The Primacy of Fate: Theodicy and Human Suffering in The Libation Bearers

I would have you know, I see not how this thing will end. 1021
I am a charioteer whose course is wrenched outside
the track, for I am beaten, my rebellious senses
Bolt with me headlong and the fear against my heart
is ready for the singing and dance of wrath. But while
I hold some grip still on my wits, I say publicly
to my friends: I killed my mother not without some right.
My father’s murder stained her, and the gods’ disgust.
As for the spells that charmed me to such daring, I
cite above all the seer of Pytho, Loxias. He
declared I could do this and not be charged with wrong,
while if I refused, the punishment I will not speak:
no archery could hit such height of agony. 1034


In the second installment of The Oresteia by Aeschylus, “The Libation Bearers,” Orestes emerges as a Greek hero who avenges the murder of his father by taking the life of his mother. On the surface, Orestes kills Clytemnestra out of pure filial piety towards Agamemnon, a motive that, by itself, might be interpreted as an act of free will. However, it is the god Apollo acting in accordance with the absolute power of fate that ultimately forces Orestes’ hand. In explaining why Orestes unfairly faces the prospect of punishment for committing an unavoidable crime, the play works to legitimize divine authority in the face of human suffering by establishing the primacy of fate and the illusory nature of free will.

The poem points to the incompatibility of divine will and human will in analogizing Orestes’ predicament to that of a “charioteer whose course is wrenched outside the track” (1022-1023). While a charioteer, by definition, drives his own chariot, the play indicates that external forces (i.e. divine intervention and fate) are driving Orestes’ actions for him. The passage includes language connoting active coercion that depicts Orestes as a reluctant participant in Clytemnestra’s murder. Under the presumption that a charioteer intends to follow the course charted out inside the track, Orestes’ position “outside the track” suggests that he is not necessarily moving in the direction that he would personally wish to follow, but rather striving to control his chariot under the given circumstances. That he is “wrenched” from his original course evinces the contrived, and, to a degree, involuntary nature of his action. In describing his senses as “rebellious” and his fear as being “against” his heart (1023-1024), the play suggests that Orestes’ faculties and emotions concertedly work outside his control and against his inner desires, targeting his fragile peace of mind. The text also emphasizes how these forces actively terrorize Orestes by personifying his senses, along with wrath, as conducting lively actions. The senses that “bolt with [Orestes] headlong” drive him in a hasty and reckless manner, while “singing and danc[ing]” wrath seeks to relish in his fear (1024-1025) — revealing the play’s underlying celebratory attitude towards human suffering. The play ultimately hints that Orestes might not have chosen to murder his mother without these external influences, thereby affirming the precedence of the supernatural forces that sanction such suffering over familial and interpersonal ties.

Reckoning with the legitimacy of divine authority and the purpose of leading a pious life, the play shows suffering to be inherent to the human condition. While a hero showing hubris may blatantly deserve punishment, Orestes’ humble submission to divine authority causes the reader to question the value of a faith-based life in light of his suffering. In the opening line, “I would have you know, I see not how this thing will end,” Orestes’ willingness to not only admit his own ignorance but also do so in a public address to the Argives in plain and unpresuming language constitutes a radically humble submission to the unknown (1021). Instead of possessing misguided self-assurance and purporting to know his fate, Orestes places his confidence in Apollo and accepts the mental distress that naturally stems from his fear and uncertainty over his own fate. Orestes’ acknowledgement of Apollo’s superior wisdom is marked in his use of an epithet to refer to the god as the “seer of Pytho, Loxias” (1030). Though he faithfully follows Apollo’s guidance, Orestes still clearly suffers. His internal struggle with “rebellious senses” and his visceral fear of merciless wrath is only the beginning of his emotional torment. The “while… still” in Orestes’ statement, “while I hold some grip still on my wits,” implies that Orestes dreads the prospect of facing greater challenges that will fully degrade his mental faculties, further drawing out his suffering (1026).

By restricting Orestes to two possible courses of action that both inevitability lead to his suffering, the play illustrates the extent to which free will, at least for humans, is limited. Orestes’ only option is to suffer; he merely gets to choose between two means and degrees of suffering. Had Orestes flouted Apollo’s wishes, the consequences would have been such that “no archery could hit such height of agony” (1033). Given that Apollo is the god of archery, the poem suggests that Apollo would have imposed such an extreme degree of suffering upon Orestes if he had disobeyed that Orestes would wish he had merely been maimed by an arrow. Apollo, here, threatens Orestes with a more severe punishment than what he would presumably punish dissenters with otherwise in order to ensure that Orestes acts in accordance with fate. In effect, Apollo guides Orestes along a course of action that he cannot reasonably avert. Earlier in the play, the Argives appeal to Zeus’ love of Orestes, begging him to take pity on “this man whom [he] loved harnessed to the chariot of suffering.” The characterization of Orestes’ chariot (i.e. life trajectory) as the “chariot of suffering” suggests that although Apollo directly “wrenched” Orestes off-course, Orestes’ suffering was built into his life from the start (794-796). In presenting Orestes with a choice to suffer from violating blood ties or to suffer from acting against fate, the play suggests that fate’s impartiality in relation to human goodness or piety entails inevitable suffering, absolving Apollo from possible condemnation for Orestes’ emotional torment. This theodicy is the play’s way of justifying divine goodness in the existence of human suffering and wrestling with the question: “why suffer?”

            Orestes defends his act of matricide by using pejorative language to condemn Clytemnestra, declaring that his father’s murder “stained” Clytemnestra and elicited the gods’ “disgust” (1029). Notably, however, this line is Orestes’ first and only nod to the sanctity of the social ties enshrined in marriage vows. His reference to Agamemnon does not occur until the middle of the passage, and the five words dedicated to his father’s memory seem insignificant when sandwiched in the middle of Orestes’ drawn out lamentations over the sufferings inflicted by divine will. The play thereby shows that divine authority supersedes Orestes’ filial piety to Agamemnon in driving his actions. Further relegating the value of interpersonal ties, the play also shows fate trumping Orestes’ filial obligations to his mother. The strength and certitude in Orestes’ initial assertion that he “killed [his] mother not without some right” is undermined by the hedging effect of “some,” which leaves room for a degree of wrong and contrasts with the absolute certitude of Apollo’s declaration that Orestes would “not be charged with wrong,” period (1027, 103). In other words, Orestes has a pro tanto reason to have mercy on his mother, but this reason is overridden by the “some right” he references, namely that he is commanded to commit matricide by a divine authority. In order to spare himself from greater punishment for contriving to escape his fate, Orestes is forced to commit a crime violating filial piety. His act of matricide is, to this degree, involuntary as the aforementioned coercive language suggests.

Orestes’ reference to the matricide as an act of “such daring” also reveals his uncertainty over the sensibility of his actions (1030). One should not reasonably deem audacious an act that, as Apollo promises, will yield no negative consequences for the doer and uphold the honored sanctity of divine will and Greek manhood. However, the fact that goading Orestes into committing murder requires reassurance from Apollo of protection from unjust punishment reflects Orestes’ view that there is some inherent wrong in murdering his mother. Thus, the play suggests that an act that consists of a pro tanto wrong (i.e. matricide) is made more righteous by the rubber stamp of a god, as flaunting divine authority constitutes a greater evil than violating filial piety. Read with the knowledge of the eventual vindication of Orestes and the end of the cycle of bloodshed, the play ultimately affirms both the prioritization and deference that one owes to the supernatural forces of gods and fate, as well as the necessity of both subjugating one’s own moral conscience to divine will and accepting the suffering elicited by the moral ambiguity of competing divine and interpersonal ties.

The play grapples with the purpose of human suffering, conceding that one’s placement of steadfast faith in gods does not automatically guarantee security, as following divine will can cause one to break interpersonal codes of piety and endure immense suffering. The fact that one is human means that one will inevitably suffer, and the play espouses the idea that owning up to one’s humanity necessitates an embrace of this suffering. Even when individuals face understandable moral conflicts in balancing divine obligations and interpersonal loyalties rooted in social and blood relations, supernatural machinations will prevail since divine will is intrinsically tied with fate, which enforces a higher order. By showing that even humble and obedient followers of the gods experience, yet accept, undue suffering for actions that are not self-willed, the play legitimizes the authority of the gods and justifies the presence of suffering on account of the primacy of fate, which supersedes both divine and human desires.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s