In Greek mythology, Aerope was a daughter of Catreus, the king of Crete, and sister to Clymene, Apemosyne and Althaemenes. She was the wife of Atreus (or Pleisthenes), and by most accounts the mother of Agamemnon and Menelaus.
Aerope's father was Catreus, the son of Minos, and king of Crete. Catreus had two other daughters, Clymene and Apemosyne, and a son Althaemenes. According to the tradition followed by Sophocles in his play Ajax and by Euripides in his lost play Cretan Women (Kressai), Catreus found Aerope in bed with a slave and handed her over to Nauplius to be drowned, but Nauplius spared Aerope's life and she married Atreus, the son of Pelops, and king of Mycenae, though in the version of the story used by Euripides, she married Pleisthenes instead.
However, Apollodorus tells us that Catreus received an oracle saying that he would be killed by one of his children, so Catreus gave Aerope and her sister Clymene to Nauplius to be sold off in foreign lands (Aerope's brother Althaemenes had found out about the prophecy and fearing that he would be the one to kill Catreus, took Aerope's other sister Apemosyne with him and fled Crete for Rhodes). But Nauplius kept Clymene for himself and Aerope married Pleisthenes, by whom she became the mother of Agamemnon and Menelaus.
From Crete, Aerope was taken to Mycenae. And there she became, according to most accounts, the mother of Agamemnon and Menelaus. Their father was either Atreus or Pleisthenes, who was Atreus' son, according to some.
For Homer, Agamemnon and Menelaus were the sons of Atreus and Aerope. And although in Euripides' Cretan Women, and the passage by Apollodorus cited above, Aerope was the wife of Pleisthenes, with Apollodorus saying that Pleisthenes was the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, elsewhere both Euripides and Apollodorus follow Homer. Indeed most sources do so.
It is plausible that Aerope could have first married Pleisthenes and then Atreus, with Atreus adopting the children from the first marriage. And indeed some have asserted just this, though this may simply be an attempt to reconcile separate traditions.
Atreus and Thyestes
Aerope played a part in the struggle for power between Atreus and his twin brother Thyestes, and their subsequent blood feud. Atreus and Thyestes were the sons of Pelops and Hippodamia. Their desire for their father's throne led to the murder of their half-brother Chrysippus, because of which they were banished, and sought refuge in Mycenae. When the Perseid dynasty came to an end, the Myceneans received an oracle saying they should choose a son of Pelops as their king. Aerope and Thyestes, were lovers and Aerope stole the golden lamb from her husband Atreus and gave it to Thyestes, so that the Myceneans would choose Thyestes as their king.
According to Hyginus, Aerope was the mother by Thyestes of two sons, Tantalus and Plisthenes, and in Euripides' Cretan Women, it may have been these children that Atreus famously fed to Thyestes.
From Byzantine period annotations to Euripides' Orestes we learn that, in some unspecified Sophocles work, Atreus cast Aerope into the sea in revenge for her adultery and theft of the golden lamb.
Similarities with Auge and Danae
The stories told about Aerope, share elements with those told about Auge and Danae. These elements include, foretold killings, sexual impurity by daughters, and their subsequent punishment by their fathers, by being cast into the sea, or given away to be sold overseas.
Auge was the daughter of Aleus, king of Tegea, and the mother of the hero Telephus. According to one version of the story, Aleus had received an oracle that his sons would be killed by the son of Auge, so Aleus made Auge a priestess of Athena, requiring her to remain a virgin on pain of death. Nevertheless she became pregnant by Heracles. Then, by various accounts, she was either cast into the sea, or given to Nauplius to be either drowned or sold overseas, however she ended up in Mysia as the wife of King Teuthras.
Danae was the daughter of Acrisius, king of Argos, and the mother of the hero Perseus. An oracle told Acrisius that he would be killed by the son of Danae, so he locked her away. Nevertheless Danae became pregnant, by Zeus according to most accounts, and was cast into the sea by her father, but survived through the intercession of Zeus.
- Apollodorus, 3.2.1; Diodorus Siculus, 4.60.4. Pausanias, 8.53.4 says that, while the Cretans claim Catreus was the son of Minos, according to the Tegeans, Catreus was the son of Tegeates.
- Sophocles, Ajax 1295–1297 with Jebb's note to 1295. Euripides' treatment of the story is according to the scholiast on Sophocles' Ajax 1297, see Collard and Cropp, pp. 520–522, Jebb's note to Ajax 1295, Webster, pp. 37–38 and Gantz, I p. 271.
- Apollodorus, 3.2.
- Sources which explicitly name Aerope as the mother of Agamemnon and Menelaus include: (by Atreus) scholium on Homer's Iliad 1.7 and scholium on Tzetzes' commentary on Homer's Iliad (Most, pp. 204–205), Euripides, Helen 390–392, Orestes 16, Sophocles, Ajax 1290–1297, Apollodorus, E.2.10–12, E.3.12, Hyginus, Fabulae 97, and (by Pleisthenes) Apollodorus, 3.2.2 , Dictys Cretensis, 1.1 . Without naming a father, fragments from Hesiod's Catalogue of Women (Hes fr 195 MW, Most pp. 206–207) seem to make Aerope the mother of three sons Agamemnon, Menelaus (and Anaxibios?), see Gantz, II p. 552. Tzetzes, Exegesis in Iliadem 1.122 (Most, pp. 204–205), says that "according to Hesiod, Aeschylus, and some others," Cleolla, the daughter of Dias was (by Pleisthenes) the mother of Agamemnon and Menelaus.
- Tzetzes, Exegesis in Iliadem 1.122 (Most, pp. 204–205); Hyginus, Fabulae 86.
- Although Atreides, the standard Homeric epithet for Agamemnon or Menelaus, normally understood to mean "son of Atreus", can simply mean "descendant of Atreus", in some places Homer specifically refers to Agamemnon or Menelaus as a son of Atreus ("Ἀτρέος υἱέ") e.g. Iliad 11.131, Odyssey 4.462, see also Gantz, II p. 552, and Iliad 2.104 ff., and while Aerope is not mentioned in the Iliad or Odyssey, we hear from Iliad scholia that Homer (presumably elsewhere) names Aerope as their mother (Gantz, II p. 552), scholium on Homer's Iliad 1.7 and scholium on Tzetzes' commentary on Homer's Iliad (Most, pp. 204–205).
- Euripides, Helen 390–392, Orestes 16; Apollodorus, E.2.10–12, E.3.12.
- Tzetzes, Exegesis in Iliadem 1.122 (Most, pp. 204–205) says "according to the poet (i.e. Homer) and everyone" Agamemnon and Menelaus were the sons of Atreus. Aeschylus', Agamemnon also follows Homer, by making Agamemnon the son of Atreus 60, 1583, 1590, though compare with Agamemnon 1569, 1602, where a descent through some Pleisthenes, is indicated.
- Scholium on Homer's Iliad 1.7, scholium on Tzetzes' commentary on Homer's Iliad, Tzetzes, Exegesis in Iliadem 1.122 (Most, pp. 204–205).
- This come to us by way of Tzetzes, Exegesis in Iliadem 1.122 (Most, pp. 204–205). Tzetzes does not say where Aeschylus says this. As noted above, Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1569 and 1602 indicate a Pleisthenes somewhere in the ancestry of Agamemnon, and this may be the basis for Tzetzes' claim, though elsewhere in the same play Aeschylus says that Atreus is Agamemnon's father 60, 1583, 1590.
- Scholium on Homer's Iliad 2.249 (Gantz, II p. 552).
- Tzetzes, Exegesis in Iliadem 1.122 (Most, pp. 204–205), scholium on Homer's Iliad 2.249 (Gantz, II p. 552). See also Servius, Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil 1.458; Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1569, 1602.
- Dictys Cretensis, 1.1; scholium on Homer's Iliad 2.249; see Gantz, II p. 552; Tzetzes, Exegesis in Iliadem 1.122 (Most, pp. 204–205)
- Grimal, "Aerope" p. 22.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1219–1222, 1580 ff.; Euripides, Orestes 11 ff..
- Gantz, II p. 547; Plato, Cratylus 395b; Thucydides, 1.9; Hyginus, Fabulae 85.
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1191–1193; Euripides, Electra 719–725, Orestes 1009–1010; Apollodorus, E.2.10; Hyginus, Fabulae 86. A small "correction" of the text would make Sophocles, Ajax 1295–1297 a reference to the adultery of Aerope with Thyestes, see Gantz, II pp. 554– 555.
- Euripides, Electra 699–725, Orestes 15, 810 ff., 995 ff.; Plato, Statesman 268e; Apollodorus, E.2.10–12; Pausanias 2.18.1. For a discussion of the golden lamb, with many other sources, see Frazer's note to Apollodorus, E.2.12.
- Hyginus, Fabulae 246.
- Webster, pp. 38–39; Gantz, II pp. 546–547.
- For example see Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1219–1222, 1590 ff.; Euripides, Orestes 15, 810 ff., 995 ff.; Sophocles, Ajax 1293–1294; Plato, Cratylus 395b.
- Byzantine scholia at Orestes line 812, see Gantz, II pp. 548, 555 and Jebb's note to Ajax 1296.
- For a discussion of these themes in Greek myth and literature, see McHardy (2008).
- Alcidamas, Odysseus 14-16 (Garagin and Woodruff, p. 286); Apollodorus, 3.9.1.
- Euripides, Auge (Webster, p. 238; Strabo, 13.1.69); Hecataeus (Pausanias, 8.4.9).
- Alcidamas, Odysseus 15 (Garagin and Woodruff, p. 286); Pausanias, 8.48.7. Diodorus Siculus, 4.33.8.
- Apollodorus, 2.7.4.
- Apollodorus, 2.4.1; Hyginus, Fabulae 63. For Zeus being the father of Perseus see, for example, Homer, Iliad 14.312, Sophocles, Antigone 944 and Diodorus Siculus, 4.9.1.
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- Dictys Cretensis, The Trojan War. The Chronicles of Dictys of Crete and Dares the Phrygian, translated by R. M. Frazer (Jr.). Indiana University Press. 1966.
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- Euripides, Electra, Helen and Orestes, translated by E. P. Coleridge, in Volume 2 of The Complete Greek Drama, edited by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O'Neill, Jr. in two volumes. New York. Random House. 1938.
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- Grimal, Pierre, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Wiley-Blackwell, 1996, ISBN 978-0-631-20102-1.
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- Homer, The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.
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- Thucydides, Thucydides translated into English; with introduction, marginal analysis, notes, and indices. Volume 1, Benjamin Jowett. translator. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1881.
- Smith, William; Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, London (1873). "Ae'rope"
- Webster, Thomas Bertram Lonsdale, The Tragedies of Euripides, Methuen & Co, 1967 ISBN 978-0-416-44310-3.