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The Curse on the House of Atreus

In Ancient Greek, there was a concept called miasma which can be roughly translated to "pollution." They thought that the crimes of the father could pollute the bloodline and affect the descendants until the crime was atoned for. One of the most famous examples is the Curse on the House of Atreus. Its ending is wildly known thanks to the Oresteia, a trilogy of plays written by Aeschylus that tells the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Its beginning, however, is not as well known.

The Feast of Tantalus by Jean-Hugues Taraval.

The Curse on the House of Atreus did not start with Atreus. It started with Tantalus, son of Zeus and king of Mount Sipylus, in Lydia (modern-day Turkey). Tantalus was unusually close to the gods; he talked to them often and dined with them. So close and familiar was Tantalus with the Olympians, that he started questioning their power and decided to test them. Tantalus decided to invite the gods to his palace for a meal. He served a special dish that he claimed to be made just for them but when the gods saw the plates in front of them, they stared in horror. Not all the gods were petrified by what they saw; Demeter was distracted as it was the time of the year when her daughter Persephone was in the Underworld with Hades, and so she ate a piece of the stew that Tantalus had prepared.

The stew was not a normal one. Tantalus had decided to kill his son Pelops, cut him into pieces and cooked him for the gods to eat. The gods in Greek Mythology were not the most benign of creatures, but there were some lines they did not cross and cannibalism was one of them. And so the gods banded together around the table and put Pelops back together, piece by piece. However, there was one piece missing, the one Demeter ate by accident, so the god Hephaestus replaced it with ivory. For Tantalus’ punishment, the gods sent him to the Underworld where Hades confined him in Tartarus. There, Tantalus was sentenced to spend an eternity forever hungry and thirsty, seeking food and water that he will never have. He was placed next to a pool of water and a fruit tree but whenever he reached up to get a fruit, the branches would always just be above his reach; and whenever he bent down to get a scoop of water, it receded so that it was always too far from him.

Tantalus in Tartarus, engraving by Giulio Sanuto.

The story of the House of Atreus continues with Pelops, who travelled from Lydia to Greece to a region called the Peloponnesus (Pelops’ island) best known for its most important city, Sparta. During his travel, Pelops stopped in Olympia, where king Oenomaus was having a contest to determine who would marry his daughter Hippodamia. The king of Olympia was a skilled chariot racer and he promised that whoever won him in a race would marry his daughter. Although, Oenomaus was apprehensive about marrying Hippodamia off since an oracle said that he would be killed by his son-in-law. Thirteen men had already tried to best him in a race and failed, their heads stuck on spikes in front of her daughter’s castle. Pelops wanted to win the race and become king of Olympia so he called on Poseidon, his former lover, and he gifted Pelops a chariot and some horses. However, it was not enough for Pelops. He bribed Myrtilus, son of Hermes, to sabotage Oenomaus' chariot in exchange for half the kingdom. Myrtilus changed the bronze linchpins attached to the wheels of Oenomaus' chariot to replicas made of wax.

The day of the race arrived and the suitors were always given a head start. Oenomaus would usually catch up quickly and kill the men, but this time it was different. When Oenomaus tried to overtake Pelops, the wax holding his wheels melted, and the chariot broke and sent him flying, killing him in the process. Therefore, Pelops married Hippodamia. When Myrtilus came to Pelops demanding half of the kingdom, Pelops pushed him over a cliff. As he fell to his death, Myrtilus put a curse on Pelops and all his descendants.

Pelops and Hippodamia by August Theodor Kaselowsky.

Decades after this incident, an oracle claimed that a son of Pelops will reign over Mycenae. Both his sons, Atreus and Thyestes, travelled to the city to claim the throne. Hermes was not pleased with Pelops murdering his son and decided to stir things up between the brothers. He sent a shepherd with a golden lamb, which for the people of Mycenae is a symbol of its kingship. Atreus claimed the lamb as his, but Thyestes wanted to be king. He seduced Atreus’ wife, Aerope, and convinced her to give him the lamb. When the people of Mycenae gathered to decide who will be king, Thyestes appeared with the golden lamb. Zeus, however, wanted Atreus to be king and so he made the sun change its direction. Atreus claimed that the true king will be revealed through a sign from the gods, and Zeus changed the direction of the sun back to its original path.

Atreus was crowned king of Mycenae. He drowned his wife Aerope for betraying him, but sent his brother a message claiming that he was forgiven. Thyestes arrived at the city with a feast waiting for him, a feast with Thyestes’ sons served as the main course. Again, the gods disliked cannibalism, and the sun hid and the skies darkened over the city. However, Thyestes was hungry and did not realise, eating the food happily. When the food was consumed, Thyestes asked about his sons and Atreus revealed a plate full of the hands, feet, and heads of his brother's children. Thyestes ran away in horror, but not before yelling out a curse to the House of Atreus wishing his descendants the worst of destinies.

A miniature presenting Atreus and Thyestes.

On his run, Thyestes encountered an oracle that revealed that he will father a son with his own daughter and that son will be the downfall of his brother Atreus. Thyestes was troubled by this revelation, as he wanted revenge but not at that cost. His journey was interrupted once more when he saw a priestess bathing in the river. Lust took over him and he raped her. Unsurprisingly, that priestess was his own daughter, Pelopia. A son was born from the rape and Pelopia wanted nothing to do with him. A family of shepherds found the baby and took him to the nearest city, Mycenae, for him to be raised by the royal family, the House of Atreus. The boy was named Aegisthus and grew up hating Thyestes from Atreus’ tales. Therefore, when Atreus called his brother again for a reconciliation, Aegisthus made a plan. He took Thyestes to a nearby forest to kill him but when he drew his sword for the final blow, Thyestes stopped him claiming that the sword was his. Aegisthus and Thyestes made the connection instantly, but they needed reassurance. Pelopia was called and she confirmed the rape and the origin of Aegisthus. After realising that her rapist was her father, Pelopia took the sword and killed herself.

Aegisthus, forgetting his loyalty to Atreus, returned to Mycenae with the sword covered in his mother’s blood claiming to have killed Thyestes. While the city was celebrating the death of the evil brother, Aegisthus and Thyestes killed Atreus and claimed the throne of Mycenae. The sons of Atreus were exiled from the city; their names were Agamemnon, future king of Mycenae, and Menelaus, future king of Sparta, and the curse continued with them. Following the Oresteia, Agamemnon was killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, to avenge the death of her daughter Iphigenia who was sacrificed by her own father, Agamemnon. Orestes and Electra, son and daughter of Agamemnon, sought revenge for their father and killed her mother and her lover. The Curse on the House of Atreus finally ended with them after asking for forgiveness from the goddess Athena.

The Murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra, by Nicolò Monti.

The crimes of Tantalus, son of Zeus, were inherited by Pelops who then passed them onto his sons, Atreus and Thyestes. The curse travelled generation after generation until Orestes and Electra finally begged the gods for forgiveness. The Curse on the House of Atreus is one of the most tragic and famous in Greek Mythology. From the story of Tantalus to the Oresteia, tragedy and suffering fall upon this family, creating a fascinating story that captivates readers still thousands of years later.

Bibliographical References

Morford, M. P. O. & Lenardon, R. J. (1999). Classical Mythology. Oxford University Press.

Waterfield, R. (2012). The Greek Myths. New York: Quercus Publishing Inc.

Image References

Taraval, J. H. (1766). The Feast of Tantalus. Château de Versailles, Paris, France.

Sanuto, J. (ca. 1557-70). Tantalus. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. United States of America.

Atreus and Thyestes. (c. 1410). Geneva Library, Geneva, Switzerland.

Monti, N. (1780-1864). The Murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra. The New York Apartment of David Easton and James Steinmeyer.


Author Photo

Isabel Panadero

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