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.
Familial Bonds ThemeTracker
Familial Bonds Quotes in The Libation Bearers
Dear god, let me avenge my father’s murder—fight beside me now with all your might!
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.
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.
Your pain is mine.
If I laugh at yours, I only laugh at mine.
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.
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.
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!
the life is hard. The old griefs, the memories
mixing, cups of pain, so much pain in the halls of
the house of Atreus…
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.
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?
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!
Live with such a woman, marry her? Sooner
the gods destroy me—die without an heir!
I embrace you…you,
My victory, are my guilt, my curse, and still—