The Libation Bearers | Study Guide

Aeschylus

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The Libation Bearers | Parodos | Summary

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Summary

The chorus members, slave women working at the Argos royal palace, have been sent to take "libations for the dead." They describe their grief, which expresses itself in flowing blood and torn clothing.

Fear, the house's "dream-prophet," terrified the women at night. The dead are unhappy and want vengeance against their murderers. To protect herself, Clytaemnestra, the "godless woman" who murdered Agamemnon and is now queen of Argos, sent the Chorus to pour libations. The Chorus doesn't think their prayers will be adequate. They're afraid. Nothing can atone for Agamemnon's blood or heal the house, but they know justice always comes eventually for criminals, sometimes quickly and sometimes late in their lives. The earth absorbs the blood of the murdered, blood that "cries out for revenge."

The chorus members were enslaved after their city was attacked, and they have to follow their masters' orders, right or wrong. Inside, though, they're weeping for Electra's suffering.

Analysis

Death and burial rituals in ancient Greece involved physical, painful mourning. The Greek word kommos, or funeral song, comes from a root word meaning "to strike." The women in the chorus physically strike themselves and scratch their cheeks until they draw blood. They rip their clothing, showing how grief manifests itself in the bodies of the living. The mourners want to be seen and heard. They "clap out the hands' sharp beat" as they sing, making a loud, abrasive sound similar to the "hair-raising shrieks" of fear.

The women grieve not only for a king's death but for the destruction of time-honored tradition and their own predicament as slaves to selfish Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. The "ancient splendor" of Agamemnon's leadership and the former glory of the House of Atreus is gone. The new leaders are callous and impious, creating a regime in which "success is worshipped, more so than god himself." Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus came to power by unjust means, and they seemed victorious for several years. Now their control is unraveling. When Clytaemnestra has night terrors and screams loudly enough to wake the whole house, the Chorus knows she's finally being pursued by Justice.

The Chorus is the moral center of the play. The main characters, caught up in family loyalties and concerned for their own fates, have different ideas of what it means to do the right thing. The Chorus doesn't waver or doubt until the very end of the Exodos, after the peripeteia, or reversal, when the survival of the House of Atreus becomes much less certain.

In the Parodos their hesitation comes not from doubt but from their subordinate status as servants. Their last stanza describes their need to self-censor, follow instructions they disagree with, and wait patiently for Justice to arrive. The prayer Clytaemnestra commands them to say is an artificial show of grief. The Chorus knows an insincere prayer will anger the gods of the underworld, who are represented by the Earth and the spirits of the dead.

The underworld gods know Clytaemnestra is a "godless woman" and will reject any prayer offered on her behalf. As the play continues to demonstrate, offending the gods is much riskier than offending even the most powerful human. Clytaemnestra wants her guilt to "dissolve or seep away," an image evoking the seeping and flowing of blood; the Chorus promises her guilt will remain.

Blood is an independent force moving of its own accord and self-perpetuating. Once someone is murdered, the Earth wants more blood to avenge the death, creating a formula for years of slaughter. Liquid, both in the form of libations and in the form of blood, appears throughout the play. Liquid can't be re-poured into a pitcher. Once spilled, it flows of its own accord. Blood flows without stopping; so does the guilt bloodshed causes. Unspeakable, unforgivable crimes, like "the man who violates a virgin's bed," will continue to have aftereffects just as liquid will continue to run. These liquids might also expand into a force beyond human control, like the expanding curse on the House of Atreus.

The Earth is called "mother Earth" and "nurturing Earth," established and personified as a life-giving and balancing force. The Earth maintains order in the universe through justice. And in the Oresteia, justice is vengeance. Until Agamemnon is avenged the whole Earth is out of balance.

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