Thyestes is a tragedy by Seneca the Younger, written most likely around 62 A.D. It's a play I've been looking forward to: in Greek myth, Thyestes was the son of Pelops and Hippodamia, and the brother of Atreus; Atreus was the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus; Agamemnon was the father of Orestes, the basis of Aeschylus' trilogy I love so much - the Oresteia (Ὀρέστεια; 458 B.C.). Thus I was already fairly familiar with what's known as the 'curse on the house of Atreus', though only in the context of the Orestes tragedy. Thyestes was, for me at least, part of the back-story.
The curse of the house of Atreus begins with Myrtilus, a servant who was promised, among other things, half of Pelops' kingdom. Pelops reneged and threw Myrtilus into the sea and, with his dying breath, he cursed the line. Pelops' sons were, as I say, Atreus and Thyestes. The play begins with the ghost of Tantalus, father of Pelops and the founder of the house of Atreus, who was punished by Zeus for sharing ambrosia and nectar with his fellow mortals and thus revealing the secrets of the gods (his punishment was to forever stand in a pool with fruit just out of his reach: his name gives us the word 'tantalising'). He says,
"Who hales me from my miserable rest
Among the dead below, where my starved mouth
Gapes for the food that runs out of its reach?
What god bids Tantalus returns again
To this abode he never should have seen?
Os there some punishment in store for me
Worse than to stand dry-mouthed in running water,
Worse than the everlasting yawn of hunger?"
He goes on and is eventually answered by Fury, who replies "On with your task, abominable ghost: / Let loose the Furies on your impious house...", and goes on to torment him, warning him that his cursed house will see "a Thracian tragedy", referring to Procne and Philomela; Tereus, Procne's husband, raped Philomela and, out of revenge, Procne killed and cooked their son and fed it to him (we see this tale in Book VI of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women). The scene then changes to Atreus, raging against Thyestes his brother: the two are battling for the throne of Mycenae, and Thyestes also seduced Atreus' wife Aerope, leaving a question as to the true father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. He plans, as the Fury warned, to kill Thyestes' children (Tantalus the younger, Plisthenes, and a third son), have Agamemnon and Menelaus lure him back, and then, as with the Procne myth, cook them and serve them to him. The plan is put into action and Thyestes returns, no longer wanting to fight for the throne. The two brothers apparently reconcile, but, unknown to Thyestes, Atreus kills his three sons, and manages to trick Thyestes into eating them, telling him with great triumph, "You, you yourself have dined on your sons' flesh! You have consumed this monstrous banquet!". The horrified Thyestes replies,
This was the sight you could not bear to see!
This was the sin that drove the daylight back
To where it came from. O what words can tell,
What grieving can assuage my agony?
There are not words enough to speak of it.
Here are their severed heads, I see, their hands
Chopped off, the feet left from their broken legs,
The leavings of their father's gluttony.
My stomach moves; the sin within me strives
To find escape - cannot escape its prison.
Lend me your sword, brother, lend me that sword
Already glutted with my blood; its blade
Shall set my children free. You will not? Hands,
Beat in this breast until it breaks into pieces!
No! Strike not, wretch! We must respect the dead.
When was such horror seen - when, in the days
Of Heniochus upon the awful crags
Of barren Caucasus, or in Procrustes' den,
The terror of the land of Attica?
I press my sons to death - they press their father.
Is sin illimitable?"
It ends with a plea to the gods: "My revenge," says Thyestes, "The gods will give. I have no other wish / But to entrust them to your punishment." A few words from Atreus, and then the play ends. According to some myths, Atreus will eventually be murdered by Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes.
It's dark in the way only the Ancients could be. It's a forceful play, strange in so far as one could, if one was hardhearted enough, feel some degree of contempt towards Thyestes, with Atreus playing a kind of anti-hero - witty, strong, but thoroughly rotten to the core. A great play, my first Seneca, and, I would say, a very good introduction to his plays.
And Thyestes was my 30th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week, another Seneca: Phaedra.