Pelops and Hippodameia
Pelops and Hippodameia, Attic red-figure neck amphora, 410 BC. (National Archaeological Museum, Arezzo, Italy)

While the events of the previous page were taking place in the Argolis (the northeast part of the Peloponnese), another hero named Pelops was establishing his rule in Elis (the area of Olympia, in the northwest Peloponnese). 

Pelops' father Tantalos was a son of Zeus and seems to have been originally an Anatolian mountain god connected with Mount Sipylos (near Izmir in Turkey). Tantalos was obsessed with proving himself superior to the gods, and concocted several bizarre schemes to accomplish this. Once he stole the nectar and ambrosia which made the gods immortal and for a while gave the divine food to mortals, until the gods stopped him. But he is best known for the "Feast of Tantalos," a dinner party to which he invited all the gods. Before they arrived, he chopped up his young son Pelops and then, putting aside identifiable parts like the head and hands, he mixed Pelops' flesh into the main course (Rice Pelops?). figuring that if any of the gods ate a piece of Pelops this would prove that he, Tantalos, knew something the gods didn't know.  All the gods recognized Pelops in the pot and refused to eat, with one exception: Demeter, who was in mourning for the loss of her daughter Persephone, absentmindedly picked at her food and ate Pelops' right shoulder.  The other gods immediately pointed out to her what she had done, and they then put the remaining parts of Pelops into a cauldron while Demeter or Rhea put in magic herbs and spoke incantations. Pelops jumped out of the cauldron alive and reconstituted, but missing a shoulder, so Demeter gave him a shining ivory replacement. In archaic Greek literature Pelops is always called "gleaming-shouldered Pelops," and the ivory shoulder made him irresistable to all.

Pelops now came to Olympia to race king Oinomaos for the hand of his daughter Hippodameia. Already twelve suitors had competed and lost, and Oinomaos had nailed their heads to his palace wall. But this time Hippodameia fell in love with her new suitor Pelops, and she persuaded her father's charioteer Myrtilos, who was also in love with her, to sabotage Oinomaos' chariot. Myrtilos put wax pins into the chariot wheels, and when the race began and the wheels got hot the wax melted and the wheels fell off. Oinomaos fell from the chariot, was entangled in the reins, and died. Pelops now became king of Elis and soon afterwards caught Myrtilos trying to seduce Hippodameia and killed him by throwing him over a cliff. As Myrtilos fell, he cursed Pelops, and it is this curse which will eventually lead to all the horrible disasters which will afflict Pelops' descendants (Atreus, Thyestes, Agamemnon, Klytemnestra, etc.).

Pelops and Hippodameia had many children, especially daughters, and many of these daughters married sons of Perseus and Andromeda.  In this way the royal dynasties of the eastern and western Peloponnese were united, and that is why the whole area came to be known as the "Island of Pelops" or Peloponnese.

Tantalos is one of the four criminals (along with Sisyphos, Tityos, and Ixion) mentioned in early Greek literature as suffering special punishments in Tartaros. The punishment of Tantalos is to be forever hungry and thirsty (hence the English word "tantalize").

The fate of Pelops at the hands of his father is similar to that of Osiris in Egyptian myth. Parts of his dismembered body were hidden throughout Egypt. When his sister/wife Isis found the parts and re-assembled Osiris, one part was missing, and so she had to provide him with an ivory or wooden phallus.

Return to Dick Caldwell's Greek Myths Index