Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses


(525-456 BCE)

excerpts from

The Libation Bearers

[Greek title: Choephoroi]

(Part 2 of the Oresteia Trilogy, 458 BCE)

Instructor's note: The title "Libation Bearers" refers to the play's opening action by its characters and Chorus.

Queen Clytaemnestra, who has murdered her husband King Agamemnon in partnership with his cousin Aegisthus, has been frightened by a dream of a snake-child who harms her.

In response, Clytaemnestra sends her and Agamemnon's daughter Electra and the Chorus of women slaves captured from Troy to Agamemnon's tomb "bearing libations"—that is, carrying wine to pour on the earth to honor Agamemnon and thus pacify the "furies" or spirits of vengeance that are tormenting Clytaemnestra's sleep.

While at Agamemnon's tomb, Electra encounters her long-lost brother Orestes, and together they begin planning revenge on Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus.

Bernardino Mei, Orestes Slaying Clytaemnestra (1655)

Translated by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, British Columbia, CA; published by Richer Resources Publications; adapted with Mr. Johnston’s permission.

Instructor’s note on text: To simplify reading, changes in Johnston’s online edition include modernization or Americanization of spelling; division of long speeches; annotations by instructor in brackets [ ] and smaller font. Line numbers are those of Johnston’s translation; see original online for Greek line numbers.

Since reading the entire play may be counter-productive, these selections provide dramatic highlights to show the consequences of the trilogy's first play, Agamemnon, and preview its final installment, The Eumenides.

Omitted scenes or speeches are indicated by

 . . . . . .

For psychology and popular culture, Libation Bearers is most famous for representing in its character Electra the so-called Electra Complex, the theoretical opposite of the Oedipal Complex.

  • The Oedipal Complex posits an erotic bond between Mother and Son, and an antagonistic relation between a Son and his Father.

  • In the Electra Complex, the daughter-mother relation is antagonistic, while the daughter loves her father too much.

The Electra Complex has never been taken very seriously by psychologists and has been superceded by more sophisticated feminist psychologies, but such is the power of the Oedipal Complex and its narrative that a female correlation retains some imaginative appeal.

Another support for Freudian psychological readings in this play is the presence of dreams and interpretation of their symbols, as in the opening scene's report of Clytaemnestra's dream of a snake, which Orestes identifies as himself. Like the Greeks and other ancient peoples, Freudian psychologists interpreted dreams as narratives and symbols that drove human behavior and made it meaningful (for good or ill). (In Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche speculates that all storytelling began with dreams.)

The Oresteia Trilogy (458BCE): For the dramatic competition in Athens in 458 BCE, Aeschylus wrote three plays about the House of Atreus after the Trojan War:

1. Agamemnon: When Agamemnon returns to Argos in triumph from the Trojan War, Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus murder him and his slave, the prophetess Cassandra.

2. The Libation Bearers: Agamemnon’s daughter Electra drives Orestes to avenge their father’s death by murdering Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus.

3. The Eumenides (a.k.a. The Furies): Vengeful spirits of the dead driven by Clytaemnestra’s ghost, pursue Orestes, who takes refuge in the temple of Athena; Athena leads a jury of twelve Athenians to pardon Orestes. The Furies are appeased with a new name: the Eumenides or “Kindly Ones.”

Eugene O’Neill’s trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) restages the Oresteia in New England after the American Civil War (instead of the Trojan War).

Dramatis Personae: The Libation Bearers

ORESTES: son of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, brother of Electra.
CHORUS: slave women captured at Troy, now serving the royal palace at Argos.
ELECTRA: daughter of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, sister of Orestes.
SERVANT: house slave serving in the royal palace.
CLYTAEMNESTRA: widow of Agamemnon, lover of Aegisthus, mother of Orestes and Electra.
PYLADES: friend of Orestes.
CILISSA: Orestes's old nurse, a servant in the palace.
AEGISTHUS: son of Thyestes (brother of Atreus, father of Agamemnon), lover of Clytaemnestra.
ATTENDANTS to Orestes, Pylades, and Aegisthus.

Scene: Argos, the tomb of Agamemnon some years after his murder by Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. Behind the tomb stands the royal palace of the sons of Atreus.

[Instructor's note: The Chorus of slave women brought from Troy has been sent out by Clytaemnestra with Electra to pour libations at Agamemnon's tomb to pacify the spirits outraged by his murder and dishonor.]

 . . . . . .

[Electra, at her father Agamemnon's tomb, finds a lock of hair that looks like the hair of her long-lost brother Orestes]

. . . ELECTRA: Look at this . . . It looks just like . . .   [It = lock of hair left by Orestes, Electra’s long-lost brother]

CHORUS: Like whose?  
I want to know.

ELECTRA: Like mine. It looks identical.   [compare themes of family resemblance (and curse) in O'Neill's Homecoming]

CHORUS: Perhaps Orestes? Did he place it here,
a secret offering?

ELECTRA: It really looks like his . . .       230
these curls . . . 

CHORUS: But how could he come back?

ELECTRA: He sent it here, a token of respect 
for his dead father. . . .

ELECTRA: Over my heart, too, breaks a bitter wave.
 . . . It's clearly not that murderess's hair,
my mother's—her treatment of her children 
profanes the very name of mother. . . .

[Instructor's note re Electra's speech above: Electra Complex in which daughter feels antagonistic to mother.]

[Instructor's note re scene below: Aristotle's Poetics (6d, 11a, 11b) would describe the following action as a RECOGNITION SCENE]

. . . [Electra traces footprints from the tomb towards Orestes's hiding place. Orestes emerges to meet her as she follows the footprints]

. . . ORESTES: I'm here. You need look no more for friends.    [Orestes = Electra's long-lost brother]
I'm the dearest one you have.

Electra & Orestes, 1897 illustration by Alfred Church


ELECTRA: No, stranger.
You're weaving a net, a trick to trap me. [cf. "net" imagery in Agamemnon, lines 433, 435, 966, 1023, 1236,1315-16, 1626, 1633, 1899; Libation Bearers l. 696]

ORESTES: If so, I plot against myself as well. . . .

ELECTRA: Orestes . . .
is it truly you?
Can I
call you Orestes?

ORESTES: Yes, you can.
You're looking at Orestes in the flesh.
Why take so long to recognize the truth?     ["recognition scene"]
When you saw the lock of hair, that token
of my grief, and traced my footprints in the dust,
your imagination flew—you thought
you saw me. Look. Put this hair in place.
It's your brother's. And it matches yours.
See this weaving here—that's your handiwork.  [Orestes may refer to an article of clothing]
You worked the loom. Look at this design,  [loom: cf. Bacchae's association of women with weaving]         290
these animals . . .

[Electra is finally convinced. She almost breaks down with joy]

Control yourself. Calm down.
Don't get too overjoyed. Remember this—
our closest family is our enemy. . . .   [irony; but family essential to tragedy, cf. Aristotle, Poetics, 13c]

Orestes, Electra, & Pylades at tomb of Agamemnon
4th century BCE vase painting from southern Italy


ORESTES: Apollo's great oracle         [Oracle at Delphi]
surely will defend me. Its orders were     ["its" = the Oracle's]
that I should undertake this danger. 
        ["danger" = risk]
It cried out in prophecy, foretelling
many winters of calamity would chill
my hot heart, if I did not take revenge
on those who killed my father. It ordered me    [cf. Agamemnon having to kill Iphigenia]
to murder them the way they murdered him,
insisting they could not pay the penalty                                                                     340
with their possessions. The oracle declared,
"If not, you'll pay the debt with your own life,
a life of troubles." It spoke a revelation,
making known to men the wrath of blood guilt—    [dramatic irony: Orestes will subsequently suffer "blood guilt"]
from underneath the earth, infectious plagues,
leprous sores which gnaw the flesh, fangs chewing
living tissue, festering white rot in the sores. . . .        [cf. Oedipus & Hamlet: troubles in royal family lead to national troubles]


Orestes, center, at Delphi with Athena, left, and Pylades, right
(from a 4th century BCE vase painting from Greek colony in Italy)

ELECTRA: Oh cruel and reckless mother,   [Electra vs Mom / Clytaemnestra]
that savage burial, our king,                        [our king = Electra's dad, Agamemnon]   530
no fellow citizens around,
no suffering procession—
you dared place him in the tomb
without the rites of mourning.    [compare Sophocles's Antigone, whose action follows the lack of honorable burial for Antigone's brother Polyneices]

ORESTES: Alas. As you say, totally disgraced. 
But she'll pay for his dishonor,
by the gods, by my own hands.
Let me kill her. Then let me die.

CHORUS: And let me tell you this—
she first hacked off his limbs,                                          540
then hung them round his neck.                     [desecration of dead = dishonor]
That's how she buried him,
to make that slaughter
a burden on your life—
a thing you couldn't bear.
You hear me? Your father's death—
she made it an abomination.

ELECTRA: You describe my father's death,
but I too was utterly disgraced,
worth nothing, set apart,                                                              550
inside a cell, as if I were
some rabid dog. I wept.             [dog imagery, as throughout Agamemnon]
What had I to laugh about,
as I shed all those tears in hiding?
Hear that. Carve that on your heart. . . .

CHORUS LEADER: My child, I know—I was there.
She had bad dreams.  Vague terrors in the night       
[She = Clytemnestra, Electra's & Orestes's mother]
upset her. So that godless woman sent these gifts.        ["these gifts" = libations to appease vengeful spirits of dead]

ORESTES: Do you know the nature of her dreams?
Can you give me details?

CHORUS LEADER: She'd given birth,                                           660
but to a snake.
 That's what she told me.

ORESTES: How did the dream end up? What happened?

CHORUS LEADER: She set it [the snake] in bed wrapped in swaddling clothes,
just like a child.

ORESTES: And that newborn snake,
what did it want for nourishment? 

CHORUS LEADER: She dreamt she offered it her breasts. 

ORESTES: Didn't the monster bite her nipple?

CHORUS LEADER: No. But with her milk it sucked out clots of blood.

ORESTES: It's an omen. Her vision means a man. . . .

CHORUS LEADER: She woke up with a scream, quite terrified.        670
Many torches which stay unlit at night
were set ablaze throughout the house
to calm our mistress. Then she sent out
libations for the dead—in the hope         [libations = wine poured out as offering to gods or ancestors]
they'd work like medicine for her distress.

ORESTES: I pray to Earth and to my father's tomb
that this dream will fulfill itself in me.      [Orestes = snake in dream]
I think it matches me in every point.

If that snake came from the same womb as me,
if it was wrapped up in my swaddling clothes                               680
and opened up its jaws to suck the milk
that nourished me, mixing sweet milk with blood,
so she cried out in terror at the sight,
then that must mean she'll die by violence,
from nursing such a violent beast.
I am that snake. And I will kill her.
That's the meaning of this dream.

CHORUS LEADER: Your reading of her dream seems right to me. [ancient Greeks like Freudian psychoanalysts interpret dreams]
So let it come. Tell your friends the rest—
what they must do or take care not to do.                              690

ORESTES: My plan is simple. First, Electra here
must go inside. I'm instructing her
to keep this bond with me a secret.
The two in there deceived a noble man,
then killed him. So we'll use deceit on them.
They'll die in the same net.
Lord Apollo,        [cf. "net" imagery in Agamemnon, lines 433, 435, 966, 1023, 1236,1315-16, 1626, 1633, 1899; Libation Bearers l. 277]
who's never wrong in what he prophesies,
has ordered this. I'll approach the outer gates,
pretending I'm a stranger, prepared
for anything. . . .                         [Orestes exits]

[Aegisthus enters]   [Aegisthus = Clytaemnestra's lover, Agamemnon's cousin]

AEGISTHUS: I want to see this messenger* and check
if he was present at Orestes's death,                                         1060
or if he's just repeating what he heard
from some vague rumors. I'll see through him.
These keen eyes of mine won't be deceived.

[*"This messenger": in omitted scenes, Orestes was reported dead; the "messenger" who has appeared is Orestes himself]

[Exit Aegisthus into the palace]

CHORUS: Zeus, O Zeus,    [Chorus = slave women captured from Troy]
what do I say? How do I start
appealing to the gods in prayer?
How from a loyal heart
can I find what to say,
matching words with deeds?
Now blood-stained blades                                           1070
are slicing men to death
and totally destroy forever
Agamemnon's house, or else
with freedom's blazing light
Orestes wins the throne,
and all his father's riches.
The ambush now is set—
noble Orestes by himself
must face two enemies.
Let him emerge the victor!                                                1080

[Aegisthus screams in pain from inside the palace]        [spectacle repressed]

CHORUS MEMBERS [speaking separately]: Listen! 
  What was that?
 What's going on,
in there, inside the palace?

[Some members of the Chorus start to move towards the palace doors]

Stay back. Until this work is finished,
we won't get involved in all the bloodshed.
That way no one can blame us.

[A servant emerges through the palace doors]

It's over.
Whatever the result, the fighting's over.

SERVANT: Oh, it's horrible—my master's killed!     [master = Aegisthus]
He's dead. Alas. I'll cry it out again,
a third time, Aegisthus is no more! . . .

[Enter Clytaemnestra through the main palace doors]

CLYTAEMNESTRA: What's happening? Why are you shouting
all around the house?

SERVANT: I'm telling you                                             1100
the dead are murdering the living!         [wow. irony]

CLYTAEMNESTRA: I see. I understand your paradox.
We're being destroyed by someone's trickery,
just as we destroyed. All right, then,
get me a man-killing axe—and quickly!   [Clytaemnestra bends gender roles again]

[Exit servant into the palace]

Let's see now if we win through or lose.
The wretched business brings me down to this.

[The palace doors open to reveal the dead body of Aegisthus with Orestes standing over it. Pylades (Orestes’s friend) is beside Orestes] [<spectacle]

ORESTES: The very one I seek. This fellow here     ["one I seek" = Clytaemnestra]
has had enough.

CLYTAEMNESTRA:  No, not Aegisthus,
not my love, my power . . . dead.                   1110

ORESTES: You loved this man? Then you'll find your rest     [tragic character is mixed, complicated]
in a common grave with him—he's one man
you won't abandon when he dies.

CLYTAEMNESTRA: Hold off, my son, my child. Take pity
on these breasts. Here you often lay asleep.
Your toothless gums sucked out the milk
that made you strong.

ORESTES: Pylades, what do I do?
It's a dreadful act to kill my mother.

PYLADES: What then becomes of what Apollo said,        [Pylades = Orestes's companion]
what he foretold at Delphi? We made an oath.           1120
Make all men your enemies but not the gods.       [cf. Antigone, Bacchae]

ORESTES: That's good advice. As judge in this debate
I say you prevail.

[Orestes turns on Clytaemnestra, pulls her towards the body of Aegisthus]

Over here.
I want to kill you right beside this man.
When he was alive, you considered him 
better than my father, so once you're dead
you can sleep on by his side. You loved him.
The man you should have loved you hated.

CLYTAEMNESTRA: I brought you up. Let me grow old with you.

ORESTES: What? Kill my father and then live with me?                1130

CLYTAEMNESTRA: My child, in this our fate's to blame. . . . 

ORESTES: My father's destiny has marked you out.
It states that you must die.

You are the snake I bore and nourished.     [compare lines 660-1]

ORESTES: Yes. That terror in your dream foretold the truth.
You killed the man you should not kill, and now 
you'll suffer what no one should ever see.

[Orestes pushes Clytaemnestra inside the palace doors. Pylades goes with them. The doors close behind them] [spectacle repressed]

Chorus: . . . Look now, dawn is coming!
Great chains on the home are falling off.
Let this house rise up! For far too long
it's lain in pieces on the ground.

[The palace doors are thrown open, revealing Orestes standing above the bodies of  Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra. Pylades stands beside Orestes. With them are attendants holding the bloodstained robes of Agamemnon] [spectacle]

ORESTES: Here you see them—this pair of tyrants.
They killed my father, then robbed my home.
Once they sat enthroned in regal splendor.
They're lovers still, as you can witness here
by how they died, true to the oaths they swore.
They made a pact to murder my poor father,                 
then die together. Well, they've kept their word.

[Orestes starts unfurling the robes in which Agamemnon was killed] . . .

CHORUS: Alas for this horrific act,
the monstrous way she died.
But woe on the survivor, too—     [contrast romance narrative; not just a revenge story]

his suffering begins to flower. . . .

 [Orestes is suddenly overpowered with fear by a vision of his mother's Furies (avenging spirits) coming after him]

ORESTES: No . . . They're here . . .
Look, you women . . . over there . . . 
like Gorgons draped in black . . . their heads 
hundreds of writhing snakes . . .   [compare lines 660-1, 1135]
I can't stand it here . . . 

CHORUS LEADER: What's wrong? What are you looking at?
Of all men you have a father's strongest love,
so stay calm. Don't give in to fear

ORESTES: It's no imagined horror, no!
It's real. Out there my mother's blood hounds wait. 
[=furies that will pursue Orestes + dog imagery]
They want revenge.                         [revenge feeds revenge, a cycle The Eumenides ends]

CHORUS LEADER: Your hands are still blood stained—
that's made your mind disordered.

ORESTES: Lord Apollo!                                                                                            1320
They come at me! Hordes of them! Their eyes
drip blood . . .
it's horrible!

CHORUS LEADER: There's just one cure—
Apollo's touch will cleanse you, set you free        [Apollo=chief god of Athens + healing]

of these hallucinations.

ORESTES: You don't see them. I do.
They're coming for me. I have to leave . . . 

[Orestes runs off. Pylades follows him]

Phillipe-Auguste Hennequin (1762-1833),
The Furies or Eumenides chasing Orestes

Good fortune go with you. And may god
watch over you, protect you with his favors.

CHORUS: The third storm has broken on the palace,
then run its course across the royal clan.
First, came the torments of those children                                                   1330
slaughtered for Thyestes' food. Next came 
the suffering of a man, our warrior lord,
Achaea's king. And now the third—
do I call him our saviour or our doom?
When will all this cease? When will murder,         [preview for The Eumenides]
its fury spent, rest at last in sleep?


Agamemnon < [Libation Bearers] > Eumenides

Pylades & Orestes