House of the Dead

Dominique Nabokov
Colm Tóibín, New York City, 2010

It could be argued that the women of Mycenae would have fared better if the gods had just kept busy inventing themselves and begetting their way out of Chaos. Better, at least, than those women fared when the bored denizens of Mount Olympus flung themselves into a bloody earthly drama starring the family known to its chroniclers as the House of Atreus.

The story of Atreus is a dynastic myth, as true to the deep history of Bronze Age Greece as, say, Cúchulainn’s exploits are to the history of ancient Ireland. Of course, there are myths and myths. The story of Gaia birthing Uranus (a virgin birth) and then bedding him to spawn the Titans is an origin myth, on the order of the Honey Ant Dreaming of the Aborigines or, for that matter, Yahweh’s six-day marathon called Creation. But when you begin to parse the myths that dispense and apportion power among the mortals of Mycenae and Sparta at the time of the Trojan War, you discover something more familiar—a sacralization of the male domain, a precursor to the apostolic succession or the divine right of kings, which runs from Zeus, juggling thunderbolts in his palatial aerie, down to Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king, and the stone block in Aulis on which he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia in order to speed his fleet to Troy and recover his brother’s beautiful stolen wife.

Aeschylus is said to have described his trilogy on the Atreus clan as “morsels from the feast of Homer.” It was a feast that outlasted the great blind bard of the Trojan War and its aftermath through five or six centuries of arguably embroidered recapitulation to give us the dazzling years of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—and, one has to assume, of innumerable dark-horse candidates waiting in the wings of the Theater of Dionysus, dreaming of the tripod cauldron that went to the winner of Athens’s annual tragedy competition.

Since then, the rich Homeric legacy of Troy and its aftermath has posed a challenge that few writers could imagine addressing with anything close to Athenian success, perhaps because by the time the younger Seneca produced his Roman revenge drama Agamemnon, the last important Atreus tragedy of the classical world, a new foundational drama called Christianity had intervened. The Christian drama had this in common with the Atrean myth: it came with its own sacrificial centerpiece, and it invoked the image of a grieving mother whose suffering was both exalted and ignored in the interests of patriarchal power. Given that the first disciples of this new faith were also emboldened by their roots in those old but reliable Hebraic theological inventions, monotheism and miracles, Zeus never stood a chance.

Colm Tóibín’s reinvention of the Atreus story, House of Names, slipped quietly into print last year. The response was…

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