The Libation Bearers

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Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud Symbol Analysis

Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud Symbol Icon

Although no longer a living character within the play, the ghost of Agamemnon haunts every moment of The Libation Bearers. Once a dominant, powerful king—the leader of the Greeks during the Trojan War—Agamemnon was doomed from the moment he set off to Troy, having slaughtered his own daughter, Iphigenia, in exchange for favorable winds from the gods. This action then incited murderous rage within his wife, Clytemnestra. Despite Agamemnon’s terrible sin, however, his surviving children—Orestes and Electra—believe that their allegiance to their dead father far outweighs their loyalty to their living (but murderous) mother, and over the course of the play, they both (along with the Chorus) lament his death and express a desperate desire to avenge him.

The spectral presence of Agamemnon within the text is physicalized by two vital symbols: his burial mound and his shroud. The play opens with the two siblings separately visiting the mound and mourning for their father, proof of his power over them even long after his demise. The two often reference the mound, using it as a reminder of their father’s power, and of the deep dishonor that their mother showed him (the mound is far less grand of a tomb than a king would normally inhabit in death). Later in the play, the robes in which Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon—his burial shroud, as it were—also make an appearance, as Orestes uses them to wrap the corpses of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus before weeping over the robes, visual evidence of how much more he values these memorials of his dead father than the body of the mother he just killed.

Within the play, Agamemnon and his various remnants symbolize two powerful forces: the power of fathers, and the power of death. Because of the extreme sexism (and even misogyny) within Greek society, Agamemnon’s role in his children’s lives is assumed to be much more valuable than that of Clytemnestra. It makes sense, then, that given the choice between allegiance to their father and their mother, Orestes and Electra would choose the former. Further, the Greeks believed strongly in honoring and remembering the dead. Despite his demise, Agamemnon still dominates his children’s thoughts, lives, and actions, proof of how present the Greeks considered the dead in their everyday lives.

Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud Quotes in The Libation Bearers

The The Libation Bearers quotes below all refer to the symbol of Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Revenge Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of The Libation Bearers published in 1966.
Lines 1-585 Quotes

Dear god, let me avenge my father’s murder—fight beside me now with all your might!

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud
Page Number: 21-22
Explanation and Analysis:

As Orestes prays at the tomb of his father, he prays to the god Hermes to help him murder his mother Clytemnestra in order to avenge his father Agamemnon—a shocking plea to modern readers. To Orestes, however, vengeance is holy work. He believes that in killing his mother, he will be carrying out a divinely sanctioned act. 

Indeed, rather than seeing murder as immoral, Orestes instead sees inaction as immoral. He believes that as long as his mother lives, his father's spirit cannot rest, and that he is in fact forsaking his duty as a son for as long as he does not carry out his goal of matricide. Thus in the Greek world, Orestes can be both pious and murderous. His allegiance lies not with his living mother, but with his dead father, proof of how much influence the ghosts of the dead exert over the lives of the living within this work. 

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The proud dead stir under the earth,

They rage against the ones who took their lives…

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Electra, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud
Page Number: 44-45
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Chorus of libation-bearing women enters, along with Electra, they recall the terrifying events of the night before, remembering how a mysterious voice warned them that the dead were coming to avenge themselves upon the living. In Greek drama, dreams and prophecies often prove true, as is most definitely the case in this moment. 

The quote also explains why the queen, Clytemnestra, has sent them out to tend to the grave of her husband (whom she loathed and murdered). Although Clytemnestra may put on a show of piety, this is clearly because fear rather than actual reverence. She is worried about what the voice in the night might prophecy, rather than actually regretful about murdering her husband.

We also can understand from this quote the influence of the dead within this narrative. Rather than being considered gone and at peace, the dead are a constant presence for all the characters on the stage. Although they may no longer be alive, their power has not waned; through Orestes' matricide, the spirit of Agamemnon is essentially avenging himself from beyond the grave. 

What to say when I pour the cup of sorrow?
What kindness, what prayer can touch my father?
Shall I say I bring him love for love, a woman’s
love for her husband? My mother, love from her?
I’ve no taste for that, no words to say
as I run the honeyed oil on father’s tomb.

Related Characters: Electra (speaker), The Chorus, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud
Page Number: 86-91
Explanation and Analysis:

As Electra worships at the tomb of her father along with the libation-bearing slaves, she struggles to find words to express her sorrow. Unlike the hypocritical Clytemnestra, Electra is pious and dutiful. Although her father is dead and gone, she is still loyal to him, and feels conflicted about bringing meaningless offerings from her mother. 

This passage also illustrates the complex gender politics at work within The Libation Bearers. Although a woman, Electra identifies far more strongly with her father than with her mother, and believes that her allegiance lies firmly with him. She scorns the queen for having betrayed "a woman's love for her husband," and believes that Clytemnestra has failed in her duties as both a wife and a mother. 

Lastly, Electra's near-obsession with her father helps readers to understand how present he still is for her, despite his death. To Electra, her father is still a powerful force within her life, and she will do whatever it takes to ensure that his memory is honored and his death avenged. 

For our enemies I say,
raise up your avenger, into the light, my father—
kill the killers in return, with justice!
So in the midst of prayers for good I place
this curse for them.

Related Characters: Electra (speaker), Orestes, The Chorus, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud
Page Number: 147-151
Explanation and Analysis:

After being unable to pray for peace for her father's spirit, Electra instead, at the prompting of the chorus, begs the gods for vengeance. Her prayer highlights the close bond within The Libation Bearers between piety and vengeance. Although most of Electra's words involve "prayers for good" for herself and her brother, she also includes curses for Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. This mixture of good wishes and bad is not contradictory to Electra or the Chorus—they believe that both vengeance and reverence can exist within a truly pious and reverent person, because part of the holy law is vengeance. 

It is also significant that Electra prays not to the gods, but to her father. To this abandoned daughter, Agamemnon has become like a god; although he is buried, she still considers him powerful enough to avenge his own murder, through the actions of his descendants.

In the midst of this deeply vengeful prayer, it is important to note that Electra has made no attempts to kill her mother herself. This lack of action is illustrative of the role of women within this type of Greek drama. Although Electra may hope for her mother's death, as a pious and proper Greek woman, she would never carry out the deed herself (in contrast to the murderous and bloody Clytemnestra, who overstepped the bounds of her gender in taking action against her husband). 

Lines 719-1065 Quotes

I embrace you…you,
My victory, are my guilt, my curse, and still—

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker)
Related Symbols: Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud
Page Number: 1012-1013
Explanation and Analysis:

With his mother dead, Orestes looks at his father's burial shroud and begins to mourn. Although he knows that he may pay for his mother's murder, he resolves that the deed was worth the cost, in order to avenge Agamemnon. Still, his attitude is conflicted. He calls the robe both "my victory" and "my guilt," indicating that even though he believes his matricide to be moral, he still feels guilt for what he has done. 

In reading this quote, it is useful to look back to the beginning of the play, when Electra tries to mourn but is unable to at her father's tomb. In contrast to Electra's stoic and sparse phrases, Orestes here is tortured and nearly hysterical. Since Clytemnestra is dead, her children can at last mourn her husband. Their destiny has been fulfilled, and they have taken their revenge. As such, they can finally mourn—although the consequences for this act may still be severe. 

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Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud Symbol Timeline in The Libation Bearers

The timeline below shows where the symbol Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud appears in The Libation Bearers. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lines 1-585
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
...give him strength. He cuts two locks of his hair and lays them on the grave, honoring Inachos (the god of a local river in Argos) and his dead father, begging... (full context)
Revenge Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
...slave women who attend her. They are dressed in mourning, and bring offerings to the grave. Orestes, observing them, notices his sister and prays to the gods to let him avenge... (full context)
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
Electra praises the Chorus, thanking them for accompanying her to Agamemnon’s grave. She begins to lament her father’s death, adding that she cannot bring him love from... (full context)
Revenge Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
Electra kneels at the grave and prays to Hermes, begging him to ask the dead and Mother Earth to hear... (full context)
Revenge Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus gather to pray at the grave. The Chorus invokes the Fates and Zeus, praying that they exact justice. Orestes prays to... (full context)
Revenge Theme Icon
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
The Chorus leaves Electra and Orestes at the grave. Orestes prays for the power “to rule our house” while Electra begs for Aegisthus’ death,... (full context)
Revenge Theme Icon
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
Before leaving, Orestes wonders why Clytemnestra sent libations to Agamemnon’s tomb, considering her impiety and her hatred of her dead husband. The leader of the Chorus... (full context)
Lines 719-1065
Revenge Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
...father, adding that it is appropriate that they die together. He then displays the same robes that Clytemnestra used to entangle Agamemnon before murdering him, and recounts the plot that killed... (full context)
Revenge Theme Icon
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
Still obsessed with the shroud, Orestes looks at his father’s dried blood before burying his face in the robes and... (full context)