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Mythological Background to Aeschylus' Agamemnon and the Oresteia Trilogy
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Agamemnon's family history was not a happy one. His great-grandfather was Tantalus, the cunning trickster, most noted for having served up his young son Pelops to the gods at a banquet in order to test their omniscience.

All of the gods passed this test except for Demeter: still grieving for the loss of her daughter Persephone, she ate a bit of Pelops' shoulder before discovering the deception. The gods restored Pelops to life, giving him an ivory shoulder to replace the bit eaten by Demeter.

Pelops later proved himself a worthy son of Tantalus. He was determined to win the hand of Hippodamia, the daughter of Oenomaus, king of Pisa (in the northwest Peloponnese, near the site of Olympia). Oenomaus was a terrible figure who would engage his daughter's suitors in a chariot race: he would give the poor unfortunates a head start, then pursue them and kill them with his spear. Pelops beat Oenomaus by bribing his charioteer Myrtilus to replace the metal linchpins of Oenomaus' chariot wheels with pins of wax. As the chariot sped along, the wax melted and Oenomaus was killed in the resulting crash. Pelops then thanked Myrtilus by tossing him off a cliff. (This story is the founding legend for the Olympic Games, for any of you interested in getting into the Olympic spirit in its original sense!) Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. According to one legend, these two killed Chrysippus (a bastard son of Pelops) in order to please their mother. Exiled for this deed, they went to live with their brother-in-law Sthenelus, king of Mycenae. Atreus married Aerope, a Cretan princess. He also came into the possession of a lamb with a golden fleece. (He had promised to sacrifice it to Artemis, but reneged on his vow and kept the lamb [or its fleece] hidden away.) Thyestes seduced Aerope and managed to steal the golden lamb/fleece. On Sthenelus' death, the two brothers held a contest for the throne of Mycenae. Thyestes proposed that the owner of the golden lamb/fleece should have the throne; Atreus agreed, only to discover that he had been betrayed. Atreus managed to win the throne of Mycenae anyway and immediately banished his brother. He later pretended to forgive Thyestes, recalled him from exile, and gave a grand feast in his honor. At the end of the feast a platter was brought in with the heads of Thyestes' young sons, who had provided their father with his main course at dinner. One son, however, survived: the baby Aegisthus.

Here the myth gets complicated: in later legend, Aegisthus is actually Thyestes' son by his own daughter Pelopia. Aegisthus grows up, rescues his father from Atreus' dungeon, and kills Atreus, only to be driven from Mycenae, along with his father, by Agamemnon and Menelaus.

This is a story rife with treacherous crimes against family members: Tantalus and Pelops, Pelops and Oenomaus, Pelops and Myrtilus, Thyestes and Merope, Atreus and the children of Thyestes, Thyestes and Pelopia. The pattern continues in the next generation. Atreus' two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, grew up to be the kings of Mycenae and Sparta respectively. When Menelaus' wife Helen ran off with the Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon gathered together the famous Trojan expedition. The expedition against Troy began with the Greek forces gathering at Aulis (on the east coast of Boeotia, facing the island of Euboea: see map 2 in WA). While there, Agamemnon in some way insulted the virginal huntress goddess Artemis (one version had it that, upon killing a deer, he boasted that he was a better hunter than Artemis). In her anger, Artemis sent adverse winds to keep the Greek fleet from sailing. [FN 1] The prophet Calchas finally revealed to Agamemnon that the only way to appease Artemis' anger was to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon sent word to his wife Clytemnestra (Helen's sister) that Iphigenia was to be married to Achilles as the condition upon which the latter would join the expedition. When Iphigenia arrived, however, she was slaughtered at the altar of Artemis. Clytemnestra later got her revenge: when Agamemnon returned home after the war she led him into his bath and, when he was naked and helpless in the tub, wrapped a large towel around him and hacked him to death. Part of Clytemnestra's anger was due to the fact that, in addition to having butchered their daughter, Agamemnon had brought the Trojan princess Cassandra back with him to be his concubine. Cassandra was a prophetess who had been given her prophetic powers by the god Apollo. Apollo had granted her these powers on the agreement that she would sleep with him, but Cassandra did not fulfill her part of the deal. In his anger, Apollo cursed Cassandra: she would foretell the future accurately but no one would believe or understand her.

Today people tend to misuse her name as if it referred to someone who is always gloomily predicting disaster: Cassandra was always correct in her predictions, but no one would listen to her.

Clytemnestra, too, had a lover: the handsome young Aegisthus, who had returned to Mycenae looking for revenge on Atreus' family. (In Homer's Odyssey it is Aegisthus who is the principal agent of Agamemnon's destruction, slaughtering him at a banquet. In that version of the myth Clytemnestra, while far from admirable, is little more than a pawn of Aegisthus. Aeschylus follows the poet Stesichorus in giving a more prominent role to the queen, who becomes a more deadly version of her faithless sister Helen.)

Aeschylus' Agamemnon opens on the evening of Troy's fall and tells of Agamemnon's ill-fated return to Mycenae. At its conclusion, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus retire triumphantly into the palace of Atreus, the new rulers of Mycenae. The second play of the trilogy, Choephori [The Libation Bearers], presents the return of Agamemnon's son Orestes. With the help of his sister Electra and his faithful friend Pylades, Orestes enters the palace in disguise and kills both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. The former deed is not problematic in Greek eyes: it is a simple act of private vengeance (dikê), expected of a son whose father has been murdered and whose patrimony has been usurped. The murder of Orestes' mother Clytemnestra is a different matter, however, since it entails miasma and calls down upon Orestes the wrath of the Erinyes ("Furies" — primitive female agents of divine vengeance, concerned above all with avenging crimes against family members). Orestes is driven mad and (in the third play, Eumenides [The Kindly Ones]) travels first to Delphi (where he is purified by the god Apollo) and then to Athens, pursued constantly by the ghastly Erinyes. At Athens Orestes is put on trial before the goddess Athena, who impanels a human jury to judge the case. Apollo presents the case for the defense and manages to achieve a tie vote among the jurors, which (according to Athenian law) leads to Orestes' acquittal. The Erinyes are furious (as you would expect) and threaten to destroy Athens with the blight of miasma, but Athena wins them over and, at the play's conclusion, they become the kindly, beneficent deities of the play's title, having been transformed into chthonic vegetation goddesses and divine overseers of the new, polis -centered system of dikê. These events at Athens are presented as the foundation myth for the Council of the Areopagus.


[FN 1] The myth of Artemis' anger and the adverse winds may reflect the peculiar conditions at Aulis. The narrows between the large island of Euboea and the Greek mainland have a detectable current caused by the mild tides of the Mediterranean. The direction of the current changes once or twice each day, according to the direction of the tides. [Return to text]

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