The Libation Bearers

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Fate, the Gods, and Piety Theme Analysis

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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
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Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon

Although no gods appear within The Libation Bearers, Aeschylus makes clear that ideas of piety and the power of the gods are in the forefront of his characters’ minds. As the play opens, Orestes visits the burial mound of his father Agamemnon and offers a lock of his hair to his father’s spirit and to the gods, especially to Hermes, who guides the dead to the underworld. As the play moves forward, we witness Electra taking offerings to Agamemnon’s grave as well, a clear symbol of her devotion and piety. In contrast, we are told, the siblings’ mother Clytemnestra (who killed Agamemnon with the help of her lover Aegisthus) shows such piety only when she is troubled with nightmares about her crime.

The theme of the power of the gods, and their control over human destiny, expands as we (along with Electra and the Chorus) learn that Orestes has returned to his home country at the command of the god Apollo, who has ordered him to kill the faithless Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Since Apollo is the god of prophecy, he is closely associated with the idea of fate. Orestes assumes, as do Electra and the Chorus, that if Apollo sanctions this action, then it is inevitable—that is, Apollo’s will and fate are essentially one and the same.

As the play progresses, we see lack of piety exemplified in the character of Aegisthus. Although he should welcome the disguised Orestes as a guest (hospitality was one of the most important values of the Ancient Greek world), he instead forces the traveller to knock three times at his gate before being allowed to enter. Then, after being told that Orestes is dead, he does not even pretend to mourn—yet another sign of his impiety and lack of respect for essential Greek values.

Throughout The Libation Bearers, the Chorus makes certain that we, the audience, understand that the gods are watching (and to a large extent controlling) the actions that we are seeing onstage. Multiple times they remind us of the gods’ power and omnipresence, and the Chorus’s displays of piety are echoed by Orestes and Electra, who often praise or pray to Hermes, Zeus, Apollo, or even Mother Earth as they plot against their mother Clytemnestra, whose impiety led her to kill their father.

The play attempts to make clear that those who revere and respect the gods (Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus) will triumph, while those who go against the gods’ edicts (Clytemnestra and Aegisthus) will be punished. Yet during the last moments of the play, this issue grows more complicated: in killing his mother, Orestes has himself committed an impious act. Even though he acted in accordance to the wishes of Apollo—thus essentially believing his actions to be inevitable—he is now going to be punished by a different set of gods—the Furies—for raising his hand against Clytemnestra. This suggests the ways that humans can be doomed by fate, an issue that Aeschylus will explore more fully in the play’s sequel, The Eumenides.

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Fate, the Gods, and Piety Quotes in The Libation Bearers

Below you will find the important quotes in The Libation Bearers related to the theme of Fate, the Gods, and Piety .
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). 

Apollo will never fail me, no,
his tremendous power, his oracle charges me
to see this trial through.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Apollo
Page Number: 273-275
Explanation and Analysis:

As Orestes resolves to kill his mother and begins to plan the murder, he prays to Apollo, his patron god, to aid him in this bloody act. Orestes has previously been ordered by Apollo's oracle to avenge his father, so his faith in the god makes sense. His belief that his vengeance has been approved by divine command, meanwhile, demonstrates the close link that the Greeks believed to exist between vengeance and piety. Far from being condemned by the gods, murder and vengeance are indeed encouraged, under the right circumstances. 

That Orestes has specifically prayed to Apollo is also significant. The god of prophecy, Apollo can see the future, and predict it through his oracles. Orestes therefore believes that this murder is not simply divinely sanctioned, but actually destined to be. Although he wishes to murder his mother, he also believes that he has no choice in the matter—it is his fate to do so, as ordered by the god of prophecy. 

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 653-718 Quotes

Slave, the slave!—
where is he? Hear me pounding the gates?
Is there a man inside the house?
For the third time, come out of the halls!
If Aegisthus has them welcome friendly guests.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Aegisthus, Pylades
Page Number: 633-637
Explanation and Analysis:

In order to enter the palace of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra (and eventually kill them both), Orestes poses as a traveler and knocks on the gates. Aegisthus ignores the guest at his doors, however, causing Orestes to become increasingly enraged. 

The Ancient Greeks firmly believed that hospitality to strangers and guests was one of the most important virtues that a person could display. That Aegisthus does not come out to greet a guest is proof of his unfitness to rule a kingdom, and—even more basically—his failings as a person.

When someone does finally come to greet Orestes, it is not Aegisthus, but Clytemnestra. This act is yet another disgrace for the royal couple. Clytemnestra, a woman, is clearly in charge, and has taken her husband's place as head of the house. Both gender roles and rules of hospitality have been upended, and as a result Clytemnestra and Aegisthus' rule is able to be presented as monstrous and perverse in yet another fundamental way.

Lines 719-1065 Quotes

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. 

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. 

Where will it end?
Where will it sink to sleep and rest,
this murderous hate,
This Fury?

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Orestes, The Furies
Page Number: 1075-1077
Explanation and Analysis:

As the play comes to an end, Orestes descends into madness and is chased offstage by the Furies, vengeful spirits determined to punish him for killing his mother. While he flees, the Chorus reflects back on the cycle of violence that The Libation Bearers has continued. Although at first the Chorus supported Orestes' mission of vengeance, now they seem to have changed their tune. They see "murderous hate" as a never-ending pattern, and wonder only when it will end. 

The quote also serves as an excellent set-up for The Libation Bearers' sequel, The Eumenides. While the first play extends the cycle of violence, the second play puts a stop to it once and for all, essentially answering the question that the Chorus here plaintively asks.