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,

was Tantalus.

 

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,

deeply dysfunctional

from one end to the other.

 

Enough.

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,

one Oenomaus,

(who, like Tantalus of Phrygia, was

on the spear side of his line,

exceedingly well-born;

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,

from Hippodamia

through Atreus and Agamemnon

to Orestes, her great grandson.

Go to Atrides - Part Two