Hippodamia and Pelops, after getting their happily ever after, had a brood of children. So many, in fact, that they had to go out and conquer all the lands in what become known as the Peloponnese. The best of frenemies to come out of this litter were the brothers Atreus and Thyestes, who ruled over the Kingdom of Argos. Thyestes adored playing tricks on his older brother Atreus. Some of his favorite pranks were things like seducing his wife and plotting for the throne.
THE CRIME OF ATREUS
Once upon a time, King Atreus promised his best lamb as a sacrifice to Artemis. In general the family tried to be pretty devout, attempting to remit payment against the whole curse thing.
Anyway, as he was going through his flock, seeking an appropriately divine gift, he came across a golden lamb. Well, he wasn’t going to throw that away in a hurry! Giving the lamb to his wife, Aerope, he hoped to hide it from Artemis, and instead sacrifice a sub-par specimen. Apparently, he hadn’t learned that hiding things from the gods never works out.
Aerope wasn’t known for her loyalty or chastity. In her youth, she had survived being condemned to death by drowning for sleeping with a servant. Being married to Atreus hadn’t improved her commitment to monogamy. She had a lover on the side, who was, naturally, none other than Thyestes.
During one of many nighttime trysts in the royal bedchamber, Thyestes managed to steal the golden lamb. He enjoyed having such an ace up his sleeve, and decided to milk his advantage for all it was worth. One day, while the brothers were playing poker, he had an idea.
“Atreus, old chum, I propose a wager.”
“Ho ho! Well, I wouldn’t like to take more from you than I already have…”
“Not so fast! This isn’t like playing for piles of M&Ms in our youth, you scoundrel, this is for higher stakes. Say… the kingdom?”
“Alright, baby brother, I’m intrigued… What did you have in mind?”
“I heard you came across a golden lamb in the fields?”
“How did you hear about that?? It’s supposed to be secret!”
“Come on, brother mine, you told Aerope, now everyone knows. I mean, she’s worse than those tabloids they sell down in the agora!”
“You many have a point there.”
“My proposition is, that whomever should produce this valuable piece of livestock, should have the kingdom.”
Atreus, secure in the knowledge that his wife would never ever betray him, readily agreed. Unfortunately, he was quite mistaken. By producing the lamb, Thyestes gained the throne.
An unhappy side-effect of this victory, though, was that Atreus found out about the affair between his wife and brother. Not to be deprived of both kingdom and spouse, he settled on a tried and true family recipe for his revenge. Rounding up all twelve of Thyestes’ sons, he cooked them into a stew, and tricked his brother into eating them.
“Hey, bro, how’s the soup?”
“It’s delicious! I’ve never tasted such succulent cuts. Is this one of those baby goats Artemis was complimenting us on?”
“Well… I suppose you could say it was a kid.”
Having inherited the gift of pranking from his grandfather, Atreus saved the heads of the children in the kitchen. He presented these macabre souvenirs to Thyestes after he had finished eating, and everyone had a laugh. Everyone, that is, except Thyestes, who was pretty miffed.
Contrary to how often it appears in mythology, consumption of human flesh, particularly one’s own offspring, was taboo. Thyestes was exiled. On his travels he consulted the Delphic oracle (like you do) on the most appropriate way to get even. To his delighted surprise, she informed him that he should sleep with his own daughter, Pelopia (in her defense, the Oracle was pretty high at the time).
One dark night, while Pelopia was making sacrifices to various deities at her favorite temple, Thyestes disguised himself and raped her. Like many women who get raped in mythology, she managed to steal his sword. This was helpful for later determination of paternal origin.
Swords were like the DNA tests of Ancient Greece. As a woman, it was a good insurance policy to get a hold of the sword belonging to the guy you were sleeping with. This worked for a few reasons.
A) If they denied ever having slept with you, you would have their sword as proof. Plus, you could use it as blackmail, in case they were married (often the case).
B) If you got pregnant, you could give it to the (boy) child. Later in life, he could use it to confront his absent father figure.
C) Should all else fail, you could impale yourself on the blade, and commit suicide. It was a very respected way to die.
Pelopia, for her sins, got saddled with option B, and gave birth to Aegisthus. Ashamed of his origin, she abandoned him in the woods. Since he had his noble weapon inheritance with him, the child got adopted by none other than Atreus, who raised him as one of his own.
The years passed and Aegisthus grew from mewling babe to strong youth. Sooner than Atreus would have liked, it was time to set him a task, an essential rite of passage for noble mythological teenagers. His quest? To find and slay the wandering Thyestes, removing his insidious evil from the land forever.
“Who goes there?”
“It is I, Aegisthus, son – well, adopted son – of King Atreus! I have come to do battle with you, foul villain!”
“Ahhh, Aegisthus, is it? Come into the light, boy, and let’s get a closer look at that sword. It seems awfully familiar…”
“I’ll have none of your – wait… it does? This was my true father’s sword!”
“Well in that case it’s definitely mine. 100% recognition happening over here. You wouldn’t go about killing your own father, would you lad?”
“Dad! I wouldn’t! I mean, can I call you Dad? You don’t mind?”
“You know, what we call each other actually gets a little tricky. Why don’t you come inside for a drink and let me explain things?”
This happy reunion of Father and Son was accompanied by the uncomfortable revelation that Father was also Grandfather. Although, Aegisthus was so happy to have his biological father back in his life that it didn’t seem to bother him. In fact, due to the doubly powerful claim Thyestes had over his blood, he switched sides, returned to Argos, and killed Atreus.
He and Thyestes ruled the kingdom together, as father/grandfather and son, for many years, like the stuff of Luke Skywalker’s nightmares. They thought about killing the sons of Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus, but got soft in the end and just exiled them to Sparta.
Coming soon, Part Three: Agamemnon and Menelaus Set Up Shop! Featuring a very serious courtship, Helen, and Netflix.