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In Greek mythology, Atreus (//; Greek: Ἀτρεύς) was a king of Mycenae in the Peloponnese, the son of Pelops and Hippodamia, and the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. Collectively, his descendants are known as Atreidai or Atreidae.
Atreus and his twin brother Thyestes were exiled by their father for murdering their half-brother Chrysippus in their desire for the throne of Olympia. They took refuge in Mycenae, where they ascended to the throne in the absence of King Eurystheus, who was fighting the Heracleidae. Eurystheus had meant for their stewardship to be temporary, but it became permanent after his death in battle.
According to most ancient sources, Atreus was the father of Pleisthenes, but in some lyric poets (Ibycus, Bacchylides) Pleisthenides (son of Pleisthenes) is used as an alternative name for Atreus himself.
The word Atreides refers to one of the sons of Atreus—Agamemnon and Menelaus. The plural form Atreidae or Atreidai refers to both sons collectively; in English, the form Atreides (the same form as the singular) is often used. This term is sometimes used for more distant descendants of Atreus.
The House of Atreus begins with Tantalus. Tantalus was a son of Zeus who enjoyed cordial relations with the gods until he decided to slay his son Pelops and feed him to the gods as a test of their omniscience. Most of the gods, as they sat down to dinner with Tantalus, immediately understood what had happened, and, because they knew the nature of the meat they were served, were appalled and did not partake. But Demeter, who was distracted due to the abduction by Hades of her daughter Persephone, obliviously ate Pelops' shoulder. The gods threw Tantalus into the underworld, where he spends eternity standing in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reaches for the fruit, the branches raise his intended meal from his grasp. Whenever he bends down to get a drink, the water recedes before he can drink. Thus is derived the word "tantalise". The gods brought Pelops back to life, replacing the bone in his shoulder with a bit of ivory, thus marking the family forever afterwards.
Pelops married Hippodamia after winning a chariot race against her father, King Oenomaus, by arranging for the sabotage of his would-be-father-in-law's chariot and resulting in his death. The versions of the story differ. The sabotage was arranged by Myrtilus, a servant of the king who was killed by Pelops for one of three reasons: because he had been promised the right to take Hippodamia's virginity, which Pelops retracted, because he attempted to rape her or because Pelops did not wish to share the credit for the victory. As Myrtilus died, he cursed Pelops and his line, further adding to the house's curse.
Pelops and Hippodamia had many sons; two of them were Atreus and Thyestes. Depending on myth versions, they murdered Chrysippus, who was their half-brother. Because of the murder, Hippodamia, Atreus, and Thyestes were banished to Mycenae, where Hippodamia is said to have hanged herself.
Atreus vowed to sacrifice his best lamb to Artemis. Upon searching his flock, however, Atreus discovered a golden lamb which he gave to his wife, Aerope, to hide from the goddess. She gave it to Thyestes, her lover and Atreus' brother, who then convinced Atreus to agree that whoever had the lamb should be king. Thyestes produced the lamb and claimed the throne.
Atreus retook the throne using advice he received from Hermes. Thyestes agreed to give the kingdom back when the sun moved backwards in the sky, a feat that Zeus accomplished. Atreus retook the throne and banished Thyestes.
Atreus then learned of Thyestes' and Aerope's adultery and plotted revenge. He killed Thyestes' sons and cooked them, save their hands and feet. He tricked Thyestes into eating the flesh of his own sons and then taunted him with their hands and feet. Thyestes was forced into exile for eating the flesh of a human. Thyestes responded by asking an oracle what to do, who advised him to have a son by his daughter, Pelopia, who would then kill Atreus. However, when Aegisthus was first born, he was abandoned by his mother who was ashamed of her incestuous act. A shepherd found the infant Aegisthus and gave him to Atreus, who raised him as his own son. Only as he entered adulthood did Thyestes reveal the truth to Aegisthus, that he was both father and grandfather to the boy. Aegisthus then killed Atreus, although not before Atreus and Aerope had had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, and a daughter Anaxibia.
Agamemnon married Clytemnestra, and Menelaus married Helen, her sister (known later as Helen of Troy). Helen was taken away from Menelaus by Paris of Troy during a visit. Menelaus then called on the chieftains to help him take back Helen.
Prior to sailing off to war against Troy, Agamemnon had angered the goddess Artemis because he had killed a sacred deer in a sacred grove, and had then boasted that he was a better hunter than she was. When the time came, Artemis stilled the winds so that Agamemnon's fleet could not sail. A prophet named Calchas told him that in order to appease Artemis, Agamemnon would have to sacrifice the most precious thing that had come to his possession in the year he killed the sacred deer. This was his first-born daughter, Iphigenia. He sent word home for her to come (in some versions of the story on the pretense that she was to be married to Achilles). Iphigenia accepted her father's choice and was honored to be a part of the war. Clytemnestra tried to stop Iphigenia but was sent away. After doing the deed, Agamemnon's fleet was able to get under way. Artemis, however, had instantly switched Iphigenia, as she lay upon the altar, with a deer without anyone noticing, and had taken her to distant Colchis, there to be her priestess.
While he was fighting the Trojans, his wife Clytemnestra, infuriated by the murder of her daughter, began an affair with Aegisthus. When Agamemnon returned home he brought with him a new concubine, the doomed prophetess, Cassandra. Upon his arrival that evening, before the great banquet she had prepared, Clytemnestra drew a bath for him and when he came out of the bath, she put the royal purple robe on him which had no opening for his head. He was confused and tangled up and Clytemnestra then stabbed him to death.
Agamemnon's only son, Orestes, was quite young when his mother killed his father. He was sent into exile. In some versions he was sent away by Clytemnestra to avoid having him present during the murder of Agamemnon; in others Electra herself rescued the infant Orestes and sent him away to protect him from their mother. In both versions he was the legitimate heir apparent and as such a potential danger to his usurper uncle.
Goaded by his sister Electra, Orestes swore revenge. He knew it was his duty to avenge his father's death, but saw also that in doing so he would have to kill his mother. He was torn between avenging his father and sparing his mother. 'It was a son's duty to kill his father's murderers, a duty that came before all others. But a son who killed his mother was abhorrent to gods and to men.'
When he prayed to Apollo, the god advised him to kill his mother. Orestes realized that he must work out the curse on his house, exact vengeance and pay with his own ruin. After Orestes murdered Clytemnestra, he wandered the land with guilt in his heart. After many years, with Apollo by his side, he pleaded to Athena. No descendant of Atreus had ever done so noble an act and 'neither he nor any descendant of his would ever again be driven into evil by the irresistible power of the past.' Thus Orestes ended the curse of the House of Atreus.
Plato in his dialogue The Statesman tells a "famous tale" that "the sun and the stars once rose in the west, and set in the east, and that the god reversed their motion, and gave them that which they now have as a testimony to the right of Atreus." Virgil, in book IV of the Aeneid, references the House of Atreus and specifically Orestes in describing the death of Dido.
The first English language translation in 1777 contributed greatly to the development of the Romantic period in literature.
In the Dune series, Frank Herbert tells the story of Leto, Paul and Leto II of House Atreides, the long time arch-enemies of the Harkonnen clan. The Atreides claim to trace their ancestry back to the original Atreides of the Trojan War. In one of the prequel novels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, the play The Oresteia is performed in Castle Caladan, during the reign of Duke Paulus Atreides. In a later prequel, it is revealed that the Atreides in the Dune series are directly linked to the mythological Atreides. Their ancestry derives from Vorian Atreides who was the son (via insemination) of the leader of the cymeks who gave himself the pseudonym Agamemnon.
In a column assessing Caroline Kennedy's candidacy for the US Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton in early 2009, Maureen Dowd likened the Kennedy family role in US politics, from grandfather Joe Kennedy to father John Kennedy and uncles Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, to the House of Atreus, and Caroline and her brother John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s place in it as "heartbreaking." The columnist had eight years earlier traced the Kennedy/Atreus parallels in more detail, in a piece comparing the then-ascendant "Bush dynasty" with the Kennedy one.
Heavy metal band Virgin Steele from New York has released a metal opera called The House of Atreus. The metal opera is split up in The House of Atreus Act I (1999) and the double cd The House of Atreus Act II (2000) and spans the time from the end of the Trojan war until Orestes' death.
There is a possible reference to Atreus in a Hittite text known as the "Indictment of Madduwatta". The indictment describes several army clashes between the Greeks and the Hittites which took place around the late 15th or early 14th centuries BC. The Greek leader was a man called Attarsiya, and some scholars have speculated that Attarsiya or Attarissiya was the Hittite way of writing the Greek name Atreus. Other scholars argue that even though the name is probably Greek (since the man is described as an Ahhiyawa) and related to Atreus, the person carrying the name is not necessarily identical to the famous Atreus.
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