Who Was Atreus? - Mythology & Curse

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  • 0:02 The House of Atreus
  • 0:24 Atreus and Thyestes
  • 3:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Trenton Mabey

Trenton has a master's degree in global history and has developed college Asian history courses.

In Greek mythology, Atreus was the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. His name is given to a curse that afflicted the whole family for five generations. This lesson will explore the curse that affected Atreus.

The House of Atreus

The House of Atreus is well-known in ancient myths for having been cursed by the gods, suffering death and destruction. The curse on the house began with Atreus' grandfather, Tantalus, who angered the gods and was banished to the underworld for eternity. Let's take a look at how the family curse continues with Atreus.

Atreus and Thyestes

According to Greek mythology, Atreus was the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, the leaders of the Greek army during the Trojan War. But Atreus had a whole other life before becoming father to these two famous Greeks.

Atreus and his brother, Thyestes, were sons of Pelops, who was Tantalus' son and king of Pisa. Pelops had also fathered another son named Chrysippus. Atreus and Thyestes killed Chrysippus in hopes of ascending to the throne. For this act, Pelops banished the brothers, who then fled to Mycenae.

The brothers were made regents of the kingdom of Mycenae, to rule while its king was attacking the city of Athens. The king and all of his sons died in the battle, and Atreus became king of Mycenae. He vowed to give the best lamb in his flocks as an offering of religious sacrifice. As he searched the flocks Atreus discovered a golden lamb. Rather than offering the golden lamb as sacrifice, he gave the lamb to his wife, Aerope.

Unbeknownst to Atreus, Aerope and his brother, Thyestes, were having an affair. Aerope gave the golden lamb to Thyestes, who used it to gain the kingdom. Thyestes went to Atreus and proposed that whoever could produce a golden lamb should be the king of Mycenae. Atreus agreed, thinking that his wife was still in possession of the golden lamb. Thyestes produced the golden lamb, and Atreus stepped down and let his brother take the kingdom. However, Atreus still intended to be king.

Consulting with the god Hermes, Atreus proposed another contest to Thyestes. If the sun went backward in its course, then Thyestes would yield the kingdom back to Atreus. Thyestes agreed. The god Zeus then caused the sun to move backwards, and Atreus was again king of Mycenae. To prevent further threat to his rule, Atreus banned Thyestes from the kingdom.

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