Wednesday 30 March 2016

The Oresteia ~ The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus

The Return of Orestes (1785)
Anton von Maron
source Wikimedia Commons

The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus

"Hermes, lord of the dead, who watch over the powers
of my fathers, be my saviour and stand by my claim.
Here is my own soil that I walk.  I have come home;
and by this mounded gravebank I invoke my sire
to hear, to listen ....."

Mercury (Hermes) (1636-38)
Peter Paul Rubens
source Wikimedia Commons
The play opens with Orestes standing at the tomb of Agamemnon, with a request to Hermes (or "Cthonic Hermes" who acts as a messenger between the Olympian gods and the Underworld) for favour and for the ear of his father, to bring his spirit back into play. Sadly, in the only surviving manuscript of The Libation Bearers brought to Florence in the 15th century, the opening speech is damaged and there are number of missing lines, the number of which can only be guessed (an estimate is 80 lines).  However, other lines survive in works of other authors:  the first five lines are written in Aristophanes' play, The Frogs, and other lines can be found in the commentaries of other authors, however, it is expected that most of the explanatory prologue has been lost.

As Orestes lays a lock of his hair on the tomb to honour his dead father, a Chorus of women, dressed all in black, hurry towards the grave.  As they approach, Orestes and his companion, Pylades, hide themselves and he recognizes his sister, Electra, among the mourners.

The women are captive slaves who have been sent by Clytaemestra to pour libations (liquid offerings) on Agamemnon's grave in response to a nightmare which has disturbed her sleep.  The dead king rages through the queen's dreams and she will placate his spirit if she can, but the Chorus sings of the impossibility.  The crime committed far exceeds any reparation.

Frederic Leighton
source Wikiart
Electra's conflict is truly pitiable.  How can she complete the task in true principle?  Both her father's body and memory have been disgraced, and furthermore the acts were perpetrated by her own mother.  How can she give her father prayers from his own murderer?  Should she simply pour the libations into the ground?  In a fascinating exchange, the Chorus acts as a teacher or mentor, instructing Electra in almost a Socratic way, encouraging her to pray for retribution and the return of Orestes.  First praying to Hermes, Electra's prayer then moves to her father, asking for vengeance with a glimmer of hope that good will come out of it, almost like her father's wish in Agamemnon.  Can good come out of evil?  We shall see ..............

Reaching the tomb, Electra is astonished to discover the lock of hair, then she finds footprints, and finally Orestes comes out of concealment. However, his presence is met with doubt by his sister, yet after convincing her of his identity, she gives him all her familial love.  After praying to Zeus, Orestes recounts the oracle at Delphi and his order of vengeance, however he admits that even if Apollo would not persuade him to revenge, his own personal desires would ensure the act, dismissing both Clytaemestra and Aegisthus as "women".

As Orestes and Electra exchange prayers, mostly to their father, Orestes' resolve becomes more driven by personal desire than duty.  He then learns of Clytaemestra's dream; she birthed a snake that drew blood as it suckled, and Orestes claims the dream a portent of the coming murder of his mother.  With the chorus spurring them on to action, Orestes orders Electra to keep secret his arrival and to go inside, whereupon he leaves with Pylades to find Aegisthus and kill him.

Electra at the Tomb of Agamenon (1874)
William Blake Richmond
source Art Gallery of Ontario

As the chorus sings of parents who have murdered their children (such as Althaea & Meleager - see Metamorphoses Book VIII) and children who have killed their parents (such as Nisus and his daughter [Syclla] - see Metamorphoses Book VIII), Orestes arrives at the palace and announces to his mother the death of Orestes.  Not recognizing him, she laments the curse of the House but her regret appears mild, as the slave Cilissa later confirms when she notes there was a "smile inside her [Clytaemestra's] eyes".  Cilissa, guided by the Chorus, takes a message to Aegisthus that he needs not his bodyguard while meeting the stanger, allowing Orestes his moment of revenge.  As a servant careens through the door, calling a riddle about the living killing the dead, Clytaemestra arrives and with the courage of a man, calls for an ax. As the truth dawns, Clytaemestra's words change to the feminine, recalling her care of her son as a child.  As Orestes' resolve falters, Pylades reminds him of his duty and he finally enacts revenge for the death of his father, Agamemnon.  And in a gross re-enactment of the death of Agamemnon and Cassandra, Orestes is shown standing over the bodies of his mother and her lover, a further echo of the curse blanketing the house of Atreus.

Orestes Slaying Aegisthus & Clytemnestra (1654)
Bernardino Mei

Orestes' speech after the murder begins with a justification of his action, but soon the audience sees his assurance begin to break down and his mental state becomes tenuous.  Though victorious, he feels the evil in his deed.  Since Apollo had counselled his actions, he will go to him as a suppliant to beg his advice:

"I would have you know, I see not how this thing will end.
I am a charioteer whose course is wrenched outside
the track, for I am beaten, my rebellious senses 
bolt with me headlong and the fear against my heart
is ready for the singing and dance of wrath.  But while
I hold some grip still on my wits .........
.... I go an outcast wanderer from this land, and leave
behind, in life, in death, the name of what I did."

Though no one else can see them, Orestes can now see the "bloodhounds of his mother's hate." These Furies punish family member who have harmed family members, in particular, children who have abused parents.  Orestes rushes out in torment and the chorus laments, wondering what will happen to the family of Atreus.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1862)
William-Adolphe Bourguereau
source Wikiart

The plays of The Oresteia are astonishingly well-constructed.  All the questions of revenge and justice and murder and duty are woven with a skillful needle throughout the drama, weaving a tapestry that at times can be alternately poignant, terrifying, suspenseful or appalling.

Setting Electra, a princess of Argos, among captive slaves is very effective.  In effect, she is a slave as well, impotent in her ability to do anything about the situation. Essentially, by placing her among the women, they are made allies in their mental battle against her mother, Clytaemestra, and Aegisthus.

We've continued with the theme from Agamemnon of discordant responsibilities that bring conflicting thoughts and either paralyzed or inconsistent action.  Apollo has threatened Orestes with madness if he does not avenge his father, yet the Furies promise the same fate if he does.  His dilemma is identical to that of his father.  With blood justice comes the duty of killing but the process is always cyclical and the avenger often does not escape his own fate.  As to the limitations of this type of justice, Aeschylus makes them obvious.

De Offerstrijd Tussen Orestes en Pylades (1613)
Pieter Lastman
source Wikimedia Commons
I noticed either a "cataloguing" or a "sandwiching" of themes or issues within this play. Initially Aeschylus mentions "bright/half-dark/gloom" within three lines of the play; Electra says "... between my prayer for good and prayer for good I set this prayer for evil;" the Chorus asks for Justice (good), based on hatred in exchange for hatred, then invokes the spirit of Right (good); and throughout the play a connection is implied between the gods (heaven & Apollo), Orestes and Electra (their struggles on earth), and Hades & Agamemnon (Underworld or under earth).

There are a couple of issues in this play that readers might like to be aware of.  The scene where Clytaemestra is pleading with Orestes and bares her breast to him, is not in the original play, and merely an addition by some overexuberant revisionist fond of gratuitous additions.

I also noticed a few non-scholarly commentaries that mention that women in this play are portrayed as "weak" and their place in the home is disparaged and devalued.  In fact, in ancient Greece there were two important roles that both sexes fulfilled and, unlike modern times, there was no crossing over between the two.  The women's role in the home was considered an important one and in court if there was evidence with regard to a home in a legal case, the woman's evidence or opinion would be taken over a man's.  Interesting, isn't it?

The concluding third play of the triology is called The Eumenides.


  1. "overexuberant revisionist fond of gratuitous additions": excellent! interesting, the bilateral construction that you pointed out; sort of like caught between a rock and hard place, the description many employees find fitting their employment status. makes me glad i'm retired...

    1. ;-) Oh, the present employer-employee allusion is certainly apt. I had one retiree tell me the other day that their parents actually lived in the golden age, when one income was enough and people still had leisure time. She claimed all the feminists had done was make it harder for women. Initially women took care of the house and children, but now they still do that AND work as well. She gave my generation quite a reaming out but her points were quite persuasive. I envy your retirement ...... ;-)!

    2. I agree. I think feminism has been the biggest hoax played on women as well as men and the whole family.
      I also find it interesting how some feminists are unable to objectively read classic literature. They can only see it through the lens of their ideology. I think that the women in Greek myth are portrayed as very strong.

    3. It's certainly something to think about. Especially since I think feminism been built to a certain extent on the modern perception of women historically. It's a subject that I haven't explored yet, but with some of the talks I've had with older people and entertaining their views, I certainly think there's more to the story. If you have any books you'd recommend, I'd love to hear about them!

  2. Ah, this trilogy... Aeschylus is so unsettling. I don't want to sound pretentious, but truly they still haunt me. Such an outstanding writer.

    1. I just love these plays! I was so impressed with his minor ones, but these really blow them out of the water. But it makes me cry that so many have been lost. Having a complete (or nearly) trilogy, really emphasizes the development of an idea/theme and the importance of each play.

  3. Excellent summary. I love all the paintings you display in your essay as well. I'm very much looking forward to reading The Oresteia this year.

    It sounds from your summary that the play portrays Clytaemestra as the "villain" and Orestes as the "hero" for taking revenge for his father? Not to say that it's that simple of course: you yourself mention the "sandwiching" of evil in between good:

    "the Chorus asks for Justice (good), based on hatred in exchange for hatred, then invokes the spirit of Right (good)"

    But I can't help but think whether the Justice and Right are really those things? Seeing as Agamemnon murdered his own daughter Iphigenia in the first play of the trilogy to appease Artemis and be able to sail to Troy, it seems to me that Agamemnon got HIS due Justice from Clytemnestra--who is simply a mother avenging her murdered child--rather than it being Justice for Orestes to kill his own mother. (Granted, I am, of course, looking at this very old text through my modern-day sense of morals.) I suppose, in the end, it's simply evil begetting more evil--the curse of the House of Atreus.

    1. These are some really good questions and thoughts.

      With regard to the labels of hero and villian: I'm guessing, because I have to finish the last play, but I think Aeschylus is saying that no good can come out of blood vengeance. He had devised two scenarios where it simply does not work. Agamemnon had to murder Iphigenia --- if he didn't, he would not be honouring his familial responsibility to his house -- avenging the theft of his sister-in-law. (From reading other literature relating to the murder, Agamemnon was heart-broken at having to kill is daughter, and there is another reference having him send for Clytaemestra's permission.) Whatever he decided, Agamemnon would not escape punishment and Orestes is caught in the same situation. In these cases, when you rely on blood vengeance, you cannot get Justice, or at least that's what I think Aeschylus is going to say. We shall see ....... Oh, and when you read this trilogy, you'll see that Clytaemestra is not at all innocent, and her anger and machinations do not end with Agamemnon. I can't wait to read your thoughts when you get to this trilogy!

  4. I found your blog through 52 Books in 52 Weeks.

    Indeed interesting. I haven't read books with such scholarly attention in a number of years, but I enjoyed your review.

    1. Welcome, LuAnn! I'm so glad you introduced yourself! I see 52 Book links sometimes and I always wonder who they are. I tried to join the forum discussion on the WTM but it moves so fast and if you're not on top of it, there is so much to read to get up-to-date.

      The Greek plays are very short, so they're easy to pick up and finish quickly. I'm really pleased that I've chosen to read Aeschylus' plays this year. He's a consummate playwright and it will be interesting to compare him with the other two "biggies", Sophocles & Euripides, when I get to them.