Study Guide

Libation Bearers Fate and Free Will

By Aeschylus

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Fate and Free Will

(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)

The Chorus of serving women here use the word "fate" and they talk about something like "free will," but not in the way you might expect. Although elsewhere in the Oresteia you'll find a more exalted, divine notion of fate, here they might just mean the word in a more colloquial sense, as in "what happened to" their city of origin. (Whether "what happens to" or the "fate" of an individual city is dependent on the designs of more high-and-mighty, divine FATE is another question entirely.) Also, when they're talking about limitations on their free will, they don't mean in the highfalutin, cosmic sense of whether everything in the universe is determined in advance. Instead, they just mean that their free will is constricted because they are now slaves, subordinated to the domination of other (mortal) masters. Why do you think Aeschylus chose to emphasize the fact that the Chorus women are slaves and thus constricted in this manner?

(Electra): "Share the responsibility for this decision, my friends; why, inside the house we share hatred as a habit! Don't keep things hidden in your heart through fear of anyone: what is destined waits for the free as well as for those subjected to another's hand." (100-104)

These words by Electra provide an interesting contrast to the quotation above. Here Electra says, "Sure, you guys are slaves, but that doesn't really matter in the great scheme of things: what counts is destiny." So, basically, she is saying that the high-and-mighty, divine kind of FATE is really what calls the shots. Do you accept Electra's interpretation? Or is it still relevant to consider that she is "free" and the women of the Chorus are enslaved? Think about the play as a whole: does the fact that they are enslaved mean that the Chorus women have no agency?

(Orestes): "Are not such oracles to be trusted? Even if I do not trust them, the deed has to be done." (297-298)

Let's break down what Orestes is saying here. The oracle of Apollo that he is referring to has told him that if he doesn't avenge his father's death, he will suffer horrible consequences. On the other hand, if he does avenge his father's death, he will also suffer horrible consequences. But then Orestes says that, even if he doesn't believe that oracle, he still has to avenge his father. As things turn out, Orestes does get revenge for Agamemnon, and he does suffer horrible consequences (the whole going crazy and running off to Delphi bit). Does this mean that the oracle was true? If so, does that mean that what happened was destined to happen and, if so, does that mean that there's no free will? Or was it all just coincidence? But what's coincidence?

(Chorus): "You great powers of Fate, may Zeus grant an ending here
in which justice changes to the other side!" (306-308)

Here the Chorus prays to Fate to make Zeus bring justice over to their side. (Presumably, they also think that, with justice on their side, they'll start kicking some serious butt.) But does this really make sense? Doesn't fate tend to just go about its own business without listening to what people want it to do? In fact, the more we believe fate exists, the less sense you would think it makes to pray to it, right? What view of fate emerges from Aeschylus's play as a whole? Whatever that viewpoint may be, does it allow for the Chorus to be acting reasonably here? Or are they just giving vent to pure wishful thinking?

(Orestes): "Have you actually learned details of the dream, enough to give a true account?"
(Chorus): "She thought she gave birth to a snake, as she tells it herself."
(Orestes): "And the end of her story? Its culmination?"
(Chorus): "She laid it up in swaddling, like a child."
(Orestes): "What food was it wanting, this new-born monstrosity?"
(Chorus): "She gave it her own breast in the dream."
(Orestes): "What? How was her nipple not wounded by the abominable thing?"
(Chorus): "It was; it drew a clot of blood out with its milk."
(Orestes): "This vision should not prove idle, I am certain!" (526-534)

Here we run into another of your standard-issue Aeschylus-Brand Fate-Related- Ambiguities. Is it just coincidence that Clytemnestra had a dream about giving birth to something that is going to kill her at the same time that her son Orestes is coming to town to do just that? Or is it a sign that fate is behind the scenes, pulling all the strings? We think you could probably interpret it both ways; whichever way you cut it, the fact that Orestes learns about his mother's dream definitely throws off the experiment. For all we know, learning about that dream could have made it more likely that he would enact his revenge by convincing him that it was fated, right? These are just the sort of mental tangles Aeschylus wants to wrap us up in.

(Orestes): "I urge keeping these arrangements secret, so that for killing a man of high honour by trickery they may be caught by trickery too, dying in the same noose, exactly as Loxias declared, the Lord Apollo, in the past a prophet without falsity. I shall come in the guise of a stranger, complete with baggage, to the outer doors, together with this man here – he is Pylades, guest-friend and fighting ally of the house; and we shall both of us speak Parnassian, imitating the sound of the Phocian language." (555-564)

Can you guess where we're going with this? Yup, you got it: another Aeschylus-Brand Fate-Related-Ambiguity. How does it work in this case? Let's take a look. Orestes tells everybody his plan for sneaking into the palace to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. He says he is doing this "so that […] they may be caught by trickery […] exactly as Loxias declared." Translation: "Let's do all this stuff so that the oracle comes true." Then Orestes points out how Apollo has "in the past" been "a prophet without falsity." Well, obviously, if every time he predicts something, people run around as fast as they can trying to make it come true. (Should we just come out and say it? Is the word of Apollo a self-fulfilling prophecy?)

But, before we jump to any wild conclusions and say there's no fate and it's all just free will all along, let's ask another question. Suppose there really were Fate pulling the strings: what would that look like? Would it look any different from what Orestes is doing right now? As you can see, these questions are always tricky.

(Orestes): "Pylades, what am I to do? Is such respect to stop me from killing my mother?"
(Pylades): "Then where's the future for Loxias' oracles, delivered by the Pythia, and the pledges sworn on oath? Think of all men as your enemies rather than the gods!" (899-900)

Same point from the previous quotation. When Orestes doesn't know what to do, Pylades says, "But what about the oracles? Are you going to prove them wrong?" But isn't the whole idea of oracles that they can't be proven wrong? Or can they? Ay caramba!

(Orestes): "What, will you share my house when you are my father's killer?"
(Clytemnestra): "Fate has some responsibility for that, my child."
(Orestes): "Well, Fate has dealt you this death too." (909-911)

It looks like, in this argument, fate is mainly brought in as a way for each party to avoid taking responsibility for his (Orestes's) or her (Clytemnestra's) actions. Do we accept their explanation, or is fate just a lame excuse? Does it make any difference that Clytemnestra's "fated" action is in the past, and so can't be changed, whereas Orestes's "fated" action is in the (imminent) future, and so perhaps could still be averted?

(Chorus): "There came justice at last to Priam's children,
heavy and just in punishment;
there came to Agamemnon's house
a double lion, double warfare;
there drove absolutely forward
the exile, as Pythia
enjoined, well sped by warnings of the gods." (935-941)

Here, the Chorus sums up the sequence of punishments up to this point: Agamemnon punished the Trojans for stealing his brother's wife; Clytemnestra and Aegisthus punished Agamemnon for killing Iphigenia and for the actions of his father, Atreus; and now Orestes has punished Clytemnestra and Aegisthus for killing Agamemnon. When the Chorus portrays Orestes as carrying out what "Pythia" (the priestess of Apollo) "enjoined" (told him to do) and "sped by warnings of the gods," does that mean that he wasn't acting freely? Or could he be acting freely in carrying out those instructions?

(Orestes): "I am like a charioteer with his horses well off the track; I am carried away, overcome by senses hard to control. Fear is ready with its song close to my heart, and my heart ready with its dance to Rancour – but while I still have my reason, I proclaim and tell my friends that it was not without justice that I killed my mother, the pollution who killed my father and an abomination to the gods; and the inducement to this resolute act I attribute mostly to Loxias the Pythian prophet, whose oracle told me I was to be without the evil of blame if I did these things, but if I failed – I will not say the punishment, for no one will come within a bowshot of describing its torments." (1022-1033)

Here we have a very complex interweaving of ideas relating to free will and fate. To begin with, Orestes says that he is going crazy – a different limitation on free will than either slavery (which we looked at in the beginning of this section) and fate, which we have been looking at throughout. Then, Orestes says that he "mostly" credits the oracle of Apollo for getting him to kill his mother. This suggests that he didn't have total control over his actions – or, at least, he was threatened by horrible punishments if he didn't carry out the revenge. How are we supposed to put all these ideas together? How do they relate to the fact that Orestes is going crazy? Will we go crazy, too, if we try to sort this all out?

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