A myth never says what to do; it points out where the difficulties will arise. – Ginette Paris
The past isn’t dead. It is not even past. – William Faulkner
At this point things get far more complicated, just as they do in the unconscious mind. Pelops and Hippodamia had many children, but his favorite was an illegitimate son, Chrysippus. Hippodamia convinced her own sons Atreus and Thyestes to murder him. Pelops banished them, and Hippodamia hanged herself. The exiled brothers went to Mycenae because an oracle had prophesied that its vacant throne would eventually belong to one of Pelops’ sons. There, the royal sibling rivalry commenced. Roberto Calasso writes:
Every story of two is always a story of three: two pairs of hands grab the same thing at the same time and tug in opposite directions.
Atreus, the eldest, claimed the throne. He married Aerope, who bore him two sons, Agamemnon and Meneleus (although some say the real father was her brother-in-law Thyestes). He vowed to sacrifice his best lamb to Artemis. However, when he discovered that there was a golden lamb in his flock, he decided to hide it from the goddess and gave it to Aerope for safekeeping.
But Aerope, who’d been sleeping with Thyestes, gave it to him instead. He then convinced Atreus to agree that whoever possessed this lamb should be king. Thyestes produced it and claimed the throne, agreeing to give the kingdom back to Atreus only if the sun should move backwards in the sky – a feat that Zeus, who favored Atreus, accomplished. Atreus retook the throne, banished Thyestes and might have been satisfied. However, having learned of the adultery, he devised an atrocious revenge. Now, writes Calasso,
…the conflict is raised to a higher power: it is the winner who wants to revenge himself on the loser, and…wants his revenge to outdo all others.
Atreus invited Thyestes to a banquet. Then he had his brother’s children (one of whom was named Tantulus) killed, dismembered and cooked, except for their hands and feet. Thyestes unknowingly consumed their flesh. After taunting him with their hands and feet, Atreus again forced him into exile. Once again innocent children were eaten at a grizzly banquet.
From this point on the vendetta between the two brothers loses all touch with psychology, becomes pure virtuosity…
Thyestes sought an even greater vengeance, one that would attack future generations. An oracle advised him to rape his own daughter, Pelopia, whose son would then kill Atreus. Some say that Thyestes, like Oedipus, didn’t know that she was his daughter. If he did know, then he was willing to ruin her just to get that revenge. In either case (just as with Oedipus), myth is concerned with action rather than with motivation. Psychology asks why it happened, but myth only tells what happened.
After giving birth to the boy, she abandoned him. Atreus murdered Aerope for her infidelity. Desiring a new wife, he married Pelopia, not knowing her parentage. A shepherd found the infant Aegisthus and gave him to Atreus, who raised him as his own son. Meanwhile, the region around Mycenae suffered a terrible drought, which would end, said an oracle, only if Thyestes returned. Atreus located his brother and brought him back to prison, where he ordered the boy to kill him. When Thyestes revealed himself to Aegisthus as his both his father and his grandfather, Pelopia killed herself. Instead of killing him, the boy killed Atreus, and Thyestes became king. But, writes Calasso,
…the grindstone that had accelerated during their feud would go on crushing bones, for one, two, three generations to come.
The Seventh Generation
Agamemnon and Menelaus escaped to Sparta, where King Tyndareus sheltered them and helped them return to overthrow Thyestes. Tyndareus offered his daughters Clytemnestra and Helen (half-sisters to Castor and Pollux, but that’s another story) to Agamemnon and Menelaus as wives. Menelaus became king of Sparta and Helen gave birth to Harmonia. Agamemnon ascended to the throne of Mycenae and Clytemnestra bore Orestes, Elektra, Iphigenia, Erigone and others. Some say that her first husband had been yet another Tantalus, grandson of the original Tantalus, and that Agamemnon had killed him.
We are familiar with the seventh generation from the stories of the Trojan War, which had its roots in the wedding of the mortal Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis. Previously, Zeus and Poseidon had courted her, but they withdrew when they heard that her son would be more famous than the father (the actual son would be Achilles). In safely marrying her off to Peleus, Zeus planned a grand wedding. It turned out to be the last one that mortals and immortals celebrated together. All the gods and goddesses were invited, with one exception – Eris (Discord), twin sister of Ares, another of Zeus’ rejected children. Why hadn’t they invited her? Ginette Paris writes:
A reality (marriage) that invites so many gods and goddess cannot be separated from its shadow…no powers exist without a dark side, and when they are denied, murderous feelings become murderous behaviors.
Enraged, Eris barged in anyway and rolled a golden apple marked “for the fairest” into the hall, quickly provoking an argument between Hera, Aphrodite and Athena.
They asked Zeus to judge between them, but he refused to get involved. He sent them to Mount lda, near Troy, telling them that Paris would be the judge. This prince had been sent away because his father, King Priam, had heard yet another prophecy that Paris would someday be the ruin of his country. Each of the goddesses offered a bribe, but he preferred Aphrodite’s – the fairest woman in the world. In choosing her, he – and Troy – earned the enmity of the other two goddesses.
That woman, of course, was Helen, another daughter of Zeus, who had seduced her mother, Leda, in the form of a swan. As we’ve seen, Leda’s husband Tyndareus gave Helen as wife to Menelaus. But before announcing his choice, Tyndareus made all the Greek princes promise to support Helen’s husband. Later, Aphrodite directed Paris to Sparta and Helen as his promised reward. When Paris and Helen eloped, all the Greek leaders were bound by their promise to help Menelaus get her back. They mobilized a thousand ships and an entire generation of young men, with Agamemnon as commander, all for the sake of one woman.
We may think of this “one woman” in at least three ways. Since possession of Helen symbolized regal sovereignty, she had to be recovered. But Menelaus, son of the cruel Atreus, had his own childhood wounds. In this age of recovery, we can see his willingness to risk his fortune, his life, and the lives of thousands of men to get her back as the essence of co-dependency. He sought the answer to his unmet infantile needs in a relationship with the Golden Woman. Or, from a Jungian perspective, he was seeking his anima, in a necessary journey of individuation.
But why the huge mobilization of all the “Argive host”?
Wasn’t Helen an idea, a belief system, an ideology? Both archetypal psychology and traditional indigenous wisdom see any ideology, religious or political, as an addiction. When carried to its extreme it becomes dogmatic fanaticism, an all-encompassing, paranoid world view which necessarily dehumanizes all non-believers. Fanaticism encloses us in a warm, comfortable womb of like-minded individuals and stimulates our participation in group action that (only) temporarily satisfies our need for ritual and community. In providing a superficial connection to others, it covers up our narcissistic wounds and cuts us off from true relationship.
In short, whether Helen was the unreachable object of an immature relationship, a Golden Anima figure or the spirit-crushing panacea of fanatic ideology, she represented a hiding place for the shame people receive from parents who couldn’t be what they needed when they needed it.