Libation Bearers

Libation Bearers Summary and Analysis of Lines 783-930

From the choral ode that begins "Not to my supplication, Zeus" to the removal of Clytaemestra. (Lines 783-930):


The Chorus prays to Zeus for Orestes' success, assuring the father of gods that if Orestes is successful, he will be a devout giver of sacrifices forever after. They also pray for Orestes' murder of the usurpers to put an end to the cycle of violence. Hopefully, the restoration of Orestes will end the Curse. They pray for Orestes to keep his resolve and go through with the necessary murders.

Aegisthus enters, speaking about his sorrow at hearing of Orestes' death. But he is not certain if the news is true. When he asks the Chorus what they know, they say they heard the news as well but suggest that he go inside to learn the truth from the messenger himself. Skeptical, Aegisthus enters the house intending to question the messenger thoroughly. Outside the house, the Chorus wonders what is happening. They hear a cry from inside, but cannot be sure of who is screaming. The Chorus says that they will stand aside so as not to be held responsible for what happens. One of the followers of Aegisthus enters, proclaiming with terror that his master is dead. He searches for Clytaemestra so that he can warn her of the danger. When Clytaemestra enters, the follower speaks inarticulately, but the perceptive queen grasps his meaning. She sends him to get an axe so that she can defend herself.

Just then, Orestes and Pylades enter. Clytaemestra tries to convince her son not to kill her; she nearly persuades him, but Pylades convinces Orestes that the oracle must be obeyed. Orestes resolves to go through with the matricide. Clytaemestra continues to beg her son for mercy, arguing that destiny had a great part in his father's death. She also warns him that if he kills her, her curse will fall on him. She also tries to remind him of her father's faults, and the difficulties faced by a woman in her position. Orestes is not moved. Clytaemestra recognizes that the snake that she nursed in her nightmares was Orestes. Pylades and Orestes drag her into the house.


The Chorus promises that Orestes, if successful, will give many offerings to Zeus. Orestes himself made a similar promise earlier. The implication is that Orestes will give better offerings than Clytaemestra or Aegisthus have; it is as if the value of the man can be determined by the offering he gives to the gods. The promise of rich offerings to the gods occurs repeatedly in The Libation Bearers, but it is almost non-existent in other Greek tragedies. Sacrifices are common, but in other plays offerings are frequently part of a complicated situation. In Iphigeneia in Aulis and Iphigeneia in Tauris, sacrifice becomes complicated because the intended victim is human. In Antigone, sacrifice becomes impossible when the gods reject Thebes' offerings to show their disapproval of Creon. In this play, Orestes and the Chorus bring up offerings as part of a simple promise: if Orestes succeeds, many rich offerings will make their way to the gods. The sacrifice of animals was an ancient and conventional form of devotion in Greek religion. The sacrifice also brings humans and gods into a relationship that can be understood in human terms: the gods enjoy and require devotion. They like to receive gifts, and a man who is devout will give more gifts; in return, the give aid to the gift-givers. It is often said of Aeschylus that he was like a Greek Milton: he sought to explain or justify divine actions in human terms. In the trilogy, the great method for this kind of explanation is the creation of teleology, a story that explains events in terms of an ultimate purpose or design. In the Oresteia, at least, this theme is present, as the whole bloody history of the House of Atreus ultimately leads to reconciliation of old gods with new and the creation of a new institution of justice. It is fitting then that The Libation Bearers repeatedly mentions the most archaic and conventional form of piety, without complication or irony. Aeschylus is trying to make clear the working of divine will: at the same time, the most conventional form of religious devotion is mentioned with respect. Gods and men have a harmonious and mutual relationship.

Right until Clytaemestra comes face to face with her son, she shows more of her incredible composure. Faced with the revelation that her son has returned to murder her, she icily calls for an axe. Yet when he comes to kill her, she first tries to sway him by appealing to his sense of love for her: "Hold, my son. Oh take pity, child, before this breast / where many a time, a drowsing baby, you would feed / and with soft gums sucked in the milk that made you strong" (ll. 896-9). The quick transition shows both Clytaemestra's determination to survive and how fast the shift can be between love and hate; Clytaemestra need not be totally dishonest in her appeal to her son's love. The appeal is conflicted, but to interpret her words as purely hypocritical is to oversimplify her character. Hate-in-love is central to this play; even the imagery in her appeal resonates with this theme. Clytaemestra speaks of nursing, but her words immediately recall the nightmare of nursing, her prophetic dream of breastfeeding a snake. We learn for the first time that Orestes' exile was not heartless banishment into the wilderness: Clytaemestra sent the prince to live in the house of one of her friends. Her goal has been preservation of her power and her lover, and she stopped short of killing her children or putting their safety at risk. However, we cannot forget that when faced with the choice of her own life or Orestes', Clytaemestra calmly calls for an axe.

When an appeal to love fails, she tries to sway him through fear. She warns him of her curse, affirming what much of the play has already hinted at: Clytaemestra's death will not, as Orestes and the Chorus have hoped, end the cycle of suffering.