CAVEAT EMPTOR: The following post will contain spoilers related to plot and character arcs through Season 5 of Game of Thrones, as well as The Oresteia by Aeschylus. Read on at your own risk.
“Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.” (Ag. 139)
Game of Thrones has had its share of what could be called “wrongful” deaths — trying to tally up the names would take a great deal of thought, time, and blank paper — but there has only been one that struck me particularly hard. It was last year, in Season 5. It was a death so shockingly wrong, that it had me shouting (mostly profanity) at my television, feeling more than a little gutted and nauseous as it progressed and reached its agonizing conclusion.
The immolation of Shireen Baratheon is one of those pivotal moments in the show that is not present within the original narrative by George R.R. Martin, thus making it one for which I was not emotionally prepared.* It did, however, set off some alarm bells in my head in its similarity to a particularly famous tragic Greek myth: the House of Atreus. In fact, the more I looked at both the House of Atreus and the House Baratheon, the more eerie similarities seemed to appear between the two fictional dynasties., with some admitted variations.
I don’t think this sequence’s comparison to Greek myth is an accident given that David Benioff, one of the two showrunners for the series, has dabbled in the topic before. In fact, he was writing on the Trojan War mythos when he wrote the screenplay for the 2004 film, Troy. My thoughts on that adaptation aside, Troy is evidence enough to me that Benioff is familiar with the Atreus myth, and could have logically taken the opportunity to draw parallels not only between these two moments, but between the Houses Baratheon and Atreus.
*Nota bene: I am now aware that Benioff and Weiss were told by George R.R. Martin that this event is to occur, eventually, within the novels, however I began this post before that information was made readily available. Either way, my evaluation of Benioff’s familiarity with the story of Atreus still stands.
I suppose I should answer the question: who are the House of Atreus? Well, funny story, it doesn’t actually start with Atreus — and while going through his predecessors is actually relevant to a long-winded analysis of the dynastic curse of the House of Atreus, it’s not too important to the specific parallels I’m going to make, so we’re going to just skip straight down to Atreus.
Atreus was a son of Pelops and Hippodameia, along with his brothers, Thyestes and Chrysippos. Chrysippos is sometimes listed as a half-brother, but whatever his blood-status, the important thing is that he dies. In one version he kills himself, in another he is killed by both Atreus and Thyestes. In both cases, Atreus and Thyestes are banished to Mykenai, where the two brothers then jockeyed for power over the city-state. Thyestes won through trickery — mainly by cozying up to Atreus’ wife, Aerope — and claimed the throne. It didn’t last long, however, as Atreus retook the throne of Mykenai with some help from the gods.
But, as usual, it doesn’t stop there. When Atreus discovered his wife’s infidelity with Thyestes, he decided to get revenge. He killed Thyestes’ sons, cooked them up, and served them to Thyestes — oh, but he did save their hands and feet so that he could torment his brother, after Thyestes had eaten part of the food. Because he had eaten the flesh of a human, Thyestes was banished from Mykenai.
Let’s look at the House Baratheon — specifically, Stannis, the second of the three Baratheon brothers. While he never did anything as horrific as killing his brothers’ children, Stannis did use them as a sacrifices. Think back to Season 4 of Game of Thrones, when Gendry (bastard son of his brother, Robert) and Melisandre had a (*ahem*) moment in Episode 8. While many may have worried that she was going to sacrifice poor Gendry to the Red God, R’hllor, she, instead, drew blood via leeches to use in a sacrificial ritual. Gendry was used in order to bring death to “the usurper, Robb Stark; the usurper, Balon Greyjoy; the usurper, Joffrey Baratheon.” Of course, there is the tiny little detail that, two episodes later, he decides he will sacrifice Gendry after all, but Davos swoops in to save the day and, for the moment, that crisis is wholly averted. Stannis is very much our Atreus in this case: sacrificing his brother’s children for the sake of revenge against a wrongdoing in the struggle for power.
“Alas, poor men, their destiny. When all goes well a shadow will overthrow it.” (Ag. 1322-3)
Here’s where it starts to get a little fun, because the Baratheon link to the brothers Atreus and Thyestes goes even deeper when considering the method by which Stannis brings about the death of his brother, Renly. While Atreus never killed Thyestes, his children, Agamemnon and Menelaos, were instrumental in bringing about Thyestes’ downfall. The brothers hung out in Sparta upon the murder of their father, and got the help of its king, Tyndareus, in eventually overthrowing Thyestes and forcing him from the city. Thrones takes the original Atreidai story and ramps it up a notch with the inclusion of magic, a shadow-baby assassin, and death as opposed to exile. Renly lays claim to the Iron Throne, something for which Stannis, too, lays a power-claim; given Renly’s more personable disposition, and his recent alliance with House Tyrell, it would seem that he has the advantage. He’s the Thyestes of this story: charismatic, charming, and good with words — all three of these being qualities that Stannis noticeably lacks. In order to defeat his brother once and for all, Stannis turns to his children — er, well, okay, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Stannis teams up with the red priestess, Melisandre, and together they conceive a shadow assassin, which Melisandre births for the sole purpose of killing Renly. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Mad, doesn’t that mean Stannis is more like Thyestes, fathering a child for the sole purpose of killing his brother? Yes, that parallel is certainly present, but I’m going to tie a different character to Aegisthus a little later, so let’s just say he’s on the back-burner and not really available to us for this current comparison. The shadow assassin kills Renly, avenging the slight to its “father” and clearing the path for Stannis to continue in his quest for power.
Going back to Atreus and Thyestes: after the latter was initially exiled from Mykenai, he had one more son, Aegisthus, who, as an adult, killed Atreus to take the throne. And, as mentioned above, it might have worked had Atreus’ two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaos, not come back to claim their father’s throne and rout Aegisthus from the city.
You might remember the Menelaos’ wife, Helen, for sparking a war between the the nation of Troy and the city-states Mykenai and Sparta, along with their allies. Not too unlike Lyanna Stark, who sparked Robert’s Rebellion by running off with (or being taken by) Rhaegar Targaryen. (I could launch into a long-winded comparison of the Trojan War and Robert’s Rebellion, but let’s keep the focus on what came after that.)
When Agamemnon and Menelaus needed to get to Troy, they didn’t have ideal weather conditions: Artemis was angry, and Agamemnon was informed by an seer that he needed to sacrifice his most precious thing as a result. That “most precious thing” was Agamemnon’s first-born daughter, Iphigeneia. He brought her to him, despite the protests of his queen, Klytaimnestra, and performed the sacrificial deed himself.
All this time I’ve likened Stannis to Atreus, but now I’m going to say that he embodies more than one character of the doomed house: he is also Agamemnon. In effect, Stannis is the embodiment of the curse of the House of Atreus — often called the curse of the Tantalean Line or the Pelopian Line — and, thus, his ultimate demise at the conclusion of Season 5 is of little surprise, especially in linking him to Agamemnon.
“Then who shall tear the curse from their blood?
The seed is stiffened to ruin.” (Ag. 1565-6)
You might be wondering: what is the dynastic curse of the House of Atreus?
This is a big question, something that actually forms the backbone of many an academic paper on mythology. In order to spare everyone an additional mythological dissertation, I’ll just state the crux of my own personal argument: the curse of the House of Atreus is an inherited, dynastic ethos of the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent youth in pursuit of personal gain.
Agamemnon’s slaughter of Iphigeneia is presented as reactionary, 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 the goddess Artemis to take action against Agamemnon and the other Greeks by causing unfavourable winds, thus making it impossible for the Argive host to sail to Troy. Stannis is in a similar situation in Thrones: the oncoming winter in the North has made it impossible for his men to march either forward or back, made even worse now that Ramsay Bolton has ravaged their camp and destroyed their horses. They are, as it were, trapped and in desperate need of some divine assistance.
In both of these cases, a deity of some sort becomes involved in the decision-making of the father-kings. And, in both of these cases, there is a crucial, potentially overlooked point of similarity between them: the gods themselves demand nothing of the men.
Artemis does not demand anything from Agamemnon. It would be counterproductive and even hypocritical for Artemis, protectorate goddess of innocent youth as well as fertility (Callimachus, Hymn III.24-8), to command Iphigeneia’s sacrifice of Agamemnon; thus, she does not. Instead, by summoning up terrible winds and delaying the king (Ag. 191-95), Artemis creates a situation in which Agamemnon is presented with a choice on whether or not to abandon his own hunt. Agamemnon chooses the slaughter.
R’hllor (the Red God), too, demands nothing, himself, of Stannis, who turns to the interpretations of the priestess, Melisandre, in order to make his own decision, just as Agamemnon turned to a seer. In his decision to sacrifice Shireen and pursue the attack on Winterfell, Stannis suffers no external coercion, despite the potential argument that Melisandre has been demanding this of Stannis for some time — which, admittedly, she has. Even with that in mind, and the implication of demand from R’hllor by Melisandre, the choice ultimately depends less upon R’hllor and more upon the kind of man Stannis is — his behavioural and moral judgement (ethos). We’ve seen the middle Baratheon brother kill his own brother, and consider sacrificing his nephew in the pursuit of power and personal gain.
It should not have been any surprise, then, when he chose to sacrifice his own daughter in order to take Winterfell. And sacrifice her he does, despite his wife’s protestations.
“Here is anger for anger. Between them who shall judge lightly?” (Ag. 1560-1)
I think the initial thought would be that Selyse is Thrones’ counterpart for Klytaimnestra. But the two mother-queens’ reactions to the deaths of their daughters after the initial grief and horror are so different that any comparison between the two fails.
After the sacrifice of Iphigeneia, Agamemnon’s wife, Klytaimnestra, does what anybody in Greek tragedy would: swear revenge. She starts a love affair with Aegisthus, and, together, they begin plotting Agamemnon’s demise — her for Iphigeneia, and him for Thyestes. Upon Agamemnon’s return home from conquering Troy, he is killed by the vengeful lovers in dramatically bloody fashion. Accounts as to who did the actual killing differ according to which version of the myth you read, but the account by Aeschylus within the first play of his Oresteia entitled, Agamemnon, is the best-known narrative: Agamemnon goes into the bath, where Klytaimnestra entangles him within a net and, with Aegisthus, stabs Agamemnon to death.
Selyse does not take revenge upon Stannis for sacrificing their daughter — it would be rather hypocritical, given that she actually advocated the sacrifice for several episodes leading up to the event — instead hanging herself from a tree following her daughter’s immolation. She, thus, cannot be our Klytaimnestra. But remember before when I said that there was a character whom I was going to choose as Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes? Here’s where that becomes important, because that same character is going to function as as conflation of Aegisthus and Klytaimnestra — that character is Brienne of Tarth.
It might seem strange for Brienne to be our Klytaimnestra as she does not kill Stannis because of Shireen’s sacrificial immolation. So how then is she like the ancient mythological queen?
Klytaimnestra is one of the greatest samples of rejection of gender roles in Classical tragedy. Described by Aeschylus’ chorus as “a woman of passionate heart and a man’s purpose” (Ag. 11), the elder sister of the infamous Helen does not behave as the traditional or esoterically “ideal” Athenian woman of antiquity — I specify “Athenian” because all surviving Greek tragedy is Athenian tragedy and is, thus, the ancient city-state for which we have the most reference as to gender roles as perceived through dramatic art. Essentially, Klytaimnestra busts the gender mold in spectacularly violent fashion, saying, “I stand where I dealt the blow; my purpose is achieved. Thus have I done the deed; deny it I will not” (Ag. 1378-9) to echo the Chorus’ earlier assertion that she bears a masculine purpose.
Brienne of Tarth is the Thrones version of the gender mold-buster, though Arya Stark could operate as another solid example. She bears a noticeably masculine-esque appearance, being over six-feet tall, flat-chested, and very muscular. In her first appearance within Season 2, dressed in full armour and dueling — as well as defeating — Ser Loras Tyrell, anyone unfamiliar with GRRM’s books could easily mistake her for a man. Brienne continues this adoption of the masculine in her quest to be a knight, refusing to be called “Lady,” and never-stopping in her given purpose despite numerous obstacles presented to her in the male-dominated society of Westeros.
But, as I noted before, Brienne is a conflation of Klytaimnestra and Aegisthus, and this is mainly due to her reasoning for wanting Stannis dead: vengeance for Renly, just as Aegisthus sought vengeance for Thyestes. Now, Brienne’s relationship to Renly is more tenuous than Aegisthus’ to Thyestes, as she is not related to Renly or even to House Baratheon by blood in any way. Brienne fell in love with Renly many years back when he showed her kindness at a ball her father held in her honour; he was the only man to do so. Even after knowing of Renly’s homosexuality, Brienne pledged her life, sword, and devotion to him, joining his Rainbow Guard. After witnessing his death at the hands of Stannis’ shadow-baby assassin, Brienne swore revenge upon the other Baratheon — equal parts hate over “failing to protect the [one she loved]” and, I would argue, her own perceived idea of honour as a knight, her chivalric code, as it were.
Honour (timē) was significant in Greek mythology as well, including not only the exaltation of one receiving honour, but in how it could be used as a way of shaming one overcome or wronged by another’s act of hubris. Agamemnon plays a crucial role to this concept in Homer’s Iliad, the narrative predecessor to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, when, in taking Akhilleus’ spoil of war, Briseis, he symbolically also takes the young warrior’s honour, thus shaming him in an overwhelmingly hubristic act of power-lust. In stealing away Renly right from under Brienne’s watch, Stannis has had the ripple-effect of stealing part of Brienne’s chivalric honour. Thus, Brienne is also Aegisthus, avenging the stolen honour and life of a brother* felled by the “progeny” of the elder.
*Nota bene: Atreus and Thyestes were, in fact, twins, but I believe it is implied that Atreus is the elder twin.
“But there is a cure in the house…” (Libation Bearers, 473)
Aeschylus’ tragedy of the House of Atreus culminates in the ending of the dynastic curse, via the net generation: it is Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Klytaimnestra who ultimately cleanse their bloodline. Through yet more death and the seeking of purification from both gods and men, the curse of the House of Atreus does, eventually, end.
But Stannis has no heirs to avenge him, and so Game of Thrones deviates in what is, perhaps, the most significant way: it is Brienne, a woman who is not of the blood of House Baratheon who fills the role of Orestes. Given my definition of the House of Atreus as dynastic, something inherited through blood, Brienne’s killing of Stannis symbolically ends the curse and breaks the cycle.
This conclusion (or solution) to the blood feud of the House Baratheon that Benioff and Weiss created transcends the original Greek material. They utilize an outsider to bring peace to a strife-ridden bloodline and, thus, end the curse of the House Baratheon.
This post was also published on backroomwhispering.com in a truncated format on 6/3/16.