Study Guide

Libation Bearers Family

By Aeschylus

Advertisement - Guide continues below


(Orestes): "Has some new disaster befallen this house, or would I be right in guessing that these women bring libations for my father, appeasements of the dead? It could never be anything else! Why, I think my sister Electra is there too, conspicuous in bitter grief. O Zeus! Grant me vengeance for my father's death! Be my ally if you will!" (12-19)

Here we see Orestes run through an interesting train of thought. He begins by wondering who the women are who are coming forward with libations. Then, he realizes that they are bringing libations to the tomb of Agamemnon, his father. Once he realizes this, he has an insight into the identity of Electra, his sister. Orestes cannot have seen his sister in living memory. How does he know it's her? Does he recognize a family resemblance with himself? Or is he able to guess based on her behavior; that is to say, does he guess that, because she is "conspicuous in bitter grief," she must be the child of the dead man?

Without ruling out the Option 1 (family resemblance), it's worth thinking about Option 2 (behavior) in connection with some of the other themes of the play. Why would Aeschylus want to introduce the idea that the identity of family members can be guessed from their behavior? Throughout the play, do characters tend to act in accordance with the roles prescribed by their family relations, or do they contradict those roles? Or can different family obligations actually come into conflict?

(Electra): "How am I to speak sensibly to my father, how am I to pray to him? Am I to say that I bring [these mourning-libations] to a dear husband from a dear wife, from my mother? I have no words for that, no words I should say as I pour this offering on my father's tomb." (88-90)

These lines continue a theme that was introduced in the previous quotation: that sometimes, family relations and behavior can come into conflict. Here, Electra doesn't feel that she can make offerings on behalf of her mother Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's former wife, because Clytemnestra did not act like a wife towards him (duh, she killed him).

(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! […] That Orestes may come here through some fortune is my prayer to you; and you must hear me, father! Grant me also to be much more chaste than my mother, and my hands to have greater piety." (129-131, 138-141)

Here, Electra prays to the spirit of her father Agamemnon to make Orestes come avenge him. She also prays for Agamemnon to help her play a more traditional female role within the household; unlike her mother, Electra wants to obey stricter sexual morality, and avoiding harming others impiously.

(Electra): "There is no one except myself who would cut it off."
(Chorus): "No, because those with a duty to offer hair in mourning are enemies."
(Electra): "See here, too! To look at it, this strand seems very like…"
(Chorus): "Whose hair? This is what I want to know."
(Electra): "…my own; it's very close, to look at it."
(Chorus): "You surely don't think this is a secret gift from Orestes?"
(Electra): "It's his hair which it resembles!" (172-176)

The way in which Electra and the Chorus realize that the hair on the tomb belongs to Orestes parallels the two options we came up with for thinking about how Orestes recognizes Electra (family resemblance and behavior). In this case, the two options happen in the reverse order from the way Orestes figures out his sister's identity. First, Electra thinks of behavior appropriate to family relationships, saying that no one except herself would have cut off this lock of hair. Even though the Chorus starts off by saying "No" to her, they are actually agreeing with her; what they mean is, "You're right, no one other than you would have cut off this hair because the only other person who would, Clytemnestra, is Agamemnon's enemy." Then, Aeschylus lets us see the wheels turning in their heads as Electra and the Chorus of women both start thinking that, actually, there IS somebody else who would have been bound by family relationships to behave in this way – Orestes!

Electra and the Chorus come to this conclusion at about the same time; then, Electra takes the next step (what we called Option 2 when talking about Orestes) of connecting the hair with her brother on the basis of family resemblance: "It's his hair which it resembles!" Is there any significance to the fact that Orestes and his sister (and the Chorus) follow similar reasoning, but in a different order?

(Electra): "And I swear it wasn't she, the killer, who cut it off either – yes, my own mother, quite untrue to that name because of the godless thoughts she possesses towards her children. […] Oh! If only it had a voice and intelligence in it, like a messenger, so that I wasn't shaking with uncertainty, and it was quite clear whether to reject this lock of hair, with loathing, if it really has been cut from an enemy's head – or as a kinsman's it could share my sorrow, a glory for this tomb and an honour for my father!" (189-191, 195-200)

Here Electra continues along a similar line of thinking to what we saw in the previous quotation. Now we see that she is still stuck on the question of whether her mother could have been the one to send the lock of hair. Sure, she starts off by saying that it "wasn't she, the killer, who cut it off," but clearly she has her doubts, because a little while later she's still worried about not knowing "whether to reject this lock of hair, with loathing, if it really has been cut from an enemy's head […]." (The "enemy" would have to be either Clytemnestra or Aegisthus.)

In the previous quotation, we saw that Electra finally decided that the lock of hair on the tomb "resembles" that of Orestes. To make that conclusion, she must have decided that the hair resembled either (a) her own hair, (b) that of her mother, (c) that of her dead father, or (d) some combination of these. If Electra can't decide whether the hair belongs to Clytemnestra or not, that means that Clytemnestra's hair must resemble either (a) that of Electra, (b) that of Orestes, or (c) both. (We know this is a little tricky, but it should make sense if you think about it.)

This brings us back to the same basic problem we looked at in the first quotation for this theme: are families based more on resemblances or behavior? It looks like Electra engages with this problem, but doesn't solve it. Sure, her words on the lock of hair argue for "resemblance," but what about when she says that her mother was "quite untrue to that name because of the godless thoughts she possesses towards her children"? That sounds more like behavior is what counts, right? Let's keep an eye on this theme; it will be extremely important for the rest of the play.

(Electra): "Oh! Brutal, you were brutal,
mother, so cruel with the funeral then,
cruel enough to bury the king
with his people not there, your husband
without mourning, with no lament!" (429-433)

Here, Electra continues to criticize her mother for not acting in accordance with appropriate family behavior. Not only did Clytemnestra violate the appropriate behavior of a wife by killing her husband, she didn't even throw him a proper funeral either. Yikes.

(Orestes): "And do not wipe out this seed-stock of the Pelopidae; for in this way you are not dead, not even though you died. A man's children preserve his fame when he is dead; they hold it up as corks do a net, preserving its deep flax-line. Listen to us; these lamentations are for you, we tell you, and your preservation lies in honouring our words here." (503-509. In some editions, lines 505-507 are given to Electra; these lines correspond to the words from "A man's children" to "flax-line.")

Electra and Orestes pray to the spirit of their father to protect them. In the process, they try some strategic ego-boosting: "If you don't let us die out, your memory won't die out either, daddy. Get it, nudge-nudge?" Do we learn anywhere in the Oresteia of Orestes or Electra having any children? (You might have to wait till you read the Eumenides to be able to answer this question.) Is fathering (or mothering) children really the only way to live on after you die?

(Chorus): "Orestes! When the moment for action
comes, cry out over her appeal of 'My son!' and say, 'No,
my father's!' Then go to complete
a ruin which brings you no censure." (827-830)

Here's one of the play's major problems in a nutshell: whether you can pit one set of family obligations against another. The Chorus tells Orestes to disregard the fact that Clytemnestra is his mother so that he can avenge his father. Is it really that easy?

(Orestes): "And a woman who contrived this hateful thing against a husband whose children she had carried away heavy in the womb – they were dear to her for a while, but now a bad enemy, as she shows – what do you think of her? If she had been born a sea-snake or a viper, would she have caused more putrefaction by her mere touch, in one she had not bitten, thanks to her audacity and lawless spirit? I wish for no such mate to share my house! May the gods kill me first, and childless!" (991-1005)

These words are spoken by Orestes after he has already killed his mother and Aegisthus. Now he is speaking out to the Chorus, explaining why he did it. Clearly, the fact that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon has made Orestes feel a deep sense of revulsion toward his mother. Not only does he say that he doesn't want any "such mate" in his house, but he also says that he hopes he dies childless! That seems pretty extreme. Could this extreme reaction be a sign that Orestes's madness is taking over?

(Orestes): "Did she do it, or not do it? This robe is my witness that Aegisthus' sword dyed it; the ooze of blood contributes over time to spoiling the many dyes in the embroidery. I praise my father now, I lament him now, while I am here and addressing this woven thing which killed him. I grieve for the deeds and the suffering and the whole family; and there can be no envy for the pollution my victory here brings to me." (1010-1017)

Orestes's madness continues to creep up on him; now it becomes even clearer that he can't really handle the fact that he killed his own mother. (Who could?) Now, he starts to doubt whether Clytemnestra actually was guilty, and he places the emphasis on the fact that it was Aegisthus's sword that tore the fabric. This movement away from blaming his mother becomes even more pronounced when he says that it was "this woven thing" (the fabric that was thrown over Agamemnon before he was killed) that is to blame. At the same time, his praise of his father gives way to lamentation for "the whole family," which presumably includes his mother, Clytemnestra. The final note of his speech is on the "pollution" he now experiences for the crime he has committed. What does Orestes's experience here say about the possibility of pitting one set of family obligations against another?

Libation Bearers Family Study Group

Ask questions, get answers, and discuss with others.

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

This is a premium product

Please Wait...