Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.). The Libation-Bearers.
Vol. 8, pp. 111-121 of The Harvard Classics
Orestes, holding an avenging sword over his mother, is told: "Beware thy mother's vengeful hounds." How he pays for disregarding his mother's warning is told in this drama where a mother is slain to avenge a father's ghost.
Hither and not unsummoned have I come;
For a new rumour, borne by stranger men
Arriving hither, hath attained mine ears.
Of hap unwished-for, even Orestes’ death.
This were new sorrow, a blood-bolter’s load
Laid on the house that doth already bow
Beneath a former wound that festers deep.
Dare I opine these words have truth and life?
Or are they tales, of woman’s terror born,
That fly in the void air, and die disproved?
Canst thou tell aught, and prove it to my soul?
What we have heard, we heard; go thou within
Thyself to ask the strangers of their tale.
Strengthless are tidings, thro’ another heard;
Question is his to whom the tale is brought.
I too will meet and test the messenger,
Whether himself stood witness of the death
Or tells it merely from dim rumour learnt:
None shall cheat me, whose soul hath watchful eyes. [Exit.
Zeus, Zeus! what word to me is given?
What cry or prayer, invoking heaven,
Shall first by me be uttered?
What speech of craft—nor all revealing,
Nor all too warily concealing—
Ending my speech, shall aid the deed?
For lo! in readiness is laid
The dark emprise, the rending blade;
Blood-dropping daggers shall achieve
The dateless doom of Atreus’ name,
Or—kindling torch and joyful flame
In sign of new-won liberty—
Once more Orestes shall retrieve
His father’s wealth, and throned on high,
Shall hold the city’s fealty.
So mighty is the grasp whereby,
Heaven-holpen, he shall trip and throw
Unseconded, a double foe.
Ho for the victory! [A loud cry within.
VOICE OF ÆGISTHUS
Help, help, alas!
Ho there, ho! how is’t within?
Is’t done? is’t over? Stand we here aloof
While it is wrought, that guiltless we may seem
Of this dark deed; with death is strife fulfilled.[Enter a slave.
O woe, O woe, my lord is done to death!
Woe, woe, and again, Ægisthus gone!
Hasten, fling wide the doors, unloose the bolts
Of the queen’s chamber. O for some young strength
To match the need! but aid availeth nought
To him laid low for ever. Help, help, help!
Sure to deaf ears I shout, and call in vain
To slumber ineffectual. What ho!
The queen! how fareth Clytemnestra’s self?
Her neck too, hers, is close upon the steel,
And soon shall sink, hewn thro’ as justice wills. [Enter Clytemnestra.
What ails thee, raising this ado for us?
I say the dead are come to slay the living.
Alack, I read thy riddles all to clear—
We slew by craft and by like craft shall die.
Swift, bring the axe that slew my lord of old;
I’ll know anon or death or victory—
So stands the curse, so I confront it here. [Enter Orestes, his sword dropping with blood.
Thee too I seek: for him what’s done will serve.
Woe, woe! Ægisthus, spouse and champion, slain!
What, lov’st the man? then in his grave lie down,
Be his in death, desert him nevermore!
Stay, child, and fear to strike, O son, this breast
Pillowed thine head full oft, while, drowsed with sleep,
Thy toothless mouth drew mother’s milk from me.
Can I my mother spare? speak, Pylades.
Where then would fall the hest Apollo gave
At Delphi, where the solemn compact sworn?
Choose thou the hate of all men, not of gods.
Thou dost prevail; I hold thy counsel good. [To Clytemnestra.
Follow; I will to slay thee at his side.
With him whom in his life thou lovedst more
Than Agamemnon, sleep in death, the meed
For hate where love, and love where hate was due!
I nursed thee young; must I forego mine eld?
Thou slew’st my father; shalt thou dwell with me?
Fate bore a share in these things, O my child!
Fate also doth provide this doom for thee.
Beware, O child, a parent’s dying curse.
A parent who did cast me out to ill!
Not cast thee out, but to a friendly home.
Born free, I was by twofold bargain sold.
Where then the price that I received for thee?
The price of shame; I taunt thee not more plainly.
Nay, but recount thy father’s lewdness too.
keeping, chide not him who toils without.
’Tis hard for wives to live as widows, child.
The absent husband toils for them at home.
Thou growest fain to slay thy mother, child.
Nay, ’tis thyself wilt slay thyself, not I.
Beware thy mother’s vengeful hounds from hell.
How shall I ’scape my father’s, sparing thee?
Living, I cry as to a tomb, unheard.
My father’s fate ordains this doom for thee.
Ah, me! this snake it was I bore and nursed.
Ay, right prophetic was thy visioned fear.
Shameful thy deed was—die the death of shame! [Exit, driving Clytemnestra before him.
Lo, even for these I mourn, a double death:
Yet since Orestes, driven on by doom,
Thus crowns the height of murders manifold,
I say, ’tis well that not in night and death
Should sink the eye and light of this our home.
There came on Priam’s race and name
A vengeance; though it tarried long,
With heavy doom it came.
Came, too, on Agamemnon’s hall
A lion-pair, twin swordsmen strong.
And last, the heritage doth fall
To him to whom from Pythian cave
The god his deepest counsel gave.
Cry out, rejoice! our kingly hall
Hath ’scaped from ruin—ne’er again
Its ancient wealth be wasted all
By two usurpers, is sin-defiled—
An evil path of woe and bane!
On him who dealt the dastard blow
Comes Craft, Revenge’s scheming child.
And hand in hand with him doth go,
Eager for fight,
The child of Zeus, whom men below
Call Justice, naming her aright.
And on her foes her breath
Is as the blast of death;
For her the god who dwells in deep recess
Beneath Parnassus’ brow,
Summons with loud acclaim
To rise, though late and lame,
And come with craft that worketh righteousness.
For even o’er powers divine this law is strong—
Thou shalt not serve the wrong.
To that which ruleth heaven beseems it that we bow.
Lo, freedom’s light hath come!
Lo, now is rent away
The grim and curbing bit that held us dumb.
Up to the light, ye halls! this many a day
Too low on earth ye lay.
And Time, the great Accomplisher,
Shall cross the threshold, whensoe’er
He choose with purging hand to cleanse
The palace, driving all pollution thence.
And fair the cast of Fortune’s die
Before our state’s new lords shall lie,
Not as of old, but bringing fairer doom.
Lo, freedom’s light hath come! [The scene opens, disclosing Orestes standing over the corpses of Ægisthus and Clytemnestra; in one hand he holds his sword, in the other the robe in which Agamemnon was entangled and slain.
There lies our country’s twofold tyranny,
My father’s slayers, spoilers of my home.
Erst were they royal, sitting on the throne,.
And loving are they yet,—their common fate
Tells the tale truly, shows their trothplight firm.
They swore to work mine ill—starred father’s death,
They swore to die together; ’tis fulfilled.
O ye who stand, this great doom’s witnesses,
Behold this too, the dark device which bound
My sire unhappy to his death,—behold
The mesh which trapped his hands, enwound his feet!
Stand round, unfold it—’tis the trammel—net
That wrapped a chieftain; hold it that he see,
The father—not my sire, but he whose eye
Is judge of all things, the all—seeing Sun!
Let him behold my mother’s damnèd deed,
Then let him stand, when need shall be to me,
Witness that justly I have sought and slain
My mother; blameless was Ægisthus’ doom—
He died the death law bids adulterers die.
But she who plotted this accursed thing
To slay her lord, by whom she bare beneath
Her girdle once the burden of her babes,
Beloved erewhile, now turned to hateful foes—
What deem ye of her? or what venomed thing,
Sea-snake or adder, had more power than she
To poison with a touch the flesh unscarred?
So great her daring, such her impious will.
How name her, if I may not speak a curse?
A lion-springe! a laver’s swathing cloth,
Wrapping a dead man, twining round his feet—
A net, a trammel, an entangling robe?
Such were the weapon of some strangling thief,
The terror of the road, a cut-purse hound—
With such device full many might he kill,
Full oft exult in heat of villainy.
Ne’er have my house so cursed an indweller—
Heaven send me, rather, childless to be slain!
Woe for each desperate deed!
Woe for the queen, with shame of life bereft!
And ah, for him who still is left,
Madness, dark blossom of a bloody seed!
Did she the deed or not? this robe gives proof,
Imbrued with blood that bathed Ægisthus’ sword:
Look, how the spurted stain combines with time
To blur the many dyes that once adorned
Its pattern manifold! I now stand here,
Made glad, made sad with blood, exulting, wailing—
Hear, O thou woven web that slew my sire!
I grieve for deed and death and all my home—
Victor, pollution’s damnèd stain for prize.
Alas, that none of mortal men
Can pass his life untouched by pain!
Behold, one woe is here—
Another loometh near.
Hark ye and learn—for what the end shall be
For me I know not: breaking from the curb,
My spirit whirls me off, a conquered prey,
Borne as a charioteer by steeds distraught
Far from the course, and madness in my breast
Burneth to chant its song, and leap, and rave—
Hark ye and learn, friends, ere my reason goes!
I say that rightfully I slew my mother,
A thing God-scorned, that foully slew my sire.
And chiefest wizard of the spell that bound me
Unto this deed I name the Pythian seer
Apollo, who foretold that if I slew,
The guilt of murder done should pass from me;
But if I spared, the fate that should be mine
I dare not blazon forth—the bow of speech
Can reach not to the mark, that doom to tell.
And now behold me, how with branch and crown
I pass, a suppliant made meet to go
Unto Earth’s midmost shrine, the holy ground
Of Loxias, and that renowned light
Of ever-burning fire, to ’scape the doom
Of kindred murder: to no other shrine
(So Loxias bade) may I for refuge turn.
Bear witness, Argives, in the aftertime,
How came on me this dread fatality.
Living, I pass a banished wanderer hence,
To leave in death the memory of this cry.
Nay, but the deed is well; link not thy lips
To speech ill-starred, nor vent ill-boding words—
Who hast to Argos her full freedom given,
Lopping two serpents’ heads with timely blow.
Look, look, alas!
Handmaidens, see—what Gorgon shapes throng up,
Dusky their robes and all their hair enwound—
Snakes coiled with snakes—off, off, I must away!
Most loyal of all sons unto thy sire,
What visions thus distract thee? Hold, abide;
Great was thy victory, and shalt thou fear?
These are no dreams, void shapes of haunting ill,
But clear to sight my mother’s hell-hounds come!
Nay, the fresh bloodshed still imbrues thine hands,
And thence distraction sinks into thy soul.
O king Apollo—see, they swarm and throng—
Black blood of hatred dripping from their eyes!
One remedy thou hast; go, touch the shrine
Of Loxias, and rid thee of these woes.
Ye can behold them not, but I behold them.
Up and away! I dare abide no more. [Exit.
Farewell than as thou mayst,—the god thy friend
Guard thee and aid with chances favouring.
Behold, the storm of woe divine
That raves and beats on Atreus’ line
Its great third blast hath blown.
First was Thyestes’ loathly woe—
The rueful feast of long ago,
On children’s flesh, unknown.
And next the kingly chief’s despite,
When he who led the Greeks to fight
Was in the bath hewn down.
And now the offspring of the race
Stands in the third, the saviour’s place,
To save—or to consume?
O whither, ere it be fulfilled,
Ere its fierce blast be hushed and stilled,
Shall blow the wind of doom? [Exeunt.