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Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 5, Chapter 1 : The House of Atreus | Summary

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Summary

Tantalus and Niobe

The gods favor Tantalus, a son of Zeus, but he returns their favor by killing his son Pelops, cooking him, and serving him at a banquet for the gods. No clear reason is given for this action, but it seems rooted in overwhelming contempt for the gods. Tantalus is punished by being placed in a pool in Hades. When he stoops to drink from the pool, the water drains away then reappears when he stands. Likewise, the fruit over his head is always just beyond his reach.

The gods bring Pelops back to life, and he lives a happy and relatively uneventful life. With Poseidon's favor, Pelops wins a dangerous chariot race and the hand of a princess. They have two sons, Atreus and Thyestes, who turn out badly. Atreus kills his brother's children when he discovers Thyestes had an affair with his wife. Atreus serves the children to Thyestes as food, then tortures Thyestes by revealing the source of the meat.

Pelops's sister Niobe also suffers. She has a happy marriage until she begins displaying signs of her father's arrogance. She demands that the people of Thebes worship her instead of Leto, claiming she has seven children while Leto only had two. Unfortunately for Niobe, Leto's two children are the gods Artemis and Apollo, who kill Niobe's children in retaliation. In her grief, Niobe turns to stone, still wet with tears.

Agamemnon and His Children

Atreus's sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, lead the Greek armies to the Trojan War. When Agamemnon returns from the war, his wife's lover, Aegisthus, kills him. Agamemnon's son, Orestes, then kills Aegisthus. Later versions of the story have Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, orchestrating his death as revenge for his killing their daughter Iphigenia before the war, driven to the act by an army demanding a sacrifice to give them winds to move their ships. In these versions, Clytemnestra takes Agamemnon and his captive, Priam's daughter Cassandra, into their home and closes the door. She emerges with Agamemnon's blood on her hands and clothes, with Aegisthus beside her.

Clytemnestra and Aegisthus rule the country, while her other children, Electra and Orestes, mull their mother's actions and wonder how to right their family's wrongs. Orestes is sent away as a child, but as an adult he keenly feels the conflict between his urge to avenge his father and the shame of killing his mother. He returns to his sister Electra with his friend Pylades. They go to Clytemnestra's palace where Orestes kills Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, then he wanders the earth ridden with guilt. Orestes eventually finds absolution for his years of suffering by going to Athens and appealing to Athena. The Furies acquit him and lift the curse from the House of Atreus.

Iphigenia Among the Taurians

One version of Iphigenia's sacrifice allows Iphigenia to escape, replaced by a deer on the sacrificial altar. Artemis takes Iphigenia to the land of the Taurians (now the Crimea) and makes her a priestess in her temple, where Iphigenia must help carry out the sacrifice of prisoners and others sent to her.

After many years, Orestes and his friend Pylades come to the temple, sent by Apollo's oracle to fetch the image of Artemis there. Iphigenia is afraid she will have to sacrifice these two new arrivals when she learns of them, but in talking to them she discovers one of them is Orestes and that her parents are dead. She takes the image of Artemis to the sea on the pretext of purifying it before the Greek visitors are sacrificed. This ruse allows her to get herself and the image to her brother's ship, but the Taurian king, Thoas, pursues them. Athena intervenes and stops the king, allowing the ship's safe passage.

Analysis

Tantalus and Niobe

The entire story of the house of Atreus demonstrates how punishment for a man's sins is not limited only to the man himself, and this becomes apparent in the stories of Tantalus and Niobe. Tantalus breaks three fundamental laws of humanity in his attempt to serve his son for dinner. Few cultures on earth condone cannibalism, and it is clear the Greeks regard this as highly uncivilized behavior. Cannibalism violates the strict Greek cultural rules against denying a dead body proper burial, which condemns the soul to an eternity of wandering. As if cannibalism isn't bad enough on its own, the target of Tantalus's attempt at cannibalism is his own son. All of this is a deliberate attempt to insult the gods who have favored Tantalus, and the events surrounding the Trojan War in Part 4 amply demonstrate how the gods feel about being dishonored, especially by those to whom they have shown favor in the past. For acts as heinous as these, a single punishment is not sufficient; the punishment must last for generations.

Tantalus's fate reveals the gods' liking for punishments fitting the crime in question. Tantalus's crime was essentially food related, so to suffer eternal hunger and thirst with food and water always just out of reach is a fitting punishment. Having already suffered greatly, Pelops avoids the curse visited upon his family. His sister Niobe is not so lucky. Like her father, she lacks proper respect for the gods, which brings swift punishment from the gods she offends most, Apollo and Artemis. The penalty of losing her children because she boasted about her status as a mother is also carefully tailored to her crime. Even as a stone, her grief, like Tantalus's, lasts for eternity.

Agamemnon and His Children

Agamemnon's father, Atreus, son of Pelops, tricks his brother, Thyestes, into committing cannibalism after Thyestes has an affair with Atreus's wife. While the gods punish Atreus's grandfather, Tantalus, severely for a similar crime, Atreus becomes a king and the punishment is reserved for his children and grandchildren, showing how the gods dole out justice in inconsistent and sometimes baffling ways. However, Agamemnon has himself committed a crime that requires atonement. Before the Trojan War (Part 4, Chapter 1), Agamemnon elects to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to ensure safe passage for the Greek ships to Troy. Even though a goddess allegedly demands this sacrifice—Artemis requires Agamemnon's daughter as compensation for the death of a beloved animal—Greek culture looks harshly upon human sacrifice. Agamemnon's untenable choice, either to risk Artemis's continued wrath or later punishment for the sacrifice, serves as proof that his family's curse has fallen upon him.

Even though it takes 10 years, Agamemnon must answer for the death of his daughter. Edith Hamilton presents two versions of his death. The first is mundane: Agamemnon is murdered by his wife's lover. In the second version, Agamemnon's wife kills him herself, and the connection to their daughter's slaying is much more explicit. In either case, Agamemnon's death immediately upon his homecoming from a long and vicious war reads as punishment for previous sins; the real difference between the two versions is how clearly his demise connects with his daughter's.

Agamemnon's son Orestes faces an untenable decision similar to the one his father faces over Iphigenia. To kill his mother is a grave offense, but so is allowing his father to go unavenged. The dilemma is made more poignant because Orestes is an innocent. He is only a child when his father is killed, and he has done nothing to warrant being burdened with such a choice. The family curse falls upon him heavily, but by going through with avenging his father and killing Clytemnestra, Orestes makes a sacrifice of his own, which ultimately results in the curse being lifted from his house.

Iphigenia Among the Taurians

Hamilton repeatedly notes the Greek aversion to human sacrifice, and this aversion is so strong that a different version of Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia emerges in the 5th century BCE, presented by the playwright Euripides. In this version, Iphigenia is saved by an intervention from the same goddess who orders the sacrifice, Artemis. The newer version of the story removes the unflattering portrayal of the goddess who orders Iphigenia killed in retribution for the loss of one of her favorite animals. This punishment seems excessive, even given the capricious nature of the Greek gods, and is even more unusual from a goddess whose role is to protect the young and innocent of all species.

However, even a rescued Iphigenia is not immune to her family's curse. Artemis sends the girl to the land of the Taurians where she serves as a priestess and prepares Greeks for sacrifice to the goddess. Even though she does not do the actual killing, her role in these ceremonies weighs heavily on Iphigenia's heart. To remove Iphigenia from this situation, Euripides creates an unlikely solution, bringing her brother and his friend Pylades to the temple. Hamilton's presentation of the siblings' discovery of one another's identity is humorous, as Iphigenia asks Pylades to take a letter to her brother, and Pylades turns to the man beside him to deliver the letter. This light moment adds to the joy of their reunion and provides a relief before their dramatic and dangerous escape, aided by the goddess Athena who appears as a deus ex machina and saves them from the Taurian king's pursuit. Deus ex machina translates to "god from the machine" and is a literary technique referring to any improbable twist near the end of a story that ensures a happy ending. The term originates with stories such as this one, in which the improbable appearance of a god ensures a positive outcome.
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