In Greek mythology,
Thyestes (pronounced /θaɪˈɛstiːz/, 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
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 AD. This play is one of the originals for the
revenge tragedy genre. Although inspired by
Greek mythology and
legend, Seneca's version is different.
3 Inspiration for Literature
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Hippodamia are parents to Thyestes. However, they were
cursed by Myrtilus, a servant of King Oenomaus, the father of
Myrtilus was promised the right to Hippodamia's virginity
and half of Pelops' kingdom, but
Pelops denied both to him and killed
him by throwing him into the sea. With his dying gasp,
their line, which is where
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
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
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
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
Atreus was his uncle.
Aegisthus then killed Atreus.
Thyestes ruled Mycenae, the sons of Atreus,
Menelaus, were exiled to Sparta. There, King
Tyndareus accepted them
as the royalty that they were. Shortly after, he helped the brothers
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
Menelaus as wives,
Clytemnestra and Helen respectively.
Mycenae for the Trojan War,
Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, and the couple plotted to kill her
husband upon his return. They succeeded, killing
Agamemnon and his new
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
Tired of the bloodshed, the gods exonerated Orestes and declared this
the end of the curse on the house of Atreus, as described in
Aeschylus' play The Eumenides.
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
In the first century AD,
Seneca the Younger
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 first presented in
year later. Caryl Churchill, a British dramatist, also wrote a
rendition of Thyestes. Churchill'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.
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
Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter, 140
^ Seneca; Churchill, Caryl. Thyestes. : Nick Hern Books, 2014.
Ebook Library. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
^ Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. "A Debt To Seneca In Arnold's Sonnet On
Shakespeare." Notes And Queries 60.2 (