Study Guide

Libation Bearers

By Aeschylus

Libation Bearers Introduction

Libation Bearers is the second play in a trilogy of tragedies by Aeschylus entitled the Oresteia. (Part 1 is called Agamemnon, and Part 3 is called Eumenides.) In the heyday of Athenian tragedy – and Aeschylus's work is definitely from the heyday – all three parts of a trilogy would be performed back-to-back on a single day. Sometimes, these would be followed by a fourth play, called a satyr play, which would provide a goofy contrast to the tragedies. Each series of plays would usually be linked by some overarching story and set of themes; the Oresteia, which talks about a cycle of revenge within three generations of a single family, is no exception.

The Oresteia was first performed in Athens at the Festival of the god Dionysusin 458 BC. At this festival, tragedies were always performed as part of a contest pitting poet against poet; you'll be pleased to know that, with the Oresteia, Aeschylus took home first-place.

By the time he won this victory, Aeschylus was already an established playwright, and an old man. How did he get there? Well, first of all, he had to be born; this happened around 525 BC, in Eleusis, a small town not far from Athens. Eleusis was considered part of Athenian territory, so Aeschylus was born an Athenian citizen; his family came from the nobility. Aeschylus began writing plays as a young man, in the 490s BC. Then, when the Persians made war on the Greeks, Aeschylus fought alongside his fellow Athenians at the battle of Marathon. When the Persians invaded Greece a second time ten years later, Aeschylus fought again, this time participating in the sea battle at Salamis, a decisive victory for the Greeks.

According to one ancient source, Aeschylus was so proud of defending his country that his epitaph (which he wrote himself, of course) made no mention of his career as a playwright, instead boasting of his courage in battle against the Persians. Maybe this was just because, by this point, the man's prowess as a writer of tragedies went without saying. In between those two battles against the Persians, Aeschylus won the annual tragedy contest for the first time in 484 BC. He was top of the heap for a good time after that, in part because he completely revolutionized his art form. According to Aristotle, before Aeschylus came along, tragedies only featured one actor and a chorus; Aeschylus was the first person to add a second actor. Thus, you could say that Aeschylus invented dramatic dialogue, making him the originator of all subsequent theater, movies, and TV. Not too shabby.

But then, in 468, Aeschylus was given a run for his money by a young upstart named Sophocles, who actually won first prize in his first year competing. Sophocles brought to the game a new secret weapon: a THIRD ACTOR. Fortunately, Aeschylus knew a good thing when he saw it and, in no time, he was working three-actor scenes into his own tragedies, including those of the Oresteia. Aeschylus's trick was that he would keep the third actor silent for long periods of time, making him (all Greek actors were male) speak only at climactic moments. In Libation Bearers, the long-silent third actor is Pylades, who only speaks once it the play – at a decisive moment near the end. (We're not going to spoil it for you by telling you when.)

Written near the end of his life, and incorporating his own innovations and those of Sophocles, Libation Bearers and the rest of the Oresteia make up Aeschylus's greatest achievement. It is no coincidence that these plays were revived and re-performed after Aeschylus's death, a rare honor in ancient Athens. Fortunately for us, they continue to be read and performed today.

What is Libation Bearers About and Why Should I Care?

You've seen Agamemnon. Now, its acclaimed cast is back for more: more action, more drama, more deception. That's right: from prize-winning tragic playwright Aeschylus comes… Libation Bearers, Part 2 of THE ORESTEIA, the explosive new miniseries that's taking the ancient theater by storm.

Multiple-tragedy-prize winner Sophocles calls it "The most mind-blowing spectacle of mayhem ever mounted onstage – even if Aeschylus totally rips off my Third Actor bit." (See "In a Nutshell" for more details.) Dionysus, god of wine and the theater raves, "Aeschylus turns up the heat in this unforgettable sequel." Other critics, like the divine personification of Justice, call the play a "Thought-provoking mediation on the social and personal costs of revenge."

That's right, folks, the critics are unanimous. So what are you waiting for? For years, this masterpiece was only available in Ancient Greek. Now, thanks to the development of the English language and translating technologies, you can read it at home… TODAY.

Libation Bearers Resources

Websites

Theoi Greek Mythology
Your one-stop shop for information about all things Greek and mythological. This is a good place to turn if you're stuck on some obscure mythological reference.

Works by Aeschylus Online
Online texts of Aeschylus's seven surviving plays.

Movie or TV Productions

Elektra
This is a movie version of an opera by the German composer Richard Strauss, with lyrics (libretto) by the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Hofmannsthal actually didn't base the play on Aeschylus's Libation Bearers, but instead used the play Elektra by another Greek playwright, Sophocles. Thus, this version is a bit different from Aeschylus's – but that just makes for more food for thought.

The Travelling Players
This Greek film (also known by its original title, O Thiasos) uses Aeschylus's Oresteia to retell the history of modern Greece.

Oresteia
A '70s TV adaptation of Aeschylus's trilogy.

Historical Documents

Fragment of a Lost Play by Aeschylus
This papyrus fragment is from a "satyr play" by Aeschylus, entitled the Dictyulci, or "Net-pullers." A satyr play is a comic play, which a chorus made up of satyrs – weird little half man half goat dudes. Traditionally, every year, a tragedian would write one tragic trilogy and a satyr play to accompany it.

Videos

The National Theatre of Great Britain Oresteia
1983 British production of Libation Bearers with masked, all-male cast. All 7 parts available on YouTube.

Audio

Orestes
The American rock band A Perfect Circle has a song called "Orestes" inspired by Aeschylus's hero.

Elektra Aria
This aria comes from an opera by the German composer Richard Strauss, with lyrics (libretto) by the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Hofmannsthal actually didn't base the play on Aeschylus's Libation Bearers, but instead used the play Elektra by another Greek playwright, Sophocles. Thus, this version is a bit different from Aeschylus's – but that just makes for more food for thought.

Images

Bust of Aeschylus
This is a bust of Aeschylus. Chances are it was not done from life, but it can give you some idea of what ancient people after Aeschylus imagined that he looked like.

Orestes Killing Aegisthus
Attic red-figure pottery from the 6th century BC.

The Scene at Agamemnon's tomb
This fourth century BC red-figure pottery shows Electra at Agamemnon's tomb, with Orestes and Pylades in the background.

Electra and Orestes
This is a first century AD Roman copy of a Greek statue of Orestes and his sister Electra.

Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon
This painting by the 19th century English painter Frederic Leighton depicts the opening scene of Aeschylus's Libation Bearers.