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Libation Bearers

by Aeschylus

Summary by Michael L McClain March 5, 2011
Translation by Robert Fitzgerald


Orestes, having just returned home ["Here is my own soil that I walk."] with his companion Pylades, leaves a lock of his hair at the tomb of Agamemnon. He withdraws when he sees Electra, attended by slave women, approaching with libations. The conversation between Electra and the women reveal that the libations were sent by Clytemnestra, whom they hate. After praying for vengeance, she recognizes Orestes' hair and footprints. He reveals himself to her and vows to carry out the command of Apollo to gain revenge. They invoke the spirit of their father, pray to Zeus and the gods of the underworld, and work themselves up to avenge the death of their father despite the physical and moral dangers. Electra tells Orestes that Clytemnestra dreamed that she had given birth to a snake, which bit her breast. They devise a plan: Orestes will pretend to be a stranger bringing news of Orestes' death.

Pretending to be a Phocian, he knocks at the palace gate. When Clytemnestra greets him, he tells her that Orestes is dead. A gracious hostess, she invites him in. Cilissa, Orestes' old nurse, comes out on her way to fetch Aegisthus. The women tell her to bring him back without his bodyguard. He arrives unattended and goes into the palace. A scream is heard. One of Aegisthus' followers comes out to raise the alarm. When Clytemnestra arrives, he tells her that Orestes has slain Aegisthus. When Orestes threatens her, she pleads for mercy, but Pylades convinces him to go through with the deed he has sworn to do. During the ensuing argument, Clytemnestra warns Orestes of the dangers of a mother's curse. He takes her inside.

The gates open to reveal Orestes standing over the dead bodies of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Servants hold the netted robe that was used to trap Agamemnon. In his last lucid moments, Orestes claims that what he did was right. Responding to visions of snaky haired gorgons, Orestes flees to the temple of Apollo, lamenting "I am driven from this place". The women ask where the curse will end.

In Aeschylus' version, all the action leads up to Orestes' slaying of Clytemnestra. Electra and the chorus of women are active participants in the first half of the play, but Electra disappears inside once the plan has been made. She takes no part in the killings and is not seen again. Pylades stays in the background, except to reassure Orestes when he is confronted by his mother.

At the beginning of the play, Orestes stays hidden only long enough to assess the situation before revealing himself without deception to Electra. He has been commissioned by Apollo to avenge the death of his father, which meshes exactly with Electra's hope that he will kill Aegisthus and Clytemnestra whom she hates. Orestes is aware that killing one's mother is a horrible deed, but he, Electra and the chorus assemble a host of reasons why he must go through with it.

Killing Aegisthus is relatively easy, once Aegisthus is duped by Cilissa. Orestes encounters no moral conflict in slaying Aegisthus, who gets what he deserves.

Killing his mother is a different matter. She pleads for him not to strike the breast that fed him so tenderly. When he shows signs of ambivalence, Pylades reminds him of Apollo's charge and his oath. Clytemnestra argues that he should let her live, that she is not fully to blame, that Agamemnon sinned as well, but finally both accept their fate and go inside, where he slays her. When the gates are open, she lies dead next to the body of her lover.

Only after the killing, does Orestes realize the full import of what he has done. In his last lucid moments, he declares that what he did was just, but he is overwhelmed by the sight of the horrid creatures that pursue him.

Clytemnestra's dream sets the action in motion; it prompts her to send Electra with the libations to the tomb of Agamemnon. At the end of their argument, with Orestes' sword at her throat, she recognizes that he is the 'snake' she gave birth to.

The play is bracketed by Orestes' return to Argos and his flight from it.

The translation by Philip Vellacott in the Penguin Classics series is much more accessible and intelligible than the Lattimore translation.

The play divides into two parts at 584. The first part is discourse; "the rest is action". (510)