Atreus, Thyestes & a Bloody Banquet

The brothers were bitter rivals. When the elder, Atreus, was appointed king, Thyestes seduced his wife, Aerope, and plotted revolution. After Atreus vowed to dedicate his finest animal to Artemis, his shepherds discovered a miraculous horned lamb, resplendent with a golden fleece, clearly a gift from the gods. Sacrificing it as pledged, Atreus kept the fleece for himself. But his announcement that its ownership proved his right to rule backfired when Aerope stole the fleece and gave it to Thyestes, who triumphantly seized the kingdom

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Zeus, displeased, advised Atreus to challenge Thyestes: if the sun reversed its course, would Thyestes give up the throne? Thyestes agreed, and as Euripides relates: ‘Zeus turned back the searing circuit of the stars and of the blazing sun, and dawn’s white face so, while rain-clouds brooded to the north, the scorching shrine of Ammon, denied Zeus’ drenching rain, withered in parching heat.’ As Thyestes fled into exile, Atreus’ revenge was swift. Far out to sea, he threw Aerope overboard, and calmly watched her drown. His vengeance on Thyestes took longer. After many years he tracked down his brother, assured him of his forgiveness, and invited him and his young sons to a feast of reconciliation. Thyestes was ushered into the banqueting hall and enthusiastically devoured the meal, commending Atreus’ chefs. But when new platters were brought in, their covers were removed to reveal, neatly arranged, Thyestes’ children’s severed heads and hands and feet. Retching, Thyestes cursed Atreus and his family, and rushed from the room

Thyestes’ Revenge

Thyestes came to Sicyon, near Corinth, to find his one surviving child, his daughter Pelopia, who was priestess of Athene. His motive was eccentric – an oracle had urged him to father a child by her. So he raped her while she was bathing and ran off, dropping his sword. Soon after, Atreus arrived. When he saw Pelopia he fell in love with her, and took her as his wife back to Mycenae, where she bore a son. But recalling the circumstances of his conception, Pelopia exposed the baby on the hillside. Atreus found out and dispatched a search party. Finding him being suckled by a goat, they named the baby Aegisthus (‘goat strength’) and returned him to Mycenae, where Atreus reared him as his own.

Then the harvests failed. For years famine stalked Mycenae. At last an oracle told Atreus what he must do: recall Thyestes. Reluctantly Atreus obeyed, but, when Thyestes arrived, Atreus immediately imprisoned him Determined to resolve the situation once and for all, Atreus summoned Aegisthus and ordered him to prove his worth by killing Thyestes. So the boy took a sword from Pelopia and entered the prison. He was about to strike when Thyestes recognized the weapon as his own, lost years before at Sicyon, and revealed that he, Thyestes, was Aegisthus’ father. Together they killed Atreus.

With Thyestes now ruling Mycenae, Atreus’ sons Agamemnon and Menelaus plotted his downfall. Supported by Tyndareus, king of Sparta, they marched on Mycenae and forced Thyestes and Aegisthus into exile. For a while all went well, and ties with Sparta were strengthened when Tyndareus selected Menelaus to marry his daughter, Helen, and inherit his throne. As for Tyndareus’ other daughter, Clytemnestra: Agamemnon invaded Pisa, where her husband, Tantalus, was king, killed him, and, after a rough wooing, married her.

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