The Curse of the House of Atreus
The Ancient Greeks often spoke of the Heroic Age, when nymphs and satyrs cultivated the mountains and gods played with mortals. Among the Greek myths that take place in the Heroic Age is the story of the House of Atreus. The royal progenitor of this family, Tantalus, committed such an atrocity against the gods that his descendants were cursed forever. This story is an example of the Archaic Greek belief that guilt was inheritable and a person’s misfortune could be attributed to the crimes of an ancestor.
King Tantalus was beloved by the gods, who came to dine with him at his home on earth. But out of secretly held spite against the immortals, Tantalus murdered his son and fed the Olympians cooked human flesh. But the gods were not fooled. They brought the boy back to life and punished Tantalus by placing him in Tartarus, the Underworld. There he stands in a pool of water that evaporates when he leans down to take a drink. Above him is a vine blooming with fruit that the wind moves out of reach whenever he reaches up to take a bite. Tantalus’ punishment gave us the English word “tantalizing.”
The resurrected son of Tantalus, Pelops, went on to be worshipped in the region of lower Greece, which is named the Peloppenese after him. Pelops is sometimes credited with starting the family curse because of the way he won his wife, the princess Hippodamia.
Hippodamia’s father challenged all of his daughters’ suitors to a chariot race, which he always won because of his unbeatable horses. With the help of the royal servant Myrtilus, Pelops rigged the king’s chariot to fall apart. Pelops won the race and married Hippodamia, but he had to kill Myrtilus when the servant tried to sleep with his new wife. It is uncertain whether the family curse came about because of Pelops’ murder of Myrtilus or the blasphemy of Tantalus. Regardless, the family of Pelops would endure terrible tragedy.
Vase painting of Pelops escaping with Hippodamia. Image source.
Pelops’ sister Niobe became the mother of fourteen children, and when the people of her town began worshipping the goddess Leto, Niobe grew vain and told them to worship her instead. Leto only had two children, the Olympians Apollo and Artemis, where Niobe herself had fourteen. Surely she was more worthy of worship.
Unfortunately, Apollo and Artemis heard Niobe’s boast, and they didn’t appreciate her insulting their mother. They came with bows and arrows and shot to death all of her sons and daughters. Ovid captures her heartbreak in an episode from his catalogue of myths, the Metamorphoses:
Bereft, she sits among the dead, her sons, daughters,
And husband, and she stiffens with grief.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses VI.301-3)
Niobe wept until she turned to stone. She is said to have transformed into a cliff side with a gushing waterfall, forever weeping.
Pelops also had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. Atreus became king of the region called Mycenae. Meanwhile, his younger brother Thyestes betrayed him by seducing his wife. In retaliation, Atreus murdered Thyestes’ children and invited his unwitting brother to dinner. Once Thyestes had finished eating, Atreus told him he had just eaten his own children. Thyestes would only get his revenge through the next generation, when Thyestes’ one living son would go on to murder the son of Atreus.
The House of Atreus family tree. Image Source.
Atreus’ children are well known because of the part they played in the Trojan War. They were Agamemnon and Menelaus, the Greek princes who brought war to Troy after the Trojan prince Paris ran away with Helen, the wife of Menelaus.
The Greeks felt their cause for war was just, but the winds would not propel the sails of their warships. A priest with the army said they must sacrifice Agamemnon’s young daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon summoned his daughter with promises that she would marry the Greek soldier Achilles, but when she arrived, his friends seized her and slit her throat over the altar. Greek playwright Aeschylus writes:
For her prayers, her cries of “Father!”
And for a young woman’s life,
The war hungry leaders cared not at all.
(Aeschylus, Agamemnon 229-31)
The winds became favorable and the Greeks sailed to Troy. After ten years of fighting, they razed Troy to the ground and kidnapped Helen back.
Agamemnon sailed home victorious and brought with him the Trojan princess Cassandra. Cassandra was not only a princess, but also a seer, having been endowed with the gift of divine sight by the god Apollo, who loved her. When Cassandra rejected Apollo’s advances, he cursed her so that she could see the future, but no one would ever believe what she saw.
On his arrival home, Agamemnon greeted his wife, Helen’s twin sister, Clytemnestra, while Cassandra stood nearby and predicted his imminent death.
Once Agamemnon entered his palace, his wife and her lover Aegisthus stabbed him to death in the bathtub. This murder was the inheritance of the previous generation. Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes, murdered Agamemnon, the son of Atreus. Each of the three great Greek dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, wrote a version of this story.
Later, Orestes, the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, returns home from abroad and finds his sister Electra pouring ritual libations at their father’s grave. Orestes learns that his mother has killed his father and, encouraged by Electra and the god Apollo, he vows revenge.
Orestes fulfills his filial duty to his father and murders his mother Clytemnestra. In doing so, he awakens the Furies of the Underworld. The Furies are monstrous women with snakes for hair who avenge family murders. These creatures pursue Orestes across Greece to Athens. There, in Greek fashion, the Furies take Orestes to trial with Apollo as defense counsel and Athena as judge. In the end, Orestes is acquitted and the family curse finally dies.
“Orestes pursued by the Furies” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1862). Image source.
In the fifth century BC, Greece was a mix of the magical and the rational. Myths with creatures like Furies abounded, but were tempered by the Greek desire for justice and rationality. Even though Greeks were embracing logic, the belief persisted that the guilt of a family member could be inherited by his descendants. We see this trend again in the story of Oedipus, whose crime of marrying his own mother leads to his sons killing each other and his daughter being buried alive.
The belief in inheritable guilt was popular because very ancient societies considered the wellbeing of the family unit to be above the wellbeing of the individual; what belonged to one member of the household belonged to every member. Over centuries, society shifted to focus more on the needs and desires of the individual and the belief in inheritable guilt died out.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, Eumenides
- Sophocles, Electra
- Euripides, Electra
- Seneca, Thyestes
- Homer, Iliad
- Homer, Odyssey
Featured image: Tantalus by Gioacchino Assereto. Image Source.