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2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes
Mythology

by Prof. Leslie Mechem, Classics

Few mythical families are more tortured than the House of Laius or have a more convoluted history. Ultimately, this tale is of the royal house of Thebes in Boeotia, its foundation and its downfall. Our sources for the saga of the House of Laius include three of Sophocles' tragedies, the Antigone, the Oedipus Tyrannos ("Oedipus the Usurper"; the Latin name is Oedipus Rex) and the Oedipus at Colonus, written at the end of the playwright's life (for this "Theban trilogy," see the essay on ancient theatrical Performance).

Cadmus, son of Agenor, King of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon), was the brother of Europa who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a beautiful white bull. Taken to the island of Crete by Zeus, Europa became the mother of Minos by the king of gods and men. Cadmus traveled to Delphi to consult Apollo’s oracle in order to find his sister. The oracle instructed Cadmus to follow a cow to Boeotia in central Greece where he founded the city of Thebes. Beside a spring, he killed a serpent and sowed its teeth into the ground, whereupon men sprang up from the sown teeth and fought one another. Five warriors survived this battle and became the ancestors of the Theban people. Later Cadmus married Harmonia, daughter of Aphrodite and Ares, and together they had four daughters: Ino, Autonoe, Semele and Agave. Creon and his sister Jocasta (the great-suffering mother and wife of Oedipus, as depicted by Sophocles in his Oedipus Tyrannos) are the great-grandchildren of Agave's son Pentheus (who figures prominently in Euripides' Bacchae).

Cadmus, son of Agenor, King of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon), was the brother of Europa who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a beautiful white bull. Taken to the island of Crete by Zeus, Europa became the mother of Minos by the king of gods and men. Cadmus traveled to Delphi to consult Apollo’s oracle in order to find his sister. The oracle instructed Cadmus to follow a cow to Boeotia in central Greece where he founded the city of Thebes. Beside a spring, he killed a serpent and sowed its teeth into the ground, whereupon men sprang up from the sown teeth and fought one another. Five warriors survived this battle and became the ancestors of the Theban people. Later Cadmus married Harmonia, daughter of Aphrodite and Ares, and together they had four daughters: Ino, Autonoe, Semele and Agave. Creon and his sister Jocasta (the great-suffering mother and wife of Oedipus, as depicted by Sophocles in his Oedipus Tyrannos) are the great-grandchildren of Agave's son Pentheus (who figures prominently in Euripides' Bacchae).

Oedipus and the Sphinx from a cup by Douris, 5th c. (courtesy Prof. L. Kim, Univ. of Texas, Austin)
Oedipus and the Sphinx from a cup by
Douris, 5th c. (courtesy Prof. L. Kim,
Univ. of Texas, Austin)

Oedipus grew up in Corinth in blissful ignorance of his heritage until a drunk taunted him with being an adopted child. In order to discover the truth Oedipus traveled to Delphi and, again, the oracle uttered the fateful prophesy. Horrified by this news, he vowed not to return to Corinth, believing that Polybus and Merope were his parents, and instead set out for Thebes. At a crossroads where three ways meet a group of travellers asked Oedipus to make way for the chariot conveying the king of Thebes (unbeknownst to Oedipus, this king was, of course, his father Laius). When Oedipus refused, the king struck him with a forked stick and, in retaliation, Oedipus killed him and his companions and continued on his journey to Thebes; one of the travellers survived (and would play a critical role later). For some years the Sphinx (a winged lion with a woman's head; her name means "the strangler,"), perched on high by a road leading into Thebes, had plagued the city by asking travellers a riddle. Failure to provide the correct response resulted in strangulation at the hands of the Sphinx. So much for hospitality! The riddle, written in dactylic hexameter (the meter of epic poetry and Delphic pronouncements) and described in the Oedipus, states, “Two-footed and four-footed and three-footed upon the earth, it has a single voice, and alone of all those on land or in the air or sea it changes form. And when it goes supported on three feet, then the speed of its limbs is weakest."

Creon, Jocasta’s brother and regent of Thebes, offered the now-vacant kingship and widowed Queen Jocasta to the man who answered the riddle correctly. Oedipus encountered the Sphinx upon his arrival at Thebes and solved the puzzle: “man,” who is on all fours as an infant, is two-footed as an adult, and is three-footed (with a cane) in old age. The Sphinx hurled herself to her death and brought an age of prosperity to Thebes. Oedipus, still unaware of the truth, married Jocasta and they had four children: Eteocles, Polyneices, Antigone, and Ismene. Incest, which this surely was, inflicted the city with miasma ("pollution" or "plague"), rendering the people, animals, and land infertile. Creon brought back word from Delphi that only the exile of Laius' murderer would avert the plague. Ever the good king, Oedipus relentlessly pursued the truth, only to find out from the sole survivor of the murder at the crossroads that he himself was the killer and thus had married his mother. Jocasta hung herself after these revelations, Oedipus put out his eyes with her dress pins, and blindly wandered the earth led by his daughters Antigone and Ismene after his expulsion from Thebes. Theseus, King of Athens, accepted Oedipus into Athens towards the end of his life and at his death Oedipus joined the gods (as told in the Oedipus at Colonus).

Before Oedipus’ death, he cursed his sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, to kill each other, perhaps because they had not tended him well in his old age. After his death, the boys quarreled about who should succeed to the throne. Eventually, Eteocles seized the kingdom and sent his brother Polyneices into exile. Polyneices then raised an army of seven heroes in the city of Argos (see map) and besieged Thebes. During the battle, the two brothers fought to the death before the walls of the city (as told by the tragedian Aeschylus in his Seven Against Thebes). Creon barred anyone from burying the exile Polyneices for his traitorous act but Antigone defied him, thus precipitating the consequences of her actions in The Burial at Thebes.

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