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The House of Atreus Makes Death Metal

I've known for a while about Virgin Steele and their metal compilations, The House of Atreus I (1999) and The House of Atreus II (2000), both based on Aeschylus's The Oresteia.  Not knowing much about metal, however, I simply haven't known how to present the material until now.

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I still don't know anything about metal, and though I've listened to some samples from these albums, I'm no judge of how good the music is.  The reviews are mostly positive.  Nevetheless, the cursed House of Atreus is as excellent a subject as any for a metal album.

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If you're interested in reading reviews of these albums or checking out the lyrics, head here.  I'm not sure if these are still in print, but you might be able to score some copies on Amazon or ebay.

Most Metal Deaths in Greek Mythology

Having just finished friend Alyx J. Shaw's surreal, metal novel Gryphons, I have lately found myself susceptible to certain vicious plot bunnies better suited to Metalocalypse than Greek mythology. However, I think Dethklok would probably approve of this catalog of Most Metal Deaths in Greek Myth:

  • Antinous: Most arrogant and mean-spirited of Penelope's 108 suitors, he's the first to die when Odysseus shoots him in the throat with his great bow.

  • Polydektes: King of Seriphos. Turned to stone by Perseus wielding Medusa's head.

  • Hippolytus: Son of Theseus and Antiope. Cursed by his father, caught in an overturned chariot, and dragged to death by his own team of horses.

  • Tydeus: Father of Diomedes, one of the original Seven Against Thebes.  Died munching on the brains of his opponent, Melanippus.

  • Pelias: Usurper king of Iolkos, uncle of Jason.  Cut to pieces by his own daughters at the suggestion of Medea, who tricked him into thinking being hacked up and thrown into a magic cauldron would magically restore his youth.

  • Pentheus: Torn to pieces by the madwomen of Thebes, including his own mother and aunts.

  • Glauke and Creon: This princess of Thebes and her father burn to death after a jilted, furious Medea sends her a poisoned robe. Why Medea didn't just send a lethal tunic to Jason instead boggles the mind. I guess she thought killing the kids was sufficient.

  • Minos: Scalded to death in a bath by the daughters of King Cocalus, in a trap set by Daedalus.

  • Pandarus: Renowed archer of Troy during the Trojan War.  Killed by Diomedes via a spear through the nose that severs his tongue. Basically, every single battlefield kill in the Iliad belongs on this list.

  • Agamemnon: Getting cut to pieces in your bathtub by the mother of the daughter you sacrificed and her new lover/your creepy, estranged, incestuous cousin is a pretty nasty way to go. Sensing a pattern here with asshole kings getting punctured in bathtubs by angry women? The Greeks knew a good motif when they saw it.

  • Cassandra: Princess of Troy taken as a concubine by Agamemnon.  Foresees her own terrible demise, but walks into the palace of Mycenae to be gruesomely slaughtered, anyway.

  • Clytemnestra: Killed by her own kids to avenge their father's murder.

  • Thyestes' three sons: Killed by their uncle Atreus, chopped into bits, cooked into a stew, and served to their dad. Can we just agree that most of the House of Atreus belongs on this list?

  • Orpheus: Torn to pieces by maenads in Thrace. His severed head lives on as an oracle.

  • Patroklos: Companion of Achilles, killed fighting the Trojans disguised as Achilles.  Racks up the highest body count during this one rampage than any other hero in the Iliad; he kills 27 named Trojans, and 27 unnamed ones. Tries to scale the walls of Troy three times and almost succeeds; it takes Apollo himself to stop this killing machine

  • Herakles: In agony, his skin burning and peeling off, this ultimate Greek badass gets on his own funeral pyre and has his companion Philoctetes light it up.

There are probably some deaths I missed. Also, some deaths that might seem metal aren't really. Theseus getting shoved off a cliff or Achilles getting hit in the heel: not really that metal.

Genealogy


At last, a genealogical chart I can be satisfied with.  Note: the actual image is larger, and will show up clearer in the book.  (I hope).

Also, I should be finishing the rough draft of The Young Lion this evening.

The Murder of Agamemnon



There are differing accounts of Agamemnon's murder.  The most famous version, that depicted in Aeschylus's play Agamemnon, involves the unlucky king being entangled in a net or gown and stabbed to death in his bath.  In The Odyssey, however, Homer tells a different story: Aegisthus sets watchmen along the coast to bring news of Agamemnon's return, then he lures the king to a banquet in his honor, and murders him, his companions, and Cassandra there. 

It's interesting to note how in Homer, the earliest extant source, Clytemnestra has little or nothing to do with the murder.  She's a passive player, seduced and easily led by Aegisthus, whereas in Aeschylus, she's the principal actor.  Homer also glosses over her murder at the hands of Orestes, and says nothing about Orestes' subsequent madness; the implication is that he kills her along with Aegisthus, holds a funeral feast, and that's the end of the matter. 

So which version is the truer one?  Agamemnon was locked in a bitter blood feud with Aegisthus, so it seems unlikely he would have accepted the man's hospitality. 

It's interesting to note that Homer doesn't mention the sacrifice of Iphigenia, either, thereby removing Clytemnestra's motivation for the murder.  In The Iliad, Agamemnon offers Achilles one of his daughters in marriage, and lists them thus: Chrysothemis, Laodike (Elektra?) and Iphianassa (Iphigenia?).  There is a hint of marital discord when Agamemnon states that he prefers Chryseis to Clytemnestra, but in The Odyssey, she is described as a good-natured woman who wanted nothing to do with Aegisthus at first.  That's about as much Atreid family scandal as Homer ever provides.

Bear in mind that Homer was an Ionian Greek, whose audience might have included descendants of the Atreid dynasty.  They would not have wanted to hear about the crimes of their ancestors. 

Aeschylus's Athenian audience certainly would have known the story before they even entered the theater.  Of course, they knew their Homer, but it seems there was another, bloodier, and more salacious version of events out there.  Greek playwrights took preexisting stories and reworked them, just as Shakespeare did some 1,900 years later. 

I suspect the Aeschylus story is closer to the truth, insofar as we can say that these events really took place.  Just look at the frescoes from the Mycenaean palaces.  Women are everywhere, as priestesses and princesses.  A queen like Clytemnestra would have been a formidable individual.  As mistress of the citadel, she would have been perfectly capable of taking a lover, and installing him in her household.  And as high priestess, she would have been more than able to personally carry out the murder of her husband like the killing of a sacrificial animal.



Grave Circle A


The Perseid grave circle referred to in the story is Grave Circle A, in which Heinrich Schliemann discovered five intact shaft graves.  The dead buried here were loaded down with gold and other fabulous treasures, including the so-called Mask of Agamemnon.  These graves date from between 1550-1450 B.C., too early to belong to the later Atreid kings who fought in the Trojan War, but not the Perseid kings who came before.  Legend says Perseus founded Mycenae; the shaft graves might belong to his family. 

The first citadel at Mycenae was much smaller than the one whose ruins you can visit today, and Grave Circle A stood outside the walls.  At some point around 1260 B.C., the citadel walls were expanded and strengthened; the famous Lion Gate was part of these constructions.  In addition, Grave Circle A was brought into the citadel, refurbished with a new supporting terrace, and turned into a place for cult worship; the king or kings who ordered this work clearly wanted to stress a link with those earlier rulers, and this fits very well with the legend of Atreus taking over after his nephew Eurystheus, the last Perseid king, died without an heir. 


Aegisthus

In a dynasty noted for its skeevy, bloodthirsty characters, Aegisthus son of Thyestes probably ranks among the slimiest of all.  This sliminess begins with his conception, but first we have to go back a little, to when Atreus and Thyestes, the brothers Pelopides, vied with each other for the vacant throne of Mycenae. 

Atreus discovered a golden lamb among his flock, strangled it, and gave the fleece to his wife Aerope to safeguard.  Problem was, Aerope lusted for Thyestes, who took advantage of his sister-in-law's raging hormones to obtain the fleece.  Having done so, he then suggested to Atreus that whoever possessed the fleece should be king.  Alarm bells should have gone off in Atreus's head at this point, but didn't.  Thyestes produced the fleece, became king, then lost the throne to his brother when an oracle determined that Thyestes had cheated.

Atreus did away with his adulterous wife, but was left gnawing on his rage for his exiled brother.  So he wrote to Thyestes, offering to forgive him, and even share half his kingdom.  Thyestes foolishly accepted his invitation to Mycenae--and worse, he brought his three young sons along.  So while Atreus and Thyestes hunted, Atreus's henchmen took the boys, murdered them, and boiled them in a stew.  That night, Atreus served his brother a tasty dish, a delicacy, he said, and after Thyestes ate his fill, servants brought out the animal which had provided the repast--the heads and hands of the young boys, arranged on platters. 

Thyestes vomited, cursed Atreus and all his descendants, and fled into the night.  Swearing vengeance, he consulted an oracle (presumably the same one who gave him the go-ahead to sleep with his brother's wife and steal his throne), who advised him to lie with his own daughter Pelopia and conceive a son who would avenge his half-brothers.

The deed was done.  Aegisthus's mother was also his half-sister, his father also his grandfather.  Pelopia later committed suicide in shame.  In time, Aegisthus murdered Atreus.  Then he seduced Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra and helped her murder her husband.

In the Greek dramas, Aegisthus never says much; he plays second-fiddle to Clytemnestra.  He's a wine drinker, a hedonist, a beguiler and schemer who strikes from the shadows, not heroic at all.  He's also the younger man to Clytemnestra's older woman.  In Greek art, he's portrayed either stabbing Agamemnon at Clytemnestra's urging, or getting stabbed by Orestes.



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