Classical Mythology Class, Day 11

This class takes a break from considering single heroes to take a multi-generational view of one family. Such a view can help us to understand (1) how motifs and stages from the so-called heroic pattern can be recycled from one generation to the next and how (2) the Greeks integrate a theme of ‘ritual pollution’ (miasma) into mythical traditions. This family tree also echoes other narrative elements from the Eastern Mediterranean. We will start with a proto-‘Garden Eden’ narrative in the story of Tantalos and Pelops, continue with a Cain-and-Abel fraternal strife pattern with Atreus and Thyestes, and then culminate in an Abraham and Isaac child sacrifice narrative with Agamemnon and Iphigenia.

The multiforms of some of these stories also offer important reflections on gender and the heroic pattern, especially with details surrounding Hippodamia, Klytemnestra, and Iphigenia. The narrative gets particularly charged in the final generation when the story of Orestes’ vengeance for his father’s murder sets male and female against each other again, replaying the family drama from the Theogony when Orestes is required to kill his mother. In one of our primary versions of this myth, this conflict is adjudicated through the creation of trial-by-jury in Athens. While this provides a mythical etiology for the creation of human legal institutions, it also further downgrades the rights and importance of mothers and women in Ancient Greece.


Ancient Authors Discussed

Homer, Archaic Age

Pindar, Early Classical Period

Aeschylus, Classical Period

Euripides, Classical Period

Ovid, Roman Imperial Period

Apollodorus, Roman Imperial Period?


Some Suggested Course Texts

Apollodorus on Atreus and Family

Aeschylus, Agamemnon

Aeschylus, Eumenides

Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulus

Homer, Iliad 1.1-200 (For Agamemnon’s various comments on Chryseis and his wife)

Homer, Odyssey 11.390-450 (For Agamemnon’s Death)


Links to Blogposts

The Names of Agamemnon’s Daughters and the Death of Iphigenia

Pindar on the Death of Agamemnon

Agamemnon on Why We Disbelieve Women

Klytemnestra’s First Child

Agamemnon’s Various Homes

Modern Authors Mentioned

Sigmund Freud


Other Articles for Additional Reading

Molly Levine. “Iphigenia in Jerusalem: Sacrifice and Survival in Greek and Jewish Culture.” Eidolon March 22, 2018.

Froma I. Zeitlin. 1978. “The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth and Mythmaking in the Orestia.” Arethusa 11: 149-184.

Jacqueline Long. 2015. “Gender, Democracy, and the Justice of Athena’s Vote to Acquit Orestes.” Text and Presentation 12: 57-69.

Edith Hall. 2012. Women’s Adventures with Iphigenia. Oxford.


Similar Tales

The Binding of Isaac

Cain and Abel


Student Links



Image result for Iphigenia
“Sacrifice of Iphigenia”, Jan Stein (Leiden, 1671)

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