In Greek mythology, Atreus was the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. His name is given to a curse that afflicted the whole family for five generations. This lesson will explore the curse that affected Atreus.
The House of Atreus
The House of Atreus is well-known in ancient myths for having been cursed by the gods, suffering death and destruction. The curse on the house began with Atreus’ grandfather, Tantalus, who angered the gods and was banished to the underworld for eternity. Let’s take a look at how the family curse continues with Atreus.
Atreus and Thyestes
According to Greek mythology, Atreus was the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, the leaders of the Greek army during the Trojan War.
But Atreus had a whole other life before becoming father to these two famous Greeks.Atreus and his brother, Thyestes, were sons of Pelops, who was Tantalus’ son and king of Pisa. Pelops had also fathered another son named Chrysippus. Atreus and Thyestes killed Chrysippus in hopes of ascending to the throne. For this act, Pelops banished the brothers, who then fled to Mycenae.The brothers were made regents of the kingdom of Mycenae, to rule while its king was attacking the city of Athens.
The king and all of his sons died in the battle, and Atreus became king of Mycenae. He vowed to give the best lamb in his flocks as an offering of religious sacrifice. As he searched the flocks Atreus discovered a golden lamb. Rather than offering the golden lamb as sacrifice, he gave the lamb to his wife, Aerope.
Unbeknownst to Atreus, Aerope and his brother, Thyestes, were having an affair. Aerope gave the golden lamb to Thyestes, who used it to gain the kingdom. Thyestes went to Atreus and proposed that whoever could produce a golden lamb should be the king of Mycenae.
Atreus agreed, thinking that his wife was still in possession of the golden lamb. Thyestes produced the golden lamb, and Atreus stepped down and let his brother take the kingdom. However, Atreus still intended to be king.Consulting with the god Hermes, Atreus proposed another contest to Thyestes. If the sun went backward in its course, then Thyestes would yield the kingdom back to Atreus. Thyestes agreed. The god Zeus then caused the sun to move backwards, and Atreus was again king of Mycenae.
To prevent further threat to his rule, Atreus banned Thyestes from the kingdom.After the banishment of Thyestes, Atreus found out about Thyestes and Aerope having an affair. He invited Thyestes back to the kingdom under the guise of making amends, but really plotting revenge. When Thyestes returned, Atreus served Thyestes a feast. Atreus had Thyestes’ sons butchered and cooked into a stew. As Thyestes ate, Atreus produced the heads of the children and informed Thyestes of what he had done.
Atreus then banished Thyestes again.Thyestes consulted an oracle for advice on how to exact revenge of Atreus. The oracle prophesied that Thyestes would have his revenge on Atreus if he fathered a child with his own daughter, Pelopea. Thyestes raped his daughter and got her pregnant.Atreus came upon Pelopea, fell in love with her, and married her. When her son Aegisthus was born, Atreus raised him as his own. He did not know that Aegisthus was actually the son of his brother Thyestes.
When Aegisthus reached manhood, he learned the truth of his conception and killed Atreus. Thyestes was restored to king of Mycenae. After Atreus’ death, Thyestes banished Atreus’ sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, from the kingdom.
Atreus’ life was cursed before his birth, a curse that began with his grandfather, Tantalus, condemned to the underworld by the gods. From murdering his half brother, to learning of his wife’s affair with his brother, to dying at the hands of the man he raised as his son, Atreus experienced the true depths of the curse on his family.