Continuing my notes on Greek and Roman Mythology, my coursera course from Peter Struck.
In contemporary culture the idea of the family tends to be one of those things that everyone embraces. In tragedy the family structure is something where people are on top of one another. It’s a highly claustrophobic space in the plays with too much connectedness. They can’t quite find space in the world to settle themselves and all this family stuff is stuck on top of them. It’s typically not thought of as a supportive, generative, helpful environment. It’s thought of as an entangling and a nasty one. Quite a contrast, interestingly, with the possibility of families that we saw built into Hesiods’s Theogony, where genealogical structures were seen as possibly ordering the whole universe, a large family tree was a way to bring order out of chaos. Families were different again in Homer, where we saw the connection between Penelope and Odysseus as being incredible powerful, supportive, and nurturing. In Greek tragedy there is a very different approach to the whole concept of family.
The story of Agamemnon is the first play that we read from Aeschylus’s trilogy, The Oresteia. It is the first of a group of three plays that went together in this trilogy form. All of ancient tragedy was, originally performed this way. There is only one trilogy to survive from antiquity intact where all three players come together, and this is the Oresteia. Agamemnon starts off in a story that tells about the curse on the House of Atreus, located Mycenae. Agamemnon was from Mycenae as we know from Homer’s narratives. There is a strong connection of this hero with this great citadel back then.
The family that inhabits this great citadel, is not architecturally sound, the way that their monuments are and the way that their walls are. In Aeschylus’s play, that he refers to it as Argos. There is another city called Argos. Argos can also refer, in a broader geographical sense, to the whole region in which both the city of Argos and Mycenae are located. It’s likely that what Aeschylus is doing with the term Argos is referring to the whole region, not changing a tradition so much as giving a slightly different term to a long standing tradition.
The curse on the House of Atreus
The House of Atreus has a background story. The background story is not found in the Oresteia, but in various other texts. We know that Agamemnon is there and he has troubles to face from Homer’s Odyssey. The Oresteia helps us zero in on what this is all about, especially that scene that Agamemnon kept telling us about in the Odyssey, when his wife kills him. There’s a very rich and complex tradition that lies behind that story. As mentioned in the previous post tragic poets assumed that the audience has seen a lot of this stuff already. The oldest part starts with a figure called Tantalus who we met in the Odyssey. Tantalus in the underworld was being punished for all eternity for some horrible food crime.
One of the versions of this awful crime of Tantalus is connected with the House of Atreus. Tantalus took his own son, Pelops, carved him up and turned him into a stew. (Apollod. iii. 12. § 6.) He then invited the gods to have a special dinner with him, ladling out the stew of his own son into the bowls that the gods were to eat. The gods, right away understood what was happening and they’re just disgusted. So, they take Tantalus and hurl him into the underworld to be severely punished forever and ever and ever. His punishment is to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink. The gods take the pieces of Pelops and get them all back together so he can go on with his life. One piece of the shoulder was swallowed by one the gods by accident, so they replaced that with an ivory shoulder.
Pelops goes to a land called Pisa and meets a young princess, Hippodamia. He wants to marry this princess, but her father, king Oenomaus, will only give her away in marriage to someone who can beat him in a chariot race. Pelops approaches, Myrtilus, one of the king’s helpers and tricks him. He says to Myrtilus: if you can only help me and replace the cutter pins of the axle that are holding the wheels of the king’s chariot on with wax, then I’ll be very good to you and you can have great gifts from me. Myrtilus does this and when Oenomaus and Pelops have their chariot race the wax melts, the cutter pins fall out, the wheels fall off and Oenomaus falls and is dragged to his death by his chariot. Pelops wins Hippodamia and he kills Myrtilus, he doesn’t give him any of the things he promised, takes the kingdom and renames it Peloponnesea, which is where the name Peloponnesian comes from. Myrtilus the curses Pelops (Hyginus Fabuls 84)
The mythic background tells the story of where the name comes. Pelops has some children, Thyestes and Atrius. Nearby, there’s a kingdom, Mycennae, and the king there dies. An oracle tells that a son of Pelops will take over the kingdom. The oldest son is Atreus, but Thyestes proposes a contest to give himself a chance at the kingdom. The contest he suggests is that whoever can produce the nicest sheep should be the one that takes the kingdom. Atreus thinks this contest is just fine because he has a sheep and he knows it’s beautiful. It’s a golden sheep, one that he promised to give to Artemis but kept for himself. He agrees to the contest with Thyestes. The next morning Thyestes has this golden sheep and Atreus can’t find his. He asks Thyestes where he got the sheep, but Thyestes fudges the question. Thyestes had taken up with Atreus’s, Aerope, and Aerope helped to steal the sheep. Thyestes won the contest and should be the one that takes over as king of Mycenae.
Atreus knows something has gone wrong here and proposes another contest. He says- If the sun should rise in the west tomorrow, then I should be the rightful king of Mycenae. Thyestes thinks this is ridiculous, this could never happen, so he agrees. Zeus overhears what’s going on and thinks Atreus should get the kingdom, so Zeus makes the sun come up in the west making it obvious that Atreus should have this kingdom, which he does. Thyestes slinks away, but that is not the end of the story. Atreus finds out that Thyestes and his wife Aerope have been having this affair. So he’s not only upset that Thyestes had stolen his golden sheep through Aerope as an intermediary, but he’s also livid with his own brother for having an affair with his wife. He invites Thyestes to dinner. If someone in this family invites you to dinner, you should be careful. Indeed Atreus carves up Thyestes’s sons and turns them into a stew and Thyestes, unlike the gods, goes ahead and eats. Thyestes then devours his own son by accident in a cannibalistic stew that his own brother made for him, feeding his children to him.
Thyestes runs away screaming mad to Delphi and tries to figure out how to revenge himself against his brother. Delphi, at that point, tells him that the only way to take revenge against his brother is to have a child by his own daughter. Thyestes thinks, this is an awful omen and he goes away and sets up a camp site, gets very drunk around a camp fire. A young girl stumbles past, young enough to be Thyestes’s own daughter. He’s so drunk; he doesn’t realize what’s happening. He had sex with the girl not realizing who it is, Pelopia, his own daughter. The next day in his drunken stumbling and with a hangover he leaves behind his own familial sword. The poor young girl, Pelopia, who’s now been made pregnant, having been forced upon by her own father, finds the sword and takes that with her. Atreus sees this beautiful young woman wandering around and takes her with him. Nine months later, she gives birth to a little child and Atreus thinks it is his child. The child is Aegisthus, the product of incest, rivalry, family betrayal, all the worst possible, cannibalism, all of this leads up to this figure Aegisthus. He’s one that we get to know very well in the story.
Atreus keeps looking for Thyestes to make sure that this revenge against his brother is complete. He realizes that Thyestes must be pretty upset with him and sends Agamemnon and Menelaus, his sons who have grown up, along with Aegisthus, to Delphi to find Thyestes. They see Thyestes in Delphi and drag him back home. Atreus tells his other son, Aegisthus, to take the family sword and kill Thyestes. Aegisthus drags Thyestes away, takes the sword and is about to kill him, when Thyestes recognizes the sword. He asked where he got it as it was his own sword. They call for Aegisthus’s mother to find out the story of the sword. Pelopia and hears the full story and tells Thyestes that he is her father and the father of her my own son. The whole family awfulness comes out. Thyestes faces Pelopea and she’s obviously a little upset and takes her own life with the sword while Aegisthus and Thyestes are trying to figure out what’s happening. They’ve got a bloody sword now right next to them, they realize what’s happened and they reunite as father and son. Aegisthus goes back to and tells Atreus that he’s killed Thyestes and here’s blood on the sword to prove it.
Atreus thinks all is done and all is well and is getting ready to wash out the stain in the family, clean up and purify from all this nastiness. The reunited Aegisthus and Thyestes return and, during the rejoicing and purification they kill Atreus. Thyestes takes over the throne and Aegisthus sits at his right hand. Menalaus and Agamemnon get banished, and they’re off on their own.
In their banishment they link up with Helen and Clytemnestra and come back later to take over the kingdom from Thyestes and Aegisthus. When Menelaus and Agamemnon take it over, Agamemnon becomes the true king of the House of Atreus. He owns the palace at Mycenae Argos, and becomes the obvious, rightful, clear, and concise ruler of this whole wonderful kingdom. But there is Aegisthus orbiting around in the background in Agamemnon’s tale, waiting to find a moment where he can come to roost.
The awfulness of this family of in the House of Atreus leads to all kinds of terrible things. These failed con, failed relationships, have horrific consequences not least all the things in the Oresteia. The Trojan War emerges out of the nasty dynamics of this family; Helen and Menelaus and Agemennon, and his relationship with his brother.
At this home in Argos, Mycenae the next story in the heartwarming tale of this family leads us right into the core of the story of Aeschylus’s Oresteia beginning with the Agamemnon.