The Libation Bearers is the second play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, preceded by Agamemnon and followed by The Eumenides. As I explained in my blog about Agamemnon, the Oresteia is the only complete and surviving trilogy we have from ancient Greek drama, which means that it gives us significant insight into how Greek playwrights approached the City Donysia—the annual festival honoring Dionysius, the god of wine whose rites eventually inspired theatre.
Given that the overall arc of the Oresteia moves from a primitive vendetta culture to the rule of law, and that The Libation Bearers is the central play in the trilogy, this play occupies a complex position in the larger narrative. Whereas Agamemnon is firmly rooted in a revenge culture, The Libation Bearers complicates and problematizes that culture, opening the way for the emergence of a legal authority constructed by Athena in The Eumenides. In Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus murders the titular king in revenge for various injuries and injustices done to them in the past, and while the chorus condemns their actions, on a divine level it seems that Clytaemnestra is supported by the Furies—ancient goddesses tasked with upholding curses, carrying out revenge, and enforcing the payment of blood debts. In The Libation Bearers, however, the situation vis-à-vis the gods is more complicated. On the one hand there is Clytaemnestra who is associated with the Furies and who calls down a mother’s curse on Orestes at the play’s end; on the other hand there is Orestes, who has been told by Apollo’s oracle at Delphi that if he doesn’t kill his mother and Aegisthus he will be cursed forever. So rather than one deity backing one cause, The Libation Bearers places two divine forces against one another—the Furies vs. Apollo—which sets the stage for their direct confrontation in the trilogy’s final play, The Eumenides.
The Libation Bearers opens with Orestes and his friend Pylades dressed as travelers, arriving at Agamemnon’s tomb near Argos. Orestes cuts two locks of his hair and sets them on the tomb as a means of honoring his father who has been denied the proper funereal rites by Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. The men notice a company of women approaching, dressed in black mourning robes and led by Orestes’ sister Electra; Orestes and Pylades decide to hide and find out why the women have come. The chorus and Electra arrive, and the chorus explains that they have been hurriedly sent by Clytaemnestra to pour libations at the grave of Agamemnon because the household seer has had a terrible vision of the un-mourned dead rising to take vengeance on the guilty living. The chorus of slave women detest Clytaemnestra, whom they feel has rejected the gods’ will through the murder and subsequent unceremonious burial of Agamemnon, and they say that the earth won’t accept the libations and that Agamemnon’s blood won’t settle properly in the earth until he has been avenged. Electra asks the women to tell her what prayer to make, whether one for peace for her father, or for revenge, or to make no prayer at all because the libations come from Clytaemnestra. The chorus urges her to ask for blessings for herself and those who hate Aegisthus, chiefly among them her brother Orestes, thought to still be in exile, and to pray that the murderers will like be murdered. Electra makes her prayer and pours the libation over the grave, and the chorus mourns Agamemnon and prays for his revenger to come. After pouring the libation, Electra notices the lock of hair Orestes had cut. She draws the chorus’ attention to the hair, and while she seems to hope that it is Orestes’ own hair—it is the same shade and texture as hers and she seems to recognize its curl—Electra is reluctant to hope that her brother has returned. She vacillates between the certainty that she holds Orestes’ hair and the certainty that he must be dead, until she notices a pair of footprints by the grave, which match the shape of her own feet. She follows the tracks as Orestes emerges from his hiding place behind their father’s tomb. Initially Electra still refuses to believe that the man before her could be Orestes, but he convinces her by claiming his hair and showing her a strip of cloth she had made for Orestes. The siblings rejoice, then pray to Zeus giving thanks for finding one another and asking the god’s protection over them as orphans of a man who had offered generous sacrifices. Orestes promises to offer similar sacrifices if his quest to revenge his father is successful. Orestes tells Electra and the chorus of Apollo’s prophecy for him, that if he does not revenge the murder he will be cursed and tormented. Orestes and Electra call upon their father’s spirit to hear them and see the revenge done. Then Orestes wishes that his father had died at Troy, an honorable death, and been buried as a hero, but Electra rejects this wish preferring instead to focus on the murderers and the need for revenge. Electra, the leader of the chorus, and Orestes have several interchanges calling on the gods for help and building themselves—especially Electra—into a violent fury. Electra and Orestes call directly on the spirit of their father, asking it to rise up and assist them in their quest. After this, Orestes asks why Clytaemnestra chose now, several years after the murder, to send libations to Agamemnon’s grave, and the chorus leader tells the story of the queen’s dream: that she gave birth to a snake and when she went to nurse the creature blood mixed with the milk, and when she woke up she ordered libations sent to try and assuage her guilt. Orestes immediately identifies himself as the snake that will kill the mother who bore him. He then lays out his plan for the murders: that Electra will return to the palace, while he and Pylades would approach the door dressed as strangers and speaking in Delphic riddles. Once shown inside the palace, as the Hellenic rules of hospitality would require, Orestes will stab Aegisthus and then Clytaemnestra. He warns the chorus not to betray their plan, and then Orestes, Electra, and Pylades leave. The chorus recounts three stories of murderous wives and mothers, all clearly meant to evoke a comparison with Clytaemnestra—Althaia, who killed her own son; Scylla, who betrayed her father to his death; and the women of Lemnos, who murdered their husbands. The chorus invokes the spirit of justice against such murderers. Next Orestes and Pylades arrive at the palace gates, and Orestes bangs on the door demanding entry. The porter, contrary to the rules of hospitality, demands to know who the visitors are before letting them enter, and Orestes says that he has important news for the masters of the house. Now Clytaemnestra arrives and opens the door for the visitors, inviting them inside. Orestes tells her that they are travelers from near Delphi, who have come with news that Orestes is dead, and information about where they could go to get his ashes if his family wanted to perform a proper burial. Clytaemnestra seems distressed by the news of Orestes’ death, and Orestes wishes he could have brought better news to be more welcomed as a guest, but the queen assures him that he will be fully welcomed and given all the honors of a family member. At Clytaemnestra’s command, Electra leads Orestes into the palace. The chorus enters the stage and muses about Orestes’ progress in his quest. Then they notice the nurse who raised Orestes as a child, who comes on mourning Orestes’ death; she is tasked with bringing the news to Aegisthus. The nurse recounts how she had bathed Orestes, nursed him, protected him, and helped him through his childhood, and she laments having to outlive him. The chorus leader stops her and asks her to encourage Aegithus to come see the travelers without his bodyguards, hinting to the nurse that Orestes may not actually be dead. The chorus makes another prayer to Zeus and the other gods—especially Apollo and Hermes—that the plan will work and the hated royal couple will be slain. Aegisthus comes on and seems unexpectedly glum about Orestes’ death, noting that the other murders are too recent for the house to comfortably accept this new death. He asks the chorus for news, but the leader says he must see the travelers himself. Aegisthus leaves, and the chorus sends up another prayer, which is interrupted by the sound of a scream from inside the palace. The chorus wonders what has happened until a servant runs out and proclaims that Aegisthus has been slain. Clytaemnestra arrives and the servant tells her what has happened, and she sends for a battle axe. The palace doors open and Orestes and Pylades stand over Aegisthus’ lifeless body, Orestes declares his intention to kill his mother and she asks if he has no pity on the woman who gave birth to him and nursed him. Orestes hesitates until Pylades has his only line of the play, in which he says it is better to make all mankind one’s enemies than to make the gods one’s enemies. Orestes drags Clytaemnestra to the body of Aegisthus, and she protests that she wants to grow old with Orestes, and that fate was the real cause of Agamemnon’s death, but Orestes rejects her pleas and explanations, claiming that if fate guided her then it guides him now. Clytaemnestra threatens Orestes with a mother’s curse, but he closes the doors to kill her anyway. The chorus reflects that even though justice may take time, as it did with the 10 year siege of Troy, the gods’ vengeance cannot be escaped. The reiterate that Apollo has sanctioned Orestes’ revenge, and so the killing must be just. The palace doors reopen in a tableau reminiscent of that from Agamemnon when Clytaemnestra stood over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, but now it is Orestes standing over the bodies of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. Orestes holds up the shroud in which his father was murdered as evidence for the justice of his actions, and speaks of the murderous tyranny of the slain pair. The chorus says that the work was bloody, though they agree that it was just, and Orestes says that his father can now finally be properly mourned. However, Orestes soon realizes that his journey has not ended, but that in killing his mother he has opened up a divine can of worms—he must now contend with his mother’s curse and with the Furies who take revenge on matricides. Pylades dresses Orestes as a suppliant of Apollo, and they plan to make their way to the god’s shrine at Delphi to seek his protection. The chorus encourages Orestes to stay and put aside his feelings of guilt, but he begins to see the Furies pursuing him and feels increasingly desperate to seek Apollo’s protection at Delphi. He runs from the stage pursued by the (visions of) Furies, and the play ends with the chorus recounting the three-generations of tragedy for the house of Atreas: the children eaten by Thyestes, Agamemnon’s murder, and now Orestes’ matricide.