The Terrible House of Atreus
In this lecture, we will examine the myth of the House of Atreus and its hereditary curse.
We will see how the curse, begun by Tantalos, is both inherited by his descendants,
Pelops, Atreus, Thyestes, Agamemnon, and Orestes, and reasserts itself in and through
The lecture discusses the way in which the cause both causes and is caused by the
misdeeds of these individuals. We will then examine some possible interpretations of this
story of multi-generational murder, cannibalism, and incest.
✤ Of all the unhappy families who dot the annals of classical myth, the
House of Atreus is perhaps the worst. It labors under a hereditary curse
that repeats itself generation after generation.
✤ The concept of a “hereditary curse” implies that moral guild is inheritable,
just as monetary debts are inheritable. “The sins of the fathers” will be
passé on to their children.
✤ This curse manifests itself through (and is caused by) inappropriate and
excessive intergenerational violence: parents kill children; children kill
✤ The curse also exhibits a strong connection with inappropriate eating and
✤ The founder of the family was Tantalos, and his actions began the
curse on his descendants.
✤ -Tantalos (who was Niobe’s brother) tried to trick the gods into
eating human flesh, specifically the flesh of his own son Pelops.
✤ -Another, milder version is that Tantalos tried to steal nectar and
ambrosia from the gods (thus to steal immortality).
✤ -Tantalos’s transgression has to do with blurring the lines between
mortal and immortal and is expressed through inappropriate eating.
✤ -Tantalos, one of Greek mythology’s “cardinal sinners,” is punished
in Tartaros by being eternally tormented with hunger and thirst.
✤ -Tantalos’s punishment fits his crime; because he offended the gods
through food, he is punished with hunger.
✤ Pelops was resurrected by the gods, though he, too, incurred a curse on himself and his descendants through violence.
In his case, however, the violence was not directed at a family member, and Pelops doesn’t seem to personally suffer ill
effects after being resurrected.
✤ Pelops wanted to marry Hippodameia, princess of Pisa, whose father had decreed that before marrying her, a suitor
must first defeat him in a chariot race. If the suitor failed, he would be killed.
✤ 1. Pelops won the race by bribing the charioteer Myrtilos to remove the linchpins from the king’s chariot and replace
them with wax.
✤ 2. The wax melted, the king was killed, and Pelops fled with Hippodameia and the charioteer Myrtilos.
✤ When Myrtilos tried to rape Hippodameia, Pelops threw him to his death from a cliff; Myritlos screamed out curses
against Pelops’s family.
✤ Pelops’s children labor under the weight of a double curse; they have inherited the guild of their grandfather,
Tantalos, and they are directly cursed by Myrtilos. Pelops has several children, but the most important are Atreus
✤ -The story of the interactions between these two brothers is extraordinarily complicated, but the basic outline is as
✤ 1. The brothers quarreled over the kingship of Mycenae.
✤ 2. At Thyestes’s suggestion, they agreed that the kingship would belong to whichever of them had the fleece from a
✤ 3. Atreus had such a fleece, but his wife, Aerope, gave it to Thyestes, who was her lover.
✤ 4. However, the gods sent an unmistakably clear omen—the sun setting in the east—that Atreus should be king.
Atreus thereupon banished Thyestes.
✤ -Atreus found out that Aerope and
Thyestes had been lovers and decided
to take a terrible revenge on his
✤ 1. He summoned Thyestes and his
sons back to Mycenae on the pretense
✤ 2. Atreus killed Thyestes’s sons and
served their flesh to their father at a
banquet. Thyestes eats the flesh of his
own children, only to have Atreus
show him what he has done. Atreus
then banishes Thyestes again.
✤ 3. When Thyestes realizes what he has
done, he curses Atreus and Atreus’s
✤ Atreus’s and Thyestes’s deeds reiterate
the pattern established by Tantalos and
add the element of sexual misconduct.
✤ 1. Once again, we have a man killing
children of his bloodline in order to force
an unsuspecting victim to cannibalism.
✤ 2. The adultery of Aerope and Thyestes
forms a new thread in the pattern, which
will be picked up in the next generation.
✤ On the advice of an oracle, Thyestes
fathered a son by his own daughter, so
that he would have an avenger. This son,
Aigisthos, would be crucial in the
further playing out of the family curse.
✤ Atreus’s sons were Agamemnon and Menelaos. By
their generation, the curse tripled: They are affected by
the misdeeds of Tantalos, Pelops, and Atreus Menelaos
seems largely to escape the impending doom.
✤ -Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia can now be seen
in its full context; the sacrifice reenacts the pattern of
his family curse.
✤ 1. This adds yet a greater sense of inevitability to
Agamemnon’s actions; not only does he have to obey
Artemis, but he is also doomed by his family history.
✤ 2. At the same time, the curse also makes
Agamemnon’s action seem even worse; surely he
should know just how horrific the slaughter of
✤ 3. Fate, then, does not negate individual responsibility.
✤ -The sacrifice of Iphigenia reiterates
the “father kills child” motif and
obliquely raises the related motif of
✤ 1. Iphigenia is sacrificed in place of
an animal. A sacrificial animal was
almost always eaten by the
✤ 2. The very fact of sacrifice hints at a
meal to follow.
✤ 3. Iphigenia’s sacrifice thus mirrors
the slaughter of Pelops; each of these
can be seen as a horrific inversion of
proper sacrifice and an affront to the
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia
Jan Havicksz. Steen 1671
✤ The secondary motif of
adultery also occurs in this
✤ -While Agamemnon is at Troy,
Clytemnestra and Aigisthos
✤ -When Agamemnon returns,
Clytemnestra and Aigisthos
✤ -Several years later,
Agamemnon’s son Orestes
returns from exile and, with
the help of his remaining sister,
Electra, kills Clymenestra and
✤ This multi-generational story of murder, cannibalism, incest, and adultery
clearly addresses many anxieties and fears.
✤ The fear of intergenerational violence runs throughout Greek myth.
✤ 1. Just as in Theogony, this myth reflects the anxiety that fathers may become
overly powerful and kill or subdue their children.
✤ 2. Elsewhere, most notably in the myth of Oedipus, we see the fear of sons
becoming overly powerful and killing their fathers.
✤ 3. A patriarchal society in which a great deal of power is invested in the
father of an extended family must keep these two fears in balance.
✤ The myth of the House of Atreus also
speaks to the Greek anxiety about women’s
trustworthiness, loyalty, and sexuality.
✤ 1. Aerope and Clytemnestra’s infidelities
lead to their husband’s ruin.
✤ 2. In each case, the woman’s lover is a close
male relative of her husband.
✤ 3. In each case, the motive is assumed to be
ungoverned female sexuality, a theme that
runs throughout Greek myth. In a
patriarchal society, a woman’s fidelity is the
only assurance of continuing the legitimacy
of a bloodline.
✤ These themes make the House of
Atreus myth particularly
resonant in Greek culture and
particularly suited to the genre
✤ 1. All three of the great Greek
tragedians wrote plays on
aspects of the myth of the House
✤ 2. The most important of these
was Aeschylus’s great trilogy,
the Oresteia. After the murder (1882) artist John Collier (1850-1934)