Sorry Honey, I Ate the Kids! The Eating Disorder of the Greeks

Tantalus painting by Gioacchino Assereto (1600-1649)
Tantalus painting by Gioacchino Assereto (1600-1649)


Americans have a problem with food.  The media is awash with stories of how we eat too much fast food, junk food, processed food, sugar, salt, fat, meat, carbohydrates and on and on.  We all eat too much, except for those of us who eat too little.  We don’t eat enough home-cooked food, we don’t spend enough time eating with our families, we don’t eat food slowly enough, savoring every bite of it, and the list goes on.

I am not going to deny any of these charges.  I would just like to point out that it could be worse.  At least we don’t eat our children.

The characters in ancient Greek mythology did, or at least some of them did.  I am re-reading The Oresteia by Aeschylus, which is based on the myth of the House of Atreus.  The story is complicated, but its basic point is this:  if you serve people’s children for dinner, bad stuff is gonna happen to you and your descendants.

The mythological figure of Tantalus started the whole mess.  This guy thought he was the coolest dude on the Mediterranean because the gods sometimes invited him to dinner.  (For a 21st century American, that would probably be like being invited to dinner by the hottest Hollywood movie stars or perhaps by your favorite NFL team.)  His head started to swell (not unlike some professional athletes and movie stars) because of this swell treatment, and he developed a condition known as hubris—the overweening pride that usually goeth before a fall.

So one night a bunch of gods and goddesses came over for dinner.  He was all out of groceries, so rather than calling for take-out, he decided to chop up his own son Pelops and serve him, roasted, to his high class friends.  (Some versions of the myth say he was trying to test them to see if they were really omniscient.)

Let’s just say the party didn’t go all that well.  When the gods found out that their meal wasn’t made of tofu, they were horrified.  They brought Pelops back to life and sent their pal Tantalus to Hades.  His punishment was to be eternally thirsty and hungry.  The gods surrounded him with luscious food and drink, but whenever he tried to reach for food and drink, it blew away, out of his grasp.  Thus, he remains tortured eternally by thirst and hunger and is the source of our word tantalizing.

You’d think Tantalus’s descendants would learn from the errors of their ancestor, but apparently they weren’t that bright.  A whole heap of bad stuff happened to Tantalus’s descendants after the ill-fated dinner party.  We will fast forward, though, to the rivalry between Thyestes and Atreus, the grandsons of Tantalus.  They both wanted to be king, so they were always fighting.  First, Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife.  Then, to get revenge, Atreus followed in his grandpa’s footsteps.  Rather than cooking his own children for dinner, though, he cooked Thyestes’s children and served them to Thyestes, who unknowingly ate his own children for dinner.

So if you are beating yourself up over your latest trip to McDonald’s or the Dairy Queen, give yourself a break.  You could do a lot worse.

Just saying.

Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

6 thoughts on “Sorry Honey, I Ate the Kids! The Eating Disorder of the Greeks”

  1. Some children I’ve seen at the Mall should be eaten. How to value organic or GM children? If we as a species eat even those species close to our mammalian selves, like dog and monkey, maybe cat–I don’t know about cat–and if we eat what we name delicacies like brain and eyeball, and how is that different from liver and kidneys, and if we are downed in the Andes, and some of the children die, well…and then there is Papua New Guinea…well, the gods, rock stars, and NFL teams aren’t that far ahead of us. It’s obvious some of those types have eaten children. And then there’s “Soylent Green”…However, I’m not yet tantalized.

      1. After a brief glance I certainly do remember studying ‘A Modest Proposal’! What a wonder! Thanks for shining a light in the tunnel of my first appetites–English literature and its many allusions.

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