Oresteia III: Choephoroe

The Choephoroe (Libation Bearers) is the most dramatically interesting of three play.  The dramatic focus is on Agamemnon’s two children–the long-suffering Electra and the heroic Orestes–and also highlights minor players such as the loyal Pylades, and even the lower-class character of the faithful nurse who intrigues with the Chorus to keep Aegisthus in the dark on the plot to kill him and Clytamestra.   In this play we begin to say further how the themes of revenge, justice, and release from suffering will play out.

Orestes returns in disguise, like Odysseus or  Jesus even, to bring redemption to Argos.  Electra and the Chorus enter bringing libations–hence the title–to appease the ghost of Agamemnon.  In a classic Anagnorisis (Recognition scene) by tokens, Electra and her brother are recognized by a lock of hair.  Electra, like other people addicted to grief, refuses to believe her good fortune at first, but her brother Orestes explains that Apolllo has sent him to avenge his father’s murder, and threatened him with death or the plague of Erinyes (Furies) if he refuses.  So Orestes has been put in the same position as Agamemnon, except in two important respects:  1) Clytaemestra, unlike Iphigenia,  is guilty not innocent,  but 2) it is  worse to kill a mother than to kill a child.  Remember that in many traditional societies, children owe non-reciprocal debts to parents.

Though Agamemnon was an ambiguous character in the first play, his sins have been paid for, and he is now portrayed as the great man who conquered Troy and did the gods’ bidding.  For such a man to be killed by a woman and a weakling–a pair of women, really–is, as Orestes  says, terrible.  Brother and sister carry out the ritual of propitiation that the Queen demanded,  but now it is  turned against Clytaemestra herself.  This reversal is one more instance of how roles shift from avenger to villain to victim.  The children attempt to raise their father’s ghost to fight on their side.   In one sense, the spirits of underworld are obviously on Oresrtes’ side, as the  Chorus says: (400): “The nomos (law. custom) is that drops of blood spilt on the ground demand yet other blood.” Note again the ambiguous use of nomos, which means both a kind of ritual song used throughout the play and traditional law.

They cannot actually raise the spirit of Agamemnon,  because Clytaemestra had mutilated his corpse through a procedure known as “maschalismos”– arms and legs are cut off an tucked under the armpits.  This keeps him from returning to earth but also makes him powerless in other world–a terrible crime.  Nonetheless, we feel his spirit is felt throughout play.

The choral ode (585 ff.) that follows is a disturbing portrait of human nature that Sophocles must have been answering in his ode on man in the Antigone: The earth breeds many terrible hours, monsters, and the worst of them is human arrogance, especially the reckless passions of women, and we are treated to a series of sex-crazed homicidal maniac women.  But no one escapes the justice of Zeus:
“The anvil of justice is planted firm.  Destiny forges the arms, and the deep brooding spirit of vengeance is bringing into this house the son who will pay back finally the pollution of blood that was shed long ago…..”

It is in the Choephoroe that we begin to grasp the power of the dead in two forms: both the furies that spring up from the drops of the murder victim and the actual ghost of the dead Agamemnon, whose influence seems to invigorate his children.  Orestes is now seen in some sense as Agamemnon himself.

First he comes from a far country–his father is in that most distant land of the dead from which we do not return– and the fact the he is paradoxically a native but also a stranger is played upon several times.  When he poses as the stranger who reports to Clytaemestra that her son is dead, he becomes as it were dead himself.  His mother  unsuccessfully tries to disguise her joy, but gives the messenger (Orestes)  a happy welcome. We hear Aegisthus’s death cry ” e e otototoi”–off stage, and a real messenger comes in with the news, telling his mistress in one of the most chilling lines of Greek literature: “ton zonta kainein tous tethnekotas lego.”  I say that the dead are killing the living man.”  Literally he refers to the Orestes who is thought to be dead, killing Aegisthus, but Aeschylus uses the plural, because Agamemnon takes part in the killing, as do all the murder victims in the house of Atreus.

Clytaemnestra is no sissy: She plays the man and calls for a battle axe, but she also appeals to Orestes’ love for his mother (896).  Stunned, he asks his friend–the third actor on the scene–if he should from aidos — respect, reverence–spare his mother.  Pylades-and this is the first known instance of a third actor speaking, though Sophocles had introduced one earlier in a non-extant play–reminds him he is under order from Apollo.  Clytaemestra give the best justification she has: Agamemnon’s s crimes and the loneliness of a woman left behind for 10 years, but Orestes is unmoved by the unnatural mother who had exiled him.  In 926, she comments ruefully–the magic of language now turned against her: “It is as if though alive I am singing my dirge to the face of a tomb, in vain.”  The expression is proverbial, the the dead Orestes taking vengeane gives it a new twist.  He pulls his mother into the stage building to do the deed.  The Athenians, after all, are not savages, who would put bloody murder on the stage!

Well, it has all worked out in the end.  Justice is done, and the evil murderers and usurping tyrants have been avenged; The chorus rejoices, as Orestes displays the bodies–rather as Clytaemestra had displayed her victims, and he holds up the web in which his father had been snared, little realizing that he is now also caught.  The Chorus comment, somewhat ambiguously,  on the uncertainty of life, not knowing that their words also apply to Orestes, who starts breaking out into a fit of madness.  Like Cassandra in the previous play, he begins to see what is unseen: In 1048 ff. he describes  the Erinyes–black-robed gorgonlike demons, the hounds that will avenge his mother, and we are left wondering, again, what can put an end to the cycle.

One more round in the vendetta, which is now shaping up, additionally, as a conflict between what Apollo (and Zeus, as well?) have commanded and the ancient demands of blood enforced by the Erinyes.  As the Chorus sings so movingly in the first play, Ailinon, Ailinon, eipe to d’eu nikato!  Alas and alas, say let the good prevail!

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