Orestes returns from years of exile to visit the grave of Agamemnon, his father, who was murdered by his mother, Clytamnestra. He is accompanied by Pylades, who remains silent until much later in the play. He opens the play with an invocation to "Cthonic Hermes", who acts as a messenger between the Olympian gods and the Underworld. He asks Hermes to stand by him and "guard the fathers' power." Orestes has come to give proper mourning to Agamemnon, as he was not present for his burial.
This invocation breaks off after five lines, and there is a significant chunk of text (perhaps eighty lines) missing from the only remaining manuscript of the play.
Orestes offers a lock of his hair to Inachus, the river-god of Argos. This is in thanks for his nurture, as river gods were worshipped as givers of life. He then lays second lock on his father's tomb, as an offering and token of grief.
As he is laying down these locks, Orestes catches sight of a group of black- robed women, the chorus, moving towards the grave. He wonders whether they are mourning some new sorrow of the house, or whether they have also come to do honor to Agamemnon. Orestes recognizes Electra, his sister, among the women, conspicuous by her bitter mourning. Orestes calls Pylades to hide with him, so that they may observe the women in secret.
The chorus of women then sings that they have been sent from the palace to bring libations to the dead. They are beating their breasts and tearing their cheeks and clothing. They explain that they have come as a result of a terrible dream that queen Clytamnestra had the night before. The dream interpreters said that the dream came from the dead king, who rages against his murderer. The queen then bid the slave women go to the grave and give libations, in hopes of abating his anger. But the women are afraid to speak for her, as there is no redemption for a house once blood has been spilt.
They say that, while some worship success more than the gods, they will pay for their crimes in the end. Once blood has been spilt, it will not seep into the ground, but clots and seethes like an infection in the minds of the guilty. Blood cannot so easily be washed from a polluted hand. As slaves, they must obey their masters, but the women weep behind their veils.
There is a great deal of significant information packed into the first eighty lines of this play. The first two words, "Cthonic Hermes" (in Greek), require some explanation. While these first two words are sometimes translated "Hermes of the nether world" or "Hermes, lord of the dead", "cthonos" simply means 'earth.' However, in this case, we know that Hermes's connection to the earth is due to his role as a messenger between Olympus and Hades, the underworld. Hermes usually escorts souls to Hades, but he also has the power to bring them back again. As Orestes is here to pray to the spirit of his dead father and ask for his help in avenging his murder, he must call on Hades to help bring this spirit back into play in the mortal realm. Also, as the god of deceit, he will help Orestes in the execution of his plan to kill his mother, Clytamnestra.
The second half of the first line in Greek, which Fagles has translated as "look down and guard the fathers' power," can also be interpreted in various ways. Orestes may mean that Hermes should guard the will of his father, Zeus, or that he should help Orestes in avenging his father Agamemnon. The Greek allows for an ambiguous reading, so that both meanings are implied.
Not only was Orestes not present for his father's burial, but no one was there to properly mourn him. After killing Agamemnon, Clytamnestra buried him herself, denying him the respect normally accorded to the death. Orestes has come to rectify this crime.
The fact that the serving women are clothed in black is a significant visual symbol, as they will be present on stage for the remainder of the play. There is a great deal of light and dark imagery in The Libation Bearers, which is expressed both in the dialogue and in the visual aspect of the chorus members. The color black represents the darkness that has fallen on the house since the horrific murder of Agamemnon years before. The serving women show themselves to be loyal to Agamemnon through their mourning attire.
Clytamnestra sent the chorus to Agamemnon's grave as a result of a horrible dream that she had, apparently sent by the spirits of the underworld to warn her of impending danger. It is ironic that her attempts to appease the spirit of Agamemnon by sending the chorus as libation bearers actually sets in motion the train of events that will result in her murder. We see from the beginning that the gods are on Orestes's side, and that Clytamnestra will not be able to avoid punishment for her crime.
We learn from the chorus that Clytamnestra has had a horrible dream, but we do not yet know the nature of this dream. This serves to build dramatic tension. We are filled with questions, just as Orestes is. We also learn from the chorus that blood, once spilt, does not seep easily into the earth. It "clots hard" and refuses to disappear. We know that more blood will have to be spilt in repayment for blood before the play is over. The chorus introduces the light and dark metaphor, saying that those who have murdered may "still stand in the light," but "sorrows await them enshrouded by night."