The Ancient Greeks believed in a concept called miasma, which can be loosely translated as ‘pollution’. They thought that the crimes of a person’s ancestors could be passed on over generations, through a blood line. Miasma would attach itself to people who committed crimes like parricide (the murder of a close family member) and revenge killings. The most famous mythological example of this is the House of Atreus, a family who carried a curse over several generations as a result of the guilt of their ancestor, Tantalus. The story is quite complicated, but this family tree may act as a guide.
The Original Crime of Tantalus
Tantalus was a son of Zeus, and he was invited to dine with the Olympian gods. He arrogantly decided that he wanted to test their powers of knowledge, and so he chopped up his son Pelops and put him in a stew which he brought to the meal. The gods immediately figured out what was going on – all except for the goddess Demeter, who accidentally ate one of Pelops’ shoulders. Zeus put Pelops back together again and the craftsman of the gods, Hephaestus, made him a new shoulder out of ivory. For this crime, Tantalus received one of the worst punishments in mythology: he was sent down to Tartarus and made to stand in a pool of water, beneath a tree with low-hanging fruit. Every time he reached for the water or fruit to relieve his thirst or hunger, it would shrink away. This is the origin of the word ‘tantalise’, a verb meaning to tease someone with something that is close but out of reach.
Pelops and the Chariot Race
Having been reconstructed and awakened from the dead, Pelops headed to Pisa, where he met a princess called Hippodamia. Her father, King Oenomaus, would only allow her to marry a man who could beat him in a chariot race. This had never happened because Oenomaus’ horses were unbeatable. Pelops decided to bribe Oenomaus’ charioteer, Myrtilus, to sabotage the king’s chariot. During the race, Oenomaus’ chariot fell apart and he crashed and died. Afterwards Pelops threw the Myrtilus into the sea, to hide the part he played in the king’s death. Pelops took Hippodamia as his wife and inherited the kingdom, which became the Peloponnese.
Roman fresco found at Paevium
The Rivalry of Atreus and Thyestes
Pelops and Hippodamia had two sons, called Atreus and Thyestes. Pelops also had another son, called Chrysippus, by a different woman, which made Hippodamia very angry, so she persuaded Atreus and Thyestes to kill their half-brother. Afterwards the two brothers fled to Mycenae, afraid of their father’s reaction. When the king of Mycenae died, there was an oracle that a son of Pelops would be the next ruler. Thyestes proposed a contest to his brother: whoever presented the best sheep would be the next king. Atreus willingly agreed since he had a lamb with a golden fleece – little did he know, however, that his wife Aerope was having an affair with Thyestes, and had given him the lamb. In an attempt to win back the throne, Atreus made a bet with Thyestes, that if the sun rose in the west he could be the king again. Thyestes agreed, thinking it impossible, but Zeus helped Atreus out and made the sun rise in the west.
Now that Atreus was securely in power, he began to plot a revenge on Thyestes for the affair with Aerope. He invited his brother to a banquet, where he served up Thyestes’ sons, carved up in the stew. Once he realised the truth, the disgusted Thyestes went to Delphi and asked the oracle how he could take revenge on his brother. She told him that if he were to have a son by his own daughter, he would grow up and one day kill Atreus. Thyestes raped his daughter, Pelopia, and she became pregnant. He left her in the care of a king called Thesprotus, armed with the family sword to give to their son.
Meanwhile, the kingdom of Mycenae had been plagued with disease and famine. Atreus came to King Thesprotus seeking help, and fell in love with Pelopia, believing her to be the princess. Not knowing what else to do, Thesprotus agreed that he could have her hand in marriage. So, Atreus accidentally married his own niece, pregnant with his brother’s child. Pelopia soon gave birth, and Atreus believed the boy to be his son. He was named Aegisthus and raised alongside Atreus’ other sons by his previous wife Aerope: Agamemnon and Menelaus.
Gold mask found at Mycenae, named the Mask of Agamemnon
Atreus sent Agamemnon and Menelaus to Delphi, where they found their uncle Thyestes hiding out and brought him home to Mycenae. Atreus ordered Aegisthus to unknowingly slaughter his own father, but when he raised the sword, Thyestes recognised it as the one he left with Pelopia. Realising what happened, Aegisthus confronted Pelopia, and she took the sword and killed herself out of shame. Aegisthus then used the blood-covered sword to slaughter Atreus.
The Revenge of Clytemnestra
Thyestes once more became the king of Mycenae, banishing his nephews Agamemnon and Menelaus. They went to Sparta, where they allied themselves with King Tyndareus. When the brothers returned to Mycenae with a Spartan army, there was nothing to stop them taking the throne and killing Thyestes. Agamemnon became the king with the Spartan princess Clytemnestra as his wife. Menealus married her sister, Helen, and inherited the Spartan throne.
The next stage in the story is one of the most famous in Greek mythology: a Trojan prince called Paris visited Menelaus and fell in love with Queen Helen. Paris captured her and took her back to Troy, prompting the start of the Trojan War. Agamemnon was preparing his fleets to sail into battle alongside Menelaus but the winds would not allow them to leave the bay. In order to appease the gods and change the winds, he had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. Unsurprisingly, Clytemnestra was furious with her husband. While he was gone, she began an affair with his step-brother, Aegisthus. Our story picks up over ten years later, when the Trojan War had finally come to an end. Agamemnon returned to his kingdom victorious, unaware of the death awaiting him at the hands of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. The pair slaughtered Agamemnon and became the new king and queen.
Orestes and the Furies
Orestes and Electra were the surviving son and daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Following Agamemnon’s death, they were obligated to take revenge on the killers of their father, according to Ancient Greek moral code, even if it meant they had to murder their mother. They prayed at Agamemnon’s tomb and Orestes killed Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. He fled his mother’s body, pursued by the Furies, three female goddesses tied to vengeance and blood crime. Orestes found sanctity at Delphi, where the Oracle told him to stand trial for his deed at Athens. A jury of citizens had to decide which crime was worse: Orestes letting the murder of his father go unavenged, or Orestes killing his mother. The jury was deadlocked, but the goddess Athena cast the deciding vote and he was proclaimed not guilty.
The miasma had gone. The curse of the House of Atreus and the never-ending cycle of revenge and retribution was finally broken by the justice of the State.
Greek theatre at Epidauros