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Atreus, House of

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

Mary R. Lefkowitz

Atreus, House of 

The legendary actions of Atreus and his family furnished the raw material for epic poems and tragedies, surpassing even the Theban house of Laius with its tales of murder, child killing (and eating), and incest.

Tantalus and Pelops.

The founder of the family was Tantalus (Euripides Orestes 5), a son of Zeus who was a king in Lydia. Invited to dine with the gods, he had his son Pelops killed, cut into pieces, boiled, and served to the gods for dinner (Pindar Olympian 1.47–51). The gods refused to eat and restored Pelops to life, using a piece of ivory to replace the shoulder that either Demeter or Themis had eaten (scholium to Pindar Olympian 1.40a). Among the dead, Tantalus suffered the eternal punishment of having food and water retreat from his reach whenever he tried to eat or drink (Homer Odyssey 11.582–592; Apollodorus Epitome 2.2.1).

The fifth century bce lyric poet Pindar invented his own version of this story because the traditional narrative seemed too discreditable to the gods. In Pindar's version the god Poseidon fell in love with Pelops at the banquet that Tantalus gave for the gods and took him to Mount Olympus, as Zeus later did with Ganymede. Tantalus was punished because he stole nectar and ambrosia, the gods’ food, to give to his friends in order to make them immortal; therefore a rock was suspended over his head, always threatening to fall on him (Pindar Olympian 1.25–66). Tantalus is also said to have divulged the secrets of the gods to mortals (scholium to Euripides Orestes 10; Apollodorus Epitome 2.1) and to have withheld from Zeus the stolen dog that guarded Zeus’ temple on Crete (scholium to Pindar Olympian 1.91a). Tantalus was the father also of Niobe, whose boasting was responsible for the death of all her children. Sophocles and several other dramatists wrote tragedies about Tantalus, but all are now lost.

Like his father, Tantalus, Pelops did not refrain from murder. He wanted to marry Hippodamia, daughter of King Oenomaus of Elis (later the site of the Olympic games). But Oenomaus demanded that his daughter's suitors compete against him in a chariot race, the loser of which would forfeit his life. Pelops won the race by bribing Oenomaus’ charioteer, Myrtilus, to remove the linchpins of Oenomaus’ chariot so that the wheels fell off and the king was killed. Pelops then killed Myrtilus and threw his body into the sea. In another version of the story Hippodamia fell in love with Pelops and persuaded Myrtilus (who was in love with her) to sabotage the chariot; later when Myrtilus tried to rape her, Pelops killed him. Both Oenomaus and Myrtilus cursed Pelops and his descendants (Apollodorus Epitome 2.2.6–9). Pindar's revised version removed the bloodguilt: Pelops asked his former lover Poseidon to help him, and the god supplied a golden chariot with winged horses, with which he won the race (Olympian 1.67–88).

Atreus and Thyestes.

The next generation was no less violent. Details and motives vary in the surviving accounts, but in most it was determined that Mycenae would belong to whichever of Pelops’ sons, Atreus or Thyestes, possessed a golden lamb. When such a lamb was born in Atreus’ flocks, his wife, Aerope, gave it to his brother Thyestes, with whom she was having an affair. In recognition of this betrayal Zeus reversed the sun's course for one day. Atreus took over the kingdom, killed Aerope, and then killed three of Thyestes’ sons and served them to their father for dinner (Apollodorus Epitome 2.2.10–13). In another version of the story this is the wrong that causes the sun to rise in the West (scholium to Euripides Orestes 812).

Thyestes was told by an oracle that if he had intercourse with his daughter Pelopia, he would beget a son who would serve as his avenger in the next generation. These events were portrayed in numerous (lost) dramas, including Sophocles’ Atreus (or Mycenaeans) and Thyestes in Sicyon—about Thyestes in exile from Mycenae and his rape of his daughter—and Euripides’ Thyestes, Cretan Women, and Pleisthenes (an ancestor with varying roles in the family's genealogy). Roman authors were also fascinated by the subject, but only Seneca's Thyestes survives complete, with its gruesome details and stark portrait of the cruelty that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another.


Atreus’ son Agamemnon became ruler of Mycenae. His younger brother Menelaus married Helen, the daughter of Tyndareus, and took over the kingdom of Sparta from his father-in-law. Agamemnon married Helen's sister after killing her first husband, Tantalus, son of Thyestes, along with their infant son (Euripides Iphigenia at Aulis 1148–1152). By this sister, called Clytemestra in the sources but since Byzantine times known as Clytemnestra, he had three daughters (Homer Iliad 9.145)—Chrysothemis, Laodice (or Electra), and Iphianassa (or Iphigenia)—and a son, Orestes. When Helen deserted Menelaus for the Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon was chosen as the leader of the expedition to bring her back. However, when the Greeks’ ships were unable to leave Aulis for Troy because of adverse winds, the seer Calchas told Agamemnon that the fleet could not sail until he offered his daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice to Artemis. He had offended the goddess, either because of her sorrow for the deaths he would cause (Aeschylus Agamemnon 123–139) or because—as related in the post-Homeric epic the Cypria—he had boasted that he was a better hunter than Artemis (Proclus Chrestomathy 8; Apollodorus Epitome 3.21). According to Aeschylus the sacrifice was performed, though the chorus refuses to describe what happened after it (Aeschylus Agamemnon 228–249). Lucretius chose this sacrifice as the prime example of the evils caused by religion (On the Nature of Things 1.80–101).

In Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, Agamemnon is a more sympathetic character than in Aeschylus: he is reluctant to sacrifice his daughter but is ultimately persuaded by his brother, Menelaus, to do so primarily for political reasons. At first Iphigenia pleads for her life, but then she decides to die so that she can be remembered as the savior of Greece. The drama offers a surprise ending that is creditable to the gods: Iphigenia disappears just before the knife falls, and Artemis substitutes a deer in her place (1581–1601). Virtually nothing is known about Aeschylus’ earlier drama Iphigenia; Sophocles’ Iphigenia, also lost, covered the same events that Euripides’ did but appears to have followed the plot of the Cypria in giving a role to Odysseus (fragment 305). Only a few verses survive from Ennius’ Latin adaptation of the story.

There is no reference to the sacrifice in the Iliad, but in that epic Agamemnon is responsible for the death of many of his soldiers because he insists on taking from Achilles his war prize, the woman Briseis, after Calchas had advised him to return his own war prize, Chryseis, to her father, a priest of Apollo. When, after the close of the Iliad, the Greeks finally succeed in capturing Troy, Agamemnon is awarded the Trojan princess Cassandra as a war prize, and he takes her back to Mycenae with him as his concubine.

Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

While Agamemnon was in Troy, Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes, had ample opportunity to avenge the wrongs committed against his father by Agamemnon's father, Atreus. First he seduced Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra. According to Homer, at first she resisted, but then Aegisthus killed the bard whom Agamemnon had appointed to look after her, and she moved with Aegisthus to Thyestes’ house (Odyssey 3.263–275). On his return from Troy, it happened that Agamemnon was driven off course and landed close by. As soon as Aegisthus learned of Agamemnon's return, he invited him to a feast, during which he killed him and his men (Odyssey 4.514–537). Clytemnestra herself killed Cassandra over the body of the dying Agamemnon and refused to perform the wife's duty of shutting the eyes and mouth of his corpse (Odyssey 11.409–426). The dead Agamemnon's shade compares her behavior to that of Odysseus’ faithful wife, Penelope: Clytemnestra will give “an evil reputation to all women, even the good ones” (Odyssey 24.201–202).

The gods had warned Aegisthus not to kill Agamemnon or pursue his wife, because if he did, he would himself be killed by Orestes (Odyssey 1.32–43). Nonetheless Aegisthus ignored their advice and lived together with Clytemnestra for seven years until Orestes returned and killed him. In Homer the story ends with Orestes providing a feast to the populace (Odyssey 3.303–310), but the sixth-century lyric poet Stesichorus appears to have given Clytemnestra a more prominent role in the murder (Oresteia, fragment 219).

In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Clytemnestra lures the returning king into the palace. Customarily a traveler is given a bath by his wife on his return, but it is there that she traps him in his robes and stabs him three times with a sword. She had her own reasons for wanting to kill him: the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia and his fondness for his concubines Chryseis and Cassandra (1411–1447), as well as the crimes of his father, Atreus, against Thyestes (1500–1504). She hopes that by his murder she has ended the cycle of revenge (1567–1576). But Apollo then orders Orestes to kill Clytemnestra as well as Aegisthus. After Aeschylus’ great drama, no Greek playwright seems to have written an Agamemnon; Seneca's Latin version concentrates on the motives of all the other characters in the drama, including Thyestes.

Orestes and Electra.

Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides each wrote a drama about Orestes’ revenge. The story was told in the two dramas that followed Agamemnon in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, the Libation Bearers and the Eumenides. In the Libation Bearers, Orestes returns from exile in Phocis with his friend Pylades to find his sister Electra bringing an offering from Clytemnestra to his father's grave; Clytemnestra had had a dream that appeared to predict her own death. In order to gain entry to the house, a disguised Orestes brings feigned news of his own death. He kills Aegisthus, yet hesitates to strike Clytemnestra after she bares her breast to remind him of his obligation to her as a mother. Pylades reminds him that he must carry out the god's command (900–902), but as soon as he does so, Orestes is pursued by his mother's avenging deities, the Erinyes, from the chthnonic generation of gods that preceded Zeus. In the Eumenides, the final play of the trilogy, Apollo sends Orestes from Delphi to Athens, where he is prosecuted by the Erinyes and defended by Apollo. When the Athenian jury's vote is tied, Athena casts the deciding ballot to acquit him. She persuades the Erinyes to remain in Athens by offering them new honors under Zeus as the Eumenides, or Kindly Ones, protecting her city. The cycle of violence has been brought to an end by the rule of law and the justice of Zeus and his two most powerful children, Athena and Apollo.

In their treatment of the deaths of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, both Sophocles and Euripides give a more prominent role to Electra. In Sophocles’ Electra she hates her mother and lives for revenge, and she is overcome by sorrow when two strangers come bearing what they say are Orestes’ ashes. When the two strangers reveal that in fact they are Orestes and Pylades, she urges them to kill Clytemnestra, and shouts for them to strike her “twice as hard” (1415). Aegisthus returns to find her dead, predicts future woes for the family (1498), and then is led offstage by Orestes to be executed.

Euripides makes further innovations to the plot of his Electra, marrying Electra off to a peasant and rejecting Aeschylus’ idea that Electra could identify Orestes by a lock of hair or a cloth; instead she recognizes him by a childhood scar. He adds moral complexity by making the characters Aegisthus and Clytemnestra more sympathetic and Electra and Orestes less high-minded in their desire to reclaim their patrimony. Orestes strikes Aegisthus down while he is welcoming him to share in a sacrifice. Electra lures Clytemnestra into her hut, where Orestes murders her. After the fact both brother and sister are horrified by what they have done. Clytemnestra's brother, Castor, now a god, appears ex machina to announce that Orestes and Electra must both leave home and never see each other again.

In his Orestes, Euripides describes a day in the life of the matricide Orestes, enduring bouts of madness induced by the Erinyes, rejected and castigated by other members of his family. When the citizens of Argos, ruled by Menelaus, vote to execute him for the murder of his mother, Pylades persuades Orestes to try to escape by murdering Helen and taking her daughter Hermione as a hostage, while Electra will set fire to the family's palace. Apollo appears ex machina just in time to tell Orestes that he must instead marry Hermione and go to Athens for his trial, and that Helen has become a goddess. As in the Eumenides, the god has brought the cycle of violence to an end, but Euripides’ play calls attention to human frailty rather than to the justice of Zeus that Aeschylus described in the Eumenides. There were a few dramas by other poets with the title Orestes, but we know virtually nothing about them.

In Euripides’ exciting drama Iphigenia among the Taurians, Orestes and Pylades are involved in another dangerous escapade, this time to bring to Athens the statue of Artemis from her temple in the Chersonesus on the north coast of the Black Sea. But they are captured when Orestes has a bout of madness and is brought to the priestess who supervises the sacrifice of foreign men to the goddess, only to discover that she is in fact Orestes’ sister, Iphigenia. Iphigenia devises a plan for them all to leave together, but they are captured and then saved by the goddess Athena, who makes Iphigenia the founding priestess of the cult of Artemis at Halae Araphenides on the east coast of Attica.

Later Versions.

The story of Tantalus’ punishment in the underworld is commemorated in the English word “tantalize,” which dates from the late sixteenth century. But of Tantalus’ descendants it is neither the brutal Atreus nor Agamemnon, nor the misery inflicted by the Erinyes on the dutiful Orestes, but rather Iphigenia and Electra whose sufferings have inspired the work of writers and composers since the Renaissance: for Iphigenia, Jean Racine (1674), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1787), and Christoph Willibald Gluck (in Aulis 1774, in Tauris 1779), and for Electra, Hugo von Hofmannsthal's disturbing drama (1903), transformed into an opera by Richard Strauss (1909), and Jean Giraudoux's drama (1937), as well as films by Michael Cacoyannis about both Electra (1962) and Iphigenia (1977) and adaptations of the Electra myth by Eugene O’Neill (Mourning Becomes Electra, 1931) and Jean-Paul Sartre (The Flies, 1943).

Sigmund Freud also used Electra's name to describe the complex in which a daughter displays a preference for her father (as remarked by Clytemnestra in Euripides Electra 1102–1104). Although Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876) is based on Norse myth, the composer explicitly modeled this tetralogy on Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which was more familiar to his audience: his gods have Olympian characteristics, and his orchestra acts like an Aeschylean chorus, with their emphasis on recurring ideas.


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    Lee, M. Owen. Athena Sings: Wagner and the Greeks. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.Find this resource:

      Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. “The Two Electras: Hoffmannsthal's Elektra as a Goethean Drama.” In his Greek in a Cold Climate, pp. 155–171. London: Duckworth, 1991.Find this resource:

        Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. “Wagner.” In his Blood for the Ghosts: Classical Influences in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, pp. 126–142. London: Duckworth, 1982.Find this resource:

          Seneca. Agamemnon. Edited with a commentary by R. J. Tarrant. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.Find this resource:

            Seneca. Thyestes. Edited with a commentary by R. J. Tarrant. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985.Find this resource:

              Sophocles. Electra. Edited with introduction and commentary by P. J. Finglass. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                Mary R. Lefkowitz