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The Libation Bearers

Aeschylus

Lines 84–163

Lines 1–83

Lines 164–245

Summary

Electra makes her first speech of the play. She holds up he libation cup, but she does not know what to say. She cannot bring Agamemnon love from her mother, who was his murderer. Perhaps she should pour silently, and then turn back to the house without looking back, like one who throws out waste. She asks the serving women to join her, saying that although they are slaves, she and they share a common hatred for the house.

The leader of the chorus says that her loyalty lies with the king; "I revere your father's death-mound like an altar." The leader then tells Electra to speak a blessing for those who love her. Electra is confused, as she has no loved ones in the house. The leader says, "all those who hate Aigisthos." Electra still does not recognize that there is anyone else on her side besides the serving women. Then the leader reminds her of Orestes, her brother in exile.

The chorus continues to teach Electra what to say, for she is "unseasoned" and cannot think of the words. The leader tells her to invoke some evil against the murderers (Clytamnestra and Aigisthos), calling for "the one who murders in return." Electra questions whether this is a righteous thing for her to ask of the gods. The chorus says that it cannot be unrighteous to pay back an enemy, evil for evil.

Electra begins to pray. She asks Hermes to help her, to tell the spirits of the underworld to hear her prayers. She asks for the Earth herself to listen, she who brings things to life and takes them away again. She pours a libation to her father, and calls to Orestes to come to her aid. She says that she has been reduced to slave-status, about to be married off by her mother. She prays that she can be more chaste and innocent than her mother.

For her enemies, she prays that some avenger will come to kill the killers in return, with justice. After this interlude to pray for evil for her enemies, she returns to her prayer for blessings, and pours the libations for the serving women to sing over.

The chorus then joins in the libations, praying to Agamemnon that he protect them and Electra from evil but not Clytamnestra, who should feel his wrath. They then cry out again for some man to deliver the house from iniquity, someone born to do it and who will wield his sword as in war (in other words, Orestes).

Analysis

Electra bids the chorus in this speech to tell her what to say over the tomb of her father. Fagel translates this line as saying "What kindness, what prayer can touch my father?" However, there is more in the Greek than meets the eye. The word that Fagel translates as "kindness" is "euphron", which on a basic level means just "speak well." This can mean to speak happily, joyfully, or in a religious sense, to speak so that prayers will be answered. If one does not "speak well" in this sense when invoking the gods or spirits of the dead, one is likely to incur their wrath. This word is particularly significant in the context of the Oresteia, as Clytamnestra purposefully spoke ill in the Agamemnon in order to bring bad sprits upon her husband. With this in mind, we see that Electra is both asking how she is to make a prayer that will please the spirit of her father, and also asking how such a prayer can be possible, considering his awful death.

Electra states that she has only two alternatives for a prayer. Either she can say that she brings offerings from a loving wife to a loved husband, or she can say nothing. The first prayer would be a lie, as Electra knows that her mother still hates her father for killing her sister Iphigineia. However, she cannot bring herself to dishonor her father by leaving the tomb in silence, as such an action is reserved for when one throws waste out the palace doors. Thus, she asks the chorus for another alternative, although she does not know what kind of alternative there may be. Lest the chorus might stay silent out of fear, she reassures them that they share a common hatred for the house, and although she is free and they are slaves, they should not hold their tongues.

The chorus reminds Electra to remember her brother as an ally, although he is still "away from home." The Greek here is again ambiguous. "Thuraios" means both "away" and "outside the door." There is some irony here, as we know that Orestes is indeed just outside the door. While the chorus does not know this, Aeschylus uses "thurios" to remind the audience that Orestes is near.

While Electra is reluctant to discuss punishment for the murderers, the chorus urges her on. They tell her to pray for some god or mortal to arrive to exact vengeance (line 199). This sets up an important parallel for the play, as Orestes is a mortal acting at the bidding of a god, Apollo. Electra asks how it can be right for her to ask the gods to kill in return. The chorus replies that there is no other choice, as an enemy must receive evil in return for evil. This is an important Greek idea, illustrated in Plato. While one must do good to one's friends, one must also do evil to one's enemies. This exchange of dialogue illustrates a central theme of the play, that one is bound by duty to exact vengeance upon one's enemies, even though this may bring further evil upon the avenger.

Having learned from the chorus what she should say, Electra then prays for blessings for her and her loved ones, but for punishment for the murderers. She asks that she be more pure than her mother, thus hoping to distance herself from the bloody inheritance of the house. She says that she must interrupt her prayer for good with a prayer for evil. Her reluctance here to pray for evil things stands in contrast to her later words, which will unabashedly call for Clytamnestra to suffer for her sins.

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