The House of Atreus is cursed. I have been making my way through Louis MacNeice’s 1939 translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which is sometimes tough going, but that much is clear. As a way to get a better grip on the web of treachery and stink of ancestral blood, I decided to find images of the myth in Greek vases. Sure enough, there were no shortage of them.
According to some stories, the rot goes all the way back to Tantalus, who tried to serve up his son Pelops to the Olympian gods for dinner. The gods caught the trick in time and banished Tantalus to the Underworld to be eternally ‘tantalized’. They reconstructed Pelops (replacing his shoulder with an ivory prosthesis because Demeter had absent-mindedly swallowed his original one).
Some time later, Pelops (who was now as good as new) fell in love with Hippodamia. Her father was Oenomaus, a King who had heard a prophecy that he’d be killed by his son in law. He had therefore decided to challenge each of her other suitors to a chariot race and then kill him when he inevitably lost. Pelops was afraid of losing like the 18 suitors before him, so he enlisted the help of his former lover Poseidon, who gave him four winged horses. Just to make completely sure of the outcome, though, Pelops also struck up a dirty deal with Oenomaus’ charioteer Myrtilus: If he took out the bronze linchpins connecting the axle to the chariot wheels, replacing them with wax linchpins, the charioteer would have the right to sleep with Hippodamia on the first night of her wedding to Pelops. Myrtilus kept up his end of the bargain and the King was killed, dragged by his own horses. Pelops was not grateful to Myrtilus but threw him off a cliff. As the charioteer was falling to his death, he cursed his killer (incidentally, the site of Myrtilus’ burial place in Olympia was known as a taraxippus, literally a ‘horse disturber’, a place haunted by ghosts or dangers).
Pelops and Hippodamia had two sons: Thyestes and Atreus. The brothers fought for ascendancy and Atreus won. Atreus married Aerope but she became lovers with Thyestes. When Atreus learned of this adultery, he prepared a delicious feast for Thyestes, without telling him that the meat was Thyestes’ own children. Horrified by his consumption of human flesh, Thyestes cursed Atreus:
When he knew what all unhallowed thing He thus had wrought, with horror’s bitter cry Back-starting, spewing forth the fragments foul, On Pelops’ house a deadly curse he spake: As darkly as I spurn this damned food, So perish all the race of Pleisthenes! Note: Pleisthenes is one of the sons in the stew.
As time winds on, the malediction ripens. Paris abducts Menelaus’ wife Helen and takes ‘the fair mischief’ to Troy. Paris was staying as a guest in Menelaus’ house when he kidnapped Helen, which means his act was not only adulterous but also violated rules related to hospitality sacred to Zeus. None of this is good news for Troy:
What curse on palace and on people sped With her, the Fury sent on Priam’s pride, By angered Zeus! What tears of many a widowed bride!
Agamemnon and Menelaus prepare an army to go to Troy. While they are wondering if it’s still the right thing to do, they see a pair of eagles:
And one was black, one bore a white tail barred. High o’er the palace were they seen to soar, Then lit in sight of all, and rent and tare, Far from the fields that she should range no more, Big with her unborn brood, a mother-hare.
A soothsayer gleans from this that Troy will fall but that it will anger Artemis, who hates to see young animals killed. In return she will demand “a curst unhallowed sacrifice/’Twixt wedded souls”.
Knowing that the trip will be basically successful, Agamemnon gathers forces to go help Menelaus get Helen back, but Artemis stalls the ships at Aulis. A priest advises Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia so the ships will be able to go on to Troy. He does so, and so earns the ever-lasting hatred of his wife Clytemnestra:
And ill, to smite my child, my household’s love and pride! To stain with virgin Hood a father’s hands, and slay My daughter, by the altar’s side!
Meanwhile, in Troy, another curse is in progress. The god Apollo falls in love with Cassandra, a beautiful Trojan princess. Afraid of him, she promises she will marry him and he gives her the gift of prophecy. She then breaks her promise and he changes the gift to a curse—no one will ever believe her prophecies. Instead, they’ll scorn her and call her a “witch and cheat”. Cassandra predicts the Fall of Troy but she is powerless to prevent it. On the night it falls, Ajax the Lesser tears her away from the sanctuary of Athena, rapes her then gives her to Agamemnon as a slave.
When Cassandra arrives in Argos as Agamemnon’s captive, she immediately senses the family curse. She sees ghostly children—Tyndareus’ sons—on the roof and hears the Curse as Furies who physically occupy Agamemnon’s palace and gloat about all the misery therein, stemming from the ‘incestuous’ affair between Thyestes and Aerope:
Within this house a choir abidingly Chants in harsh unison the chant of ill; Yea, and they drink, for more enhardened joy, Man’s blood for wine, and revel in the halls, Departing never, Furies of the home. They sit within, they chant the primal curse, Each spitting hatred on that crime of old, The brother’s couch, the love incestuous That brought forth hatred to the ravisher.
When Clytemnestra boasts about murdering Agamemnon, the Chorus see her as a tuneless raven in an image that recalls the ‘harsh unison’ of the ‘chant of ill’ sung by the Furies of the house:
Thy very form I see, Like some grim raven, perched upon the slain, Exulting o’er the crime, aloud, in tuneless strain!
Clytemnestra herself agrees, suggesting that she is to some extent possessed by a daimon:
Right was that word—thou namest well The brooding race-fiend, triply fell! From him it is that murder’s thirst, Blood-lapping, inwardly is nursed— Ere time the ancient scar can sain, New blood comes welling forth again.
Where will it all end? The problem is that the murder is wrong in at least three different, polluting ways: a wife has murdered her husband, a nephew (Aigisthos) has murdered his uncle, and a guest (Aigisthos) has murdered his host. This all means that new blood will have to be spilled into infinity. Or does it? Aeschylus hashes out the resolution in the next two plays: The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides.