Atreus, king of Mycenae, was the son of Pelops and the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. He was the grandson of Tantalus, whose family was blighted by curses from the gods for five generations. The misfortunes of the house of Atreus were favorite subjects for Greek tragic dramatists.

Atreus vowed to sacrifice the finest animal in his flock to Artemis; however, when he discovered a golden lamb in the flock, he reneged on the promise and hid the lamb away. At the same time his wife, Aerope, was having an affair with his brother, Thyestes. Aerope secretly gave the lamb to Thyestes, and Thyestes then got Atreus to agree that the possessor of the golden lamb should be king. Thyestes produced the lamb and seized the throne.

Atreus was determined to be king again. On the advice of Hermes, he got Thyestes to agree to yield the throne when the sun ran backwards in its course. Zeus then made the sun set in the east, and Atreus became king once more, banishing Thyestes for good measure.

Later, Atreus learned of his wife's adultery and decided to seek revenge for it. He invited Thyestes to return and be reconciled with him. He killed Thyestes' sons, cut them up, and cooked everything except their hands and feet. Then he served this meat at a banquet in Thyestes' honor. After Thyestes had finished eating, Atreus produced the hands and feet, taunted his brother with them, and banished him once more.

At this point, Thyestes was the one intent on revenge. An oracle advised him that his revenge would be successful if he fathered a son by his own daughter. He did so, and named the son Aegisthus. When Aegisthus grew to manhood, he killed Atreus and restored his father to the throne.

The curse continued long after Atreus' death. Thyestes was banished for a third and final time when Agamemnon, the son of Atreus, returned and seized the throne. Later on, Aegisthus seduced Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, and the two of them murdered Agamemnon when he returned from the Trojan War. Agamemnon's children, Orestes and Electra, then plotted and carried out the murder of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, thus continuing the curse into yet another generation.

From Encyclopedia Mythica
See also: The Oresteia


The son of Pelops and Hippodamia whose younger brother was Thyestes (Table 2). The theme underlying the legend about him is the hatred between the two brothers and the appalling forms of revenge they took on the other. This hatred, however, was apparently not yet known in the Homeric poems; it is sometimes said to have its origin in a curse of Pelops since Atreus and Thyestes, together with their mother Hippodamia, killed their half-brother Chrysippus, whom the Nymph Axioche bore to Pelops. As a punishment Pelops banished the two youths and cursed them. They took refuge in Mycenae, with Eurystheus, the nephew of Atreus, or, according to the most usual version, with Sthenelus, the father of Eurystheus.

After Sthenelus had driven Amphitryon from his part of the Argolid he entrusted the city and land of Midea to Atreus and Thyestes. Later, when Eurystheus died childless beneath the blows of Heracles, an oracle advised the inhabitants of Mycenae to take a son of Pelops as their king. They accordingly summoned Atreus and Thyestes and each of the two brothers began to state the grounds for his claim to the kingship: this was the moment when they hatred showed itself.

Atreus had some time previously found a lamb with a golden fleece in his flock and although he had vowed that year to sacrifice the finest produce of his flock to Artemis, he kept the lamb back for himself and his the fleece in a chest. His wife, Aerope who was Thyestes' lover, had secretly given the miraculous fleece to Thyestes however. In the debate before the inhabitants of Mycenae, Thyestes proposed that the throne should go to whoever could display a golden fleece. Atreus accepted the challenge, for he knew nothing of Thyestes' theft. Thyestes produced it and was chosen, but Zeus through Hermes warned Atreus to agree with Thyestes that the real king should be identified by another miracle: if the sun were to change its course, it would be Atreus who would rule over Mycenae; if it did not, then Thyestes would remain in power. Thyestes accepted and the sun immediately set in the east. Accordingly, Atreus who was clearly favoured by the gods, finally reigned over Mycenae.

He hurriedly banished Thyestes from the kingdom, but subsequently, learning of Aerope's affair with Thyestes he pretended to make up his quarrel with the latter and recalled him from exile. When Thyestes was in Mycenae, Atreus secretly killed Thyestes' three sons, Aglaus, Callileon and Orchomenus, even though they had sought protection as suppliants at the altar of Zeus. Then, to compound his crime, he had the children cut up, boiled and served in a dish to their father during a feast. After Thyestes had eaten, Atreus showed him the heads of the children, making clear the true nature of the meal and then he hounded Thyestes out of the country.

Thyestes took refuge in Sicyon. There, on the advice of an oracle, he begot, by his own daughter but without her knowledge, a son named Aegisthus. Subsequently Pelopia, the daughter of Thyestes, married Atreus, her uncle and Aegisthus, whose real father was unknown to Atreus, was brought up by him. When Aegisthus grew up, Atreus charged him with the task of killing Thyestes, but Aegisthus found out in time that Thyestes was his father and, on returning to Mycenae, he killed Atreus and then gave the kingdom to Thyestes.

Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, though these children are sometimes attributed to Pleisthenes, who was said to be a son of Atreus who died young and whose children were taken in by their grandfather (see Pleisthenes).


Table of Sources:
- Hom, Il. 2, 105ff. with schol. on 107, 106
- Pind. Ol. 1, 89 (144) with schol. on 144
- Thuc. 1, 9
- Paus. 2, 16, 6; 2, 18, 1; 3, 1, 5; 3, 24, 11; 5, 3, 6; 9, 40, 11; 10, 26, 3
- Hyg. Fab. 85; 88
- Apollod. Bibl. 2, 4, 6; Epit. 2, 10ff.
- Euripides, El. 726ff.; 699ff.
- schol. on Euripides, Or. 41; 811; 995; 998
- Dio Chrys. Or. 66
- Seneca, Thyest. 222ff.
- Tzetzes, Chil. 1, 425ff.
- Ovid, Trist. 2, 391ff.; Ars Am. 1, 327ff.
- Martial 3, 45, 1ff.
- Aeschylus Ag. 1583ff.
- Paus. 2, 16, 6; 2, 18, 1
- Serv. on Virgil, Aen. 1, 568; 11, 262
- Euripides, Thyestes (lost tragedy, Nauck TGF, edn 2, pp. 480ff.)
- Sophocles, Atreus and Thyestes (lost tragedies, Jebb-Pearson, I p. 91 and I p. 185)

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