The Libation Bearers
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The cyclical nature of blood crimes
The ancient law of the Furies mandates that blood must be paid for with blood in an unending cycle of doom. The chorus states this fact several times throughout the play, most clearly in the first section of the kommos, which is discussed i n the quotes section of this SparkNote. Vengeance is just, they say, and it has been the law of the house for generations. In its opening lines, the chorus describes how "[t]he blood that Mother Earth consumes clots hard, it won't seep through, it breeds revenge and frenzy goes through the guilty" (lines 67–70). Nothing else can wash away a bloodstain but more blood, which in turn requires more blood in order to be cleansed. The chorus offers no solution to this dire situation of violence breeding m ore violence. They merely state it as the natural law and do what is in their power to help Orestes fulfill his role in the divine plan. However, over the course of The Libation Bearers, we get the sense that this time, things will be different . Apollo has promised Orestes that he will not suffer for his crime, and we know that a god is unlikely to go back on his word. The Oresteia as a whole is Aeschylus's way of saying, "the buck stops here." Man cannot hope to build a progressive civilization if he is steeped in a perpetual bloodbath. A way out must be found, a new, more civilized law.
The lack of clarity between right and wrong
At times, one may find Aeschylus rather overwhelming in his complexity. However, it is this complexity that compels us to return to him again and again. One of the manifestations of this complexity is that there are no clear good guys or bad guys, but rat her men and women who are faced with impossible choices. Agamemnon, Clytamnestra, and Orestes are all caught between a rock and a hard place, which we may find to be tragically unfair. Aeschylus is telling us that life is unfair, and that we must develop systems for ourselves so that we can cope with the difficult decisions we will inevitably face.
Orestes's particular situation pits his filial duties to Agamemnon against his filial duties to Clytamnestra. If he does not murder Clytamnestra, the Furies will pursue him. But even when he does murder her, the Furies still pursue him. There is no co mpletely right or wrong answer, Aeschylus tells us, but there are better and worse choices. Since Apollo has thrown his weight behind the path of vengeance, Orestes chooses to comply with his commands. In fulfilling his duty towards Apollo and his fat her, Orestes condemns himself to suffering. He chooses to make this sacrifice, however, in order to preserve the laws of society.
The conflict between new and old gods
At the beginning of The Libation Bearers there is no contradiction between the will of the Furies and the will of Apollo, but by the end of the play we see that a split is developing between these two orders of gods. The Furies represent th e ancient, primitive laws, and demand that blood must always be paid for with blood. Apollo compels Orestes to avenge his father, but then suggests that the cycle of violence will end, as he will not have to die in recompense for his crime. In the Eumenides, this theme is fully developed, as the Furies are tamed and relegated to a far less powerful position in society. It is also significant that that Furies are female deities, while Apollo is masculine, thus equating civilization and progress with male influences. In order for society to prosper, the female powers must be subdued.
The difficult nature of inheritance
The Oresteia teaches us that, while we cannot choose how we are born, we can choose how to approach that birthright. In returning to Argos to pursue a terrible quest, Orestes shows himself to be a noble character. He does not flee from destiny , but calls upon his father's spirit and his mother's resolve in order to do what must be done. As the only son of a murdered father, Orestes is fated to avenge his death. He approaches this fate with sophistication and grace, never wavering in his convic tion that he is doing the right thing, but also never sinking to the point of reveling in the slaughter. Towards the beginning of the play, Orestes states that he has returned to Argos in order to claim his inheritance. By this he means the kingdom that i s rightfully his. However, implicit in this statement is the idea that he must claim his share in the destructive bloodshed that has plagued the house for generations. Clytamnestra had sent him away as a child so that he might escape this fate. But, in order to claim his inheritance and become a man, Orestes must return to the origin of his misery and confront it head on.
Light and Dark
As this play chronicles the transition of society from its dark and primitive origins to its new civilized and illuminated state, it is natural that the motif of light and dark should occur throughout the play. The house of Atreus has sat under a dark clo ud for many generations, beset by misery and bloody murder again and again. However, as the chorus joyously states, Orestes will be a savior and bring light back into their lives. He is able to do this because he is backed by Apollo, who is th e god of the sun and all things associated with illumination, including civilization itself. The Furies on the other hand, are associated with death and everything else that lurks beneath the ground. They wear black and are able to drag people down in to madness, which is also associated with darkness. Under their law, no light ever shines through the clouds, as the blood must continually flow. In order to break free of its dark and bloody past, the house must also sever ties with the Furies that have lurked around it for so long.
The net is the most important metaphor that runs through the Oresteia. Net imagery is used to represent treachery, confusion, and entrapment. Nets' binding powers associate them with snakes, who strangle their victims to death. In the Agamem non, Cassandra has a vision of a net and realizes that it is Clytamnestra herself, closing in around her prey. The physical manifestation of Clytamnestra's devious plot is the robe of Agamemnon, which Orestes calls a net at the end of the play. Just as one weaves words in order to persuade someone of something, so Clytamnestra and Orestes weave plots in order to trap their enemies. Nets are naturally cunning devices, as one usually does not see the net closing in until it is too late. We c an understand this metaphor in opposition to a spear or sword metaphor, which would imply direct and open contact with the enemy. A net is like a trap that is laid well in advance. For this reason, it is associated with all kinds of plotting and deception .
There are a total of six references to serpents in The Libation Bearers, each of which is significant to the development of the plot. The serpent is associated with the net metaphor, as a serpent kills by constricting its coils. Serpents in Greek c ulture were viewed with much the same mixture of suspicion and reverence as they are today. They were strange creatures that were associated with the divine. In this play, Clytamnestra is associated with the serpent because she killed her husband with her twisting plots. Her dream that she bears a snake that bites her when she feeds it is the reason behind her decision to send Electra and the chorus to Agamemnon's grave. Orestes then lays claim to this serpent image, announcing that he is the snake at his mother's breast, and that he will not hesitate to bite. Clytamnestra brings on her death when she recognizes Orestes as the serpent from her dream. At this moment, he actualizes the vision of himself that he had prophesized and strikes Cl ytamnestra dead.
While the eagle is mentioned only once in The Libation Bearers, it is an important symbol in the context of the whole myth. On their way to Troy, Agamemnon and Menaleus see an omen that bodes ill. Two eagles swoop down upon a pregnant hare and tear her to shreds. The eagles represent the warrior kings, and the hare represents Troy. While they will be victorious, they will do so by committing bloody acts that are sure to bring retribution. Artemis ensures that Agamemnon will pay for his crimes, forcing him to sacrifice his daughter in order to get to Troy, thus condemning him to death at Clytamnestra's hands. In his first long prayer in The Libation Bearers, Orestes refers to Agamemnon as "the noble eagle father" who has "died in the coils, the viper's dark embrace." The eagle is the symbol of Zeus, the bird of victory and freedom. However, no matter how noble a king Agamemnon was or how glorious his exploits were, he still dies in the nets of Clytamnestra's plotting. While the ea gle may have temporarily gotten away with spearing the hare, the viper will strangle him in turn.
After murdering Clytamnestra and Aigisthos, Orestes inexplicably produces the bloody robes in which his father dies and wraps them around his victims as a sign of the justice of his act. These robes represent both the devious plots of Clytamne stra, as they coil like the snake, and the presence of Agamemnon's spirit as a witness to Orestes's fulfillment of his duty. We know that blood can only be washed away with blood. By wrapping Agamemnon's robes around his murderers, Orestes substitutes the ir blood for that of his father, so that his father can finally rest in peace.
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