Let’s Talk Mythology: Tantalus and Pelops

Hello, all! I’ve loved talking about Fairy tales on this blog, so I’ve decided to take it one step further and add a new recurring segment: mythology. I’ll be including myths from both the Greek canon and the Norse canon, and all of these myths will be from the D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and the D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths. If you’re a big mythology geek and you haven’t read these books, I’d advise going out and purchasing a copy because they contain a collection of well-known and lesser known myths with fabulous illustrations.

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Without further ado, let’s begin with the story of Tantalus and Pelops. Get ready for some father-on-son cannibalism.

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The story of Tantalus isn’t as renowned as that of Heracles (Hercules in Roman spelling) or that of Paris and Helen, but most Greek myth geeks know him as the guy who suffers eternally in the Underworld, reaching for grapes he can’t eat and bending to sip at water that recedes when he draws near. Eternal suffering is nothing to shrug at in the realm of Greek punishment, so even if we know nothing about Tantalus, we can infer that he must have done something really, really bad.

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Let’s start at the beginning. Tantalus, a son of Zeus, is so favored that the gods frequently invite him up to Olympus to eat dinner with them. He feels the need to reciprocate this hospitality, and besides, he wants to show off his enormous kingdom in Asia Minor. Basically, Tantalus is trying to keep up with the Joneses, but the Joneses happen to be Divine Beings and such a task is impossible. Or is it?!

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His son, Pelops, was his greatest treasure, and, wanting to give the gods his best, Tantalus decided to sacrifice him. He made a stew of him and set the dish before the gods. But the Olympian gods detested human sacrifice. Outraged, they threw Tantalus to the punishing grounds in the underworld and brought Pelops back to life.

Well, that backfired. This is not the first or last time in this book that someone tries to sacrifice someone for the gods. You would think that these kings would get the message after seeing their fellows thrown in the Underworld, but they just don’t get it.

Pelops, most likely traumatized, is given a new shoulder bone made of ivory (because the gods accidentally ate his…oops!) and a new team of supernaturally fast horses. Poseidon tells him to go find himself a princess and a new kingdom, because I guess the gods exercised eminent domain and took back Tantalus’ kingdom as payback for his horrible dinner party.

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Someone’s gonna need therapy…

Thus, Pelops sets off on a traditional, yet inevitably dangerous and violent quest to find a wife and a kingdom. Somewhere, somehow, someone will give him a kingdom…and throw their daughter at him too. It’s practically guaranteed.

In Greece there was a beautiful princess whose name was Hippodamia. She was the daughter of Oenomaus, the king of Elis, and whoever married her would inherit his kingdom, but her father loved her so dearly that he could not bear to part with her.

You guys are gonna love this. Apparently, the name Hippodamia literally means “horse tamer” in Ancient Greek. Oh, the tragedy. You’ll understand in a moment.

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King Oenomaus has a team of incredibly fast horses that were a present from Ares, the god of war. Now we have two men with teams of fast horses. They ain’t gonna sit around and play cards, that’s for sure. Oenomaus loves his kingdom…excuse me…”daughter” so much that he decides to make courting his daughter a fatal endeavor.

Whenever a suitor came to ask for his daughter’s hand, Oenomaus challenged him to a chariot race. If the suitor won, he would win the princess; if he lost, he would lose his head. No horses on earth could outrun the horses of Ares, and the heads of twelve suitors already hung at the gates of the palace.

The brilliant Pelops decides that he absolutely must have this specific princess, and not a girl that’s a little easier to obtain. He hopes to be the lucky thirteenth caller. When Pelops tells the King of his intentions, Oenomaus is psyched to add another severed head to his wall. Poor Hippodamia, on the other hand, is probably sobbing at the thought of having to see the head of another person who could have potentially taken her away from her psychotic father.

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Daaaadddd, not againnnnn!!!

Pelops is feeling pretty confident about his chances, seeing as he, too, has a team of god-given magical horses (Oenomaus thought he was special!), but both  Hippodamia and the King are certain that Pelops is going to die. The book says that Hippodamia fell in love with Pelops and decides to help him win, but I think (and we know I’m always right) that she couldn’t care less about who she helps, she just wants to escape this macabre house of horrors. Can you imagine seeing your father personally nail 12 heads to your gate, therefore ensuring your eternal spinsterhood?

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Hippodamia decides to murder her father. Well, not exactly. She decides to make him lose the chariot race in such a way that he will suffer a violent death. So, whatever you’d call that. She convinces a naive stable boy to alter her father’s chariot so that Pelops will win the race. She could’ve, I don’t know, just ASKED him if he had magic horses, but she doesn’t even think about that. Communication is key, people!

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The stable boy, eager to please her, did more than he was asked to do. He took out the wooden pins that held the wheels to the axle, and replaced them with pins of wax.

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It’s impossible to find good help these days. The race goes on as planned, and boy is it the race of the century. Both teams of magical horses race at breakneck speeds, surprising the King, who thought that he  was the only one with steeds on speed. He tries his hardest to pull ahead of Pelops, causing the faulty wax pins in his chariot to give way. He is thrown to his death…which is kind of what he deserved…but seriously, couldn’t he have just lost the damn race?

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After only a little elbow grease and some murder, Pelops achieves his goal. He marries Hippodamia and they both go to trauma therapy and bond over their shared daddy issues. Pelops ensures that justice is served by “[flinging] the faithless stable boy into the sea and giving the old king a magnificent funeral feast.” But why? The boy was following orders, a little zealously, but still following orders. And you hated the king! What the heck, Pelops? This apology funeral is too convoluted.

Anyways, Pelops invites all the heroes and athletes of Greece and throws a big athletic festival for them. He holds the games on the plain of Olympia, thus originating the Olympics.

There you have it. The Olympic Games were originally held by a prince who was eaten by his father, then brought back to life, who then raced a king who was trying to murder him and cut off his head, but ended up dying in his daughter’s convoluted murder plot, thus forcing Pelops to throw a hypocritical apology funeral to save face/ not make his subjects think he’s a murdering usurper. Classic.

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It could all have turned out differently. Hippodamia, the “horse tamer” should have tamed the magic horses so that Pelops and Oenomaus could only race at normal speeds. Since they were both testosterone-filled speed junkies, they would’ve balked at the prospect of a “normal” contest and decided to settle the matter of the crown with a simple bout of classical Greek wrestling. Pelops would’ve won by way of his invincible ivory shoulder and been given the princess. No murdering involved.

The Dubious Moral: Hubris, or excessive pride, is the downfall of man. Oenomaus’ hubris led to his death. But also, human sacrifice is bad. Except, murdering your daughter’s suitors and spearing their head on a fence is okay. But murdering your father-in-law is bad. What a lesson, kids.

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