Fiction > Harvard Classics > Aeschylus > The Libation-Bearers
Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.).  The Libation-Bearers.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Lines 1–399

LORD of the shades and patron of the realm
That erst my father swayed, list now my prayer,
Hermes, and save me with thine aiding arm,
Me who from banishment returning stand        4
On this my country; lo, my foot is set
On this grave-mound, and herald-like, as thou,
Once and again, I bid my father hear.
And these twin locks, from mine head shorn, I bring,        8
And one to Inachus the river-god,
My young life’s nurturer, I dedicate,
And one in sign of mourning unfulfilled
I lay, though late, on this my father’s grave.        12
For O my father, not beside thy corse
Stood I to wail thy death, nor was my hand
Stretched out to bear thee forth to burial.
What sight is yonder? what this woman-throng        16
Hitherward coming, by their sable garb
Made manifest as mourners? What hath chanced?
Doth some new sorrow hap within the home!
Or rightly may I deem that they draw near        20
Bearing libations, such as soothe the ire
Of dead men angered, to my father’s grave?
Nay, such they are indeed; for I descry
Electra, mine own sister, pacing hither,        24
In moody grief conspicuous. Grant, O Zeus,
Grant me my father’s murder to avenge—
Be thou my willing champion!
                              Pylades,        28
Pass we aside, till rightly I discern
Wherefore these women throng in suppliance.  [Exeunt Pylades and Orestes; enter the Chorus, bearing vessels for libation; Electra follows them; they pace slowly towards the tomb of Agamemnon.

Forth from the royal halls by high command
  I bear libations for the dead.        32
Rings on my smitten breast my smiting hand,
  And all my cheek is rent and red,
Fresh-furrowed by my nails, and all my soul
This many a day doth feed on cries of dole.        36
  And trailing tatters of my vest,
In looped and windowed raggedness forlorn,
  Hang rent around my breast,
Even as I, by blows of Fate most stern        40
      Saddened and torn.
  Oracular thro’ visions, ghastly clear,
Bearing a blast of wrath from realms below,
And stiffening each rising hair with dread,        44
    Came out of dreamland Fear,
    And, loud and awful, bade
The shriek ring out at midnight’s witching hour,
    And brooded, stern with woe,        48
Above the inner house, the woman’s bower.
And seers inspired did read the dream on oath,
    Chanting aloud In realms below
        The dead are wroth;        52
Against their slayers yet their ire doth glow.
Therefore to bear this gift of graceless worth—
    O Earth, my nursing mother!—
The woman god-accurs’d doth send me forth        56
    Lest one crime bring another.
Ill is the very word to speak, for none
          Can ransom or atone
For blood once shed and darkening the plain.        60
    O hearth of woe and bane,
    O state that low doth lie!
Sunless, accursed of men, the shadows brood
  Above the home of murdered majesty.        64
Rumour of might, unquestioned, unsubdued,
Pervading ears and soul of lesser men,
    Is silent now and dead.
    Yet rules a viler dread;        68
  For bliss and power, however won,
As gods, and more than gods, dazzle our mortal ken.
  Justice doth mark, with scales that swiftly sway,
    Some that are yet in light;        72
    Others in interspace of day and night,
      Till Fate arouse them, stay;
And some are lapped in night, where all things are undone.
    On the life-giving lap of Earth        76
      Blood hath flowed forth,
And now, the seed of vengeance, clots the plain—
  Unmelting, uneffaced the stain.
And Atè tarries long, but at the last        80
        The sinner’s heart is cast
Into pervading, waxing pangs of pain.
    Lo, when man’s force doth ope
The virgin doors, there is nor cure nor hope        84
  For what is lost,—even so, I deem,
Though in one channel ran Earth’s every stream,
  Laving the hand defiled from murder’s stain,
        It were vain.        88
And upon me—ah me!—the gods have laid
  The woe that wrapped round Troy,
What time they led me down from home and kin
      Unto a slave’s employ—        92
    The doom to bow the head
    And watch our master’s will
      Work deeds of good and ill—
To see the headlong sway of force and sin,        96
  And hold restrained the spirit’s bitter hate,
  Wailing the monarch’s fruitless fate,
Hiding my face within my robe, and fain
Of tears, and chilled with frost of hidden pain.        100

Handmaidens, orderers of the palace-halls,
Since at my side ye come, a suppliant train,
Companions of this offering, counsel me
As best befits the time: for I, who pour        104
Upon the grave these streams funereal,
With what fair word can I invoke my sire?
Shall I aver, Behold, I bear these gifts
From well-loved wife unto her well-loved lord,        108
When ’tis from her, my mother, that they come?
I dare not say it: of all words I fail
Wherewith to consecrate unto my sire
These sacrificial honours on his grave.        112
Or shall I speak this word, as mortals use—
Give back, to those who send these coronals,
Full recompense—of ills for acts malign?
Or shall I pour this draught for Earth to drink,        116
Sans word or reverence, as my sire was slain,
And homeward pass with unreverted eyes,
Casting the bowl away, as one who flings
The household cleansings to the common road?        120
Be art and part, O friends, in this my doubt,
Even as ye are in that one common hate
Whereby we live attended: fear ye not
The wrath of any man, nor hide your word        124
Within your breast: the day of death and doom
Awaits alike the freeman and the slave.
Speak, then, if aught thou know’st to aid us more.

Thou biddest; I will speak my soul’s thought out,
Revering as a shrine thy father’s grave.

Say then thy say, as thou his tomb reverest.

Speak solemn words to them that love, and pour.

And of his kin whom dare I name as kind?

Thyself; and next, whoe’er Ægisthus scorns.

Then ’tis myself and thou my prayer must name.

Whoe’er they be, ’tis thine to know and name them.

Is there no other we may claim as ours?

Think of Orestes, though far-off he be.

Right well in this too hast thou schooled my thought.

Mindfully, next, on those who shed the blood—

Pray on them what? expound, instruct my doubt.

This: Upon them some god or mortal come—

As judge or as avenger? speak thy thought.

Pray in set terms, Who shall the slayer slay.

Beseemeth it to ask such boon of heaven?

How not, to wreak a wrong upon a foe?

O mighty Hermes, warder of the shades,
Herald of the upper and of under world,
Proclaim and usher down my prayer’s appeal        148
Unto the god below, that they with eyes
Watchful behold these halls, my sire’s of old—
And unto Earth, the mother of all things,
And foster-nurse, and womb that takes their seed.        152
Lo, I that pour these draughts for men now dead,
Call on my father, who yet holds in ruth
Me and mine own Orestes, Father, speak—
How shall thy children rule thine halls again?        156
Homeless we are and sold; and she who sold
Is she who bore us; and the price she took
Is he who joined with her to work thy death,
Ægisthus, her new lord. Behold me here        160
Brought down to slave’s estate, and far away
Wanders Orestes, banished from the wealth
That once was thine, the profit of thy care,
Whereon these revel in a shameful joy.        164
Father, my prayer is said; ’tis thine to hear—
Grant that some fair fate bring Orestes home,
And unto me grant these—a purer soul
Than is my mother’s, a more stainless hand.        168
These be my prayers for us: for thee, O sire,
I cry that one may come to smite thy foes,
And that the slayers may in turn be slain.
Cursed is their prayer, and thus I bar its path,        172
Praying mine own, a counter-curse on them.
And thou, send up to us the righteous boon
For which we pray; thine aids be heaven and earth,
And justice guide the right to victory.  [To the Chorus.        176
Thus have I prayed, and thus I shed these streams,
And follow ye the wont, and as with flowers
Crown ye with many a tear and cry the dirge
Your lips ring out above the dead man’s grave.  [She pours the libations.        180

          Woe, woe, woe!
Let the teardrop fall, plashing on the ground
      Where our lord lies low:
Fall and cleanse away the cursed libation’s stain,        184
      Shed on this grave-mound,
Fenced wherein together, gifts of good or bane
      From the dead are found.
        Lord of Argos, hearken!        188
        Though around thee darken
  Mist of death and hell, arise and hear!
Hearken and awaken to our cry of woe!
      Who with might of spear        192
        Shall our home deliver?
    Who like Ares bend until it quiver,
            Bend the northern bow?
Who with hand upon the hilt himself will thrust will glaive,        196
              Thrust and slay and save?

Lo! the earth drinks them, to my sire they pass—
Learn ye with me of this thing new and strange.

Speak thou; my breast doth palpitate with fear.

I see upon the tomb a curl new shorn.

Shorn from what man or what deep-girded maid?

That may he guess who will; the sign is plain.

Let me learn this of thee; let youth prompt age.

None is there here but I, to clip such gift.

For they who thus should mourn him hate him sore.

And lo! in truth the hair exceeding like—

Like to what locks and whose? instruct me that.

Like unto those my father’s children wear.

Then is this lock Orestes’ secret gift?

Most like it is unto the curls he wore.

Yet how dared he to come unto his home?

He hath but sent it, clipt to mourn his sire.

It is a sorrow grievous at his death,
That he should live, yet never dare return.

Yea, and my heart o’erflows with gall of grief,
And I am pierced as with a cleaving dart;
Like to the first drops after drought, my tears
Fall down at will, a bitter bursting tide,
As on this lock I gaze; I cannot deem        220
That any Argive save Orestes’ self
Was ever lord thereof; nor, well I wot,
Hath she, the murd’ress, shorn and laid this lock
To mourn him whom she slew—my mother she,        224
Bearing no mother’s heart, but to her race
A loathing spirit, loathed itself of heaven!
Yet to affirm, as utterly made sure,
That this adornment cometh of the hand        228
Of mine Orestes, brother of my soul,
I may not venture, yet hope flatters fair!
Ah well-a-day, that this dumb hair had voice
To glad mine ears, as might a messenger,        232
Bidding me sway no more ’twixt fear and hope,
Clearly commanding, Cast me hence away,
Clipped was I from some head thou lovest not;
Or, I am kin to thee, and here, as thou,        236
I come to weep and deck our father’s grave.
Aid me, ye gods! for well indeed ye know
How in the gale and counter-gale of doubt,
Like to the seaman’s bark, we whirl and stray.        240
But, if God will our life, how strong shall spring,
From seed how small, the new tree of our home!—
Lo ye, a second sign—these footsteps, look,—
Like to my own, a corresponsive print;        244
And look, another footmark,—this his own,
And that the foot of one who walked with him.
Mark, how the heel and tendons’ print combine,
Measured exact, with mine coincident!        248
Alas! for doubt and anguish rack my mind.
ORESTES (approaching suddenly)

Pray thou, in gratitude for prayers fulfilled,
Fair fall the rest of what I ask of heaven.

Wherefore? what win I from the gods by prayer?

This, that thine eyes behold thy heart’s desire.

On whom of mortals know’st thou that I call?

I know thy yearning for Orestes deep.

Say then wherein event hath crowned my prayer?

I, I am he; seek not one more akin.

Some fraud, O stranger, weavest thou for me?

Against myself I weave it, if I weave.

Ah, thou hast mind to mock me in my woe!

’Tis at mine own I mock them, mocking thine.

Speak I with thee then as Orestes’ self?

My very face thou see’st and know’st me not,
And yet but now, when thou didst see the lock        264
Shorn for my father’s grave, and when thy quest
Was eager on the footprints I had made,
Even I, thy brother, shaped and sized as thou,
Fluttered thy spirit, as at sight of me!        268
Lay now this ringlet whence ’twas shown, and judge,
And look upon this robe, thine own hands’ work,
The shuttle-prints, the creature wrought thereon—
Refrain thyself, nor prudence lose in joy,        272
For well I wot, our kin are less than kind.

O thou that art unto our father’s home
Love, grief, and hope, for thee the tears ran down,
For thee, the son, the saviour that should be;        276
Trust thou thine arm and win thy father’s halls!
O aspect sweet of fourfold love to me,
Whom upon thee the heart’s constraint bids call
As on my father, and the claim of love        280
From me unto my mother turns to thee,
For she is very hate; to thee too turns
What of my heart went out to her who died
A ruthless death upon the altar-stone;        284
And for myself I love thee—thee that wast
A brother leal, sole stay of love to me.
Now by thy side be strength and right, and Zeus
Saviour almighty, stand to aid the twain!        288

Zeus, Zeus! look down on our estate and us,
The orphaned brood of him, our eagle-sire,
Whom to his death a fearful serpent brought,
Enwinding him in coils; and we, bereft        292
And foodless, sink with famine, all too weak
To bear unto the eyrie, as he bore,
Such quarry as he slew. Lo! I and she,
Electra, stand before thee, fatherless,        296
And each alike cast out and homeless made.

And if thou leave to death the brood of him
Whose altar blazed for thee, whose reverence
Was thine, all thine,—whence, in the after years,        300
Shall any hand like his adorn thy shrine
With sacrifice of flesh? the eaglets slain,
Thou wouldst not have a messenger to bear
Thine omens, once so clear, to mortal men;        304
So, if this kingly stock be withered all,
None on high festivals will fend thy shrine.
Stoop thou to raise us! strong the race shall show,
Though puny now it seem, and fallen low.        308

O children, saviours of your father’s home,
Beware ye of your words, lest one should hear
And bear them, for the tongue hath lust to tell,
Unto our masters—whom God grant to me        312
In pitchy reek of fun’ral flame to see!

Nay, mighty is Apollo’s oracle
And shall not fail me, whom it bade to pass
Thro’ all this peril; clear the voice rang out        316
With many warnings, sternly threatening
To my hot heart the wintry chill of pain,
Unless upon the slayers of my sire
I pressed for vengeance: this the god’s command—        320
That I, in ire for home and wealth despoiled,
Should with a craft like theirs the slayers slay:
Else with my very life I should atone
This deed undone, in many a ghastly wise.        324
For he proclaimed unto the ears of men
That offerings, poured to angry power of death,
Exude again, unless their will be done,
As grim disease on those that poured them forth—        328
As leprous ulcers mounting on the flesh
And with fell fangs corroding what of old
Wore natural form; and on the brow arise
White poisoned hairs, the crown of this disease.        332
He spake, moreover, of assailing fiends
Empowered to quit on me my father’s blood,
Wreaking their wrath on me, what time in night
Beneath shut lids the spirit’s eye sees clear.        336
The dart that flies in darkness, sped from hell
By spirits of the murdered dead who call
Unto their kin for vengeance, formless fear,
The nighttide’s visitant, and madness’ curse        340
Should drive and rack me; and my tortured frame
Should be chased forth from man’s community
As with the brazen scorpions of the scourge.
For me and such as me no lustral bowl        344
Should stand, no spilth of wine be poured to God
For me, and wrath unseen of my dead sire
Should drive me from the shrine; no man should dare
To take me to his hearth, nor dwell with me:        348
Slow, friendless, cursed of all should be mine end,
And pitiless horror wind me for the grave.
This spake the god—this dare I disobey?
Yea, though I dared, the deed must yet be done;        352
For to that end diverse desires combine,—
The god’s behest, deep grief for him who died,
And last, the grievous blank of wealth despoiled—
All these weigh on me, urge that Argive men,        356
Minions of valour, who with soul of fire
Did make of fenced Troy a ruinous heap,
Be not left slaves to two and each a woman!
For he, the man, wears woman’s heart; if not,        360
Soon shall he know, confronted by a man.  [Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus gather round the tomb of Agamemnon for the invocation which follows.

Mighty Fates, on you we call!
Bid the will of Zeus ordain
Power to those to whom again        364
Justice turns with hand and aid!
Grievous was the prayer one made—
Grievous let the answer fall!
Where the mighty doom is set,        368
Justice claims aloud her debt.
Who in blood hath dipped the steel,
Deep in blood her meed shall feel!
List an immemorial word—        372
  Whosoe’er shall take the sword
  Shall perish by the sword.

Father, unblest in death, O father mine!
        What breath of word or deed        376
Can I waft on thee from this far confine
        Unto thy lowly bed,—
Waft upon thee, in midst of darkness lying,
        Hope’s counter-gleam of fire?        380
Yet the loud dirge of praise brings grace undying
        Unto each parted sire.

O child, the spirit of the dead,
Altho’ upon his flesh have fed        384
  The grim teeth of the flame,
Is quelled not; after many days
The sting of wrath his soul shall raise,
  A vengeance to reclaim!        388
To the dead rings loud our cry—
Plain the living’s treachery—
Swelling, shrilling, urged on high,
  The vengeful dirge, for parents slain,        392
  Shall strive and shall attain.

    Hear me too, even me, O father, hear!
Not by one child alone these groans, these tears are shed
        Upon thy sepulchre.        396
    Each, each, where thou art lowly laid,
    Stands, a suppliant, homeless made:
        Ah, and all is full of ill,
    Comfort is there none to say!        400


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