Atrides - Part Two
I cannot honestly pretend
that Hippodamia had a happy life
Her time with Pelops had its ups and downs.
At least, in breeding terms it was productive.
She bore some sixteen children.
amongst them Atreus and Thyestes,
two brothers who will play a major role
in this part of the story.
In addition to the sixteen offspring
that Hippodamia bore him,
Pelops found time to sire another son, one Chrysippus,
by the nymph Axioche, also known as Danais.
There are those who say young Chrysippus
was blighted by the curse of Myrtilus,
but, in my view, it’s far more likely
he fell victim to the ire of Hippodamia.
in that he was beyond dispute the son of Pelops
but she was not his mother.
While still a youth, he set out with his tutor,
the Theban Laius, for the Nemean games
where Chrysippus intended to compete.
But Laius had far more interest in the boy
than in the games,
and had a rather different sport in mind.
Exploiting his authority as a tutor,
he took the callow Chrysippus, to Thebes,
his native home, and there he raped him.
Abused and shamed
the boy returned to Pisae where,
if such a thing is possible,
matters took an abrupt turn for the worse.
His half brothers Alcathous, Atreus and Thyestes,
(the last two we have met before)
egged on by vengeful Hippodamia,
took it upon themselves to end the misery
of Chryssipus’s sad existence, once and for all.
They murdered him.
Pelops was not amused.
For their heinous crime, all three brothers,
together with their mother Hippodamia,
were summarily banished -
Alcathous fled to Megara;
Atreus and Thyestes, with Hippodamia,
made their way to Mycenae where Atreus,
of noble birth, albeit deeply cursed,
undertook the governing of the city
in the absence of King Eurytheus.
Eurystheus, the rightful king,
was otherwise engaged in fighting the Heracleidae.
“And who were the Heracleidae?” you ask,
perhaps confused or overwhelmed
by introduction of so many names and characters
in such short space and time.
They were the children of the mighty Heracles,
the son of Zeus and Alcmene,
on whom Eurystheus,
favoured by primal goddess, Hera,
(who, like Hippodamia, was less than pleased
with sons her husband sired without her help)
had imposed twelve daunting labours,
twelve heroic tasks to test Heracles’ mettle
and to punish him for killing his own family.
But that’s another story.
It is sufficient here to say
that there was serious ill-feeling
between Eurytheus and the numerous children
whom Heracles had fathered. And in pursuit
of victory over the Heracleidae,
Eurytheus lost first his life,
and then his throne to Atreus.
But Eurytheus’ anger with the Heracleidae
was pale and anaemic if we compare it
to the vitriolic enmity between the brothers
Atreus and Thyestes, the blighted sons
of the accursed Pelops. As we shall see,
their limitless, fraternal rivalry
led them to commit such heinous crimes
against each other
as ever man has perpetrated
against his vilest enemy.
It falls to me to explicate,
but not in any way excuse,
why Atreus and Thyestes,
bound by the bonds of brotherhood,
were at each other’s throats.
Reasons were many and diverse,
amongst them fierce competition
for the Mycenaen throne
which Atreus first held,
then lost to Thyestes
and then regained
and lost again, for the last time, together with his life.
Yet even more compelling than their lust for power
was the ever-escalating cruelty
each showed the other,
ensuing from their characters in which
the curse of Oenomaus and Myrtilus
found ample scope for self-expression.
And then there was Aerope’s infidelity with Thyestes.
Aerope was a princess born in Crete
who married Atreus.
When she embarked on marriage with a son of Pelops
we guess she was aware the family was cursed.
Undaunted by the history of violence,
she embarked on an adulterous affair
with Atreus’s brother Thyestes. I think it’s fair to say
Aerope was a risk-taker.
When Atreus and Thyestes were first competing
for the throne of Mycenae,
it was agreed between the brothers
that he who had the finest sheep should become king,
Atreus agreed because he had within his flocks
a truly wondrous golden lamb.
It seemed that his success was certain.
But Aerope, who favoured Thyestes in every way,
had, unbeknown to Atreus, removed the lamb
from Atreus flock and given it to Thyestes.
Much to Atreus’ chagrin, Thyestes took the throne.
When Atreus complained, Thyestes was firm;
“Not till the sun moves backwards in the sky”,
would he give up the throne.
Thyestes clearly meant
that he would never abdicate.
But he had failed to take account
of what the gods can do.
Zeus, not renowned for high regard for marital fidelity,
but angered by Thyestes trickery,
and disregard of all the rules of brotherhood,
compelled the sun to make a backward move,
and, stunned by this celestial aberration,
Thyestes had no choice but to concede.
When Atreus, now king again, discovered that
Thyestes had seduced his wife,
(Aerope giving Thyestes the golden lamb
was clue enough)
he banished Thyestes from Mycenae,
showing on this occasion much forbearance,
not out of mercy
but inhibited by the gods dislike of fratricide.
His family was already doubly cursed.
There surely was no need for further provocation.
Despite his brother’s moderate response,
Thyestes, with an unsubtle sense of irony,
sent the boy Pleisthenes, a son of Atreus
(whom Thyestes had brought up as his own),
to kill his brother, delighting in the thought
that unbeknown to both the killer and the killed,
Atreus would die at the hand of his own son,
thus, from Thyestes’ point of view,
finally and fortuitously resolving
his fraught fraternal link with Atreus
and, at the same time, deflecting from himself
the ire of the gods.
You will observe Thyestes’ reasoning
was far from sound. If Atreus had died,
struck down by Pleisthenes,
no god with half a brain
would then exonerate Thyestes of the crime.
It is just possible that Zeus,
preoccupied with bedding mortal maidens,
might not have asked why Pleisthenes
had, unprovoked, set out to kill his father,
but ever-watchful Hera would at once
have traced the driving force behind the crime
back to Thyestes.
No matter. Thyestes cunning plan was,
like his reasoning, profoundly flawed.
No match for Atreus, the young, callow
and quite possibly hermaphroditic Pleisthenes
was not cut out for the assassin’s role.
Predictably failed in his mission
and was easily despatched by Atreus.
Atreus was, understandably, not best pleased
with Thyestes when he discovered
he had inadvertently killed one of his sons.
Not far behind in irony,
and certainly not to be outdone,
Atreus summoned Thyestes,
ostensibly to recreate fraternal harmony.
At the dinner, to celebrate the reconciliation,
Atreus served a dish in which the main ingredient
was flesh of Thyestes’ freshly butchered sons,
a dish of which Thyestes,
unknowingly, partook with relish.
Thus Atreus, who had been duped
into killing his own son,
watched as Thyestes, the seducer of his wife
and the contriver of his unintended filicide,
consumed the flesh of his own progeny.
It was now Thyestes turn
to feel the need for vengeance.
An oracle had told Thyestes that if he sired a son
by raping his own child Pelopia,
his desire for revenge would be fulfilled in spades.
Obedient to his lust for vengeance,
Thyestes, disguised himself with cloak and mask,
and fell upon Pelopia,
as she was washing by a stream and raped her. While being raped, Pelopia,
perhaps pondering the possibility
of killing her assailant,
or simply to distract herself,
took from its sheath the sword of Thyestes
and, when the rape was over,
concealed it in the temple of Athena.
Ravaged and shamed, Pelopia, sought refuge
in the court and in the arms of Atreus,
who failed to realise that his new love
had come to him with both the child and curse
of Thyestes growing within her womb.
Pelopia aware the child’s paternity was questionable
but probably the outcome of the rape,
attempted to disown the boy,
but, though abandoned to the elements,
the boy survived, first in the care of shepherds
and then taken back to court by Atreus,
who thought the boy his own and brought him up
as though he were his son.
It’s worth considering how helpful DNA analysis
would have been, if only it had been available,
in ancient Greece.
We can’t be sure that Pleisthenes was Atreus’s son,
for, after all. we must assume that Aerope
was having intercourse contemporaneously
with both her husband and Thyestes.
Given Aerope’s sexual appetite,
had she been unresponsive in her husband’s bed,
Atreus would have been well aware at once
that Aerope was recklessly engaged in playing away,
And yet, until Aerope gave the golden lamb
to Thyestes, her infidelity was not suspected.
How can we even know for sure
Aegisthus was the son of Thyestes?
It’s true that poor Pelopia was raped by Thyestes,
but Thyestes was not involved in bringing up the child;
while Atreus, we know, welcomed the boy
and brought him up as though he was his son.
Is it not possible that,
while Aerope and Thyestes were making love,
Atreus was at it with Pelopia,
and when Aegisthus saw the light of day,
no one was certain sure exactly who it was
who’d fathered him?
There is no evidence for these suspicions
But think how useful ‘twould have been,
with benefit of DNA analysis,
for every son to know
without the shadow of a doubt
who his father was. And equally for every father
to know his son was his.
After the passing of the years in which the enmity
between the brothers, far from waning,
grew deeper and more passionate, Atreus,
fearful that while his brother lived,
he never would enjoy security or peace of mind,
sent his supposed son, Aegisthus, to kill Thyestes.
Aegisthus accepted the assignment, setting out,
with, at his side, the sword his mother had acquired
while the disguised Thyestes was raping her.
Thyestes recognised the sword.
Aegisthus summoned Pelopia. ‘Twas clear to all
the owner of the sword must be the man
who years before had raped Pelopia.
Thus in one moment,
Aegisthus realised Thyestes was his father
and Pelopia learned the son that she had born
was also her own brother, that he and she
shared the same father. Too much for Pelopia,
she took the sword and plunged it through her heart.
The reaction of Aegisthus to his mother’s death
and revelation of a natural father,
a father who had raped his only daughter,
who was his legal father’s bitter enemy,
and who had made Pelopia, his mother,
the sister of her son
was not exactly what one might expect.
It’s testament to Thyestes’ charisma and his charm,
that having bedded Atreus’s wife in years gone by,
he had no problem in persuading Aegisthus
to join him in usurping Atreus,
the man who had for many years been father
to the abandoned outcome
of Thyestes rape of Pelopia.
To win Aegisthus to his side,
Thyestes may have mentioned
that his brother and his rival Atreus
had some twenty years before
murdered Aegisthus’ siblings
and served them at a dinner to Thyestes,
who, unaware, had eaten his own kith and kin.
That may have done the trick.
Together Aegisthus and Thyestes
devised a plan to murder Atreus
and put Thyestes on the throne once more.
This they then did.
Aegisthus came upon his erstwhile father
upon a lonely shore and cut him down.
Thyestes took the throne
and promptly banished from Mycenae
the sons of Atreus,
the mighty Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus.
And thus the oracle’s prediction was fulfilled.
Thyeste’s rape of Pelopia had brought into the world
the means to satisfy Thyestes’ thirst for vengeance.
But as with most oracular predictions,
although fulfilled, the future often showed
a well-developed sense of irony.
Years later, with the help of Tyndareus,
the powerful king of Sparta,
Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus,
returned to Mycenae and drove Thyestes out,
to languish on the island of Cythera.
The brothers then both married
daughters of Tyndareus.
Menelaus took Helen as his wife and ruled in Sparta;
while Agamemnon remained in Mycenae,
with Clytemnestra as his wife.
We should, I think, at this point take time out
to take on board the full extent of the depravity
of almost all of those whom we have met
in this account of the Atrides
Of course we must remember the curse
that Myrtilus and Oenomaus had pronounced
on Pelops and his kin, and yet before ascribing
this catalogue of deviant behaviour to curses
of those who felt aggrieved
by members of the Pelops clan,
we must recall that prior to the deeds I now describe, the titan Cronus, ate each child he sired
as soon as it was born
– while Zeus his youngest son,
who, with his mother’s help,
escaped his father’s filicidal appetite,
did not chop off his father’s head,
a retribution of which many would approve,
but rather took a sickle to his father’s genitals.
In other words, with or without the benefit of curses,
there clearly was a streak of madness
running through the heads and hearts
of this accursed line of life
from Zeus to Atreus and beyond.
There will be those who see these myths
merely as products of the minds of storytellers
who, throughout the ages, have delved
into the darkest corners of the human mind
to shock and entertain. And ‘tis true that
when surveying myths of ancient times,
the factual and the fictional are interwoven
in such a way that truth and the effulgences
of wild and even mad imagination,
are inextricably entwined.
And yet it’s not unreasonable to ask
why, when the gifted generations
born many centuries before the birth of Christ,
addressed creational and existential issues,
they would concoct a world of gods and monsters
and of people capable of actions that are
the very worst and most extreme
the human mind can possibly imagine.
But this is not the time to undertake
to answer questions such as these.
I shall return to wrestle with these issues
when the time is right.
For now, with half our tale untold,
we should and must proceed.