Agamemnon and Menalaous were the sons of Atreus, and are, on occasion, jointly referred to as Atreidae for that reason. However, the mythical history of the House of Atreus actually goes back to Tantalus, Agamemnon’s and Menalaous’ great grandfather. There are different versions of this mythical history, but all versions are rife with dark elements that form the basis of Greek tragedies.
The Greek male gods were notorious seducers of mortal women, and Zeus was the most notorious of the lot. Tantalus was a son of Zeus and a mortal, what is commonly referred to as a demigod. Pelops was Tantalus’ son. In order to marry Hippodamia, daughter of King Oenomaus, Pelops had to defeat the king in a chariot race. He enlisted the help of Myrtilus, Oenomaus’ servant, who sabotaged the King’s chariot, and the king was killed in the race. Pelops then killed Myrtilus, either to prevent him from revealing how the race was won, or, according to one version, because Myrtilus tried to rape Hippodamia. As he died, Myrtilus cursed Pelops and his descendants.Thereafter, Tantalus killed his son Pelops and tried to feed his body to the gods. Most of the gods perceived what was happening, but the goddess Demeter ate some Pelops’ flesh. Tantalus was condemned to eternal torment in Hades, the Greek underworld.
Before his grisly death, Pelops (the grandfather) had two sons with Hippodamia, Atreus and Thyestes (in some versions, father and uncle were twins). Hippodamia, Atreus, and Thyestes were banished to Mycenae (in one version, because the brothers murdered their step brother, the bastard son of Pelops). In Mycenae, the brothers were put in charge of the kingdom while the king was fighting a foreign war, and Atreus’ wife (Agamemnon andMenalaous’ mother) began an affair with Thyestes. When the king of Mycenae died in battle, Thyestes and Atreus’ wife used trickery to gain the permanent throne of Mycenae, but Atreus took the throne with the help of Zeus and the god Hermes. When Atreus learned of the adulterous affair between his wife and his brother, he killed Thyestes’ sons and fed them to their father, who was forced into exile for the sin of cannibalism. An oracle told to have a son with his own daughter, so that the son would kill Atreus. When that son, Aegisthus, was born, he was abandoned by his mother/sister, who was ashamed of her incestuous act. A shepherd found the infant and brought him to Atreus, who raised him as his own son, not realizing who he was and what he was ultimately supposed to do. Agamemnon and Menalaous were born thereafter. When Aegisthus reached manhood, he learned of his incestuous origins and the task he was conceived to perform. He killed Atreus, and he and Thyestes seized control of Mycenae, forcing Agamemnon and Menalaous to flee to Sparta. It is at this point that the curse of the House of Atreus entangles itself into the backstory, as set out in the Backstory page of this blog.
Tyndareus was then the King of Sparta. His wife Leda, had been seduced and impregnated by Zeus, who disguised himself as a swan for this purpose. (Zeus often disguised himself as an animal to seduce mortal women. What this says about the seduced women is beyond the scope of this already disturbing post.) This ornithological coupling caused Leda to lay two eggs. One egg hatched the children of Leda and Tyndareus, Clytemnestra and Castor. The other egg hatched the children of Leda and Zeus, Helen and Pollux. Helen and Pollux were thus demigod and demigoddess, respectively.
While in exile, the Atreidae, Agamemnon and Menalaous, married the two daughters, Clytemnestra and Helen, respectively. Variations of the myth have Clytemnestra betrothed or married to another man (a Peloponnesian king, or the king of Lydia, southeast of Troy), and another variation says she had an infant son. Most variations agree that Agamemnon used force to make Clytemnestra marry him, killing her fiancé/husband and her infant son as well. Upon Tyndareus’ death, Menalaous became king of Sparta. He helped Agamemnon drive out Thyestes and Aegisthus and regain the throne of Mycenae.
Twin brothers Castor and Pollux were involved in a family feud when the Trojan Prince Paris came to Sparta as a visitor. During preparations for the feast that would formally welcome Paris, the brothers left to pursue that feud, leaving their sister Helen alone with Paris, thus enabling Paris to kidnap or seduce Helen, and set the war in motion. Castor, the mortal twin, was killed in that feud. When Pollux, the demigod, offered to share his immortality with his brother so they could remain together, Zeus put them both in the sky as the brightest stars in the constellation Gemini.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
This grim saga spans four generations, with major players coming to the forefront and then disappearing to make way for the next generation of miscreants. It‘s difficult to remember their names, and disheartening to remember the details of their dismal exploits, but for present purposes, overarching themes are more important than the minutiae. As you read the shadow of Xeno’s eye, keep the following in mind:
- Throughout the Iliad and the ancillary myths, Menalaous doesn’t seem to have suffered greatly from the curse of the House of Atreus, other than having his wife abducted or seduced, as the case may have been. Agamemnon, on the other hand, appears to have borne the full brunt of the curse, as reflected in his violent courtship of Clytemnestra, the way he’s depicted in the Iliad, and his tragic relationship with his children, particularly his daughter Iphigenia, as described in Post #2, supra.
- If Helen really was the world’s most beautiful woman, and the daughter of a king, she would have had extremely eligible suitors from all over the Mediterranean, if not beyond, and her father, King Tyndareus, would have been weighing the political and economic implications many advantageous marriage proposals. Tyndareus, however, allowed her to marry Menalaous, a then-unpromising exile, whose family was susceptible to the darkest human passions and taboos. The two elements of the myth thus contradict each other, but the codex of myths accept that Helen was the world’s most beautiful woman, and disregards the unlikelihood of her marriage to Menalaous. However, if one instead accepts the alternative, that Tyndareus consented to Helen’s marriage with Menalaous because she was not the world’s most beautiful woman, that this exile from a volatile family was a comparatively good prospect, then the mythical basis of the mythical war dissolves.
- After Agamemnon sacrificed/murdered Iphigenia, Clytemnestra returned to Greece and took up with Aegisthus. Recall that Aegisthus was raised as a brother to Agamemnon and Menalaous, but was really the incestuous offspring of their uncle, Thyestes, and his daughter, their cousin, and that he’d been conceived to murder their father, Atreus. Cannibalism, murder, rape and incest run rampant through this royal(sic[k]) family’s history. (Strangely enough, the mythical gods of Mt. Olympus also came into being through a saga of violence [gods can’t die], incest, and cannibalism). I wonder if this explains why Homer’s Iliad ends with the death of Achilles, and the Odyssey picks up as Odysseus is leaving Troy after the war is over. It may be that the victory of Agamemnon’s armies was tainted by the curse of the House of Atreus, and became Pyrrhic, like the victory described in shadow.
- Consider the following: Corinth/Mycenae, the most powerful Greek city-state, was on the east coast of Greece, across the Mediterranean from Troy and the Hellespont. Though Ithaca was at the western tip of Greece, in the Ionian sea, it was small and puny, and therefore vulnerable to Corinthian force or influence. A rising Sparta, with a new King from a volatile background, would force Corinth to focus attention on Sparta, to the south, giving Ithaca and its wily king more room to maneuver and conduct its own affairs. One then wonders if Odysseus had a role in convincing Menalaous to marry Helen, if he needed convincing because she was not the world’s most beautiful woman.
There doesn’t appear to be a 21st century counterpart to the curse of the House of Atreus. President Bush (43) came from a privileged family that doesn’t appear to have been fraught with that kind of dark past. President Obama, who (for better or worse), took the Iraq war on as his own (ostensibly to secure a good position from which to withdraw from it), was raised by a single mother, but appears to have had a generally supportive family. In this one respect, the fraudulent wars of antiquity and modernity are dissimilar.