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Terrible House of Atreus


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myth lecture

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Terrible House of Atreus

  1. 1. 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 their actions. 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.
  2. 2. ✤ 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 parents. ✤ The curse also exhibits a strong connection with inappropriate eating and inappropriate sexuality.
  3. 3. ✤ 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.
  4. 4. ✤ 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.
  5. 5. ✤ 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 and Thyestes. ✤ -The story of the interactions between these two brothers is extraordinarily complicated, but the basic outline is as follows: ✤ 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 golden lamb. ✤ 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.
  6. 6. ✤ -Atreus found out that Aerope and Thyestes had been lovers and decided to take a terrible revenge on his brother. ✤ 1. He summoned Thyestes and his sons back to Mycenae on the pretense of reconciliation. ✤ 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 descendants.
  7. 7. ✤ 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.
  8. 8. ✤ 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 children is. ✤ 3. Fate, then, does not negate individual responsibility.
  9. 9. ✤ -The sacrifice of Iphigenia reiterates the “father kills child” motif and obliquely raises the related motif of impious feasting. ✤ 1. Iphigenia is sacrificed in place of an animal. A sacrificial animal was almost always eaten by the sacrificers. ✤ 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 gods. The Sacrifice of Iphigenia Jan Havicksz. Steen 1671
  10. 10. ✤ The secondary motif of adultery also occurs in this generation. ✤ -While Agamemnon is at Troy, Clytemnestra and Aigisthos become lovers. ✤ -When Agamemnon returns, Clytemnestra and Aigisthos kill him. ✤ -Several years later, Agamemnon’s son Orestes returns from exile and, with the help of his remaining sister, Electra, kills Clymenestra and Aigisthos.
  11. 11. ✤ 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.
  12. 12. ✤ 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.
  13. 13. ✤ These themes make the House of Atreus myth particularly resonant in Greek culture and particularly suited to the genre of tragedy. ✤ 1. All three of the great Greek tragedians wrote plays on aspects of the myth of the House of Atreus. ✤ 2. The most important of these was Aeschylus’s great trilogy, the Oresteia. After the murder (1882) artist John Collier (1850-1934)