The House of Atreus:
Breaking Free from Family Curse and Conditioning
Posted on the Ancient Sites Oresteia board, copyright 2000 by Tracy Marks, M.A.

prepared by Tracy Marks
Torrey Philemon at Ancient Sites (folded 3/01)
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In order to understand the significance and influence of the "family curse" in the Oresteia, and its universal meaning extending across the centuries, we need to acquaint ourselves with the mythical background of the House of Atreus. Some sources view the curse enacted by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra against Agamemnon as originating with Atreus and Thyestes, whereas other sources refer to the earlier, and highly relevant stories of Tantalus and Pelops.

Tantalus, once a barbarian king, is condemned eternally to stand in water underneath trees bearing fruit, but never able to drink or eat because both food and drink are out of his grasp. Why was he punished? Sources point to a variety of reasons.

First, respected by the gods, King Tantalus was invited to their banquets, but took advantage of their hospitality. Without their permission, he shared some of their secrets with men; he also attempted to give to men the nectar and ambrosia of the gods. In addition, he kept asking the gods for more privileges, hoping to become like them.

However his greatest crime was to slaughter his own son Pelops, cut him up and boil him, and serve him to the gods as a delectable feast. Different sources present different reasons for this abominable act, but the two primary reasons appear to be: to honor the gods and thank them for their generosity by making the most valuable sacrifice of all – his beloved son; and (most commonly accepted) to test the gods’ omniscience, and prove that he could trick them and outwit them.

The gods were outraged when they discovered the nature of Tantalus’ abominable gift, and condemned him to eternal deprivation in Hades. Meanwhile, Hermes collected the pieces of Pelops, and placed them in a "cauldron of rebirth" so that Zeus, Clotho (one of the Fates) and Rhea could use their combined talents to restore him to life. A new, rejuvenated Pelops  emerged from the cauldron – whole except for an ivory shoulder provided by Demeter, who had eaten Pelops’ shoulder before discovering his identity. Pelops, bearing the curse of his father’s crime in his ivory shoulder, then became Poseidon's attendant and cupbearer.

As a young man, Pelops sought to marry Hippodamia of Pisa. To do so, he had to defeat her father, king of Pisa, in a chariot race. By bribing Myrtilus, his father’s charioteer, to remove linchpins from his master’s chariot, Pelops won the race and the hand of his bride. But when he spurned Myrtilus, he incurred the wrath of Myrtilus’ father, Hermes, who then cursed the descendants of Pelops – and therefore of his sons, Atreus and Thyestes.

When Heraclides, king of Mycenae died, the oracle declared that the next king must be a Pelopides. Atreus first sought the throne, but was challenged by Thyestes. Atreus possessed a golden lamb, which he vowed to sacrifice to Artemis, but instead hid from her. When his wife Aerope declared that the kingdom should belong to the owner of the golden lamb, Atreus agreed. Little did he know that his brother Thyestes had been having an affair with Aerope, who loved him, and had stolen the golden lamb to give to him. She and Thyestes plotted against the sacrilegious Atreus, so that Thyestes would become king of Mycenae.

Zeus however, influenced by Hermes, stirred unrest by encouraging Hermes to initiate a new agreement between Atreus and Thyestes. Thyestes agreed to give up the kingdom when the sun went backwards, assuming this would never happen. But Zeus made sure that the sun next set in the east, and that Atreus therefore became king.

Atreus however was furious at this brother for committing adultery with his wife, and plotted against him, inviting him to come to Mycenae under the pretext of a family reconciliation. Atreus then served Thyestes a sumptuous feast – which too late Thyestes learned consisted of his own beloved sons, cut up and boiled, and served as meat – just as Pelops had served his own son to the gods.

The devastated Thyestes then sought revenge, turning to the Oracle of Delphi for guidance. The Oracle told him that he must lie once with his daughter Pelopia, who would bear him a son, who would in time become his avenger. Disguising his identity from Pelopia, he raped her, and she bore a son, Aegisthus.

Ironically, however, Atreus eventually married this same Pelopia, and along with his own sons Agamemnon and Menelaus, raised Aegisthus as his own son. Years later, when Atreus, ignorant of his origins, spurred Aegisthus to kill Thyestes, Aegisthus learned his true father’s identity and the nature of Atreus’ crime against him. Horrified, Aegisthus slew Atreus instead of Thyestes. Agamemnon and Menelaus, fearing for their lives, fled into exile. 

As Thyestes and Atreus had been enemies, now Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, was at odds with Atreus’s sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. The stage is now cast for Aegisthus to seduce Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra and to capitalize on her rage against Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia and abandoning her for ten years in order to win glory at war against the Trojans.

Breaking Free: Beyond Family Curse and Conditioning

The idea of a family curse passed from generation to generation may not be believable to us today, but what if we – with a knowledge of human psychology that the ancient Greeks did not possess – translate this concept of generational curse into psychological terms and experience its universality and relevance to our lives today?

What relevance? Consider how the sins, deficiencies, emotional complexes, personality disorders, addictions etc. of a parent influence on a core level the personality, outlook and behaviors of the children. Consider how children, as they become adults, struggle more and more consciously with the legacy they "inherited" from their parents – often either becoming like the parent they condemn or reacting against that parent, engaging in extremely opposite behaviors which are just as likely to have problematic consequences.

Or consider the Jungian viewpoint – how the shadow of the parent, the unresolved emotional complexes that brew deep within the parent’s unconscious, are passed on to and usually unconsciously enacted by the children.

How difficult it is for children of the most dysfunctional families – and what greater dysfunctional family is there than the House of Atreus? – to truly liberate themselves from the twisted, tormenting influences of their past. Such liberation may mean:

"violently" (at least emotionally) separating themselves from the toxic parent;

struggling with guilt experienced as a result of turning against the parent, as well as with the unrequited longing for a love they never had and will probably never have;

coming to terms with the "fury" that they carry in regard to violations they have experienced, and which lead them to overreact to difficulties in the present;

attempting to break free of the entire psychological complex they have carried, in all its polarizing forms, as a result of their psychological and indeed often generational heritage.

For me, because of these issues, the Oresteia is a live, breathing myth. Not only do I experience its painful presence on my own life, but I also see it re-enacted in the lives of friends and the clients I see in my small psychotherapy practice, who carry the twisted burdens of their past into their present. 

For us, the Oresteia raises many significant questions. Among them:

When one is violated at a core level, how can one deal with the torment and fury of such violation without becoming violent – or a violater oneself?

How does one choose when confronted with two sets of choices (representing apparently contradictory values) which are both morally and emotionally agonizing? How does one act when all one’s alternatives appear to be no-win?

To what extent does one have a choice – and how and in what manner can one act freely when compelled by such overpowering internal forces?

When one acts from the Fury within in order to be true to one’s own moral code and/or emotional need, how does one then deal with the other Fury – the Fury of one’s guilt in regard to those one has hurt in the process?

Must the child who inherits the toxic energy, and behavioral patterns of a destructive parent – or develops dysfunctional patterns in reaction to such a parent – emotionally destroy/radically break free from that parent’s influence? Must he or she bear the guilt and aloneness for doing so – in order to build a healthier self?

If we are continually motivated by fears, feelings and perceptions originating from a twisted past, how do we truly break free of it and put it to rest?

Who are our helpers in this process, how do we find them, and what kind of help can they provide? How can they help us become what we need to become in order to break free of a binding past and be true to ourselves in the present?

copyright 2000, 2006 by Tracy Marks
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