Pandora’s stories: The House of Atreus

Now at first she put from her the unseemly deed, the beautiful Clytemnestra, for she had an understanding heart…
Few families have suffered more than the family of Atreus.

Atreus and his twin brother Thyestes were exiled by their father for murdering their half-brother because they coveted the throne of Olympia. They took refuge in Mycenae, where they assumed the throne in the absence of King Eurystheus, who was fighting the descendants of Heracles. Eurystheus had intended their stewardship to be temporary, but it became permanent after his death in battle. Atreus vowed to sacrifice his best lamb to Artemis. Upon searching his flock Atreus discovered a golden lamb which he couldn’t bear to lose, so he gave it to his wife, Aerope, to hide from the goddess. She in turn gave it to Thyestes, who had become her lover despite being Atreus’ brother. He convinced Atreus to agree that whoever had the lamb should be king; Thyestes then produced the lamb and claimed the throne.

Atreus retook the throne following advice he received from Hermes. Thyestes agreed to give the kingdom back only when the sun moved backwards in the sky, an illusion which Zeus accomplished by causing an eclipse. Atreus resumed the throne and banished Thyestes.

Atreus learned of Thyestes’ and Aerope’s adultery and plotted revenge. He killed Thyestes’ sons and cooked them, except their hands and feet. He first tricked Thyestes into eating the flesh of his own sons then taunted him with their severed hands and feet. Thyestes was forced into exile for eating the flesh of a human. Thyestes sought advice by consulting an oracle, who advised him to have by his daughter, Pelopia, a son who would kill Atreus. However, when their son Aegisthus was born he was abandoned by his mother because she was ashamed of her incestuous act. A shepherd found the infant Aegisthus and gave him to Atreus, who raised him as his own.

After his victory at Troy, Agamemnon returned home to Argos with his concubine the prophetess Cassandra. During his absence, his wife Clytemnestra (Helen’s sister) had begun an affair with Aegisthus. Possibly out of vengeance for the death of Iphigenia (their daughter who had been sacrificed before the expedition to Troy – another horrifying story), Clytemnestra plotted with her lover to kill Agamemnon. Cassandra foresaw the murder, and warned Agamemnon, but he ignored her. He was killed as he emerged from his bath; Cassandra was also killed. Agamemnon’s son Orestes, who had been driven away before Agamemnon returned, came home and conspired with his sister Electra to avenge their father. He killed both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and succeeded to his father’s throne.

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