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The Oresteia Unplugged, Part 3: The Libation Bearers

You can see part 1, the introduction to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, here. And you can find part 2, commentary on the first part of the trilogy, here. The following is on the second part of the trilogy, The Libation Bearers:

The Libation Bearers

The second play is shorter and moves swiftly with action. Electra, Clytemnestra’s other daughter, is still living in her mother’s house. However, Electra now abhors her mother and longs to meet her brother Orestes, who was exiled from the house of Atreus after the usurpation of Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The play begins years after the murder of the king. Orestes has returned with a faithful companion and visits his father’s grave. Electra and a chorus of slave-women are also on their way to the grave of Agamemnon to bear libations. Electra’s visit was ordered by Clytemnestra after a nightmare in order to appease the gods and relieve her own guilt. She had dreamed of nursing a serpent as if it were her own child, but the serpent drew blood instead of milk. Little did Clytemnestra know that this dream was a prophecy and that ordering a processional to the grave of Agamemnon was the way in which the fulfillment of this prophecy was to begin.

Orestes and Electra greet each other at the grave with much affection. Pouring libations on the grave and offering prayers to the gods, they work themselves into a frenzy that only the Furies can create. They appeal to Zeus, Apollo, and to Agamemnon himself. What is generated is a “thin anger and burdened hatred!” (Lattimore, 390). Electra appeals to Zeus: “smash their heads” ( Lattimore, 396) The Chorus interprets, “It is the law: when the blood of the slaughter wets the ground it wants more blood. Slaughter cries for the Fury” (Fagels, 395). “But there is a cure in the house and not outside it, no, not from others but from them, their bloody strife. We sing to you, dark gods beneath the earth” (Fagles 458-462).

Orestes and Electra make their plan and speedily carry it out. Orestes enters the house of Atreus posing as a stranger bearing the news of Orestes’ death. Soon, Orestes has murdered Aegisthus, but he finds himself weak-willed once Clytemnestra enters the death room. Mother and son begin arguing over the justice of Agamemnon’s death and therefore over the impending death of Clytemnestra. Orestes waivers and then, once re-determined, he still does not go through with the second murder until his mother acknowledges its inevitability: Orestes was the snake, he must draw the blood from the woman who gave him life. “You are the snake I gave birth to, and gave the breast” (Lattimore, 928). Upon hearing this, Orestes proceeds to murder his mother.

What becomes clear after the matricide is the fact that Apollo had commanded Orestes to murder his mother. Apollo promised Orestes that he would go free of guilt if he went through with it and also threatened to torment him if he did not. Orestes mentions this and speaks of the justice of what he had done. However, he becomes anxious. He must escape and run to Apollo’s hearth. Orestes looks up at the women surrounding him and he sees the Furies; they looked like “Gorgons,” with heads wreathed of serpents (Lattimore, 1049). Nobody else in the room could see them, but Orestes sees them clearly and begins to panic: “Ah, Lord Apollo, how they grow and multiply, repulsive for the blood drops of their dripping eyes.” (Lattimore, 1057). The Furies drive Orestes out of Argos. The chorus ends with the question, “Where will it end?—where will it sink to sleep and rest, this murderous hate, this Fury?”

January 3, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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