Reader's Encyclopedia

Atreus, the house of

The royal line of Mycenae, whose terrible story was a favorite source for the Athenian tragic dramatists. Atreus and Thyestes, sons of Pelops, became rivals for the throne of Mycenae, left vacant by the death of their brother-in-law Sthenelus and his son Eurystheus. Thyestes suggested that it should go to the possessor of the golden lamb. Atreus, who had previously hidden one in a chest, agreed, not knowing that his wife Aerope had given it to Thyestes, who had seduced her. Thyestes won the throne, but lost it when Atreus, with the aid of Zeus, made the sun move backward, an omen that proved Thyestes a usurper. Learning of the seduction, Atreus invited Thyestes to a banquet, served him his sons in a stew, then banished him, but not before Thyestes had cursed the house of Atreus.

Thyestes learned from the Delphic oracle that he could avenge himself only by begetting a son by his own daughter Pelopia. He ravished her at night, unrecognized. Atreus, having killed Aerope, the mother of Agamemnon and Menelaus, now married Pelopia, thinking her the daughter of King Thesprotus of Sicyon. Bearing Thyestes' child, she exposed it out of shame, but it was rescued by shepherds and named Aegisthus. Atreus learned of the child and believed it to be his own. Later he sent Aegisthus to kill Thyestes, but Thyestes revealed himself as Aegisthus' father. Pelopia killed herself in shame, and Aegisthus killed Atreus. Thyestes, avenged, became ruler of Mycenae again. Later, however, Atreus' son Agamemnon drove out Thyestes and killed his son Tantalus, married the latter's wife, Clytemnestra, and became king of Mycenae.

Clytemnestra bore a son, Orestes, and three daughters, Iphigenia, Electra, and Chrysothemis. She never forgave her husband for the sacrifice of Iphigenia, but, taking Aegisthus as a lover, conspired with him to kill Agamemnon. When he returned from the Trojan War, they slew him in his bath. They also slew his captive, Cassandra. Electra, however, had smuggled away Orestes for his safety to the Phocian king, Strophius, who brought him up with his own son, Pylades. Grown to manhood, Orestes returned and, with Electra's help, avenged his father by killing both his mother and Aegisthus.

For this crime, which had been approved in advance by the Delphic oracle, he was driven mad by the Erinyes (Furies) of his mother. Later he was tried for his crime on the Areopagus, with Apollo pleading his case. He did not regain his sanity, however, until, on the advice of Apollo, he recovered an image from the temple of Taurian Artemis. There his life was saved by Iphigenia, who had been transported thither by Artemis at the time of the supposed sacrifice. Returning to Mycenae, he killed the new king, Aletes, Aegisthus' son, and ultimately ruled Argos and Sparta, as well. His friend Pylades, who had accompanied him to Tauris, married Electra. With the return of Orestes ' sanity, Thyestes' curse on the house of Atreus -- or that of Myrtilus on the seed of Pelops -- was finally lifted.

The events from the return of Agamemnon to the trial of Orestes are told in the only extant trilogy of Greek tragedies, the Oresteia (458 bc) of Aeschylus: the Agamemnon recounts his murder; The Libation Bearers (Choephori), the vengeance of Orestes; the Eumenides, his trial. Various parts of the story are also told in Sophocles' Electra, Euripides" Electra, Orestes, and his plays on Iphigenia, and in Seneca's Thyestes and Agamemnon. Eugene O'Neill retold much of the story in modern terms in his Mourning Becomes Electra. Jean-Paul Sartre adapted the story for his play The Flies. Gerhart Hauptmann's Atriden-Tetralogie (Atrides Tetralogy) is a monumental treatment of the downfall of the house of Atreus.