Michael Kinnucan

Incest, Cannibalism, and the Gods: The Rise of the House of Atreus


ISSUE 4 | THE PROGRESS OF MEMORY | MAY 2011

Read afterthoughts to this piece from Avi Garelick.
“‘Indeed, how is this even possible? Where could this have really come from in heads like the ones we have, we men of noble descent, happy, successful, from the best society, noble, and virtuous?’—for hundreds of years the aristocratic Greek posed this question to himself in relation to every horror or outrage incomprehensible to him which had defiled one of his peers. ‘Some god must have deluded him,’ he finally said, shaking his head . . .” – Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality
“Myths are stories about people who become too big for their lives temporarily, so that they crash into other lives or brush against gods.” – Anne Carson, Grief Lessons

1

In that impossible litany of outrage, rape and desecration which constitutes Greek mythology, the house of Atreus stands out not for the extremity of its crimes—there it has equals—but for its capacity to survive them. Generation after generation, beginning four lifetimes before the Trojan War and persisting through Atreus, Thyestes, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and down to the time of Orestes and Elektra, commits the most heinous and unthinkable crimes ever to blacken a man’s soul and yet survives long enough to pass on its cursed seed. The Greek myths are filled with mortals who transgress the bounds of their mortality, of course. The Atreids are exceptional only in that they manage to survive beyond these bounds, at least for a while. To take on unspeakable guilt and live with it: this is their curse.

If we formalize memory—if we allow it to be, not a picture of the past that we carry with us, but simply the way the past presses on us, the way it holds itself apart and refuses to disappear into the present—then a curse is a kind of memory, indeed an essential kind. A curse is an excess of memory, the unforgettable—and for that it doesn’t need to be remembered. The famine upon Thebes at the opening of Oedipus Rex is a kind of memory of Oedipus’ parricide, which he himself never knew as such and has now forgotten: beyond what he knows or can know, Oedipus is hunted down by the effects of an action he believed he could put behind him. That he was wrong, that this particular past is his fate—this is a kind of memory. The curse is the way a crime, like a promise, catches up with you—the way the past, as past, recurs. For Oedipus, this recurrence means simply death: not only he but every one of his children is consumed by the past he has forgotten and which, in the form of Iocasta, has remained all too near. This was not to be the fate of the Atreids; theirs was worse. For them, the past kept happening, in an endless proliferation of linked and varied crimes which at once punished and deepened their guilt, for centuries. But how did it begin?

2

Tantalus was a wealthy king of Lydia, beloved of the gods in an age when men still broke bread with the gods. He was a regular guest at their table in Olympus, and it is said that he talked too much of their secrets and stole ambrosia to share with his mortal friends. Whatever the truth of this, the Olympians apparently forgave him, because when he invited them to dine at his palace they agreed. The gods arrived and sat down to the feast, but when the dishes were laid out and uncovered they fell silent. They recognized, instantly, that Tantalus had served them human flesh—the flesh of his son Pelops. Only Demeter, grieved to distraction by the recent kidnapping of Persephone, took a bite. But she quickly realized what she had done—and she was horrified. They all were.

The gods sought to undo what Tantalus had done: they rebuilt Pelops from the ground up. They placed his bones in a cauldron and called on the Fates to restore him to life; Hephaestus crafted a shoulder for him out of ivory to replace the one Demeter had eaten. He emerged more beautiful than before. As for Tantalus, their punishment for him is well-known: he was condemned to live forever in Hades, always on the point of starvation with fruit just out of reach, always desperately thirsty but never quite able to drink. But the effects of his crime were not to be undone so simply.

3

Oddly enough, Tantalus was not the only Greek to offer the flesh of his son to the gods. The Arcadian king Lycaon did so too, thinking to test Zeus’s omniscience. Zeus, of course, passed the test, and promptly killed all fifty of Lycaon’s other sons in retribution—but that he was so tested speaks volumes about the nature of the Olympians. As Roberto Calasso points out, “Of the Olympians, the first thing we can say is that they were new gods.” They ruled, but in the background of everything they did there lurked an older, darker order—that of the Titans, the Fates and the Furies, faceless, impersonal and terrifying beings. When he approaches cannibalism, Zeus himself approaches a realm in which he does not rule.

This, then, was Tantalus’ crime: he tempted the gods to transgression. That he killed his own son is horrifying, of course, but that he sought to involve the gods themselves in his crime--this is strictly unforgivable. For the Greeks, cannibalism and the killing of one’s children, often closely linked, are among the darkest crimes imaginable, rivaled only by incest. (What do they share? Perhaps simply this: incest, parricide, filicide, and cannibalism are all claustrophobic. They place the agent too close to the victim.) When Hera wants to destroy Heracles, she makes him kill his three sons; when Procne must avenge herself on her husband for her sister’s rape, she makes him eat his children. The guilt flowing from these crimes is so profound, so penetrating, that it can render even the gods impure.

The gods differ from mortals here not because they are above the law but because they possess the insight to avoid breaking it. This marks the difference between gods and mortals perhaps more deeply than death itself: the gods never find themselves in the position of Oedipus, suddenly and unimaginably guilty. They are able to avoid actions whose consequences they cannot control; mortals risk such consequences in their every action.1 And perhaps it is even a kindness that transgression and death go hand in hand, that those who cannot die need not sin: for one who has broken the law which even the gods fear, the best thing is to die quickly. This release, however, is denied to Tantalus. His punishment, an endless and desperate desire for what is always just beyond his grasp, is a cruel parody of life, a life-in-death. But the life of Tantalus’ crime does not end there: because Tantalus tempted the gods to unspeakable crime, his descendants will heap crime on crime endlessly. They are cursed not with leprosy or poverty or death but with the perseverance and madness to become ever more accursed.

4

If Tantalus thus marks an unfortunate beginning, he also marks an end: the end of social exchange between gods and mortals. Perhaps the gods learn their lesson. Three generations later, in the time of Agamemnon, the gods are guests of mortals only in distant lands (Zeus begins the Iliad vacationing among the Ethiopians); a generation after that, in the time of Orestes, even this seems unthinkable. In Tantalus’ time, the line which divides men from gods remained permeable; after him it will become a terrifying borderland, the unthinkable limit of the mortal world.

This limit, this difference, is absolute, but it is not for that reason impassable. Indeed, the moments at which it is crossed provide most of the material for Greek myth. From the gods’ side, the transgression is erotic: an endless series of rapes and abductions, along with the mortals produced by these couplings and the ensuing entanglement of divine with mortal affairs. (The Trojan War itself is the aftermath of Zeus’s love for Leda; Helen the all-too-beautiful is the grim consequence of this union.)

From the mortal side, the line is marked primarily by the sacrificial knife: the divine enters into mortal life by way of a gift which is also a death. The sacrifice produces between gods and mortals a connection which is also a separation. Sacrifice is the way mortals acknowledge the absolute difference of the divine, and this acknowledgment must be forever repeated, because mortals run the risk of forgetting it. When it is forgotten, men enter dangerous territory, and a myth occurs.

This forgetting may happen in two ways. The first of these is well known: it is hubris, the inveterate mortal urge to challenge the gods. The second, more obscure, more penetrating way in which mortals approach the border of the divine is less well known: it is atë.

In later Greek, atë came to mean simply “disaster,” and it is usually so translated. But it has an older and more ambiguous meaning. Liddell-Scott defines it first as “bewilderment, infatuation, caused by blindness or delusion sent by the gods, mostly as the punishment of guilty rashness.” Atë appears here as a divine punishment, but a strange form of punishment: loss of oneself, mania, madness, but also possession, “infatuation.” (Think of the bestial desire of Pasiphaë and the incestuous love of her daughter, Phaedra, both divine punishments.) But strangely enough, atë can also mean “the consequences of such visitations, either (a) reckless guilt, sin or (b) bane, ruin.” Atë, then, is not only punishment but also the incitement to crime; this double meaning is drawn together into the single meaning “disaster” because the insane crime caused by divine madness was the most profound disaster the Greeks could imagine—a disaster which consumes both victim and agent, one in which crime and punishment are the same. And such crime is, in an obscure sense, divine. In Sophocles’ Antigone, the chorus, watching the implacable determination of Creon and Antigone send them both into ruin, comments:

Your power, great Zeus—what human overstepping can check it? Yours is power that neither Sleep, the all-ensnaring, nor the untiring months of the gods can defeat. Unaged through time, you rule by your power and dwell thereby in the brilliant splendor of Olympus. And through the future, both near and distant, as through the past, shall this law prevail: nothing that is great comes to the life of mortals without atë.

5

Tantalus had three children. Of the first, Broteas, we know little besides that he was very ugly. The second, Niobe, lived primarily to produce an object lesson in hubris. She had fourteen children, and one fine day she took it upon herself to comment that she was a more blessed mother than Leto, who had only two. Unfortunately for Niobe, Leto’s two children were Artemis and Apollo, and those cold gods punished her by exterminating every one of her children.

Niobe’s story, like Arachne’s, is a mere parable—its lesson is simple and its consequences limited. Hubris is a kind of self-forgetting characteristic of mortals. We forget not that we cannot equal the gods in accomplishment—the Greeks are beautifully unsure on that point, and indeed Ovid claims that Arachne was a better weaver than Athena—but simply that we are mortals, that every work and deed of ours is vulnerable to death right up to the moment when it dies. For this reason, hubris is self-correcting: one dies.2 Artemis and Apollo merely make explicit with their arrows what would have been true anyway: Niobe will die, and her children, and theirs, while Leto’s children will live forever. Ovid tells us that when Niobe died, no one in her city mourned her.

6

If hubris, the forgetting of mortality, dies with its bearer, atë, a more radical form of forgetting, has more lasting consequences. The task of revealing these is left to Tantalus’ third child, Pelops, and to his progeny.

Pelops himself does not experience atë in its full form; perhaps he is protected by his ivory shoulder, the mark of the gods. He is remembered chiefly for finding a wife worthy of the son of Tantalus, and for accumulating the many curses whose consequences fall upon his sons.

After he emerges from the cauldron, Pelops is so beautiful that he is immediately abducted by Poseidon and serves as his catamite for a few years. Once he has outgrown this role, he sets out to seek the hand of Hippodemeia, daughter of Oenomaus. Oenomaus is a cruel king, and his love for his daughter transgresses the bounds of fatherhood; he has already killed thirteen suitors in order to keep her and plans to persist in this practice until he has accumulated enough bones to build a temple to Ares. But Hippodemeia, perhaps bored with this arrangement, takes a shine to Pelops; she betrays and kills her father by seducing his charioteer, and he curses Pelops and all his children with his dying breath. Pelops then kills the charioteer, who curses him and all his children with his dying breath.3

Through ruthless determination, Pelops came to rule a vast swath of Greece, the Peloponnesus, which bears his name to this day. His reign is remembered for a single perfidious act: he invited an enemy king to parley and then killed him under the flag of truce. For this crime all of Greece was punished with several years of famine.

Nonetheless, in light of the sins of his father and those of his sons, Pelops’ own misdeeds look merely venal: unlike Tantalus before him and Thyestes after him, Pelops kills only to achieve ends. He seems unable to take a single step without accumulating greater guilt, but he is never taken with divine madness. His worst punishment is similarly limited: he loses his favorite son.

Pelops fathered many sons with Hippodemeia, most notably Atreus and Thyestes, but his favorite son was Chrysippus, borne to him by the nymph Axioche, and he would have liked to leave his kingdom to this son. Hippodemeia, with the collusion of Atreus and Thyestes, killed Chrysippus out of envy; when Pelops discovered her crime, he exiled Atreus and Thyestes and Hippodemeia hanged herself. Her sons went off to seek their fortune in Mycenae, which at that time (unlucky city!) had an empty throne.

7

Atreus and Thyestes were doomed to be enemies from the moment they killed their father’s rightful heir: they had rejected their father’s decision and now each could establish predominance only with the other’s blood. But the degree of their rivalry, the extent and variety of the crimes they commit against each other, extended beyond any conceivable political goal, beyond any end whatsoever. They hated each other as only brothers can, in a way that’s more than human.

They fought over the throne of Mycenae, of course; Thyestes seduced his brother’s wife to wrest it away, and Atreus convinced Zeus to make the very stars run backward so he could win it back. The sun, to settle their quarrel, set in the east for the first and only time. But this was only the beginning.

Atreus exiled Thyestes, but he was not satisfied—so he invited him back and prepared a feast in his honor. When Thyestes had eaten his fill, Atreus brought out a bowl filled with human hands and feet, and Thyestes understood that he had eaten his own children. He fled, cursing Atreus and all his children.

Atreus’ crime elegantly combined those of his father and his grandfather: he violated a truce like Pelops, by serving children like Tantalus. If Tantalus’ crime was a perversion of the relationship between god and man, a poisoned sacrifice, Atreus’ was the perversion of the relationship between guest and host, a poisoned feast. But why? Why not simply kill Thyestes? This, subsequent events will show, would have been much the wiser course. But it is as though Atreus’ lust for vengeance could not be satisfied by something so simple: he needed a revenge which was excessive, which exceeded even death.

It is with this excess in Atreus that atë in its pure form enters the story. One recognizes true atë by two signs. First, atë must be inhuman, at once more and less than human: it must exceed the limits set by mortality. Atreus cannot be satisfied with the death of his enemy, with a human revenge; he has to call down the divine, to put Thyestes on the wrong side of the oldest laws. Second, atë consumes everything it touches; it renders both victim and criminal unclean, it erases the distinction between avenger and avanged, between aggressor and victim. Atreus’ crime is so terrible that neither he nor his enemy will live it down. Such acts will not be forgotten, will not exhaust themselves in the moment of action; they expand outward to contaminate observers, bloodlines, cities.

These two characteristics are linked: a more-than-human act cannot be contained in the human world, its consequences cannot exhaust themselves in the destruction of mere mortals, its reverberations do not die away. When he acts out of atë, a man passes beyond the bounds of mortality, into the dark world of the oldest gods. In hubris, men forget that they are mortal; in atë they forget the very boundaries which make mortal life possible. Once these boundaries are crossed, mortal action is unavailing; only the gods can restore them.

8

At this point in the story, if Thyestes were a tragic character, if he had any shame, if he were human, he would kill himself. Instead he went to the Oracle at Delphi to ask what must have been one of the most difficult questions that oracle had ever answered: how could he wreak adequate vengeance on Atreus? The oracle answered implacably, incomprehensibly: “Rape your daughter.”

The deep complicity of the gods in this story, the extent to which all the Atreids’ sins are punishment for Tantalus’ crime, becomes evident in this divine command. But really, what could be more logical? Atreus had exhausted the possibilities of one great taboo, that of cannibalism; Thyestes would have to seek out the consequences of the other great sin, incest. He would need, as it were, to seek inspiration from his mother’s side of the family. That it was to be Thyestes, not Atreus, who committed incest—that Thyestes was invited to take on yet another great crime, and not told how this would help him—hardly mattered: a sin so great was bound to ensnare Atreus somehow.

So Thyestes set off for Sicyon, where his daughter Pelopia was priestess. He hid in the bushes to watch her perform a sacrifice, and in the course of the rite she was stained with blood. When she went off to the river to cleanse herself, Thyestes leapt out and raped her. She did not recognize him, but struggled desperately and managed to take his sword. Thyestes fled.

Soon afterward, Atreus came to Sicyon and took a shine to Pelopia, not recognizing her as his niece. He asked for her hand in marriage, and it was granted. Nine months later, she gave birth to a child, Aegisthus, whom Atreus believed was his and raised as his own son.

When Aegisthus was still a boy, Atreus at last managed to capture Thyestes and imprisoned him. Kind father that he was, Atreus offered Aegisthus the opportunity to kill his old enemy, and Aegisthus entered the dungeon to do so. The sword he carried was a gift from his mother.

Thyestes, however, was not to be killed so easily: he wrested the sword from his son, recognized it as his own, and ordered Aegisthus to call his mother. Pelopia entered the dungeon, saw Thyestes, understood instantly by whom she had been raped, and killed herself with the sword in front of her son. Aegisthus showed his father the bloody sword and told him the deed was done. When Atreus went out to sacrifice a ram in thanksgiving, Aegisthus slaughtered him instead, yet another perverted sacrifice. Thus Thyestes regained the throne of Mycenae.

It must be said again: Thyestes and Aegisthus ought to die. Thyestes, child-eater, incestuous father, fratricide, and Aegisthus, the child of incest, half-parricide twice over: they ought to do as Oedipus did, flee the company of men, gouge out their eyes. But they do not; they are Tantalus’ children, doomed to repeat his sins without peace forever. They live on. So too does Atreus’ line. His sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, flee to Sparta, where they have the good fortune to win the hands of Clytemnestra and Helen, respectively—a double-edged sword if ever there was one. So the story continues.

9

The tale of Menelaus and Agamemnon is well-known and need not be repeated here. For our purposes we need only note that, with Agamemnon, something new emerges—the beginning of the end, even. Agamemnon is in many ways a figure of atë; the Iliad opens with his insane decision, against all advice, to hold on to the daughter of a priest of Apollo, thus bringing ruin on his army camped outside the walls of Troy. When he is at last forced to give her up, he immediately seizes Achilles’ woman as a replacement, thus provoking without the least justification

Achilles’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Achaeans loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men—carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
But Agamemnon’s greatest crime, the one for which his wife Clytemnestra will kill him, is different: it is, strictly speaking, the fault of a goddess. Stopping at Aulis on his way to Troy, Agamemnon kills a deer in a grove sacred to Artemis and then brags that he is a better hunter than the huntress herself. For this utterly trivial and laughably hubristic act, Artemis becalms his fleet, and a soothsayer reveals that she will allow them to proceed only if Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia.

Agamemnon kills his daughter unwillingly, for a raison d’État. His sacrifice is a true sacrifice, demanded by the gods of an unwilling human. When the oracle tells Thyestes to rape his daughter, it merely places a weapon in his hands, but Artemis requires Agamemnon to strike the blow. He does so out of duty.4

10

This split between the actor and the act is unprecedented in the story so far. Tantalus acts for no reason at all, Pelops out of ambition, Atreus and Thyestes out of wrath; each is entirely united with his crime, none has cause to ask why it falls into his hands. With Agamemnon a new space opens up between the actor and his action. Two new questions emerge.

First, the properly political comes into play here for the first time. Agamemnon has a duty as father, but he has a higher duty as king. This is more than a conflict of motives, it is a conflict of worlds: no mediation, no balance is possible here. At the limit, a choice must be made, and whichever path one chooses, one will not be forgiven. Agamemnon’s reasons for sacrificing Iphigenia are good enough, or they are not, but Clytemnestra will avenge her daughter either way. Hegel argued that for the Greeks, fate just was this conflict, this impossible choice; we may suspend judgment on that point. In any case the question will remain central to Greek thought for centuries, will achieve its ambiguous suspension in Socrates and its apotheosis in Antigone.

The second, related, dimension of this space we might broadly call psychology. No longer is the actor made entirely manifest in his act, no longer is he at one with the world; hence his motives become questionable, his act requires interpretation. The notion of “unconscious” motive, of the motive hidden even from its bearer, is of course foreign to the Greeks, which is why I am hesitant to use the term—the space between actor and action here is not the impassable divide it has become for us. To say that the acts require interpretation is merely to say that they require speech, the speech of the actor. Thyestes did not need to speak, his acts could not be misunderstood—but with Agamemnon there is a distance between will and deed, so there is a question.

The opening of these two dimensions—the political and the psychological—gives birth to a new form of art: the tragedy. Greek tragedy exists in the split between actor and action, between fate and the individual; it is a poetry of questionable actions and the speech which seeks to explain them. And it is with Agamemnon that the house of Atreus becomes for the first time tragic; it is with the story of his children that Aeschylus invents the form. Homer did not write about the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and this is proper: it is not the stuff of epic. For adequate treatment it had to await Euripides.

What does all this mean for atë? To be sure, atë is not absent from tragedy—in Medea, for example, it exists in its full form. And the crime which contaminates victim and agent in the same breath, the crime whose effects can shake a city, is the tragic subject par excellence. But something has changed: the tragic hero is the criminal who confronts his crime, who sooner or later must stare it in the face. It happens sooner for Antigone, who knows her doom and takes it upon her virtually the moment she comes on stage, and later for Oedipus, who spends all of Oedipus Rex understanding what he is. But it happens—the moment of self-consciousness unknown to Atreus and just barely glimpsed by Agamemnon. And this minimal difference, this hesitation before the deed, creates the possibility—ambiguous, occasional, just barely there—of redemption.

11

And so we come to Orestes. His father Agamemnon returns to Greece after a decade of war only to be slaughtered by his mother, who has meanwhile been seduced by cousin Aegisthus. (In one version, not that of Aeschylus, it is Aegisthus who kills Agamemnon, and he does it like a good Atreid, by inviting him to a feast.) Orestes is thus placed in an impossible position, precisely Hamlet’s position: failing to avenge his father would render him accursed, but killing his mother would be worse. His sister Electra does not hesitate, she wants nothing more than to kill her mother—she would do it herself, but it’s a man’s job. Orestes, however, in a moment with no precedent among all his ancestors, hesitates. He is squeamish. Like his uncle, he goes to Delos to seek advice.

The Oracle displays about as much forbearance here as it did with Thyestes: Apollo tells him that he will be cursed with leprosy and hateful to the gods if he fails to avenge his father. Recognizing that a matricide will provoke the wrath of the Furies, Apollo gives him a bow with which to fight them off. Orestes returns home and kills his mother.

The Furies swoop down on him to wreak their revenge; they give him to understand that he will never be forgiven. Apollo’s bow doesn’t work, it provides only momentary relief: Apollo is out of his depth here. These are older gods. Orestes wanders throughout Greece, from river to river and shrine to shrine, purifying himself in each of them: nothing works. In ancient times there was a shrine in Arcadia called Finger Rock, sacred to Orestes; it marks the place where he bit off his finger, no longer able to bear his pain. But the pain continued.

At last Orestes, following the advice of Apollo, came to Athens. No one welcomed him, no one offered him food or rest: he was contaminated, and they feared contamination. Later he was given a little wine, but made to drink it alone, at a separate table, from a separate vessel. Finally, at the instigation of Athena, a trial was organized: the council of Athens would consider whether to forgive Orestes, and the Furies would abide by their decision. The trial turned on the question of parentage: which was more important, a mother or a father? Apollo himself played Orestes’ lawyer, arguing that the mother is a mere vessel, hardly a relative, merely a container for the father’s seed: that a child’s first loyalty must lie with his father. Even so, the council was divided, split right down the middle. Athena herself, the motherless goddess, cast the deciding vote for absolution. So ends the story of the curse of the Atreids.

12

A strange and portentous ending. It marks, first, the final victory of the new gods over the old, the establishment of Olympian preeminence over Fates and Furies. But the victory is ambiguous, perhaps Pyrrhic—the opening of the Athenian age is also the beginning of the end of the Greek gods. For Socrates and his companions they were not so much false as irrelevant: the concerns of the city came first, the gods were unknowable and perhaps unimportant. It is as though, when the Olympians lose their connection with darker gods, they lose their force. After all, if a god is thinkable, does he remain a god?

The trial of Orestes also marks the apotheosis of the city, and of Athens in particular. In Euripides’ Heracles, Athens will play a similar absolving role in the figure of its hero, Theseus: Heracles, having killed his children in a fit of Hera-sent madness, wants only to kill himself, but his friend Theseus arrives on the scene to offer another way out. Theseus suggests that absolution can replace destruction because friendship can replace family: a voluntary association governed by human will can hold out when the natural and divine bond of family has given way. The trial of Orestes suggests something similar: that the council of the city can hold out against older, deeper family ties.

In a certain sense, the trial also represents a victory of thought over memory. If speech first comes on the scene with Agamemnon, reason begins with Orestes: his case can be argued, we can weigh motives and consider justice here. We can ask what he ought to have done. Thought gains primacy over the deed; Orestes can be wrested from the weight of his guilt and that of his ancestors through argument. If we can understand his act we can forget it, and allow him to do the same.

And yet—the council is divided, and Apollo cannot absolve Orestes except by making nothing of motherhood. Plato is yet more categorical: in The Republic, the full being of the city depends on the total destruction of the family. The very extremity of these solutions suggests their failure: the bright light of the agora can banish atë to its borders, but cannot destroy it. We know now that guilt is thinkable and forgivable, that a man is more than his past and can live it down—but something essential is elided here, something is not redeemed.


1 A fascinating contrast between the insight of gods and that of mortals is provided in the story of Achilles’ mother, Thetis. Zeus falls in love with Thetis, but before he can seduce her it is prophesied that Thetis will bear a son greater than his father. Zeus, a parricide himself, has no interest in fathering such a son. He shows restraint in love for the first and last time, and Thetis is married off to a mortal, Peleus, to whom she bears Achilles. Achilles is, as it were, the son Zeus never had—and disaster is averted. Oedipus’ father, too, receives a dark prophecy about his son—but he is mortal, and it avails him nothing.

2 Solon’s advice that one should call no man happy or blessed until he is dead becomes, in its Greek context, a sort of cruel joke at the expense of us mortals. Solon prudently reminds us that we should suspend judgment on the apparently happy man, because a reversal of fortune is always possible—but of course, for a mortal, a reversal of fortune is certain.

3 It is said that when Iphigenia was to be sacrificed, she was gagged so that she could not curse her family with her dying breath—such curses were no small thing. But that was later.

4 In Euripides’ version of the story, Artemis does not go through with her demand—she snatches Iphigenia away at the last minute and replaces her with a deer, playing Jehovah to Agamemnon’s Abraham. But of course Aphrodite is no Jehovah: she condemns Iphigenia to be a priestess among the Taurians, sacrificing any strangers who arrive on their dark shores. Truly, a punishment worthy of an Atreid.