Study Guide

Libation Bearers Lies and Deceit

By Aeschylus

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Lies and Deceit

(Electra): "What should we tell, for success? All the hurt
we had from a parent, yes, from her?
Fawn she may, but there's no mitigation:
wolf-like and savage, my heart
has a rage no mother's fawning will soothe." (418-422)

Electra here portrays Clytemnestra as deceitful: even though she treats her daughter well ("fawning" on her), Electra says that, underneath it all, her mother is "wolf-like and savage." What do you think about Electra's characterization of her mother? Are we supposed to accept it as a true account? Or is Electra confusing what her mother did to Agamemnon with what how her mother feels towards her? After all, if Clytemnestra really wanted to harm Electra, she could easily have done so in the several years since the end of Agamemnon, right? Anyway, let's not forget what Clytemnestra's motivation was for killing Agamemnon: she wanted to punish him for killing their daughter, Iphigenia. It wouldn't make very much sense for her to then turn around and try to harm her remaining daughter, Electra, would it? In the final analysis, do you think that Electra is correct in judging that her mother, Clytemnestra, is deceitful, or is Electra deceiving herself about her mother?

(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." (555-559)

Orestes tells Electra and the Chorus not to spill the beans on his plan for revenge. Interestingly, his plan depends on the fact that Apollo is not being deceitful: he has been "in the past a prophet without falsity."

(Orestes): "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." (560-564)

What is it about being sneaky that sometimes you can't help dropping hints about what you're doing? Is it just ego? Whatever the reason, we can see that Orestes is engaging in some of this covert signaling here. That's because, by putting on a "Parnassian" accent, he and Pylades will seem as if they are coming from the area around Delphi (near Mt. Parnassus). Of course, they literally are coming from Delphi – they were just there to consult the oracle of Apollo. In a profounder, more metaphorical sense, they are also "coming from Delphi" because it is Apollo's oracle that is sending them on their mission. Also, let's not forget that, in Agamemnon, Clytemnestra tells Agamemnon that she sent Orestes away to be raised by a guy called Strophius the Phocian. (The city of Phocis is also in the neighborhood of Parnassus.) So, putting on this accent also serves a practical purpose because it explains how the travelers could be bringing news of Orestes's death – though it also makes them run a greater risk of being found out. All in all, you could say that Orestes's deceitful plan is brinksmanship of the highest degree.

(Chorus): "Well then, loyal servants of the house!
When shall we show the power of our tongues in Orestes' cause?
O holy and sovereign Earth, and this high-mounded tomb
our sovereign too, you who now lie
over the admiral's royal body,
now listen to us, now come to aid us:
now the time is ripe for guileful Persuasion
to come down and join in our fight,
and the moment is here for Hermes of the Underworld to stand as reserve
in these dark struggles where the sword deals death." (719-729)

Lies and deceit will always be important weapons for the powerless to use against the powerful. In this case, the Chorus of slave-women call upon the gods to give them the power of persuasion. They hope to use this as their instrument of rebellion against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. If you look at our treatment of the theme of "Language and Communication," you'll see that we talk a lot about how Hermes is the messenger god, who is also in charge of bringing souls down to the Underworld. Actually, though, Hermes isn't just the god in charge of delivering messages properly; he's also the god of delivering messages improperly. That is to say, Hermes is the god of trickery, deceit, and lies.

(Nurse): "[Clytemnestra] made a melancholy face to the servants, but she was hiding her inner laughter at things which had worked out well for herself […]." (737-739)

The Nurse thinks that Clytemnestra was attempting to deceive the servants of the house when she acted sad at Orestes's death. How is the Nurse able to tell?

(Chorus): "[Is Aegisthus] to come with bodyguards, or make his way alone?"
(Nurse): "[Clytemnestra's] orders are to bring armed attendants."
(Chorus): "Then don't make that your message to our hated master, but bid him with a cheerful heart, so that he hears without being frightened, to come by himself as soon as he can. It depends on the messenger to make bent words succeed." (768-773)

Here, we see the Chorus coming into their own as agents in the tragedy, by convincing the Nurse to alter her message to Aegisthus. In their view, deception doesn't depend on telling a plausible story. What counts is the way the message is delivered: the "messenger" is the one who can "make bent words succeed." That said, they make it easy for the messenger by not changing the story too much. The nurse is supposed to report a "bent" message to Aegisthus, not a broken and remade one.

(Chorus): "A part in things would justly go
to Maia's son, since his willing support
wafts any action best on its course.
Much appears different if he desires,
working his deception unseen;
in the night he brings dark on the eyes,
but cannot be seen more clearly by day." (812-818)

Once again, the Chorus invokes the help of Maia's son (i.e., Hermes, the god of trickery) to help them in their plan of deception. Their description of the god – invisible at night, no more visible during the day – is pretty darn cool, in our humble opinion.

(Clytemnestra): "Stop, my son! Hold back, from respect for this breast! You often drowsed at it while your gums drew out its rich milk." (896-898)

Did Clytemnestra really breastfeed Orestes? You might think so, from the face of it, but we in the audience have actually just heard the Nurse give a long speech about how she was the one in charge of breastfeeding Orestes. (That's, uh, probably why she's called the Nurse.) Whose word do you accept? We think there's a strong possibility that Clytemnestra is just exploiting the fact that Orestes (like everyone else) doesn't remember his own infancy, in order to deceive him and prevent him from killing her.

(Chorus): "There came stealthy fighting, the favourite means
plotted by guile in punishment;
there lent her hand's touch in the fight
a true daughter of Zeus – as Justice
we mortals name and address her
with happy accuracy –
breathing rancour's destruction on her foes." (946-952)

Nowadays, we tend to think about justice as going hand-in-hand with clarity and transparency. Here, however, the Chorus seems to think that justice is a deft hand with trickery as well.

(Orestes): "What would I be correct in calling it with temperate words – a thing to catch a wild beast, or a dead man's bath-wrap tented over him down to his feet? You might rather call it a net and snare, and foot-length robbing to trap his legs. It's the kind of thing a cheating rogue would get for himself, with a habit of swindling strangers and a life spent stealing money; his trickery with it would make away with many men, and bring his heart much warmth." (997-1004)

Tsk tsk, Orestes, so self-serving in the way you change the story to suit your own purposes. You're blaming your mother for using low-down trickery and deceit to kill Agamemnon, but did you forget that you just used an equal amount of trickery to kill her? Oh wait, he did say that you wanted to set things up "so that for killing a man of high honour by trickery they may be caught by trickery too, dying in the same noose" (556-559). Fine. You win this round.

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