The Oresteia Trilogy and the Curse on the House of Atreus

The events of The Oresteia Trilogy are the result of a curse on the House of Atreus. Research the Internet and recount the earlier events resulting from the curse. What do these events have to say about the importance of Fate in ancient Greek civilization? Where have we encountered the idea of Fate before?

Remember to quote from the readings to illustrate and prove your points, followed by MLA citation, both in-text and on a Works Cited page.


The curse of the House of Atreus plagued five generations of the family before Orestes finally put an end to it in the final play, The Eumenides, of Aeschylus’s Oresteia Trilogy. The importance of Orestes ending the curse is underscored by the fact that we refer to the trilogy of plays by his name, even though he is not in the first play, which is all about his father, Agamemnon.

It all started with Orestes’s great-great-grandfather, Tantalus, who “founded this woeful household of parricide, infanticide, cannibalism, incest and hubris” (Potter). Tantalus was a demi-god, son of Zeus, and king of Sipylos (in modern day Western Turkey). Tantalus decided to cook up his son, Pelops, and serve him to the gods to test if they were truly omniscient and would be able to tell it was a person they were eating. All of the gods passed Tantalus’s sick test and knew it was man-flesh they were being served—except for Demeter, who ate the roasted Pelops’s shoulder, because she was distracted as she recently lost her daughter Persephone to Hades. In anger, the gods resurrected Pelops, crafting him a new shoulder out of ivory, and sent Tantalus to Tartarus in the underworld. There, as punishment, Tantalus was stuck standing in a pool of water with fruit hanging above his head. Whenever he reached down to drink, the water would dry up; whenever he reached up to eat, the fruit would move out of his reach. “His plight was the basis for the English word based on his name, ‘tantalize’” (Mabey).

Tantalus started the curse on his family, but each male along the line for those five generations perpetuated it. In fact, it was the actions of Pelops, resurrected son of Tantalus, which resulted in the actual formal curse. Pelops wanted to marry Hippodameia, daughter of Oenomaus, king of Pisa, the area in ancient Greece which included Olympia. Oenomaus was paranoid of his daughter marrying anyone, however, as he had received a prophecy that his son-in-law would be the death of him. Other versions of the story have Oenomaus incestuously lusting for his daughter and not wanting to share her with anyone. So, Oenomaus challenged each of Hippodameia’s previous suitors to a chariot race and killed them after he beat them. Pelops, however, cheated. Not only did he use a chariot provided by Poseidon, who favored him, but he also convinced Oenomaus’s charioteer to loosen the pins on his chariot. The loosened pins came undone during the race and Oenomaus was dragged to death, but not before cursing Pelops and his entire house.

The idea of a curse following a family line goes hand-in-hand with the idea of Fate, which was obviously very heavy on the minds of the ancient Greeks. The same idea of family curses and fated doom can be found in several places of the Old Testament, most notably Exodus 34:7: “Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear [the guilty]; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth [generation].”


Works Cited

King James Bible. “Bible Versus About Sins of the Father.” King James Bible Online. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.

Mabey, Trenton. “Who Was Atreus? – Mythology & Curse.” Web. 25 Nov. 2015.

Potter, Ben. “Agamemnon and the Cursed House of Atreus.” 2013. Classical Wisdom Weekly. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.


The Oresteia Trilogy and the Curse on the House of Atreus

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