Thoughts on Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers

(2nd of sequence of weekly posts referring to texts in the philosophy and tragedy course I am giving this semester)

In the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, Orestes avenges the murder of his father in a vindication of an ethic of revenge and the of blood to cleanse pollution, but also with a sense of horror and wish to atone for the murder of his mother. His mother Clytemnestra had conspired to kill her husband King Agamemnon of Argıos, working with her lover Aegisthius, who carries out the deed. Clytemnestra’s crime is motivated by Agamemnon’s absence for 10 years during the Trojan War, and by the sacrifice Agamemnon made of their daughter Iphigenia so that the Greek fleet could sail to Troy. Orestes has been in exile since his father led the Greek alliance to Anatolia, and that is part of his grievance against his mother mentioned as he is about to murder her.

Orestes’ sister Electra also has a part in the drama. They meet at the beginning of the play after many years of separation. Electra does not recognise Orestes while mourning at Agamemnon’s burial mound; it is the sight of a lock of his hair which leads her to realise that he is nearby. We have the issue of family bond in that recognition and reunion, a family bond which is under extreme oppression with all the killing that takes place between members of the House of Atreus. An unbreakable bond of physical resemblance, of shared physical characteristics is suggested between brother and sister. The brother-sister bond is famously at the centre of Sophocles’ Antigone, and we will look at that play in a few weeks.

The recognition and reunion between brother and sister in The Libation Bearers gives the opportunity to show different attitudes to the death of Agamemnon. Orestes wishes that he had died as a hero at Troy, while Electra is disturbed by the idea of a battlefield burial in a distant land, preferring the idea that he could have come back and reigned again. The son’s wish that the father had died before returning to Argos brings an interesting tension into his speech and actions. Is there some way in which Clytemnestra and Aegisthius were acting out his wish? Does that explain the murderous revenge, followed by a mixture of triumph and remorse?

Orestes partly justifies his double murder with reference to curses from his father and a fate he cannot escape except through murder. The chorus calls for a killing which will be so deep that it will cleanse the House of Atreus of all the blood since Agamemnon’s father Atreus tricked Thyestes into eating his own dead cooked children . The punishment refers to the earth, the powers of the underworld and to blood. This is in contrast with the role Apollo plays as the god behind the order Orestes claims to uphold. There is tension between the underworld elemental force of revenge and the world of Olympian divinities protecting a political, legal and social system. The title refers to the opening scene in which Clytemnestra has sent women to pour libations on Agamemnon’s grave, though the libation bearers could also be Orestes and Electra.

Orestes is the exile who brings justice to his homeland, the very act of sending him away from Argos adds to his mother’s guilt. His home coming is a murder of his mother and her lover. He appears as a stranger, accepting hospitality from Clytemnestra before killing her. This is an echo of the abuse of hospitality when Paris took Menelaus’s wife Helen back to Troy with him, and the abuse of hospitality of the suitors of Penelope when Odysseus was away at the Trojan War and travelling home. Orestes’ violence is also an echo of the slaughter of the suitors by Odysseus and his son Telemachus. His return to his home in disguise is an echo of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. The issue of hidden identity and reversed identity is s major issue in The Odyssey followed up various Greek tragedies. Aeschylus stands at the beginning of tragedy bas a major literary for.

Orestes’ killing of Clytemnestra uses a the garment within which he says Clytemnestra and Aegisthius trapped Agamemnon; Orestes refers to the danger of a trap in the opening scene when Electra says that he might be part of a trap, and he responds that is the one in danger of being trapped. This suggests the traps of fate, pollution and revenge they are all caught in, and a general triumph of death, as the garment is a funeral shroud. Electra refers to words which will arouse the angry dead, and the inadequacy of Clytemnestra’s attempts to appease the powers of the earth by sending libation bearers.There is constant fear of death, of dark underworld powers combined with attempts to use them. The play ends with Orestes both transfixed by the passion of his killing and its justification, but also aware that it might be see as unjust violence. He is ready to tae his case to Apollo, the god of law and light, while also facing the threat of the Furies invoked by his mother.

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