The Curse of the House of Atreus

The devastation that Electra wreaks upon her household, while extreme in its own right, is only one chapter in the bloody history of her family, the House of Atreus. Greek mythology and literature include the histories of several dynasties—those based in Thebes, Crete, Athens, and Mycenae—whose inveterate moral failures brought down retribution upon generation after generation. The curse of the House of Atreus began with King Tantalus, a mythological son of Zeus. He had attempted to test the gods’ omniscience by offering them a gruesome feast—a dish made from the flesh of his own son, Pelops—to see whether they would recognize it. The gods denounced Tantalus’s act as an atrocity. As punishment, they imprisoned him for all eternity, hungry and thirsty, in a pool of water beneath fruit-laden branches that forever elude his grasp. (Tantalus’s name is the root of the English word “tantalize.”)

The gods restored the butchered Pelops to life, and he went on to ascend the throne of Arcadia, marry the former king’s daughter, and sire many children, both legitimate and illegitimate. The curse of his forebear was revisited upon his generation when his twin sons Atreus and Thyestes conspired with their mother to murder their half-brother Chrysippus, the favorite son of the king. Atreus and Thyestes then fled to Mycenae, where their spectacular rivalry included such barbaric acts as Thyestes’s seduction of Atreus’s wife, Atreus’s revenge by butchering Thyestes’s sons and feeding them to Thyestes, and Thyestes’s rape of his own daughter, whom Atreus then took as a new wife. She gave birth to Aegisthus, who was raised by Atreus (although his natural father was Thyestes). When the grown Aegisthus discovered the circumstances of his birth, he slew Atreus and forced Atreus’s sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, into exile.

Agamemnon and Menelaus allied themselves with King Tyndareus of Sparta and married his daughters, Clytemnestra and Helen, respectively. With the military support of Sparta, Agamemnon returned to Mycenae. When Menelaus’s wife Helen was abducted by Paris of Troy (the precipitating event of the Trojan War), Agamemnon assembled 100 ships to sail on his rival. But the fleet was forced to stay in the harbor by contrary winds sent by Artemis. To appease her, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia to the goddess. The winds lifted, and Agamemnon sailed to war. By the time Agamemnon returned to Mycenae ten years later, Clytemnestra had taken Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin and rival for the throne, as a lover. Together, they plotted Agamemnon’s death in repayment for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia. The events of Strauss’s opera Elektra begin after Agamemnon’s murder, when Clytemnestra and Aegisthus have occupied the throne for some years.

In each succeeding generation, the House of Atreus was plagued by corruption, curses, betrayal, and the most heinous crime of all, the murder of family members. This cycle of never-ending, bloody retribution ultimately ended only with Orestes, who accepted the guilt of killing his mother and sought to make amends for his crime (and to be delivered from the torments of the Furies). According to Euripides, he was eventually acquitted at a formal trial of the gods, and the curse of the House of Atreus was finally broken.