Well, I did say last time that there are not many happy stories in Greek mythology, and case in point is the House of Atreus. Edith Hamilton calls this house not only one of the most famous in Greek mythology but also one of the most ill-fated. Agamemnon was part of it and his brother Menelaus--Agamemnon, if you'll recall sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods and get the winds blowing so they could sail off to Troy and get Menelaus's wife Helen back. If I didn't at first recognize the House of Atreus, I do know of Aeschylus's Oresteia, which is made up of three plays--the Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides. Reading Hamilton's retelling is good preparation for when I finally get around to reading the actual plays.
Tantalus was the cause for all the family problems to come. He was a King of Lydia, and if you want to gage what sort of guy he was . . . "He had his only son Pelops killed, boiled in a great cauldron, and served to the gods." He was scornful of the gods, even when they supped with him letting him taste the nectar and ambrosia not allowed to any but the immortals. He thought the worse thing he could do to them was to turn them into cannibals. They caught on quickly and of course he would be punished for it. You'll be happy to know, however, that the gods reconstructed Pelops who went on to lead a happy life--the only one of the family to escape the gods' wrath, however.
As for the rest? Tragedy after tragedy--all befitting exactly what I have come to expect from a good Greek myth. Let's see. Agamemnon was the son of King Atreus, who was Pelops' son. And while Pelops was granted a happy life, his children were not. By the time Agamemnon returned home from Troy, his wife had taken a lover, Aegisthus. He and Clytemnestra plotted to kill Agamemnon. They succeeded as a matter of fact and the rest of the story is one filled with revenge. Now it seems to depend on who's telling the story. One motive is that the murder was simply the love of a man for someone else's wife, but Aeschylus tells a different story. The revenge of a mother for her sacrificed daughter, Iphigenia.
". . . every sin causes fresh sin; every wrong brings another in its train."
Clytemnestra didn't see herself as a murderer but as an executioner. She and Aegisthus thought they were finished with all the dirty business that needed to be attended to and could lead merry lives thereafter, but you know how the Greeks like revenge. Iphigenia was just one of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon's children. There were two others--Electra and Orestes. And so the cycle of revenge continues. Orestes had to decide whether he would be a traitor to his father or a murderer of his mother. Orestes had long been living away from his family, but he returned to do his duty by his father. He murders Clytemnestra and his friend with whom he had been traveling murders her lover. Orestes, however, owns up to his misdeeds. His admittance of guilt are words never before spoken by any of the House of Atreus, and in doing so the house was finally cleansed of guilt.
The second half of this chapter is a retelling of Iphigenia's story, but with a happier outcome for her. The Greeks were not fond of stories where humans were sacrificed to appease the gods, so Euripedes tells a different story. In it Artemis intervenes and instead of Iphigenia being sacrificed, a deer is in her stead. Iphigenia is whisked away to the land of the Taurians (now in the Crimea) where she serves the the goddess Artemis.
In this story Orestes and his friend Pylades set course for this inhospitable land (other than Iphigenia, the Taurians would sacrifice any Greeks who set foot on their shore). Although Athena had cleared his good name after he killed his mother, he was still pursued by the Erinyes. The oracle at Delphi bade Orestes go to the Land of the Taurians and bring back the sacred image of Artemis. When Iphigenia discovers that one of the two men who have arrived (Greeks both and so must be sacrificed) is her own brother whom she last saw when he was only a baby, she sets out to help him get the sacred image and then escape off the island and she herself will join them. And after an edge of your seat departure the three set sail for a hopefully happier ending. I think I'm going to have to check out Euripides now, too.
Next week: The Royal House of Thebes. Today was all about Aeschylus and the Oresteia, and next week will be about Sophocles and Oedipus. More happy reading to come.