The Libation Bearers

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Libation Bearers, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon

In The Libation Bearers, Aeschylus makes a clear distinction between familial bonds that are wholesome and healthy, and those that have become twisted and deadly. Essentially the only example of the former is the relationship between Orestes and Electra. From the play’s first moments, the playwright takes care to emphasize how alike the two are: they visit their father Agamemnon’s burial mound at the same time, they both pray to the god Hermes, they have the same hair color/texture, and they even have matching footprints. Clearly, these two are halves of the same whole, bound together not only by their deep love for one another, but also by the trauma that their mother Clytemnestra inflicted upon them when she killed their father. The bond and allegiance that the siblings feel for their dead father is equally powerful. Both revere him and passionately wish to avenge him, displaying the importance of the connection between fathers and their children.

In contrast, the bond between the siblings and their mother has become perverted and poisonous. They blame her wholly for their father’s death, and she, meanwhile, seems to show little care or affection for them, essentially ignoring her daughter and displaying suspiciously muted signs of grief when she hears (falsely) of her son’s death. This lack of loyalty towards her family is seemingly characteristic of Clytemnestra, who killed her husband without hesitation or mercy after he came home from war, utterly violating the bonds between husband and wife. Yet as Orestes threatens her with death, Clytemnestra attempts to use the power of familial bonds in her favor, telling Orestes that there will be terrible consequences if he kills his own mother. Orestes, however, insists that her desecration of her marriage vows, and of her relationships with her children, renders him immune to such consequences (a belief that will be called into question at the end of the play).

At the same time, however, it is important to remember that Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus were both motivated by a different, competing set of familial ties when they murdered Agamemnon. Clytemnestra, for her part, killed her husband in order to avenge their daughter Iphigenia, whom Agamemnon sacrificed in order to sail to the Trojan War. Aegisthus, meanwhile, was retaliating for the wrongs that Agamemnon’s father Atreus committed against his own father, Thyestes. Small reminders of these grudges — all centered around the idea of family — remind the audience of how complex, powerful, and deadly familial bonds can become.

The end of the play, too, emphasizes the sometimes-contradictory nature of familial bonds. As the play comes to a close, Orestes has killed his mother, thus proving his allegiance to his father. Yet he now will be punished by the Furies for violating the bond between mother and son—proof of the twisted and complex loyalties that exist within the family unit. It takes an entire other play, The Eumenides, for Aeschylus to fully untangle this intricate web of allegiance.

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Familial Bonds Quotes in The Libation Bearers

Below you will find the important quotes in The Libation Bearers related to the theme of Familial Bonds .
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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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). 

Your pain is mine.
If I laugh at yours, I only laugh at mine.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Electra
Related Symbols: The Hair and Footprints of Orestes and Electra
Page Number: 223-224
Explanation and Analysis:

After hiding behind his father's burial mound, Orestes reveals himself to his sister Electra, and the two tearfully reunite. While Electra is incredulous, Orestes reassures her that he has returned. Beyond the joy of siblings at seeing each other for the first time in years, this quote demonstrates the extent to which Orestes and Electra are presented as two halves of the same whole. Their love goes beyond that of ordinary siblings; they feel each others' emotions, and are matched both physically and mentally.

The harmony and strength of Orestes' and Electra's bond stands in contrast with the un-motherly and un-wifely behavior of Clytemnestra. While she has desecrated every familial bond in which she participates, the queen's children have managed to keep their relationship pure and ideal. They illustrate the way that family members should treat each other, providing an example for Greek audiences of proper familial love. 

You light to my eyes, four loves in one!
I have to call you father, it is fate;
and I turn to you the love I gave my mother—
I despise her, she deserves it, yes,
and the love I gave my sister, sacrificed
on the cruel sword, I turn to you.

Related Characters: Electra (speaker), The Chorus (speaker), Orestes, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Iphigenia
Page Number: 240-245
Explanation and Analysis:

After being reunited, Electra and Orestes vow to be loyal to each other, in clear contrast to their treacherous mother. Here Electra tells Orestes that she loves him more than other sisters do their brothers, because he must also serve the roles of father, mother, and sister for her. She is referring to the murder of her father Agamemnon, the sacrifice of her sister Iphigenia (who was murdered by Agamemnon's "cruel sword," presenting a seeming conflict of interest for Electra), and the imminent death of her mother Clytemnestra. 

Once again Aeschylus makes clear that the ties between Electra and Orestes can never be broken. They are wholly committed to each other, exemplifying the purity and strength of true familial bonds. As Electra promises her love for her brother, we also witness traditional Greek gender roles at work. Considered weaker because of her gender, Electra places herself under her brother's protection, giving him not just the love of a sibling, but also the respect of a daughter for her parents. 

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. 

Lines 586-652 Quotes

Oh but a man’s high daring spirit,
who can account for that? Or woman’s
desperate passion daring past all bounds?
She couples with every form of ruin known to mortals.
Woman, frenzied, driven wild with lust,
twists the dark, warm harness
of wedded love—tortures man and beast!

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Clytemnestra
Page Number: 579-585
Explanation and Analysis:

Electra and Orestes leave to carry out the beginning of their vengeance plot; the Chorus, meanwhile, stays behind, taking on their traditional role of commenting on the action (rather than taking part in it). Taking a broader view of the events, they marvel at the differences between a man and a woman. Men, they say, carry out deeds of "daring," while women carry out those of "desperate passion." They then go on to condemn women's passion and lust, accusing women of torturing all those around them with their malicious desires.

This passage clearly illustrates the dark and disturbing view that the ancient Greeks had of womanhood. Although women like Electra are pious, obedient, and pure, women like Clytemnestra—who acted on her desires and seized power for herself—are considered forces of evil and destruction. Although the Chorus never names Clytemnestra, they are clearly referring to her, emphasizing what a negative example the character of Clytemnestra is meant to be for audiences—however justified her actions might seem to be to modern readers.

Lines 719-1065 Quotes

Oh god,
the life is hard. The old griefs, the memories
mixing, cups of pain, so much pain in the halls of
the house of Atreus…

Related Characters: Cilissa (speaker), Orestes, Atreus
Page Number: 728-731
Explanation and Analysis:

As part of their deception, Electra and Orestes pretend that Orestes has died, devastating their old nurse, Cilissa. As she grieves, she looks back on all the woes of the house of Atreus, reminding us of the many sorrows that this royal house has faced. 

In Greek drama, a character's fate is often determined simply by which family they belong to. In the case of Atreus' descendants, they are destined to lives of pain, suffering, and loss. Their familial bonds, and nothing else, have doomed them. Although she has not taken part in these dramas, Cilissa has witnessed most of them during her long life, letting audiences and readers know that even though we are not members of the house of Atreus, we can still grieve for the terrible troubles that have befallen them. 

Clytemnestra: Wait, my son—no respect for this, my child?
The breast you held, drowsing away the hours,
soft gums tugging the milk that made you grow?
Orestes: What will I do, Pylades?—I dread to kill my mother!
Pylades: What of the future? What of the Prophet God Apollo,
the Delphic voice, the faith and oaths we swear?
Make all mankind your enemy, not the gods.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Clytemnestra (speaker), Pylades (speaker), Apollo
Page Number: 883-889
Explanation and Analysis:

With his plan nearing completion, Orestes is about to kill his mother; he pauses, however, swayed by her pleas, before being urged on by his slave, Pylades. After building the momentum of the entire play towards this moment of vengeance and matricide, it is deeply significant that Aeschylus creates a moment of hesitation for the character of Orestes. While Orestes, the Chorus, and Electra have all explained how vengeance is holy and divinely sanctioned, the actual act of killing his mother is still dreadful to Orestes. It takes the urging of a previously silent character, Pylades, to persuade him to carry through the deed.

The way that Pylades convinces Orestes to commit matricide is also important: he reminds his master that Apollo has commanded him to kill his mother, and that he must not disobey the god. He goes on, telling Orestes to "[m]ake all mankind your enemy, not the gods," foreshadowing Orestes' troubles and strife in the next play, The Eumenides

Clytemnestra: Watch out—the hounds of a mother’s curse will hunt you down.
Orestes: But how to escape a father’s if I fail?

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Clytemnestra (speaker), Agamemnon, The Furies
Page Number: 911-912
Explanation and Analysis:

As Orestes stands over Clytmenestra, ready to strike, she continues to attempt to persuade him to spare her. These two lines encapsulate their argument: Clytemnestra vows vengeance on him if he kills her, while Orestes worries that if he does not, he will have betrayed his father. 

These lines also illustrate the terrible situation in which Orestes has found himself: to avenge one crime, he must commit another. It also demonstrates the conflict between different types of familial bonds (in this case mother/son v. father/son), and shows how these bonds are ultimately ruled by gender. Whatever terrible punishments Clytemnestra threatens for Orestes, he will always remain loyal to his father. Because Clytemnestra is a woman, she will never have as strong a hold over her son as her dead husband. 

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. 

Live with such a woman, marry her? Sooner
the gods destroy me—die without an heir!

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Clytemnestra
Page Number: 999-1000
Explanation and Analysis:

After his matricide, Orestes begins to spiral out of control. He transitions from hating his mother to hating all women, believing them all to be treacherous, false, and murderous. Indeed, he comes to loathe women so much that he even wishes to "die without an heir"—a terrible wish for any Greek man, let alone one in a royal line who is supposed to rule his country. 

Orestes' woman-hatred here demonstrates what happens when traditional gender roles go awry. Emasculating and ambitious, Clytemnestra has made her son fear all women, even those without her murderous temperament. In taking his father's life, she may also have ruined his, and destroyed any chance of heirs for the house of Atreus in the future. 

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. 

Aye, trouble is now,
and trouble still to come.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 1016-1017
Explanation and Analysis:

As Orestes mourns his father, the Chorus warns that his struggles are not over. This is a fascinating change in tone for the Chorus: throughout the narrative, they have encouraged Orestes, egging him on and attempting to hasten his matricide. Here, however, they seem far more apprehensive, explaining to Orestes that he will face more trials in the future.

This change in attitude of the Chorus illustrates the double-edged nature of revenge. On one hand, Orestes has fulfilled his destiny; a giant weight off his shoulders. On the other hand, by doing so, Orestes has brought a new series of troubles on himself and his family, despite the fact that he was ordered to do so by the gods. Although exacting vengeance may in fact have been the correct course of action, the Chorus makes both Orestes and the audience understand that doing so may have brought about a terrible cost.