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Chapter 18

The Mycenaean Saga


The Banquet of Tantalus. TANTALUS [tan'ta-lus], or TANTALOS, an Asian prince and a son of Zeus, cut up his son, PELOPS [pee'lops], boiled the pieces, and served them to the gods at a banquet. For this he was excluded from the companionship of the gods and condemned to suffer everlasting thirst and hunger in the Underworld (see MLS, Chapter 15). At the banquet the gods refused to eat, except for Demeter, who, distracted by grief for the loss of her daughter (see MLS, Chapter 14), ate part of Pelops’ shoulder. The gods restored him to life, giving him an ivory shoulder to replace the part eaten by Demeter.
Pindar was doubtful about the myth of the banquet of Tantalus and explained Pelops’ disappearance by saying that Poseidon loved Pelops and took him up to Olympus and that the other gods sent him back.

Pelops Wins Hippodamia. Pelops left Asia and came to Greece as a suitor for the hand of HIPPODAMIA [hip-poh-da-mee'a or hip-poh-da-meye'a], or HIPPODAMEIA, daughter of OENOMAÜS [ee-noh-may'us], or OINOMAOS, king of Pisa. To win the bride, a suitor had to defeat Oenomaüs in a chariot race from Pisa to the Isthmus of Corinth, taking Hippodamia in his chariot and starting ahead of Oenomaüs. If Oenomaüs caught up with him, he would kill the suitor and take Hippodamia back. Thirteen suitors had failed before Pelops. Pelops prayed to Poseidon for success and won the race with the god’s help. The scene before the start of the chariot race is the subject of the sculptures of the east pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (see MLS, Chapter 5).
In the best-known version, Pelops won by bribing MYRTILUS [mir'ti-lus], or MYRTILOS, the king's charioteer, to remove the linchpins from Oeneomaüs’ chariot, causing the king to crash. As a reward, Myrtilus was to spend the first night with the bride.

The Curse of Myrtilus. After winning the race in this way, Pelops did not honor the agreement and threw Myrtilus into the sea. As he fell, Myrtilus cursed Pelops and his descendants.

Pelops, King and Hero. Pelops returned to Pisa as king. After his death he was honored with a hero-cult at Olympia (in the territory of Pisa), and together with his grandfather, Zeus, he received sacrifices at the Olympic festival. He gave his name to the southern part of the Greek mainland, Peloponnese (“Island of Pelops”).


The Quarrel between Atreus and Thyestes.The sons of Pelops were ATREUS [ay'tre-us] and THYESTES [theye-es'teez]. They quarreled over the kingship of Mycenae, which had been offered to “a son of Pelops.” Atreus, as the possessor of a golden-fleeced ram, claimed the throne.
While Atreus was celebrating his coronation, his wife, AËROPE [a-er'o-pee], took Thyestes as her lover and gave him the ram. Thyestes replaced Atreus as king and drove him into exile.

The Banquet of Atreus and the Curse of Thyestes. Atreus returned from exile and drove out Thyestes. Later he tricked him into returning by pretending to be reconciled, and invited him to a banquet. He killed Thyestes’ sons and served them up to their father, who ate them. At the sight of this crime, the sun hid and the heavens darkened. Thyestes cursed Atreus and left Mycenae.


Aegisthus. In his second exile, Thyestes lay with his daughter, Pelopia, and became father of AEGISTHUS [ee-jis'thus], or AIGISTHOS, who continued the vendetta against the family of Atreus.

Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; the Sacrifice of Iphigenia. AGAMEMNON [ag-a-mem'non] succeeded his father, Atreus, and ruled Mycenae with CLYTEMNESTRA [kleye-tem-nes'tra], or KLYTAIMNESTRA, as his queen. To obtain a favorable wind for the Greek fleet to sail to Troy (see MLS, Chapter 19), he sacrificed his daughter, IPHIGENIA [if-i-je-neye'a or if-i-je-nee'a], or IPHIGENEIA, to Artemis.

Clytemnestra and Aegisthus; the Murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra. To avenge her daughter’s murder, Clytemnestra took Aegisthus as her lover while she ruled Mycenae in the ten-year absence of Agamemnon. Together they murdered Agamemnon in the palace when he returned after the sack of Troy.
CASSANDRA [kas-san'dra] or KASSANDRA, a Trojan princess and seer (see MLS, Chapters 11 and 19), accompanied Agamemnon back to Mycenae and was murdered with him. She described the coming murders before entering the palace.
In this and the following generation, Myrtilus’ curse on the descendants of Pelops and the curse of Thyestes against Atreus afflicted only the family of Agamemnon. The troubles of his brother, MENELAÜS [men-e-lay'us] or MENELAOS (king of Sparta: see MLS, Chapter 19), were not part of the working out of the curse.


The son of Agamemnon, ORESTES [o-res'teez], was away from Mycenae when his father was murdered, living with Strophius, king of Phocis. Apollo ordered him to fulfill his filial duty to avenge Agamemnon’s death.

Orestes’ Murder of His Mother Clytemnestra. Orestes returned to Mycenae in disguise and was recognized by his sister, ELECTRA [e-lek'tra], or ELEKTRA. With her support he entered the palace and there killed Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

The Furies Pursue Orestes. Orestes, guilty of killing his mother, was pursued by the ERINYES [e-rin'e-eez], or the FURIES (see MLS, Chapter 15), who drove him mad. He came to Delphi, where Apollo promised to protect him and ordered him to go to Athens.

Orestes Acquited by the Areopagus. At Athens, Orestes was tried for murder before the court of the AREOPAGUS [a-ree-o'pa-gus], or AREIOPAGOS. Athena presided over the court, while the Erinyes prosecuted Orestes and Apollo defended him. The verdict of the jury of Athenian citizens was split, and Athena cast her deciding vote for acquittal.

The Eumenides. The verdict broke the power of the Erinyes, to whom Athena gave a new home on the Acropolis at Athens and a new name, EUMENIDES [you-men'i-deez], “the kindly ones.” The curse on the descendants of Pelops had worked itself out.

The Three Electras. It is fascinating and rewarding to compare the extant versions of the legend of Orestes and Electra by Aeschylus (The Libation Bearers [Choephori]), Sophocles (Electra), and Euripides (Electra). The Libations Bearers is the second play in Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Oresteia.

Orestes and Hermione. Orestes returned to Mycenae as king and ruled with HERMIONE [her-meye'o-nee], daughter of Menelaüs, whom he married after arranging the killing at Delphi of her husband, NEOPTOLEMUS [ne-op-tol'e-mus], or NEOPTOLEMOS, son of Achilles. Later Orestes ruled over Argos and Sparta as well. His son, Tisamenus, died defending the Peloponnese against the Heraclidae (see MLS, Chapter 22).
Orestes was buried at Tegea, a neighboring city and rival of Sparta. The Spartans, advised by the Delphic oracle, recovered his bones, which brought them victory over the Tegeans.

Iphigenia among the Taurians. In another version Orestes was purified at Delphi. In yet another, Apollo ordered him to go to the land of the Tauri (i.e., the Crimea, in Ukraine) and fetch a wooden statue of Artemis from the temple where Iphigenia, rescued from sacrifice by Artemis, was priestess of the goddess. She saved Orestes from being sacrificed to Artemis, and together they returned with the statue to Greece. Iphigenia became priestess of Artemis at Brauron in Attica.

Electra and Pylades. Electra lived on at Mycenae after Agamemnon’s murder. She helped Orestes kill her father’s murderers and married his companion, PYLADES [pi'la-deez], bearing him two sons, Strophius and Medon.

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