The founder of the dynasty was Tantalus, king of Sipylus, on the border between Phrygia and Lydia in Asia Minor, son of Zeus and Pluto (no relation to the god of the Underworld!), daughter of either Cronos or Tmolus: Agamemnon is thus only four generations away from the king of gods and men. Tantalus was fabulously wealthy, like the other notables from this area, Midas of Phrygia (mythical) and Croesus of Lydia (historical). After being attacked by the Trojans [see below] he was forced to leave Asia, and took refuge in Greece with his son Pelops. As one of the first-generation mortals, he was proud of his divine ancestry, but managed to offend the gods grievously in some way. Exactly what he is supposed to have done is unclear - there ar at least five versions of his crime:
- * He stole a dog, one of Zeus' favorites: Zeus had entrusted the animal to Tantalus to guard his temple in Crete.
- * He stole nectar and ambosia when he dined with the immortals (a privilege that the early mortals had), and tried to impress his mortal friends by giving them some. (Pindar, Olympian Odes 1)
- * He chatted with mortals about what was discussed at the gods' dinner table.
- * He carried off Ganymedes (son of Tros, king of Troy) in pursuit of homoerotic gratification. The Trojans blamed him, anyway, even though most authorities agree that the rape was actually committed by Zeus: this might not have been responsible for his eternal punishment, but was the reason why he came to Greece, after being ruined by the Trojan revenge attack. [Or he may have already been in Hades by this time, leaving Pelops to withstand the Trojans, and flee to Greece]
- * He tried to test the gods by serving up his son Pelops to them in a stew when they stopped at his house. All the gods noticed, apart from Demeter - who, distracted by the recent loss of her daughter Persephone, ate a chunk of his shoulder. When the boy was revived, Hephaestus made him an ivory prosthesis. This was the first cannibalistic feast in the family, but not the last.
Like Sisyphus, Ixion, Lycaon, Tityos and the Danaids, he was singled out for exemplary punishment for his crime, whatever it was. But there are two versions even of this:
After his traumatic childhood (see above) Pelops, despite a terrible crime, lived a long and prosperous life as ruler of the Peloponnese ("Island of Pelops") to which he gave his name. He wanted as his bride Hippodamia, daughter of Oenomaus, king of Pisa (in Elis, the area where the Olympic Games were later held). Unfortunately there was an obstacle: Oenomaus insisted that any suitor must carry her off in a chariot: he would then give chase - and kill the suitor if he caught up with him. But Pelops decided to make certain of victory, despite his skill as a horseman. He bribed Myrtilus, Oenomaus' charioteer to loosen the linchpin on his master's chariot, thus causing a fatal crash. Pelops was then cursed either by Oenomaus with his dying breath, or else by Myrtilus, whom Pelops murdered on the way back, throwing his corpse into the sea - either to conceal the evidence for the dishonest way he'd won, or because Myrtilus loved Hippodamia. In any case, Pelops married her, and they had many children, including Atreus, Thyestes and Pittheus. The curse did not strike until the next generation, and Pelops was revered after death as a great hero of Greece. According to some the Olympic Games were instituted by him in honour of Zeus.
Pelops' sister Niobe, in contrast, had a sad life. Inheriting her father's contempt for the gods, she boasted that she had more children than Leto, mother of only the twins Apollo and Artemis. As you would expect the exact number of her offspring (by Amphion son of Iasus) is disputed: was it
Leto told her children to punish Niobe: they shot all her children, and she, in her grief, was turned to stone: a rock which can still be seen on Mount Sipylus.
[Note that according to Hesiod, the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus was Atreus' son, Pleisthenes: he died very young and the two boys were brought up by their grandfather and became known as the Atridae, "the sons of Atreus" because it was he who was the real father to them. Aegisthus, in Aeschylus' Agamemnon refers to Agamamnon's family as the "house of Pleisthenes"]
This is where the nastiness really gets under way! It started with Thyestes, Atreus' brother. As usual there are different versions:
Either way, Atreus' revenge was terrible. He killed Thyestes' children and served them up at a banquet, making Thyestes unknowingly eat the flesh of his own children.
Thyestes now naturally wanted a suitable revenge himself, and asked the advice of the oracle as to how he could bring it about. He was told that an avenger would be born to him, but only as a result of intercourse with his own daughter, Pelopia. The incest went ahead, and in due course the avenger was born - Aegisthus (who would seduce the wife of Agamemnon, and plan his murder). The mechanics of it all are unclear: according to Hyginus, Thyestes raped his daughter at night - she managed to grab his sword, though. After the birth, she realised whose sword it was and stabbed herself with it.
Of the two Atridae, Menelaus got off comparatively lightly: admittedly his wife Helen was stolen by Paris and taken to Troy: he had to do without her for ten years, but got her back in the end. In the Odyssey they appear to be living happily ever after.
Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks who'd all sworn to protect Helen, had problems from the start. Before the fleet could even sail for Troy he had to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigeneia to Artemis, angering his wife Clytemnestra, Helen's sister.