Study Guide

Atreus and Thyestes Analysis

  • Context

    This has really got to be one of the most messed up of all Greek myths. When a guy kills his brother's kids and tricks him into eating them, even the most cold-hearted people have got to stop and say, "..............he did what?" What's even more horrific is that this isn't the first time killing kids and eating them has popped up in the family of Atreus and Thyestes. In some versions of this tale, their granddad, Tantalus, chopped up their father, Pelops, and tried to feed him to the gods.

    Later on, Atreus's son, Agamemnon, is forced by Artemis to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. Though there's no cannibalism involved in Iphigenia's case, the theme is still pretty darn present. Some scholars believe that this theme of child sacrifice reflects the fact that it was once a part of super ancient Greek society. The horror in which these stories are told expresses the Greeks' or the Classical World's horror over the brutality of the past.

    Atreus and Thyestes don't put in a personal appearance in the many plays about their famous descendants Agamemnon, Menelaus, Aegisthus, Orestes, Iphigenia, and Electra, the most famous of these probably being Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy, Sophocles' Electra, and Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis. All the tragic things that happen to their descendants, though, are sometimes blamed on them. This is especially true of the House of Atreus, whose lives are a regular blood bath, until Orestes finally cleanses the family of its curse. Sometimes this curse is seen as going even farther back than Atreus and Thyestes, however, as some blame Tantalus for first bringing the curse on the house.

    One of the more complete versions of the bloody tale of Atreus and Thyestes is told by Hyginius in Fabulae. The only play version we have still around is Thyestes by the Roman playwright Seneca the Younger. There's also a modern version of this play by big-time British playwright, Caryl Churchill. The story of these two bloody brothers might be most famous for inspiring Shakespeare's horrific tragedy, Titus Andronicus, which gives Seneca's Thyestes a run for its money in the realm of brutal revenge.

  • Setting

    Mycenae

    All the awfulness in the tale of "Atreus and Thyestes" goes down in the city of Mycenae. Archeologists unanimously agree that Mycenae was a real place, and that it was majorly important back in ancient Greece. They've even named a whole period of Greek history the "Mycenaean Period" because the powerful city totally dominated the culture. The ruins of a palace still stand on the sight that was once Mycenae, and many amazing ancient artifacts have been found there. There's even an ancient tomb there called the Treasury of Atreus, although most all archaeologists agree that it was built a long time after Atreus would've been around. For much more on this ancient place, click here.

  • The Hero's Journey

    The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.

    The story of "Atreus and Thyestes" doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

    Ordinary World

    Atreus and Thyestes are good little boys living in the city of their father, Pelops.

    Call To Adventure

    Their mother, Hippodamia, asks them to kill their stepbrother, Chrysippus, because she doesn't like some other lady's kid around.

    Refusal Of The Call

    There's no refusal, Atreus and Thyestes jump right to it.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Well, we guess their mom is their mentor... their mentor in murder! Mwah ha ha!

    Crossing The Threshold

    After Atreus and Thyestes kill their brother, they run away from home fearing what their dad will do to them.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    They make friends with the rulers of Mycenae, and Atreus eventually becomes king. However, Thyestes makes an enemy of his brother by sleeping with his wife and trying to steal his throne.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    When Atreus invites his brother to a dinner party, Thyestes has no idea the sort of hell he's about to walk into.

    Ordeal

    Atreus serves Thyestes a dinner, which turns out to be Thyestes' own sons cooked and served on a platter for him.

    Reward

    The only reward here is Atreus's own grim satisfaction.

    The Road Back

    Thyestes is eventually dragged back to Mycenae, where Atreus plans to have Aegisthus, Thyestes' last living son, unknowingly kill his father.

    Resurrection

    That tables are turned when Thyestes and Aegisthus figure out each other's identity, and Aegisthus kills Atreus instead.

    Return With The Elixir

    There's no elixir here, just a long cycle of horror and bloodshed awaits the survivors and their descendants.

  • Brother vs. Brother

    Atreus and Thyestes are definitely not the only brothers to ever go head to head in mythology.

    Another example from Greek myth is Polynices and Eteocles, the sons of Oedipus, who kill each other in an argument over the throne of Thebes. Roman mythology gives us Romulus, who whacks his brother Remus in an argument over where to build Rome. Then there's Osiris, one of the key gods in Egyptian legend, who is killed and dismembered by his wicked brother, Set. And in Norse mythology, Höðr is tricked by Loki into killing his nearly invincible brother, Balder, with an arrow of mistletoe.

    To the Judeo-Christian world, the most famous case of fratricide (brother killing) is probably the story of "Cain and Abel." In this tale from the book of Genesis, Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve, the first human beings. When Cain slays his younger brother Abel out of jealousy, he becomes the first murderer in history. God punishes Cain by marking him and dooming him to wander the Earth in shame. The figure of Cain now symbolizes murder in general, and his bloody tale has been spun into innumerable versions over the thousands and thousands of years it's existed. (Hey, at least he's famous.)

  • Sibling Rivalry

    Atreus and Thyestes did not get along. (Wow, there's the understatement of the year.) These brothers hated each other so much in life, we bet they're still coming up with awful things to do to each other down in the Underworld. The bad blood between these dudes was so bad (and the legend is so old) that their horribly destructive relationship has become synonymous with the idea of "sibling rivalry." Throughout the centuries, the brutal feud between these brothers has been used as a reference point for all the dueling brothers to come.

  • Thyestean Feast

    We're guessing Thyestes would be pretty unhappy that the term "Thyestean feast" or banquet is now used to describe any act of cannibalism. Then again, maybe he would eat it up. When Atreus tricked Thyestes into devouring his own sons for dinner, though, Thyestes' name became forever attached to the act of a human eating another human. We have to say we feel kind of bad for him. Sure, he did plenty of evil stuff too, but it's not like he knew what was on the menu. Seems to us that his granddad, Tantalus, deserved the label a lot more. That dude killed his own sons and tried to feed them to the gods, which seems way worse to us. Whatever the case, it's interesting that the motif of cannibalism runs through the myths of a couple generations of this cursed family.