Study Guide

Libation Bearers Language and Communication

By Aeschylus

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Language and Communication

(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)

Even though this quotation doesn't say anything explicit about language or communication, it actually sets up this theme in a way that will become very important in the rest of the play. Among his other duties, Hermes is the messenger god; typically, he brings messages from one god to another, or from the gods down to mortals. At the same time, he is also the god of travelers; he helps mortals along their way, and also helps the souls of dead people make their way down to the Underworld. Later in the play, Orestes will go to great effort to communicate with the spirit of his father. Here, by calling upon the god in his role as "Hermes of the Underworld," Orestes reminds of his role as an intermediary between two worlds. Thus, this looks forward to when Orestes later tries to pass a message across this divide.

(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)

Electra's dysfunctional family puts her in an awkward position when it comes to saying prayers for her dead father. Because her mother, the one who sent her to make the offerings, is also the one who killed Agamemnon, Electra realizes that she can't offer prayers on her mother's behalf without being insincere, thus making a mockery of true communication.

(Electra): "Don't keep things hidden in your heart through fear of anyone […]. Please tell me, if you have anything better than this." […]
(Chorus): "When you make the libation, say good words for those of kind intention."
(Electra): "Which of those dear to me am I to name as that?"
(Chorus): "Yourself first, and anyone who hates Aegisthus."
(Electra): "Then I will make this prayer for me and you together."
(Chorus): "Since you already understand this for yourself, put your mind to it." (102, 105, 109-113)

Here we see that the women of the Chorus are masters of the art of subtle communication. First, they make a sneaky reference to "those of kind intention" which actually turns out to mean Electra and "anyone who hates Aegisthus." Electra turns out to be pretty clever as well, when she guesses correctly that the Chorus hates Aegisthus too, as she indicates when she says, "Then I will make this prayer for me and you together." But we still think that the Chorus is doing something even sneakier here. Notice that the Chorus doesn't say one word about anything bad happening to Clytemnestra. Could this be a clever strategy to avoid alienating Electra by trying to get her to pray for her mother's downfall?

(Electra): "[one line perhaps missing] supreme messenger of those above and those below, [words missing] Hermes of the Underworld, carry my cry to the gods below the earth, to hear my prayers in their watch over my father's house; and to Earth herself, who gives birth to all things, nurtures them, and takes their increase back again. 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!" (124b-131)

Just as in the first quotation from this section, Electra's words call upon Hermes to pass a message along to those beneath the earth. She also says that "my own words too call upon my father." Either way, this attempt at communicating with the dead is closely linked with the idea of revenge – if you think of revenge as a duty owed by the living to the dead.

(Orestes): "O father, my father in doom,
what word or action of mine
might I waft from afar and reach to you,
where you are held in sleep's bed?
Light is a state opposite to dark; all the same, a lament
which gives renown is said to be pleasing
to the Atreidae who lie here in front of the house." (315-322)

Here, Orestes expresses doubt about whether the messages he utters can really reach his father. As he puts it, "Light is a state opposite to dark," so how can the two ever communicate? Still, he consoles himself with the thought that laments "are said to" be pleasing to the dead. But who says so? If the living and the dead really can't communicate (as Orestes at first suggests), then the common opinion that it is possible would just be a popular misconception. Is Orestes aware of this problem? If so, why does he keep trying to get a message to Agamemnon?

(Chorus): "Why hide
what hovers despite all
at the front of my mind, where my heart's anger
is blowing fiercely from the prow,
in rancorous loathing?" (388-392)

The Chorus asks why they should hide their true thoughts about the situation in Argos. Right now, when they are among friends (Electra and Orestes) they certainly have no reason to. If they were back home, of course, they would have to be much more careful about what they say. Clearly, the way in which one communicates depends upon context.

(Orestes): "It shall be done; but it is not at all off the course we run to learn why she sent the libations, for what reason, too late with amends for a harm beyond healing. They were a cowardly grace to send to a dead man without senses." (514-518)

This is a striking self-contradiction on Orestes's part. In calling Agamemnon a "dead man without senses," doesn't he suggest that all of his earlier efforts to get into contact with his father's ghost were useless? Do you think Orestes is showing his true colors here? Or is he just trying to have things both ways – acting as if his mother can't contact Agamemnon, but he can?

(Aegisthus): "What of this news – am I to think of it as true and living fact? Or are these frightened tales from women, which spring up in the air but die away with no effect? What can you tell me of this, to get clear in my mind?"
(Chorus): "We did hear; but go inside and enquire from the strangers. There's nothing as strong in messengers as the enquiries one man makes for himself from another."
(Aegisthus): "I want to see the messenger and interrogate him well whether he was himself close by the dying Orestes, or if his account was learned from faint rumour. He won't deceive a mind that has good eyes." (844-854)

This looks pretty sexist, doesn't it? First Aegisthus says that women are unreliable, and then the Chorus women themselves agree with him, saying that there's "nothing as strong in messengers as the enquiries one man makes for himself from another." But do you think the Chorus really believes this? Or could they just be playing into Aegisthus's own stereotypical thinking in order to get him to go face Orestes alone? Let's not forget that, in this case, Orestes, a man, is the one playing a trick on the inhabitants of the castle. What does this say about Aegisthus's implicit claim to have "a mind that has good eyes"?

(Clytemnestra): "What's the matter? What's this shouting for help you've set up? Help for the house?"
(House-Slave): "The dead are killing the living, I tell you."
(Clytemnestra): "Ah me, alas, I understand the meaning from the riddle. Trickery will be our death, just as we killed by it." (885-888)

What does it say about Clytemnestra that she is immediately able to understand the meaning of the House-Slave's riddle? On the one hand, she definitely seems pretty quick on the uptake, in general. But, on the other hand, it could also mean that she has already had this possibility on her mind. (She, after all, was the one who had the dream about giving birth to the snake, which drew blood from her breast.) When two people already have a shared understanding of what's going on, communication can take very subtle forms, including, as in this case, riddles. In this case, of course, the shared understanding was coincidental: the slave couldn't have assumed that Clytemnestra knew what he was talking about, right? Why do you think the slave presented the message in this form?

(Orestes): "Stretch it out and stand round it in a circle: show the thing which covered a man, so that a father may see – not my own father, but the one who watches over all this – so that I may have a witness in justice one day that I pursued this death justly – my own mother's!" (980-989)

Orestes's command shows that language is not the only mode of the communication. One can also communicate through visual signs as, in this case, he wants to use the bloody robe in which Agamemnon was killed to communicate to the gods that what he has done was just. Depending on what edition of the play you're using, your text might be a little different here. In some versions of the play, there's an extra line (numbered 986 is most Greek editions) that makes it clear that the "one who watches over all this" is actually Helios, the Sun-God. Christopher Collard, the translator we're following, thinks that this line wasn't part of Aeschylus's original play, but got stuck in by somebody else at a later date. He is confident that Aeschylus meant to have Orestes refer to Zeus here. We discuss this issue in more detail under the theme of "Justice and Judgment."

Libation Bearers Language and Communication Study Group

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