Athamas, son of Aeolus, was a central figure in several myths, mostly concerned with the actions and fate of his wives and children. These were the subject of several tragedies, including three by Sophocles and three by Euripides. We do not know what part of Athamas’ story was dealt with in Aeschylus’ play; our only clue is provided by two fragments (frr. 1, 2a) which show that there was mention of a child (probably one of a pair) being thrown into a cauldron. This will refer to one or the other of Athamas’ two children by his second wife Ino, Learchus and Melicertes. According to pseudo-Apollodorus (3.4.3, cf. 1.9.2) Athamas and Ino were driven mad by Hera for having agreed to care for the child Dionysus (whose mother Semele was Ino’s sister): Athamas shot Learchus with an arrow, under the delusion that he was a deer, while Ino threw Melicertes into a boiling cauldron and leaped into the sea, taking the cauldron with her. In another version, preserved in the ancient introduction (Hypothesis) to Pindar’s Isthmians, it was Learchus, after he had been killed, whom Ino put in the cauldron (presumably in the hope of restoring him to life—compare the story of Medea and the daughters of1
τὸν μὲν τρίπους ἐδέξατ᾿ οἰκεῖος λέβης αἰεὶ φυλάσσων τὴν ὑπὲρ πυρὸς στάσινAthenaeus 2.37e
Pelias), and it was only later that she was driven mad and leaped into the sea with Melicertes; but this was clearly not the version Aeschylus gave, sinceτὸν μὲν in fr. 1 shows that the boy who was boiled was mentioned before the one who was shot. In any case, the account appears to be a retrospective summary rather than a full narrative, and Aeschylus’ play will therefore have been about something that befell Athamas after his loss of Ino and her children. The story about Athamas that was dramatized most often was that of the near-sacrifice of Phrixus, his son by Nephele, who eventually escaped with his sister Helle on a golden ram (Helle falling off into what became known as the Hellespont, Phrixus safely reaching Colchis). This story usually begins with a plot against the sons of Nephele by their stepmother Ino, but in some accounts (reported by a scholiast to Pindar, Pythian 4.288 ), the stepmother is differently named, and the mythographer Pherecydes (fr. 98 Fowler), a contemporary of Aeschylus, named her as Themisto—who is virtually always Athamas’ last wife, after Nephele and Ino. Possibly therefore Aeschylus’ play dealt with the Phrixus story but placed it after (and not, like most later accounts, before) the Learchus-Melicertes story.1
One of them was swallowed up by a three-legged household cauldron, which always kept its place over the fire.