The Tale Of Pelops


Pelops was the king of Pisa, a city located in the Elis region of the Peloponnese Peninsula. According to the ancient texts, Pelops named the region after himself following his successful triumph over its former ruler Oenomaus.

Because he was a direct descendant of Tantalus , the life of Pelops was filled with a turbulent mixture of ups and downs. Below is a small peek inside of the uncertain world of this many-sided individual.


The Tale of Pelops and Tantalus

Dione and PelopsPelops was the son of the Lydian king Tantalus and the sea nymph Dione. When he was just a boy, his impetuous father invited the gods of Mount Olympus to a lavish banquet that he was hosting at his home on Mount Sipylus.

In order to test the wisdom of his divine guests, Tantalus ordered that his young son be butchered and his body parts be mercilessly added into the evening meal.

Unaware of the cruel joke that was being played on them, the Olympians took their places at the banquet table and anxiously waited for dinner to be served.

But when their plates were set out before them, the stunned deities recoiled in horror, for they immediately recognized the meat inside of their bowls to be bite sized pieces of human flesh!

Only Demeter, who was so distraught over the loss of her precious daughter Persephone unwittingly ate a mouthful of the unclean concoction and so consumed a portion of the poor boy's shoulder.

As punishment for his wicked deed, Zeus cast Tantalus into the deepest part of Tartarus. He then ordered Hermes to collect the uneaten limbs from the banquet table and return them to the original cooking pot.

As they boiled rapidly over the intense flames of the kitchen hearth, Zeus cast a magic spell as Clotho, the youngest of the three Fates carefully put Pelops back together.

Because Demeter had mistakenly ingested part of Pelop's left shoulder, Hephaestus fashioned a replacement piece from a bit of fine ivory and graciously attached it to his body.

Rhea then administered the breath of life and in that instant Pelops stood before the gods looking bright-eyed and the picture of health.

It is said that when the lad stepped out of the cauldron, his newly acquired radiance was so inviting that Poseidon found himself to be instantly smitten with love.

The impulsive god loaded Pelops in a chariot drawn by a set of gilded horses and swiftly whisked him off to Mount Olympus. The young man assumed the role of Poseidon's cup bearer until Zeus, in retaliation for the crimes of Tantalus chose to hurl the youth briskly off of the mountain top.

According to Robert Graves, Pelops did not learn of his ivory shoulder until he was compelled to bare his breast while mourning the death of his sister Niobe. After his passing, the relic was entombed in Pisa until it was eventually carried away during the height of the Trojan War.


Pelops and Hippodamia

Pelops and OenomausAfter the fall of his father Tantalus, Pelops became ruler over the Anatolian regions of Paphlagonia, Lydia and Phrygia.

It came to be that a horde of barbarian tribes invaded the town of Paphlagonia and forced Pelops to return back to his ancestral home near Mount Sipylus.

However, his return to Lydia would prove to be anything but peaceful for the young man, for shortly after entering his homeland, the region was fiercely attacked by King Ilus of Troy.

Fearing the impending assault of the approaching army, Pelops gathered up his riches and took flight across the Aegean Sea into the city of Pisa. Wanting to start a new life for himself, Pelops decided to take the beautiful Princess Hippodamia as his bride.

But unfortunately this would prove to be no easy task, for years before it had been prophesied to her father King Oenomaus, that one day he would lose his life at the hands of his future son-in-law.

In order to escape this most unpleasant fate, Oenomaus declared that Hippodamia would only be given in marriage to the first suitor who could successfully beat him in a chariot race.

Any participant that took part in the contest and failed to defeat the king would be immediately decapitated. Their heads would then be firmly placed atop of the many wooden columns that lined the front of the palace.

To guarantee a victory for himself, Pelops sought the help of Myrtilus, a son of Hermes and the trusted charioteer of the king. For his cooperation, Pelops promised to reward Myrtilus with half of Oenomaus' kingdom along with the priviledge of being the first man to make entrance into Hippodamia's bedchamber.

Finding the offer to tempting to resist, Myrtilus agreed, and on the night before the great race slyly replaced one of Oenomaus' bronze linchpins with one made of beeswax.

The competition began as normal, but just as the two men approached the finish line the faulty pin caused the wheels to break away from the axletree and Oenomaus' chariot was destroyed. Though Pelops was not hurt in the accident, the unlucky king was tragically dragged to death by his powerful team of horses.

When Myrtilus came forward to collect Hippodamia as his reward, Pelops took hold of the charioteer and threw him off of a high cliff and into the sea below. As Myrtilus fell to his death, he called out and placed an evil curse upon Pelops and all of his descendants.

One can say that this curse of Myrtilus had quite a bit of merit, as death and destruction did indeed fill the lives of many of Pelop's children and grandchildren.

Please see my pages on Atreus and Thyestes, Agamemnon, and Orestes, to see more examples of the hardships that plagued the future generations of Pelops.


Pelops and The Trojan War

AchillesDuring the time of the Trojan War it was prophesied to the Greeks that Troy would continue to thrive until both the Bow of Heracles and a fragment from the remains of Pelops were secretly brought into the city.

In order to comply with the advice of the oracle, the ivory shoulder was removed from its resting place in Pisa and placed upon a ship bound for Troy. During the course of the journey, the travelers encountered a pounding storm near the coast of Euboea and both the relic and vessel were lost at sea.

Many years after the fall of Troy, the shoulder was dredged out of the water by a fisherman named Damarmenus. Not knowing what to do with his find, Damarmenus kept the mysterious piece hidden away until one day he decided to bring it before the oracle at Delphi.

As fate may have it, he was joined by an embassy from Elis who desperately needed help in removing the terrible plague that was currently infecting their land. The Pythia proclaimed that the curse would be removed once the divine piece of ivory was gifted to the delegation.

To show their appreciation, the people of Elis proclaimed that from that time forward, the shoulder of Pelops would be preserved at Olympia and faithfully watched over by Damarmenus and all his future generations.

I must add that there is a difference of opinion as to whether the bones of Pelops actually played any part in the original account of the fall of Troy.

It is thought that the shoulder of Pelops is a later addition to Homer's earlier writings which indicate the fall of Troy was dependant upon three things; acquiring the Bow of Heracles, stealing the Palladium, and securing Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles as an ally.

Another interesting fact was recorded by the Greek traveler Pausanius in his work titled Description of Greece. According to the ancient text, the fisherman Damarmenus was truly taken back by the immense size of the ivory shoulder, indicating that Pelops must have been a man of great stature and quite giant-like in appearance.


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