A-Z: General definitions: Atreus

Definition

Atreus and his brother Thyestes were the eldest sons of Pelops and Hippodameia. When Eurystheus died, the brothers began a long battle for the throne of Mycenae. Atreus had married Aerope, and their sons were Agamemnon and Menelaus. But Aerope had an affair with Thyestes. She secretly gave him Atreus' golden lamb: this was linked with the kingship of Mycenae, but its origins are unsure. Thyestes then announced that whoever owned this should be Mycenae's king. Thinking he still had the lamb, Atreus agreed, and so lost the throne to his brother. Zeus then proved that he supported Atreus in his claim by making the sun rise in the west and set in the east, so Atreus became king and banished his brother. When he learned Aerope and Thyestes had been lovers, he drowned her, and sent for his brother, holding a feast and pretending he wanted to make peace. At the end, Thyestes asked to see his sons. Atreus gave him their heads, hands and feet, telling Thyestes that he already had whatever he could not see. In fact, Thyestes had been served his own sons in the stew. He cursed the house of Atreus and vowed revenge. This took years. He fathered a son Aegisthus on his own daughter, and Atreus unknowingly brought up the boy as his own son. Years later, Atreus asked Aegisthus to kill Thyestes, but Thyestes revealed the truth to his son, who later killed Atreus. Thyestes became king once more, but Tyndareos drove him out and made Agamemnon king. Thyestes' curse was still powerful: Agamemnon was killed on his return from Troy by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, and they were killed by Agamemnon's son Orestes.

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Aerope
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