Study Guide

Libation Bearers Religion

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)

The Greek gods all had different, specialized functions. That isn't to say that one god couldn't play many different roles. In fact, this was usually the case. Thus, when Orestes calls upon Hermes and asks for his help, this is appropriate for many reasons. First of all, Hermes is the patron god of travelers and has perhaps been guiding Orestes on his "return from exile." Also, Hermes is the messenger god and the god who brings the souls of the dead down to the Underworld; thus, he can be counted on (if anyone can) to get a message down to his dad Agamemnon to let him know what's up. Finally, Hermes is also the god of trickery and deception. This will come into play later on, when Orestes uses deception to sneak into the palace of Argos and get his revenge.

(Orestes): "O Zeus! Grant me vengeance for my father's death! Be my ally if you will!" (18-19)

A few lines later, Orestes calls on another god for help. This time it's Zeus, king of the gods, who watches over justice. By asking Zeus for vengeance, that's another way of Orestes making sure that his actions are justified.

(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)

In the ancient Greek world, the spirits of prominent individuals were sometimes worshipped after they died. These dead famous dudes were known as "heroes" and were usually associated with a particular location; the practice of worshipping them is known to modern scholars as "hero-cult" or, simply, "hero-worship." Here, Electra makes prayers to the spirit of her father Agamemnon as if he were a hero watching over Argos. Just as in a prayer to any other god, she asks him for help in this world.

(Orestes): "Pray for the future and success! Tell the gods, your prayers are now fulfilled!"
(Electra): "Why, what help am I getting thanks to the gods at this moment?"
(Orestes): "You have come in sight of the very persons you were praying for just now."
(Electra): "And which among men was I calling for? How can you be aware of him?"
(Orestes): "I am aware that you are wonderfully intent upon Orestes."
(Electra): "And just how have I obtained my prayers?"
(Orestes): "Here: here I am! Seek for no one more dear to you than me." (212-219)

Orestes has just been listening in on Electra's prayers, in which she asked the gods and the spirit of Agamemnon to bring him home. Now, when he makes himself known, Orestes acts as if Electra's prayers were fulfilled. Is he joking or being serious? If he's joking, is that an insult to the gods?

(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. If you destroy these nestlings of the father who made the famous sacrifice and did you great honour, where will you get the tribute of rich feasting from such a hand as this? You could never again send mankind trustworthy signs if you destroyed the eagle's nestlings, just as the royal root-stock, once it is all withered, will not help at your altars on days of ox-sacrifice." (246-263)

Now we see that mortals have some power over the gods. Here, Orestes is actually threatening Zeus, saying, "You better help us out, otherwise no more sacrifices for you." Although this sounds kind of funny to us, it isn't that different from the typical way in which the ancient Greeks related to their gods. This relationship was usually understood as being based on contracts, otherwise known as the concept of "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." Typically, the gods were asked to perform services for mortals; in return, mortals offered them prayers and promised them various sacrifices.

(Orestes): "Father, your death was not kingly; grant me now I ask it the power over your house."
(Electra): "Father, I too have such a request from you, to escape from great [misery] by inflicting it on Aegisthus."
(Orestes): "Yes, because if this were so, men would establish regular banquets for you; otherwise you will be without honour beside those who feast well when the earth gets its savoury burnt sacrifices." (479-485)

Here we see more hero-cult-type behavior in action (see our note on the third quotation from this section), this time combined with the sort of "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" thinking that we saw in the previous quotation. Orestes tells the spirit of his dad Agamemnon that he'll offer feasts and other goodies in his honor, if he just gets some help with his revenge project.

(Nurse): "What, are you in your right mind, with the news just brought?"
(Chorus): "But what if Zeus will one day bring a wind-change in our troubles?"
(Nurse): "And how? The hope of the house has perished with Orestes."
(Chorus): "Not yet; it would be a poor prophet who gave that opinion."
(Nurse): "What do you mean? Do you know something different from what's been told?"
(Chorus): "Go and give your message, do what you were sent to do; the gods take care of whatever it is they care for."
(Nurse): "Then I will go and obey what you tell me. May it turn out for the best, with the gods' giving." (774-780)

Have you ever heard the expression "The good Lord helps those who help themselves"? We at Shmoop think that this saying also fits pretty well with what the Chorus says here. It is also interesting to note how they use the idea of the gods to absolve the Nurse of responsibility for her role in the plot.

(Chorus): "Listen, [Zeus]! The one inside the palace –
oh, set him over his enemies! If you raise him high,
then he will be willing to make
a double or triple repayment." (790-793)

Once again, we get the idea of a contractual relationship between gods and mortals. The Chorus prays to Zeus to make Orestes successful; then, if Orestes is successful, he'll be even more able to offer awesome sacrifices to Zeus. Not a bad deal, huh?

(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, specific gods are invoked to bring specific benefits. Here, the Chorus, who has used trickery to bring down Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, gives a tip of the hat to Hermes, the god of trickery. Is there anything else that could be said about these lines? What about the Chorus's observation that Hermes can be seen by night, but not by day? Does this apply just to Hermes, or to the gods in general? If it applies to the gods in general, how could this statement be connected to the idea that the gods help those who help themselves?

(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." (1034-1039)

Orestes's final act in the play is also an act of devotion. This time, however, he is in more urgent need of divine help than ever before. Apollo (Loxias is just another one of his names) is the one who sent Orestes off on his mission; now Apollo is the only one who can take away the stain of killing his mother.

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