Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Ancient Greeks Meet Jerry Springer

As part of my reading I like to dig into the background of the book and author a bit. 

Doing so on "The Oresteia" I pulled up the Wikipedia entry on the House of Atreus and found the world's first White Trash Family


The House of Atreus begins with Tantalus. Tantalus starts off holding the favor of the gods but pushes his luck when he decides to cook his own son, Pelops, and feed him to the gods as a test of their omniscience. This, of course, was a very bad idea and the gods found out. They threw Tantalus in the underworld, where he had to suffer thirst and hunger with water and food just out of his grasp for all of eternity. The gods bring Pelops back to life and cursed the family.

Pelops has two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. Thyestes begins an affair with Atreus' wife, and in retaliation, Atreus kills of Thyestes' sons and feeds them to him in a pie. Thyestes responds by asking an oracle what to do, who advises him to have a son by his daughter, Pelopia, who would then kill Atreus. This son is Aegisthus, who does just that, although not before Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, who became the brother-in-law and husband (respectively) of Helen (later of Troy).

 Sacrifice of Iphigenia

Prior to sailing off to Troy, Agamemnon annoyed the goddess Artemis. As a result, Agamemnon's fleet cannot catch a wind, and thus can't sail. A prophet named Calchas tells him that in order to appease Artemis, Agamemnon must sacrifice one of his daughters, Iphigenia. He does so, and sets sail. While he is fighting the Trojan War, his wife Clytemnestra (sister of his brothers wife Helen of Try BTW), infuriated by the murder of her daughter, begins an affair with Aegisthus (husbands cousin and uncle). When Agamemnon returned home from the war, he brought home with him a new concubine, the prophetess Cassandra. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus then murder Agamemnon and Cassandra. Agamemnon's son, Orestes, goaded by his sister Electra, must avenge his father's death but in doing so, must kill his mother. Orestes was still quite young when Agamemnon was killed by Clytemnestra. He was sent into exile and swore revenge. He was torn between avenging his father and not killing his mother. 'It was a son's duty to kill his father's murderers, a duty that came before all others. But a son who killed his mother was abhorrent to gods and to men.' When he asked Apollo for advice, the god advised him to kill his mother. 'And Orestes knew that he must work out the curse of his house, exact vengeance and pay with his own ruin.' After Orestes murdered Clytemnestra, he wandered the lands with guilt in his heart. After many years, he pleaded to Athena with Apollo by his side. No man of Atreus had ever done something so noble and 'neither he nor any descendant of his would ever again be driven into evil by the irresistible power of the past.' Orestes therefore ends the curse of the House of Atreus.

Between The murder, incest, concubines and non-branching family trees Jerry Springer and Jeff Foxworthy both would have felt right at home with this family.

Selection 9 - The Oresteia by Aeschylus

References:  The Oresteia Wikipedia Entry, Discussion of Agamemnon by Ian Johnston of Malaspina College

Selections: Translation by Ian Johnson of Malaspina University (Free) or available at



Selection 8 - The Book of Job

References:  Book of Job Wikipedia Entry

Selections: King James Version at Wikisource

Audio: Librivox

Discussion:  I don't really know a lot about The Book of  Job.  The way I remember being taught about it as a kid is, "Even though Job was suffering he maintained his faith in God and therefore in the end he was rewarded." 

Later I heard it analyzed as proof that God's will was unknowable and therefore we should just accept it.  I have also heard it used to show the capriciousness of God and as a justification for behavior that is generally considered unacceptable.  I haven't made it all the way thru the selection yet, but at this point I would have to go with the last one. 

So far we have a "Trading Places"  scenario.  God and Satan are having an argument and to prove his point God gives Satan permission to ruin a man's life, even allowing his family to be killed.  After misfortune befalls Job his friends assume the worst about him, until finally the truth is revealed.  (I haven't actually read that far yet I am just to the point where his friends are condemning him).

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