"The Libation Bearers" from The Oresteia by Aeschylus

My interest in reading what I knew would be a difficult play grew from good old Harry Potter. In case you’ve been living under a rock, J.K. Rowling studied Classic Literature at the University of Exeter and she prefaces her final novel in the Potter canon with a section from The Oresteia by Aeschylus:

“Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.

But there is a cure in the house
and not outside it, no,
not from others but from them,
their bloody strife. We sing to you,
dark gods beneath the earth.

Now hear, you blissful powers underground—
answer the call, send help.
Bless the children, give them triumph now.”

But I’m not here to obsess over Rowling’s intent; there are plenty of sites to google that will debate Rowling’s intent. I’m first here to proclaim how difficult and intense reading a Classic Greek tragedy can be without a decent translation. My copy is the Penguin Classics version translated by Robert Fagles. After much frustration, I ended up jumping between my copy and an eBook version by Ian Johston. For me, Johnston’s version was an easier read. Since I’d read the first story, Agememnon, many years ago while attending Indiana State University, I did a brief review and then began The Libation Bearers.

Basically, The Libation Bearers bears all the archetypal Greek themes. There’s blood and death, sex and adultery, confused identity, matricide, snakes and oracles, agony and despair…. Greek tragedy at its highest form. If you’ve missed the Greek Tragedy bandwagon, this is a great place to start. The Oresteia has influenced innumerable writers and is a constant theme in popular culture.

Aside from Rowling’s use, one of my son’s favorite bands, A Perfect Circle, has adapted the play into a song; both T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath have used it as their muse, and there are many stage adaptations that present the themes in both traditional and modern settings.

I can’t say that I enjoyed The Libation Bearers, after all, how can you enjoy such a thing? But it was interesting and brought back knowledge I’d forgotten I had crawling between my ears.

© 2007-2009

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