Libation Bearers, Aeschylus
Translated by Jim Erdman
Further Revised by Gregory Nagy
Hermes of the nether world, you who guard the powers [kratos] of the ancestors, prove yourself my savior [sōtēr]
and ally, I entreat you, now that I have come to this land and returned
from exile. On this mounded grave I cry out to my father to hearken, 5 to hear me…
that advances, marked by their sable cloaks? To what calamity should I
set this down? Is it some new sorrow that befalls our house? Or am I
right to suppose that for my father’s sake they bear 15
these libations to appease the powers below? It can only be for this
cause: for indeed I think my own sister Electra is approaching,
distinguished by her bitter grief [penthos]. Oh grant me, Zeus, to avenge my father’s death, and may you be my willing ally! 20 Pylades, let us stand apart, that I may know clearly what this band of suppliant women intends.
Sent forth from the
palace I have come to convey libations to the sound of sharp blows of
my hands. My cheek is marked with bloody gashes 25 where my nails have cut fresh furrows. And yet through all my life [aiōn]
my heart is fed with lamentation. Rips are torn by my griefs through
the linen web of my garment, torn in the cloth that covers my breast, 30 the cloth of robes struck for the sake of my mirthless misfortunes.
For with a hair-raising shriek, the seer [mantis] of dreams for our house, breathing wrath out of sleep, 35 uttered a cry of terror in the untimely [a-(h)ōr-os] part of night from the heart of the palace, a cry that fell heavily on the women’s quarter. And those who sort out [krinein] these dreams, bound under pledge, cried out from the god 40 that those beneath the earth cast furious reproaches and rage against their murderers.
Intending to ward off evil with such a graceless grace [kharis], 45
O mother Earth, she sends me forth, godless woman that she is. But I am
afraid to utter the words she charged me to speak. For what atonement [lutron] is there for blood fallen to earth? Ah, hearth of utter grief! 50 Ah, house laid low in ruin! Sunless darkness, loathed by men, enshrouds our house due to the death of its master.
55 The awe of majesty once unconquered, unvanquished, irresistible in war, that penetrated the ears and phrēn of the people, is now cast off. But there is still fear. And prosperity— 60 this, among mortals, is a god and more than a god. But the balance of dikē keeps watch: swiftly it descends on those in the light; sometimes pain [akhos] waits for those who linger on the frontier of twilight; 65 and others are claimed by strengthless night.
Because of blood drunk up
by the fostering earth, the vengeful gore lies clotted and will not
dissolve away. Grievous calamity [atē] distracts the guilty [aitios] man till he is steeped in utter misery.
But for the violator of a bridal chamber there is no cure. And though
all streams flow in one course to cleanse the blood from a polluted
hand, they rush in vain.
75 For since the gods laid constraining doom about my polis and led me from my father’s house to a slave’s lot, it is fitting for me to govern my bitter hate, even against my will [phrenes], 80 and submit to the wishes of my masters, whether just [dikaia] or unjust. But I weep beneath my veil over the senseless fate of my lord, my heart chilled by secret grief [penthos].
84 You handmaidens who set our house in order, 85 since you are here at this ritual of supplication as my 86 attendants, become my partners by giving advice about these things here: 87 what should I say while I pour [kheîn] these libations [khoai] of sorrowful caring? 88 How shall I say words that show good thinking [eu-phrona], how shall I make a prayer [kat-eukhesthai] to my father? 89 Shall I say that I bring these offerings from a woman who is near and dear [philē] to a dear a man who is near and dear [philos], 90 from wife to husband—from my own mother?
I do not have the assurance for that, nor do I know what I should say
as I pour this mixed offering onto my father’s tomb. Or shall I speak
the words that men are accustomed [nomos] to use: “To those who send these honors may he return benefits”—a gift, indeed, to match their evil?
perished, shall I pour them out for the earth to drink and then retrace
my steps, like one who carries refuse away from a rite, hurling the
vessel from me with averted eyes? 100 In this, philai,
be my fellow-counselors. For we cherish a common hatred within our
house. Do not hide your counsel in your hearts in fear of anyone. For
the portion of fate awaits both the free man and the man enslaved by
another’s hand. 105 If you have a better course to urge, speak!
In reverence for your father’s tomb, as if it were an altar, I will speak my thoughts from the heart [phrēn], since you command me.
Speak, even as you revere my father’s grave.
While you pour, utter benedictions for loyal hearts.
110 And to what philoi should I address them?
First to yourself, then to whoever hates Aegisthus.
Then for myself and for you also shall I make this prayer?
That is for you, using your judgment, to consider now for yourself.
Then whom else should I add to our company [stasis]?2
115 Remember Orestes, though he is still away from home.
Well said! You have indeed admonished me thoughtfully [with phrenes].
For the guilty [aitioi] murderers now, mindful of—
118 What should I say? Instruct me, inexperienced as I am, and lead me in my thinking.
119 —Pray that some superhuman force [daimōn] or some mortal may come to them [= Clytemnestra and Aegisthus]—
120 As judge [dikastēs] or as bringer of vindication [dikē], do you mean?
121 Very simply, just signal that you are acting as one who will kill in repayment for a killing.
122 And is it ritually correct [eu-sebê] for me, from the standpoint of the gods?
123 —Why not? It is an act of repaying bad things with bad things.
124 Supreme herald [kērux] of the realm above and the realm below, O Hermes of the nether world, summon for me 125 the superhuman forces [daimones] beneath the earth to hear my 126 prayers—forces that watch over my father’s house, 127 and [summon] Earth herself, who gives birth to all things, 128 and, having nurtured them, receives from them the flow that they produce. 129 And, meanwhile, as I pour [kheîn] these liquids of libation [khernibes] to the dead, 130 I say these things as I call on my father:
“Have pity both on me and on philos
Orestes! How shall we rule our own house? For now we wander like
beggars, bartered away by her who bore us, by her who in exchange got
as her mate Aegisthus, who was her accomplice in your murder. 135
As for me, I am no better than a slave, Orestes is an outcast from his
inheritance, while they in their insolence revel openly in the winnings
of your labors [ponoi]. But that Orestes may come home with good fortune I pray to you, father: Oh, hearken to me! 140 And as for myself, grant that I may prove far more circumspect [sōphrōn] than my mother and more reverent in deed.
appear to our foes, father, and that your killers may be killed in just
retribution [dikē]. 145 So I interrupt my
prayer for good to offer them this prayer for evil. But be a bearer of
blessings for us to the upper world, with the help of the gods and
Earth and dikē crowned with victory.”
Pour forth your tears, splashing as
they fall for our fallen lord, to accompany this protection against
evil, this charm for the good 155 against the loathsome pollution. Hear me, oh hear me, my honored lord, out of the darkness of your phrēn.
spear to deliver our house, an Arēs, brandishing in the fight the
springing Scythian bow and wielding his hilted sword in close combat.
My father has by now received the libations, which the earth has drunk. 165 But take your share of this startling utterance [mūthos].
Speak—but my heart is dancing with fear.
I see here a lock cut as an offering for the tomb.
A man’s, or a deep-girdled maiden’s?
170 That is open to conjecture—anyone may guess.
How then? Let my age be taught by your youth.
There is no one who could have cut it but myself.
Then they are enemies [ekhthroi] who thought it fit to express grief [penthos] with a lock of hair.
And further, in appearance it is very much like…
175 Whose lock? This is what I would like to know.
It is very much like my own in appearance.
Then can this be a secret offering from Orestes?
It is his curling locks that it most resembles.
But how did he dare to come here?
180 He has merely sent this cut lock as a favor [kharis] to his father.
What you say is no less a cause of tears for me, if he will never again set foot on this land.
Over my heart, too, there sweeps a surge of bitterness, and I am struck as if a sword had run me through. 185
From my eyes thirsty drops of a stormy flood fall unchecked at the
sight of this tress. For how can I expect to find that someone else,
some townsman, owns this lock? Nor yet in truth did she clip it from
her head, the murderess, 190 my own mother, who has assumed godless phrenes
regarding her children that ill accords with the name of mother. But as
for me, how am I to assent to this outright, that it adorned the head
of Orestes, the most philos to me of all mortals? No, hope is merely flattering me.
in it, so that I would not be tossed by my distracted thoughts. Rather
it would plainly bid me to spurn this tress, if it was severed from a
hated head. Or if it were a kinsman’s, he would share my grief [penthos] 200 as an adornment to this tomb and a tribute [tīmē] to my father.
each other—and like my own! Yes, here are the outlines of two sets of
feet, his own and some companion’s. 210 The heels and the imprints of the tendons agree in proportion with my own tracks. I am in torment, my phrenes are in a whirl!
Give recognition to the gods that your prayers have found fulfillment [telos], and pray that success may attend you in the future.
What? Have I succeeded now by the will of the daimones?
215 You have come to the sight of what you have long prayed for.
And do you know whom among mortals I was invoking?
I know that you are pining for Orestes.
Then how have I found an answer to my prayers?
Here I am. Search for no other philos than me.
220 But surely, stranger, you are weaving some snare about me?
Then I am devising plots against myself.
No, you wish to mock my distress.
Then my own also, if yours.
Am I then to address you as Orestes in truth?
225 No, even though you see him in me, you are slow to
learn. Yet at the sight of this tress cut in mourning, and when you
were scrutinizing the footprints of my tracks, your thought took wings
and you knew you had found me. Put the lock of hair, your own
brother’s, in the spot it was cut from, 230 and
observe how it matches the hair on your head. And see this piece of
weaving, your handiwork, the strokes of the blade and the beasts in the
design. Control yourself! Do not stray in your phrenes with joy! For I know that our most philoi kin are bitter foes to us both.
235 O most philon object of care in your father’s house, its hope of the seed of a savior [sōtēr]
longed for with tears, trust in your prowess and you will win back your
father’s house. O delightful eyes that have four parts of love for me:
for I must call you father; 240 and to you falls the love I should bear my mother, she whom I hate with complete dikē;
and the love I bore my sister, victim of a pitiless sacrifice; and you
were my faithful brother, bringing me your reverence. May Might [kratos] and dikē, 245 with Zeus, supreme over all, in the third place, lend you their aid!
O Zeus, O Zeus, become a sacred observer [theōros]
of our cause! Behold the orphaned brood of a father eagle that perished
in the meshes, in the coils of a fierce viper. They are utterly
orphaned, 250 gripped by the famine of hunger: for they are not grown to full strength [telos]
to bring their father’s quarry to the nest. So you see both me and poor
Electra here, children bereft of their father, both outcasts alike from
our home. 255 If you destroy these nestlings of a father who made sacrifice and gave you great tīmē,
from what like hand will you receive the homage of rich feasts? Destroy
the brood of the eagle and you cannot again send signals [sēmata] that mortals will trust; 260 nor, if this royal stock should wither utterly away, will it serve your altars on days when oxen are sacrificed. Oh foster [komizein] it, and you may raise our house from low estate to great, though now it seems utterly overthrown.
O children, O saviors [sōtēres] of your father’s hearth, 265
speak not so loud, children, in case someone should overhear and report
all this to our masters merely for the sake of rumor. May I some day
see them dead in the ooze of flaming pitch!
Surely he will not abandon me, the mighty oracle of Loxias,3 270 who urged me to brave this peril to the end and loudly proclaims calamities [atai] that chill the warmth of my heart, if I do not take vengeance on those who are guilty [aitioi]
of my father’s murder. He said that, enraged like a bull by the loss of
my possessions, I should kill them in requital just as they killed. 275 And he declared that otherwise I should pay the debt myself with my philē psūkhē,
after many grievous sufferings. For he spoke revealing to mortals the
wrath of malignant powers from underneath the earth, and telling of
plagues: 280 leprous ulcers that mount with fierce
fangs on the flesh and eat away its primal nature; and how a white down
should sprout up on the diseased place. And he spoke of other assaults
of the Furies [Erinyes] that are destined to be brought to fulfillment [telos] from paternal blood. 285
For the dark bolt of the infernal powers, who are stirred by kindred
victims calling for vengeance, and madness, and groundless terrors out
of the night, torment and harass a man, and he sees clearly, though he
moves his eyebrows in the dark. 290 And with his body marred by the brazen scourge, he is even chased in exile from his polis.
And the god declared that to such as these it is not allowed to have a
part either in the ceremonial cup or in the cordial libation; his
father’s mēnis, though unseen, bars him from the altar; no one receives him with tīmē or lodges with him; 295 and at last, despised by all, bereft of philoi, he perishes, turned into a mummy [tarikhos], in a most pitiful fashion, by a death that wastes him utterly away.
not trust them, the deed must still be done. For many impulses conspire
to one conclusion. 300 Besides the god’s command, my keen grief [penthos] for my father, and also the lack of property, and that my countrymen, who have the greatest kleos of mortals, who overthrew Troy with a spirit [phrēn] that is renowned, should not be subjected so to a pair of women. 305 For he has a woman’s mind [phrēn], or if not, it will soon be found out.
You mighty Fates [moirai], through the power of Zeus grant fulfillment there where what is just [dikaion] now turns. “For a word of hate 310 let a word of hate be said,” dikē cries out as she exacts the debt, “and for a murderous stroke let a murderous stroke be paid.” “Let him suffer [paskhein] what he himself has done,” says the mūthos of three generations.
father, unhappy father, by what word or deed of mine can I succeed in
sailing from far away to you, where your resting-place holds you, a
light to oppose your darkness? 320 Yet a lament that gives kleos to the Atreidai who once possessed our house is none the less a joyous service [kharites].
My child, the fire’s ravening jaw 325 does not overwhelm the phrenes of one who is dead, but sooner or later he reveals what stirs him. The murdered man has his dirge; the guilty man is revealed. 330 Justified lament for fathers and for parents, when raised loud and strong, makes its search everywhere.
Hear then, O father, our expressions of grief [penthos] in the midst of plentiful tears. Look, your two children mourn you 335 in a lament [thrēnos]
over your tomb. As suppliants and exiles as well they have sought a
haven at your burial place. What of these things is good, what free of
evil? Is it not hopeless to wrestle against doom [atē]?
340 Yet the god, if it so pleases him, may still turn our sounds to more joyfully sounding strains. In place of laments [thrēnoi] over a tomb, a song of triumph within the royal halls will welcome back [komizein] a reunited philos.
Ah, my father, if only beneath Ilion’s walls you had been slain,
slashed by some Lycian spearman! Then you would have left a good kleos for your children in their halls, and in their maturity you would have made their lives admired by men. 350 And in a land beyond the sea [pontos] you would have found a tomb heaped high with earth, no heavy burden for your house to bear—
—philos there below to your philoi who nobly fell, 355 a ruler with august tīmē, distinguished even beneath the earth, and minister of the mightiest gods who rule as turannoi in the nether world. 360
For in your life you were a king of those who have the power to assign
the portion of death, and who wield the staff all mortals obey.
No, not even beneath the walls of Troy, father, would I wish you to have perished [root phthi-] and to be entombed beside Scamander’s waters 365
among the rest of the host slain by the spear. I wish rather that his
murderers had been killed by their own loved ones, just as they killed
you, so that someone in a distant land 370 who knew nothing of these present troubles [ponoi] should learn of their fatal doom.
In this, my child, your
wish is better than gold. It surpasses great good fortune, even that of
the supremely blessed Hyperboreans, for it is easy to wish. 375
But now the lash of this double scourge comes home: our cause already
has its champions beneath the earth, while the hands of our loathsome
opponents, though they have the mastery, are unholy. The children have
won the day.
380This has pierced the earth and reached your ear4 as if it were an arrow. O Zeus, O Zeus, who send doom [atē] as punishment, sooner or later, up from below onto the reckless and wicked deeds done by the hands of mortals. 385 And yet it will come to fulfillment [telos] for our father’s sake.
May it be mine to raise
a hearty shout in triumph over the man when he is stabbed and over the
woman as she perishes! Why should I try to keep hidden what
nevertheless hovers before my phrēn? 390 Full against the prow of my heart the thūmos blows keen in rancorous hate.
And when will mighty Zeus, blossoming on both his father’s and mother’s side, bring down his hand on them 395 and split their heads open? Let it be a pledge to the land! After injustice I demand dikē as my right.
399 Hear, O Earth, and you forces of the earth below [khthonioi] who have your own honors [tīmai]!
400 And it is the customary law [nomos] that drops of blood 401 spilled [kheîn] on the ground demand yet more 402 blood. The devastation [loigos] cries out for the Fury [Erinys], 403 which from those who died [phthinesthai] before brings one disaster [atē] 404 after another disaster [atē].
Alas, you sovereign tyrannies of the world below, behold, you potent
Curses of the slain, behold the remnants of the line of Atreus in their
plight of helplessness, cast out from house and home, bereft of tīmē. Which way can we turn, O Zeus?
410 But again my philon heart throbs as I hear this pitiful lament. At once I am devoid of hope and my insides are darkened at the words I hear. 415 But when hope once again lifts and strengthens me, it puts away my grief [akhos] and dawns brightly on me.
To what could we more fittingly appeal than to those very griefs [akhos pl.] we have endured [paskhein] from the woman herself who bore us? 420 She may fawn upon us, but they are past all soothing. For like a wolf with its savage phrenes, the thūmos we have acquired from our mother is implacable.
On my breast I beat a dirge from Aryan lands in just the same fashion as a Cissian wailing woman. 425
With clenched fists, raining blows thick and fast, my outstretched
hands could be seen descending from above, from far above, now on this
side, now on that, till my battered and wretched head resounded with
Away with you, cruel and utterly brazen mother! You dared to give your
husband a most cruel burial: unmourned, without lamentation [penthos], a king unattended by his people.
Ah me, all your deeds are done without tīmē. 435 Yet with the help of the daimones, and with the help of my own hands, will she not atone for the loss of tīmē that she inflicted on my father? Let me only take her life, then let me die!
Yes, and I would have you know he was brutally mutilated. 440
And even as she buried him in this way, she acted with intent to make
the manner of his death a burden on your life past all power to bear.
You hear the story of the outrageous loss of tīmē inflicted on your father.
My father was murdered just as you say. But all the while I was kept sequestered, 445 deprived of tīmē,
accounted a worthless thing. Kenneled in my room as if I were a vicious
cur, I gave free vent to my streaming tears, which came more readily
than laughter, as in my concealment I poured out my lament in plentiful
weeping. 450 Hear my tale [mūthos] and inscribe it on your phrenes.
Yes, let it sink deep into your ears, with a serene [hēsukhos] dance-step of the phrenes. So far things are so. But you yourself be eager to resolve what is to follow. 455 You must enter the contest with inflexible wrath.
Father, I call on you; side with your philoi!
And I in tears join my voice to his.
And let all our company [stasis]5 blend our voices to echo the prayer. Hear! Come to the light! 460 Side with us against our enemies!
Arēs will encounter Arēs; dikē will encounter dikē.
O you gods, bring the plea to fulfillment with dikē!
A shudder steals over me as I hear these prayers. Doom has long been waiting, 465 but it will come in answer to those who pray.
Ah, inbred trouble [ponos] and bloody stroke of ruin [atē] without a tune [mousa]! Ah, lamentable and grievous sorrows! 470 Ah, the unstaunched pain!
Our house has a cure to heal these woes, a cure not from outside, from the hands of others, but from itself, by fierce, bloody eris. 475 This hymn is for the gods beneath the earth.
O you blessed powers below [khthonioi], hear this supplication of ours, and with favorable phrenes send forth to these children your aid for victory!
O father, who perished by a death unbefitting a king [turannos], 480 grant in answer to my prayer the power [kratos] over your halls!
And I too, father, have a like request of you: to escape when I have wrought great destruction on Aegisthus.
Yes, for then the customary funeral
feasts of men would be established in your honor. But otherwise, at the
rich and savory banquet of burnt offerings made to the earth, 485 you will be without a portion of tīmē.
And I will likewise at my wedding
offer libations to you out of the fullness of my inheritance from my
father’s house, and before all else I will hold this tomb of yours in
the highest honor.
O Earth, send up my father to watch my battle!
490 O Persephone, grant us indeed a glorious accession to power [kratos]!
Father, remember the bath where you were robbed of life.
And remember how they devised a strange net to cast about you.
You were caught, my father, in fetters forged by no smith’s hand.
And in a fabric shamefully devised.
495 Father, are you not roused by taunts such as these?
Are you not raising that most philon head of yours?
Either send dikē as ally to your philoi, or grant us in turn to get a similar power [kratos] over them, if indeed after defeat you would in turn win victory.
500 So listen, father, to this last appeal of mine as
you behold these fledglings crouching at your tomb. Have compassion on
a song of lament performed by a woman and by a man as well, and let not
this seed of Pelops’ line be blotted out: for then, in spite of death,
you are not dead. 505 For children are voices of salvation [sōtēriā] to a man, though he is dead; like corks, they buoy up the net, saving [sōzein] the flaxen cord from out of the deep. Hear! For your own sake we make this lament. By honoring this plea of ours you save [sōzein] yourself.
510 In truth you have drawn out this plea of yours to your own content in showing honor [tīmē] to this unlamented tomb. As for the rest, since your phrēn is rightly set on action, put your fortune [daimōn] to the test and get to your work at once.
It will be so. But it is not off the track to inquire 515 from what motive she came to send her libations, seeking too late to make amends [tīmē] for an irremediable experience [pathos]. They would be a sorry return [kharis] to send to the dead who have no phrenes: I cannot guess what they mean. The gifts are too paltry for her offense [hamartia]. 520
For though a man may pour out all he has in atonement for one deed of
blood, it is wasted effort. So the saying goes. If indeed you know,
tell me: I wish to learn.
I know, my child, for I was there. It was because she was shaken by dreams and wandering terrors of the night 525 that she sent these offerings, godless woman that she is.
And have you learned the nature of the dream so as to tell it properly?
She dreamed she gave birth to a serpent: that is her own account.
And where does the tale come full circle [telos], where is it completed?
She laid it to rest as if it were a child, in swaddling clothes.
530 What food did it crave, the newborn viper?
In her dream she offered it her own breast.
Surely her nipple was not unwounded by the loathsome beast?
No: it drew in clotted blood with the milk.
Truly this vision is not without meaning!
535 Then from out
of her sleep she raised a shriek and awoke appalled, and many lamps
that had been blinded in the darkness flared up in the house to cheer
our mistress. Then she sent these libations for the dead in the hope
that they might be an effective cure for her distress.
540 I pray to this earth and to my father’s grave that this dream may come to its fulfillment [telos] in me. As I sort it out [krinein], it fits at every point. For if the snake left the same place as I; if it was furnished with my swaddling clothes; 545 if it sought to open its mouth to take the breast that nourished me and mixed the philon milk with clotted blood while she shrieked for terror at this pathos, then surely, as she has nourished an ominous thing of horror, she must die by bia. 550 For I, turned serpent, am her killer, as this dream declares.
I choose your reading of this portent. Let it be so. As for the rest, give your philoi their parts. Tell some what to do, others what to leave undone.
It is a simple tale [mūthos]. My sister must go inside, 555 and I say solemnly [aineîn] that she must keep concealed this pact with me, so that as by craft they killed a man of tīmē, so by craft they may likewise be caught and perish in the very same snare, even as Loxias made the decree [phēmē], lord Apollo, the seer [mantis] who has never before been false.
And in case none of the keepers of the door will welcome us with a
radiant heart on the plea that the house is afflicted with trouble by daimones,
then we will wait so that anyone passing the house will consider and
say: “Why then does Aegisthus have his door shut on his suppliant, 570 if in fact he is at home and knows?”
that man sitting on my father’s throne, or if then coming face to face
with me he lifts and casts down his eyes, know well:
575 Before he [= Aegisthus] can even say “Who is the stranger [xenos] and where is he from?” he will become a corpse. 576 That is what I will do to him, skewering him with my swift sword. 577 The Fury [Erinys] that has no fill of slaughter 578 will have unmixed blood to drink as her third and crowning drink!
be silent when there is need and speak only what the occasion demands.
As for the rest, I call on him to cast his glance this way and direct
the contest [agōn] of the sword for me.
585 Many are the sorrows [akhos pl.], dread and appalling, bred of earth, and the embrace of the sea [pontos] teems with hateful monsters. Likewise between the sky and the earth lights hung high in the air draw near; 590 and winged things and things that walk the earth can also tell of the stormy wrath of whirlwinds.
But who can tell of man’s overweening phrenes, 595 and of the reckless passions of women hardened of phrenes, partners of the woes [atē pl.] of mortals? 600 Inordinate passion, having kratos over the female, gains a fatal victory over the wedded unions of beasts and men alike.
Let whoever is not flighty in his wits know this, when he has learned 605 of the device of a lit brand contrived by Thestios’ heartless daughter:7
She destroyed her own child by burning the charred brand of the same
age as he, when, coming from his mother’s womb, he cried out, 610 and it aged in pace with him through his life to the day decreed by fate.
And there is in stories another murderous virgin to be loathed,8 615 who ruined a philos at the bidding of his enemies, when, lured by Minos’ gift, the Cretan necklace forged of gold, she with her dog’s heart 620 despoiled Nisos of his immortal lock as he drew breath in unsuspecting sleep. And Hermes overtook him.
But since I have recalled tales of pitiless ordeals [ponoi], it is the right time to tell of a marriage void of love, 625 an abomination to houses, and the plots devised by a wife’s phrenes
against her warrior lord, against her lord revered with reason by his
foes. But I honor the hearths of homes not heated by passion’s fires, 630 and in woman a spirit that shrinks from audacious deeds.
Indeed the Lemnian evil9
holds first place among evils in story: it has long been told with
groans as an abominable calamity. Men compare each new horror to
Lemnian troubles; 635 and because of a woeful deed
abhorred by the gods a race has disappeared, cast out in infamy from
among mortals. For no man reveres what is hated by the gods. Is there
one of these tales I have gathered that I cite without dikē?
But the keen and bitter sword is near the breast 640 and drives home its blow at the bidding of dikē. For truly the injustice of him who has unjustly transgressed the sovereign majesty of Zeus 645 lies on the ground trampled under foot.
The anvil of dikē is planted firm. Destiny fashions her arms and forges her sword quickly, and the famed and deeply brooding Fury [Erinys] is bringing the son into our house, 650 to requite at last the pollution of bloodshed long ago.
Boy! Boy! Hear my knocking at the outer door! Who is inside? Boy! Boy! I say again, who is at home? 655 Again for the third time I call for some one to come out of the house, if there is welcoming [philon] to strangers [xenoi] by Aegisthus.
Yes, yes, I hear. Of what land is the stranger [xenos], and whence?
Announce me to the masters of the house, for it is in fact to them that I come bearing news. 660 And hurry, since the chariot of night is speeding on with darkness, and it is time [hōra] for wayfarers to drop anchor in some house friendly to all guests [xenoi]. Tell some one to come forth who has authority [telos] over the house, the mistress in charge. 665 But the master would be more fitting, for then no delicacy [aidōs] in speaking makes words obscure: man speaks boldly to man and reveals [sēmainein] his meaning without reserve.
Strangers [xenoi], you have only to declare your need, for we have everything that suits this house: 670 warm baths, beds to charm away fatigue [ponoi], and the presence of honest [dikaia] faces. But if there is another matter requiring graver counsel, that is the concern of men, and we will communicate with them.
I am a stranger [xenos], a Daulian from Phocis. 675
As I was on my way, carrying my pack on business of my own to Argos,
just as I ended my journey here, a man, a stranger to me as I to him,
fell in with me, and inquired [historeîn] about my destination and told me his. He was Strophios, a Phocian—for as we talked I learned his name—and he said to me, 680 “Stranger, since in any case you are bound for Argos, keep my message in mind with the utmost dikē and tell his parents that Orestes is dead, and by no means let it escape you. Whether his philoi decide to bring him home or to bury him in the land of his sojourn, a foreigner [xenos] utterly forever, 685
convey their wishes back to me. In the meantime a bronze urn contains
the ashes of a man rightly lamented.” This much I tell you as I heard
it. Whether by any chance I am speaking to those with whom the question
rests and whose concern it is, I do not know. 690 But his parent should know.
Oh no! Your story spells our
utter undoing. O curse that haunts this house, so hard to wrestle down:
how far forward you look! Even what was laid well out of harm’s way you
bring down with your well-aimed shafts from far off, 695 and you strip me of philoi, utterly wretched as I am. And now Orestes: he was indeed prudent in saving [komizein]
his foot from the mire of destruction, but now you portray as fled what
was once the one hope in our house of a cure for its evil revelry [bakkheia].
700 As for me, I am sure that with hosts [xenoi] so prosperous [eudaimones] I would rather have been made known and been treated as guest [xenos] for favorable news. For where is goodwill greater than from guest [xenoi] to host [xenoi]? Yet to my mind it would have been irreverent not to fulfill for philoi 705 a charge like this when I was bound by promise and hospitality [xeniā] pledged to me.
But rest assured you will receive no less a reward than you deserve nor be the less welcome [philos] to this house: someone else might just as well have brought your message [angelia]. 710 But it is the proper occasion [kairos] when strangers [xenoi] who have been traveling on a long day’s journey should have their proper entertainment.
that you do this as you shall be held to strict account. Meantime I
will communicate this matter to the master of the house, and since we
have no lack of philoi we will confer on this occurrence.
Ah, philai handmaidens of the house, 720 low long will it be before we display the power that lies in our mouths to do Orestes service?
now hear me, now lend me aid! Now is the hour for Persuasion with her
guile to join forces with him, and for Hermes of the nether world [khthonios], he who works in stealth, to direct this ordeal [agōn] of the deadly sword.
working something no good: for over there I see Orestes’ nurse all in
tears. Cilissian slave-woman! Where are you going? Why as you set foot
in the palace gate have you grief as your unhired companion?
My mistress commands me to summon Aegisthus for the strangers in all haste, 735
so that he may come and learn more clearly, from man to man, these
tidings that have just arrived. Indeed, before the servants, behind
eyes that feigned grief [penthos] she hid her laughter over what has occurred fortunately for her. But the utterance [phēmē] so plainly delivered by the strangers [xenoi] 740 means utter ruin for this house. I expect that when he hears it he will rejoice in his noos to know the tale [mūthos]. Miserable woman that I am! How the old unbearable troubles of every sort 745
that occurred in this house of Atreus have always made my heart ache
within my breast! But never yet have I endured a blow like this. All
the other troubles I bore patiently, but my philos Orestes, on whom I spent my life [psūkhē], 750
whom I received from his mother at birth and nursed, and the many and
troublesome tasks, fruitless for all my enduring them, when his loud
and urgent cries broke my rest… For one must nurse that little thing,
which doesn’t yet have any phrenes, as if it were a grazing animal, of course one must, by following its twists and turns that lead toward a phrēn. 755
For while it is still a baby in swaddling clothes, it has no speech at
all, whether hunger moves it, or thirst perhaps, or the call of need:
children’s young insides work their own relief. I would be the seer [mantis] who anticipates these needs. Yet many a time, I think, having to wash the child’s linen because of my own errors, 760 laundress and nurse had the same function [telos].
It was I who, with these two handicrafts, received Orestes from his
father’s hands. And now, wretch that I am, I hear that he is dead. But
I am on my way to fetch the man who wrought destruction on our house, 765 and he will be glad enough to hear this news.
How does she tell him to come prepared?
How prepared? Say it again so that I may catch your meaning better.
With his guards or perhaps unattended?
She tells him to come with his retinue of spearmen.
770 Well, do not
give this message to our loathed master, but with all haste and with a
joyous heart tell him to come himself, alone, so that he may be told
without alarm. For in the mouth of a messenger an oblique message is
What? Are you gladdened by the present news?
775 Why not, if Zeus at last may cause our ill wind to change?
But how can that be? Orestes, the hope of our house, is gone.
Not yet; he would be an inept seer [mantis] who would so interpret.
What are you saying? Do you know something beyond what has been told?
Go, deliver your message! Do what you are asked to do! 780 The gods take care of what they take care of.
Well, I will go and do your bidding. With the gods’ blessing may everything turn out for the best!
Now at my supplication, O Zeus, father of the Olympian gods, 785
grant that the fortunes of our house be firmly established, so that
those who rightly desire the rule of order may behold it. Every word of
mine has been uttered in dikē. O Zeus, may you safeguard it!
790 O Zeus, set him who is within the palace before his enemies [ekhthroi], since, if you exalt him, he will gladly pay you with double and triple recompense.
Know that the orphaned colt of a philos man 795
is harnessed to the chariot of distress. And by setting bounds to his
course may you grant that we see him keep a steady pace through this
race and win the goal in the straining stride of a gallop.
800 And you who within the house inhabit the inner chamber that exults in its wealth, hear me, you gods, who share your phrenes with us! By a new judgment [dikē] redeem the blood of deeds done long ago. 805 May aged Murder cease begetting offspring in our house!
And you who occupy the mighty, gorgeously built cavern,10 grant that the man’s house may lift up its eyes again in joy, and that with glad eyes 810 it may behold from under its veil of gloom the radiant light of freedom.
May Maia’s son,11 as he with dikē should, lend his aid, for no one can better bring to fulfillment a sea-voyage on a favoring course, 815
when he is willing to do so. But by his mysterious utterance he brings
darkness over men’s eyes by night, and by day he is no more clear at
And then at last with a loud voice we shall sing 820 a song of the deliverance of our house, the song that women raise when the wind has a fair setting [stasis], and not the shrill tune [nomos] of those who mourn: “Things are going well for the polis. 825 This grows to profit [kerdos] for me, for me, and calamity [atē] holds off from my philoi.”
But may you with good courage, when the part of action comes, cry out loud the name “Father” when she exclaims “Son,” 830 and bring to completion the ruin [atē] that is beyond blame.
Raise up the spirit of Perseus12 within my phrenes. And for your philoi below the earth, and for those above, exact a return [kharis] for their dire wrath 835 by working bloody ruin [atē] in our house and obliterating the guilt [aitiā] of murder.
I have come not unasked but summoned by a messenger. I heard startling news told by some strangers [xenoi] 840
who have arrived, tidings far from welcome: the death of Orestes. To
lay this too upon our house would be a fearful burden when it is still
festering and galled by the wound inflicted by an earlier murder. How
can I believe these things are true [alēthea]? 845
Or is it merely a panic-stricken report spread by women which leaps up
to die away in nothingness? What can you tell me of this to make it
clear to my phrēn?
We heard the tale, it is true. But go inside and inquire of the strangers [xenoi]. The certainty of messengers’ [angeloi] reports 850 is nothing compared with one’s own interrogation of the man himself.
I wish to see the messenger [angelos]
and put him to the test again—whether he himself was present at the
death or merely repeats from vague reports what he has heard. No! Be
sure he cannot deceive a phrēn that is endowed with eyes.
Zeus, O Zeus, what should I say? Where shall I begin this prayer of
mine, this appeal to the gods? How in my loyal zeal can I succeed in
finding words to match need? Now is the moment 860
when the bloodstained edges of the blades that lay men low are utterly
forever to destroy the house of Agamemnon. Or else, kindling a flaming
light in the cause of freedom, Orestes will win both the rule over his
realm 865 and the wealth [olbos] of his
fathers. Our god-like Orestes, with no one to assist him, is now to
meet with two in such a contest. And may it be to triumph!
Oh! Oh! O woe!
870 Ah! Ah! Alas!
What is happening? What is being accomplished for our house? Let us
stand apart while the matter is being brought to fulfillment [telos] so that we may be considered not responsible [aitioi] in these ills. For the outcome [telos] of the fighting has just now been made formal.
875 O woe, oh utter
woe! My master is slain! O woe! I cry yet again, for the third time.
Aegisthus is no more! Come, with all speed! Unbar and open the women’s
door! And a strong arm indeed is needed, 880 but not
to help him who is already slain: what good is there in that? Help!
Help! Am I shouting to the deaf and fruitlessly wasting my voice on
people who are asleep? Where has Clytemnestra gone? What is she doing?
Her own neck, near the razor’s edge, is now ready to fall, in all
justice [dikē], beneath the stroke.
885 What is this? What cry for help are you raising in our house?
I tell you the dead are killing the living.13
Ah! Indeed I have understood the utterance [epos], sorting it out from the riddling [ainigma pl.]. We are to perish by treachery, just as we committed murder. Someone give me a battle-axe, and quickly!
It is you I seek. This one here has had enough.
Oh no! My most philos, valiant Aegisthus! You are dead!
You love your man? Then you will lie in the same grave, 895 and you will never abandon him in death.
Wait, my son! Have respect [aidōs], child, for this breast at which many times while sleeping you sucked with toothless gums the nourishing milk.
Pylades, what shall I do? Shall I spare my mother out of aidōs?
900 What then will become in the future of Loxias’ oracles [manteuma pl.] declared at Delphi, and of our sworn pact? Count all men your enemies rather than the gods.
I judge you victor: you give me good advice [par-ainesis].
For while he lived, you thought him better than my father. Sleep with
him in death, since you love him but hate the man you were bound to
It was I who nourished you, and with you I would grow old.
What! Murder my father and then make your home with me?
910 Fate, my child, must share the blame [aitiā] for this.
And fate now brings this destiny to pass.
Have you no regard for a parent’s curse, my son?
You brought me to birth and yet you cast me out to misery.
No, surely I did not cast you out in sending you to the house of an ally.
915 I was sold in disgrace, though I was born of a free father.
Then where is the price I got for you?
I am ashamed to reproach you with that outright.
But do not fail to proclaim the follies of that father of yours as well.
Do not accuse him who went through ordeals [ponoi] while you sat idle at home.
920 It is a grief for women to be deprived of a husband, my child.
Yes, but it is the husband’s toil that supports them while they sit at home.
You seem resolved, my child, to kill your mother.
You will kill yourself, not I.
Take care: beware the hounds of wrath that avenge a mother.
925 And how shall I escape my father’s if I leave this undone?
I see that though living I mourn in vain before a tomb.
Yes, for my father’s fate has marked out this destiny for you.
Oh no! I myself bore and nourished this serpent!
Yes, the terror from your dream was indeed a prophet [mantis]. 930 You killed him whom you should not; so suffer [paskhein] what should not be.
Truly I grieve even for these in
their twofold downfall. Yet since long-suffering Orestes has reached
the peak of many deeds of blood, we would rather have it so, that the
eye of the house should not be utterly lost.
935 As to Priam and his sons dikē
came at last in crushing retribution, so to Agamemnon’s house came a
twofold lion, twofold slaughter. The exile, the suppliant of Delphi,
has fulfilled his course to the utmost, 940 justly urged on by counsels from the gods.
from its misery and the wasting of its wealth by two who were unclean, 945 its grievous fortune!
And he has come
whose part is the crafty vengeance of stealthy attack, and in the
battle his hand was guided by her who is a genuine [etumos] daughter of Zeus, breathing murderous wrath on her foes. 950 We mortals aim true to the mark when we call her dikē.
The commands proclaimed loudly by Loxias, tenant of the mighty cavern shrine of Parnassus, assail 955 with guileless guile the mischief now become inveterate. May the divine prevail: that I not serve kakoi! 960 It is right to revere the rule of the sky-dwellers.
restrained our household. House, rise up! You have lain too long
prostrate on the ground.
But soon time that accomplishes all will pass the portals of our house,
and then all pollution will be expelled from the hearth by cleansing
rites that drive out calamity [atē]. The dice of fortune will turn as they fall and lie with faces all lovely to behold, 970 favorably disposed to whoever stays in our house.
The doors open, revealing Orestes and Pylades standing over the bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
Behold this pair of royalty [turannis], oppressors of the land, who murdered my father and ransacked my house! 975 They were majestic then, when they sat on their thrones, and are philoi to each other even now, as one may judge by their suffering [pathos
pl.], and their oath holds true to their pledges. Together they vowed a
league of death against my unhappy father, and together they vowed to
die, and they have kept their promise well.
of ills, the device for binding my unhappy father, with which his hands
were manacled, his feet fettered. Spread it out! Stand around in a
circle, and display this integument for a man, that the Father may see— 985 not mine, but he who surveys all this, the Sun—that he may see the impious work of my own mother, that he may be my
witness in court that I pursued this death, my own mother’s, with
justice [dikē]. I do not speak of Aegisthus’ death: 990 for he has suffered, as is the custom [nomos], the penalty [dikē] prescribed for adulterers.
wild beast? Or a shroud for a corpse in his bier, wrapped around his
feet? No, rather it is a net: 1000 you might call it
a hunting net, or robes to entangle a man’s feet. This would be the
kind of thing a highwayman might posses, who deceives strangers [xenoi] and earns his living by robbery, and with this cunning snare he might kill many men and warm his own phrēn greatly.
1005 May such a woman not live with me in my house! Before that may the gods grant me to perish childless!
Alas! Alas! Sorrowful work! You were done in by a wretched death. Alas! Alas! And also for the survivor suffering [pathos] blossoms.
1010 Did she do the
deed or not? This is my witness, dyed by Aegisthus’ sword. This is a
stain of blood that helps time to spoil the many tinctures of
No mortal being shall pass his life unpunished, free from all suffering to the end. Alas! Alas! 1020 One tribulation comes today, another tomorrow.
So that you may know, I do not know how it will reach fulfillment [telos]; I think I am a charioteer driving my team far beyond the course. For my ungoverned phrenes are whirling me away overmastered, and at my heart fear 1025 is ready to sing and dance to a tune of wrath. But while I am still in control of my phrenes, I proclaim like a herald [kērux] to those who hold me philos: I hereby declare [phēmi] that not without dikē did I slay my mother, that father-killing pollution [miasma], that thing loathed by the gods.
to the temple set square on the navel of the earth, the precinct of
Loxias, and to the bright fire that is called imperishable [aphthiton].14 To no other hearth did Loxias bid me turn. 1040
And as to the manner in which this evil deed was done, I charge all men
of Argos in time to come to bear me witness. I go forth a wanderer,
estranged [apo-xenos] from this land, leaving this repute behind, in life or death.
And you have done well. Therefore do not yoke your tongue 1045 to an ill-omened speech [phēmē],15
nor let your lips give vent to evil foreboding, since you have freed
the whole realm of Argos by lopping off the heads of two serpents with
a fortunate stroke.
Ah, ah! You slave women, look at them there: like Gorgons, wrapped in sable garments, 1050 entwined with swarming snakes! I can stay no longer.
What visions disturb you, most philos of sons to your father? Wait, do not be all overcome by fear.
To me these are no imagined troubles. For there indeed are the hounds of wrath to avenge my mother.
1055 It is that the blood is still fresh on your hands; this is the cause of the disorder that assails your phrenes.
O lord Apollo, look! Now they come in troops, and from their eyes they drip loathsome blood!
There is only one kind of purification [katharmos] for you: the touch of Loxias 1060 will set you free from this affliction.
You do not see them, but I see them. I am driven out and can stay no longer!
Then may blessings go with you, and may the god watch with favorable phrenes over you and guard you with timely fortunes!
1065 Look! Now again, for the third time, has the tempest of this clan burst on the royal house and come to fulfillment [telos]. First, at the beginning, came the cruel woes of children slain for food; 1070 next, the suffering [pathos]
of a man, a king, when the warlord of the Achaeans perished, murdered
in his bath. And now, once again, there has come from somewhere a
third, a savior [sōtēr], or shall I say a doom? 1075 Oh when will it bring its work to completion, when will the fury of calamity [atē], lulled to rest, find an end and cease?
means ‘uttering in a proper way’ when it is applied in a sacred
context; it means ‘silent’ when it is applied in a non-sacred
was the daughter of Thestios, king of Aetolia, and the wife of Oineus.
When her son Meleager was a week old, the Fates appeared to her and
declared that her son would die when the brand on the hearth was
consumed by fire. Althaia took the brand and put it in a chest; but
when Meleager, grown to manhood, slew her brothers, she threw it into
the fire and her son died. (See Iliad 9.529-99 for a different version of the Meleager story.)
of Megara by Minos, king of Crete. Nisos’ daughter Scylla, in love with
Minos, cut from the head of her father the purple hair on which his
life depended, and he was slain by the Cretans.
women of Lemnos, jealous of Thracian slave-women, killed their
husbands, so that when the Argonauts visited the island they found no
inner sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was a narrow cave or vault in
which, over a cleft, stood a tripod covered by a slab on which sat the
Pythia, priestess of Apollo.
Greek admits either meaning: ‘the dead are killing the living man’ or
‘the living man is killing the dead’.