The Libation Bearers Line 1-305
Many years have passed since Clytaemnestra has murdered her husband, King Agamemnon. This man had just returned home to Argos after rescuing his brother Menelaus' wife Helen, who had been kidnapped by Paris before the Trojan War. Clytaemnestra killed him because he had sacrificed their eldest daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis in order for the Greek ships to sail to Troy. Agamemnon's cousin Aegisthus was also a mastermind of the murder plot, seeking revenge for sins that Agamemnon's father Atreus had committed against his father Thyestes. Atreus cooked Thyestes' children alive and fed them to him without revealing what he was really eating. Agamemnon thus became the focus of two sources of anger and two different acts of revenge. One was for the sins of his father, and the other was for deeds he had committed by choosing his army and loyalty to his brother Menelaus as more important than that of his own family. He chose to go to Troy to rescue Menelaus' wife Helen, instead of giving up the struggle and staying behind in Argos. After the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Artemis sent wind down to the ships, even as Clytaemnestra held her rage inside for ten years, unleashing it soon after his return by stabbing him to death.
Now many years have passed and the prediction of the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, also slain by Clyatemnestra, is becoming a reality. Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon's son Orestes had been sent away elsewhere when his father returned from the war, but Cassandra predicted that it is this son who would avenge her death and that of Agamemnon. The story begins as the young man stands outside of his father's tomb with his friend Pylades and sends a prayer to Inachus, leaving a lock of his hair as an offering. He has been away in exile for many years, banished by his mother and Aegisthus. Orestes announces to his father that he has at long last returned, regretting that he was not there when Agamemnon was slain by Clytaemnestra. These inner thoughts are interrupted as his older sister Electra approaches the tomb with the Chorus of foreign serving women. Vowing that he will avenge his father's death, Orestes asks Zeus to aid him. He and Pylades then move into a nearby hiding spot, curious to hear what these woman will say.
The Chorus reveals that it came to carry libations, declaring that there is much discord in Argos because Agamemnon's spirit is angry that his murderer have gone unpunished. Clytaemnestra has sent them out to make libations to appease her dead husband's spirit, hoping for some peace of mind in the house, since it has become haunted by his restless spirit and also by sins of the past: first Thyestes' children were cooked alive by Atreus, and then Clytaemnestra brutally murdered her own husband and the Trojan prophetess Cassandra. These women thus lament that "the godless woman/sends me forth. But terror/is on me for this word let fall/What can wash off the blood once spilled upon the ground?/O hearth soaked in sorrow,/o wreckage of a fallen house./Sunless and where men fear to walk/the mists huddle upon this house/where the high lords have perished" Line 45-53. The house of Clytaemestra is filled with much violence. Furthermore, men have little control over their future. Fate is the strongest factor in determining what shall happen in anybody's life.
The lamenting continues, for there is little hope left to these serving women now. More trouble lies ahead in the future, "But, as a beam balances, so/sudden disasters wait, to strike/some in the brightness, some in gloom/of half dark in their elder time./Desperate night holds others./Through too much glut of blood drunk by our fostering ground/the vengeful gore is caked and hard, will not drain through./The deep-run ruin carries away/the man of guilt. Swarming infection boils within" Line 61-70. At any moment, more trouble shall afflict Argos, described as a balanced beam precariously perched and waiting to fall. The women warn that there has been so much disaster that has occurred there that the sins are drowning the city with trouble, and soon these sins will carry away "the man of guilt" as if caught by a flood and swept downstream. In the city, there is a "swarming infection" and it has gone uncured for a very long time. Although the Chorus speaks in general terms, these words can be used to refer to Clytaemnestra and her act of murder against Cassandra and Agamemnon, which has gone unpunished for many years. Like an infection that is not treated, these murders have gone unavenged; the solution to the problem remains clear, that she must be punished along with Aegisthus in order to cure Argos from this terrible sin.
The women continue to complain about how unhappy they are and how much they miss their great King Agamemnon, hating Clytaemnestra for what she has done to him. Electra then addresses them, asking whatever she will say as she pours out an offering to her dead father's spirit as she stands before his tomb, mocking her mother whom she is supposed to help, "Grant good return to those who send to you these flowers/of honor: gifts to match the...evil they have done/Or, quiet and dishonored, as my father died/shall I pour out this offering for the ground to drink,/and go, like one who empties garbage out of doors,/and turn my eyes, and throw the vessel far away" Line 94-99. She feels that her mother is evil and that she has done a terrible dishonor against her father by murdering him. Making an offering to Agamemnon doesn't make sense. She adds that she may as well just dump the offering all over the ground like garbage and walk away, mirroring the same disrespect Clytaemnestra showed when she murdered her husband with little regard to his dignity. Electra goes on to say that they all hate Clytaemnestra equally, urging them to not be afraid of revealing this hatred instead of keeping it hidden inside. She asks these women what she should do next in making the offering.
The Chorus of foreign slaves says that it honors Agamemnon's tomb as if it were an altar, giving the holiest treatment. The women urge Electra to pour a libation for her father while uttering aloud the names of those who are kind-hearted, explaining that she must utter her own name first and then the names of everyone else who hates Aegisthus, including her exiled brother Orestes. Electra must ask for an avenger who will punish Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus as well, although she is fearful that this request will upset the gods, for it is evil to wish another harm. The Chorus reassures her, "May you not hurt your enemy, when he struck first?" Satisfied with this response, Electra utters a prayer to Hermes, a god responsible for leading souls of the dead into the underworld. She asks him to carry a message to her father, King Agamemnon, asking for assistance, since Orestes should rightfully control the city's throne, but Aegisthus rules instead with Clytaemnestra. Electra's voice is filled with sadness, for she herself, a princess, has been reduced to being a household slave.
She continues, "By some good fortune let Orestes come/back home. Such is my prayer, my father. Hear me; hear./And for myself, grant that I be more temperate/of heart than my mother; that I act with purer hand./Such are my prayers for us; but for our enemies,/father, I pray that your avenger come, that they/who killed you shall be killed in turn, as they deserve" Line 138-144. The young woman asks her dead father to bring back her long lost brother, sent into exile after all of these years. She also hopes that she will never become arrogant as her mother has, forgetting all reverence for the gods above. She hopes for moderation in her life, so that she can avoid the sad events that have befallen her mother. She is wise, recognizing how prone that children can be in growing up to become just like their parents. Additionally, she hopes that her mother and Aegisthus will be punished, showing little worry about the safety of her own mother. Her loyalties are clearly with her dead father. The libation is poured into the soil before her father's tomb as she speaks.
The Chorus repeats the prayer in the same tone as Electra, hoping for an avenger to punish those murderers that now rule over Argos. Electra acknowledges that their task of making a libation has been completed, although it is not done in a manner that Clytaemnestra would have wanted when she first sent these women outside to beg for peace from Agamemnon's spirit. Suddenly, she notices a lock of hair that has been laid upon her father's tomb, wondering who could be responsible for this act. She explains to the Chorus that it greatly resembles her own hair. The only conclusion the Chorus draws is that the long lost Orestes must have lain the hair at that spot. Electra is filled with excitement upon thinking that her brother could be nearby, breaking down into tears, "[Clytaemnestra] never could have cut [the hair], she who murdered him/and is my mother, but no mother in her heart/which has assumed God's hate and hates her children. No,/And yet, how can I say in open outright confidence/that it is a treasured token from the best beloved/of men to me, Orestes? Does hope fawn on me?" Line 189-193. The young woman is confused about why a hair so similar to her own has been left lying on her father's tomb, crying aloud next that that only the gods above know the true answer to this question.
Indeed, the woman recognizes that humans are helpless in the eyes of these divinities, for they are the directors of all human events, "The gods know, and we call upon the gods; they know/how we are spun in circles like seafarers, in/what storms. But if we are to win, and our ship live,/from one small seed could burgeon an enormous tree" Line 201-204. She compares her life to that of a seafarer lost at sea, attacked by many storms and moving in circles basically. Yet she also states that from a small seed, such as how her brother Orestes was when he was sent into exile as a child -- the seed of Clytaemnestra -- he can nevertheless become an enormous tree, a formidable force to be reckoned with. Electra hopes that this avenger will be her own brother, restoring order and justice in the city of Argos. In this way, her father's death will be avenged and his spirit would rest at long last. She becomes even more emotional after also finding footprints upon the ground that exactly match the size of her own foot, propelling her again to think that her brother is near; she also sees the prints of another man who accompanies him. Electra is overwhelmed by confusion, saying "my wits are going."
At this moment, however, Orestes and Pylades who have remained nearby unnoticed, abruptly emerge from hiding and make their presence known to all of these women. Orestes boldly declares that the gods have made Electra's prayers come true, for he has returned! Electra is stunned and finds it hard to believe that her brother has returned after all. He reassures her that he is, in fact, Orestes, explaining that it was he himself that left a lock of hair on Agamemnon's tomb to honor Agamemnon and also as a sign of the grief he felt towards his dead father. He urges his sister to hold that lock of hair against his own head and see the spot where it was cut from, watching how the strands will match up as evidence that it is really him. Electra is overcome with gladness that her exiled brother has returned at long last, yet he reminds her that this happiness is premature. Their mother, Clytaemnestra, remains an enemy. Orestes is focused on the reality of their situation, since a lot of obstacles remain ahead. Nor is he supposed to be in Argos, for he was sent away into exile by Clytaemnestra, fearful that he would try to take the throne away from she and Aegisthus. Electra is overcome by emotion, forgetting her senses and any problems that may lie in store for them. In her mind, everything is going to be all right now that her brother Orestes has returned to Argos.
Electra is filled with hope and optimism about their future and releases all of her pent up feelings out into her brother Orestes, "O dearest, treasured darling of my father's house,/hope of the seed of our salvation, wept for, trust/your strength of hand, and win your father's house again./O bright beloved presence, you bring back four lives/to me.../You alone bring me honor; but let Force, and Right,/and Zeus almighty, third with them, be on your side" Line 235-245. The young woman is so happy that her brother has returned, hoping that Zeus will aid him. She adds that her love for him is fourfold, as four lost feelings of love are all directed now into him: her love for her mother, whom she now despises, her love for her dead father, her love for the dead Iphigenia, and finally, she feels love towards him, her brother Orestes. Indeed, Orestes appears to be the only family that Electra has left in the entire world since they are all dead or evil. Electra does not feel as lonely as she was before; now she is cheerful and has a firm belief that justice will be served and her father will be avenged.
Orestes compares Clytaemnestra to a viper and describes his father as an eagle. Invoking his father's name while standing before the tomb, Orestes laments that the kingship of Argos and the royal palace rightfully belongs to he and Electra, yet this has been stolen from them by their mother. He states that "from a little thing you can raise up/a house to grandeur, though it now seem overthrown." The brave man states that even though everything may seem hopeless now, a house can be raised up into "grandeur" or greatness once again. This idea of something small nevertheless having a lot of power reflects Electra's words earlier that spoke of a small seed becoming an enormously powerful tree. Both of these statements suggest that even though these two children may seem harmless now, they will soon show their strength in reclaiming the kingship from Clytaemnestra. They will soon get what is rightfully owed to them.
However, the Chorus of foreign serving women quickly interrupts, warning both of them to quiet down so that nobody will hear these treacherous words. If Clytaemnestra or Aegisthus learn that Orestes has returned, terrible consequences would result. Yet Orestes is not afraid at all, vowing that he is fated to avenge his father's death as the oracle of Apollo at Delphi has predicted, warning that oracles do not lie. This seems to be an additional prophesy to that of Cassandra, declaring that the son would avenge the father's death one day before she herself was murdered. Relating the story of this new prophesy, Orestes says that he must kill Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus, or else he will suffer a painful death. Orestes has a duty to his dead father, "Here is work that must be done./Here numerous desires converge to drive me on:/the god's urgency and my father's passion, and/with these the loss of my estates wears hard on me;/the thought that these my citizens, most high renowned/of men, who toppled Troy in show of courage, must/go subject to this brace of women; since his heart/is female; or, if it be not, that soon will show" Line 298-305.