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Thyestes was a character in Greek mythology. He was a member of the infamous House of Atreus, the brother of Atreus and the father of Aegisthus. He cheated his brother Atreus out of the throne of Mycenae, kicking off a conflict between the two which would lead to a curse being placed on the House of Atreus.

Biography

Thyestes was grandson of Tantalus and son of Pelops and Hippodamia. In accordance with a curse placed on Pelops's line by Myrtilus, Thyestes and his brother Atreus grew jealous of their half-brother Chrysippus and killed him by throwing him down a well, for which they were exiled by their father. King Eurystheus of Mycenae granted them shelter and granted them temporary stewardship over Mycenae while he was away fighting the Heraclids. When the Heraclids won and slew Eurystheus, Atreus and Thyestes argued over who should take his throne.

Atreus vowed to sacrifice the best lamb in his flock to the gods if they would make him king; however, he found a golden lamb among the flock and, not wishing to sacrifice it, gave it to his wife Aerope to hide. What Atreus was unaware of was that Aerope was having an affair with Thyestes, to whom she gave the lamb. Thyestes convinced Atreus to agree that whoever had the lamb should be king, before producing the lamb and claiming the throne. Angered, Atreus asked the god Zeus for help. Zeus told Atreus to bet Thyestes that the sun would rise in the west the next day and get him to agree to hand over the throne if he did so. Thyestes agreed to the bet, believing he was sure to win. But Zeus had convinced the sun god Helios to move backwards in the sky that day, so Atreus won the bet, took the throne and banished Thyestes.

Atreus soon learned of Aerope and Thyestes's affair and plotted revenge. Inviting Thyestes to return to Mycenae, he secretly took his two sons, killed them and served them to Thyestes in a banquet. Once Thyestes had eaten his sons, Atreus produced their uncooked hands and feet (their heads in some versions) and revealed what he had just eaten. He then declared Thyestes a cannibal and banished him once again before killing Aerope.

Thyestes, now in exile in Sicyon, vowed revenge against Atreus and consulted the Oracle of Delphi, which informed him that if he had a son by his daughter Pelopia that son would slay Atreus. One night, Pelopia, a priestess of Athena, got blood on her robes during a sacrifice and went to wash them in a steam. When she removed her clothes, Thyestes, who was hiding nearby with his face covered, pinned her down and raped her. During the rape she was able to pull out his sword and took it away with her. The attack left Pelopia pregnant with her father's son Aegisthus.

Meanwhile, Mycenae had been cursed with a poor harvest due to Atreus's crime. Atreus was told by the Oracle that if he returned Thyestes to Mycenae the curse would be lifted. Atreus searched for Thyestes in Sicyon but only found Pelopia, who he brought back to Mycenae and married, after which she gave birth to Aegisthus. Eventually, Atreus's two sons by Aerope, Menelaus and Agamemnon, captured Thyestes while he was consulting the Oracle about taking revenge against Atreus. He was brought before Atreus, who decided to have him killed since the prophecy said nothing about keeping him alive.

Atreus had Thyestes sent to prison and ordered Aegisthus to kill him. When Aegisthus went in to do it, Thyestes recognised his sword as the one Pelopia had taken from him during the rape and asked him where it came from. Aegisthus called for Pelopia, who said she had taken the sword while being raped by an unknown attacker; upon realizing it was Thyestes's sword she snatched it and used it to commit suicide. Thyestes then explained Atreus's actions to Aegisthus, who returned to Atreus, killed him and freed Thyestes.

Thyestes took over from Atreus as king of Mycenae, banishing Agamemnon and Menelaus for their part in his capture. However, they toom refuge with King Tyndareus of Sparta, who agreed to help them invade Mycenae and claim the throne. Tyndareus, Agamemnon and Menelaus lead an army into Mycenae and deposed Thyestes, who fled and lived in exile on the island of Kythira until his death.

Legacy

The curses placed on the bloodline of Atreus did not end with the deaths of Atreus and Thyestes. During the Trojan War, Aegisthus seduced Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra and the two of them murdered Agamemnon and his concubine Cassandra when he returned from war. Seven years later, Agamemnon's son Orestes killed Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. The curse on the House of Atreus only ended when Orestes sought help from Athena, who persuaded the other gods to exonerate Orestes and purify his bloodline.

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