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City of northeastern Peloponnese, south of Corinth
Mycenæ has become one of the best known cities of ancient Greece after the archæological finds of the late XIXth and XXth century, that started with those of the German archæologist Schleimann (who also investigated the site of Troy) in 1874-76. Because of the leading role it seems to have played during that period of Greek history, it gave its name to a civilization, the Mycenæan civilisation, that flourished in the late Bronze Age (from the XVIth to the XIIth centuries B. C.) and spread its influence across a large part of the Mediterranean world, taking over the Minoan civilisation centered in Crete (named after the legendary king of Crete Minos).
From a mythological standpoint, Mycenæ is often said to have been founded
by Perseus, and most of the stories relating
to it deal with the conflicts between the Perseidæ and the Pelopidæ,
the former dynasty leading to Heracles and
his sons, the later to Agamemnon, though marriages intermingled both families
almost from the start.
The story of Perseus is linked to that of Argos where he was born (see entry on that name). Pelops, on the other hand, was the son of Tantalus, himself a son of Zeus and Plouto. Tantalus was an extremely wealthy (see Euthyphro, 11e) king of Phrygia (or Lydia) in Asia Minor, who enjoyed the friendship of the Gods, with whom he shared meals. His wife was Dione, one of the Hyades, daughter of Atlas and sister of the Pleiades. Tantalus is most famous for the punishment he incured in Hades : he was condemned to stand in water to the neck without ever being able to drink because the water receded as soon as he tried to drink, and with fruits hanging over his head that too receded when he tried to reach them (Odyssey, XI, 582 ; in the Cratylus, 395d-e, Plato refers to a different version of Tantalus' punishment, involving a rock hanging over his head ; but he probably had the first form of punishment in mind when, at Protagoras, 315c-316a, he compares Prodicus to Tantalus with an almost litteral quotation of Odyssey, XI, 582 : Prodicus is the sophist embarked in the never ending quest for the exact meaning of words that will always escape him). Several reasons are given for Tantalus' punishment : he might have revealed to men secrets of the gods heard at their table, or stolen nectar and ambrosia for his mortal friends. Yet, another explanation has to do with his son Pelops : Tantalus was said to have killed his young son and prepared a stew for the gods with the parts of his body in order to put their cleverness to the test. The gods had no problem finding out what they were served and none of them ate the stew, except hungry Demeter who ate a shoulder of Pelops. The gods them reassembled the body of Pelops and resurrected him, with an ivory shoulder to make up for the one Demeter had eaten. After that, Pelops enjoyed the special love and protection of Poseidon, who even took him to Heavens for a while to serve him.
Back to earth, Pelops later fell in love with Hippodamia, the daughter of Oenomaus, a king of Pisa, a city of Elis in Peloponnese. Yet, to win the hand of Hippodamia, suitors were subjected to a trial by her father : they had to beat him at a chariot race to the altar of Poseidon in Corinth in which he competed with godly horses offered him by Ares, or else be killed by him. Pelops managed to win the race with the help of Hippodamia, who had fallen in love with him, and Myrtilus, Oenomaus' chariot driver, who sabotaged his master's chariot. Myrtilus fled with Pelops and Hippodamia, but Pelops killed him during the escape because he too was in love with Hippodamia and tried to rape her, though some say Myrtilus had in fact been promised a night with Hippodamia in reward for his help, either by Pelops or by Hippodamia herself ; yet other say that it is Hippodamia who had tried to seduce Myrtilus while Pelops was away looking for drinking water and, piqued that he had resisted her advances, had falsely accused him when her husband came back. No matter what, before dying, Myrtilus cursed Pelops, and this is the origin of the malediction that later fell on Pelops' offspring (Plato refers to this story in the etymology he has Socrates suggest for the name of Pelops in the Cratylus, 395b-d ).
Among the many children Pelops had with Hippodamia, two are most famous, Atreus
and Thyestes (see below). Besides, several of his daughters
married sons of Perseus, making him the grandfather
of Heracles and Eurystheus
as well : Astydamia married Alceus, Nicippe married Sthenelus and Lysidice
married Mestor. Alceus, king of Tirynthus, and Astydamia
had a son named Amphitryon. When Electryon, another son of Perseus
who reigned over Mycenæ and was married to Amphitryon's sister, Anaxo,
was involved in a power struggles against descendants of Mestor settled in the
island of Taphos (a small island northeast of Ithaca)
who were claiming Mycenæ as theirs, Amphitryon sided with his uncle and
brother-in-law. During the war against the Taphians that ensued, all the sons
of Electryon were killed. About to leave for a war of revenge, Electryon entrusted
his kingdom to Amphitryon, along with his daughter Alcmene, on the condition
that he promise to respect the virtue of the girl till his return from war.
But before Electryon could leave for war, Amphitryon accidentally killed him,
so that he was bound by his promise with no way out. Sthenelus, another of Amphitryon's
uncles, then king of Argos, banned him from his kingdom
because he had become defiled by his crime. So, Amphitryon took the road of
exile with Alcmene and found refuge in Thebes, where
he was purified of his crime by king Creon. To free him from his promise and
let him marry her, Alcmene set as a condition that Amphitryon avenge her brothers.
With the help of Creon and the Thebans, obtained after ridding the country of
a wild fox that devastated it, Amphitryon finally waged a war against the Taphians
and killed the last surviving member of Mestor's offspring. But just before
his return, on the very night he came back, Zeus, in love with Alcmene's beauty,
took his appearence to sleep with her before she slept, later that same night,
with her true husband. Amphitryon, surprised by the cool greeting he got from
Alcmene that night and by the fact she knew already of his deeds before he had
to tell her, consulted Tiresias, the seer, who told him the truth. He then tried
to punish his wife but was prevented from doing so by Zeus, and eventually made
peace with Alcmene.
Twins were born from these unions : Heracles, the son of Zeus, and Iphicles, the son of Amphitryon. When they were about to be born, Zeus proclaimed that the descendant of Perseus about to see the light of day would become king of Mycenæ. But Hera, jealous of Alcmene, managed to delay the birth of Alcmene' s twins while speeding up the birth of a son to Sthenelus, another of Perseus' sons, by his wife Nicippe, a daughter of Pelops. That son was Eurystheus, who was born as a result before Alcmene's twins and later became indeed king of Mycenæ and Tirynthus. All his life, Eurystheus feared Heracles and he never let him enter Mycenæ, never even talking directly to him. When Heracles had to submit to him upon order from the Pythoness as a punishment for having killed his own children from Megara during a burst of madness, Eurystheus imposed upon him the 12 labors as a condition for coming back to Argolis. But even after Heracles had completed them, and wanted to return to Tirynthus, Eurystheus refused. Heracles then moved to the court of king Ceyx, in Trachis, where he eventually died.
At the time of Heracles' death, his mother Alcmene, now a widow, had settled in Tirynthus with some of Heracles' sons. Still fearful, Eurystheus expelled them and requested from king Ceyx, and obtained, that he do the same with those of Heracles' sons that were in Trachis. All the Heraclidæ then seeked refuge in Athens, whose king at the time was Theseus (or, according to other traditions, his son Demophon). Eurystheus then asked the Athenians to expell them as well, but they refused. A war ensued in which Eurystheus and all his sons were killed. The Athenians then brought Eurystheus' head to Alcmene, who tore his eyes apart (Alcmene lived very old after that in Thebes with some of Heracles' sons and, after her death, was transported by Hermes into the Island of the Blessed where she married Rhadamantus, a son of Zeus and Europa, brother of Minos). After Eurystheus' death, the Heraclidæ, under the leadership of Hyllus, the firstborn of Heracles' sons from Deiareina, tried to return to Peloponnese but, one year after they had settled there, a plague struck the country and an oracle revealed that it was because they had come back before the set time. So they had to move back to Attica, in the area of Marathon.
Meanwhile, after the death of Eurystheus and all his sons, an oracle advised
the people of Mycenæ to take as king a son of Pelops. Two of them, Atreus
and Thyestes, indeed uncles of Eurystheus as brothers of his mother Nicippe,
had by then settled in Midea, another city of Argolis.
Here is how : after Pelops had a son, named Chrysippus, with the Nymph
Axioche, his wife Hippodamia, fearing for her own sons, asked Atreus and Thyestes
to kill their half-brother ; to punish them of their crime, Pelops banished
and cursed them and they seeked refuge at the court of their brother-in-law,
Sthenelus, Eurystheus' father, who offered them the city of Midea
as a refuge after he had expelled Amphitryon from Argolis. Both brothers were
called by the people of Mycenæ and it is in their fight to win kingship
of the city that they displayed the hatred against each other that made them
famous and was the result of their father's curse.
Years before, Atreus had found in his flock a sheep with a golden fleece. He had killed the sheep and kept the fleece in a chest. So now, as a trial to win kingship over Mycenæ, he suggested that the Mycenæans take as king the one who would produce a golden fleece. But, unknown to him, his wife, who was in love with Thyestes, had stolen the fleece and given it to him. So, Thyestes won the first round. Atreus then got a push from Zeus : warned by Hermes, he suggested that he be chosen as king if the sun would revert his course. Thyestes agreed and that day, the sun indeed reverted its course and set on the East, so Atreus was chosen as king and Thyestes had to leave Mycenæ (Plato is referring to this story in the Statesman, 268e-269a, where he uses bits and pieces of several myths to reconstruct a myth of his own about a supposed Golden Age and the periodical turnings of the universe).
When Atreus later learned about the affair between his wife and Thyestes, and the stealing of the golden fleece, he decided to retaliate : he secretly killed the three sons his brother had from another wife, invited him to a banquet and served him his own sons to eat, cut in pieces and boiled. After Thyestes had eaten of the infamous meal, Atreus showed him the heads of his sons and told him what he had eaten before expelling him once again (in some versions of the story, it is at this moment that the sun, horrified at what had happened, reverted its course, Atreus having earlier won kingship over Mycenæ some other way). Thyestes fled to Sicyon where, following an oracle, in order to prepare his revenge, he had a son from his own daughter, Pelopia, by raping her without being recognized. That son was Ægisthus and, because, soon after, Pelopia married her uncle Atreus, who didn't know who she was, he was raised at the court of Mycenæ as a son of Atreus, not knowing who his true father was, along with Agamemnon and Menelaus, the true sons of Atreus and Pelopia. When Ægisthus was old enough, Atreus asked him to go kill Thyestes. But when he was about to do it, with a sword given him by his mother, a sword Pelopia had stolen to the man who had raped her, Thyestes recognized his own sword and made himself known to his son as his true father, with the help of Pelopia who, learniing of the truth, killed herself with the fateful sword. Ægisthus then went back to Mycenæ and killed Atreus, and, with his father Thyestes, took over kingship there.
As was said above, Agamemnon and Menelaus were the true sons of Atreus and his niece Pelopia. In time, they married the two daughters of Tyndareus and Leda, Clytemnestra and Helen (the later, as well as her brother Pollux, being in fact the daughter of Zeus, who had seduced Leda by taking the appearance of a swan). Yet, in order to marry Clytemnestra, Agamemnon had to kill her first husband, Tantalus, a son of his uncle Thyestes, and their newborn son. Clytemnestra and her two brothers, Castor and Pollux, reluctantly agreed to the marriage, but, from the start, the union was cursed because of that crime.