Atrides - Part One
I will tell a story that will chill your blood -
a tale of kings and heroes,
of mighty warriors and their women
who, although enjoying privileges
denied the common people,
perpetrated the most appalling crimes
against each other and on those closest to them.
I speak, with some foreboding,
of the blighted House of Atreus.
Where should I begin?
My starting point is Tantalus,
a son of Zeus and Plouto, a Lydian nymph,
herself a daughter of the titan Cronus,
The outcome of this inbred pairing,
a half incestuous relationship
between half-brother and half-sister,
There were already intimations
of the bane that was to hang on family Atrides.
After all, Cronus, leader of the Titans,
seized power from his father Uranus,
by scything off the organ to which he owed his life;
and Zeus in turn, deployed a scythe
in similar fashion when overthrowing Cronos,
although, in mitigation, we must record
that Cronos, fearful of an insurrection
by members of his family,
devoured, in a literal sense, his own offspring,
as soon as they were born,
in an attempt to circumvent his fate.
The more discerning can already see
an absence of the love and loyalty that
strengthen and sustain familial bonds.
and a rather strange and deviant obsession
with mutilation of parental genitals
A second perverse trope, as we shall see,
and possibly not unconnected with the first,
is oftentimes the tendency of fathers
to consume their children, for fear
the child will, when full-grown, destroy them;
and children, if they, against the odds, survive,
taking revenge upon their fathers
for all the evil they have thought or done,
or failed to do to their own progeny.
Fathers consuming children!
Sons castrating or killing fathers!
What have we here?
Without the benefit of modern explorations
of the darker corners of the human mind,
or even with such benefit,
we might conclude already that the line
from Uranus through Atreus
to Agamemnon and beyond
was simply evil or, at the very least,
from one end to the other.
Forgive me for allowing my own thoughts
to interrupt the narrative, but ‘tis, I fear,
an urge I cannot easily resist,
and one to which I may perhaps
too readily succumb.
Let us return to Tantalus,
whom we shall soon discover
was violent, wild and rash beyond belief
up to and past the point of wilful self-destruction.
Through his wife, of unknown provenance,
Tantalus fathered, amongst others, Pelops.
Once again, the father son relationship
was to prove deeply problematical.
Tantalus, as son of Zeus, was welcomed
by the gods on Mount Olympus
but he abused their hospitality
by taking nectar and ambrosia,
the favoured food and drink of the immortals,
and giving it to his own very mortal people,
so they could eat and drink and even live as gods.
Jealous of their elevated status,
and, of course, their immortality, the gods,
it’s fair to say, were not best pleased.
To placate the gods, or perhaps to test
their powers of observation,
or possibly to prove that he, half god, half man,
was smart enough to play a trick upon the gods,
Tantalus decided to invite the gods to dinner
and serve them with a meal that clearly went
against all the natural instincts of paternity.
He had his own son Pelops
(who gave his name to southern Greece)
dismembered and the several filial parts,
in the form of a slow-cooked, well-seasoned stew,
served as a placatory platter
to the offended deities.
Where such an idea came from, no-one knows,
although the sacrifice of one’s own child
to please the gods
is a peculiarly ubiquitous motif
in myths of many lands.
The Olympian gods, for all their many faults,
were not impressed, being critical of filicide,
especially when such a heinous crime
appeared to them to be
both callous and unnecessary.
They declined to eat. The sole exception
was Demeter who, her mind elsewhere,
(grieving for her recently abducted daughter,
held prisoner in the underworld)
failed to notice that the meal
consisted primarily of Tantalus’s son.
Disgusted by the total disregard their host exhibited
for all the norms of social etiquette,
Zeus told the Fates to resurrect the boy.
They placed the body parts within a cauldron
(which we can assume was made of bronze
since these events took place before the Iron Age),
and boiled them in a very special way
to make young, dismembered Pelops live again.
We know the way of boiling was most unusual,
given that it’s widely known that boiling mortals
is generally inimical to the sustenance of life,
much less its most miraculous re-creation.
Thus Pelops was made whole again,
including the provision of an ivory shoulder blade,
a perfect substitute, hand crafted by the Fates,
to match the one with which he had been born
and which Demeter had unwittingly consumed.
There will be those who wonder why
Demeter, mother of Persephone,
would eat a shoulder blade, it being bone
and surely not the choicest part of the Pelopian stew.
Our best guess is, that grieving at her recent loss,
her daughter now in Hades’ harsh hiematic grasp,
she simply gnawed the bone in mindless misery.
On this occasion Tantalus had gone too far.
The gods had overlooked his hubris many times,
his indiscretions and his gross abuse
of the advantages that he enjoyed as son of Zeus,
but serving up poor Pelops in a casserole
to Zeus, grandfather of the boy,
demanded punishment, exemplary in kind.
The wayward Tantalus was sent to Tartarus
where, till the end of time, he is condemned to stand,
tortured by hunger and by thirst
up to his waist in water in a lake,
above which boughs, heavy with the sweetest fruit,
hang low enough for Tantalus to reach,
but each time Tantalus bends down to drink,
the clear, fresh water of the lake recedes
and every time he reaches for the fully ripened fruit,
it swings away, brushing his fingertips
but just beyond his grasp for evermore.
Pelops, reborn, went on to lead
a full but troubled life. As a young man,
well-favoured in both face and form,
he learned the art of charioteering,
from Zeus, his grandfather,
a skill he was to use to his advantage.
After a brief affair with the oft ill-tempered
God Poseidon, his grand-uncle,
the fearsome ruler of the seas,
young Pelops swung the other way.
He set his heart on marrying one Hippodamia,
a maiden most desirable to men,
the daughter of ruler of Pisae,
(who, like Tantalus of Phrygia, was
on the spear side of his line,
for Ares, mighty god of war, was his progenitor.)
Oenomaus loved his daughter very much,
in fact too much, for he combined
with his paternal love,
less admirable, more carnal feelings
for his delightful offspring. When suitors came
to seek and kiss her hand,
Oenomaus ever jealous
was determined that her hand
was all that they would ever kiss.
To this end, he challenged every hopeful squire
to pit their skill against him
in a chariot race; the prize for winning
was his daughter; the penalty for losing, death.
Oenomaus was himself no slouch in charioteering.
His chariot and his feisty horses
were a gift from Ares, one of the more aggressive
and competitive Olympians,
and at his side in every race, stood Myrtilus,
a master charioteer, the son of Hermes.
There was no suitor who could match
the Oenomaus’ team for speed and skill.
Instead of winning Hippodamia’s hand
the suitors lost their heads which Oenomaus
for reasons, best known and only to himself,
he then displayed,
nailed to the wooden pillars of his palace.
Pelops, aware of Oenomaus’
over-fondness for his daughter
and his charioteering credentials
took the precaution of calling on Poseidon,
his former lover, to help him
in his pursuit of Hippodamia.
With unexpected magnanimity
Poseidon, mighty master of the seething seas,
agreed to help,
supplying Pelops with a chariot
drawn by unbroken horses,
which, oddly, were equipped with wings.
I say oddly, as it would seem improbable
that Oenomaus would allow a suitor
for his daughter, to harness to his chariot
horses capable of flight,
thus gaining a significant advantage,
riding a coach and horses, so to speak,
through the spirit and the letter
of the rules that Oenomaus had laid down
for those who dared to seek
the hand of Hippodamia.
You may also wish to question why a god
whose realm was the deep ocean
and the ever-restless seas,
was in any way equipped to help
young Pelops win a race
that by its very nature
involved the use of wheels on land.
But as I’m sure you will recall
it was Poseidon’s habit
to scud across his broad domain
while standing in a chariot,
pulled by four hippocamps
or horses with fish tails.
Before we wander too far off the path
(although the means of both propulsion
and no less traction for a chariot with wheels
drawn by four hippocamps
legitimately raises several questions
which, if addressed, could cause a long detour)
let us continue with our story
by taking note that Oenomaus did not object
to Pelops’ chariot, except to stipulate that,
in the race, the chariot wheels at all times
must remain in contact with the ground.
His thinking was that showing no concern
that Pelops might have any chance of winning
would undermine this latest challenger,
excising from his psyche any hope of victory.
Therefore Pelops, in a desire to assure success,
and understandably affected by trust issues,
especially with regard to older men,
(after all, you will recall, he had been murdered
and dismembered on the orders of his father)
decided a further tilt of fortune
in his favour would not come amiss.
He bribed Myrtilus to substitute the metal lynchpins
on the wheels of Oenomaus’ chariot
with those made out of wax.
Just when it seemed that yet again,
the king would win the race
and, on this occasion, Pelops lose his head,
the waxen lynchpins melted
and the chariot of Oenomaus,
a gift of Ares, Oenomaus’ father, fell apart.
Oenomaus, clinging to the reins,
was dragged along the ground
by his stampeding horses
to a bruised and bloody death
but not before he found the time
to lay a curse upon the House of Pelops.
As undisputed winner of the race,
Pelops could claim the lovely Hippodamia
as his bride - and, as there was a vacancy,
the throne of Pisae too. In celebration of his victory
Pelops announced that at that time each year
in honour of the gods and of himself,
games should be held to mark his happy fortune -
events now known throughout the world
as the Olympic Games
Those more curious amongst you
will surely wish to know
what possible incentive could have led
the brave and noble Myrtilus
into betrayal of his master and to connive
in Oenomaus’ gory and inglorious death.
The answer is a simple one.
Pelops promised Myrtilus
half of the land and wealth of Pisae.
What’s more he said he would forego
the first night of his impending marriage,
allowing Myrtilus to take his place
in the clean-sheeted nuptial bed
and lie with Hippodamia.
Further issues need addressing.
First, let us explore the mental state
of Hippodamia who had spent
most of her adolescence
in the incestuous embrace of Oeonomaus.
When those with somewhat healthier desires,
more wholesome shall we say,
bravely approached to seek her hand
suitors from near and far,
this same tyrannical and twisted father
contrived to execute them
and make an exhibition of their severed heads.
What damage this had done to this young girl
we cannot know for sure,
although, after so many years of fatherly abuse,
it can’t have come as a surprise
to her that Oenomaus had a dark side
to his character, a fact which we can hope
ameliorated any grief she may have felt
for his abrupt, inglorious and bloody end.
I think that I can say with confidence
that only those with stones for hearts
could fail to wish poor Hippodamia
a kinder future, with Oenomaus gone.
But sad to say, the omens were not good.
Pelops decision, to trade the honour of his bride
to trick, defeat and kill her father,
is questionable on several grounds.
Many would judge his wish to kill her father
not unreasonable, although it should be said
a wife might have misgivings
about living with a man she knows conspired
to send her father to his grave,
albeit mild misgivings in this case
in view of Oenomaus’ disappointing record
in the parental role.
She might have had more difficulty
accepting that her future husband
had happily suborned his co-conspirator,
Myrtilus, the charioteer,
by trading both her body and her virtue
in order to induce him to betray his master.
That said, it would be wrong to think
that Hippodamia was an entirely passive victim
of wild, uncaring and lascivious men.
‘Tis said by some,
she acquiesced and possibly connived
in the humiliation of her father,
aware of Pelops’ plot and Myrtilus’s role.
Indeed, in some accounts,
she was the instigator of the stratagem.
She saw in Pelops opportunity
to oust the tyrant Oenomaus
and share the Kingdom
as rightful Queen of Pisae
beside the handsome son of Tantalus.
What can we say of Pelops?
The plot he hatched,
with or without the help of Hippodamia,
was born out of necessity.
Oenomaus was tyrannical.
If Pelops was to win the hand of Hippodamia,
Oenomaus had to die.
You will recall the rules that Oenomaus set
demanding that in every chariot race,
one of the two competitors must lose his life.
As for Pelops’ sordid deal with Myrtilus,
the pimping of his bride to be,
in mitigation Pelops might well plead
that he had no intention
of honouring his debt to Myrtilus, a defence
he adequately, but treacherously, substantiated
by engineering Myrtilus’s death,
throwing him from a cliff into the sea.
And for the matter of Myrtilus’s murder,
an act not without obvious and substantial risk -
for Hermes (fleet-footed messenger of Mt. Olympus,
and herald of the gods) was Myrtilus’s father -
Pelops could plead yet further mitigation
on the grounds that Myrtilus,
distressed that Pelops failed to keep his word
on sharing both his land and bridal bed,
had tried to force himself on Hippodamia.
Myrtilus, on the other hand,
saw matters in a rather different light.
One cannot help but speculate
that Myrtilus was half in love with Hippodamia
and eagerly conspired with Pelops
in the elimination of his master
to end the torment the young Hippodamia
had endured for so long at her father’s hands.
What’s more it’s not impossible
that Hippodamia had feelings for the charioteer
but with a wisdom far beyond her years,
no doubt engendered by her harrowing past,
concluded life with Pelops,
son of Tantalus, grandson of Zeus,
offered a rather better bet than anything
her father’s erstwhile servant could provide,
(despite his own distinguished lineage.)
As he sank beneath the waves
(still conscious after falling from the cliff,
but sadly not a gifted swimmer),
Myrtilus, aggrieved by how he had been treated,
endorsed the curse that Oenomaus had pronounced
upon the House of Pelops.
This double curse by Oenomaus, son of Mars,
and Myrtilus, himself a hero and at least half a god,
upon the House of Pelops was to resonate
down through the generations,
through Atreus and Agamemnon
to Orestes, her great grandson.