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The House of Atreus
A Note on the Mythological Background to the Oresteia

[This note by Ian Johnston of Vancouver Island University is in the public domain and my be used by anyone without permission and without charge]

For comments and questions, please contact Ian Johnston

The following paragraphs provide a brief summary of the major events in the long history of the House of Atreus, one of the most fecund and long-lasting of all the Greek legends.  Like so many other stories, the legend of the House of Atreus varies a good deal from one author to the next and there is no single authoritative version.  The account given below tries to include as many of the major details as possible.  At the end there is a short section reviewing Aeschylus' treatment of the story in the Oresteia.

Family Tree (Simplified)

____________ | ____________
|                                                  |
Thyestes                                   Atreus
                    |                                 ________ |__________
                      |                                 |                                     |
               Aegisthus                   Menelaus                     Agamemnon
                                                      (= Helen)                       (= Clytaemnestra)
                                                                       |                            |                           |
                                                               Iphigeneia                   Electra                    Orestes 


1. The family of Atreus (father of Agamemnon and Menelaus) traces its origins back to Tantalus, king of Sipylos, a son of Zeus (famous for his eternal punishment in Hades, as described in the Odyssey, where he is always thirsty but can never drink, hence the origin of the word tantalizing) Tantalus had a son called Pelops, whom Poseidon loved.

2. Pelops wished to marry Hippodameia, daughter of king Oenomaus.  Oenomaus set up a contest (a chariot race against the king)  for all those who wished to woo his daughter.  If the suitor lost, he was killed.  A number of men had died in such a race before Pelops made his attempt.  Pelops bribed the king's charioteer (Myrtilus) to disable the king's chariot.  In the race, Oenomaus' chariot broke down (the wheels came off), and the king was killed.  Pelops then carried off Hippodameia as his bride.  Pelops also killed his co-conspirator Myrtilus by throwing him into the sea.  Before he drowned Myrtilus (in some versions Oenomaus) cursed Pelops and his family.  This act is the origin of the famous curse on the House of Atreus.

3. Pelops does not seems to have been affected by the curse.  He had a number of children, the most important of whom were his two sons, the brothers Atreus and Thyestes.  Atreus married Aerope, and they had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus.  And Thyestes had two sons and a daughter Pelopia.

4. Atreus and Thyestes quarrelled (in some versions at the instigation of the god Hermes, father of Myrtilus, the charioteer killed by Pelops).  Thyestes had an affair with Atreus' wife, Aerope, and was banished from Argos by Atreus.  However, Thyestes petitioned to be allowed to return, and Atreus, apparently wishing a reconciliation, agreed to allow Thyestes to come back and prepared a huge banquet to celebrate the end of their differences.

5. At the banquet, however, Atreus served Thyestes the cooked flesh of Thyestes' two slaughtered sons.  Thyestes ate the food, and then was informed of what he had done.  This horrific event is the origin of the term Thyestean Banquet.  Overcome with horror, Thyestes cursed the family of Atreus and left Argos with his one remaining child, his daughter Pelopia.

6. Some versions of the story include the name Pleisthenes, a son of Atreus who was raised by Thyestes.  To become king, Thyestes sent Pleisthenes to kill Atreus, but Atreus killed him, not realizing he was killing his son.  This, then, becomes another cause of the quarrel.  In yet other accounts, someone called Pleisthenes is the first husband of Aerope and the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus.  When he died, so this version goes, Atreus married Aerope and adopted her two sons.  In Aeschylus' play there is one reference to Pleisthenes; otherwise, this ambiguous figure is absent from the story.

7. In some versions, including Aeschylus' account, Thyestes had one small infant son who survived the banquet, Aegisthus.  In other accounts, however, Aegisthus was the product of Thyestes' incestuous relationship with his daughter Pelopia after the murder of the two older sons, conceived especially to be the avenger of the notorious banquet.

8. Agamemnon and Menelaus, the two sons of Atreus, married Clytaemnestra and Helen respectively, two twin sisters, but not identical twins (Clytaemnestra had a human father; whereas, Helen was a daughter of Zeus).  Helen was so famous for her beauty that a number of men wished to marry her.  The suitors all agreed that they would act to support the man she eventually married in the event of any need for mutual assistance.  Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra had three children, Iphigeneia, Orestes, and Electra.

9. When Helen (Menelaus' wife) ran off to Troy with Paris, Agamemnon and Menelaus organized and led the Greek forces against the Trojans.  The army assembled at Aulis, but the fleet could not sail because of contrary winds sent by Artemis.  Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia in order to placate Artemis.

10. With Agamemnon and Menelaus off in Troy, Aegisthus (son of Thyestes) returned to Argos, where  he became the lover of Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon's wife.  They sent Orestes into exile, to live with an ally, Strophius in Phocis, and humiliated Electra, Agamemnon's surviving daughter (either treating her as a servant or marrying her off to a common farmer).  When Agamemnon returned, the two conspirators successfully killed him and assumed royal control of Argos.

11. Orestes returned from exile and, in collaboration with his sister Electra, avenged his father by killing Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus.  In many versions this act makes him lose his self-control and he becomes temporarily deranged.  He then underwent ritual purification by Apollo and sought refuge in the temple of Athena in Athens.  There he was tried and acquitted.  This action put the curses placed on the House of Atreus to rest.

Some Comments

The story of the House of Atreus, and particularly Orestes' and Electra's revenge for their father's murder, is one of the most popular and enduring of all Greek legends, a favourite among the classical tragedians and still very popular with modern playwrights (e.g., T. S. Eliot, Eugene O'Neill, Jean Paul Sartre).  However, different writers tell the story in very different ways.

Homer, for example (in the Odyssey) sets up Orestes' killing of Aegisthus as an entirely justified way to proceed (Homer ascribes the main motivation and planning to Aegisthus, who has to persuade Clytaemnestra to agree and who, it seems, does the actual killing).  In fact, the action is repeatedly mentioned as a clear indication of divinely supported justice (there is no direct mention of the killing of Clytaemnestra, although there is a passing reference to Orestes' celebrations over his "hateful" mother after the killing of Aegisthus).  Sophocles and Euripides tell basically the same story but with enormously different depictions of the main characters (in Euripides' version Orestes and Electra are hateful; whereas, in Sophocles' Electra they are much more conventionally righteous).

Aeschylus confines his attention to Atreus' crime against his brother (the Thyestean banquet) and what followed from it.  There is no direct reference to Thyestes' adultery with Atreus' wife (although Cassandra makes a reference to a man sleeping with his brother's wife) or to any events from earlier parts of the story (unless the images of chariot racing are meant to carry an echo of Pelops' actions).  This has the effect of making Atreus' crime against his brother the origin of the family curse (rather than the actions of Pelops or Tantalus) and tends to give the reader more sympathy for Aegisthus than some other versions do.

Curiously enough, Orestes' story has many close parallels with the Norse legend on which the story of Hamlet is based (son in exile is called upon to avenge a father killed by the man who has seduced his mother, perhaps with the mother's consent; the son carries out the act of killing his mother and her lover with great difficulty, undergoing fits of madness, and so on).  Given that there is no suggestion of any possible literary-historical link between the origin of these two stories, the similarity of these plots offers a number of significant problems for psychologists and mythologists to explore.  This puzzle is especially intriguing because the Hamlet-Orestes narrative is by far the most popular story in the history of English dramatic tragedy.


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