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Illustration of Justice and Vengeance in Aeschylus's Choephori (the Libation- Bearers)

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Submitted By ESSAHSAM
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‘The Choephori’ (the libation – bearers) is the second of the three linked tragedies which make up “The Oresteia” trilogy written by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, preceded by “Agamemnon” and followed by “The Eumenides”. The trilogy as a whole, originally performed at the annual Dionysia festival in Athens in 458 BCE, where it won first prize, is considered to be Aeschylus’ last authenticated, and also his greatest, work. “The Libation Bearers” deals with the reunion of Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes, and their revenge as they kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in a new chapter of the curse of the House of Atreus. Some years after the murder of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra (who now shares both her bed and the throne of Argos with her lover, Aegisthus) has a nightmare about giving birth to a snake which then feeds from her breast and draws blood along with milk. Concerned at the possible wrath of the gods, she orders her daughter, Electra (now reduced to the virtual status of a slave-girl) and the Chorus of slave women - the libation bearers of the title - to pour libations on Agamemnon's grave as an offering to the gods. The Chorus, captives from old wars and loyal to Orestes and Electra, are strongly opposed to Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, and they play a crucial part in explaining the unfolding conspiracy. At her father’s grave, Electra meets her recently returned brother Orestes (who had been banished from the kingdom since his infancy by his paranoid mother). Orestes identifies himself with the snake in his mother's dream, and the two siblings plan to avenge their father by killing their mother and Aegisthus, as Apollo himself has commanded him.
Orestes and his childhood friend Pylades pretend to be ordinary travelers from Phocis asking for hospitality at the palace of Argos. They bring the false news that Orestes is dead, and gain entrance to the palace. Orestes’ old nurse, Cilissa, is dispatched to fetch Aegisthus to see the visitors, and the Chorus persuades her to ensure that he comes alone, so that Orestes easily overpowers and kills him. Although his cover is blown, Orestes seizes his mother, Clytemnestra, and threatens to kill her. She warns Orestes that if he kills her he will be cursed, but Orestes is not swayed, and (persuaded to the task by Apollo and Pylades, despite his misgivings) he kills Clytemnestra. He proclaims that justice has been served, and tries to justify his actions. But then the Erinyes (Furies) appear, visible only to Orestes, and curse him for killing his mother, for them a crime far more significant than Clytemnestra’s own crime in killing her husband. Seized with a madness over his deeds, and haunted and pursued by the Erinyes, Orestes flees Argos. This chapter aims at critically assessing instances in Aeschylus’ Choephori, which can be earmarked as justice or vengeance: Orestes’ return from exile to avenge his father’s death, and Electra’s plot to help Orestes
To begin with, as said in the earlier chapter, it could be seen that the treatment of justice and vengeance in this play is a major mind-bender. The difference between justice and vengeance is quiet complicated. Orestes who have returned from exile went to his father’s graveside and pray to Zeus to guild him in his quest. "O Zeus! Grant me vengeance for my father's death! Be gracious to me; fight on my side!..."(Choephoroi 18ff)
Zeus who was the king of the gods. He was also in charge of dealing out Justice. Thus, when Orestes asks Zeus to let him take vengeance, he basically means that he wants Zeus to ensure that his act of vengeance is just.
The chorus who accompanied Electra to Agamemnon’s grave. Their concern for vengeance is seen in the words they uttered:
‘Where earth, man’s patient nurse, Has drunk and drunk again Man’s blood, and grieving sees The thick unmelted stain Which pleads vengeance, there the relentless curse Waits unforgetful for guilty soul To teem with foul disease That nothing can make whole.’ (Choephori 66ff)
These words are spoken by the Chorus of slave women at the tomb of Agamemnon. What do we think they mean here by the ‘Man’s blood’ which plead ‘vengeance’? We should remember the dramatic situation of the play, which begins with Agamemnon long-dead, murdered, and unavenged. Could they be saying that the crime of his murder (metaphorically represented by the blood) won't go away until he is avenged? We can also consider the metaphorical meaning of "blood" in terms of family relations. Could that have anything to do with the situation here, in which Agamemnon's son, Orestes, is in charge of avenging him?
Furthermore, Electra makes her emotions evident as she was sent by her mother Clytemnestra to pour libation on Agamemnon’s grave:
‘Honor my father’s grave? Shall I say, I bring this wine,
A gift from your wife, my mother, in pledge of mutual love?
I am not brazen enough. Still less can I find fit words
To bless the pouring of holy oil on my father’s earth.
The customary ‘Send your blessing on those who have sent these wreaths’? * And pay their crimes to the full! Or, in dishonored silence…’ (Choephori 88ff).
The above statement made by Electra can be deduced that she seeks vengeance for her dead father by asking her Agamemnon to ‘bless those who place the wreaths’ and make them pay for their crimes. Here Electra was referring to vengeance on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus for the death of her father. It should be considered that, it was Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's murderer, who sent Electra to deliver the offerings. What sort of "gift" would be equivalent to the "goodness" of murder? When followed through on this line of thinking, you can see that what Electra might really be saying here is that she wants Agamemnon's spirit to bring vengeance upon Clytemnestra.
Moreover, Electra founds it difficult from differentiating between justice and vengeance where she asked the chorus to help her in making her mind during her prayer. The dialogue below through more light on the above statement:
‘Chorus: Next, for the murderers: pray- Electra: What shall I pray for them?
Tell me; I cannot think.
Chorus: - that justice is god or man
May find them out-
Electra: May judge, condemn- or take revenge?’ (Choephori 120ff).
From the extract above Electra is thrown between justice and vengeance and she can’t distinguish the contrast between the ideas of Revenge and Justice. Here, we see that Electra clearly says that these two ideas are not quite the same, when she asks if the Chorus means a ‘judge’ or a ‘just avenger.’ Still, she seems to think that they can also be combined.
Electra’s confusion of the distinction between justice and vengeance is also seen in this extract:
‘So much for us. Next, for our enemies: let your avenger, Father, appear; let those who killed taste death for death, Justly! This hope I stake against my enemies’ hope, My curse to match their curse, wickedness for wickedness.’ (Choephori 142ff).
In these words of Electra, we can see her attempting, once again, to fuse or perhaps confuse the ideas of Justice and Revenge. She prays for an avenger to come, but she wants that vengeance to happen in accordance with justice.
Electra upon seeing the lock of hair. She began wondering who could have sent the lock of hair that she finds at the tomb of her father, Agamemnon. Eventually, of course, she concludes that it belonged to her brother, Orestes. What is interesting here is how Electra refuses to call Clytemnestra her mother – as if the need to take vengeance on her also means that she has to sever the family ties between them. This is evident in the extract below: ‘….The murderess never cut this from her head- my mother, She, the mocker of gods, blasphemer of motherhood!’ (Choephori 190ff).
Another extract is: ‘Some loving message, to end my torn heart’s wavering, And give one clear command, to trample it in the dust If Clytemnestra cut it from her hated head; Or, if my brother’s, join my sad ritual, and bring Grace to this tomb and honor to Agamemnon’s name!’ (Choephori 195ff).
More so, Orestes reveals how the oracle of Apollo, commanded him to avenge the murder of his father. The irony, of course, is that it says Orestes will suffer horrible torments if he doesn't avenge the murder, but that he will also suffer horrible torments if he does avenge the murder. This is seen in the extract below: ‘The word of Apollo is of great power and cannot fail. His voice, urgent, insistent, drives me to dare this peril, Chilling my heart’s hot blood with recital of threatened terrors, If I should fail to exact fit vengeance, like for like, From those who killed my father. This was the god’s command: ‘Shed blood for blood, your face set like flint. The price They own no wealth can weigh.’ My very life, he said, Would pay, in endless torment, for disobedience.’ (Choephori 269ff).
Here, Orestes is seen a situation whereby he is confused because he has to avenge his father’s murder and in doing so he must kill his mother. He is been warned by Apollo that if he doesn’t take the revenge he say torment him for his disobedience. One may then ask, is it justice to shed blood for blood or is just vengeance disguised as justice?
Again, the chorus makes us understand that is the traditional law that blood must be shed for blood and this is evident in the extract below: ‘Courage! The gods ordain That blood by murder shed Cries from the ground for blood to flow again. The furies, sent by anger of the dead, Howl for destruction, pain on pain, Ruin to bring fresh ruin in its train. (Choephori 402ff).
Here, we see the Chorus voicing the traditional view that whenever a murder happens, revenge must follow. They also say that this is demanded by a law.
As said earlier that the theme of justice is a mind bended in Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy is quiet evident in Orestes speech: ‘Not alone on king and husband This deep dishonor lay; But a father was dishonored; And by the grace of Heaven, And by my own hand’s doing, She for this too shall pay; And when her life is ended Let mine be cast away.’ (Choephori 436ff).
With these words, Orestes expresses in very strong, emotional terms, his desire to get revenge on his mother for the murder of his father. Maybe the most striking thing about these lines is when he says that he wishes he could die after killing his mother. Is this just a figure of speech, a variation on the phrase we've all heard in Saturday-morning cartoons, in which a character says, ‘I'm going to get you if it's the last thing I do’? Or is there a deeper idea at work here? Consider the fact that he is planning to kill his own mother: could this be metaphorically be interpreted as meaning that he is killing himself, at the same time? There's a mind-bender.
These are the last words Orestes speaks to his mother Clytemnestra before driving her into the palace to be killed: ‘The terror in your dream told you prophetic truth. Unholy was your crime, unholy shall be your punishment.’ (Choephori 929ff).
If Orestes had killed Aegisthus things would have ended, but Orestes shed kindred blood like Agamemnon and because Electra was so timid to carry out the duty of vengeance, the case moves to the spiritual realm where the Erinyes takes up the cause and haunt Orestes.
He goes back to Apollo’s temple, who cleanses him and sends him to Athena as a suppliant. In sum this cycle of avenging in similar terms of shedding blood for blood leads to nowhere but rather brings bitterness between relations.

REFERENCES * Aeschylus: Choephori, (Trans; Herbert Weir Smyth), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 1926. * Bodenheimer, E. (1962). Jurisprudence. The Philosophy and method of the law. USA: Harvard University Press * Bowra, C.M. (1944). Sophoclean Tragedy. Oxford University Press. London. * Encyclopedia Britannica (2012, 15th ed.) * Furguson, J. (1973). A Companion to Greek Tragedy. Austin and London University Press. London. * Neal, G. T. (2011). Justice and Vengeance. New York: Three Rivers Press * Otchere, J. A. (nd.). Introduction to Classical Theatre. (Vol. 2), Cape Coast; Nyakod Printing Works.

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