Two Acts of Troy
The Tales of Aquarius, Aquila and Gemini

Chapter 3: The House of Atreus

There was a curse that befell the House of Atreus and it was caused by pride and violence. It originated with Atreus' grandfather who was a son of Zeus. His name was Tantalus and he was the King of Lydia.

Zeus invited his son Tantalus to Olympus. He was the only mortal who had ever been invited to feast with the gods. Although Tantalus was used to opulence and comfort, he had never seen anything so beautiful as the palace in the clouds for it was open to the sun and stars and gentle breezes, and the high pillars which divided room from room were the warm amber and rosy hues of sunrise. The palace had a spectacular view of all the mountains, rivers and mortals on earth, so the gods could feast while watching their entertainment far below.

"I still don't think he should have done it," Hera judged a mortal that Tantalus did not know as the gods watched while nibbling ambrosia and sipping nectar. "He must be punished!"

"His family has suffered long enough," Apollo said. "He was defending his father's honor, for that is how things have always been. Athena, what do you think?"

"How silly," thought Tantalus, although he said nothing. "They have nothing better to do than to spy on mortals and manipulate their lives. How petty the gods are. Why I'm sure they're so petty that they don't recognize things that directly affect them," he thought in disgust.

"Why don't you come to my palace and be my guests for a feast?" Tantalus said interrupting the debate. "You could see what life is like for mortals." They thought this was a good idea and agreed. Tantalus was very pleased with his plan and returned home to earth taking with him Zeus' golden hound and the leftover nectar and ambrosia. He didn't have permission to take any of this, but he was sure that the gods didn't know.

When the day of the feast arrived the palace looked beautiful as the gods sat around Tantalus' long banquet table. The servants brought lovely plates and set them before the gods. Demeter took a bite and gasped. The other gods looked at the food and recoiled in disgust. Tantalus had been so certain that the judging gods wouldn't know what they were served that he had killed and boiled his only son, Pelops, and served the pieces to the gods to make them cannibals of men.

"How dare he!" exclaimed Demeter. "We must make an example of his punishment so no one will ever insult us again."

The gods' voices rose in a chorus. "Kill him! Torture him!" they said.

"Take him away," Zeus said to Hades. The black robed god of the underworld looked through Tantalus as he silently swept him away while the king screamed out in terror.

As they entered Hades' domain, Tantalus saw a beautiful pool of water over which hung trees heavy with ripe fruit. "You will stay here forever," said Hades, standing Tantalus in the middle of the pool; then Hades disappeared.

"This is real punishment," mocked Tantalus. As he hadn't eaten and was very hungry he reached up to grab a pear. All that filled his hand was air, for the wind blew the branch away from his reach. He tried to grab an apple from another tree, but it, too, was blown away from him. He bent down to get a drink of the cool, clear water in which he stood. As he approached, the water receded, leaving his feet in mud. When he stood, the water returned. After many tries he realized that although abundance surrounded him, he was doomed to never again quench his thirst or satisfy his hunger.

Meanwhile, Zeus collected all the body parts of Tantalus' son Pelops, reconstructed him and restored him to life. He was whole except for a missing shoulder, for it was that shoulder that Demeter had eaten. As a replacement, Demeter had a shoulder fashioned out of ivory and Pelops wore this throughout his life.

"Who is that handsome young man with the ivory shoulder?" mused Princess Hippodamia. "It would be too sad if he were to die like all the rest." King Oenomaus was not interested in having his daughter married and, whenever a suitor came to request her hand, the king would challenge him to a chariot race. If the suitor won, he could marry Hippodamia, if Oenomaus won, the suitor would be killed. But Oenomaus never disclosed the secret of his success; Ares had given him horses that could not be beaten, so Oenomaus had tricked many young men out of their lives.

By now the Princess was aware of her father's treachery and was tired as well of having no husband. When she discovered that the man with the ivory shoulder had come to win her hand, she decided to help him. "Myrtilus," she whispered, "I need your help."

Her father's charioteer had been at the palace since before Hippodamia was born and, knowing her father's trick, he was saddened by the apparent fate of the young princess. "Please help the man with the ivory shoulder to win. Here is some money. After he wins, he will pay you more." Myrtilus agreed to help and, taking the money, he removed the bolts that secured the wheels of King Oenomaus' chariot.

Meanwhile Pelops was receiving help from yet another source. The gods also knew of Oenomaus' trick and, to overcome the king's advantage, Poseidon gave Pelops horses that were faster than those of the king.

The morning of the race bloodthirsty crowds lined up along the route as usual to see the fatal chariot race. But though they would have their taste of blood that day, it was royal blood that would flow. As Pelops readily took the lead, Oenomaus found himself in the unfamiliar position of trying to come from behind. He lashed his horses to a frenzy and, coming to a sharp turn near the end of the distance, the horses went out of control and pulled in different directions. The strain on the wheels made the crippled chariot explode into fragments and the horses dragged Oenomaus to his death.

That night Myrtilus came to Pelops' quarters in the palace. "Congratulations on your victory and your upcoming marriage. I have known the princess since she was born and she will be a fine wife. I have come for my final payment, as promised by Princess Hippodamia."

Pelops silently turned to face the charioteer. He knew too much and he wanted money. Maybe he would continue wanting money or he would tell what he knew. Pelops picked up Myrtilus and threw him over the cliff into the sea. As he fell, Myrtilus screamed his revenge, "May you and your descendants be cursed by your treachery!"

Pelops' reign was successful beyond compare for his campaigns conquered innumerable lands, which became known as the Peloponnesus, and with his military success he sired many children. Of all his children, his favorite was his son born to a conquered slave woman. The boy's name was Chrysippus.

Hippodamia watched the growing affection between Pelops and Chrysippus. "How dare he feel more for a bastard than for his legitimate sons!" she said, sulking in indignation. "He spends more time with him than with our sons Atreus and Thyestes." Time stoked the fires of her jealousy until, raging out of control, she murdered Chrysippus in the night. But her plan backfired, for it was her sons, Atreus and Thyestes, who were blamed. Empty-handed but escaping with their lives, the young princes fled their father's wrath for the land of Mycenae and there they married and set up their households.

Now it happened that Myrtillus, the charioteer killed by Pelops, was the son of Hermes, and he had been watching the family events unfold ever since the murder of his son. In his cleverness, Hermes planted the seed for revenge. He brought a golden ram to Mycenae and told the brothers that whoever owned it would be king. Atreus captured the ram and quickly thereafter, he became the king.

To the jealous Thyestes, everything Atreus had was superior to what he had; his station in life, his power, his wealth, his home, his children, his wife. "Oh, to have what Atreus has!" Thyestes thought and it became his obsession. In his strategy, his first successful step was the seduction of Aerope, Atreus' wife. After that he knew it would all come easily, for Aerope gave Thyestes the golden ram.

Thyestes claimed the kingdom of Mycenae, but his rule was not long lived, for Zeus came to the aid of Atreus. "Abide by the oracle," Zeus commanded and both brothers agreed.

"Thyestes may rule until the sun moves backward on its course," proclaimed the oracle. Thyestes gloated over his apparent victory for when had the sun ever turned backward on its daily journey? Smug and secure on the throne of his stolen kingdom, Thyestes quickly got used to privilege.

It had only been a short time since the oracle's proclamation when, in the middle of the day, the sun was covered by a growing orb of black. "The sun is moving backward in the sky," the people screamed. "Where is Atreus? Zeus is telling us that Atreus must rule." Atreus returned to power and banished his brother.

After a few months, feigning reconciliation, Atreus called for Thyestes' return. In his brother's honor, he prepared a feast and at the festivities he seated Thyestes next to Aerope. Vessel after vessel of wine was poured and Thyestes kept drinking as his goblet kept being filled. The food was served and Thyestes gluttonously stuffed himself. As he sat back with a full belly and another full cup of wine, Atreus rose to speak.

"My dear brother, and my dear wife, I have looked forward to this day since the day you both betrayed me. I am delighted that you enjoyed your dinner. Wouldn't you like to know the ingredients? It was made by boiling Thyestes' two sons!" Atreus watched his brother sicken and pale.

"I curse you and your sons Agamemnon and Menelaus!" Thyestes screamed and ran from the palace.

Atreus was unaffected. "And for you, my dear wife. I reject you as my wife. You will rot in Hades." He called his guards and they dragged her away, never to be seen again. Atreus sat back down alone. He smiled as he poured himself another glass of wine.

"How can I extract my revenge, all knowing oracle?" Thyestes asked the question that dominated his waking and sleeping moments.

"Father a child on Pelopia," was the response. Pelopia was Thyestes' daughter; and so to revenge his sons, Thyestes brutalized his own daughter. In the middle of the night Pelopia was raped, but in the process she stole her unknown assailant's sword.

Without a wife, King Atreus chose his niece Pelopia as his consort and he was very happy when she gave birth to a son. They called the boy Aegistheus and he was Atreus' favorite.

The passing years brought Aegistheus to the brink of manhood. Through these years, Mycenae had been plagued with famine. The oracle said the scarcity would not end until Atreus brought Thyestes back from exile. Complying with the exact words of the oracle rather than the intent, Atreus sent his guards to search out his brother. They brought him back to Mycenae and imprisoned him, and Atreus sent his son Aegistheus to the prison to kill Thyestes.

The door to his cell opened and a solemn young man stepped inside. "Who are you and what do you want?" Thyestes asked the visitor.

The young man stood menacingly silent. His only response was to play with his sword. Thyestes' attention, too, focused on the sword. That had been his sword, the one taken by Pelopia.

"You must be the son of Pelopia. She gave you the sword, didn't she? That was my sword. I am your father." Aegistheus' eyes registered a reaction, but his face went steely again. "Bring Pelopia here and you will see that I tell you the truth." The young man was visibly confused. He turned and left the cell, only to arrive a short time later with his mother.

Pelopia looked at Thyestes' eyes. "Father?" she asked as she approached.

"Yes. But I am also this boy's father. You took my sword that night."

Pelopia threw her head back in anguish. Looking at Aegistheus, she grabbed the sword out of his hands and held it by the blade as she plunged it into her breast and died.

"Don't kill me, I'm your father," coaxed Thyestes in a soothing voice. "Kill Atreus, for he caused the death of your brothers and uncles. He caused the pain of your mother and sister. He caused your father and grandfather to be exiled for years. He stole our throne. Kill him and let your father go."

Atreus was eagerly awaiting his son's return when Aegistheus walked up to him and plunged his sword into his heart. Thyestes was freed from prison and took over the throne of Mycenae, while Atreus' sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus left Mycenae to escape their death.

Chapter 2: Brothers and Sisters | Myth Index | Chapter 4: Helen and the Spartan Princes

Tales of the Immortal Night ©2003, J.J. Kuhl


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