An aura of tragedy has always hung over the house of Atreus. Starting with his grandfather Tantalus and continuing through to his grandson Orestes, happy moments were few and far between.
King Tantalus of Sipylus, was a son of Zeus and a favorite of all the gods. He alone among men was given the honor of dining at their table on Mount Olympus. Zeus and the other immortals often confided their intermost thoughts to him, as they considered Tantalus to be a true and trustworthy friend. Taking advantage of this special treatment, the ungrateful Tantalus stole the divine nectar and repeated the secrets of the gods to other men.
Although his behavior angered Zeus, the thunder lord chose to dismiss it as a minor offense. But it would not be long before Tantalus would commit a more serious crime against the Olympians. For reasons unknown Tantalus decided to test the wisdom of the gods and by doing this brought about his own demise.
He decided to invite all the Olympians to his palace for a huge feast. For the main course Tantalus instructed his cook to butcher his son Pelops and add his body parts to the stew. Unaware of their host's cruel joke, the divine guests took their places at the banquet table and waited for dinner to be served. When their plates were set before them, the startled deities recoiled in horror, for they at once recognized the meat to be human flesh.
All that is except for Demeter, who was so distraught over the loss of her daughter Persephone that she inadvertantly consumed some of the boy's shoulder.
The outraged gods turned upon Tantalus. Zeus placed him in the depths Tartarus where his torment would be never ending. For his punishement he was made to stand in a pool of water that reached just below his chin. But when he would bend down to quench his undying thirst the water would immediately lower to his ankles. Zeus also placed a tree nearby which allowed for an abundance of fruit to dangle just above his head. But when Tantalus reached for a bite to satisfy his constant hunger, the wind would blow the delectables far from his reach.
To add to his distress, a great rock was placed directly above him, ready to crush his skull at any moment. The gods restored Pelops back to life but needed to substitute a piece of ivory for the shoulder that was accidently eaten by Demeter.
Pelops was the only descendent of Tantalus that was spared a life of total misfortune. Possibly the gods had thought he had already suffered enough at the hands of his father. Unfortunately the same could not be said for his son Atreus. It came to be that Atreus made a pledge to the goddess Artemis that he would sacrifice to her the finest of all his flocks. When a ram with the fleece of gold was born, Atreus was so in awe of the beast that he fulfilled only half of his promise. The ram was put to death but only the flesh was placed upon the alter of the goddess. Unwilling to part with the magnificent hide, Atreus greedily packed it neatly in a chest and hid it away for himself.
Without a moment of hesitation Aerope opened the chest and handed Thyestes her husband's treasure. Atreus had taken for his wife Aerope, the daughter of King Catreus of Crete. She bore him two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, who were destined to become famous for their roles in the Trojan War.
Unfortunately for Atreus, his bride had secretly fallen in love with his brother Thyestes. Overcome with passion, Aerope betrayed her husband and told Thyestes the secret of the ram's fleece. Selfishly Thyestes promised to be her lover if she would give the fleece to him.In due time an oracle proclaimed to the Mycenaeans that they must choose a king from the house of Pelops. Atreus and Thyestes, both living in Midea were at once summoned to appear in Mycenae. A council of elders were called upon to ponder which of the two brothers should be placed upon the throne. When a decision could not be made Thyestes spoke up and suggested that the one who could produce a fleece of gold should be proclaimed king. Unaware of his wife's treachery, Atreus quickly agreed thinking he was still in possession of the wonderous hide. He quickly went to retrieve his prize but to his dismay found the chest to be empty.
Thyestes shamelessly presented the fleece to the council and was promptly declared king of Mycenae. Atreus protested, insisting that he was the righful owner but all of his complaints were ignored. There was just not any proof that the fleece was ever his.
Zeus, who preferred Atreus over his brother Thyestes, sent Hermes to intervene. Following the god's instructions, Atreus suggested to the council that the throne be given to the man who could perform a greater feat than producing a fleece of gold. He proposed that the rulership be awarded to he who could reverse the sun's direction and change the course of the Pleiades. Unaware of Zeus' involvement in the matter and thinking his brother had gone crazy, Thyestes agreed to the challenge. With a secret wave of the god's hand these impossible events took place, and the crown was awarded to Atreus. His first course of action was to see that Thyestes was banished. It was shortly after this that Atreus became aware of the affair between his wife and brother.
Feeling humiliated and betrayed he began to weave an intricate plot of revenge. Pretending to forgive Thyestes, Atreus began by inviting him to attend a banquet at the palace. He then sought out the sons of his brother and found them at the temple of Zeus.
In the same manner as his grandfather Tantalus, Atreus butchered his nephews as they begged for mercy before the alter of the thunder god. He placed their bodies in a caldron and boiled them into a stew before serving them to their unsuspecting father. It was not until Thyestes finished his meal that Atreus showed him the heads and hands of his children. In a final act of retaliation Atreus had his horrified brother cast out of the city of Mycenae.
Overwhelmed with grief and anger Thyestes sought advice from an oracle. He was told that in order to successfully avenge himself against his brother, he first needed to father a child with his own daughter Pelopina. He obeyed the priestess and soon Pelopina became pregnant. Meanwhile, as a punishement for the abominable deeds of Atreus, the entire city of Mycenae was being plagued by a severe famine. Not knowing what to do, Atreus also consulted an oracle for advice.
The message was clear. The only way to end the suffering of the people was to allow Thyestes to return to Mycenae. Atreus at once left on a journey to find the brother he had exiled. In his travels through Sicyon he came upon Pelopina, who was living there under the care of King Thesprotus.
Finding her to be very beautiful and assuming she was the daughter of the King, Atreus asked for her hand in marriage. King Thesprotus was too afraid to reveal to Atreus that the girl who had captured his heart was none other than his niece and the daughter of Thyestes.
Instead, Thesprotus chose to keep Pelopina's true idenity to himself and soon she and Atreus were married. It was apparent to Atreus that his new wife was already with child, and when the couple returned to Mycenae, Pelopina gave birth to a son. Atreus decided to raise the boy as his own and the infant was given the name of Aegisthus.
Unable to locate Thyestes, Atreus sent his two sons Agamemnon and Menelaus to seek help from the oracle. By chance Thyestes who was also seeking out the priestess arrived at the same time. At once he was seized by his nephews and escorted back to Mycenae. With Thyestes safely locked away in a prison cell, Atreus summoned Aegisthus to carry out his execution. Sword in hand the young man approached the prisoner and raised his weapon over head. Thyestes, recognizing the blade asked the youth how he came to acquire it. When Aegisthus replied that it was a gift from his mother, Thyestes knew at once that his executioner was none other than his own son.
Thyestes pleaded with his captors to allow him to see his daughter Pelopina. This favor was granted but when the young girl saw her father together with the son he sired upon her it was more then she could stand. Overwhelmed with shame, Pelopina picked up the weapon and took her own life. Refusing to commit patricide, Aegisthus picked up the bloody sword and brought it to Atreus.
Believing Thyestes to be dead, Atreus traveled to the shore to sacrifice and offer thanks to the gods. Aegisthus followed after his unsuspecting stepfather and when the moment was right, killed him at the water's edge. Thyestes claimed ownership to the throne but his reign was very short. It was not long before Agamemnon returned and proclaimed himself king. Thyestes was then forced out of the city, never to return.
It was not long before misfortune paid a visit to the new king of Mycenae. It seems that his brother, King Menelaus of Sparta was outraged over the abduction of his beautiful wife Helen by a young prince of Troy named Paris. Scorned and humiliated, Menelaus called upon his brother for help. Agamemnon was chosen to lead an army of Greeks across the Hellespont to wage war on the city and return Helen to her rightful home in Sparta. The ships met in the harbor of Aulis, and as they prepared to sail Agamemnon loudly boasted that his hunting skills exceeding those of Artemis herself.
These words stung the ears of the goddess, and to teach Agamemnon a lesson she calmed the winds thus making their departure impossible. At once the seer Calchas was summoned to appear before the group of sailors.
The augur told Agamemnon that his words had gravely offended the goddess. She would only consent to make the winds blow again if he would agree to offer his youngest daughter Iphegeneia to her as a sacrifice. Though his heart was heavy with sorrow, Agamemnon knew he had no other choice than to obey. Odysseus and Diomedes were sent home to Mycenae carrying with them a false message for Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra. They informed her that Achilles was intent on taking Iphegeneia as his wife, and that they had been sent to escort her back to Aulis for the wedding. Dressed in her finest, Iphigeneia was sent off with her attendents in anticipation of meeting her groom.
But when the trio reached Aulis, to Iphegeneia's surprise, Achilles was nowhere in sight. All the men watched as the innocent maiden was slowly led to the altar. Iphegeneia did not put up a fight, but instead offered herself willingly for the good of Greece. At the very last moment, Artemis quickly whisked the brave girl away to the land of Taursia, leaving a stag in her place.
Stunned onlookers could only say that Iphigeneia disappeared before their eyes, but Clytemnestra would not accept the account given by the witnesses. She was outraged by the actions of her husband and believing her daughter was dead swore vengeance upon Agamemnon.
The Greeks finally brought down the city of Troy in the tenth year of the battle. Clytemnestra, never forgave her husband for the loss of her beloved daughter, and in his absence began a torrid love affair with Thyestes' son Aegisthus. Together the two came up with a plot to slay Agamemnon as soon as he returned home from the war. For an entire year they kept watchmen on the road, until finally they received word that the king was approaching the palace. With him was Princess Cassandra of Troy, which he had taken as his concubine. A huge feast was laid out in pretense of a welcome celebration and a bath was drawn for the weary king.
As Agamemnon relaxed himself in the water, Clytemnestra snuck up behind him and chopped him to pieces with an axe. She then killed Cassandra along with the two children she had bore to Agamemnon.
Agamemnon had two remaining children by his wife Clytemnestra, a son named Orestes and a daughter named Electra. Fearing that her brother would also be murdered, Electra sent him away to the land of Phocis where he would be safe from the wrath of his mother and her jealous lover. Aegisthus enjoyed the kingship for the next seven years, until Orestes, now a young man sought to avenge his father's death.
He first journeyed to Delphi to obtain the advice of the god Apollo. There he was told to return to Mycenae and kill both his mother and Aegisthus. Orestes had many misgivings about this but after much thought decided to obey the god and return to his homeland.
Once there, with the help of his sister Electra and his best friend Pylades, he took the life of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Unfortunatey to commit the crime of matricide was a great sin, even when sanctioned by a god. For his punishment, Orestes was doomed to be driven mad by the constant persecution of the Furies.
Day after day he wandered, never being able to escape their wrath until once again he turned to Apollo for help. This time the god told him to go to Athens where he would stand trial on the Areopagus. Though the final vote for aquittal was cast by Athena, the Furies were only partially appeased.
Apollo promised Orestes his sanity would be restored if he would travel to the land of the Taurians, where he was to steal the wooden statue of Artemis and bring it back to Attica. Caution was to be used, for it was the custom of the Taurians to sacrifice all strangers to the goddess Artemis. Ignoring the danger, Orestes and Pylades set out to retrieve the statue. Sadly, the two were captured as soon as they stepped foot onto Taurian soil and brought at once to the priestess of Artemis. As they were being prepared for sacrifice, Orestes realized the priestess was none other than his lost sister Iphigeneia.
She had been living amongst the Taurians ever since her mysterious disappearance from Aulis so many years before. The two siblings recognized each other and after a tearful reunion, Iphigeneia arranged for the prisoners to escape, taking with them both herself and the statue.
With the help of Athena, the three sailed away in the ship of Orestes. The Furies kept their word, and after the statue of Artemis was brought to Attica, they absolved Orestes of his crime and he became the new King of Mycenae.
Upon the death of Menelaus, Orestes also inherited the throne of Sparta. After a life time of suffering, this son of Agamemnon became the most powerful ruler of the Peloponnesus.
Medea's Lair Of Greek Mythology © 1999-2012.