Tantalus and Niobe. The story of the House of Atreus is mostly important because it led to the great tragic plays of Aeschylus. Hamilton takes these as a source along with Pindar, Homer, Ovid, and Apollodorus. The House of Atreus includes Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra, his children Iphigenia, Orestes, and Electra, and his brother Menelaus. The whole family is cursed because their ancestor, Tantalus, sinned horribly against the gods.
These stories begin with simpler tales of evil being punished and good being rewarded, but the universe they inhabit then grows crueler and darker, leading to Aeschylus’s Oresteia, one of the greatest tragedies of history. The stories also deal heavily with the concept of fate and punishment.
Tantalus was a mortal son of Zeus who was greatly honored by the gods and often invited to feast with them on Olympus. One day Tantalus inexplicably kills his son Pelops, cooks him, and serves him to the gods. No one knows why Tantalus hated the gods so much that he wanted to punish them by making them cannibals. Hamilton suggests that in his arrogance he wanted to show that he could trick the gods.
This horrible deed ostensibly curses all of Tantalus’s descendants. One of the themes explored in this section is why the gods punish children for the sins of their parents. The Greeks seemingly accepted this as an explanation for why bad things sometimes happened to good people.
The Olympians immediately recognize the horrible feast before them, however, and they send Tantalus to be eternally punished in Hades, where he stands in a pool of water with fruit hanging over him, but every time he reaches for water or fruit it moves just out of his reach. He is always hungry and thirsty, “tantalized” by the unobtainable plenty before him.
This is where the modern word “tantalized” comes from, and a classic example of great evil being punished justly by the gods. The injustice of their punishment comes when Tantalus’s descendants are also condemned.
The gods restore Pelops to life, but they have to make him an ivory shoulder because one of the goddesses accidentally ate a bite of Tantalus’s food. The later Greeks did not like this part of the story, and rejected that the “blessed gods” could ever take part in cannibalism. Pelops has a relatively successful life (for a descendant of Tantalus) and wins the hand of Princess Hippodamia by beating her father in a chariot race. But Pelops later kills Myrtilus, the charioteer who helped him win the race, and thus brings down more misfortune on his family.
Cannibalism still stands as the Greek standard for the ultimate crime and atrocity, and the idea of the gods eating human flesh was abhorrent to them. They clearly savored the sensationalism of Tantalus’s crime, however, as it is repeated similarly in other myths. Hamilton does not describe Pelops’s sin, but says that some believed that it was his murder of Myrtilus that caused the curse to continue.
Niobe, Tantalus’s daughter, receives the full brunt of her father’s curse. Her life is successful at first, as she marries Zeus’s son Amphion, has seven brave sons and seven beautiful daughters, and lives in the fortified city of Thebes. But then her father’s mad hubris seizes her and Niobe demands that the people worship her instead of Leto, and she takes the goddess’s temple as her own.
Niobe is a prime example of hubris, the sin the gods hate most. It is always the danger of those who are too beautiful, too strong, or too successful, and the gods seem to delight in laying low the proud. If they are not falling in love with exceptional mortals, they are jealously punishing them.
To punish this arrogance, Apollo and Artemis immediately kill Niobe’s fourteen children in front of her. They then turn Niobe into a stone that weeps forever in eternal grief, so that the rock is always wet.
Apollo and Artemis, the two gods of purity and archery, show their terrifying sides in this swift and merciless punishment.
Pelops has two sons, Atreus and Thyestes, who are also doomed. Thyestes seduces Atreus’s wife, and as revenge Atreus kills Thyestes’ two young children, cuts them up, and serves them to their father to eat. This crime is again passed onto their children, rather than being punished in the two men’s lifetime.
The Greeks clearly found this act of serving one’s children as food to be especially potent, perhaps as the most atrocious sort of vengeance possible against a person. Again the justice is delayed onto the children, and so seems unjust.
Agamemnon and His Children. Agamemnon, Atreus’s son, is the next generation of sorrow. Homer first mentions Agamemnon’s tragedy in the Odyssey, and in this first version Agamemnon is killed by his wife’s lover Aegisthus. The story later changes subtly, and becomes a new incarnation of the twisted vengeance and justice of the House of Atreus.
Agamemnon was the chief commander of the Greek forces in the Trojan War, and is the King of Mycenae. In the early tale his murder is a simpler tale of lover’s jealousy, as Aegisthus and Clytemnestra kill him so they can be together.
As Hamilton already described, Agamemnon sacrificed his oldest daughter, Iphigenia, to make the winds favor the Greek ships on their way to Troy. While he was away his wife Clytemnestra had taken a lover, Aegisthus, and had also been plotting revenge against her husband for their daughter’s death. Agamemnon returns victorious, carrying with him Cassandra, the prophetess who is never believed.
The injustice of this story is that it was Artemis herself who began the cycle of bloodshed by demanding the sacrifice of Iphigenia. After that, the tale pits the different sacred rules of Greek society – notably vengeance and filial piety – against each other to tragic effect.
All the people of Mycenae have a foreboding of evil because of Agamemnon’s cursed family, and Cassandra rambles about the past atrocities, bloodshed always causing more bloodshed, finally prophesying her own death and Agamemnon’s, but she and Agamemnon still enter the palace. The doors shut behind them, and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus kill them.
Cassandra sees the bloody past and future of the family, but as usual she cannot change fate. Clytemnestra must choose between two crimes – letting her daughter die unavenged, and killing her husband – and she chooses to kill Agamemnon. The curse of this family is that they always choose vengeance.
Clytemnestra does not see this murder as a crime, but only as just retribution for the death of Iphigenia. Aegisthus, who is the son of Thyestes, had no quarrel with Agamemnon, but was punishing him for the sins of his father Atreus. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus then foolishly believe that they have ended the cycle of bloodshed with their actions.
Aegisthus is avenging his own father, who was forced to eat his children. This is a much more tragic motive for murder than simply that he loved Clytemnestra. They think they have ended the cycle of vengeance, but in this world bloodshed always begets more bloodshed.
Agamemnon had two other children: a son Orestes, who was taken away to be protected from Aegisthus, and a daughter Electra, who was forced to live under Clytemnestra and Aegisthus’s rule, all the while longing to avenge her father. Orestes grows up and sees his own terrible dilemma – to let his father go unavenged is a terrible crime, but for a son to kill his mother is also a terrible crime.
Unlike Oedipus, Orestes has some agency in his fate, but all his choices are evil. Aeschylus pits the sacred rule of vengeance against the sacred rule of filial piety. Orestes cannot throw off the curse of his family without disobeying the will of the gods as well.
Orestes goes to Delphi and asks the oracle to help him, and Apollo clearly says that he must kill Clytemnestra. Orestes realizes that he will pay for enacting this justice with his own soul, but he has no other choice. He returns to Mycenae with his cousin Pylades and finds Electra there. She is overjoyed at Orestes’ return, and the two plot their mother’s death.
Orestes is a new kind of tragic hero, as he is willing to bring condemnation and suffering down upon himself to obey fate and the will of the gods. He is a hero precisely because he is not free to do heroic deeds, but can only choose a path of suffering.
Orestes and Pylades pretend to be a messengers relaying news of Orestes’ death, and they are welcomed into the palace, where they begin to fight. Clytemnestra is warned of Orestes’ coming moments before he encounters her. She begs him to spare her life, but Orestes reluctantly faces his fate and kills his mother and then Aegisthus.
There is no opportunity for adventure and overcoming evil in Aeschylus’s universe, there is only evil all around and within. Orestes faces his fate heroically, though that fate is to murder his own mother and uncle.
When Orestes emerges from the palace he starts to see the Furies pursuing him, demanding vengeance for his mother’s death. He flees the country and wanders in agony for years. Finally he is sent by Apollo to appeal to Athena. Orestes confesses his guilt and Athena accepts his plea. With her mercy the Furies themselves change, transforming into the Eumenides, “protectors of the suppliant.” With Orestes’ acquittal, the curse of the House of Atreus is finally broken.
Orestes becomes almost a Christ-like figure here as the myth ends on a more hopeful note. By choosing to sacrifice himself to condemnation and suffering, Orestes transforms the Furies for all mortals, ushering in a new age of possible atonement. His heroism is rewarded in this at least.
Iphigenia among the Taurians. Hamilton takes this story from Euripides, and points out the unnecessary “deus ex machina” at the end. As she stated before, the later Greeks did not like human sacrifice being associated with their gods, so they changed the part of Agamemnon’s story where Artemis demands Iphigenia’s life. In this later version, at the last second Artemis provides a deer as sacrifice instead, and whisks Iphigenia away to the land of the Taurians.
The later change to make Artemis less bloodthirsty creates this new myth, but it also complicates the other stories of Clytemnestra and Orestes. Because each poet was always changing the myths for his own purposes, this bending of logic is possible to keep Artemis more “blessed.”
The Taurians have the terrible custom of sacrificing any Greek they capture to Artemis, but they spare Iphigenia. They make her a priestess of the temple, which means she must preside over the sacrifices of her countrymen, but she performs this role for years.
Ironically, Iphigenia is spared becoming a sacrifice to Artemis only so she can become a priestess sacrificing others to Artemis. The myth cannot seem to escape the idea of human sacrifice.
In this story, Orestes is not fully absolved of his guilt yet, and the oracle has told him to go to the Taurian country and take the image of Artemis from their temple. When he brings it to Athens, he will finally be at peace. Orestes and Pylades set out on this quest, but they are quickly captured by the Taurians and given to Iphigenia to sacrifice.
This story must also change Orestes’ heroic redemption so that he has reason for another trial and can save his sister. This quest becomes similar to those of other heroes, as they seek to steal a holy object, though Orestes and Pylades immediately fail.
Iphigenia, who has been musing that Artemis surely would not demand such gruesome sacrifices as the Taurians make, does not recognize her brother, and she asks him about Agamemnon and Mycenae. Orestes reluctantly tells her about the many horrors of the family, and says that they all assume Iphigenia is dead.
Iphigenia seems to be musing on her own fate in this story, and reflecting Euripides’ own ideas about the gods refusing human sacrifice. At this point in Greek culture, mortals generally held their gods to a higher moral standard.
Stirred by the news of home, Iphigenia promises to free Pylades if he will find her brother Orestes and tell him that she is alive and in need of rescue. At that Orestes reveals his identity, and the amazed siblings are reunited. They begin to plan their escape, though Iphigenia does not want to kill Thoas, the Taurian king, as he has treated her kindly.
The oracle’s plan starts to come to fruition, and it is implied that part of Orestes’ atonement will involve rescuing his sister. The story relishes the long reveal of the siblings’ identities.
Iphigenia tells King Thoas that the prisoners are unclean, as they have killed their mother, and she must take the image of Artemis along with the prisoners to be cleansed by the sea before they can be sacrificed. The three then make their escape with the image, but then a heavy wind blows their ship back towards land. By then Thoas has discovered Iphigenia’s plot and is ready to kill the three Greeks when they land.
It is Iphigenia who does the rescuing more than Orestes. She takes advantage of Artemis’s image of purity – which contrasts with the human sacrifices Artemis supposedly demands. The story could have ended here if Euripides had left out the final wind, but he wanted a god to appear to declare that fate favored the Greeks.
Suddenly Athena appears, and she commands Thoas to let Orestes and Iphigenia go, as they are fated to escape. Thoas submits to Athena’s wish, the wind shifts, and the Greeks sail away safely. Hamilton points out that this “deus ex machina” ending could have been avoided by leaving out the shifting wind, but that at the time Euripides was writing the Athenians were at war, and starved for miracles.
This kind of “deus ex machina” – “god from the machine” – is now a sign of a badly plotted story, but Euripides purposefully arranges his neatly-ordered tale to allow Athena to save everyone.