The family of Atreus (father of Agamemnon and Menelaus) traces its origins
back to Tantalus, king of Sipylos, a son of Zeus (famous for his eternal
punishment in Hades, as described in the Odyssey,
where he is always thirsty but can never drink, hence the origin of the word tantalizing). Tantalus
had a son called Pelops, whom Poseidon loved.
Pelops wished to marry Hippodameia, daughter of king Oenomaus. Oenomaus
set up a contest (a chariot race against the king) for all those who
wished to woo his daughter. If the suitor lost, he was killed. A
number of men had died in such a race before Pelops made his attempt.
Pelops bribed the king's charioteer (Myrtilus) to disable the king's chariot.
In the race, Oenomaus' chariot broke down (the wheels came off), and the king
was killed. Pelops then carried off Hippodameia as his bride.
Pelops also killed his co-conspirator Myrtilus by throwing him into the sea.
Before he drowned Myrtilus (in some versions Oenomaus) cursed Pelops and his
family. This act is the origin of the famous curse on the House of
Pelops does not seems to have been affected by the curse. He had a
number of children, the most important of whom were his two sons, the brothers
Atreus and Thyestes. Atreus married Aerope, and they had two sons,
Agamemnon and Menelaus. And Thyestes had two sons and a daughter Pelopia.
Atreus and Thyestes quarrelled (in some versions at the instigation of the god
Hermes, father of Myrtilus, the charioteer killed by Pelops). Thyestes
had an affair with Atreus' wife, Aerope, and was banished from Argos by
Atreus. However, Thyestes petitioned to be allowed to return, and
Atreus, apparently wishing a reconciliation, agreed to allow Thyestes to come
back and prepared a huge banquet to celebrate the end of their differences.
the banquet, however, Atreus served Thyestes the cooked flesh of Thyestes' two
slaughtered sons. Thyestes ate the food, and then was informed of what
he had done. This horrific event is the origin of the term Thyestean
Banquet. Overcome with horror, Thyestes cursed the family of Atreus
and left Argos with his one remaining child, his daughter Pelopia.
Some versions of the story include the name Pleisthenes, a son of Atreus who
was raised by Thyestes. To become king, Thyestes sent Pleisthenes to
kill Atreus, but Atreus killed him, not realizing he was killing his son.
This, then, becomes another cause of the quarrel. In yet other accounts,
someone called Pleisthenes is the first husband of Aerope and the father of
Agamemnon and Menelaus. When he died, so this version goes, Atreus
married Aerope and adopted her two sons. In Aeschylus' play there is one
reference to Pleisthenes; otherwise, this ambiguous figure is absent from the
some versions, including Aeschylus' account, Thyestes had one small infant son
who survived the banquet, Aegisthus. In other accounts, however,
Aegisthus was the product of Thyestes' incestuous relationship with his
daughter Pelopia after the murder of the two older sons, conceived especially
to be the avenger of the notorious banquet.
Agamemnon and Menelaus, the two sons of Atreus, married Clytaemnestra and
Helen respectively, two twin sisters, but not identical twins (Clytaemnestra
had a human father; whereas, Helen was a daughter of Zeus). Helen was so
famous for her beauty that a number of men wished to marry her. The
suitors all agreed that they would act to support the man she eventually
married in the event of any need for mutual assistance. Agamemnon and
Clytaemnestra had three children, Iphigeneia, Orestes, and Electra.
When Helen (Menelaus' wife) ran off to Troy with Paris, Agamemnon and Menelaus
organized and led the Greek forces against the Trojans. The army
assembled at Aulis, but the fleet could not sail because of contrary winds
sent by Artemis. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia in order
to placate Artemis.
With Agamemnon and Menelaus off in Troy, Aegisthus (son of Thyestes) returned
to Argos, where he became the lover of Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon's wife.
They sent Orestes into exile, to live with an ally, Strophius in Phocis, and
humiliated Electra, Agamemnon's surviving daughter (either treating her as a
servant or marrying her off to a common farmer). When Agamemnon
returned, the two conspirators successfully killed him and assumed royal
control of Argos.
Orestes returned from exile and, in collaboration with his sister Electra,
avenged his father by killing Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. In many
versions this act makes him lose his self-control and he becomes temporarily
deranged. He then underwent ritual purification by Apollo and sought
refuge in the temple of Athena in Athens. There he was tried and
acquitted. This action put the curses placed on the House of Atreus to