The Libation Bearers


The Libation Bearers (Χοηφόροι, Choēphoroi) is the second play of the Oresteia. It deals with the reunion of Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes, and their revenge. Orestes kills Clytemnestra to avenge the death of Agamemnon, Orestes' father.


Orestes arrives at the grave of his father, accompanied by his cousin Pylades, the son of the king of Phocis, where he has grown up in exile; he places two locks of his hair on the tomb. Orestes and Pylades hide as Electra, Orestes' sister, arrives at the grave accompanied by a chorus of elderly slave women (the libation bearers of the title) to pour libations on Agamemnon's grave; they have been sent by Clytemnestra in an effort "to ward off harm" (l.42). Just as the ritual ends, Electra spots a lock of hair on the tomb which she recognizes as similar to her own; subsequently she sees two sets of footprints, one of which has proportions similar to hers. At this point Orestes and Pylades emerge from their hiding place and Orestes gradually convinces her of his identity.

Now, in the longest and most structurally complex lyric passage in extant Greek tragedy, the chorus, Orestes, and Electra, attempt to conjure the departed spirit of Agamemnon to aid them in revenging his murder. Orestes then asks "why she sent libations, what calculation led her to offer too late atonement for a hurt past cure" (l.515–516). The chorus responds that in the palace of Argos Clytemnestra was roused from slumber by a nightmare: she dreamt that she gave birth to a snake, and the snake now feeds from her breast and draws blood along with milk. Alarmed by this, a possible sign of the gods' wrath, she "sent these funeral libations" (l.538). Orestes believes that he is the snake in his mother's dream, so together with Electra they plan to avenge their father by killing their mother Clytemnestra and her new husband, Aegisthus.

Orestes and Pylades pretend to be ordinary travelers from Phocis, and ask for hospitality at the palace. They even tell the Queen that Orestes is dead. Delighted by the news, Clytemnestra sends a servant to summon Aegisthus. When Aegisthus arrives, Orestes reveals himself and kills the usurper. Clytemnestra hears the shouting of a servant and appears on the scene. She sees Orestes standing over the body of Aegisthus. Orestes is then presented with a difficult situation: in order to avenge his father, he must kill his mother. Clytemnestra bares her breast and pleads, "Hold, oh child, and have shame" to which he responds by saying to his close friend Pylades, the son of the king of Phocis: "Shall I be ashamed to kill [my] mother ?" (l.896–899). Some interpreters have suggested that Orestes' question may be connected to a greater theme in the Oresteia: that sometimes we are faced with impossible decisions; in this case, Orestes' familial duty to his father is fundamentally opposed to his familial duty to his mother. On the other hand, it appears straightforwardly as not much more than a pro forma rhetorical question because he readily accepts Pylades advice that it is the correct course of action. Pylades implores Orestes not to forget his duty to Apollo "and our sworn pact" (900). Orestes proceeds immediately with the murder and wraps the bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in the cloak that Agamemnon was wearing when he was slain.

As soon as he exits the palace, the Erinyes begin to haunt and torture him in his flight. Orestes flees in agonized panic. The chorus complains that the cycle of violence did not stop with Clytemnestra’s murder, but continues.

References in other Greek dramas

Pietro Pucci of Cornell University argues that in making reference to The Libation Bearers in Electra, Euripides made a social commentary on the relationship between truth and evidence. Euripides criticized the scene of recognition when Electra realizes that the lock of hair on Agamemnon's tomb belongs to Orestes. In his own play Electra, Euripides has Electra make a scathing remark about the ridiculous notion that one could recognize a brother solely by a lock of hair, a footprint and an article of clothing.[3] What Euripides (presumably purposely) ignores in Aeschylus' play was the religious significance of the act of placing a lock of hair on a tomb, which was a much more powerful clue as to who left the lock than the actual nature of the hair. Only a friend of Agamemnon's would dare approach his grave and leave a lock of hair, and even more importantly, this ritual had a specific father/ male heir significance. Aeschylus' Electra, therefore, recognized her brother based on her faith in a religious act. Euripides' Electra, on the other hand, judges the situation solely on evidence, and comes to the wrong conclusion that Orestes cannot be present, when in fact the audience knows that he is there and the two characters have just spoken to each other. This commentary suggests that Euripides is referring to the then pertinent argument over evidence and truth, an issue which had no weight when Aeschylus was writing.[3]

While it has significant plot differences, the Theban cycle of plays by Sophocles have similar themes in how mistaken identity, generational curses, and vengeance cause murder and destruction of a "tragic" family. Written in classical Greece about 30 years after the Atreus series, it is probable that Sophocles was at least aware of the Atreus series when writing his more famous Oedipus tragedies.[4]

And, like many contemporaneous works, Aristophanes' play The Frogs has great fun at Orestes's expense.

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