Study Guide

Libation Bearers Exile

By Aeschylus

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(Orestes): "Hermes of the Underworld, watching over paternal powers! I ask you, be my saviour and my ally; for my coming to this land is my return from exile." (Fragment 1; 1-3)

In this, perhaps the first line of the play (we don't know for sure because we only have fragments at this point in the manuscript), Orestes emphasizes the fact that he is an exile coming home to claim his birthright. Does he ever successfully claim it?

(Chorus): "And for myself – because the gods brought
my city its fate by siege, and from my father's house
led me into the lot of a slave – ,
right or wrong, it is proper I accept
a rule over my life in violence to my heart,
and conquer my bitter loathing […]." (75-81)

Here, the Chorus reveals that they are exiles too – enslaved when their cities were captured by the warriors of Argos. This means a major contrast with the Chorus of Agamemnon, the first play in the Oresteia, which is made up of old-school, dyed-in-the-wool citizens of Argives. What effect does it have on the play that the members of its Chorus are foreigners in Argos?

(Electra): "As I pour these libations to the dead, my own words too call upon my father: have pity on me, and kindle our dear Orestes as a light in the house! For we are outcasts now, as it were, sold off by our mother; and she has taken a man in exchange, Aegisthus, her very accomplice in your murder. I am like a slave myself, while Orestes is in exile from his property […]" (129-136)

We've just seen how Orestes considers himself an exile and also how the women of the Chorus are exiles from their hometowns, now enslaved by the rulers of Argos. Now Electra completes the triple-threat of the play's good guys, by saying that she, too, is an exile. She, of course, is speaking in a more metaphorical sense, because she feels like an outcast in her own home. Why do you think Aeschylus wanted to emphasize the outsider status of his heroes (and heroines)?

(Orestes): "Zeus, Zeus! Observe our circumstances here! See the brood bereft of their eagle father, killed in the twisted coils of a dreadful viper! Starving hunger presses hard on the orphans, for they are not grown enough to bring a father's prey to the nest. This is the state in which you can see myself and her, I mean Electra, children deprived of their father, both of us in the same exile from our house." (246-254)

Here, Orestes takes up the theme of himself and Electra as exiles. Orestes connects the notion of exile with being orphaned; as a result, he turns to Zeus, often known as the "father of gods and men" for help. This is not the only time in the play when Orestes will turn to Zeus as a surrogate father. Given Zeus's close connection with ideals of justice, this suggests that, even though Orestes is an outcast among men, his only true allegiance is to his own just cause.

(Orestes): "Those below have a weapon from the dark, from men killed within their family and supplicating vengeance: it is madness and empty terror in the night; it attacks, it harasses and it drives a man from his city, with his body maimed under a yoke of beaten bronze. Such men, the oracle said, may share neither wine-bowl nor friendly libations, and they are kept away from altars by a father's unseen anger. No one either welcomes or shares his roof with such a man; lacking all honour and friends he dies in time, withered dry as a mummy in an evil death of total extinction." (286-296)

Here, Orestes portrays madness as the ultimate discriminator between people: if you are mad, you are utterly outcast and exiled. He implies that the dead have the power to inflict madness on the living, if the living don't carry out their wishes. The irony, of course, is that, by the time the play is over, Orestes has carried out what he thinks are the wishes of the dead and still ends up crazy and outcast.

(Electra): "O father, do hear our sorrow,
and our many tears in turn!
See, your two children are here at your tomb,
voices raised loud in their dirge!
Both of them exiles and suppliants, your grave is their welcome.
What here is good, and what without evil?
Is not the ruin beyond reversal with three throws?" (332-339)

Here, Electra expresses a powerful variation on the idea of her and her brother's exile. This time, she makes it sound like the only place they can call home is the tomb of their father Agamemnon. For the play's original Greek audience, this would have had an added resonance because of the cultural concept of "hero-cult." In the ancient Greek world, the spirits of prominent individuals were sometimes worshipped after they died. These dead famous dudes were known as "heroes," thus, the practice of worshipping them is known by modern scholars as "hero-worship" or "hero-cult." These heroes were almost always associated with a particular location. Thus, when Electra says that "your grave is [your children's'] welcome," the Greeks would probably have assumed that she was addressing the spirit of Agamemnon present in that location.

(Orestes): "Oh, horror! No! You underworld rulers!
Look, you mighty Curses of the slain!
See here the remnants of the Atreidae,
helpless exiles from their house
in dishonour. O Zeus, which way to turn?" (405-410)

Here, Orestes continues the same idea of himself and Electra as exiles. Once again, it is interesting to note that, even though their situations are literally quite different (Electra has been living in the house all along, while Orestes has been out of town), Orestes puts them both in the same category because they have lost their father and are alienated from their mother. Even though, here, Orestes makes their course of action look less settled than it did in some of the earlier quotations in this section, his invocations to the "underworld rulers" and the "Curses of the slain" make it pretty clear that he, too, plans to cast his lot in with the dead Agamemnon.

(Chorus): "Know that the orphan young colt
of the man you held dear
is now yoked to the chariot,
setting a pace for his steps
as he runs, and keeping its rhythm.
Grant us the sight, for his feet to win home,
stretching straight over the ground!" (794-799)

In his speech at lines 246-263, Orestes portrayed himself and Electra as both orphans and exiles. Here, the Chorus connects the same two ideas, calling Orestes and "orphan young colt" and employing imagery that indicates that he is far from home. At the same time, however, they indicate that he's on his way home.

(Orestes): "[…] though you gave me birth you threw me out into harsh fortunes."
(Clytemnestra): "Indeed I did not throw you out – it was into the house of a fighting-ally."
(Orestes): "It was an outrage: to be sold away, when I was a free man's son."
(Clytemnestra): "Then where was the price I got in exchange?"
(Orestes): "I feel shame at putting that reproach to you plainly." (913-917)

Here, we see that Clytemnestra and Orestes disagree over what counts as exile. They don't disagree over the most basic objective fact that Orestes was sent away as a child to the house of Strophius the Phocian, a "fighting-ally" of Agamemnon. What they disagree about is the terms and conditions of this sending-away. Orestes says that he was "sold away"; it eventually emerges that he is using the idea of being "sold" as a metaphor for being kept away so that his mother could have an affair with Aegisthus. Does the play, or the trilogy as a whole (Clytemnestra talks about how Orestes got sent away in Agamemnon, line 880) shed any light on the objective facts of the matter? What difference (if any) would this make for our understanding of Orestes's revenge?

(Orestes): "And now you see me about to go in supplication, ready prepared with this wreathed and leafy branch, to the shrine at mid-earth's navel, Loxias' holy ground, and its bright fire called undying, as I flee pollution for this family blood; and it was Loxias' order to turn to no other hearth. I tell all Argives [to remember] for me in later time the evil dealt me here, and to be my witness [if] Menelaus [comes]. Myself a wanderer banished from this land [a line missing] living and dead with this fame left behind me." (1034-1042)

Here Orestes enters the most horrible phase of his exile; he is banished from the land he had hoped he was returning to. In fact, he's banished from all lands except for Delphi ("Loxias' holy ground") where he hopes he will be purified of the sin he has committed by murdering his mother. You could even say that he is exiled from his own senses, because the Furies are driving him insane. Why do you think Aeschylus wanted to end the play with Orestes plunged into a worse state of exile than he began with?

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