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The Libation Bearers

Aeschylus

Lines 585–652

Lines 479–584

Lines 653–718

Summary

The chorus gathers to comment on the action following the departure of Orestes, Electra, and Pylades. They sing of the horrors of the deep, and the hateful monsters that dwell there. Birds and beasts alike can tell of the furious whirlwinds of chaos. All of these things can be described, but who can account for man's overly bold spirit? And who can speak of a reckless woman whose passions exceed all bounds, whose frenzied lust rips apart the married unions of men and beasts alike?

The chorus says that we should recall the story of Thestius's heartless daughter, who killed her own son. She burned away the torch that had been burning from his birth, which the fates had told her would keep pace with his life. It was to burn until the day foretold by fate, at which point he would die.

Or, the chorus points out, we must remember the story of the daughter of Nisus, king of Megara. She brought destruction upon her father as he slept, by cutting of his immortal lock of hair, so that Hermes overtook him in his sleep. And for what did she betray her own father? For a golden Cretan necklace, which Minos, Nisus's fierce enemy, gave to her as a bribe.

Having recalled these pitiless acts, it is time soon to tell of a loveless marriage, a curse to the house. Soon we will hear of the cunning plots of a wife against her wise warrior lord. The chorus says that it honors the home that is stranger to passion, and the woman who will never step out of bounds.

Out of all crimes, those of the Lemians are certainly the worst. This abominable story has become the paradigm for horror, and the race of the Lemians itself has disappeared. For, no man can respect that which the gods hate.

The chorus says that the sword is at the lungs, and Justice will drive it deep. Those who trample upon the laws of Zeus underfoot will themselves be stamped out. Fate is sharpening her sword, and the brooding Furies are bringing the son into the house, to wipe clean the blood from the house.

Analysis

In this short but dense section of text, the chorus universalizes the situation while we wait for the actors to carry out the plot. The chorus gives three mythological examples of the havoc that a woman's passion can wreck on the world when she denies her role as nurturer and takes violent action. Significantly, the chorus names none of the women directly, but refers to all of them by their relationship to the males in their lives. In ancient Greece, it was unacceptable for a noble woman's name to be mentioned in public. The woman's place was in the home, and she existed only in terms of her bonds with her male relatives. In neglecting to mention these mythical women's names, the chorus reinforces this extremely male-centered mode of thought.

The story of Althaia is one example of a woman's misplaced vengeance. The daughter of Thestius was Althaia, who was mother to Meleager. When he was born, the fates came to her and said that he would live only as long as the log that was burning on the fire did not burn away. She snatched the log from the fire and put it away in order to preserve his life indefinitely. However, years later, Meleager killed Althaia's two brothers in a dispute over a hunting trophy. Furious, Althaia threw the log into the fire, and Meleager died suddenly. The chorus maintains that while Althaia might have been justified in her anger at her son, she should be condemned for using her knowledge of his weakness to kill him. Not only did she kill her son, but also she did it in a particularly cunning way. The chorus gives this example as an analogy to Clytamnestra's act of killing Agamemnon, which she did by luring him into his bath and murdering him when he was at his weakest.

The story of Scylla is also significant in that it shows how women are easily persuaded by lust to commit horrible acts. Scylla also exploited her father's weakness, by cutting off his magic lock of hair while he was asleep. Without this hair, which had given him immortality, Nisus promptly died. Both Scylla and Althaia violate the sanctity of the home by killing their male relatives when they least expect it. The chorus despises and fears such women, for they exploited their intimate access to their men and reversed the natural order of men and women in society. Minos had only to give Scylla a golden necklace, we presume as a token of his love, to convince her to kill her own father. The parallel to Clytamnestra is clear, as she took Aigisthos as her lover even while Agamemnon lived and was fighting for the Greeks at Troy. In some versions of the myth, it was Aigisthos, and not Clytamnestra, who planned the murder of Agamemnon. Blinded by lust, Clytamnestra went along with his plans and betrayed her marriage vows.

The lesson here is that women are weak and cannot be trusted. In its last mythological example, the chorus mentions the women of Lemnos, who killed all of their men after learning that they had taken Thracian concubines. We remember here that Agamemnon brought Cassandra home as a concubine from Troy, an act which further angered Clytamnestra (although she had already planned to murder him.) In another version of the Lemnos story, the men of Lemnos carried off Athenian women as concubines and had children by them. When the women taught their children Athenian customs, the men killed them all along with their children.

Throughout all of these myths, we see the pervasive fear of the power that women are able to wield in the home. The moral of the story is that women are weak and not to be trusted. We understand better now why the chorus has been so eager to prod Orestes and Electra to attack their mother, as Clytamnestra is the symbol of all that is out of place and wrong with the world. When women start running the show, chaos and murder ensue.

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