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
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
Modern Authors Mentioned
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.