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I'm looking for the name of an ancient man who was subject to being served his own children in pieces and eating them unknowingly. He was invited for dinner by the king where this took place.

Later, he had the chance to revenge himself, helping with a battle in which that king was killed.

Does anyone recall who might fit this description? This may have been an actual event, but my memory fails me(probably in more ways than this), so I'm putting this into the myths section.

Thanks!

Update: Tantalus may be a candidate for the "king" whereas Demeter for the victim, but I am pretty sure in this case it was a father who ate his children, and he was later shown the rest of their bodies cut into pieces in baskets.

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    This reminds me (has some elements) of the Shakespeare play Titus Andronicus, but instead of a king it has Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, unknowingly eating her own children.
    – Rodia
    Apr 23, 2018 at 14:27
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    @Rodia I agree strongly. Shakespeare has "a little Latin and less Greek" and heavily influenced by Ovid. The situation in Titus Andronicus is an analog and extension of Philomel.
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 24, 2018 at 18:05
  • Good memory. The victim in the Tantalus variant is Pelops, founder of the House of Atreus (see my answer) and so, still connected. Pelops was subsequently resurrected, and the shoulder that Demeter ate, in her distraction over her missing daughter, was restored. (Demeter wasn't the target of Tantalus, and his motives are unclear, but I'm not sure she is even collateral damage in that, as a representation of the earth that yields crops, all human flesh returns to her eventually.)
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 24, 2018 at 18:29
  • The tag says Greek, but the motif occurs in Norse also, with Guðrún serving Atli their children. Dec 7, 2021 at 22:05

6 Answers 6

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This sounds like Thyestes, brother of Atreus. (Atreus was the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus.)

Atreus now sent a herald to lure Thyestes back to Mycenae with the offer of an amnesty and a half-share in the kingdom; but, as soon as Thyestes accepted this, [Atreus] slaughtered Aglaus, Orchomenus, and Callileon, Thyeste's three sons by one of the Naiads, on the very altar of Zeus where thy had taken refuge; and then sought out and killed the infant Pleisthenes the Second, and Tantalus the Second, his twin. He hacked them all limb from limb, and set chosen morsels of thier flesh, boiled in a cauldron, before Thyestes, to welcome him on his return. When Thyestes had eaten heartily, Atreus sent in their bloody heads and feet and hands, laid out on another dish, to show [Thyestes] what was now inside his belly. Thyestes fell back, vomiting, and laid an ineluctable curse upon the seed of Atreus.
The Greek Myths, citing Tzetzes: Chiliades i.18 ff; Apollodorus: Epitome ii.13; Hyginus: Fabulae 88, 246, and 258; Scholiast on Horace's Art of Poetry; Aeschylus: Agamemnon 1590 ff.

This is the origin of the "Curse of the Atreides". Some family!

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    We like academic citations ;) My effort on your answer reflects the quality of this Q/A, where the corollary answers also comment on the main answer.
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 24, 2018 at 20:16
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    The killing and serving of Thyestes' sons was itself revenge for Thyestes' cuckolding of Atreus, and so not the first manifestation or cause of the curse, which goes back at least to the killing and serving of Pelops. Dec 7, 2021 at 22:00
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After some searching, I found the reference I was looking for:

It was Harpagus, and it was an "actual event" written up by Herodotus. [Source Garden History Reference Encyclopedia]

Wiki, quoting Burkert (Homo Necans) states that:

Herodotus accounts for the turn of Harpagus' support to a version of the cannibal feast of Thyestes.

See: Herodotus, The Histories, 111 ff. and Herodotus: Book One; Early History of Persia (reed.edu) for a guide.


Gee, my memory is still really really sharp when it comes to the details of unfoldings.

Thank you everyone!

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  • The funny part is that of all the mythological examples given, you picked the one that's from a historian! And it's not the only incident of this kind in Herodotus!
    – cmw
    Dec 6, 2021 at 21:22
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As I put in comment, this reminded me of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus play.

In the Wikipedia page, under the Sources section, it cites Ovid's Metamorphoses:

The primary source for the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, as well as Titus' subsequent revenge, is Ovid's Metamorphoses (c.AD 8), which is featured in the play itself when Lavinia uses it to help explain to Titus and Marcus what happened to her during the attack. In the sixth book of Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of the rape of Philomela, daughter of Pandion I, King of Athens. Despite ill omens, Philomela's sister, Procne, marries Tereus of Thrace and has a son for him, Itys. After five years in Thrace, Procne yearns to see her sister again, so she persuades Tereus to travel to Athens and accompany Philomela back to Thrace. Tereus does so, but he soon begins to lust after Philomela. When she refuses his advances, he drags her into a forest and rapes her. He then cuts out her tongue to prevent her from telling anyone of the incident and returns to Procne, telling her that Philomela is dead. However, Philomela weaves a tapestry, in which she names Tereus as her assailant, and has it sent to Procne. The sisters meet in the forest and together plot their revenge. They kill Itys and cook his body in a pie, which Procne then serves to Tereus. During the meal, Philomela reveals herself, showing Itys' head to Tereus and telling him what they have done.

So the answer may be Tereus of Thrace, son of Ares, except instead of a final battle you get birds.

From Wikipedia too:

Tereus desired his wife's sister, Philomela. He forced himself upon her, then cut her tongue out and held her captive so she could never tell anyone. He told his wife that her sister had died. Philomela wove letters in a tapestry depicting Tereus's crime and sent it secretly to Procne. In revenge, Procne killed Itys and served his flesh in a meal to his father Tereus. When Tereus learned what she had done, he tried to kill the sisters but all three were changed by the Olympian Gods into birds: Tereus became a hoopoe; Procne became the nightingale whose song is a song of mourning for the loss of her child; Philomela became the swallow, which has no song.

And from Theoi:

TEREUS. A king in Thrake (north of Greece) whose wife and sister-in-law slew their infant son and fed him to the king. When he discovered their crime, they fled to escape, and sympathetic gods transformed them into birds - nightingale and swallow. However, Ares (most likely), sympathetic to his son, transformed the king into a hawk, so that he could exact his vengeance for eternity on the two women.

EDIT:

For the sake of completeness, there's another mythological king that was served his own son in a banquet: Clymenus, a king of Arcadia who committed incest with his daughter Harpalyce, and as a revenge she served him up his son(s). Harpalyce was then turned into a bird.

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    There's also the story of Thyestes and his brother Atreus.
    – yannis
    Apr 23, 2018 at 15:11
  • @yannis Thyestes may be the right answer. It lacks that final battle too, but at least it has confrontation instead of ornithology :). And it's quite a larger and more important myth than this of Tereus. You should turn it into an answer.
    – Rodia
    Apr 23, 2018 at 15:32
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How about Jason, who was served his own sons baked in a pie by Medea?

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    It would be best if you can flesh this out a bit with more details!
    – Semaphore
    May 26, 2020 at 5:46
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If widening to include Asia, in Zhou(周) Dynasty of ancient China, there is a legend of Zhou' s origin. Zhou' s first emperor(or king?) is 周武王, his father is 周文王.

The dynasty before Zhou is Xia(夏), and Xia' s last emperor is considered cruel by later generations. 周文王 was one of the powerful vassals of Xia. The Xia emperor feast 周文王, reward him food. But it was made by meat sauce of 周文王' s first son. The sad father had to eat. And years later, he with his another son(周武王) and other people who are dissatisfied with the Xia emperor's rule overthrew the Xia Dynasty.

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  • I briefly considered bringing in Chinese cannibalism into my doctoral work, but left it out due to scope. I would however love some sources for these, primary or secondary, or anything, really.
    – cmw
    Dec 20, 2022 at 19:11
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There is a lot of detail in that question. Several text come to mind that have one or more of the details, but not exactly all of them.

#1. Grimms "The Juniper Tree" The stepmother lets a heavy lid fall on her stepson's head, cutting it off. She sets up the body so that the sister thinks she is to blame. Stepmother cooks the body and blood of the son and serves it to the biological father who eagerly eats it. (In a nutshell). - 1 kid, not 2.

#2. The Wayland Smith text from the Elder Edda. The king captures Volundar (Wayland), cuts his hamstrings so he can't walk and imprisons him on an island where he makes jewels for the king. Volundar revenge is that he lures the kings 2 sons to him with the promise of gold and jewels and tells them to come in secret. He also opens a chest with a big heavy lid on it (this is where the Grimm KHM text might have come from) and lets the lid fall cutting the boys heads off. He skins the skulls, throws their bodies under the quenching trough and makes gobblets out of the skulls and gives them to the king to drink out of. He takes their eyes and makes jewels out of them for the kings wife. He then lures the kings daughter to him, gives her a sleeping potion, rapes and impregnates her and lets her go again. The king is meanwhile wondering where his sons are. Volundar ends up telling him all of it and getting his revenge. He takes wings he has made and flys away.

These Norse had some really wild stories 1000+ years ago.

So one can see, there are several elements here. The king does not eat his children, but he drinks wine from their skulls, and there are 2 children who are killed. The father in "The Juniper Tree" also unknowingly eats his son, but only 1 child, not both.

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