Libation Bearers is the second play in Aeschylus’ Orestia, the first is Agamemnon. Whereas in the first play Agamemnon returns home from Troy to be killed by his wife in retribution for his sacrificing their daughter Iphegenia for favorable winds to Troy, now Orestes returns and ends the play by killing his mother.
The play begins with Electra, another daughter of Clytemnestra’s appearing at the tomb of Agamemnon with a retinue of slaves. They have been ordered to pour libations over the grave and offer soothing prayers to Agamemnon. Obviously Clytemnestra is feeling a bit guilty. It has been seven years (seems to me it’s seven but I can’t find it in the text) since the murder. Electra stands before her father’s tomb at a loss for what to pray:
slaves of the palace–
you have come here with me to my
father’s grave to help me in this ritual,
and I need your advice.
Tell me what to say.
I know I pour the offerings on his grave,
yes, and I will,
I know that,
but what words can I say to
cheer my father’s spirit?
What prayer do I make
to the gods? Do I say these
gifts are from a loving wife
to a loved husband?
How can I do that?
The slaves encourage Electra to pray that Justice be done. So she does. She prays as well for Orestes, her brother, who was sent away long ago by their mother, to return home.
As luck would have it, Orestes is hiding with his friend Pylades watching and listening to the women. Orestes finally reveals himself after Electra notices a lock of hair he left on his father’s grave. We get a little reunion scene and then Electra fills him in on all that has happened since he was sent away.
As the son of Agamemnon, Orestes must avenge his father’s death. He knows this and knows what will happen because Apollo’s oracle told him:
The Fury Avengers will come,
springing from my father’s blood.
I will see them, glaring at me
through the gloom, their brows
faces. Their arrows will fly through darkness like
pitch and pierce me as my father’s blood
cries out for revenge. I will be
tormented by madness and
empty fears that will drive me from the city,
my body jabbed with bronze goads…
I will never find
shelter under another roof, but die
cruelly, shriveled by wasting
death, alone and
But if you think that sounds bad, if he doesn’t avenge his father Apollo has promised that not only will Orestes’ honor be lost but he will suffer plagues and disease, ulcers, cancers, scabrous sores and pus-filled pockets. Eew.
Egged on by Electra, the slaves, and the requirements of Justice–Justice could be considered an unseen actor in this play so present is she–Orestes sets off to town with Pylades to kill his mother.
To get inside to kill Cytemnestra and Aegisthus, he sends in word that he is there to tell them about the death of Orestes and inquire as to what they want done with his ashes. When Orestes has the pair together and without guard inside the palace, he and Pylades kill them, but not without first a little doubt from Orestes about whether he should really kill his mother. Pylades reminds him he promised Apollo and there is no turning back.
Just as Agamemnon ends with Clytemnestra standing bloody over Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies, so this one ends with Orestes standing over Cytemnestra’s and Aegithus’ bodies. But Orestes’ reprieve is short-lived for he already hears the Furies coming. Then he sees them too and his madness and flight begin. As he runs off, the libation bearing slaves we began the play with wonder where and when all the ruin will end.
While there is definitely a lot going on in this play, and it was good, it is obviously a middle play that is leading us to the final play. There is nothing wrong with that, but somehow it lacks a bit of the power and momentum of the first play. But Clytemnestra is such a powerful character, she is hard act to follow.