This article is based on a paper written in graduate school at Yale, for Comparative Literature 110 (a course in Theory of Comparative Literature taught by Rene Wellek and Lowry Nelson).
"The plot [mythos], then is the first principle, and as it were, the soul of a tragedy: Character holds the second place." (Aristotle, Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, trans. Butcher, Dover, 1951, pp. 26-27)Aristotle's term "mythos" seems to differ from our modern notion of "plot" and also from the familiar usages of "myth". At one extreme, the "traditional material" could be considered as previous literary works, oral and/or written, from which writers borrow characters and plot elements and to which they frequently allude.
"He [the poet] may not indeed destroy the framework of the received legends [mythoi] -- the fact, for instance, that Clytemnestra was slain by Orestes and Eriphyle by Alcmaeon -- but he ought to show invention of his own, and skillfully handle the traditional material. (Ibid., p. 51)
One could justify such wholesale "borrowing" on the grounds that it provided the playwright with an assured audience of those who knew and liked the stories and whose previous knowledge of the plot made long detailed exposition unnecessary and provided opportunities for the use of dramatic irony.
At the other extreme, one can consider the "myths" as fundamentally religious, emphasize the ritual aspects of the dramas, and seek the "true" meaning of them in anthropological and archaeological information about the mysteries of Eleusis and the rites of Dionysus, or perhaps in the "collective unconscious".
On the one hand, there is the literary use of conventional material. On the other hand, there is some vast mysterious religious abyss. To avoid these extremes, let's closely consider a single "mythos" and try to determine "what" it is.
There are 32 extant Greek tragedies. One, Prometheus Bound, deals primarily with the actions of gods, but gods presented in very human fashion. One, The Persians, deals with recent history. The rest deal with events supposed to have occurred between the founding of the cities and the generation after the Trojan War.
Seven plays deal directly with Thebes, and, of those, six concern just Oedipus and the succeeding generation.
The House of Atreus is prominent in eleven plays (a third of the total) and appears in two others (Ajax and Hecuba). In all these plays, the action involves only the generations of Agamemnon and his son, Orestes.
Aeschylus' three-play series Oresteia, Sophocles' Electra, and Euripides' Electra all deal directly with the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus by Orestes and Electra. Although the action of these plays is confined to a relatively brief period of time, references to past events are frequent. These past events are usually evoked as explanations, as having in some sense caused the present actions. They differ widely from play to play except for the episode of Iphigenia's sacrifice, which is referred to in all of them. Thus, in the Oresteia we are told of the banquet at which Atreus tricked his brother Thyestes into eating the flesh of his own sons. In Euripides' Electra we hear of Atreus' and Thyestes' contention over a lamb. In Sophocles' Electra we hear of Myrtilus' curse on the House of Pelops.
The "mythos" is not just the action of the plays, but the actions that are seen as "causing" these actions and being "caused" by them.
The action of The Libation Bearers is "caused (curse/revenge) by the action of Agamemnon, and the action of Agamemnon is likewise "caused" by the events surrounding the death of Iphigenia and the strife between Atreus and Thyestes. Though the action of each play is complete in itself, it begins in the midst of a larger action of which it is just a part.
This larger action is often evoked by hints and ambiguous allusions. For instance, in Agamemnon Cassandra has a vision:
"Look there, see what is hovering above the
so small and young, imaged as in the shadow of dreams,
like children almost, killed by those most dear to them,
and their hands filled with their own flesh, as food to eat.:"
As she continues, it becomes apparent, as the chorus recognizes, that she is referring to the feast at which Thyestes was served the flesh of his own children by his brother Atreus. But in the first ambiguous formulation, one could see as well the sacrifice of Iphigenia, "killed by those most dear to them," and perhaps Tantalus, grandfather of Atreus, serving the flesh of his son Pelops to the gods. The stories of several generations are telescoped together and ambiguously seen as one even or set of "causes."
Repeatedly the playwrights present the narrated stories of previous generations as if they were the "causes" of the acts portrayed on the stage. In the Oresteia, revenge is clearly the major motivation/cause. The chorus ends The Libation Bearers by listing the three deeds it sees following each other in a revenge-chain: the eaten children of Thyestes, the murder of Agamemnon, and the murder of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. The last two events are directly portrayed in the trilogy; and Orestes' murder of his mother is clearly presented as motivated by revenge. The first event of the series, however, is much more loosely connected to the rest, though the chorus does not seem to make that distinction. It is not a crime of Agamemnon himself, but rather a crime of Agamemnon's father against Aegisthus' father. A son is being held responsible for his father's crimes. And this revenge motive has nothing directly to do with Cytemnestra's essential part in the murder. She claims to have a different revenge motive: the slaying of her daughter Iphigenia.
In the Oresteia, the Trojan War is also presented in terms of revenge, in this case for the abduction of Helen by Paris, who was a guest in her husband's house. The Chorus in The Eumenides considers together as sacred the rights of mother, father, and guest:
"All for all I say to you:
bow before the altar of right.
You shall not eye advantage, and heel
it over with foot of force.
The all is bigger than you.
Let man see this and take
care, to mother and father,
and to the guest
in the gates welcomed, give all rights
that befall their position."
Paris' crime was a breach of hospitality, "for the guest board shamed," and the fall of Troy was "the vengeance wrought" by "Zeus kindly to strangers."
Closely connected with the revenge motive is the spoken curse, which is partly a request for revenge, and partly has supernatural causal power (perhaps as an invocation of the Furies). Thus when Agamemnon slays Iphigenia, he tries to prevent her from speaking,
"... to check
the curse cried on the house of Atreus
by force of bit and speech drowned in strength."
Aegisthus justifies his murder of Agamemnon by referring to the story of Atreus and Thyestes. According to his version, Thyestes was first banished for challenging Atreus "in his king's right." Later Atreus let him return, accepted him at "the hearth" and "angrily hospitable set a feast for him" -- the feast of the flesh of Thyestes' children, "that ghastly food whose curse works now before your eyes." When he recognized what had happened, Thyestes pronounced a curse on "all the seed of Pleisthenes." (In this version of the story, Pleisthenes is the son of Atreus and father of Agamemnon and Menelaus). The breach of hospitality links this crime with that of Paris for which Troy was destroyed. Aegisthus' revenge gives him both Clytemnestra and the throne of Argolis. The generations are bound together by blood, by revenge law, by the law of dynastic succession, and by repeated patterns of violence.
The Eumenides seems to represent the establishment of court law in place of revenge law, but it can also be seen as just a shift in the revenge law. Previously, mother and father had equally sacred claims on the child. Hence Orestes' dilemma: in order to avenge the one parent, he must murder the other; and then it would seem he must avenge his mother's death by killing himself.
The Furies represent the old law of equally sacred rights:
"Let man see this and take
care, to mother and father,
and to the guest
in the gates welcomed, give all rights
that befall their position."
Apollo pleads that the father's claim is greater than the mother's, that the father is the only "true" parent:
"The mother is no parent of that which is
her child, but only nurse of the new-planted seed
that grows. The parent is he who mounts. A stranger, she
preserves a stranger's seed, if no god interfere."
Athena, born from her father's head, is pointed to as proof that "There can be a father without any mother." She casts the deciding vote:
"There is no mother anywhere who gave me
and, but for marriage, I am always for the male
with all my heart, and strongly on my father's side."
Orestes then succeeds to his father's throne.
In the opening speech of Sophocles' Electra, Paedagogus refers to "The death-heavy house of the Pelopidae". The chorus later evokes the story of Pelops as the curse-cause of the present action:
"Horsemanship of Pelops of old
loaded with disaster,
how deadly you have proved
to this land!
For since the day that Myrtilus
wrecked utterly with the unhappy
wreck of his golden carriage,
for never a moment since
has destruction and ruin
ever left this house."
If Pelops won the chariot race, he would marry the daughter of King Oenomaus. And if he lost, he would die. To ensure victory, Pelops bribed king's charioteer, Myrtilus. Then after winning the race, Pelops murdered Myrtilus.
Clytemnestra justifies her part in the slaying of Agamemnon by reminding her daughter Electra of the brutal slaughter of her other daughter Iphigenia. It makes no sense to her that Iphigenia and not a child of Menelaus had to be sacrificed. Electra justifies her father on the grounds that he personally had angered the goddess Artemis and could only atone for this offense by sacrificing his own daughter: there was no choice, "no other deliverance for the army either homeward or toward Ilium." She finds her mother's argument unconvincing and insinuates that the true motive behind the murder of Agamemnon was Clytemnestra's adultery with Aegisthus. It is this aspect of the situation, murder leading to marriage, that is seen as similar to the story of Pelops.
Wicked indeed were they who were seized
with a passion for a forbidden bed,
for a marriage accursed, stained with murder.
Sophocles emphasizes that Electra and her sister Chrysosthemis are unmarried, and that Aegisthus has not allowed them to marry.
is not such a fool to suffer to grow up
children of you and me, clearly to harm him."
Electra uses the fact that the death of Aegisthus will make it possible for them to marry in her attempt to convince her sister to help her kill their mother and Aegisthus. Aegisthus is here presented simply as a usurper, a murderer and an adulterer. There is no indication that Orestes' revenge will lead to any remorse on his part or to any further action. The chorus' closing words are:
"O race of Atreus, how many sufferings
were yours before you came at last so hardly
to freedom, perfected by this day's deed.
In Euripides' Electra the emphasis is on lust. The key event from preceding generations is Thyestes' seduction of Atreus' wife.
"Quick, Thyestes' trick:
seducing in the dark of sleep
Atreus' wife, he brought
the strange lamb home, his own.
Back to the square he calls
all to know how he holds the golden beast,
fleece and horn, from Atreus' house.
That hour -- that hour Zeus
changed the stars on their blazing course,
utterly turned the splendid sun,
turned the white face of the dawn
so the sun drives west over heaven's spine
in glowing god-lit fire,
the watery weight of cloud moves north,
the cracked waste of African Ammon
dries up, dies, never knowing dew,
robbed of the beautiful rain that drops from Zeus.
Apollodorus tells what seems to be the same story in less cryptic form:
"Now the wife of Atreus was Aerope, daughter of Catreus, and she loved Thyestes. And Atreus once vowed to sacrifice to Artemis the finest of his flocks; but when a golden lamb appeared, they say that he neglected to perform his vow, and having choked the lamb, he deposited it in a box and kept it there, and Aerope gave it to Thyestes, by whom she had been debauched. For the Mycenaeans had received an oracle which bade them choose a Pelopid for their king, and they had sent for Atreus and Thyestes. And when a discussion took place concerning the kingdom, Thyestes declared to the multitude that the kingdom ought to belong to him who owned the golden lamb, and when Atreus agreed, Thyestes produced the lamb and was made king. But Zeus sent Hermes to Atreus and told him to stipulate with Thyestes that Atreus should be king if the sun should go backward; and when Thyestes agreed, the sun set in the eat; hence the deity having plainly attested the usurpation of Thyestes, Atreus got the kingdom and banished Thyestes." (translation by James Frazer, Loeb Classic edition, volume 2, pp. 163-165).
The murders and adulteries in the two generations are then two episodes in the same dynastic struggle. Thyestes acquires the "lamb of gold", the symbol of authority, by seducing the wife of Atreus. The chorus is skeptical ("won only to light belief") of the supernatural aspect of the story -- the sun changing its course. But if the supernatural aspect is false, it would follow that Thyestes, not Atreus, was the legitimate king, and hence in the succeeding generation -- Aegisthus, not Agamemnon.
NB -- the golden lamb is apparently not preserved. It is important as a symbol of authority only in the episode of Atreus and Thyestes.
Thyestes acquires a claim to the throne by seducing Atreus' wife. Then Aegisthus, by paring with Agamemnon's wife and killing Agamemnon, becomes king.
Clytemnestra justifies her actions by referring to both the senseless sacrifice of Iphigenia (who was supposedly going to marry Achilles) and the discomforts of post-war polygamy -- her jealousy of Agamemnon's captive, Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy, "two brides being stabled in a single stall." She turned to Aegisthus for help quite logically, because he was Agamemnon's enemy.
Electra emphasizes the prurient aspects of the situation, lumping together Clytemnestra and her sister Helen as lustful by nature, "flowering form a single stalk." He own lustful nature is emphasized to such an extent that much of what she says about Clytemnestra can be seen as reflecting back on herself.
As noted above, Sophocles' Electra links the possibility of marriage for herself and her sister with the death of Aegisthus. The same connection is implied in regard to Aeschylus' virgin Electra. She promises at her father's grave that when Aegisthus is dead:
"I too out of my own full dowership shall
libations for my bridal from my father's house."
In Euripides' version, as in Sophocles', Aegisthus is afraid of Electra's possible marriage, a fear undoubtedly intensified by her obsession with sex.
"But when the burning season of young ripeness
then the great princes of the land of Greece came begging
her bridal. Aegisthus was afraid. Afraid her son
if noble in blood would punish Agamemnon's death.
He held her in the house sundered from every love.
Yet, even guarded so, she filled his nights with fear
lest she in secret to some prince might still bear sons;
he laid his plans to kill her."
Instead of killing her, he is persuaded by Clytemnestra to marry her to a farmer: one who could pose no threat. Euripides uses this situation to make stabs at artificial social distinctions. Electra is very concerned about her social status and unthinkingly equates wealth and worth. As in both Sophocles and Aeschylus, Euripides' Electra is a virgin at the time of Aegisthus' death. The farmer never dares to consummate his marriage with this royal bitch.
Both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus have a certain dignity and reasonableness in Euripides. Aegisthus is slaughtered by two seeming strangers, Pylades and Orestes, whom he hospitably invited to a feat. While performing a sacrifice at an altar, he is stabbed in the back, ignorant of who kills him or why. In this play, Orestes and Electra are petty and ruthless.
The wooing of Electra is reminiscent of the congregation of Helen's suitors. Aegisthus' fear of Electra's marriage is reminiscent of the fears of Acrisius, father of Danae, and of the father of Atalanta. It also harks back to the efforts of Oenomaus to prevent his daughter Hippodamia from marrying, that led to the initiation of the chariot races, that Pelops (grandfather of Agamemnon) eventually won.
Let's consider the myths from which the tragedians drew their stories to determine what features they have in common -- such as prevention of a daughter's marriage, and the son-in-law succeeding to the throne.
But as we venture beyond the text of the plays, we encounter a bewildering variety of often contradictory versions of the "same story." Among the Electra plays there is surprising agreement. Most differences are of emphasis and characterization, rather than of fact. The biggest factual discrepancy is the farmer husband of Euripides' Electra. But, as noted, she remains a virgin; and hence that marriage is no obstacle to her marriage with Pylades after the murders.
The information concerning previous generations that is evoked to explain the causes of the action differs widely among the plays, but there is no blatant contradiction. In fact, the differences could be seen as a matter of the selection of episodes from a common self-consistent source.
The popularized myth books which are current today (e.g., Hamilton, Bulfinch, and Rose) are amalgams of fragments such as the references to the past in these plays. We are presented with homogenized, pasteurized, irradiated, refrigerated, whole myth, as if there had once been a complete coherent work or set of works, from which the tragedians culled their tales. But that does not seem to be the case.
(NB -- In his version, The Greek Myths, Robert Graves preserves many unfamiliar variants, on the ground that they can be construed as confirming his theory that at some point in history kings in Greece reigned by virtue of their marriage, and only ruled for a year, after which they were killed.)
The main sources of myth from before the time of the tragedies are Homer, Hesiod, and fragments from the Trojan cycle of epics. The earliest relatively complete collection of these myths is that of Apollodorus, dating from probably the first century BC or the first century AD. (James Frazer's introduction to the Loeb edition of Apollodorus, pp. xi-xvii). The next major source is Pausanias' Description of Greece, dating from around 174 A.D. Both Apollodorus and Pausanias draw on the extant tragedies, Homer and Hesiod, as well as on many works that have since been lost. Both works record many variants of the same tales. They record and try to resolve cases of discrepancies, but they don't rely on some homogeneous authority, but rather on their own judgment. It is impossible to determine how far their judgment has intervened in other instances not noted -- shifting emphasis, discarding details not considered important, making distortions to join similar threads of story -- and how far the same process was at work in their sources and in the sources of those sources. In other words, it is difficult to talk of "distortions" when one has no fixed form to begin with.
By tradition, even Homer, apparently the oldest source, dates from centuries after the events he recorded, if in fact they were events. In such circumstances, one would expect a wide range of variants (like rumors circulated for hundreds of years) with very little similarity, aside from names and a few key events, such as the murder of Agamemnon and the subsequent revenge. From such a welter of possibilities, from the seeming freedom of choice and adaptation presented by the chaotic body of myth available to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, it is striking that they should all scrupulously preserve such a detail as the virginity of the daughters of Agamemnon until the death of Aegisthus.
Using Apollodorus, Pausanias, Homer, Hesiod, and the Trojan cycle as sources, let's try to examine the mythos of Pelops/Atreus/Agamemnon in terms of its variants and in terms of other myths, keeping in mind particularly the events evoked by the tragedians in explanation of the murder of Agamemnon and subsequent revenge. These events include: the sacrifice of Iphigenia; the power struggle between Atreus and Thyestes, including the seduction of Atreus' wife by Thyestes and the murder of Thyestes' sons by Atreus; and the events surrounding the marriage of Pelops and the murder of Myrtilus.
In The Iliad, there is no reference to Iphigenia or her sacrifice. Agamemnon has three daughters who are mentioned in Book 9, when he seeks the aid of Achilles and offers many gifts as part of the reconciliation. Achilles can have his choice of the daughters (Chrysothemis, Laodice, and Iphianassa) and will receive seven "well-peopled cities." In return he asks that Achilles recognize his suzerainty.
The struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon began when Agamemnon was forced to give up his trophy captive/slave Chryseis. Her father, a priest, had prayed to Apollo and Apollo had brought a plague on the Greek army. Only the return of Chryseis to her father could end the plague. But Agamemnon hesitates, claiming that he prefers her to his wife Clytemnestra, until pushed by Achilles. In revenge for Achilles' intervention, Agamemnon seizes Achilles' trophy captive/slave Briseis. The seizure of Briseis is a symbolic act, asserting Agamemnon's authority:
"...that thou mayest know full well how far
mightier am I than thou, and not another too may
shrink from declaring himself my peer and
likening himself to me to my face." (Murray translation, Loeb Classics)
Later, when negotiating for reconciliation with Achilles, Agamemnon promises to swear that he never had intercourse with Briseis. Then after Patroclus is dead and Agamemnon and Achilles are reconciled, Agamemnon swears:
"...that never laid I hand upon the girl Briseis either by way of a lover's embrace or anywise else, but she ever abode untouched in my huts.
In The Cypria (one of the lost epics of the Trojan Cycle that we know of only by indirect reference), Iphigenia is distinguished from Iphianassa and Agamemnon has four, instead of three, daughters. This Iphigenia was sacrificed by Agamemnon at Aulis:
"When the expedition had mustered a second time at Aulis, Agamemnon, while at the chase, shot a stag and boasted that he surpassed even Artemis. AT this, the goddess was so angry that she sent stormy winds and prevented them from sailing. Calchas then told them of the anger of the goddess and bade them sacrifice Iphigenia to Artemis. This they attempt to do sending to fetch Iphigenia as though for marriage with Achilles. Artemis, however, snatched her away and transported her to Tauris, making her immortal, and putting a stag in place of the girl upon the altar. (Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica, Loeb edition, pp. 493-495).
This story from The Cypria is consistent with the plots of Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris. The seeming contradiction between the two plays (if one considers the ending of Aulis corrupt), or at least between the versions of the story given in the Electra plays and the version in Tauris, is resolved by the virginity of Iphigenia. Whether dead or as a living priestess of Artemis, Iphigenia retains her virginity (which she defends against Thoas in Tauris). She will be buried at the temple at which she serves at Brauron:
"... And honored in your tomb with spotless
Garments unworn, woven by hands of women
Who honorably died in giving birth." (Iphigenia in Aulis)
(According to Pausanias I, 43, 1, Hesiod in his Catalogue of Women reported that "Iphigeneia was not killed but, by the will of Artemis, became Hecate.")
Two different characters named Tantalus are referred to in the Iphigenia plays.
Tauris opens with Iphigenia mentioning Tantalus the father of Pelops and great-grandfather of Agamemnon:
"Pelops, son of Tantalus, by maiming
At chariot, won a bride, who bore him Atreus,
And Atreus had two sons, one Menelaus,
The other Agamemnon, who in turn
By Clytemnestra had a child, and I
am she, Iphigenia.
In Aulis, there are two figures evoked named Tantalus: the same "Tantalus, Zeus' son" and Pelops' father, and another little-known Tantalus, a former husband of Clytemnestra. As Clytemnestra says to Agamemnon:
"And this reproach I first hurl in your teeth
That I married you against my will, after
You murdered Tantalus, my first husband,
And dashed my living babe upon the earth,
Brutally tearing him from my breasts."
Her brothers, Pollux and Castor, came to her rescue; but her father, Tyndareus, intervened in Agamemnon's favor.
Apollodorus reports that "same story" adding that this Tantalus was a son of Thyestes (hence brother of Aegisthus). (Apollodorus, Loeb edition, vol. 1, p. 253)
In Pausanias, this episode is seen as possibly the cause of the strife between Agamemnon and Aegisthus:
"But as to what followed [the banquet at which Atreus served Thyestes the flesh of Thyestes' sons], 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 Clytemnestra in marriage from Tyndareus when she was still a virgin. I myself do not wish to condemn them of having been wicked by nature; but if the pollution of Pelops and the avenging spirit of Myrtilus dogged their steps so long, it was after all only consistent that the Pythian priestess said to the Spartan Glaucus, son of Epicydes, who consulted her about breaking his oath, that the punishment for this also comes upon the descendants of the sinner." (Pausania, Loeb edition, vol. 1, p. 337)
We see guilt and curse spanning several
generations. And we see Clytemnestra as a symbol of authority
over which Agamemnon and a dynastic rival contend.
Let's take a look at another closely related mythos, that of Tyndareus/Helen. When Helen, daughter of Tyndareus, the king of Sparta, marries Menelaus, Menelaus immediately becomes king of Sparta, even though Tyndareus and (according to most accounts) his sons Pollux and Caster are still alive. Also, according to the version mentioned by the Dioscuri (another name for the twins Pollux and Castor) at the end of Euripides' Electra and also the version used for Euripides' Helen, the Trojan War was not fought over the "real" Helen. The real Helen was transported to Egypt, and a false Helen went with Paris to Troy.
"She never went to Troy. Zeus fashioned and
dispatched a Helen-image there to Ilium so men
might die in hate and blood.
In Helen, Euripides plays with the irreconilability of the two versions (Helen at Troy and Helen in Egypt), providing no other explanation than "that's the way it is" -- the way gods made things happen. In some sense, she must have been in both places at once. The Dioscuri indicate that the Helen at Troy was in some sense just an "image", not as "real" as the Helen in Egypt. Helen herself comes up with a slightly different explanation:
Menelaus: How could you be here and in Troy at
the same time?
Helen: My name could be in many places where I was not.
In other words, the Greeks could just as well have contended over Helen's "name" or her "image" as over a flesh-and-blood woman. This situation is similar to the golden ram which served as a symbol of authority, determining who had to right to rule Argos, and which changed hands due to Thyestes' adultery with the wife of his brother Atreus.
Often, in the classic cycle of Greek myths, a woman who is daughter or wife of the king is key to determining the succession to the throne. Whoever she marries will immediately become king. Hence the present king has motivation to delay or prevent that marriage by imposing difficult, if not impossible conditions, or by holding a contest in which many suitors will compete (e.g., Helen -- Menelaus, Atalanta -- Meleager, Hippodamia -- Pelops, Penelope -- Odysseus, Jocasta -- Oedipus).
According to Sophocles, by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, Oedipus earned the right to marry Jocasta (the widow queen) and become the king of Thebes, after many other contestants had failed.
Also, in the Odyssey, the suitors are contending not just for Penelope the woman, but also for the right to rule in Ithaca, even though Odysseus' father, Laertes, and his son, Telemachus, are both alive and present. When Odysseus arrives, he does not assert his claim by proving his identity, but rather performs the task set by Penelope for the suitors to prove their worthiness: he shoots an arrow through a set of axeheads. Then he slaughters the suitors.
There are, however, cases of direct inheritance of the throne. Agamemnon inherits from his son Atreus, and Tyndareus inherits from his father.
Tyndareus, the rightful heir, is expelled by his brother Hippicoon and later restored by Heracles. But then Tyndareus willingly relinquishes his hard-won throne when Menelaus marries his daughter Helen, and he exacts an oath from the other suitors to uphold the bridegroom's right to Helen and hence (presumably) to the throne. (Apollodorus, Loeb edition, vol. 2, p. 29)
Returning to the Atreus/Agamemnon, all the extant versions of the story preserve he virginity of Iphigenia and preserve the virginity of the rest of Agamemnon's daughters up to the death of Aegisthus. The struggle between Agamemnon and Aegisthus involves the question of who has the right to rule Argos. In either case, Clytemnestra will be the wife of the king. In the previous generation the struggle between Atreus and Thyestes was also over the right to reign, with Atreus' wife Aerope at the center of the story and her seduction by Thyestes involving the transfer of a golden lamb, recognized as the symbol of authority, from Atreus to Thyestes. Only a reversal of normal natural processes -- the sun moving backwards -- gives the right back to Atreus.
Let's now look at the different versions of the Thyestes--Atreus and Pelops--Myrtilus episodes as found in Apollodorus and Pausanias. Apollodorus recounts the tale of the love of Aerope for Thyestes and the transfer of the golden lamb, as recounted above. Following that, Atreus, learning of the adultery, invites Thyestes back and serves him the boiled flesh of Thyestes' three sons, at a banquet. After that,
"... seeking by all means to pay Atreus out, Thyestes inquired of the oracle on the subject and received an answer that it could be done, if he were to beget a son by intercourse with his daughter. He did so accordingly and begot Aegisthus by his daughter. And Aegisthus when he was grown to manhood and had learned that he was a son of Thyestes, killed Atreus, and restored the kingdom to Thyestes."
[The following paragraph is taken from the Chiliades of J. Tsetzes, but James Frazer, the editor of the Loeb edition of Apollodorus believes it to have been borrowed from Apollodorus and to belong at this point in the manuscript.]
"But the nurse took Agamemnon and Menelaus to Polyphides, lord of Sicyon, who again sent them to Oeneus, the Aetolian. Not long afterwards, Tyndareus brought them back again, and drove away Thyesetes to dwell in Cytheria, after that they had taken an oath of him at the altar of Hera, to which he had fled. And they became the sons-in-law of Tyndareus by marrying his daughters, Agamemnon getting Clytemnestra to wife, after he had slain her spouse Tantalus, the son of Thyestes, together with his newborn babe, while Menelaus got Helen." (Apollodorus, vol. 2, pp. 176-171)
In these versions, there is no mention of incest or of guilt arising from a father begetting a child with his daughter. Thyestes does so not from lust, but rather to beget a son who will restore his right to reign.
In the second stage of the action, Agamemnon ascends the throne by marrying the wife of the son of the former ruler.
In the previous generation, according to Apollodorus, there was another instance of a desire of a father for his daughter, which was also connected with a question of succession:
"Now Oenomaus, the king of Pisa, had a daughter Hippodamia, and whether it was that he loved her, as some say, or that he was warned by an oracle that he must die by the man who married her, no man got her to wife; for her father could not persuade her to cohabit with him, and her suitors were put by him to death."
Oenomaus holds chariot races, pursuing each suitor in turn "in full armor, and if he overtook him, he slew him". Pelops arrives as a suitor. Hippodamia "conceived a passion for him," and persuades her father's charioteer Myrtilus, who is also in love with her, to rig her father's chariot. Consequently Oenomaus loses the race to Pelops and either dies in a chariot accident or is killed by Pelops:
"And in dying he cursed Myrtilus, whose treachery he had discovered, prying that he might perish by the hand of Pelops. Pelops, therefore, got Hippodamia and on his journey, in which he was accompanied by Myrtilus, he came to a certain place, and withdrew a little to fetch water for his wife, who was athirst; and in the meantime Myrtilus tried to rape her. But when Pelops learned that from her, he threw Myrtilus into the sea, called after him, the Myrtoan Sea, at Cape Geraestus; and Myrtilus, as he was being thrown, uttered curses against the house of Pelops." (Apollodorus, Loeb edition, vol. 2, pp. 161-163)
As a result of these events, Pelops succeeds to Oenomaus' throne.
According to Pausanias, the bargain was that Myrtilus, for his treachery, would be allowed to "be with Hippodameia for one night." I was when he was reminded of this promise that Pelops cast Myrtilus into the sea. (Pausanias, Loeb edition, vol. 3, p. 419)
Thus the events from preceding generations evoked in the Oresteia and in Sophocles' and Euripides' versions of Electra concern struggles over the right to reign, involving in each case a central woman whose chastity or seduction is a matter of great political as well as personal importance. It is the curses of Myrtilus and Thyestes that plague succeeding generations; both of which arise from foul play on the part of a ruler attempting to maintain or acquire a questionable claim to a throne.
The virgin sacrifice or prestesshood of Iphigenia would be consistent with the laws of succession which the above versions suggest. For if, under some circumstances, the son-in-law succeeds to the throne at marriage, then if Iphigenia were to marry Achilles that could dilute Agamemnon's claim to authority. In this case, like in the case of Briseis in the Iliad, a struggle over a woman could central to the struggle between Agamemnon and Achilles for authority.
Clytemnestra, especially in the Electra plays, sees the sacrifice of Iphigenia as senseless. She see no reason why someone else couldn't have been sacrificed. A daughter of Menelaus would have been more reasonable, since the war is being fought on his account. But, in some sense, the sacrifice of Iphigenia instead of her marriage helps to consolidate Agamemnon's authority at Aulis. Likewise, Aegisthus' efforts to prevent the marriage of Electra (daughter of the previous king) to anyone of consequence is essential to the preservation of Aegisthus' authority in Argos.
A similar rule of succession seems to operate in Euripides' The Phoenician Women, in which Creon is to gain his right to reign by his son Haemon's marriage to Antigone.
Creon to Oedipus:
Eteocles, your son, gave me the rule over this land, and made that rule the dowry for Haemon's marriage with Antigone.
It would be consistent with the tensions of
Sophocles' play Antigone if the authority were to
devolve on the husband rather than the father-in-law of
Antigone; but clearly the legitimate right to rule in Thebes is
dependent on marriage to her, just as in the previous generation
whoever married Jocasta became king.
The variants of the Pelops/Atreus/Agamemnon mythos are centered around certain women as the symbols of legitimate authority. From this mythos and from the genealogies of the reigning houses of Thebes, the house of Perseus in Argos, and the house of Pandion in Megara, along with numerous other less complete genealogies culled primarily from the tragedies, Apollodorus, and Pausanias, the following two rules of succession apply:
1) If you reign through marriage or by choice
of the populace you rule until your death and you should be
succeeded by your eldest son; but whoever marries your widow may
also assert a claim to the throne.
2) If you reign through inheritance, you hold the crown only until such time as your daughter marries. Then you are succeeded immediately by the husband of your daughter, even if you have a son.
3) If you have no daughter, then rule 1 in applies.
4) If you have no son, then rule 2 applies.
5) If the ruling family dies out, the people choose the new king (e.g., Neleus, Alcathous, and Atreus).
In all cases, the wife of the legitimate king is the symbol of his power, even if he inherited the throne.
In cases, of disputes among brothers, one or more brothers may marry or seduce close relatives to strengthen their claim to the throne.
These principles provide some insight into why kings sometimes seek to impregnate their daughters (Oenomaus -- Hippodamia) or to prevent their daughters from marrying (Atalanta and Danae), and also why the brother of a king who dies may marry the dead king's daughter (his niece) to firmly establish his right to the throne. (For instance, in the Odyssey, in Phaeacia, King Nausithous is succeeded by his eldest son, Rhexenor, who has a daughter, Arete. When King Rhexenor dies, Alcinous, his younger brother, marries Arete and hence becomes king).
Instances of incest and intense jealousies and disproportionate reactions to adultery fit into the pattern suggested by these rules.
In cases where the ruler is illegitimate according to these rules, he tends to seek the marriage or seduction or death of the woman who is the symbol of legitimate authority (cf. Euripides' Heracles, in which the usurper, Lycus, pursues Megara, daughter of Creon and wife of Heracles).
In the case of life-long rivals to a throne, the pretender tends to have strong credentials to back his persistence, perhaps a more legitimate claim than the ruler (e.g., Eurystheus and Heracles, where, by these rules, Heracles should reign; and legend records that Eurystheus got the throne only because Hera interfered with the natural process of birth and made Eurystheus a "seven-month child." (Apollodorus, Loeb edition, vol. 1 p. 167)
When there's more than one version of a given story, the versions almost always remain true to these rules of succession. For instance, according to Apollodorus, Danae was imprisoned by her father when after asking the oracle "how he should get male children" he heard in reply "that his daughter would give birth to a son who would kill him." (Apollodorus, Loeb edition, vol. 1, p. 153) She does give birth to a son after being seduced. In one version the seducer is Zeus "in the shape of a stream of gold." In another version, the seducer is Proetus, the twin brother of her father Acrisius who is contending with him for the right to the throne. In either case, considering the rules of succession, the father's distress at having only a daughter and his apprehension that this daughter might marry are understandable. In addition, Proetus, by seducing his niece, consolidates claim to the throne. Perseus, the son of Danae, at first succeeds to his grandfather Acrisius' throne, then quickly trades kingdoms with Megapenthes, son of Proetus, supposedly from shame at having caused his grandfather's death.
In some cases, the extant versions of the myths do not provide enough information to determine if they follow these rules. We may not know whether a son succeeded in the absence of a marriageable daughter or despite the existence of such a daughter.
And some cities follow a strictly paternal line of succession. For instance, in Athens, the line of Capaneus -- Sthenelus is patrilinear. And in Phthia, Aecus rules, followed by his son Peleus rules. And he would have been succeeded by his son Achilles, who would have been succeeded by his son Pyrrhus (Neoptolemus) had they lived. And in Troy, Tros rules and is succeeded by his son Dardanus, who is succeeded by his son Laomedon, who is succeeded by his son Priam. And in Ithaca, Acrisius rules and is succeeded by his son Laertes, who is succeeded by Odysseus. But in Odysseus absence it is unclear whether the new husband of his widow Penelope or his son Telemachus will rule next.
Also, generations described as preceding the founding of the cities inherit patrilinearly, and in some cases the kings have many wives (e.g., Danaus and Aegyptus), instead of one official wife and numerous concubines/slaves. After the slaughter of 49 of Aegyptus' sons, marriages become monogamous and the line of succession begins to follow the rules outlined above.
Hympernestra marries her cousin Lynceus, and he succeeds her father Danaus on the throne of Argolis. He is then succeeded by his son Abas, who is succeeded by the twins Acrisius and Proetus, whose struggle for power involving Danae is outlined above.
In addition, the rules begin to break down after the Trojan War. Clytemnestra, in Euripides' Electra, objects to the introduction of polygamy. The plot of Andromache centers around polygamous jealousy. The Oresteia ends with the establishment of patrilinear law, with Orestes succeeding to his father's throne in Argos. In some versions of the story, Hermione, the only child of Menelaus and Helen, marries Pyrrhus (Neoptolemus), son of Achilles and lives with him in his kingdom of Phthia until his murder, either by Orestes or by Andromache (widow of Hector). She then marries Orestes, who eventually succeeds to the throne of Sparta. And in the Odyssey, Megapenthes, son of Menelaus and a slave of his, is the recognized heir-apparent in Sparta.
Pausanias explains the succession in Sparta thus:
"When Orestes became king of the Lacedaemonians, they themselves consented to accept him; for they considered that the sons of the daughter of Tyndareus had a claim to the throne prior to that of Nicostratus and Megapenthes, who were sons of Menelaus by a slave woman. On the death of Orestes, there succeed to the throne Tisamenus, the son of Orestes and of Hermione, the daughter of Menelaus." (Pausanias, Loeb edition, vol. 1, p. 341)
It was during the reign of Tisamenus, grandson of both Agamemnon and Menelaus, that the Heraclidae returned and conquered Hellas, bringing an end to the heroic age. (Pausanias, Loeb edition, vol. 1 pp. 341-343)
(The succession rules for the gods are indeterminate. Chronus succeeds Uranus, but it is unclear whether that is because he is Uranus' son and/or because he married his sister Rhea and/or by right of conquest. Likewise Zeus succeeds Chronus, but it is unclear whether that is because he is Chronus' son and/or because he married his sister Hera and/or by right of conquest.)
The alternating pattern of succession (by inheritance and by marriage) seems to be a compromise between matrilinear and patrilinear systems. With periodic contests to earn the right to marry the woman who is the symbol of authority, this system promotes a meritocracy -- the rule of those most fit to rule. Such a system would avoid the danger of a weak king inheriting, which frequently occurs in a strictly hereditary system.
It appears that these myths may be legal in origin. They serve as legal precedents for a pre-literate age, establishing the law of legitimate succession to the throne, in all its variants, with warnings of the consequences of breaking the rules.
In some cases, local legends have been combined to form a coherent narrative. For instance, Argos seems to have four or five separate reigning families that appear to have ruled simultaneously, presumably over small sections of the region of Argolis. Or, perhaps, the histories of four or five separate dynasties that reigned in succession have been telescoped together. Sometimes, too, it seems that heroes and their fathers accumulate on the rosters of great expeditions/events, such as the voyage of the Argo, the Calydonian Boar Hunt, Seven Against Thebes, and the Epigoni. Heracles and Theseus always come to the rescue, later writers, trying to reconcile temporally incompatible events, may shift whole dynasties back and forth in time to put the desired hero in the right place at the right time or to make sense of the distortions introduced by previous writers.
But you would expect writers in the patrilinear Periclean age to distort the old stories to conform to a patrilinear pattern. And, instead, they scrupulously preserve the alternating pattern that prevails in the classic myths. In some cases, the very inexplicability of a detail or a sequence of action in the traditional material they are working with serves as a useful tool for the dramatist. Sophocles uses such details to add an aura of supernatural mystery, as in the sacrifice of Iphigenia and the incest of Oedipus and Jocasta. And Euripides uses such details for their dramatic potential and for the paradoxical fun of it (as in Helen, as described above). Hence story elements that confirm the rules, and that originally may have had significance as legal precedents, are preserved for their narrative value -- putting women and hence love and jealousy at center stage, together with greed and lust for power.