The Libation Bearers | Study Guide


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The Libation Bearers | Quotes


The dead beneath the ground are discontent—their anger grows against the ones who killed them.

Chorus, Parodos

The Chorus describes this statement as a dream interpretation, given by "those who read our dreams"—prophets or oracles. According to ancient Greek theology, the living and the dead remain in communication, especially if the dead person is dissatisfied. This quote highlights the tension simmering below the surface of the play. Dead members of the House of Atreus, Agamemnon and later Clytaemnestra, won't let the living rest until their murders are avenged.


See the abandoned fledglings of the eagle, whose father perished in the viper's coils, that deadly net.

Orestes, Episode 1

The "eagle" is the deceased Agamemnon. He's represented as both a bird of prey and a patriarchal, caring figure. The "viper" is Clytaemnestra, who planned Agamemnon's death. Orestes describes himself and his sister as the orphaned "fledglings" whose treacherous "viper" mother took away their only source of sustenance and hope. Animal metaphors are significant in the Oresteia, showing the human world's link to the more instinctual world of animals.


What in this is good? What free from trouble? Who wrestles death and wins?

Electra, Episode 1

Electra is struggling to see any hope or moral goodness in Orestes's plan for revenge. While the Chorus thinks righteousness will eventually triumph, Electra thinks it's too late to save the House of Atreus, which has already been touched by death many times. She also knows mortals can't overcome death. Humans shouldn't pretend to be gods by "[wrestling] death" and declaring their own power.


It's the law—once drops of blood are shed upon the ground they cry out for still more blood.

Chorus, Episode 1

Blood is personified and given the human characteristic of crying out vocally. The reference to "the law" means that the self-perpetuating cycle of family vengeance is out of human hands. Humans have no choice but to honor the law; for example, Apollo orders Orestes to commit murder and continue the cycle of bloodshed.


For to a man that's dead his children are saving testament—like corks, they hold up the net.

Electra, Episode 1

Nets usually refer to traps and plots in the Oresteia. Electra's metaphor compares nets to a solid foundation. A net at sea gives stability in the midst of chaos. Electra thinks she and Orestes, as the heirs of Agamemnon's legacy, should be protected. Inheritance and its responsibilities are important to the Oresteia; the children need to be the house's "saving testament" to honor their father.


The two in there deceived a noble man, then killed him. So we'll use deceit on them. They'll die in the same net.

Orestes, Episode 1

After years in exile Orestes has had time to think through his murder plan. He knows Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus tricked Agamemnon into walking to his death right after his victory in the Trojan War. Orestes wants them both to experience the same shock and sudden loss of power his father endured. He doesn't want them to see their deaths coming. He refers, again, to the inescapability of the net. A net brings to mind a well-planned trap woven by its creator with no loose ends.


I value hearth and home where passions do not rule, where women's spirits rein in their waywardness.

Chorus, Stasimon 1

The chorus's role in Greek tragedies is often to be the moral center of the play, and to address broader ideas of morality and human responsibility. In Stasimon 1 they emphasize the threat of vindictive women to the family unit. "Hearth and home" recalls the motif of motherhood and its importance to a thriving family. "Waywardness," or going off course, is contrasted with remaining at home in safety.


The dead are murdering the living!

Servant, Episode 3

After Orestes kills Aegisthus offstage, the royal family's servant figures out the truth. Orestes isn't dead; he's talked his way into the house under disguise. He's a threat, as Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra feared. The play's second scene of anagnorisis, or recognition, occurs after this line, when Clytaemnestra realizes she's let someone in her home who intends to kill her. She also recognizes something about herself she didn't before—she's fated to die at Orestes's hands and can't escape her fate.


Make all men your enemies but not the gods.

Pylades, Episode 3

Pylades gives simple advice to Orestes, who is having last-minute doubts about killing his mother. Although Pylades realizes the gravity of what Orestes is about to do, he knows life will be worse for Orestes if he disobeys Apollo. The guilt of matricide will be nothing compared to the punishment of the gods. Pylades's argument convinces Orestes to go through with the murder.


You are the snake I bore and nourished.

Clytaemnestra, Episode 3

These are Clytaemnestra's last words. Clytaemnestra has already realized Orestes is the snake from her nightmares, the snake she cradled like a child until it drained her blood. But the situational irony of her plight is settling in. The child she brought into the world is now removing her from the world. She feels a maternal attachment to him despite her own desire for power, but the desire for power wins out. Clytaemnestra considers Orestes's act a deception and betrayal, the act of a snake. Meanwhile Orestes thinks Clytaemnestra has deceived and betrayed him.


A double lion comes to Agamemnon's house, a two-fold slaughter.

Chorus, Stasimon 3

The Chorus continues the violent, figurative language of the Oresteia, describing Orestes's moral triumph as "a two-fold slaughter." The lion is a majestic and royal animal representing Orestes's status as the royal heir. The Chorus grieves the day's bloodshed but celebrates the long-term triumph of justice.


Well-intentioned stealthy trickery will conquer long-entrenched deceit.

Chorus, Stasimon 3

The Chorus attributes this quote to the god Apollo, the prophet who instructed Orestes to kill his mother. Apollo wanted Orestes to overcome the "long-entrenched deceit" of Argos's illegitimate rulers. Even though Orestes's actions involved manipulation through trickery and weren't entirely noble, he carried out the will of the gods and therefore is on the side of justice. He used less-than-honest means to do the right thing. The Chorus prays they will worship the gods as faithfully as Orestes did and be able to defy wickedness even by "stealthy" means.


Then he will come on the day when I am judged, to testify that I pursued and even killed my mother in a just cause.

Orestes, Exodos

Orestes refers here to Apollo, also called "the Father" and "the Sun" in this passage. Apollo represents the Olympian gods who live above the earth. He also stands for light, a source of truth and revelation. Orestes knows he won't get away with killing his mother. He'll need to defend himself, so he shows evidence of Agamemnon's brutal death to advance his case and to remind Apollo of his promised protection. In the next Oresteia play, Eumenides, Apollo serves as a witness in Orestes's trial.


I lament my act, my suffering. I mourn the entire race, for though I've won, I can't avoid the guilt which now pollutes me.

Orestes, Exodos

The play so far has built toward the goal of avenging Agamemnon's death by making his murderers suffer. Once this task is complete, the story has a final twist at the end. Orestes realizes his suffering isn't over. He can't claim the throne of the House of Atreus yet. The house is still corrupt and marked with blood, and Orestes himself has been polluted (made unclean) by guilt. He's physically covered in blood, making his guilt more tangible.


And now the third—do I call him our saviour or our doom?

Chorus, Exodos

Orestes's revenge, the Chorus sings, is the third "storm" to hit the House of Atreus. Throughout the play they've hoped Orestes will be the house's salvation. Now they realize he may have just made the family's fate worse. The cycle of blood-for-blood vengeance is continuing as the Furies chase Orestes away from his home and into exile once again. This line marks the Chorus's first doubts about Orestes. As the audience prepares for the final installment of the Oresteia, they wonder whether Orestes will save or ruin the house of Atreus. The stakes now are higher.

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