses the citizens of Argos and enslaves her own daughter. It almost appears as if testosterone, not estrogen, drives her. When Orestes plots her death, he cites reclamation of the throne from a woman as one of one of his goals. After killing Clytemnestra, Orestes is pursued by female deities, the Furies, and saved by a male deity, Apollo. Of course, a female deity has the last word: In The Eumendes, the goddess Athena votes to acquit Orestes, the pacifies the enraged Furies. Her action not only establishes a new order of justice but also reconciles the warring sexes.

Importance of Heeding the Will of the Gods

.......In Agamemnon, the title character faces doom in part because he sometimes failed to respect the gods and their laws. First, he killed an animal sacred to Artemis (an act alluded to but not described in detail in the Aeschylus play). For this offense, she prevented Agamemnon and his armies from gaining favorable winds for their voyage to Troy. The only way for him to reverse her action, she decreed, was to sacrifice his daughter. Second, he exhibited excessive pride on several occasions as commander of the Greek forces. Third, he allowed his soldiers to desecrate the holy places of Troy. After his return to Argos, he allowed his pride to get the better of him again, this time by walking in triumph on the purple carpet. Pride was considered a grave sin in ancient Greece because it placed too much emphasis on individual will, thereby downplaying the will of the state and endangering the community as a whole. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes hesitates when the time comes to kill Clytemnestra. His friend, Pylades, convinces him of the necessity of the act by reminding him that Apollo ordered the killing. In The Eumenides, everyone--including the Furies--accepts the will of Athena.

Fickleness of the Gods

.......The gods of Greek mythology could be fickle and hypocritical, just like humans. Not infrequently, they violated laws which they commanded humans to obey. For example, they frequently committed infidelity. They also lied, promoted violence, and displayed inordinate pride. In Agamemnon, the goddess Artemis exhibited hypocrisy when she withheld favorable winds from Agamemnon for killing one of her sacred animals. To understand her hypocrisy in this case, one must understand what her roles were. First, she was a protector of wild animals while also serving as the patron deity of hunters. She herself was a huntress. Yet she penalized Agamemnon for doing what she often did: kill an animal. Second, as a virgin goddess, she was the patron of chastity. Yet she told Agamemnon that she would not cancel her penalty unless he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, a virgin. Artemis thus exhibited hostility toward two humans she was supposed to favor: a hunter and a virgin. In Agamemnon, Aeschylus does not explicitly address the issue of divine hypocrisy, but he does allude to it–intentionally or unintentionally–in choral songs.

Infidelity: A Motif in Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers
.......Both Agamemnon and Clytemnestra commit adultery–he with Cassandra, whom he brings home from Troy as a captive, and she with Aegisthus, the son of the bitter enemy of Agamemnon’s father. Although Agamemnon's infidelity is not the main reason that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon, it helps her to drive her weapon into his skull. Before Orestes kills Clytemnestra in The Libation Bearers, he cites his mother's his mother's infidelity with Aegisthus as one of his motives, although it is not the main motive. 


.......The climax of the play is Orestes' killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

Darkness and Light

.......Aeschylus uses images of darkness and light to symbolize the emergence of Greece from the primitive age of personal revenge and vigilante justice, during which powerful monarchs ruled city states, to the civilized age of law courts, during which the people ruled through democracy. In the Oresteia, the transition from one age to the other begins in the first play, Agamemnon, when the watchman observes a mountaintop signal fire lighting the night sky to alert Argos that the Trojan War has ended. Dawn follows shortly thereafter. From then on, images of darkness and light vie with each other, symbolizing the cultural and social struggle taking place. 
There is a kind of birth going on, and there are labor pains. The newborn child finally sees the light of day, for good, in the third play of the trilogy. 

Animal and Insect Images

.......In Agamemnon, eagles, hares, spiders, and other creatures exhibit the behavior patterns of humans, figuratively speaking, and thus become symbols for those humans. For example, spiders and snakes are associated with Clytemnestra because she has spun a web of treachery (like a spider) and has poised herself (like a coiling snake) to strike at Agamemnon. Eagles that prey on a pregnant hare are associated with Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, because they are fierce warriors destined to destroy Troy (the hare) and its future (the hare's offspring). In the third play of the trilogy, The Eumenides, the spider-web metaphor appears again when the god Apollo describes how Clytemnestra trapped Agamemnon:

    She spread from head to foot a covering net,
    And in the endless mesh of cunning robes
    Enwound and trapped her lord, and smote him down.
Figures of Speech
.......The plays of Aeschylus are rich in a wide range of figures of speech that infuse his writing with dignity and majesty. Here are examples from Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers.

Metaphor, Personification, Paradox, Hyperbole, Synecdoche

As saith the adage, from the womb of Night................[womb of Night: metaphor, personification]
Spring forth, with promise fair, the young child Light.....[womb of Night / child Light: paradox
Ay–fairer even than all hope my news–.......................[fairer even than all hope: hyperbole
By Grecian hands is Priam's city ta'en!.......................[by Grecian hands: synecdoche

–Speaker and play: Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, referring to the Greek victory over the Trojans

Apostrophe, Personification, Metaphor

O mighty Hermes, warder of the shades,..................[O mighty Hermes: apostrophe]
Herald of upper and of under world,
Proclaim and usher down my prayer's appeal
Unto the gods below, that they with eyes
Watchful behold these halls. My sire's of old–
And unto Earth, the mother of all things,...................[Earth, the mother: personification, metaphor]
And loster-nurse, and womb that takes their seed. 

–Speaker and play: Electra in The Libation Bearers while praying at the tomb of Agamemnon.

Author Information
.......Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) was the first of ancient Greece's great tragedians. Because of the standards of excellence he established and because of innovations he made in the staging of Greek drama, he is often referred to as the "father of Greek tragedy." Before Aeschylus wrote and staged his plays, Greek drama consisted primarily of choral songs, recitations, and dances, as well as dialogue expressed by a single actor who generally played more than one part. (The actor wore a mask that signified which character he was playing at a given time. When he switched characters, he changed masks.) Aeschylus added a second actor, enabling the first actor to engage in dialogue with the second actor and providing greater latitude for plot development. He also increased the dialogue portions of plays, reduced the lyrical portions of the chorus, and designed stage sets and costumes. 

Greek Theater: Structure

Definition and Background

.......The Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage, and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dioniyia, the Greeks danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories. One day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue, to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging them in a theater. 
......."A contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the ‘tyrant' whom the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals, and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate them. 

Major Sections of the Theater
.....(1) A tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron faced the east to allow the audience to view plays--usually staged later in the day--without squinting. 
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors. 
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
Other Theater Sections

.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery. 
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene. 
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra. 
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus. 
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.