The Curse of the House of Atreus is one of the most well known and disturbing family curses in all of Greek mythology.
by Patrick Garner
The ancient Greeks dealt with the normal problems that still vex us today, but they faced the added complication of the Olympic gods intruding into their lives.
For example, Zeus cursed one family for six generations, and other well-known gods took part in this action. The curse did not cease until the family line died out.
The saga is called the Curse of the House of Atreus. It is so outrageous that it has been told since its onset, featured as a favorite topic in ancient Greek theater, and it even made it to Broadway in 1968.
The Sordid Tale
The story actually didn’t start with Atreus, but by the time Atreus was born, the curse was obvious to all. It started with Pelops, who was the son of Tantalus, who was one of the many sons of Zeus.
Pelops married a king’s daughter… but he won her hand by treachery, which resulted in her father’s violent death. Pelops’ scheme was aided by one of the king’s servants. He had been promised a night with the bride if they were successful.
However, with the king suddenly out of the way, Pelops retracted his promise and ordered the man killed. Facing death, the servant cursed Pelops and his entire line. He even sent the curse backward to include Pelops’ father Tantalus. Tantalus made it easy to be on the receiving end.
He questioned the Olympic gods’ omniscience. As a test, he decided to slay his son — who was now King Pelops — and feed him to the gods, pretending the flesh was from an ox.
He concluded that if the Olympians knew what he’d done, that would prove their power. With the tables set for the feast, the gods instantly saw his duplicity.
Tantalus was banished to the underworld. He was condemned to stand in a pool of water there by a fruit tree.
Whenever he tried to pick the fruit, the branch would rise beyond his reach. Whenever he tried to drink the water, the pool would recede.
The English word “tantalize” comes from his fate. He was eternally tormented by the sight of what he could never obtain.
Over the generations
With both Pelops and Tantalus out of the picture, we turn to the third generation which was caught in the curse. Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. These two, like their father and grandfather, were bad to the bone.
Not wanting to share their kingdom, they murdered their half-brother. The crime was discovered and they were banished. The Greeks believed that killing a family member was one of the worst crimes possible.
Complicating the tragedy, and shamed at their deed, their mother hanged herself. The curse continued.
Atreus and Thyestes each married, and Thyestes began a secret relationship with Atreus’ wife. When Atreus learned of it, he sought revenge by killing Thyestes’s sons — and feeding them to their unknowing father.
Thyestes was again exiled. At this point, Thyestes asked an oracle for advice. He was told to impregnate his daughter and that the resulting son would grow up to kill Atreus.
Thyestes took the oracle’s advice, thus adding incest to the increasing list of almost unthinkable family crimes. The son from that union — now generation #4 — grew up to fulfill the dreadful prophesy. The cycle was fated to continue.
Atreus had fathered two sons before he was murdered, named Agamemnon and Menelaus. They played a key role in the Trojan War.
Brought down by women
Agamemnon and Menelaus were once compatible co-rulers of their kingdom. Then the brothers made a dreadful mistake in their choice of wives.
They chose Spartan princesses who brought ruin upon both men. Agamemnon married Clytemnestra and Menelaus married her beautiful sister, Helen.
This is the famous “Helen of Troy”, or “The face that launched a thousand ships.” When Helen was kidnapped, the brothers declared war on Troy.
Agamemnon left behind his wife Clytemnestra, his daughters Iphigenia and Electra, and his son, Orestes.
On the voyage to Troy, the ships were becalmed at a port along the way. Blame Agamemnon for this because while on land he had shot a deer sacred to Artemis. Worse, he bragged about being a better hunter than the goddess. Artemis promptly stopped the winds.
The family curse reignited. As desperate men were wont to do, Agamemnon consulted an oracle. He was told that only if he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia would the winds return.
To the horror of his wife Clytemnestra, he did so. The winds resumed. Ten years passed and the Greeks finally won the Trojan War.
Clytemnestra still seethed with anger at Agamemnon for murdering their daughter. The stage was of course then set for the next tragedy. Agamemnon returned home in triumph.
He brought with him the spoils of war, including a concubine named Cassandra. We know of her as a prophet of disaster, but ironically, she was a prophet who was ignored by everyone until it was too late.
Cassandra herself was the recipient of a curse. Once a Trojan princess, the god Apollo promised to make her an oracle.
She thrilled at the promise, never suspecting it was just a fancy pick-up line. When she rebuffed him, he cursed her with the opposite of prophesy.
Her name became synonymous with incredulity. Never again would anyone believe a word she said. As Cassandra predicted, Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon. The prophet herself was murdered soon after — as she had foretold.
Stain on the House of Atreus
At that point, Agamemnon’s son Orestes, who had been raised in a distant land, was called home by his sister Electra. These two represented generation #6 of the curse.
As the rightful heir to the throne, Orestes was persuaded by Electra to avenge their father’s murder. This was not unusual in ancient Greece, and was considered a son’s greatest duty.
The problem was that Orestes knew that to avenge his father, he’d have to kill his mother. He also know that matricide — or killing one’s mother — was abhorrent to both gods and men.
He prayed to Apollo for guidance. Apollo’s oracle at Delphi advised revenge. The family curse became one long howl.
Orestes was subsequently shunned by everyone but Electra. Worse, the Furies immediately appeared. These immortals with burning red eyes and snakes for hair tormented those who committed any horrendous crime.
Electra, too, was doomed. Within a day of her mother’s death she learned of the suicide of her betrothed and she committed suicide herself. Orestes was utterly alone.
He prayed to Apollo for deliverance, reminding the god that he had acted on his advice. Apollo could not release him from the Furies. He suggested they approach Athena to intervene.
The goddess agreed. She would take Orestes to Athens to be put on trial. It would be the first trial in history. The jury voted; five voted guilty and five voted innocent. Athena broke the tie in Orestes’ favor. With that result, it would seem the curse was through.
Orestes returned to his kingdom to take his father’s throne. However, he never married and had no living family. The curse on the House of Atreus ended with him.
What do we make of all this? The saga is a tragedy of the age-old conflict between parents and children. A new generation replaces the old. But this story, like all the tales involving the Olympic gods, was one of conflict — on steroids.
Patrick Garner is the author of three novels about Greek gods in the contemporary world. He is also the creator and narrator of the breakout podcast, Garner’s Greek Mythology, with listeners in 154 countries.