The Libation Bearers

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Serpents and Snakes Symbol Icon

Serpents and snakes are complex and double-edged symbols within The Libation Bearers. Early in the play, we learn that Clytemnestra has had a dream that she gave birth to a snake only to have it maul her. Orestes explains to us that the snake represents him, and that he will need to use deception and violence against his mother in order to avenge his father’s murder. Clytemnestra confirms this reading, realizing (moments from her death), that her dream foretold Orestes’ return. Later in the play, however, both Orestes and the Chorus refer to the treacherous Clytemnestra and Aegisthus as serpents, thus turning a symbol that was once seemingly positive into a negative one. Orestes’ connection with snakes and serpents, therefore, is more slippery than originally thought—he has taken on serpent-like qualities (such as deception, disguise, and betrayal) in order to carry out a divinely sanctioned act, but perhaps has also sinned gravely in the process.

Serpents and Snakes Quotes in The Libation Bearers

The The Libation Bearers quotes below all refer to the symbol of Serpents and Snakes. 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

If the serpent came from the same place as I,
and slept in the bands that swaddled me, and its jaws
spread wide for the breast that nursed me into life
and clots stained the milk, mother’s milk,
and she cried in fear and agony—so be it.
As she bred this sign, this violent prodigy
so she dies by violence. I turn serpent,
I kill her. So the vision says.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Clytemnestra
Related Symbols: Serpents and Snakes
Page Number: 530-537
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of Orestes' and Electra's plot to murder their mother, the Chorus of slave women reveals that Clytemnestra had a terrible nightmare the evening before, in which she nursed a serpent that then killed her. Orestes then (correctly) interprets the dream, understanding that the serpent symbolizes himself; having nursed at his mother's breast as an infant, he will now murder her as a man.

Most obviously, this dream once again confirms that prophecies and visions tell the truth within Greek myths and drama. On a deeper level, the dream also reveals the fascinating and tangled web of gender roles and familial bonds within the play. Although his mother nurtured and nursed him, it is still pious for Orestes to kill her, due to her disloyalty to his father. Meanwhile it is Clytemnestra's very womanliness—the fact that she nursed and cared for her baby—that will eventually doom Clytemnestra to death.

Above all else, the dream illustrates the violence that hangs over the house of Atreus at all times. Clytemnestra takes her nightmare seriously because she knows how easily one can be betrayed by one's own kin (just as she betrayed her husband). At all times, she is on the lookout for potential signs of vengeance—but despite her prophetic dream, she cannot escape her fate. 

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Lines 719-1065 Quotes

But she who plotted this horror against her husband,
she carried his children, growing in her womb
and she—I loved her once
and now I loathe, I have to loathe—what is she?
Some moray eel, some viper born to rot her mate
with a single touch, no fang to strike him
just the wrong, the reckless fury in her heart!

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Serpents and Snakes
Page Number: 983-989
Explanation and Analysis:

Having killed his mother, Orestes stands over her, also holding the robes that she used to trap and kill his father years ago. He grows increasingly hysterical, horrified both by what he has done and by the extent of his mother's crimes. 

This passage displays Orestes' conflicted emotions about his mother, as well as his frantic emotional state after killing her. Although the play may seem to be on the side of vengeance, it does not flinch from showing murder's terrible after effects.

Orestes' deep hatred of women is significant here as well. He describes his mother as an "eel" or a "viper," recalling how she killed his father with nothing more than "the reckless fury in her heart." In his muddled mental state, Orestes grows increasingly upset and disgusted by women, his loathing based in his simultaneous hatred for his mother, and his guilt over her death. 

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Serpents and Snakes Symbol Timeline in The Libation Bearers

The timeline below shows where the symbol Serpents and Snakes appears in The Libation Bearers. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lines 1-585
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
...too, prays to Zeus, comparing the dead Agamemnon to an eagle killed by a treacherous snake. They once again compare their enslaved state to that of Electra, and praise Agamemnon for... (full context)
Revenge Theme Icon
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
...that Clytemnestra was shaken by a bad dream in which she gave birth to a serpent, which then bit off her nipple as she breastfed it. Clytemnestra has sent offerings to... (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 wonders if he himself is the serpent, and if this dream has in fact predicted Clytemnestra’s death at his hands. The leader... (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
...remains resolute, refuting all of her arguments. At last Clytemnestra realizes that Orestes is the serpent she dreamt of—at this, Orestes drags her into the palace, shutting the doors behind him. (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
...explains that his love has turned to loathing. He calls her an eel and a serpent, and curses the robes that he holds. Deploring the evil of women, Orestes asserts that... (full context)
Revenge Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
...reassure him that he’s done the right thing, asserting that he’s freed Argos from “two serpents.” (full context)