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The House of Atreus


The misfortunes of the house of Atreus was one of the favorite subjects of the Greek tragic dramatists.  It is the story of a cursed family, a tale that includes lust, murder, incest, cannibalism, madness, and a whole host of other human sins and misfortunes.  It is a complicated story, that stretches over several generations.  It is also a rather disturbing one--you shouldn't delve into the details if you have a weak stomach.

The story of this ill-fated family starts with Tantalus, the king of Sipylos and a son of Jove. He was uniquely favored among mortals since he was invited to dine with the gods. The gods also consented to dine with Tantalus in Sipylos. However, Tantalus was an arrogant man, who believed that he was clever enough to deceive the gods themselves, and he abused the guest-host relationship in a particularly grisly way. Instead of serving good and wholesome food, he killed and dismembered his son, Pelops, and served his flesh as meat for the banquet, believing that the gods would not discover the trick. But the gods were not deceived; they reassembled Pelops, bringing him back to life. (The goddess Ceres had accidentally eaten one piece of meat from Pelops' shoulder, and the gods replaced this portion with a piece of gleaming ivory.)  Tantalus himself was punished in Tartarus in the underworld by being endlessly "tantalized" with gnawing hunger and raging thirst: he was immersed up to his neck in water, but when he bent to drink, it all drained away; ripe, luscious fruit hung on trees above him, but when he reached for it the winds blew the branches beyond his reach.

The next generation did not fare much better.  Tantalus' daughter, Niobe, had twelve sons and twelve daughters.  She compared herself boastfully to the goddess Latona, who had only two children, the god Apollo and the goddess Diana.  As a result, all her daughters were killed by Diana and her sons by Apollo; as her chldren were being killed, she still exulted, claiming that even the children who were left still outnumbered Latona's.  After all the children were dead, Niobe herself was turned into a stone, down which ran the endless streams of her grieving tears. 

Pelops, who had been brought back to life by the gods after his brush with cannibalism, suffered less during his own lifetime, but his actions had far-reaching consequences for the family. After being restored to life he was an even more beautiful young man than before; Poseidon fell in love with him and gave him a winged chariot. Later, Pelops wooed Hippodameia, the daughter of King Oenomaus of Pisa. Oenomaus was reluctant to allow his daughter to marry, either because he had an incestuous desire for her himself, or because of a prophecy that his son-in-law would cause his death. So he decreed that any suitor might carry Hippodameia off, but that he himself would pursue them and would kill anyone he was able to overtake. He had already killed twelve or thirteen suitors this way. However Pelops (or Hippodameia in some accounts) persuaded Oenomaus' charioteer, Myrtilus, to remove the linchpins from the king's chariot; Oenomaus was thrown from the vehicle, became entangled in the reins, and was dragged to his death. Pelops then killed Myrtilus by throwing him into the sea, either because he had tried to rape Hippodameia or because Pelops resented sharing the credit for success in the chariot race. Myrtilus, as he was dying, cursed the house of Pelops, and this curse blighted the lives of Pelops' sons (Atreus and Thyestes), and his grandsons (Agamemnon and Aegisthos). [Pelops later subdued the area of Greece which became known as the Peloponnesus, and then returned to rule Oenomaus' kingdom in Pisa. During the time of the Trojan War, the Greeks brought his bones to Troy because of a prophecy that only by doing so could they conquer the city.]

In the generation after Pelops, things began to get really ugly. Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. Atreus, who had become the king of Mycenae, vowed to sacrifice the finest animal in his flock to Diana; however, when he discovered a golden lamb in the flock, he reneged on the promise and hid the lamb away. At the same time his wife, Aerope, was having an affair with his brother, Thyestes. Aerope secretly gave the lamb to Thyestes, and Thyestes then got Atreus to agree that the possessor of the golden lamb should be king. Thyestes produced the lamb and seized the throne. Atreus was determined to be king again. On the advice of Hermes, he got Thyestes to agree to yield the throne when the sun ran backwards in its course. Jove then made the sun set in the east, and Atreus became king once more, banishing Thyestes for good measure. Later, Atreus learned of his wife's adultery and decided to seek revenge for it. He invited Thyestes to return and be reconciled with him. In an echo of the trickery practiced by Tantalus, he killed Thyestes' sons, cut them up, and cooked everything except their hands and feet. Then he served this meat at a banquet in Thyestes' honor. After Thyestes had finished eating, Atreus produced the hands and feet, taunted his brother with them, and banished him once more. 

At this point, Thyestes was the one intent on revenge. An oracle advised him that his revenge would be successful if he fathered a son by his own daughter. He did so, and named the son Aegisthos. When Aegisthos grew to manhood, he killed Atreus and restored his father to the throne. But Atreus had two sons of his own, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Agamemnon seized the throne and banished Thyestes for a third and final time.

Now we come to the last two generations, when the curse reaches its climax.  Agamemnon and Menelaus married Clytemnaestra and Helen, the daughters of Tyndareus, king of Sparta.  Both marriages would prove troublesome, but Menelaus' marriage to Helen seemed ominous from the start.  Helen was actually the daughter of Jove, who had taken on the form of a swan and either seduced or raped Leda, the wife of Tyndareus.  Helen grew up to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and she was desired by all the kings of Greece; Tyndareus knew that any man who succeeded in winning Helen as his bride would be beset on all sides by the disappointed but powerful suitors.  So, before he would announce his choice of a husband for her, Tyndareus required all the suitors to swear an oath to protect the marriage rights of the chosen one; in this way, he thought he could prevent the squabbling and possible violence that seemed so likely.  The plan seemed to work, since Menelaus and Helen settled down peacefully enough and even had a daughter, Hermione.  In due course, Menelaus became king of Sparta.  

But the threat to Menelaus' marriage, when it came, did not come from disappointed Greek suitors.  Instead, Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy (in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey), either abducted or eloped with Helen, and Menelaus was left without a wife.  Now the oath that all the other suitors had sworn came into play.  Under the leadership of Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon, the Greek kings assembled a vast fleet and army to attack Troy and bring Helen back.  The Trojan War had begun. 

More troubles were ahead for the house of Atreus, but most of them landed on the doorstep of Agamemnon rather than Menelaus. Before the Greek fleet could even sail for Troy, they were held up by the weather in the Greek port of Aulis.  The priests performed their rites, and then informed Agamemnon that he would have to sacrifice one of his own children to the goddess Diana in order to get favorable winds.  Agamemnon sent for his daughter, Iphigenia, and sacrificed her on Diana's altar; the fleet was then able to sail.  Once they reached Trojan territory, the Greeks had to lay siege to the city for ten years before they were able to breach its walls.  They burned the city to the ground, killing or enslaving most of the inhabitants.  Helen was finally reunited with Menelaus, and they all set out for home once more.

Menelaus' troubles were largely over at this point.  He settled down, apparently happily, to married life with Helen once more.  Agamemnon was not so lucky.  During the ten years he was away, his wife, Clytemnaestra, had begun an affair with Aegisthos, the son of the banished (and now dead) Thyestes.  In addition, she had never forgiven Agamemnon for killing their daughter, Iphigenia; it also did not help that Agamemnon was bringing a Trojan mistress (Cassandra, one of the daughters of King Priam of Troy) home with him.  Whatever her primary motive was, she plotted with Aegisthos to murder Agamemnon.  Consequently, after Agamemnon was welcomed home with royal honors, he was taken into an inner chamber by Clytemnaestra and stabbed to death in his own home.  Clytemnaestra and Aegisthos then settled down to rule Mycenae as man and wife.

But things were not quite over yet, for Agamemnon had two surviving children--a son, Orestes, and a daughter, Electra.  After Agamemnon's murder, Electra had remained in Mycenae, where Aegisthos had eventually married her off to a peasant in order to insure that there would be no powerful grandchildren to avenge Agamenmon.  Orestes, on the other hand, had been secretly taken to Phocis, where he had been raised by Strophius, who was the king of Phocis and Agamemnon's brother-in-law.  When he reached maturity, Orestes returned to Mycenae along with Strophius' son, Pylades.  There they plotted with Electra and murdered Agisthos and Clytemnaestra.  But Orestes was then guilty of parricide, the murder of his own parent.  As a result, he was tormented by the Eumenides, the terrifying goddesses of vengeance; they drove him mad and continued to pursue and torment him as he fled all across the Greek world.  

There are two versions of how Orestes was finally freed from the Eumenides and restored to sanity.  In the more common version, he went to Athens on the advice of the goddess Minerva and presented himself before the court of the Aeropagus, which had been convened by Minerva specifically to hear his case.  The court absolved him of his blood-guilt, and the Eumenides agreed to cease pursuing him.  In the other version, the god Apollo advised him that he should take the statue of the goddess Diana from her temple in Tauris.  He and his friend Pylades attempted the theft, but were seized by the natives and prepared for sacrifice to Diana.  One of the priestesses, however, turned out to be none other than Orestes' sister, Iphigenia, who had been sacrificed to Diana by Agamemnon when the Greek fleet was held up in Aulis before the Trojan War.  Diana had whisked her away at the moment of her sacrifice, and had substituted a deer in her place; ever since then, Iphigenia had been serving as a priestess in Tauris.  Iphigenia recognized her brother, and she fled with him and Pylades, taking the statue with them.

At this point, the troubles of the house of Atreus had just about run their course.  The saga ends with marriage, but not without one final round of difficulties.  While the Greeks were away at the Trojan War, Tyndareus (who was the father of Clytemnaestra and Helen, and hence the father-in-law of both Agamemnon and Menelaus) arranged for Orestes to marry Hermione, the daughter of Menelaus and Helen.  When Menelaus returned, however, he married Hermione off to Neoptolemus, the son of the great Greek hero Achilles.  Hermione remained faithful to Orestes, however, and after he was freed from the Eumenides, he returned to claim Hermione as his wife; in one version of the myth, he killed Neoptolemus at the oracle of Delphi in order to get her.  He then settled down in Mycenae to rule as its king.  Some versions of the story add a second marriage as well:  Orestes' sister, Electra, marries Orestes' friend and companion, Pylades.

 

 

 

This page created and maintained by James M. Hunter

Comments and suggestions welcome:  hunter@edgewood.edu

Last updated 06/23/2013