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Welcome to the Classics Department at Haverford College

Classics at Haverford

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History of Lit. Theory
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Electra > House of Atreus

The most famous (or notorious) family in western literature is the House of Atreus, the royal family of Mycenae. The family of Atreus suffered from an ancestral crime, variously described, that caused disastrous repercussions until finally Athena broke the cycle of murder and revenge.

Tantalus, the son of Zeus and Pluto [N.B. mother Pluto is an otherwise unknown mortal woman, not the Roman god of the dead!], wanted to prove that he was cleverer than the gods and attempted to trick them into eating the flesh of his own son Pelops. It is said that none of the gods succumb to the ruse except Demeter, who was preoccupied with thoughts of her missing daughter Persephone. When Pelops was reassembled, the shoulder eaten by Demeter was replaced by one of ivory. Tantalus was cast into Tartarus the pit beneath the underworld: tortured by thirst, he stood in water that reached only to his chin; ravished by hunger, he could not touch boughs of fruit dangling in front of him.

Once grown, Pelops decided to vie for the hand of the beautiful Hippodamia. According to rules set by her father, Oenomaus, hopeful suitors had to stake their lives on beating him in a chariot race. With the help of Myrtilus, Oenomaus' charioteer, Pelops replaced the wooden pin securing Oenomaus' front wheel with one of wax. Several laps into the race, the wax was melted by the friction of the wheel and fell off, causing a crash in which Oenomaus was killed. In exchange for "rigging" the race, Pelops had promised Myrtilus that he could sleep with Hippodamia, but he refused to honor the agreement and attempted to abduct her. As Pelops threw Myrtilus off a cliff, he levied a curse against Pelop’s house. As its mythical founder, Pelops gives his name to the southern part of Greece, the Peloponnesus ("island of Pelops").

Pelops sons, Atreus and Thyestes turned their murderous natures against one another. In addition to other disagreements, Thyestes had an affair with Atreus' wife, Aerope. In response, Atreus cooked Thyestes' children and served them to him at a banquet under the pretense of friendly reconciliation. The Delpic Oracle revealed that Thyestes could only wreak vengeance on his brother through a son born of his own daughter. Therefore, he disguised himself and raped his daughter Pelopia, who bore Aegisthus. Aegisthus killed Atreus and restored Thyestes to the throne of Mycenae. An alternative version relates that Thyestes escaped from Atreus' feast with the infant Aegisthus tucked under his arm, and this infant grew up to avenge his father.

Hustled out of Mycenae as children, Agamemnon and Menelaus, the sons of Atreus, returned when they were grown and, with the help of Tyndareus the King of Sparta, expelled Thyestes. Each married a daughter of Tyndareus (Agamemnon married Clytemnestra; Menelaus married Helen). Agamemnon became King of Mycenae; Menelaus, King of Sparta. When the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen, the unified Greek forces declared war against Troy. Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, was forced to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis before the fleet could sail to Troy. While Agamemnon was at war, Clytemnestra invited Aegisthus to rule Argos with her. Upon Agamemnon's triumphant return from Troy, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered him. They intended to slay Agamemnon’s son Orestes, who was still a child, but his elder sister Electra saved his life by sending him to his uncle Stophius, King of Phocis.

In the palace of Stophius Orestes was raised with the king’s son Pylades and the two became the closest of friends. Electra frequently reminded her brother by messenger of his duty to avenge his father’s death. When Orestes was grown, he consulted the Delphic oracle, which confirmed that it was his destiny to avenge his father.

Orestes returned to Argos under disguise, pretending to be a messenger from Stophius announcing the death of Orestes. After visiting his father’s tomb, he revealed himself to Electra. With the help of Pylades and Electra, he succeeded by killing Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. This revolting act, the slaughter of a mother by a son brought the wrath of the Furies down upon Orestes. Driving him mad, the Furies pursued Orestes from land to land. In answer to a second appeal to the Delphic oracle, Orestes was directed to go to Tauris in Scythia and to bring from there a statue of Artemis that was believed to have fallen from heaven. When Orestes and Pylades arrived in Tauris they were seized by the barbaric inhabitants of the town who were accustomed to sacrifice any strangers who fell into their hands. The two friends were brought to the temple where Iphigenia, who had been snatched away from the altar in Aulis at the moment Agamemnon was about to sacrifice her, recognized her brother and the three made their escape with the statue of the goddess.

Orestes, however, was not free of the vengeance of the Furies who continued to pursue him relentlessly. Eventually, Orestes took refuge in the Temple of Athena in Athens. Athena established a court in Athens to judge between the competing claims of the Furies, the guardians of bloodguilt, and Apollo, whose oracles had driven Orestes to his murderous act. When the Athenian citizens returned a split verdict, Athena broke the tie by siding with Orestes. Finally the cycle of violence had been broken. Some versions relate that Orestes underwent a second trial at the hands of Tyndareus but eventually he was acquitted and married Hermione, the daughter of Menelaus and Helen.