Electra and Traditional Greek Beliefs in The Libation Bearers
The Iliad and The Odyssey portray a hierarchical, stringently ordered society, ruled by powerful kings, followed by the masses and sanctioned by the gods. At the murder of Agamemnon, a complete breakdown of the Greek social, governmental, and religious systems occurs, throwing Greek civilization into a state of uncertainty. The populace begins to question the stability of basic foundations such as family, justice, and religion. Only Agamemnon’s faithful daughter, Electra, continues to carry the torch of the old ways of Greek culture, unfaltering in her beliefs. In Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers, Electra embodies the previous Greek beliefs on justice, family, and religion, creating a link to the ordered society that existed before the treacherous murder of her father. In The Libation Bearers, Electra signifies the traditional Greek beliefs of justice. When Aegisthus calls himself “the weaver of justice” (1635) in Agamemnon, the idea of justice changes completely with the chorus often questioning whether Agamemnon’s death was an act of justice or simply revenge for Iphigenia’s sacrifice. In the beginning of The Libation Bearers, Electra mirrors the social confusion, by asking, “Judge or avenger, which?” (122). Although this turmoil between justice and revenge persists, Electra feels that the deaths of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus would be just and righteous, saying, “give them pain for pain” (95). Always wishing for Orestes’ return, she pleads to her father, crying out “Raise up your avenger, into the light, my father / kill the killers in return, with justice!” (148-9). Electra wants someone to avenge her father’s death and restore order. She beseeches Zeus to “crush their skulls” (390) and thereby restore faith in justice to the entire Greek civilization. Electra remains steadfast in her beliefs about justice even when the chorus seems doubtful. When Orestes arrives on the scene, however, Electra fades into the background, knowing that now justice will be restored and her father’s ghastly murder will at long last be avenged. Clearly, Electra represents the former beliefs in true justice in The Libation Bearers. After Agamemnon’s death, the family structure of Greek society crumbles like the justice system, creating further social disorder. Electra portrays the ideal family member according to established Greek concepts, contrasting with her mother, Clytaemnestra. When Clytaemnestra murders Agamemnon, the structure of Greek families collapses, creating a rift between family members. After her father’s murder, Electra remains loyal to him and the memory of his death, longing for a resolution to her family’s terrible curse. Electra feels betrayed by her mother, believing that, “Mother has pawned us for a husband, Aegisthus, / her partner in her murdering” (138-9). She ridicules her mother’s treatment of her children, saying that she has a “godless spirit preying on her children” (192). In contrast to Clytaemnestra’s obvious lack of concern for anyone but herself, Electra shows complete selflessness, only caring about her father and hoping for her brother’s return, exemplifying a model daughter and sister according to traditional Greek standards. With Orestes’ return, Electra hands off the torch of the family to him and fades into the shadows, expecting him to bear the burdens of their cursed family. In The Libation Bearers, Agamemnon’s devoted daughter, Electra, is the exemplary family member, measuring up to Greek ideals, as they existed before his appalling death. Although Agamemnon’s death destroys the family system as well as the religious system, Electra epitomizes the traditional Greek religion in The Libation Bearers. When Clytaemnestra kills Agamemnon, the Greek religion becomes distorted, representing an escape from the guilt of her crimes. When Electra takes Clytaemnestra’s libations to her father’s grave, this blasphemous act enrages Electra, exclaiming “My mother, love from her?” (89). Electra opts to use her mother’s libations for truly religious purposes, praying to the gods for her mother’s punishment. Electra attempts to keep her prayers pure, not asking for a murderer, believing “How can I ask the gods for that / and keep my conscience clear?” (124-5). If she prayed for a murderer, she would be exactly like her corrupt, “godless” (192) mother, praying simply to benefit herself. Electra believes that the gods are just, fair, and omniscient, stating, “the gods well know / what storms torment us” (202-3). The return of Orestes reaffirms Electra’s faith in the gods. Apollo sends Orestes to punish Clytaemnestra for her blasphemy against the gods as well as Agamemnon’s murder. With this promise of punishment from Apollo and Orestes, Electra is free to vanish into the darkness, satisfied that the gods will punish her mother’s injustices. In The Libation Bearers, Electra demonstrates the Greek dedication to religion before its fall following Agamemnon’s death. Throughout The Libation Bearers, Electra exemplifies the old structure of Greek society before Agamemnon’s murder, hanging onto her unbending beliefs about justice, family, and religion. Agamemnon’s slaughter at the hands of his unfaithful wife sends Greek society crashing to the ground with an immoral and sadistic system rising to take its place. Electra remains the only figure in the play before Orestes’ return to shine through the darkness, holding steadfast to her original beliefs. She becomes a beacon in the night, shining like the signal fires that announce Troy’s destruction and, in turn, bring Agamemnon home to his fated doom.