Part 5, Chapter 2: The Royal House of Thebes

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Part 5, Chapter 2: The Royal House of Thebes

Europa, carried away by Zeus in the form of a bull, was pursued by her brother Cadmus who went to Delphi to ask where he could find her. Apollo told him to stop looking for her and build his own city. Cadmus founded Thebes. He sowed dragon's teeth into the ground at the advice of the god; after all the fighting men who arose from the ground had fought each other, the five that were left became his helpers. He introduced the alphabet to Greece and married a daughter of Ares and Aphrodite. They had four unfortunate daughters: Semele, who gave birth to Dionysius, Ino, who was an evil stepmother, but became a good goddess after she was turned into a nymph, Agave, who killed her son Pentheus, and Autonome, who watched her own son die. Autonome's son was turned into a deer while hunting and she watched him torn apart by his own dogs. Cadmus and his wife were turned into serpents in their old age for no apparent reason.




King Laius was the great grandson of Cadmus and he married Jocasta. The oracle at Delphi warned him that his own son would kill him. He sent his child away to be abandoned when it was born. Many years later, a terrible Sphinx (who put a riddle to every traveler and killed him when he did not answer correctly) besieged Thebes. Oedipus was believed to be the son of another king and he left home because the oracle said that he would one day kill his father. He came to Thebes and solved the riddle of the Sphinx, killing it. He went to the city as a hero and married the King's widow.

When their sons grew older, a terrible plague ravaged the city. He sent Jocasta's brother Creon to Delphi to seek a solution to the plague. He came back and told them that the murderer of Laius must be found. Oedipus ardently began the search. Thieves had killed Laius on a path many years before. Only one of his servants survived the encounter. Oedipus asked Teiresias who the murderer was and he refused to answer. When he cajoled the blind prophet, he said that it was he, Oedipus that had killed him. He asked to speak to the slave who survived the attack. Jocasta began to panic. A messenger from Oedipus' old home in Thebes arrived and told them that he had gotten Oedipus from a wandering shepherd and the King of Corinth had raised him as his own. The shepherd verified this and Oedipus suddenly realized that he had killed his father and married his mother. Jocasta hanged herself and Oedipus blinded himself in punishment. "The world of blindness was a refuge; better to be there than to see with strange shamed eyes the old world that had been so bright." Part 5, Chapter 2, pg. 382.

Oedipus had two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles and two daughters, Ismene and Antigone. Creon took over the rule of the town and after years, Oedipus was kicked out. Antigone followed her father as a guide. Polyneices and Eteolces fought over the throne. Polyneices was building an army in another town. Oedipus and Antigone went to Colonus where Oedipus died.

Theseus received him and buried him after his death. Ismene came to him before he died. The sisters returned to the city of Thebes and found the war. Six chieftains joined Polyneices. The battle raged on until the two brothers dueled and died together. One of the seven champions survived. Creon decreed that none of those who attacked Thebes would be buried. Antigone was shocked that her brother Polyneices would not be buried. Creon threatened death for anyone who disobeyed him. Despite this, Antigone buried her brother. Ismene wanted to share the blame, but Antigone would not let her. Creon had her killed.

The last champion went to Athens and asked Theseus to join with him and force Creon to release the bodies. Theseus would only do so if it were the will of the people. Athens marched against the city to retrieve the dead bodies. Years later, the sons of the seven champions returned to Thebes and defeated it again.

SparkNotes: Summary: Chapter II — The Royal House of Thebes

What creature,” the Sphinx asked him, “goes on four feet in the morning, on two at noonday, on three in the evening?”

Cadmus, is a brother of Europa, the woman Zeus kidnaps while she is a cow. After her kidnapping, her father sends her brothers to look for her. The Oracle at Delphi tells Cadmus to break off from the group and establish his own city. Fortune blesses his endeavor, but his children are not so lucky. He has four daughters, all of whom experience tragedy: Semele dies while pregnant with Dionysus; Ino becomes the wicked stepmother of Phrixus (from the story of the Golden Fleece) and commits suicide after her husband kills their son; Agave is driven mad by Dionysus and kills her own son, Pentheus; Autonoë’s son, Actaeon, accidentally sees the naked Artemis, who kills him. In the end, the gods turn Cadmus and his wife, Harmonia, into serpents for no reason.

The family’s greatest misfortune, however, descends upon Cadmus’s great-great-grandson, Oedipus. The Oracle at Delphi tells Oedipus’s father, King Laius of Thebes, that a son of his will one day kill him and marry his wife. When Oedipus is born, Laius leaves the child tied up on a mountain to die. Years later, Laius is killed by a man he meets on a highway, who everyone believes is a stranger.

In Laius’s absence, Thebes is besieged by the Sphinx, a monster who devours anyone who cannot answer her riddle. One day, Oedipus, who has grown up in Corinth as the son of King Polybus, approaches. He has left home because the Oracle at Delphi told him he would one day kill his father. Like Laius, he too wants to subvert fate. The Sphinx asks, “What creature goes on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?” Oedipus gives the correct answer, “Man”—a man crawls as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and needs a cane when elderly. The Sphinx, outraged, kills herself. As his reward for freeing the city, Oedipus becomes king and marries the widowed queen, Jocasta.

A terrible plague visits Thebes. Oedipus sends Jocasta’s brother, Creon, to the Oracle at Delphi to ask the gods how to fix the situation. Creon returns to say that the plague will lift once Laius’s murderer is punished. Oedipus searches for the murderer, eventually consulting the seer Teiresias for help. Teiresias uses his powers to see what has happened, but does not want to tell Oedipus the horrible truth. Oedipus forces him, and the old man says that Oedipus himself is the guilty party. Oedipus and Jocasta piece events together: on the road from Delphi, Oedipus killed a man in a heated argument; they now realize that man was Laius. A messenger from Polybus enters and Oedipus learns that he is not Polybus’s true son. He realizes that he is Laius’s son and has fulfilled the horrible prophecy. Horrified, Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes.

Oedipus abdicates the throne but remains in Thebes, and the throne passes to Creon. Oedipus is suddenly exiled and has only Antigone, his daughter, by his side to guide him. He finally rests in Colonus, a place near Athens sacred to the Eumenides. In the end, the kindly Theseus honors Oedipus for his unwitting suffering, and the tortured old man dies in peace. Meanwhile, his other daughter, Ismene, has remained in Thebes, and his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, fight over the throne. Eteocles eventually wins, but Polyneices assembles an army to attack the city. He convinces six other chieftains to join him, and the seven attack the seven gates of Thebes.

Teiresias tells Creon that Thebes will be saved if Creon’s son, Menoeceus, dies. Creon tries to protect the boy from battle, but the impetuous youth, believing he must make this sacrifice, rushes out to his death. Thebes is ultimately victorious, but Eteocles and Polyneices kill each other. Polyneices’ dying words express his wish to be buried in his home city, but Creon decrees that anyone who buries any of the six dead enemy leaders—including Polyneices—will be put to death. Antigone, now back in Thebes, is horrified and defies the law, burying her brother. True to his word, Creon executes her.



Though Polyneices is buried, five of the six dead chieftains still lie unburied. Adrastus, the only survivor of the seven, petitions Theseus for help. When negotiations fail, Theseus marches against Thebes, defeats them, forces them to honorably bury the dead, and then nobly retreats, having served justice. The sons of the dead men are not satisfied, however, and eventually band together in a group known as the Epigoni (the “after-born”) and level Thebes. In the end, all that is left of the city is a necklace Hephaestus gave to Harmonia upon her wedding to Cadmus.


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