Thyestes and the young Aegisthus, Dareios Painter

In Greek mythology, Thyestes was the son of Pelops, King of Mycenae, and Hippodamia and father of Pelopia and Aegisthus. Thyestes and his twin brother, Atreus, were exiled by their father for having murdered their step-brother, Chrysippus in their desire for the throne of Olympia. They took refuge in Mycenae, where they ascended to the throne upon the absence of King Eurystheus, who was fighting the Heracleidae. Eurystheus had meant for their lordship to be temporary; it became permanent due to his death in conflict.

Atreus, (Thyestes' brother and King of Mycenae) vowed to sacrifice his best lamb to Artemis. Upon searching his flock, however, Atreus discovered a golden lamb which he gave to his wife, Aerope, to hide from the goddess. She gave it to her lover, Thyestes (also Atreus' brother), who then convinced Atreus to agree that whoever had the lamb should be king. Thyestes produced the lamb and claimed the throne.

Atreus retook the throne using advice he received from Hermes. Thyestes agreed to give the kingdom back when the sun moved backwards in the sky, a feat that Zeus accomplished. Atreus retook the throne and banished Thyestes.

Atreus then learned of Thyestes' and Aerope's adultery and plotted revenge. He killed Thyestes' sons and cooked them, save their hands and feet. He served Thyestes his own sons and then taunted him with their hands and feet. This is the source of modern phrase: Thyestian Feast, or one at which human flesh is served.

An oracle then advised Thyestes that, if he had a son with his own daughter (Pelopia), that son would kill Atreus. Thyestes did so and the son, Aegisthus, did kill Atreus. However, when Aegisthus was first born, he was abandoned by his mother, ashamed of her incestuous act. A shepherd found the infant Aegisthus and gave him to Atreus, who raised him as his own son. Only as he entered adulthood did Thyestes reveal the truth to Aegisthus, that he was both father and uncle to the boy. Aegisthus then killed Atreus.

Aegisthus and Thyestes ruled over Mycenae jointly, exiling Atreus' sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus to Sparta, where King Tyndareus gave the pair their wives, his daughters, Clytemnestra and Helen. When Tyndareus died, he gave his throne to Menelaus, who then helped Agamemnon overthrow Aegisthus and Thyestes.

When Agamemnon left Mycenae for the Trojan War, Aegisthus seduced his wife, Clytemnestra, and plotted to kill her husband upon his return. They succeeded, killing Agamemnon and his new concubine, Cassandra. Eight years later, Agamemnon's son, Orestes returned to Mycenae and, with the help of his sister Electra, killed both their mother, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus.

Tired of the bloodshed, the gods exonerated Orestes and declared this the end of the curse on the house of Atreus, as descibed in The Eumenides.

Pausanias 2.18.1

...Advancing a little way in the Argive territory from this hero-shrine one sees on the right the grave of Thyestes. On it is a stone ram, because Thyestes obtained the golden lamb after debauching his brother's wife. But Atreus was not restrained by prudence from retaliating, but contrived the slaughter of the children of Thyestes and the banquet of which the poets tell us.

But as to what followed, I cannot say for certain whether Aegisthus began the sin or whether Agamemnon sinned first in murdering Tantalus, the son of Thyestes. It is said that Tantalus had received Clytaemnestra in marriage from Tyndareus when she was still a virgin. I myself do not wish to condemn them of having been wicked by nature;


  • Bibliography of reconstruction: Pindar, Olympian Ode, I (476 BC); Apollodorus Library and Epitome 3.5.5 (140 BC); Hyginus, Fables, 85. Chrysippus; 243. Women who Committed Suicide (1st c. AD); Pausanias, Description of Greece, 9.5.5-10, 6.20.7 (c. 160 - 176 CE); Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, Book XIII, 602 (c. 200AD; Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks, ii, 34, 3 - 5 (150 - 215 AD)

Atreus and Thyestes From Larry Gonick, The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volumes 1-7

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