The Libation Bearers

July 25, 2010

The Libation Bearers, the second tragedy in Aeschylus’s trilogy The Oresteia, focuses on a matricide performed by Orestes, the recently returned son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Orestes has returned to Argos on the order of Apollo, who enjoined that Orestes kill his mother and her husband, the new king Aegisthus. Orestes visits his father’s grave and leaves a lock of his hair as a momento. Electra, Orestes’s sister, also visits her father’s grave on that day on request of her mother, Clytemnestra, who is plagued by disturbing dreams of a snake that she cradles as a child and lets suck both milk and blood from her breast (a portentous dream presaging the return of Orestes). While at the grave, Electra sees a strand of hair and a pair of footprints that look shockingly similar to her own. She then encounters Orestes, her long since departed brother, and with him denigrates their mother, lauds their deceased father, and plots the murder of both Clytemnestra and her tyrannous husband, Aegisthus.

Orestes and his traveling companion Pylades disguise themselves as foreigners and approach the castle where the rest of the house of Atreus dwells. When Clytemnestra answers Orestes at the entrance, and Orestes pretends to be a message bearer sent to inform the household that Orestes has died. Clytemnestra is saddened by the news, and Cilissa, Orestes’s childhood nurse, is equally distraught. Orestes asks for Aegisthus, who is told by Cilissa to come alone. Orestes murders Aegisthus. Committing matricide, however, proves more difficult for Orestes, as his filial bonds to his mother are strong. After being reminded by Pylades that a failure to complete the act will result in a plagued existence, Orestes completes the action and then wraps the bodies in the same robe used by them to kill Agamemnon. Orestes begins to experience insanity and flees the stage, terminating the play.

My most persistent observation throughout the course of the play regards the hypocrisy that I perceive among the thoughts and actions of Electra, Orestes, and the chorus. All of them fervidly detest Clytemnestra and yet lionize Agamemnon. Clytemnestra is despised for having killed her husband, yet the fact that Agamemnon killed his innocent daughter, the sister of Electra and Orestes, is completely overlooked. I can find no rationale for this, other than a gendered understanding that would make a woman culpable for something from which a man may be expiated.



July 25, 2010

Agamemnon is the first Greek tragedy in a trilogy known as The Oresteia written by Aeschylus. Aeschylus, often considered the father of Greek tragedy, composed more than seventy plays, only seven of which are extant. Aeschylus drew much of his content for the trilogy from Homer’s epic poems, as the title of the play Agamemnon attests.

The house of Atreus is under a curse before the play even begins. Years earlier Atreus, the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, had defeated his brother Thyestes in the competition for the throne and had banished him after his ascension. Later returning in hopes of reclaiming the throne, Thyestes is (supposedly) warmly received by Atreus and given a meal which he eats, not knowing that it is all of his own children (save Aegisthus) that he is consuming. Upon learning of the atrocity, Thyestes curses Atreus for the heinous act and flees with his only surviving child, Aegisthus.

The other background story that is vital to comprehend regards Agamemnon himself. Stuck with his troops on an island due to lack of wind, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis in order to appease her and gain a favorable sailing wind so that he and his troops may successfully begin the Trojan War. Itself a pernicious act, the murder of Iphigenia both depressed and enraged Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife who stars in Agamemnon.

Agamemnon begins upon the return of Agamemnon after his success in the Trojan War. Though quite a bit of conversation occurs between the watchman, the chorus, Clytemnestra, and the herald before the action of the play gets underway, the primary events of the play commence when Agamemnon finally arrives home. Clytemnestra, in an act of feigned deference and respect, lays crimson robes on the ground upon which she invites Agamemnon to walk. Although he remarks that such an act would exhibit hubris, he executes it nonetheless, leaving Cassandra, his oracular concubine, behind. Cassandra will not speak with Clytemnestra, so Clytemnestra returns to the house where Aegisthus, her lover, awaits her. Cassandra, who is clearly in distress and who can see with mantic vision both the impending murder of Agamemnon and of herself, converses with the chorus for a while before entering the house. The chorus then hears Agamemnon cry out in pain. The chorus enters the house, sees the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, and speaks to Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, both of whom justify their actions by relating the horrors that they underwent in the past, which I documented above.

The concept of the chorus is one with which I was mostly unfamiliar, and my literary encyclopedias inform me that the Greek tragedies’ chorus served as commentators on the actions of the dramas and as vocal expressions of traditional moral and social attitudes.

There are a few rather striking parallels that I would like to note here between this tragedy and those of William Shakespeare. Firstly, the perverse idea of feeding someone their own child, as Atreus did to Thyestes, returns in Titus Andronicus. Secondly, the bloody apparitions that Cassandra sees seemed oddly similar to those that King Macbeth sees after they are summoned by the weird sisters in Macbeth. These parallels may be tenuous or coincidental, but they nevertheless struck me. Classical literature did indeed exert an enormous influence over subsequent Western letters, and Shakespeare’s corpus is no exception.

Book 3 begins with the Achaean troops lined in opposition to the Trojan battalions. Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon and the former husband of Helen, steps forward from the Achaean line to confront Paris, the brother of the noble Hector and the man who clandestinely stole Helen. Upon descrying Menelaus, however, the pusillanimous Paris cowers in fear, only to be rebuked by Hector, who notes that the entirety of the war and all its tragic losses are due to Paris’s surreptitious stealing of Helen. To apologize to Hector for his cravenness, Paris proposes that he and Menelaus fight alone, man to man, and that the victor of the battle claim Helen, her wealth, and the general victory for his people. The truce is made, the fight commences, but Menelaus, whose strength and prowess clearly overpower that of Paris, is thwarted from his victory by the intercession of Aphrodite, the goddess who so cherishes Paris because he announced her the most beautiful of the gods. Aphrodite thus releases Paris from his strangling helmet and whisks him away to a bed where he lies waiting to have sex with Helen. Book 3 thus marks the introduction of Helen  into the narrative, the abject woman who somehow blames herself for her abduction, doubting her probity and referring to herself as a whore. She is miserably devoted to Paris, her captor, and yearns to return to her husband Menelaus, her child who has now grown, and her original people, the Achaeans.

Book 4 begins as the gods deliberate on Mount Olympus about the outcome of the war. Menelaus is the clear victor in the mortals’ battle, but tensions between Zeus and Hera have led to competing desires regarding the war’s outcome. Hera ultimately defers to Zeus, the most puissant of all gods and her husband, and agrees to send Athena to the Trojans to convince one of the more vacuous of their rank to break the previous truce and fire an arrow at Menelaus, the success of which would forever lionize the archer. The arrow is shot but, courtesy of divine intervention, does not kill Menelaus and instead merely wounds him. Enraged that someone has so hastily shattered the peace pact, Agamemnon resumes the war, resulting in many casualties on both sides of the battle.

Having read The Iliad once in high school, I now happily return to it to solidify in my mind its themes and characters as I prepare for the subject test in literature. I vividly remember resonating with the work while in high school for what I perceived to be the passionate relationship between Achilles and his friend Patroclus, the only person for whom Achilles bears sufficient love to convince him to reenter the Trojan War after being gravely offended. Feeling a similarity with Achilles and his love for a man, I loved The Iliad once and now return to its pages with curiosity and wide eyes.

The Iliad and The Odyssey were both ostensibly written by a poet named Homer, a Greek who lived sometime in the late eighth or early seventh century BCE. Like Shakespeare, hardly any biographical details remain about the life of Homer, and scholars have conjectured both that he was literate and did not merely perform his lengthy epic poems orally but also composed written versions of them, and that he was blind, as Milton alludes to when he places himself in the genealogy of blind, albeit brilliant, epic poets in his Paradise Lost. Many cities are claimed as Homer’s birthplace, and Homer is even considered by some to be a conglomerate of various Greek bards, although the unity of style and theme among The Iliad and The Odyssey argues for composition by a single hand.

Both of Homer’s epics are composed in dactylic hexameter, a rhyme scheme that exacted various maneuvers from the language of which it was comprised. One such trope that Homer employs frequently is his use of an epithet, now termed a Homeric epithet, to describe a character or noun generally. Thus, we have the “wine-red sea” and “wide-ruling Agamemnon,” epithets that in the original Greek would have lent themselves to forming  lines of dactylic hexameter. Other memorable things about the form of the Homeric epics include the epic invocation or epic question, in which the bard appeals to the Muses to aid him in his duties as a raconteur. Epic catalogs occur when Homer describes at length the names and background stories of certain members of both armies, for example, a quintessential instance occurring at the end of Book 2. Epic similes are extensive, voluble comparisons using the words “like” or “as.” And lastly, both of Homer’s poems begin in the middle of the action, in medias res, and portray the prior events of the plot to the reader through flashback narrative scenes.

Book 1 of The Iliad sets the scene for the remainder of the epic. The plot is essentially one of petty revenge wrought by the proud warrior Achilles against the equally haughty Agamemnon. After the Achaeans defeat a city and loot its wealth, Agamemnon receives Chryseis, a beautiful woman, as a prize. Chryseis’s father, Chryses, however, is not content to see his daughter a slave to a foreign army. He begs for her return, is spurned by Agamemnon, and being an oracular priest thus appeals to Apollo to plague the Argives as chastisement for their withholding, an act that Apollo executes. Agamemnon eventually returns Chryseis under the condition that he can possess Briseis, the female war prize of Achilles, Agamemnon’s warrior of most prowess. Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilles, precipitating Achilles’s anger and withdrawal from the war. Deeply wounded in his pride by Agamemnon, Achilles enjoins his mother, a goddess named Thetis, to convince Zeus to massacre the Argives as a humiliation tactic and a didactic means of chastening Agamemnon specifically. Zeus agrees to the machination, and Book 1 ends.

Book 2 begins with the unfolding of Zeus’s plot. Exercising his guile, Zeus sends a dream to Agamemnon in which he falsely informs the Achaean leader that an abrupt attack, undertaken at that very instant, would enormously debilitate the Trojan army. Trusting the content of the dream, Agamemnon awakes and puts his warriors to an audacity test, telling them falsely that they may return home after the nine years of fighting that they have already endured. Much to Agamemnon’s shame, the warriors happily comply, content to have lost the war and to return home empty-handed. Hera, ever a defender of the Argives, sends Athena to rally the morale of the troops, lest they abandon the war at Agamemnon’s false behest. Newly encouraged by her divine words, the troops prepare for battle and organize themselves by tribe, all of which are described in great nominal detail. The Trojans, also receiving divine warning of the impending battle, line themselves up for fighting as well and are described, and thus ends Book 2.