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[12] But Zeus sent Hermes to Atreus and told him to stipulate with Thyestes that Atreus should be king if the sun should go backward; and when Thyestes agreed, the sun set in the east; hence the deity having plainly attested the usurpation of Thyestes, Atreus got the kingdom and banished Thyestes.1

1 This story of the golden lamb, and of the appeal made to its possession by the two brothers in the contest for the kingdom, is told in substantially the same way by Tzetzes, Chiliades i.425ff.; Scholiast on Hom. Il. ii.106; Scholiast on Eur. Or. 811, 998. Tzetzes records the vow of Atreus to sacrifice the best of his flock to Artemis, and he cites as his authority Apollonius, which is almost certainly a mistake for Apollodorus. Probably Tzetzes and the Scholiasts drew on the present passage of Apollodorus, or rather on the passage as it appeared in the unabridged text instead of in the Epitome which is all that we now possess of the last part of the Library. Euripides told the story allusively in much the same way. See Eur. El. 699ff.; Eur. Or. 996ff. Compare Plat. Stat. 12; Paus. 2.18.1; Lucian, De astrologia 12; Dio Chrysostom lxvi. vol. ii. p. 221, ed. L. Dindorf; Accius, quoted by Cicero, De natura deorum iii.27.68; Seneca, Thyestes 222-235; Lactantius Placidus on Statius, Theb. iv.306; Scriptores rerum mythicarum Latini, ed. Bode, i. pp. 7, 125ff. (First Vatican Mythographer 22; Second Vatican Mythographer 147). From these various accounts and allusions it would seem that in their dispute for the kingdom, which Atreus claimed in right of birth as the elder (Tzetzes, Chiliades i.426), it was agreed that he who could exhibit the greatest portent should be king. Atreus intended to produce the golden lamb, which had been born in his flocks; but meanwhile the lamb had been given by his treacherous wife Aerope to her paramour Thyestes, who produced it in evidence of his claim and was accordingly awarded the crown. However, with the assistance of Zeus, the rightful claimant Atreus was able to exhibit a still greater portent, which was the sun and the Pleiades retracing their course in the sky and setting in the east instead of in the west. This mighty marvel, attesting the divine approbation of Atreus, clinched the dispute in his favour; he became king, and banished his rival Thyestes. According to a different account, which found favour with the Latin poets, the sun reversed his course in the sky, not in order to demonstrate the right of Atreus to the crown, but on the contrary to mark his disgust and horror at the king for murdering his nephews and dishing up their mangled limbs to their father Thyestes at table. See Tzetzes, Chiliades i.451; Statyllius Flaccus, in Anth. Pal. ix.98.2; Hyginus, Fab. 88, 258; Ovid, Tristia ii.391ff.; Ovid, Ars Am. i.327ff.; Seneca, Thyestes 776ff.; Martial iii.45.1ff. From the verses of Statyllius Flaccus we may infer that this latter was the interpretation put on the backward motion of the sun by Sophocles in his tragedy Atreus. See The Fragments of Sophocles, ed. A. C. Pearson, i.93. In later times rationalists explained the old fable by saying that Atreus was an astronomer who first calculated an eclipse, and so threw his less scientific brother into the shade (Hyginus, Fab. 158; Serv. A. 1.568), or who first pointed out that the sun appears to revolve in a direction contrary to the motion of the stars. See Strab. 1.2.15; Lucian, De astrologia 12. A fragment of Euripides appears to show that he put in the mouth of Atreus this claim to astronomical discovery. See TGF (Nauck 2nd ed.), p. 639, frag. 861. A still more grandiose explanation of the myth was given by Plato l.c., who adduced it, with grave irony, as evidence that in alternate cycles of vast duration the universe revolves in opposite directions, the reversal of its motion at the end of each cycle being accompanied by a great destruction of animal life. This magnificent theory was perhaps suggested to the philosopher by the speculations of Empedocles, and it bears a resemblance not only to the ancient Indian doctrine of successive epochs of creation and destruction, but also to Herbert Spencer's view of the great cosmic process as moving eternally in alternate and measureless cycles of evolution and dissolution. See Sir Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, 12th ed. (London, 1875), i.7, quoting the Laws of Manu; Herbert Spencer, First Principles, 3rd ed. (London, 1875), pp. 536ff. Compare Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild, ii.303ff.

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