Table of Contents



Print Sources:

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. Two volumes. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Mentor Books, 1955.

Harsh, Philip. An Anthology of Roman Drama. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1965.
(Selections from Thyestes are translated by Ella Harris.]

One classical Roman dramatist (Seneca) greatly influenced English tragedy, especially in the development of the ever -popular revenge tragedy. Although Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is much closer physically to Thyestes than Hamlet, both plays dramatize unbridled revenge. Seneca's Thyestes was the prototype and the model from which dramatists drew inspiration. Seneca ( 3 BCE to 65 AD) blended grotesque physical horror anticipating the "slasher" movies of our day, with allusions to stoic philosophy. In the Renaissance, Marlowe, Kyd and Shakespeare will perfect the form.

Study suggestions. As you read the selections below, consider the following:

Be able to discuss the following:

Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves provide needed background....

Hamilton: (p. 236ff.)

THE HOUSE OF ATREUS was an ill-fated house. The cause of all the misfortunes was held to be an ancestor, a King of Lydia named Tantalus, who brought upon himself a most terrible punishment by a most wicked deed. That was not the end of the matter. The evil he started went on after his death. His descendants also did wickedly and were punished. A curse seemed to hang over the family, making men sin in spite of themselves and bringing suffering and death down upon the innocent as well as the guilty. Tantalus was the son of Zeus and honored by the gods beyond all the mortal children of Zeus. They allowed him to eat at their table, to taste the nectar and ambrosia which except for him alone none but the immortals could partake of. They did more; they came to a banquet in his palace; they condescended to dine with him. In return for their favor he acted so atrociously that no poet ever tried to explain his conduct. He had his only son Pelops killed, boiled in a great cauldron, and served to the gods. Apparently he was driven by a passion of hatred against them which made him willing to sacrifice his son in order to bring upon them the horror of being cannibals. It may be, too, that he wanted to show in the most startling and shocking way possible how easy it was to deceive this awful, venerated, humbly adored divinities. In his scorn of the gods and his measureless self-confidence he never dreamed that his guests would realize what manner of food he had set before them. He was a fool. The Olympians knew. They drew back from the horrible banquet and they turned upon the criminal who had contrived it. He should be so punished, they declared, that no man to come, hearing what this man had suffered, would dare ever again to insult them. They set the arch-sinner in a pool in Hades, but whenever in his tormenting thirst he stooped to drink he could not reach the water. It disappeared, drained into the ground as he bent down. When he stood up it was there again. Over the pool fruit trees hung heavy laden with pears, pomegranates, rosy apples, sweet figs. Each time he stretched out his hand to grasp them the wind tossed them high away out of reach. Thus he stood forever, his undying throat always a thirst, his hunger in the midst of plenty never satisfied. His son Pelops was restored to life by the gods, but they had to fashion a shoulder for him out of ivory. One of the goddesses, some say Demeter, some Thetis, inadvertently had eaten of the loathsome dish and when the boy's limbs were reassembled one shoulder was wanting... To Pelops two sons were born, Atreus and Thyestes. The inheritance of evil descended to, them in full force. Thyestes fell in love with his brother's wife and succeeded in making her false to her marriage vows. Atreus found out and swore that Thyestes should pay as no man ever had. He killed his brother's two little children, had them cut limb from limb, boiled, and served up to their father...Atreus was King. Thyestes crime was not avenged in Atreus’ lifetime, but his children’s children suffered.


Graves suggests (Volume 1, p.141) the origin of the myth stemmed from the mythologists' revulsion at cannibalistic practices in ancient Greece.