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.
Fate, the Gods, and Piety ThemeTracker
Fate, the Gods, and Piety Quotes in The Libation Bearers
Dear god, let me avenge my father’s murder—fight beside me now with all your might!
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.
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.
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.
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 Bearersbetween 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.
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.
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.
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?
I embrace you…you,
My victory, are my guilt, my curse, and still—
Aye, trouble is now,
and trouble still to come.
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.