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.

Go to Atrides - Part Three