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Aeschylus – The Libation Bearers

July 4, 2013

The Libation Bearers is the second play in the Oresteia trilogy, focusing on Orestes and Electra’s reunion and their plot to avenge their father’s murder. The play is set a number of years after the murder of Agamemnon; the exact duration is unknown.

The play opens with Orestes visiting the grave of Agamemnon, during which time his sister Electra also attends with the chorus to offer libations. Electra, having not seen her brother since childhood, has to be convinced of his identity. Orestes discovers that the libations are a result of a dream Clytemnestra has had where a snake she gave birth to draws blood whilst feeding upon her breast. Clytemnestra, believing this to be a bad omen, hopes to appease the Gods through offering the libations. Orestes and Electra plan the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus believing that this is a prophecy.

Orestes in disguise tricks his way into the Palace of Mycenae and at the first opportunity murders Aegisthus  (no words are exchanged between the characters). There is a short exchange between Orestes and Clytemnestra (885 – 930), indicating that he has to choose between honouring his father or his mother. Orestes chooses to fulfill his pledge to Apollo and takes his mother’s life. The act of matricide invokes the fury of the Erinyes who immediately begin their torment of Orestes.

The Libation Bearers continues the theme of justice through acts of blood venegance, with Orestes as the avenger on behalf of his father and sister. Clytemnestra’s pleadings appear to momentarily result in Orestes questioning his resolve, ‘Pylades, what shall I do? Shall I spare my mother out of pity?’ (899). It might be thought that this demonstrates a reluctance to continue the cycle of revenge. However, it is more likely a dramatic device to stall Orestes murder of Clytemnestra thus building the suspense. I believe that Aeschylus uses The Libation Bearers to build the dramatic tension of the blood revenge theme. This is particularly evidident given the chorus’ observation at the end of the play, ‘when will it finish its work, when will the fury of calamity, lulled to rest, find an end and cease?’ (1074-1075). This episode in the myth brings about the need for the climactic resolution of the cycle of revenge in The Eumenides. It also reminds the audience of the importance of a legitimate justice system over personal acts of revenge as in the Oresteia, up to this point, blood begets more blood.


Aeschylus The Libation Bearers in Aeschylus Translated by H.W. Smyth Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1926.


From → Greek Tragedy

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