From its inception the dynasty of Atreus was cursed with pride and violence. The grandfather of Atreus was Tantalus, a son of Zeus who had the good fortune to banquet with the gods, dining on nectar and ambrosia. His first act of ingratitude was to take these divine foods and feed them to his mortal friends. The second was to steal the golden hound of Zeus and lie about it. But his third deed was an atrocity: he served up his own son, Pelops, as a feast for the gods, who recognized what was set before them and recoiled in horror. For these crimes Tantalus was sentenced to eternal torment in the netherworld. Famished and thirsty, he was set in a pool from which he could not drink and had a bough of fruits hung over him that he could not grasp.
Tantalus had a daughter, Niobe, who married Amphion, the King of Thebes, and bore him six handsome sons and six beautiful daughters. Extremely proud of her offspring, Niobe criticized Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, for only having had two children. And when the women of Thebes offered incense to Leto to ward off punishment Niobe flew into a rage, declaring that she herself was more worthy of such offerings. The goddess Leto then sent Apollo to shoot down Niobe's sons and Artemis to shoot down her daughters. In anguish Niobe wept for her slain children, and Zeus changed her into a weeping statue.
After Tantalus had butchered his son Pelops to serve the gods, Zeus restored Pelops to life. But since his shoulder was missing, having been eaten by Demeter, Demeter gave him an ivory shoulder to replace it. Pelops became a favorite with Poseidon, although few human communities wanted him. In his wanderings Pelops came to Arcadia, which was ruled by King Oenomaus, who had a beautiful daughter, Hippodamia. When suitors came to woo her, Oenomaus would challenge them to a chariot race in which the loser would die. And because Oenomaus had the fastest horses in Greece Hippodamia's suitors had very short lives. However, she fell in love with Pelops and bribed her father's charioteer to sabotage Oenomaus' chariot. And Pelops received a pair of incredibly swift horses from Poseidon. Needless to say, Pelops won the race, killed Oenomaus, and married Hippodamia. But when the charioteer claimed his reward for undoing Oenomaus, Pelops killed him, and as the charioteer died he pronounced a curse on Pelops and his descendants. Nevertheless, Pelops had a very successful reign. He conquered the whole Peloponnesus, which was named after him, had many children, and celebrated the Olympian games in honor of Zeus.
Of his many sons Pelops loved the bastard Chrysippus the most, which made Hippodamia fear that her own children would lose the throne. When Chrysippus was murdered by Hippodamia two of her sons were implicated, so Atreus and Thyestes fled to Mycenae. Atreus acquired a golden fleece there, which would have established his right to rule. But Thyestes made love to Atreus' wife, Aerope, and obtained the fleece from her. Having been made king, Thyestes agreed that if the sun should move backward in its course Atreus could take over the throne. Zeus sent the sun backward across the sky, and Atreus acquired the kingdom of Mycenae. He had two sons by Aerope, Agamemnon and Menelaus. When Atreus learned that Thyestes had cuckolded him he invited Thyestes to a banquet and served his brother Thyestes' own sons, who had been butchered and boiled. Nauseated, Thyestes laid a curse on Atreus and his sons.
Thyestes then consulted the oracle at Delphi about how to get even. He was told to father a child on his own daughter Pelopia. So Thyestes ravished her in darkness, but she managed to get his sword. Having put Aerope away, Atreus went searching for a new wife and found Pelopia, who in time gave birth to Aegisthus. Thinking that the boy was his own, Atreus accepted him as his son.
A famine plagued Mycenae because of Atreus' revenge. It could be allayed only by Thyestes' return from exile, so Atreus sent for his brother, pretending reconciliation. When Thyestes arrived Atreus imprisoned him and sent Aegisthus to kill him. Thyestes recognized that Aegisthus' sword was his own, so he overpowered his son by Pelopia and bade him bring his mother. When Pelopia came to Thyestes' cell Thyestes revealed himself as her father and ravisher, whereupon Pelopia killed herself with the sword. Aegisthus then realized that Thyestes was his natural father, and in filial devotion he slew Atreus, who had raised him since infancy. Thyestes became the king of Mycenae again, while Atreus' sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, went into exile.
The two brothers solicited the help of King Tyndareus of Sparta, who marched on Mycenae and restored Agamemnon to the throne of a rich and powerful state. By killing a cousin, Agamemnon acquired Clytemnestra, Tyndareus' daughter, as his wife. Menelaus married the beautiful Helen, and Tyndareus allowed him to rule Sparta. However, a Trojan prince named Paris abducted Helen, which precipitated the Trojan War. Agamemnon became the head of the Greek forces and left Mycenae for ten years to fight the Trojans. His wife Clytemnestra had little love for Agamemnon. He had killed her first husband, sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to Artemis to allow the Greek fleet to sail, and taken a number of mistresses. To avenge herself Clytemnestra took her husband's arch-rival, Aegisthus, for her lover, and with him she plotted Agamemnon's death. When her husband returned victorious from Troy Clytemnestra greeted him warmly, although he had brought Cassandra, his foreign mistress, home with him. At the banquet given in honor of his homecoming, Aegisthus slaughtered Agamemnon as Clytemnestra murdered Cassandra. Aegisthus' forces were triumphant in defeating the king's supporters, and Aegisthus took over Mycenae and ruled it with Clytemnestra.
However, two of Clytemnestra's children by Agamemnon had been spared. The daughter Electra was allowed to live in the palace but was badly treated by her mother and Aegisthus. The son Orestes had been spirited away for his own safety. Raised at Crisa, Orestes made a friend of Pylades, the son of the king. Eight years later he went with Pylades to the Delphic oracle, which told him that he must avenge his father's murder or live as an outcast and leper. Returning secretly to Mycenae, he met his sister Electra at Agamemnon's grave. Electra welcomed him cordially, for here was the means by which Aegisthus and Clytemnestra would meet their just punishment. Orestes and Pylades went to the palace with news that Orestes was dead. Clytemnestra was delighted to learn of it and invited the pair in. Aegisthus heard the news and joined the queen, and Orestes slew him. Clytemnestra recognized her son and pleaded with him to spare her, but Orestes beheaded her according to the will of the gods. The Erinnyes, or Furies, made their appearance to punish Orestes with continual torment. Obsessed by guilt, Orestes returned to the Delphic oracle, where he learned that he must undergo a year's exile and then go to the temple of Athena at Athens.
His year in exile nearly unhinged his mind for good, because the Furies were relentless in their persecution of Orestes. At length he arrived in Athens and went to the temple, where he admitted his guilt, refusing to blame the gods for the deed. Apollo and Athena sided with Orestes against the Furies, who clamored for perpetual retribution. Athena spoke eloquently on Orestes' behalf and managed to persuade some of the Furies to quit tormenting him. But others were not satisfied with the gods' decision, holding that the old punishments were proper.
Still haunted by some of the Furies, Orestes returned to the Delphic oracle. It told him he must sail to the land of the Taurians by the Black Sea, where he should seize the image of Artemis from her temple there and bring it back to Greece. This was a risky business, for the Taurians sacrificed all Greeks to Artemis. Orestes made the journey with his friend Pylades, and both were seized by the Taurians and taken to the Temple of Artemis to be sacrificed. The chief priestess was a Greek, and to the amazement of Orestes and Pylades she knew the family history. The priestess revealed herself as Orestes' long-lost sister, Iphigenia, who had been rescued from the altar at which Agamemnon was to kill her by Artemis. Carried to the land of the Taurians, she sacrified Greeks, just as the Greeks had been prepared to sacrifice her. Nonetheless, she disliked this practice and resolved to help her brother and his friend. On the pretext of taking them down to the sea to purge them of blood-guilt, Iphigenia made it possible for them to reach their ship with the image of Artemis. The group did not escape unnoticed, since the Taurians were in hot pursuit. The ship was stalled by a head-wind, but just as the Taurians were about to get Orestes, Pylades, and Iphigenia, Athena appeared, caused the sea to calm, and ordered the Taurians to cease. The party sailed back to Greece, where Iphigenia performed the wedding of Pylades and Electra. Orestes could live in peace at last, having placated the Furies.
The worst crime of which the Greeks could conceive was the murder of kin. From the time Tantalus butchered his son Pelops to Orestes' slaying of his mother this family was burdened with blood-guilt. The trouble is that each crime was done self-righteously, without the least remorse. Since blood must atone for blood according to the law of retribution, this dynasty nearly exterminated itself. The curses laid upon it were effective because of the streaks of violence and pride inherent in the family itself. Its members would scruple at nothing to obtain revenge. And yet Orestes managed to turn the tide even though he committed the most heinous sin of all in killing his mother. He did so by taking the full responsibility for his deed and by seeking to expiate it. Mercy was only permissible under these circumstances. The ancestors of Orestes right down to his parents were impervious to guilt, but guilt was absolutely necessary before mercy became effective.
The Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, each dealt with the story of Orestes as a means of exploring the problem of justice. According to the old Greek notion the only way to right a murder was with another murder. Honor demanded it. This concept was common to "shame cultures," in which justice was a matter of clan retaliation. But in civilized communities the notion was no longer adequate, and a "guilt culture" emerged whereby a man must pay for his sins in a court of law and be sentenced or acquitted. One had to take responsibility for one's deeds regardless of the motives that impelled them. In the legends of the House of Atreus we seek Greek civilization moving from a crude idea of justice to one that was impersonal and sublime.