Libation Bearers as Part of The Oresteia Trilogy
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.
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
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:
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.
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
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.
then fathered another son, Aegisthus. When he grew up, he and Thyestes
killed Atreus. Thyestes then seized the throne of Atreus and became King
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
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.
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
Michael J. Cummings...©
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
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
she pours out the libations, the chorus chants.
Mist of death and hell,
arise and hear
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.
Hearken and awaken to our
cry of woe!
Who with might of spear
Shall our home deliver?
Electra, and the chorus of slave women all pray in turn that the plot against
Clytemnestra and Aegisthus will succeed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
then sees an unsettling sight:
Look, look, alas!
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.
Handmaidens, see-what Gorgon
shapes throng up
Dusky their robes and all
their hair enwound-
Snakes coiled with snakes-off,
off,-I must away!
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.
Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the Furies
Orestes Son of Agamemnon
and Clytemnestra. He plots the murder of his own mother because she murdered
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
Nurse Old woman who
reared Orestes and sides with him against his mother.
of Orestes and murderer of her husband and Orestes's father, Agamemnon.
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
Themes of the Trilogy
Retribution and Revenge
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
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.
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
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
Fickleness of the Gods
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
Infidelity: A Motif in
and The Libation Bearers
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.
climax of the play is Orestes' killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
Darkness and Light
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
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.
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.
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
–Speaker and play: Clytemnestra
in Agamemnon, referring to the Greek victory over the Trojans
O mighty Hermes, warder of
the shades,..................[O mighty Hermes:
Herald of upper and of under
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.
(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
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.
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
Major Sections of the
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.
stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the
midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors.
orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
Other Theater Sections
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.
Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.
Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from