Here’s the thing about the House of Atreus – they’re all traumatized. Yes, even more so than most mythological characters. It was not a nice family. Cattier even than the Kardashians, their specialties included incest, murder, and cannibalism. More than anything else, though, they had a problem with revenge.
THE ORIGIN OF THE CURSE
If you trace the line of Atreus far back into the mists of time, you come across Tantalus. He had a pretty cush life hanging out with the gods, since Zeus was his Pops, but ruined it all by getting too big for his britches (or toga, as the case may be). One day, he decided to play a prank on the immortals (never a good idea). To test the limits of their divine knowledge, he killed his son Pelops, cooked him up into a stew, and threw a dinner party.
Most of the gods knew what was up, since they were omniscient, a fact you’d think Tantalus would have remembered. For a few minutes, everyone awkwardly moved bits of food around on their plates, trying to make it seem like they were eating. Caught up in trying to disguise their disgust, no one noticed Demeter gobble up a whole serving until she asked for seconds.
To be fair, Demeter was going through a tumultuous time, and had a tendency to eat through her grief. See, her two annoying baby brothers, Zeus and Hades, had recently taken off with her daughter Persephone, and hidden her in the Underworld. She loathed it when her brothers messed with her stuff, and may have overreacted a bit. Her subsequent hissy fit resulted in meteorological havoc, causing all the crops to fail, and plunging the mortal world into unending winter.
It was a pretty good plan, which makes sense for a Total Boss Goddess. If she killed off all the humans with cold and starvation, no one would be able to make sacrifices to Zeus anymore, and wouldn’t that just show him. Zeus was quaking in his immortal boots (this was a serious threat) but hadn’t quite caved in. He hated it when his big sister won.
“Wow, Tantalus, super delicious. I mean, this meat is so tender! Where on earth did you find it? Seriously though, I thought I had already killed off all the livestock?”
“Um, Demeter – “
“Not now, Zeus, I’m still pissed at you. We are not speaking. Hera, darling, would you pass the salt?”
Hera, being a vindictive sort, smirked silently as Demeter devoured poor Pelops’ whole shoulder.
Furious at Tantalus for making Demeter look bad (worst thing you can ever do as a mortal), the gods threw him into the Underworld (and not the nice part Persephone was in). His fate was to be just out of reach of food and water for all eternity. He spent a hungry and thirsty couple of eons, being constantly tantalized by these succulent pleasures.
Luckily for Pelops, the gods are gods, and they brought him back to life. They even created a new shoulder for him, out of marble. It made him look like a total badass.With the help of his newly augmented torso, he set off to win the hand of his Lady Love, Hippodamia.
Naturally, Hippodamia was a beautiful princess. According to the rules of royalty, her father, King Oenomaus, proclaimed a challenge to anyone wishing to gain her hand in marriage.
Because he owned a team of magical horses, a great many heros lost their heads in Hippodamia’s name. Pelops, though, by virtue of having (almost) survived his childhood, was sneakier than most.
He bribed an attendant of the king to replace the bronze axles of the chariot with axles made of beeswax. In the middle of the race, the beeswax started melting, the chariot fell apart, and King Oenomaus was dragged to death – just like that one stunt guy in Ben Hur.
After the race, the King’s attendant showed up and asked for what Pelops had promised him.
“Hey, Pelops, you remember what you said about… you know… your wedding night, if I did that favor for you? What do you think? Tonight a good time to get in on the action?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, good sir.”
“You know. That thing you promised I could do? That very special time I was promised with Hippodamia? The kind that lasts all night and just happens to be her very first time?”
“Sir! I am appalled. Absolutely appalled. Are you insinuating that I promised you my fiancee’s virginity for helping me fix the results of this race? Why, I would never!“
“But, I have this note you wrote saying the very thing right here in my – “
Instead of delivering on the goods, Pelops copped out by throwing the man off a cliff. He then managed to take credit for winning the race fair and square. Good thing too, as victory was way more important than a woman’s virginity anyway.
There was, however, just a slight glitch. As the attendant was falling to his death, he cursed Pelops and the rest of his bloodline. For generations, his descendants would fall into a cycle of betrayal, bloodshed, and vengeance.
Tune in next time for The Crime of Atreus; featuring adultery, ancient methods of paternity testing, and even more cannibalism!