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.
Some of the greatest works of Greek literature are by-products of a big penis festival. We tend to think of tragedy as something appalling and extremely serious, but the Greek name tragos-oide meant ‘goat song’ and it developed as part of a wild celebration devoted to the god of wine, frenzies and spiritual ecstasy.
In Syracuse, Sicily, 470BCE, Aeschylus presented The Persians, the oldest surviving Greek tragedy and the only one about recent historical events. But before I tell you about that, let’s look at the festival of Dionysos, the context in which ancient Greeks viewed tragedy.
The Dionysian Mysteries were…mysteries! We don’t know much about them except that they involved getting into a trance (usually induced by alcohol, drugs, bull-roarers, whips and music etc.). There was a seasonal death-rebirth theme (common to agriculture-based cults) related to the fact that Dionysus is the only Olympian god to have died and then been brought back to life. Symbols associated with the cult and the god were ivy (which grows with grapes), figs (a purgative), pine (a wine preservative), the bull (whose horns were used as cups) and the goat (whose skin was used as a wine container).
The female initiates, the Maenads, were usually portrayed working themselves up into an ecstatic frenzy by dancing and drinking wine, wrapping snakes and animal skins over themselves and holding the distinctive thyrsos (a long stick with a pinecone at the top). Peter Hoyle describes the classic Maenad ritual:
“Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood’ [or ‘staggered drunkenly with what was known as the Dionysus gait’]. ‘In this state of ekstasis or enthusiasmos, they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly and shouting ‘Euoi!’ [the god’s name] and at that moment of intense rapture became identified with the god himself. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine powers.”
P. 76 of Delphi by Peter Hoyle London: Cassell, 1967
The original festival of Dionysos, ‘Rural Dionysia’ as the Athenians knew it, originated in a city called Eleutherea. It was celebrated in the month of the winter solstice. Plutarch’s description of the early Athenian version probably approximates the original event:
“Our traditional festival of the Dionysia was in the past a simple and merry procession. First came a jug of wine and an olive branch, then one celebrant dragged a he-goat along, another followed with a basket of dry figs, and the phallos-bearer came last.” (Plut. De Cupid. Divit. p527D)
After this procession, bulls would be sacrificed, the celebrants would feast, and there would be competitions of dancing, poetry and singing, particularly choirs performing ‘dithyrambs’—hymns to Dionysos.
Sometime around the mid-sixth century, heaps of Attic vases started popping up showing scenes from the festival, and these suggest that this was when the festival started to be celebrated in Athens too, where it was called the ‘City Dionysia’ or the ‘Great Dionysia’.
They say that when Eleutherea chose to give up its independence to become part of Attica (mainly to spite the Thebans to the north), it presented a wooden statue of Dionysus to Athens. Athens rejected it and was subsequently hit by a plague that affected male genitalia. Eager to propitiate the god, Athens hastily accepted the cult of Dionysius and the plague disappeared. Every year afterwards, Athenians held a procession in which citizens carried phalluses. Maybe this story is true, maybe it’s just an attempt to explain all the oversized phalluses. In any case, Athens adopted the Dionysia but celebrated it at a different time: mid- to late-March.
The Athenian procession seems to have been pretty similar to the one Plutarch described, but on a much bigger, more magnificent scale.
The basket-bearer, the kanephoros, was a girl between the ages of 11 and 15 chosen from one of the city’s aristocratic families to carry a basket full of sacrificial food—in this case figs. Her purity (virginity) and youth were considered essential to ensure a successful sacrifice. Along the same line of reasoning, she was richly and beautifully dressed.
People carried small replicas of phalluses made of wood or bronze, but there were also really giant ones that needed to be carried on platforms. The phallus-bearers were men. Notice that in this picture they are carrying, in addition to the huge phallus, the statue of a giant satyr and a little guy riding the satyr. Note, too, that the phallus has eyes. The bearers all appear to have erections, which probably means they were wearing artificial ones. Herodotus has an interesting snippet here:
There was another group of men called ithyphalloi who were sort of like penis clowns. They wore costumes that made it seem like they were growing heaps of phalluses every which-where. There also seem to have been groups of men dressed as satyrs (a satyr is a mythical man with big eyes, an ass’s ears and tail and a permanently erect penis).
Another recurring feature was a wheeled wagon, resembling a ship, containing the figure of Dionysus and satyrs – an ancient float.
The retinue would have otherwise included men leading the bulls to the altars for sacrifice, foreigners (metics) carrying oversized loaves of bread to be cooked over the sacrificial fire, water-carriers, wine-carriers other-offering-carriers (honey cakes, fruit, oil etc.) and others.
Participants in the parade wore masks, wreaths, fancy dress and body paint. The young men were practically expected to be drunk and aggressive, intoxicated both by wine, mob participation and ritual frenzy. There were supervising forces hired by the city to make sure the rough stuff didn’t get out of hand, but the point was to let oneself go and it was common to see paraders threaten onlookers with fake penises, or to whip them with strips of leather.
Wealth was on display, part of the sense of excess and superfluity. The orator Demosthenes, who became choregos (an official in charge of the expenses of civic theatrical productions) in 348BCE, ordered gold-spun gowns and golden crowns for every one of his choir members—a spectacle calculated to impress the public and enhance his reputation. This, too, was when Allies publicly paid ‘tribute’ to Athens—money meant to benefit the common good, and this was deposited in the orchestra of the theater.
Music was a big part of the festival. During the procession, songs were addressed to the giant phalluses, harps and lyres were played. There were probably drums, whistles, kazoos and all sorts. After this procession came competitions for singing and dancing, then a special competition in which dithyrambs (choral hymns to Dionysus) were performed by choirs of fifty men or boys.
Professor Eric Csapo suggests the City Dionysia was a kind of celebration of the end of forced Lent, since it coincided with the opening up of sailing season–sea communications were strictly closed for about four months over the winter period.
“Classical Athenians connected the sailing season with the Dionysia because the festival and its associated markets were designed to alleviate the want and tedium of a long winter: food, money, unusual privileges and dazzling entertainments.”
The festival was not just an agricultural feast, but also a social and political congregation. People came from all over the Delian League not only to perform their religious duty, but also to socialize, to get news from abroad, to enjoy community riches and (probably) to conduct trade and make business connections. Representatives from other cities coming to celebrate the festival were required to bring a cow and a phallus. The cows—hundreds of them– were to be sacrificed to Dionysus, and the food and wine would be distributed among celebrants.
After the procession, the theatre of Dionysus was purified by the sacrifice of a bull. Then there were five days devoted to performances in the theater. Three playwrights each contributed a set of three tragedies and one short satyr play (The first day, the first playwright presented all his plays; the second day, the second playwright presented his, and the third day the third playwright showed his). The satyr play was a kind of burlesque full of jokes and prat-falls. It was often inserted between the second and third play just to provide some light relief in all the bone-harrowing gloom. No one knows for sure what was performed on the other days, but it might have been more dithyrambs.
On the last day of Dionysia there was another procession and the winners of the competitions were announced. The victorious playwright would receive a wreath of ivy.
Aeschylus and The Persians
By 470, Aeschylus had been winning the ivy wreath pretty much every year for a decade. What’s more, he was a war hero. He’d participated in the Battle of Marathon, where his brother died heroically trying to prevent a Persian ship from retreating. Then, at the Battle of Salamis, he lost one of his hands. In Athenian terms, it would be hard to be more of a celebrity.
Hiero I was tyrant of Syracuse at the time, a very busy ruler and an enthusiastic patron of the arts. He wanted Aeschylus to write a play about a new city he’d just founded. Aeschylus complied, and in 470 he presented The Women of Etna and restaged The Persians, which had first appeared in Athens in 472.
The Persianswas a depiction of a very recent event—the Battle of Salamis in 480, the naval conflict where Aeschylus had lost one of his hands. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Greeks had won and Xerxes had gone home, leaving his generals to handle the conquest. The next spring, in 479, the Allies defeated the Persians again at the Battle of Plataea, effectively ending Persia’s interest in Greece for good.
Aeschylus’ play is a dramatization of total defeat—the moment when Athens crushes Persia. It is not set on the battlefield but back at home, in the royal city of Susa, at the exact moment when Xerxes’ mother Atossa, and the rest of the city, learns what happened. At the very end of the play, Xerxes, the ‘King of Kings’ who set such store by luxury, comes limping home in rags, to the accompaniment of shrieks of ritual mourning from a chorus of old men.
The play recalls the grief of Hektor’s parents when they learn of his death in The Iliad–it has the powerful pathos of war seen from the losing side. Then again, it’s not difficult to imagine Greeks gleaning some enjoyment from a blow-by-blow account of their enemy’s fall from glory to grief, and from the criticism of Xerxes’ foolish pride and mistakes. There must have been an element of gloating in the audience.
The anxiety the Persian Threat caused the Athenians was unbelievable. In the first place, as the name suggests, the Second Persian Invasion was essentially a continuation of the First Persian Invasion, which began back in 492BCE as punishment to Athens and Eretria for aiding and abetting Ionian rebels in 499. By 480, there had already been two decades of tension. You only have to look at a map of the Achmaenid Empire to sympathize with mainland Greeks for worrying.
The stakes were high. As a punishment for assisting rebels, Persia demolished Eretria and took its people as slaves. Athens fought for all it was worth, had an amazing victory at Marathon in 490, and the Persians went home. Darius immediately started planning a re-match but he died in 486. In 480, Darius’ son Xerxes I was ready to try again, this time aiming to conquer the whole peninsula. He mustered a huge army and navy, manned by people from all over the Persian Empire—Assyrians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Jews, Macedonians, Thracians and Greeks. On the Greek side, 70 city-states joined the resistance, with Athens and Sparta in the lead. Even so, most Greek cities stayed neutral or submitted to Xerxes, believing the Persians were too big to fail.
No wonder it was such a popular subject with Greeks. Vase painters also went to town with the Persian-Aversion theme, stressing their strange garb, their archery, their smurf hats, pointy shoes and ludicrous pantaloons.
Aeschylus must have enjoyed his visit to Sicily because he returned here several times. The last was a trip to Gela, where he died in 456. According to the legend, an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. Remarkably, his tombstone makes no explicit mention of his plays, preferring to praise his role in preventing Athens’ extinction:
Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian, who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela; of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak, and the long-haired Persian knows it well.