The Ancient Greeks often spoke of the Heroic Age, when nymphs and satyrs cultivated the mountains and gods played with mortals. Among the Greek myths that take place in the Heroic Age is the story of the House of Atreus. The royal progenitor of this family, Tantalus, committed such an atrocity against the gods that his descendants were cursed forever. This story is an example of the Archaic Greek belief that guilt was inheritable and a person’s misfortune could be attributed to the crimes of an ancestor.
King Tantalus and Pelops of the House of Atreus
King Tantalus was beloved by the gods, who came to dine with him at his home on earth. But out of secretly held spite against the immortals, Tantalus murdered his son and fed the Olympians cooked human flesh. But the gods were not fooled. They brought the boy back to life and punished Tantalus by placing him in Tartarus, the Underworld. There he stands in a pool of water that evaporates when he leans down to take a drink. Above him is a vine blooming with fruit that the wind moves out of reach whenever he reaches up to take a bite. Tantalus’ punishment gave us the English word “tantalizing.”
Tantalus’ banquet for the gods. (Public Domain)