Barry’s Blog # 392: The Family Curse, Part Five of Nine

Humans…are never so much attached to anything as they are to their suffering…  Nothing can be attained without suffering, but at the same time one must begin by sacrificing suffering. – P. D. Ouspensky

Some powerful river of desire goes on flowing through him. He never phrased what he desired, and I am his son. – Robert Bly

Tantalus

Of the many stories of how humanity was created, the legend of the five races or ages seems most relevant. The gods first created a golden age, which was followed by progressively worse ages of silver and brass. Then came the race of heroes, who died out after the Trojan War. In the final age of iron, men now walk the Earth. Hesiod wrote:

They live in evil times and their nature too has much of evil, so that they never have rest from toil and sorrow. As the generations pass, they grow worse; sons are always inferior to their fathers. A time will come when they have grown so wicked that they will worship power; might will be right to them, and reverence for the good will cease to be. At last, when no man is angry any more at wrongdoing or feels shame in the presence of the miserable, Zeus will destroy them too.

Humans entered this accursed world in the fourth generation of our story. Tantalus, king of Lydia, was another son of Zeus.

A curse seemed to hang over the family, making men sin in spite of themselves and bringing suffering and death down upon the innocent as well as the guilty.

The gods honored this lucky man beyond all mortals, allowing him the honor of eating at their table and tasting their nectar and ambrosia (which, some say, he stole). They even agreed to dine at his palace. But the irresistible urge to slaughter the children was already in his blood.

Tantalus had his only son, Pelops, killed. Then he ordered the corpse cut up, boiled and served to the gods. Did he think they wouldn’t notice? Or did he unconsciously desire to be caught? In retaliation they devised a punishment so cruel that no man would dare insult them again.

Tantalus

They killed him and sent him down to Hades, where generations later, Odysseus would visit:

And I saw Tantalus also, suffering hard pains, standing in lake water that came up to his chin, and thirsty as he was, he tried to drink, but could capture nothing; for every time the old man, trying to drink, stooped over, the water would drain and disappear, and the black earth showed at his feet, and the wind dried it away. Over his head trees with lofty branches had fruit like a shower descending…but each time the old man would straighten up and reach with his hands for them the wind would toss them away…

Later, the phrase “tantalean punishments” described those who have good things but are not permitted (or don’t permit themselves) to enjoy them. They are “tantalized”.

What are we to make of motives that even the poets couldn’t explain? His crime was so specific, yet so familiar. But let’s not interpret things too literally. Perhaps he “killed” his own inner child essence, turning the ancestral rage against himself, rather than toward its source. One definition of shame is rage turned inward. Shame, or depression, in Miller’s terms, are merely the mirror opposite of grandiosity:

Although the outward picture of depression is quite the opposite of that of grandiosity and has a quality that expresses the tragedy of the loss of self to a great extent, they have the same roots in the narcissistic disturbance.

The two seemingly opposite conditions appear to have motivated his actions. What could be more grandiose than to attempt to fool the gods, and what could be more self-destructive than to kill one’s own child?

His perpetual frustration in Hades, like that of Sisyphus, recalls Buddhism’s “Realm of the Hungry Ghosts”. Its inhabitants have gaping bellies and tiny mouths that never let in enough food to satisfy their hunger. They are compelled to repeat unsuccessful strategies in fruitless attempts to get needs met as adults which could only have been met when they were children.

The family curse placed Tantalus in the center of a vicious circle of shame and retribution that could only increase that shame. Another child was eaten, and the energy moved on.

The Fifth Generation

Tantalus’ daughter Niobe and her husband Amphion, another son of Zeus, ruled Thebes in great prosperity until the curse arrived. Like her father, she was inflated and challenged an immortal. Having born seven sons and seven daughters, she bragged that she was greater than the goddess Leto, who had birthed but two – the archers Apollo and Artemis.

Niobe

Leto sent them to avenge the insult, and they killed Amphion and all fourteen children. Then,

…like a stone the childless matron sat. Around her the dead bodies of her sons, her daughters, and her husband. There, no motion of the wind stirred through her hair, her color gone, bloodless her melancholy face, her eyes stared, fixed on nothingness, nor was there any sign of life within that image…yet eyes still wept, and she was whirled away in a great wind back to her native country, where on a mountaintop she weeps and even now, tears fall in rivulets from a statue’s face.

The main characters, now primarily humans, act arrogantly, out of hubris, and the gods strike them down for their transgressions. In other words, grandiosity and inflation can flip into alienation or depression. The gods do not endure such changes. But mortals may embody certain values to such extremes that they eventually evoke their opposites, in a process of enantiodromia (enantio = opposite, dromos = running).

Niobe was the only character in the story so far who grieved her losses (if not her self-destructive behavior). But since she contributed no surviving progeny to the next generation, she is tangential, serving only perhaps as a contrast to the other human characters. The main thrust of the story moved through her brother’s line.

This time the innocent one did not die for his father’s sins. The Gods revived Pelops and reassembled his body parts. But Demeter, distracted by the recent loss of her own daughter, had inadvertently eaten a bit of the terrible meal – his shoulder. So she asked Hephaistos to fashion a new one out of ivory. Then, Poseidon, dazzled by the boy’s beauty, abducted him, took him to Olympus and taught him to drive the divine chariot. When Zeus found out, he threw Pelops out of Olympus.

Pelops grew up to become king of Lydia. Later, he crossed the sea to southern Greece (later to be called the Peloponnese, the “Isle of Pelops”), which was ruled by Oenomaus, father of the beautiful Hippodamia. It had been foretold that he would be killed by a son-in-law, so any marriage was out of the question. Still, eighteen previous suitors had challenged him for her hand in chariot races. But Oenomaus had defeated and killed them all.

But Pelops and Hippodamia fell in love, and he offered the same racing challenge to Oenomaus. Knowing the odds, Pelops appealed to Poseidon, his former lover, who gave him a chariot drawn by winged horses, and Hippodamia bribed Myrtilus, the king’s charioteer,  promising to sleep with him. She convinced him to replace the bronze linchpins attaching the wheels to the axle with fake ones made of beeswax. In the resulting accident Myrtilus survived, but Oenomaus was dragged to death by his horses. Afterwards, Myrtilus, the only witness to the crime, attempted to claim Hippodamia, but Pelops threw him off a cliff into the sea. Falling to his death, he cursed Pelops, Hippodamia and all their descendants.

Some say that the Olympic Games were created in Oenomaus’ memory. Others say they commemorate Pelops’ victory, and after his death he was worshipped at Olympia. Perhaps history is written by the winners. Among the tales the Greeks told about him was the one about a giant shoulder blade that the Greeks brought to Troy to ensure their victory.

But why didn’t the Gods punish Pelops? After all, fourteen children died simply because his sister was a braggart. Perhaps, as Athena will argue later in the story, the murder of a non-relative (or a commoner) was not as bad as that of a blood relative or a royal person. Ethical hair-splitting doesn’t get us very far. Perhaps the gods gave Pelops a chance to do right, despite his abusive childhood. If so, he didn’t accept the invitation.

Are we compelled to re-enact our childhood wounds so we can see them more clearly? Years later, Pelops murdered Stymphalus, king of Arcadia and had him cut to pieces, just as his father had done to him long before, and the body parts were scattered across the countryside. A famine followed throughout Greece.

Read Part Six here.

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