AESCHYLUS: The Libation Bearers

Welcome to Part Two of this series on Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In this video we will discuss the second play of the Tragic Trilogy – the Libation Bearers.

In the Libation Bearers, Electra and Orestes, who are the daughter and son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, conspire together to kill their mother and her new lover, Aegisthus, in order to avenge the death of their father. “Blood drops shed upon the ground plead for other bloodshed yet.” After Orestes kills his mother and Aegisthus, the Furies, who are the Greek gods of vengeance, begin to haunt Orestes.

Besides the themes of Fate, Justice, and Revenge, which are prevalent throughout all three plays of the Oresteia, the theme of Exile is especially important in the Libation Bearers. The Ancient Greeks considered exile to be nearly as undesirable as death. The banished person suffered from a longing to return home. The word ‘nostalgia’ perfectly describes these sentiments. It is derived from the Greek words nostos – which means homecoming – and algos – which means ache or pain.

In the beginning of the play, Orestes is in exile. He not only suffers from a desire to return home, but also from a desire to return to a moment in the past when he was happy, a moment when his father was still alive. Orestes believes that if he kills his mother, then he will reclaim some of that past happiness. But his act of Revenge does not provide the satisfaction that he anticipated. Instead he is tormented by guilt. He imagines that he sees avenging goddesses chasing him. “There indeed are the hounds of wrath to avenge my mother. They come in troops, and from their eyes they drip loathsome blood! You do not see them, but I see them. I am pursued. I can stay no longer.”

Disappointed expectations seem to be a universal plight of mankind. We set goals for ourselves with the expectation that we will be happy when we attain those goals. When we fail to obtain our purpose, we feel dejected. And even when we achieve our desired aims, we often find that they don’t make us as happy as we anticipated, and that whatever happiness we do experience is momentary and fleeting. Shakespeare beautifully expresses this sentiment in his poem, The Rape of Lucrece.

“O happiness enjoy’d but of a few!
And, if possess’d, as soon decay’d and done
As is the morning’s silver-melting dew
Against the golden splendor of the sun!”

Aeschylus explains that this miserable condition of mankind is the decree of Fate. “None of mortal men can pass their life untouched by pain!” But perhaps the most famous explanation known to the Western World is the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. The story is also relevant to the themes of Exile and Nostalgia. According to the Bible, mankind once inhabited a world of happiness, but we have been exiled from it, and all of our actions in this world are an attempt to return home, to return to Eden, to return to a place where we were happy.

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