Innocent Blood: The Dynastic ἦθος of the Tantalean Line

© 2012

“…Artemis the undefiled
is angered with pity
at the flying hounds of her father
eating the unborn young in the hare and the shivering mother.
She is sick at the eagles’ feasting.
Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.” (Ag. 133-39)

Appearing within the parados of Agamemnon, the wrath and pity of Artemis awakens upon an omen of two eagles feasting upon a pregnant hare and its young; within the finale of Hippolytus, the goddess’ anger is incurred, once again, upon the event of a wrongful death. While wrongful deaths permeate much of Athenian tragedy, the aforementioned paired deaths are significant for something beyond the incitation of the virgin’s goddess’ fury: in both situations, a male father of the Tantalean dynastic line causes the death in question—Agamemnon in his titular play, and Theseus within Hippolytus—a death, coincidentally, related to one of their own flesh and blood. Both men appear to fall within a trap, seemingly fated—even commanded—to destroy their own kin because of their own accursed blood: the blood of Tantalus.

In attempting to draw any sort of parallel between these two events, the first question to be addressed is, perhaps, the most obvious: what is significant about the two men’s tie to Tantalus? On a purely superficial level, the answer appears within the very text of Agamemnon:

“The truth stands ever beside God’s throne
eternal: he who has wrought shall pay, that is law.
Then who shall tear the curse from their blood?
The seed is stiffened to ruin.” (Ag. 1563-1566)

The Curse of the Tantalean Line—often called the Pelopian Line or the Curse of Atreus—is the poetic backbone of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy (Peradotto 237), thus it is unsurprising that it should hold such a prominent role within Agamemnon. Within Hippolytus, however, though Theseus’ blood-ties to the Tantalean line is briefly referenced (Hip. 24), the dynastic curse itself is never mentioned. On a surface level, it would appear that the curse bears neither weight nor significance with the death of Hippolytus. The matter is, of course, the other way around; the manner of the death of Hippolytus, at the hands of his own father, gives sufficient enough evidence that Theseus possesses the curse of his lineage.

Thus the most important, question to be answered within this paper is revealed to be the very definition of the core problem: What is the true dynastic curse of the Tantalean line? While the resulting perversion of familial relationships is apparent in the two fathers’ slaughter of their own respective children, a fundamental definition of the curse is surprisingly elusive. As Agamemnon is more closely aligned with the curse in literature, his involvement with the portent of the eagles within Aeschylus’ tragedy serves as the proper base for forming a definition of the curse itself and providing an answer to this paper’s second inquiry.

Agamemnon, as presented through his actions involving the eagle portent, perpetuates this dynastic stain upon his house; as previously stated, he is the core problem at the heart of The Oresteia for which the trilogy must, and does, supply an eventual solution. An Aeschylan audience would have been familiar with the Homeric Agamemnon, a man whose ferocity towards the Trojans knew no bounds, stemming even to those yet born (Il. 6.57-60); his physical introduction into the play, therefore, is properly delayed and the Mycenaean, now-Argive, king first appears within the Chorus’ parados as the center of a gruesome song detailing his sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigeneia (Ag. 218-48), which has been precipitated by a pivotal event: two eagles swoop down and, “watched by all/ [tear] a hare, ripe, bursting with young unborn yet,/ stayed from her last fleet running” (Ag. 118-20). This single act of seemingly natural violence prompts Artemis to take action against the Agamemnon and his Argive host. Why? Artemis hates the eagles because they typify the Atreidae (Ag. 123). If the eagles, therefore, typify the Atreidae, particularly Agamemnon, then there exists something associated with the dramatic content of the omen which is considered guilty in Artemis’ eyes.

The Omen of the Eagles, as a passage of such prime importance, remains one of intense debate. Within his piece, “Why is Artemis Angry?”, William Whallon explored the virgin goddess’ reaction beyond the initially textually-obvious:

“The problem, is why Artemis should require atonement…The devouring of the hare is most understandably seen as the sacrifice of Iphigeneia or the children of Thyestes told in other terms.”

Whallon’s thesis offers two potential motivating factors for the anger of Artemis: the vicious killing of the hare and her young can represent the (a) sacrificial slaughter of Iphigeneia or (b) murder of Thyestes’ children by Atreus. Dr. John Peradotto took this initial observation a step further in his own essay, “The Omen of the Eagles and the ΗΘΟΣ of Agamemnon” by concluding that the omen of the eagles and the hare not only represented the (a) imminent sacrificial slaughter of Iphigeneia, and (b) murder of the progeny of Thyestes, but that it also represented the (c) harm that would be done to innocent non-combatants at Troy. This three-pronged theory illuminates a potentially overlooked detail of the entire incident: Artemis, herself, demands nothing of Agamemnon.

As the protectorate goddess of the innocent youth as well as fertility (Callimachus Hymn III.24-8), Artemis would certainly recoil from the murder of Thyestes’ children, the imminent sacrifice of Iphigeneia, and the future slaughter of numerous innocents at Troy. It would, therefore, seem counterproductive and even hypocritical of her to command Iphigeneia’s sacrifice of Agamemnon; thus, she does not. What Artemis does is, by summoning up terrible winds and delaying the king (Ag. 191-95), create a situation in which Agamemnon is presented with a choice on whether or not to abandon his own hunt. Agamemnon chooses the slaughter.

In his decision to sacrifice Iphigeneia and pursue the war at Troy, Agamemnon suffers no external coercion, despite the implication of demand from the goddess by the seer, Calchas in the parados (Ag. 151), and his choice depends less upon Artemis and more upon the kind of man he is—his behavioral and moral judgment (ἦθος). Thus, both the omen and Agamemnon’s subsequent actions reveal the source of the curse of the Tantalean line: an inherited, dynastic ἦθος of the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent youth in pursuit of personal gain. It is this ἦθος to which Artemis reacts and abhors and it is this ἦθος that is the source of all three acts symbolized by the portent of the eagles.

With this definition of the curse of the line of Tantalus established, and demonstrated, through Agamemnon, it can now be applied and further demonstrated, though with slight alterations, within Hippolytus.

Contrastingly with Agamemnon, Theseus’ own display and self-fulfillment of the Tantalean ῆθος not only appears much later in his respective play, Hippolytus, but occurs under far different circumstances. Upon discovering the corpse of his now-late wife, Phaedra (Hipp. 817-31), Theseus, like Agamemnon, enters a situation in which he must make a choice: to fulfill the curse of his blood, or to reject the established ἦθος of violence; the life of one of his innocent progeny depends upon his decision for, in his hands, Theseus holds supposed handwritten evidence of Hippolytus’ “guilt” (Hipp. 856-65). In a violent parallel to his cousin, and without any moral qualm or debate, Theseus sacrifices his own son:

“Father Poseidon, once you gave to me
Three curses…Now with one of these, I pray,
Kill my son. Suffer him not to escape,
This very day, if you have promised truly.” (Hipp. 887-90)

Nothing, not even the Chorus leader can dissuade Theseus from this horrid act against his own blood—“I will not” he responds (892)—and the result, as in Agamemnon is the hunt-like slaughter of an innocent youth: Hippolytus is slain by the inextricable machinations of his own father (Hipp. 1173-247).

It is no coincidence within the play that Hippolytus favors, and is favored by, Artemis; a chaste, almost monastic virginal man, Hippolytus forms a male counterpart to Iphigeneia, both of whom pay a deadly price for the crime of descent from a father willing to indiscriminately sacrifice them for personal gain.

As with the Omen of the Eagles, Artemis, in Hippolytus, rejects the fruition of the dynastic ἦθος of the line of Tantalus, which turns itself against innocent non-combatants, particularly youths. Where in Hippolytus the goddess appears physically to speak for herself as opposed to the oracular interpretations in Agamemnon, her message that she delivers unto Theseus is applicable to both the king of Athens and the king of Argos:

“You have murdered [your child], you have broken nature’s laws” (Hipp. 1287).

Nature’s law—the law of the sanctity of blood relations, especially those of parent-to-child, cannot remain sacred in the Tantalean line; its curse supersedes and destroys it, for those within its line choose to maintain its sovereignty.

With both the results of Agamemnon and Hippolytus in mind, the true tragedy—the most tragic aspect of the curse of the Tantalean line, of the violent dynastic ἦθος, is that the choice is free; what follows is necessity; man—in the case of these two plays, Agamemnon and Theseus—is responsible for the inception or application. Both kings and, consequently, their innocent progeny are tragic victims of their own vicious behaviors and judgments; they have not escaped their bloodline’s curse.



Aeschylus. “Agamemnon.” Aeschylus I: Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides. Richmond Lattimore, translator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Callimachus. “III: Hymn to Artemis.” Callimachus: Hymns and Epigrams, Lycrophon, Aratus. A.W. & G.R. Loeb, translators. London: William Heinemann, 1921. (available at:

Eurpides. “Hippolytus.” Euripides I: Alcestis, The Medea, The Heracleidae, Hippolytus, David Grene, translator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Homer. The Iliad. Richmond Lattimore, translator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Peradotto, John J. “The Omen of the Eagles and the ΗΘΟΣ of Agamemnon.”  Phoenix 23.3 (1969): 237-263.

Whallon, William. “Why is Artemis Angry?” American Journal of Philology 82.4 (1961): 78-88. qtd. in Peradotto, John J. “The Omen of the Eagles and the ΗΘΟΣ of Agamemnon.”  Phoenix 23.3 (1969): 237-263.


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