Cadmus and his Children. The House of Thebes is also famous because of a great tragedian: Sophocles and his plays about Oedipus. This first section comes from Apollodorus, however. Cadmus, the dynastic father of the House of Thebes, is the brother of Europa (who Zeus kidnapped in the form of a bull). He asks the oracle at Delphi about her whereabouts, and the oracle says to not worry about Europa, but for Cadmus to instead found his own city. He then follows a magical heifer to the place where Thebes will be built.
The story returns to the first myth of the book, as Europa’s brother becomes the founder of Thebes. Like the house of Atreus, this chapter will center around a single family. It will also focus strongly on fate and punishment, and exists in just as dark a world as the Oresteia. Oedipus is the most famous member of the house, and from his story come modern ideas like Freud’s psychology.
Before he can build the city, Cadmus has to slay the dragon that guards a nearby spring. When it is dead, Athena tells him to sow the earth with the dragon’s teeth, and then armed men rise up from the soil. Five of them become Cadmus’s helpers, and together they build the prosperous city of Thebes. Cadmus marries Harmonia, and Aphrodite gives the bride a necklace made by Hephaestus – which will later bring tragedy.
This motif of dragon’s teeth giving birth to armed men is repeated in Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. The family of Cadmus is not punished because Cadmus committed any sin – he has an extremely successful life – it is simply the random design of the Fates and the gods.
Cadmus’s good fortune does not extend to his four daughters, however. Semele is killed by Zeus’s glory before giving birth to Dioysus, and Ino becomes the cruel stepmother of Phrixus (from the Golden Fleece story) and tries to kill herself after her insane husband kills her son (though the gods later transform her into a sea-goddess). Agave is driven mad by Dionysus so that she kills her own son Pentheus with her bare hands.
Many of the earlier myths coincide with this generation of the House of Thebes. The earlier chapters on Dionysus, Jason, and even Odysseus (who is saved by Ino as a sea-goddess) all intersect here. The violent, tragic fates begin here, and for some reason continue on to the characters’ descendants.
Cadmus’s last daughter, Autonoe, has a son named Actaeon, who is a hunter. He unknowingly comes across Artemis’s bathing pool and sees the goddess naked. The angry Artemis immediately transforms Actaeon into a stag, and then he is killed by his own faithful hunting dogs.
Here again is Artemis showing her angry, merciless side. Actaeon’s sin was only accidental, but the gods cannot suffer any slight to their pride and divinity – and Actaeon was even a hunter, the profession beloved by Artemis herself.
Because of their daughters’ tragedies, Cadmus and Harmonia suffer greatly in their old age. They eventually leave Thebes in their sorrow, and then the gods change them into serpents for no reason – not as punishment, but as proof that the innocent suffer as much as the guilty.
Hamilton leaves this last story ambiguous, but connects it to the overarching theme of this section. In these tragic worlds, horrible things happen for no good reason other than fate, even when characters are not evil themselves.
Oedipus. The greatest tragedy of the family, however, passes to Oedipus, Cadmus’s great-great-grandson. The oracle at Delphi warns King Laius (Oedipus’s father) that his son will kill him. Laius tries to avoid this fate by leaving his infant son tied up to die on a mountain. Laius then feels he has evaded Apollo’s decree, but his hubris punishes him in the end. He is killed years later on a highway, by a man assumed to be a stranger.
This is the famous example of a character trying to escape his fate and unwittingly fulfilling it with his actions. Like Cronus or Acrisius trying to kill the children that will overthrow them, Laius’s actions only mean that Oedipus doesn’t recognize him when they quarrel on the road. Sophocles exploits these ironies of fate throughout the story.
Around this time Thebes is being besieged by the Sphinx, a monster like a winged lion with a woman’s breast and face. The Sphinx kills any wayfarers who cannot answer her riddle, to the point that Thebes closes its seven gates and nears the point of famine.
Though intriguing, the Sphinx could be a monster from any hero’s quest. Oedipus could potentially have been a traditional hero except for his horrible fate.
Meanwhile Oedipus, who has grown up in Corinth as the son of the King, Polybus, leaves his home to try and avoid another Delphic prophecy – the oracle had told Oedipus that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Because of this, Oedipus vows to flee Polybus forever. He then comes to Thebes, learns of the Sphinx, and determines to solve her riddle.
Oedipus, like Laius, seals his fate in the very act of trying to escape it. The tragedy of this play is that though Oedipus is a good man and even heroic – he altruistically decides to save the people of Thebes and slay the Sphinx – he still cannot escape the atrocities he is destined to commit.
The riddle the Sphinx asks Oedipus is: “What creature goes on four feet in the morning, two at noonday, and three in the evening?” Oedipus answers correctly – “Man” – who crawls as a baby, walks upright as an adult, and in old age uses a cane. The Sphinx, somehow defeated by this, kills herself. The grateful people of Thebes make Oedipus their King, and he marries Laius’s widowed wife Jocasta.
Unlike Orestes, Oedipus does not realize it when he commits his great sins. He kills Laius, but it is implied that it was in self-defense. In marrying his mother, he is only doing the politically acceptable thing. The riddle of the Sphinx has lasted through the ages.
Oedipus and Jocasta have two sons, and when they are grown a terrible plague comes to Thebes. Nothing will grow, and disease kills many people. Oedipus sends Creon, Jocasta’s brother, to Delphi to ask Apollo for help. The oracle tells Creon that the plague will be lifted when Laius’s murderer is punished. Oedipus is relieved at such a simple solution, and he sends for the old blind prophet Teiresias for help.
Oedipus also acts heroically, like Theseus, in being a wise ruler, and also in working hard to find the murderer of Laius to help his people. The oracle acts as an important plot device in this story, as the horrible pieces begin to come together.
At first Teiresias refuses to reveal Laius’s murderer, though it is clear he knows the truth. Oedipus forces him, and Teiresias finally says that Oedipus himself is the guilty man. At first Oedipus and Jocasta dismiss the prophet’s words, but then they piece together the past events: Oedipus had killed a man in an argument on the road, and now they see that this was Laius.
Teiresias’s gift of prophecy is a curse here, as it was with Cassandra or Phineus. The terror of the truth is associated with the nature of Apollo – the God of Truth and Light, but also the Archer, and the oracle that tells Oedipus’s fate.
At that moment a messenger arrives from Corinth, telling Oedipus of King Polybus’s death. At first Oedipus and Jocasta are relieved, as they think the oracle was wrong about Oedipus’s curse, but then the messenger reveals that Oedipus was not really Polybus’s son – he was instead brought to the palace by a shepherd. The old shepherd then appears, and confesses that the child he brought to Polybus was Laius’s son, condemned because of a prophecy.
All the pieces fall into place in one terrible scene. The tragedy is that the horrible deeds have already been done, and there is only the knowledge of them that still has to be dealt with. It was a series of unhappy coincidences that led to Oedipus’s fate, not any sin of his own. The moral seems to be that Fate cannot be changed, no matter how one acts.
Oedipus realizes then that he has already fulfilled the horrible prophecy about himself – he has killed his father and married his mother – and that he, Jocasta, and their children are all cursed. He rushes to find Jocasta, but she has already killed herself. Oedipus then gouges out his own eyes in anguish.
This is another part of Oedipus’s tragic heroism – like Orestes, he must face the incredibly hard fate he has been dealt and somehow find atonement. Like Hercules, he punishes himself harshly for his sins, which are in many ways just accidents.
Antigone. Oedipus gives up his kingship, but he remains in Thebes. He has two sons, Polyneices (who also abdicates the throne) and Eteocles, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. The rule of Thebes passes to Creon, Jocasta’s brother. After many peaceful years the Thebans suddenly decide to exile Oedipus, and Antigone goes with him to guide him, while Ismene stays in Thebes.
Oedipus takes the more heroic path than Jocasta, as his punishment is living with his crimes and enduring the worst that the universe can offer, but still managing to survive and live a life of contemplation. His sons are not as monstrous as they would seem from their parentage, but they do inherit tragedy and sorrow.
After Oedipus is gone, his two sons begin to fight over the throne. Eteocles succeeds (though he is younger), and Polyneices flees to Argos where he tries to raise an army against his brother. Meanwhile Oedipus and Antigone come to Colonus, a place near Athens that is sacred to the Eumenides, the former Furies. Theseus welcomes Oedipus with honor, Ismene visits him, and the old man dies at peace.
Oedipus is finally rewarded for his heroism by dying peacefully and receiving a similar kind of atonement to Orestes, also involving the Euminides. Theseus returns to the story as a defender of virtue and a protector of the condemned.
Ismene and Antigone return to Thebes to find their brothers at war. Polyneices marches against Thebes with six chieftains and their armies. These seven attack the seven gates of Thebes, while seven champions also defend those gates.
These are the original “Seven Against Thebes.” The war is based on a sibling tragedy like Atreus and Thyestes, but now Antigone and Ismene are caught in between.
Teiresias tells Creon that Thebes will only be saved if Menoeceus, Creon’s son, is sacrificed. Creon refuses to do this, and asks Menoeceus to flee the city, but the brave youth, hearing Teiresias’s prophecy, sneaks into battle and is immediately killed. Eteocles and Polyneices kill each other on the battlefield, and as he dies, Polyneices asks to be buried in Thebes, his homeland.
The brothers find a kind of reconciliation in their deaths, though the war has now grown larger than their personal quarrel. Polyneices’ last request sets the stage for the next tragedy to come. Moneoceus becomes yet another sacrificial youth.
The battle continues even though the brothers are dead, but Thebes is ultimately victorious over its invaders. Only Adrastus of the seven attacking chieftains escapes, and he flees to Athens. Creon buries Eteocles with honor, but declares that anyone who tries to bury any of the enemy chieftains, including Polyneices, will be put to death.
Adrastus finds Theseus, the helper of the oppressed. Creon defies a sacred law of the gods with this new edict. In Greek tradition, if the dead lie unburied, their souls are unable to cross the Acheron and Cocytus into Hades.
Antigone and Ismene are horrified by this law, as it is a great sacrilege against their brother. Ismene does nothing, but Antigone buries Polyneices herself. Creon catches her and she proudly confesses what she has done. Creon upholds his law and executes Antigone.
Antigone becomes the next tragic figure, condemning herself to death to uphold the sacred laws of the gods. Her choice is not as tragic as Orestes’, but it is similar in nature and involves great heroism.
The Seven Against Thebes. The rest of the tale is told by both Aeschylus and Euripides. Though Polyneices was buried at the price of Antigone’s life, the other five chieftains still lie unburied, which means their souls will be unable to cross the river to Hades. Adrastus, the only surviving chieftain, appeals to Theseus for help, knowing he is a righteous ruler. Theseus refuses to decide but puts the question to a vote, and the Athenian democracy decides to help Adrastus bury the dead of Thebes.
Theseus and the Athenians, like Antigone, decide to defy the laws of mortals to uphold the laws of the gods. This might seem overly idealistic, as the gods can be crueler and more capricious than mortals, as the myths have shown, but these sacred rules are all the characters have to cling to in such a violent, tragic world.
Creon doesn’t listen to Theseus’s request, and so the Athenians march against Thebes and ultimately defeat them. But Theseus holds the army back from invading the city, as he only came to enact justice and bury the dead. They have an honorable funeral for the chieftains and then return to Athens.
Theseus is at his best and most heroic here, refusing the usual spoils of war and simply doing what he came for – fulfilling the wishes of the gods and letting the dead souls find rest and honor.
The sons of the dead chieftains are still not satisfied with this, however. When they are grown, these seven, called the Epigoni, “the After-Born,” march against Thebes and level it to the ground. In the end, all that is left of the great city is Harmonia’s old necklace, which Aphrodite had given to her at her wedding.
Thebes ends with more vengeance and bloodshed, as the characters in this world rarely choose forgiveness and atonement over revenge and punishment. Harmonia’s necklace becomes a beautiful, tragic, final image of the once-glorious city.