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The House of Atreus

The legendary family had tragic flaws that inspired writers of Greek tragedy.

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Tantalus

Tantalus

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Today we are so familiar with plays and movies that it may be difficult to imagine a time when theatrical productions were still new. Like many of the public gatherings in the ancient world, the original productions in Greek theaters were rooted in religion. Here is a quick look at early Greek tragedy and a more detailed explanation of one of its most popular themes, the House of Atreus.

Spoiler Alerts Were a Non-Issue

It didn't matter that they already knew how the story ended. Athenian audiences of up to 18,000 spectators expected to watch familiar old stories when they attended the "Great" or "City Dionysia" festival in March.

It was the job of the playwright to "interpret" familiar myth, "slices (temache) from the great banquets of Homer,"* in such a way as to win the dramatic contest that was the center of the festival. While the Dionysia festival was in honor of a fertility and wine god, either of which is usually the divine sponsor of exuberant, often drunken behavior, tragedy (to understate it) lacks a spirit of revelry, so each of 3 competing playwrights produced a lighter, farcical satyr play** in addition to three tragedies.

Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the three tragedians whose works survive, won first prizes between 480 B.C. and the end of the 5th century. All three wrote plays that depended on thorough familiarity with a central myth, the House of Atreus:

  • Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Libation Bearers (Choephoroi), and Eumenides
  • Sophocles' Electra
  • Euripides' Electra
  • Euripides' Orestes
  • Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis

The House of Areus

Talk about an unlucky family! For generations, these god-defying descendants of Tantalus committed unspeakable crimes that cried out for revenge: brother against brother, father against son, father against daughter, son against mother....

It all began with Tantalus, whose name is preserved in the English word "tantalize," which describes the punishment he suffered in the Underworld. Tantalus served up his son Pelops as a meal to the gods to test their omniscience. Demeter alone failed the test and so, when Pelops was restored to life, he had to make do with an ivory shoulder. The sister of Pelops happens to have been Niobe who was turned to a weeping rock when her hubris led to the death of all 14 of her children.

When it came time for Pelops to marry, he chose Hippodamia, the daughter of Oenomaus, king of Pisa (near the site of the future ancient Olympics). Unfortunately, the king lusted after his own daughter and contrived to murder all her more appropriate suitors during a (fixed) race. Pelops had to win this race to Mt. Olympus in order to win his bride, and he did -- by loosening the lynchpins in Oenomaus' chariot, thereby killing his would-be father-in-law. In the process he added more curses to the family inheritance.

Pelops and Hippodamia had two sons, Thyestes and Atreus, who murdered an illegitimate son of Pelops to please their mother. Then they went into exile in Mycenae, where their brother-in-law held the throne. When he died, Atreus finagled control of the kingdom, but Thyestes seduced Atreus' wife, Aerope, and stole Atreus' golden fleece.

So Thyestes went into exile, again.

Eventually, believing himself forgiven, he returned and ate the meal to which his brother had invited him. When the final course was brought in, the identity of Thyestes' meal was revealed, for the platter contained the heads of all his children except the infant, Aegisthus. Adding another creepy element to the mix, Aegisthus may have been Thyestes' son by his own daughter.

Thyestes cursed his brother and fled.

The Next Generation

Atreus had two sons, Menelaus and Agamemnon, who married the royal Spartan sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra. Helen was captured by Paris (or left willingly), thereby starting the Trojan War.

Unfortunately, the king of Mycenae, Agamemnon, and the cuckolded king of Sparta, Menelaus, couldn't get the war ships moving across the Aegean. They were stuck at Aulis because of adverse winds. Their seer explained that Agamemnon had offended Artemis and must sacrifice his daughter to propitiate the deity. Agamemnon was willing, but his wife wasn't, so he had to trick her into sending their daughter Iphigenia, whom he then sacrificed to the goddess. After the sacrifice, the winds came up and the ships sailed to Troy.

The war lasted 10 years during which time Clytemnestra took a lover, Aegisthus, the lone survivor of Atreus' feast, and sent her son, Orestes, away. Agamemnon took a war prize mistress, as well, Cassandra, whom he brought home with him at the end of the war.

Cassandra and Agamemnon were murdered upon their return by either Clytemnestra or Aegisthus. [See #6 and 12 on Thursday's -cide words to learn.] Orestes, having first obtained the blessing of Apollo, returned home to exact revenge on his mother. But the Eumenides (Furies) -- only doing their job with respect to a matricide -- pursued Orestes and drove him mad. Orestes and his divine protector turned to Athena to arbitrate the dispute. Athena appealed to a human court, the Areopagus, whose jurors were split. Athena cast the deciding vote in favor of Orestes. This decision is upsetting to modern women because Athena, who had been born from the head of her father, judged mothers less important than fathers in the production of children. However we might feel about it, what was important was that it put an end to the chain of cursed events.

*www.classics.cam.ac.uk/Faculty/tragedy.html

**only one satyr play survives: The Cyclops, by Euripides

For a thorough introduction to Greek tragedy in book form, see my review of Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz' Greek Tragedy.

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