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The House of Atreus

Mycenae was founded by Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae, and the Perseid dynasty provided many of its rulers. After the last of them, Eurystheus (famous for the labors he imposed on Hercules), the Mycenaeans chose Atreus, son of Pelops and Hippodamia, as their ruler. But Atreus hated his brother, Thyestes, so much that he had his children killed and served them to their father at a feast, thereby incurring the wrath of the gods. Thyestes pronounced a fearful curse on Atreus and his progeny.

Menelaus, one son of Atreus, was married to the beautiful Helen and ruled her lands. It was this Helen who was abducted by Paris, beginning the Trojan War. Atreus's heir, the renowned and energetic Agamemnon, was murdered on his return from the Trojan War by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus (Thyestes's surviving son). Also murdered by the pair was Agamemnon's concubine, Cassandra, the mournful prophetess whom Agamemnon had brought back with him.

Orestes and his sister Electra, the children of Agamemnon, took revenge for the murder of their father, and Orestes became king of Mycenae. Another daughter of Agamemnon, Iphigenia, was brought to be sacrificed because someone—Agamemnon or one of the men in the forces of Menelaus—had offended the goddess Artemis by bragging about his hunting skills or killing a sacred animal. Various versions of Iphigenia's fate exist. During the rule of Orestes's son, Tisamenus, the descendants of Hercules returned and claimed their birthright by force, thus satisfying the wrath of the gods and the curse of Atreus.

The works of Homer and the classical plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are good sources for anyone who wants to delve further into the saga of this tragic family.

Updated: 2014-01-14

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