The Fall of the House of Tantalus

The Weeping Rock of Niobe, Spil Dağı (Mt. Sipylus), Manisa Province, Turkey.
Photo Carole Raddato, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

As the Greeks told it, the Agamemnon Cycle began in a small Lydian kingdom called Sipylus.

Today Mt. Sipylus overlooks the road between Manisa and Izmir in Turkey’s Manisa province. An enormous crumbling relief sculpture watches over Manisa from bare granite. The statue is historically identified with the goddess the Lydians called Kuvava and the neighboring Hellenes Kybele. According to the 2nd century geographer Pausanius, locals claimed the Manisa relief was carved by Broteas, son of Tantalus.

Tantalus had two other children of note, Niobe and Pelops. But while Sipylus was by all accounts a peaceful and prosperous kingdom, Tantalus found himself on the receiving end of a multigenerational curse from the gods who once loved him.

The most famous legend states that Tantalus fed his young son Pelops to the gods in a stew. (The gods turned away in disgust from the offering save for Demeter, who was still mourning the recent kidnapping of Persephone and inadvertently ate a chunk of Pelops’ shoulder).

Another tale says that Tantalus stole ambrosia, the elixir that keeps the Olympians immortal. And yet another says Tantalus fed the Gods Pelops out of spite when they refused to give him a taste of ambrosia. While the stories differ on his precise crime, they all agree that Tantalus committed at least one shocking act of impiety.

Giulio Sanuto, Tantalus (c.1557-1570). Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pelops could be brought back to life from the stew. Tantalus could be cast into Tartarus to suffer endless hunger and thirst amidst fruit and water he could never touch. But while Hephaestus could carve the boy a new shoulder of ivory, not even the Theoi could cleanse the miasma that clung to his children.

Broteas gains fame as a hunter, yet refuses to honor Artemis. She curses him with madness, until the one who would not give her a deer sets himself alight on a funeral pyre.

Niobe brags that her nine beautiful daughters and nine strong sons prove her a better mother than Leto, who only had one set of twins. Those twins, Apollo and Artemis, murder her children. Niobe, overcome with grief, is transformed into a weeping rock atop Mt. Sipylus.

As for Pelops, he would go on to rule much of the land that today bears his name. But the victim of an atrocity would go on to evils of his own.

Oenomaus was the son of Alxion, though poets proclaimed his father to be Ares, and the common report agrees with them, but while lord of the land of Pisa he was put down by Pelops the Lydian, who crossed over from Asia.

On the death of Oenomaus, Pelops took possession of the land of Pisa and its bordering country Olympia, separating it from the land of Epeius. The Eleans said that Pelops was the first to found a temple of Hermes in Peloponnesus and to sacrifice to the god, his purpose being to avert the wrath of the god for the death of Myrtilus.

Pausanius, Description of Greece 5.1.6-7 (c. 150 AD)

Pelops gains a kingdom, and the hand of the beautiful maiden Hippodamia, after winning a chariot race in which her father, Oenamaus, was killed.  But Pelops only triumphs through treachery. Myrtilus, who looks after the king’s chariots, agrees to sabotage the king’s chariot in exchange for half the kingdom and Hippodamia’s maidenhead.

Myrtilus puts wax pins in the chariot and the chariot breaks away as Oenamaus reaches full speed. Yet Pelops is loath to uphold his end of the bargain, and instead has Myrtilus cast into the sea. Pelops recovers the body of Myrtilus and builds a temple to Hermes. But his efforts to propitiate the gods fail, as Pelops’ favorite son Chrysippus is slaughtered by his half-brothers Atreus and Thyestes.

Exiled to Mycenae, the brothers cooperate at first. But after Atreus learns of his wife’s infidelity with Thyestes, he vows revenge. Atreus kills the young sons of Thyestes and, in an echo of his grandfather’s sin, feeds the boys to their father in a pie.

Following an oracle, Thyestes rapes his daughter so he can sire a child who will kill Atreus. That child, Aegisthus, succeeds in killing his uncle. The sons of Atreus, Menelaus and Agamemnon, are exiled to Sparta.

Later Agamemnon wins back the throne from the House of Thyestes. Before he can warm the seat, his brother’s bride elopes with a Trojan prince. To ensure favorable winds as they voyage to Troy, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin: Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon (1817). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

5th century BC Greeks were particularly fascinated by the ending of this family (melo)drama. Aeschylus told us this story in the Orestia (a trilogy consisting of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Furies first staged in 458 BC).

Agamemnon is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra to avenge their daughter. Clytemnestra is later murdered by their son Orestes. But in avenging his father, Orestes has drawn the wrath of the Furies. He runs to the temple of Apollo, but the god who spoke through the oracle at Delphi and ordered Orestes to avenge his father cannot assuage the madness the Furies have laid upon him.

The family curse is finally lifted when the goddess Athena orders that Orestes be put on trial for his crime. When the jury Athena called deadlocks on Orestes’ fate, the goddess enters the tie-breaking vote. Orestes is acquitted of his crime, much to the chagrin of the Furies who challenge the ruling these new gods have brought upon her. But with grace and firmness Athena placates the ancient avengers.

CHORUS [the Furies]
Younger gods, you have ridden down the ancient laws and have taken them from my hands! And I —dishonored, unhappy, deeply angry—on this land, alas, I will release venom from my heart, venom in return for my grief, drops that the land cannot endure. From it a blight that destroys leaves, destroys children—a just return—speeding over the plain, will cast infection on the land to ruin mortals. I groan aloud. What shall I do? I am mocked by the people. What I have suffered is unbearable. Ah, cruel indeed are the wrongs of the daughters of Night, mourning over dishonor!

You are not dishonored; so, although you are goddesses, do not, in excessive rage, blight past all cure a land of mortals. I also rely on Zeus—what need is there to mention that?—and I alone of the gods know the keys to the house where his thunderbolt is sealed. But there is no need of that. So yield to my persuasion and do not hurl the words of a reckless tongue against the land, that all things bearing fruit will not prosper. Calm the black wave’s bitter anger, since you will receive proud honors and will live with me. And when you have the first-fruits of this great land forever, offerings on behalf of children and of marriage rites, you will praise my counsel.

Aeschylus, Eumenides, 808-836

The classical Greeks fancied themselves the apex of civilization and looked down on the barbarians who surrounded them. But there was a good bit of bravado to their bluster. Those Greeks knew deep down that their ancestors were raiders who ravaged down a major Luwian (or, as they would have called it, Lydian) settlement. And they knew that their founding fathers came not from the indigenous Greek population, but from Luwian stock.

The last would not be so shocking to audiences as you might suppose. Long before Rome foreign kings ruled over indigenous subjects. The Hellenic conception of ethnikos was also very different than our own. Frequent warfare and treaties brought squabbling tribes together even more than it separated them. The Peloponnese, slightly smaller than modern-day New Jersey, was home to several Greek dialects and multiple Anatolian languages.

Koloniae (colonies) also brought different ethnolingual groups together. Phoenician settlements dotted the Mediterranean coastline. A few centuries after Aeschylus the rising Romans would destroy the great city the Punics called Qart Hadasht and the Romans Carthago. Hellenic colonies could be found around the Black Sea, where Greek navies and merchants transformed the savage Axine (inhospitable) into the Euxine (welcoming) ocean.

The prosperous citizens watching this performance would find themselves transported to events that happened centuries earlier, a time when the world descended into what we call today the Late Bronze Age Collapse. For them Athena represented the order that arose from that chaos. Older deities thrown down during the Titanomachy were honored now as the mothers and fathers of the new gods, or feared as bloodthirsty monsters. Many found themselves in a liminal position.

The events chronicled in the Agamemnon Cycle certainly have some basis in historical events. We know that the great Luwian city of Wilusa was burned by Mycenaean-led raiders not long before the Luwian kingdoms were entirely overthrown in the Late Bronze Age Collapse. We know that the Mycenaeans began conquering Minoan territory soon after the great volcanic eruption at Thera. We also know they fell alongside the Luwians a few centuries later in the Collapse that ushered in the Greek Dark Ages.

We know this as surely as we know that Rome once occupied a province they called Britannia, that Britannia fell into civil war and chaos after the Romans left, and that the indigenous Brythonic population was largely replaced by Angles and Saxons. And we know that, like post-Antiquity Europeans, the Greeks combined history and mythology in a process that simultaneously created and interrogated their identity.

The past they looked back on, like the past Tennyson drew upon for Idylls of the King, was a more savage and lawless time. Its nights were filled with terror and its wilderness with monsters. But it was also a time of heroes. The Classical Greeks, and the Romans who appropriated their stories wholesale, saw in these tales affirmations of what they had accomplished and painful reminders of what was forever lost.

Featured Image: Statue of the Luwian god Tarhunz, Aleppo, Syria. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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