“You handmaidens who set our house in order”
Electra in The Libation Bearers
This session in our beautiful online class; the Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, we studied the last two plays in a trilogy of plays called the “Oresteia” by Aeschylus. They are “The Libation Bearers” and “The Eumenides”
Professor Nagy said in class; “And I hope that those people out there who are listening to us, who are members of that kind of society, will share with us how their emotional world is shaped by the frequent practice of libations for many
situations.” I didn’t reply, but I was from a “culture” at one time that practiced libations. For those unaware, libations are when you tip your glass, nominally to the “gods and ghosts of this place” and spill a little on the ground. The Happy Jack Hotshots poured libations before drinking out of their canteens, before the first sip out of their red cup at keggers, their morning cups of coffee on the kitchen steps. When they began pouring libations on the cook house floor, that’s when the crew boss tried to stop the tradition. I don’t know how it started. Admittedly spilling a little water out of your canteen before taking a drink might wash off the ash, dust and grime, but the habit went way beyond that. One slow shift on the fire line we spread the crew out along a back-fired hand line to watch for sparks and embers floating over into the “green”. The smoke from the burnt out valley below rose slowly and low up slope. Patrolling the light smoke proved tolerable. Come lunch time when I meet up with my buddy Bob. We discovered clear air in the first few feet above the pine-needle covered earth. We lay on our sides, dining Roman style. I gabbed away, pulled the small can of once frozen orange juice from my lunch sack, poured a libation habitually and raised it to my lips. Bob grasped my wrist. “Pour another libation.” I did. My orange juice was black. Clearly something went wrong with it somewhere along the line. And after that the tradition of pouring libations grew more entrenched than ever.
The two plays in addition to libations are concerned with the effort of Orestes and his sister Electra to avenge the death of their father. To do so requires them to kill their mother. Ugh! Matricide is the ultimate sin in Greek mythology. Their mother killed their father. The poets claim that Agamemnon (his name is the title of the first of the three plays.) sacrificed their sister Iphigenia. Rumor reports (Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 27) that the girl wasn't their sister but a bastard cousin raised in their household.
The second of the three plays opens with Electra trying to perform the libations; the rituals required in honor of dead ancestors. Being poorly raised in a dysfunctional household she is unsure of her ceremonial responsibility. She asks the advice of the attendants who came from the palace with her, the “handmaidens who set our house in order,”
I find the phraseology ironic because the ceremony turns from a little ritual honoring the dead into a summoning of an Erinye; a spirit of bloody revenge. The Erinyes are the three divine handmaidens with torches and whips who protect the cosmic order from violation by men and gods. If you want a description; they are generally winged maidens with snakes for hair, they themselves dripping poisonous venom often covered in gore and blood.
The mortal “handmaidens” suggest at line 400 that rather than the customary water (or even orange juice) “it is the customary law that drops of blood spilled on the ground demand yet more blood. The devastation cries out for the Erinyes, which from those who died before brings one disaster after another disaster. “
Eventually Orestes and Electra revenge their father by slaying their mother, but some of her final words are (Line 924] “Take care: beware the hounds of wrath that avenge a mother.”
In response to his doomed mother’s warning Orestes hopes at line 269 “Surely he will not abandon me, the mighty oracle of Loxias, who urged me to brave this peril to the end and loudly proclaims calamities that chill the warmth of my heart, if I do not take vengeance on those who are guilty of my father’s murder.”
In previous reading of this trilogy a feeling about the futility of revenge never crept over me. Agamemnon’s family for generations performed unbelievable acts evil on one another in the name of revenge. My realization that Agamemnon resorted to sorcery in slaying the virgin Iphigenia, probably made me aware, that all these people made choices along the way. Apparently, they didn’t hear Fannie Flagg’s advice, “Love and forgiveness is always right. Meanness and pettiness is always wrong.”
The final play; “The Eumenides” opens with Orestes trapped in the temple at Delphi by the hideous Erinyes and his mother’s ghost. (So much for Loxias’ help!) The god slips him out the side door and sends him off to Athens and the protection of the goddess Athena. Then more to himself than anyone less Loxias says, “ And I will aid the suppliant and rescue him! For the mēnis of the suppliant would be awesome to mortals and gods, if I intentionally abandoned him.” Interestingly Loxias is not concerned about his reputation or the reputation of his Oracle, but rather the wrath, the anger, the menis of Orestes. “Menis” is a Greek word for anger generally reserved for gods, but in this case, Orestes anger with the gods would have consequences of cosmic proportions.
When the Erinyes catch up with Orestes, his hostess Athena has a proposal. Something, “no other human could have anywhere else, either among the Scythians or in the territories of Pelops.” Rather than the ancient law of the blood feud, Athena introduces the idea of the rule of law, specifically trial by jury. The Erinyes object at line 779 that the “Younger gods, you have ridden down the ancient laws and snatched them from my hands!” They object to being deprived of the honors and prerogatives guaranteed them by Zeus himself at Mecone. At 879 they pray to the mightiest force of the Underworld , “Hear my heart, Mother Night, for the deceptions of the gods are hard to fight and they have nearly deprived me of my ancient honors. “
Eventually, they agree to try out this new-fangled jury idea. Athena rigs the ballot and Orestes is declared innocent. The Erinyes froth with menis, dripping venom and about to hurl rage upon the ground. But, Athena promises them the world; Olympian honors, a place in her own temple with the local cult hero, a sanctuary of their own, rites and festivals in their honor , etc., etc. Somewhere in there she mentions (Line 827) “I alone of the gods know where the keys are to the house (of Zeus) where his thunderbolt is kept safe”
The Erinyes accept the new situation and new name “The Eumenides”; the Kindly Ones, while continuing to be the " handmaidens who set our house in order"