Summary: Chapter I —The House of Atreus

The dynastic dramas of the House of Atreus and the Royal House of Thebes are taken from the works the Greek tragedians Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. Euripides wrote of the House of Atreus, which includes Atreus’s son, Agamemnon, his family (Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Orestes, and Electra), and his brother, Menelaus. The family is cursed because an ancestor, Tantalus, a son of Zeus who often visited Olympus, mysteriously decided to kill, cook, and serve his son Pelops to the Olympians. Discerning his heinous crime, the gods send Tantalus to be tormented in Hades, where he stands in a pool of water with fruit dangling above his head. The water sinks away when he bends to drink it, and the fruit rises up when he reaches to eat it. He is eternally tantalized—a term we use today.

Tantalus’s crime initiates generations of violence and tragedy, each crime begetting further bloodshed. Pelops, restored to life by the gods, seeks to marry the princess Hippodamia. She can only be won by the suitor who beats her father in a chariot race; if the suitor loses, he is killed. In one version, Hippodamia and her father’s charioteer, Myrtilus, conspire to give Pelops the victory, but Pelops later kills Myrtilus, bringing further bad luck on his family. Tantalus’s daughter Niobe decides she is the equal of the gods and demands that the people of Thebes worship her. As punishment, Apollo, and Artemis kill her seven sons and seven daughters. Weeping continually, she turns into a rock always wet with tears. Next, Pelops’s son Thyestes seduces the wife of his brother, Atreus, who then kills Thyestes’s two children and serves them to their father for dinner.

In the newest generation, Agamemnon, Menelaus’s brother, sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to placate Artemis and procure favorable sailing winds during the Trojan War. Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, takes a lover—Aegisthus, son of Thyestes—while Agamemnon is away in Troy. Outraged at the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia, she plots revenge against her husband, while Aegisthus vows revenge for his father. When Agamemnon returns from Troy with Cassandra, the prophetess everyone always ignores, Cassandra foretells her and Agamemnon’s deaths but is unheeded. The two enter the palace, and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus kill them.

Two of Agamemnon’s children still live to perpetuate the bloodshed: his daughter, Electra, whom Aegisthus and Clytemnestra treat cruelly, and son, Orestes, whom a family friend has taken to protect him from Aegisthus. Orestes sets out for vengeance when he comes of age—even though he knows this means the terrible crime of matricide—and the Oracle at Delphi confirms him in this path. Returning to Mycenae, he runs into Electra, who is overjoyed and eager for him to avenge their father. Pretending to be a messenger bearing news of Orestes’ death, Orestes is welcomed into the palace, where he kills his mother and her lover. He instantly sees the terrible avenging Furies pursuing him, and he begins years of frenzied wanderings. Finally, with Apollo’s aid, he appeals to Athena, who pities him and turns the Furies into the Eumenides, “protectors of the suppliant.” The curse of the House of Atreus finally ends.

In another version of the story, Artemis grows horrified just before Iphigenia’s sacrifice and rescues her. Artemis brings Iphigenia to the land of the Taurians and makes her a priestess of her own temple. Regrettably, this job involves sacrificing humans, so Iphigenia goes about her duties very reluctantly. In this version, Athena has not completely absolved Orestes of guilt. The Oracle at Delphi tells Orestes that for his last cleansing act he must go to the land of the Taurians and procure the image of Artemis from its temple. Orestes and his friend Pylades set out on the quest, but the Taurians capture them almost immediately and intend to sacrifice them.

Orestes is taken to Iphigenia, the priestess, but the siblings fail to recognize each other because they have been separated for so long. Preparing Orestes and Pylades for death, Iphigenia asks where they are from. On hearing they are from Mycenae, she asks them about her family. She offers to set Pylades free if he takes a message to her brother, Orestes, telling him that she is alive and that he must rescue her. Orestes jumps up and reveals his identity. The three begin their escape with the image of Artemis. King Thoas of the Taurians pursues, but lets them escape when Athena says they are fated to do so.

Summary: Chapter II — The Royal House of Thebes

“What creature,” the Sphinx asked him, “goes on four feet in the morning, on two at noonday, on three in the evening?”

See Important Quotations Explained

Unlike the House of Atreus, the House of Thebes is named after a city, not a person. The dynastic head, Cadmus, is a brother of Europa, the woman Zeus kidnaps while she is a cow. After her kidnapping, her father sends her brothers to look for her. The Oracle at Delphi tells Cadmus to break off from the group and establish his own city. Fortune blesses his endeavor, but his children are not so lucky. He has four daughters, all of whom experience tragedy: Semele dies while pregnant with Dionysus; Ino becomes the wicked stepmother of Phrixus (from the story of the Golden Fleece) and commits suicide after her husband kills their son; Agave is driven mad by Dionysus and kills her own son, Pentheus; Autonoë’s son, Actaeon, accidentally sees the naked Artemis, who kills him. In the end, the gods turn Cadmus and his wife, Harmonia, into serpents for no reason.

The family’s greatest misfortune, however, descends upon Cadmus’s great-great-grandson, Oedipus. The Oracle at Delphi tells Oedipus’s father, King Laius of Thebes, that a son of his will one day kill him and marry his wife. When Oedipus is born, Laius leaves the child tied up on a mountain to die. Years later, Laius is killed by a man he meets on a highway, who everyone believes is a stranger.

In Laius’s absence, Thebes is besieged by the Sphinx, a monster who devours anyone who cannot answer her riddle. One day, Oedipus, who has grown up in Corinth as the son of King Polybus, approaches. He has left home because the Oracle at Delphi told him he would one day kill his father. Like Laius, he too wants to subvert fate. The Sphinx asks, “What creature goes on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?” Oedipus gives the correct answer, “Man”—a man crawls as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and needs a cane when elderly. The Sphinx, outraged, kills herself. As his reward for freeing the city, Oedipus becomes king and marries the widowed queen, Jocasta.

A terrible plague visits Thebes. Oedipus sends Jocasta’s brother, Creon, to the Oracle at Delphi to ask the gods how to fix the situation. Creon returns to say that the plague will lift once Laius’s murderer is punished. Oedipus searches for the murderer, eventually consulting the seer Teiresias for help. Teiresias uses his powers to see what has happened, but does not want to tell Oedipus the horrible truth. Oedipus forces him, and the old man says that Oedipus himself is the guilty party. Oedipus and Jocasta piece events together: on the road from Delphi, Oedipus killed a man in a heated argument; they now realize that man was Laius. A messenger from Polybus enters and Oedipus learns that he is not Polybus’s true son. He realizes that he is Laius’s son and has fulfilled the horrible prophecy. Horrified, Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes.

Oedipus abdicates the throne but remains in Thebes, and the throne passes to Creon. Oedipus is suddenly exiled and has only Antigone, his daughter, by his side to guide him. He finally rests in Colonus, a place near Athens sacred to the Eumenides. In the end, the kindly Theseus honors Oedipus for his unwitting suffering, and the tortured old man dies in peace. Meanwhile, his other daughter, Ismene, has remained in Thebes, and his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, fight over the throne. Eteocles eventually wins, but Polyneices assembles an army to attack the city. He convinces six other chieftains to join him, and the seven attack the seven gates of Thebes.

Teiresias tells Creon that Thebes will be saved if Creon’s son, Menoeceus, dies. Creon tries to protect the boy from battle, but the impetuous youth, believing he must make this sacrifice, rushes out to his death. Thebes is ultimately victorious, but Eteocles and Polyneices kill each other. Polyneices’ dying words express his wish to be buried in his home city, but Creon decrees that anyone who buries any of the six dead enemy leaders—including Polyneices—will be put to death. Antigone, now back in Thebes, is horrified and defies the law, burying her brother. True to his word, Creon executes her.

Though Polyneices is buried, five of the six dead chieftains still lie unburied. Adrastus, the only survivor of the seven, petitions Theseus for help. When negotiations fail, Theseus marches against Thebes, defeats them, forces them to honorably bury the dead, and then nobly retreats, having served justice. The sons of the dead men are not satisfied, however, and eventually band together in a group known as the Epigoni (the “after-born”) and level Thebes. In the end, all that is left of the city is a necklace Hephaestus gave to Harmonia upon her wedding to Cadmus.

Analysis: Chapters I–II

The two most famous stories here are that of Orestes—taken from Aeschylus’s Oresteia, of which Agamemnon is the first play—and Oedipus, taken from Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy. Both works concern the central idea that no deed goes without consequence, but the two myths deal with that idea in different ways. Oedipus unwittingly commits a crime, even when he does everything in his power to avoid doing so, because destiny has decreed it. Orestes, on the other hand, consciously chooses to punish evil and thereby commits an evil act himself. Both stories’ moral dilemmas are complex.

On the simplest level, both myths concern bad things that happen to good people. Oedipus is, overall, a good man. He does kill his father on the highway, but it is implied that it is done in self-defense. Oedipus acts heroically: he bravely faces the Sphinx, frees Thebes, rules fairly, and fervently searches for Laius’s killer. When he learns the evils he has committed, he punishes himself harshly and commits himself to a life of contemplation. Oedipus’s heroism comes not from great adventures but from coping with the impossibly cruel hand fate has dealt him. He withstands the worst the world has to offer with a stoic endurance. In the end, he is rewarded for his heroism, dying a peaceful death under the eye of Theseus.

Despite his heroism, Oedipus spends the bulk of his life in horrible suffering. He is simply a victim of cruel destiny. Again, evil abounds in the world of Greek myths, and many stories focus on characters who struggle with this inevitable wickedness of the world around them. Oedipus’s story, above all, highlights the immutability of fate, no matter how cruel. Both Laius and Oedipus are told of the pain that lurks in their future, and both set out to change their fate. By doing so, they inadvertently set in motion a chain of events that fulfills their fate. In the world of Oedipus, evil is an inevitability that no one, no matter how virtuous, can escape.

Orestes, however, has more agency, more ability to choose his path. Unlike Oedipus, whose actions are largely blind, Orestes takes vengeance upon his mother by his own choosing. The intricacy of Aeschylus’s Oresteia lies in the choice Orestes must make: it is not a simple selection between good and evil but a choice of whether to accept the will of the gods or ignore it, to accept his family legacy and fate or throw them off. Orestes feels compelled to accept his destiny, but it is important to note that he could have walked away.

The moral world of the Oresteia is, nonetheless, almost as cruel as the world of Oedipus. It is the gods who set the violent chain of events in motion, beginning with Artemis’s demand for Iphigenia’s sacrifice. When Orestes is faced with a choice, he knows the gods demand an act of vengeance for Agamemnon’s murder, even though he also knows he is also forbidden to slay his mother. He is in a lose-lose situation and is therefore heroic in his brave choice of a path that he knows will cause him pain. In the end, his heroism is rewarded when the Furies turn into the Eumenides. The moment almost recalls Christian imagery, as Orestes chooses a path of suffering and the entire world is purified as a result.

Both stories offer bleak visions of justice in the world. Unlike the simpler Greek myths—such as the stories of Tantalus and Creon—in which good is rewarded and evil is punished, these stories involve essentially good characters who suffer by little or no fault of their own. Other episodes, such as the Labors of Hercules, the story of the Trojan War, and the trials of Odysseus, have a similar view of the ubiquity of evil. The protagonists of those stories, however, become heroes in their struggle against and, for the most part, triumph over that evil. The stories of Oedipus and Orestes, however, occupy a darker universe than other myths, as both men must accept cruel fates and have no opportunity for epic adventure or glory.