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In Greek mythology, Thyestes (pronounced //, Greek: Θυέστης, [tʰyéstɛːs]) was the son of Pelops and Hippodamia. He was a king of Olympia and father of Pelopia and Aegisthus. Thyestes and his brother, Atreus, were exiled by their father for having murdered their half-brother, Chrysippus, in their desire for the throne of Olympia. They took refuge in Mycenae, where they ascended the throne upon the absence of King Eurystheus, who was fighting the Heracleidae. Eurystheus had meant for their lordship to be temporary; it became permanent because of his death in conflict.
The most popular representation of Thyestes is that of the play Thyestes by Seneca in 62 C.E. This play is one of the originals for the revenge tragedy genre. Although inspired by Greek mythology and legend, Seneca's version is different.
Pelops and Hippodamia are parents to Thyestes. However, they were cursed by Myrtilus, a servant of King Oenomaus and father to Hippodamia. Myrtilus was promised the right to Hippodamia's virginity, but Pelops denied him it and killed Myrtilus. With his dying gasp, Myrtilus cursed their line, which is where Thyestes and Atreus comes in.
Thyestes' brother and King of Mycenae, Atreus, vowed to sacrifice his best lamb to Artemis. Upon searching his flock, however, Atreus discovered a golden lamb which he gave to his wife, Aerope, to hide from the goddess. She gave it to her lover, Thyestes, who then convinced Atreus to agree that whoever had the lamb should be king. Thyestes produced the lamb and claimed the throne.
Atreus retook the throne using advice he received from Hermes. Thyestes agreed to give the kingdom back when the sun moved backwards in the sky, a feat that Zeus accomplished. Atreus retook the throne and banished Thyestes.
Atreus then learned of Thyestes' and Aerope's adultery and plotted revenge. He killed Thyestes' sons and cooked them, save their hands and heads. He served Thyestes his own sons and then taunted him with their hands and heads. This is the source of modern phrase "Thyestean Feast," or one at which human flesh is served. When Thyestes was done with his feast, he released a loud belch, which represents satiety and pleasure and his loss of self control.
An oracle then advised Thyestes that, if he had a son with his own daughter Pelopia, that son would kill Atreus. Thyestes did so by raping Pelopia (his identity hidden from her) and the son, Aegisthus, did kill Atreus. However, when Aegisthus was first born, he was abandoned by his mother, ashamed of the origin of her son. A shepherd found the infant Aegisthus and gave him to Atreus, who raised him as his own son. Only as he entered adulthood did Thyestes reveal the truth to Aegisthus, that he was both father and grandfather to the boy and that Atreus was his uncle. Aegisthus then killed Atreus.
While Thyestes ruled Mycenae, the sons of Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus, were exiled to Sparta. There, King Tyndareus accepted them as the royalty that they were. Shortly after, he helped the brothers return to Mycenae to overthrow Thyestes, forcing him to live in Cytheria, where he died. As a token of good will and allegiance, King Tyndareus offered his daughters to Agamemnon and Menelaus as wives, Clytemnestra and Helen respectively.
When Agamemnon left Mycenae for the Trojan War, Aegisthus seduced Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, and the couple plotted to kill her husband upon his return. They succeeded, killing Agamemnon and his new concubine, Cassandra. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus had three children: Aletes, Erigone, and Helen who died as an infant.
Seven or eight years after the death of Agamemnon, Agamemnon's son Orestes returned to Mycenae and, with the help of his cousin Pylades and his sister Electra, killed both their mother, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus.
However, other stories say that when Aletes and Erigone came of age and became rulers at Mycenae, Orestes returned with an army then killed his half-brother and raped his half-sister, who gave birth to a son, Penthilus.
In the first century AD, Seneca the Younger wrote a tragedy called Thyestes. In 1560 Jasper Heywood, then a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, published a verse translation. Shakespeare's tragedy Titus Andronicus derives some of its plot elements from the story of Thyestes. In 1681, John Crowne wrote Thyestes, A Tragedy, based closely on Seneca's Thyestes, but with the incongruous addition of a love story. Prosper Jolyot Crebillon (1674-1762) wrote a tragedy "Atree et Thyeste" (1707), which is prominent in two tales of ratiocination by Edgar Allan Poe. In 1796, Ugo Foscolo (1778–1827) wrote a tragedy called Tieste that was represented first in Venice one year later. Caryl Churchill, a British dramatist, also wrote a rendition of Thyestes. Caryl's specific translation was performed at the Royal Court Theater Upstairs in London on June 7, 1994 In 2004, Jan van Vlijmen (1935–2004) completed his opera Thyeste. The libretto was a text in French by Hugo Claus, based on his 20th century play with the same title (in Dutch: Thyestes). Thyestes appears in Ford Ainsworth's one-act play, Persephone.
An aspect of Thyestes that is not well understood is the existence of the Chorus, which, following Greek practice, appears after the first Act. This would explain why they are unaware of what happened with Tantalus and the Fury. Critics believe that this is due to the fact that Seneca expected the play to be acted out, which would explain the Chorus' ignorance throughout much of the play. The second chorus is unfamiliar with what happened in Act II because they were not present on stage at that time. This is why they were unaware of Atreus' true plans to trick Thyestes and feed him his own children. It was not until Act IV that they were told of Atreus' crimes by the messenger. Some critics think that the contrast between what the Chorus says and what actually happens is confusing to the audience, which is why the Chorus is the least understood aspect of Senecan dramas.
Inspiration for Literature
Seneca's influence in literature is reflected through other works. In Arnold's Sonnet on Shakespeare, the influence of Seneca is apparent. "The reminiscence of Atreus’ speech in the Thyestes of Seneca, which might subtend Cleopatra’s own passionate, distended rhetoric about Antony" (Edgecombe, 257).
- Bibliotheca Epitome 2.10-2.15
- Hyginus, Fabulae, 85: Chrysippus, 86:Sons of Pelops, 88:Atreus
- Aeschylus' Agamemnon
- Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter, 140
- Seneca; Churchill, Caryl. Thyestes. : Nick Hern Books, 2014. Ebook Library. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- Davis, P.J. "The Chorus In Seneca's Thyestes." Classical Quarterly 39.2 (1989): 421-435. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. "A Debt To Seneca In Arnold's Sonnet On Shakespeare." Notes And Queries 60.2 (2013): 258. Print.