J is for Jocasta

Published April 11, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Okay, technically, her name is actually Iokaste, but…yeah, even I use Romanized spellings when they suit me.  (After all, I do usually use Achilles instead of Achilleus, Jason instead of Iason, et cetera.)  Anyway, I’m doing this as a myth re-telling, instead of a me burbling on pointlessly thing.

Among the nobles of Thebes, few were held in higher regards than the descendants of the Sown Men.  So Jocasta had always been very proud of her father’s lineage, and it only seemed right that she should be elevated to the position of queen by marrying Laios.  He was a moderately attractive fellow, and not too boring, so Jocasta was expecting it to be a pleasant marriage.

After their wedding feast–and wedding night!–Jocasta and Laios sent off a messenger to Delphi with an offering to Apollo.  It was a fairly standard offering, just a tripod and a few fine pots, but it wasn’t as though they were asking anything special.  They just wanted the customary divine blessing on their royal marriage.  What could be more natural than that?  No one doubted that the god would offer his blessings.  In fact, the royal couple were both convinced that it was utterly unnecessary even to send the offering, as their obviously blessed standing was utterly indisputable.

They were the most shocked of all, when the messenger returned.  “The Pythia has given the most strange response, your majesty,” the messenger said, glancing at Laios in fear.

“What is it?” Jocasta demanded.  “Out with it!”

“The oracle claims that Apollo has sent Thebes–via her words–the most dire warning,” the messenger said, his voice shaking in fear.  “He said, your majesty, that if you ever father any children, there will be great ruination in Thebes because of it.”

“What?” Laios asked, staring at the messenger in disbelief.  “What kind of ruination?”

“The Pythia didn’t say, my lord,” the messenger replied.

“What rubbish!” Jocasta said.  “How could our child–how could the future king of Thebes cause harm to his own kingdom?”

“A king is poised to bring terrible destruction indeed,” Laios replied, frowning.  “Thank you for your service, herald.  I will take the oracle’s words to heart.”

Jocasta was not about to stand for that!  Imagine some priestess–some foolhardy woman who had dedicated her life to uselessly spouting nonsense, allegedly at Apollo’s behest, instead of marrying and bearing fine children like a normal woman–daring to tell her what to do!  That night, she spent a long time arguing with her husband about it, but Laios would not budge.  He did not want to defy the warning Apollo had sent him.

The following day, Jocasta went to her father’s house and bitterly complained of her new misfortune to her father and her brother, Creon.

“It is a terrible tragedy,” her father agreed, “but you can’t end your marriage to him.  You’ll never get another king for a husband, after all!  Besides, it’s already been consummated, so there’s nothing to be done.”

“But, Father!  I can’t go my whole life without sharing my husband’s bed again!  I can’t spend my life without children!”

“Maybe the god can be propitiated into changing his mind,” Creon suggested.

“That’s true,” Jocasta agreed.  “The gods are always greedy for more offerings.  And if the Pythia won’t take back her prophecy of ruin, maybe she’ll at least be more specific.  If we knew what sort of ruin our child would cause, we could prevent it.  If the threat was from a son, we could only have daughters…”  Her mind made up, she thanked her brother for his sage advice, and hurried back to the palace.  Finding her husband in the throne room, she quickly told him that they had to send a hearty offering to Apollo, and beg him to lift whatever curse was on their future children.

Laios was not difficult to convince, and the very next morning, he set off personally for Delphi, bringing with him two fine oxen pulling a cart laden with treasures, all to be given over to the god’s coffers at Delphi; even the oxen and the cart were part of the offering!  Jocasta offered to accompany him, but Laios wouldn’t hear of it, and she had little choice but to remain in Thebes, running the place in her husband’s absence.

Fortunately, Jocasta quite enjoyed running the city.  In fact, she wouldn’t much have objected if her husband had been away considerably longer than he was.

When Laios returned–some six months after he had departed!–he was bringing with him a beautiful boy of perhaps eighteen or nineteen years.  Jocasta feared that Laios was going to announce that he had adopted the boy in lieu of having his own children.

When she heard the real reason, she found that it was actually worse.

“The god was quite clear on the subject,” Laios told her.  “I must never father any children, or all of Thebes will suffer.  But that’s all right; Chrysippos here will keep my nights from being lonely.”

“What about my nights?!” Jocasta objected immediately.

“You could find a girl somewhere,” Laios suggested, before leading his youthful companion out of the throne room.  Jocasta sent a flurry of most unqueenly language after them.  The servants all wondered where their queen had learned such terrible oaths, though they didn’t dare say so aloud.

For the next several months, Jocasta never laid eyes upon her husband without his pretty boy beside him, nor did she ever see the boy without her husband at his side.  Then, finally, the day came when she chanced upon Chrysippos alone in a small chamber of the palace.

“Just who are you, boy?” she asked.  “Who is your father?  Did he sell you to my husband?”

“Certainly not!” the boy replied indignantly.  “My father is Pelops, King of Mycenae!  He would never sell me like a slave!”

“Then did he entrust you to my husband’s keeping, even knowing what my husband intended to do with you?”

The boy colored, and looked away from Jocasta, sighing deeply.  “My father doesn’t know where I am,” he admitted.  “Laios took me unawares at Elis.  I tried to get away from him at first, but…humiliating as it is, this life is safer than my life in Mycenae was.”

“What could be so unsafe about being the son of the king?” Jocasta replied, bewildered.  Was there some new curse on all of Hellas that said kings’ sons were better off never having been born?

“My mother is a nymph,” Chrysippos explained, “and my father’s wife Hippodameia gave him two sons.  Two strong, ruthlessly ambitious sons.  My father dotes on me, but my step-mother detests me.  It was only a matter of time before one of my brothers tried to kill me.  But here I have a life of luxury, and Laios protects me from my enemies.  It’s not the life I’d have chosen, but it’s not so bad.”

With that, the boy wished Jocasta a pleasant day, and went cheerfully about his business.

As soon as he was gone, Jocasta wished she had a dagger on her, to plunge it into his pretty little face.  But she was fairly sure she’d never be able to act on such a terrible impulse while the boy was standing right in front of her.  After all, he wasn’t trying to ruin her marriage; her marriage had already been ruined before he arrived.

But his words had given her an idea.  She went back to her father’s house, and once more sat down to bewilder her father and brother with a tirade of all her difficulties.

“And just because that boy is a bit pretty, why Laios expects everyone to accept the boy just as much as he does!  And you know, he’s not even a Hellene!  His father is from Lydia!  I’ve heard terrible things about that Pelops, you know.  I hope his son isn’t very much like him.  I’ve heard that the king of Ilios drove Pelops right out of Anatolia, because he was so wicked.  And that’s the sort of boy my husband has taken up with, instead of fathering children on me!”  On and on she went, making sure her garrulous brother got it through his thick skull that Chrysippos was the prince of Mycenae.

It wouldn’t be long before word got back to Mycenae just where Pelops’ missing son had gone.  Jocasta was sure of that.  Creon could be counted on to say the wrong thing to the wrong person at just the wrong time.  Any secret trusted to him became public knowledge within a week.

And, sure enough, a few months later, two young men arrived in Thebes, and marched straight into the throne room, where Laios was sitting on his throne, stroking Chrysippos’ hair as the boy stood before him.  Chrysippos took one look at the two young men, paled, and ran out of the throne room.  Jocasta had to repress a smirk when they introduced themselves as Atreus and Thyestes, the sons of Pelops.

“What can I do for the sons of Pelops?” Laios asked calmly, as if he was unaware that he had been lying with their half-brother only the night before.

“Our father has sent us here to retrieve our brother,” Atreus said coldly.

“I know of no other sons of Pelops,” Laios claimed.

“He just ran out of here!” Thyestes shouted, pointing at the door by which Chrysippos left the room.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I dislike your accusing tone,” Laios growled.  “I will not be threatened in my own kingdom!”

“No one’s threatening you,” Atreus replied calmly.  “Not yet.  Just give us our brother back, and we’ll leave in peace.”

“I haven’t got your brother.”

“Darling, I think they mean Chrysippos,” Jocasta said, in the most innocent tone she could muster.  “Has he never said anything about where he comes from?”

Laios spluttered in fury for a moment, then exploded forth with a barrage of words so angry that they could barely be discerned from each other.  “Get them out of my palace this instant!” he added at the end, when no one had moved.  “I won’t allow those two men to set foot in Thebes ever again!”

“This is not over,” Atreus promised, even as the soldiers were escorting him and his brother out of the throne room.

Laios promptly left the throne room as well, hurrying after his beloved Chrysippos.  Jocasta took advantage of his distraction to follow the sons of Pelops.

“What do you want from us?” Thyestes demanded as she approached them.  “Come to humiliate us further?”

“Your pretty brother is usurping my place in my husband’s bed,” Jocasta spat at them.  “I want to help you get him out of here, so I can have my husband back, and finally have children!”

Atreus sighed.  “I’m sorry for your troubles, but you’re better off letting us leave.  Our father will probably come back with his army, but if it comes to that, Chrysippos will surely kill himself before it comes to a full siege.”

“Do you always have so little devotion to your father’s orders?” Jocasta asked, appalled.

“Our father’s orders are to bring Chrysippos back.  Our mother’s orders are to kill him,” Atreus replied.  “No matter what we do, we’ll be betraying one of our parents.  But if we’re forbidden access to him…then we can’t succeed in either of their requests.  If he kills himself, then our mother will be happy, and we won’t have stained our hands with kindred blood.”

“I was looking forward to killing him, personally,” Thyestes replied, shaking his head.

“So was I,” Atreus admitted, “but I still know I shouldn’t do it.”

“I don’t care if you kill him or drag him home, I just want him out of my marriage bed,” Jocasta told them.  “I’ll help you get into the palace.  Just take him out of Thebes, and then you can do whatever you want with him.”

The brothers required little more convincing, and soon they were making their plans.  There was a secret passage leading from within the palace to a cistern deep below the city, a cistern fed by an underground river.  It was thought that it was impossible for the city to be breached by that cistern, but when she was a girl, Jocasta had found a cave that led to the underground river.  It required only a few moments of swimming underwater to get into the cistern from the cave.

It was a risk to tell these ambitious Mycenaeans about that weakness in Thebes’ defenses, but Jocasta was willing to go to any lengths to get her husband back!  Besides, she could always block off the cave mouth after they had left with the boy…

She arranged a signal that she would place on the tallest part of the castle walls, so they would know when her husband turned in for the night.  Then they were to sneak into the palace, and steal back their brother.  They swore strong oaths that they would do nothing to harm anyone within the castle walls.  What they did with Chrysippos once he was outside of Thebes, of course, was of no concern to Jocasta…

That night, Jocasta was elated as she set the torch on the wall to signal the sons of Pelops.  She had things all planned out.  The next morning, she would go to her husband’s bed chamber bright and early, and when he woke to discover that his pretty boy had left in the middle of the night, she would comfort him and dry his tears.  And in the process, he would surely remember the joy they had found in their marriage bed, in the few nights they had shared it.  And then maybe Jocasta could finally have a child…!

By the time Jocasta approached her husband’s chamber that morning, she could already hear him crying, but it was much more anguished than she had been expecting.  Was it really that upsetting to have his beloved run away from him?

She was shocked by what she saw when she went through the door.  Chrysippos lay dead upon the bed, with Laios’ own sword plunged through his chest.  So much for the oaths of the sons of Pelops!

“Why…?” Laios moaned, clutching the dead boy’s hand to his face.  “Why would you do this?  How could you leave me alone like this?”

“You’re hardly alone, my dear,” Jocasta told him gently, sitting beside him.  This was no time to seduce him, clearly, but she wanted to remind him that she still loved him, despite this lengthy betrayal, and that she was always available to him.  “Perhaps the boy was upset by seeing his brothers.  Maybe his pride as a young man couldn’t bear the humiliation any longer.”

Laios continued to grieve over Chrysippos for the rest of the day.  And the next day.  And the next.

He gave the boy a lavish funeral, and burnt many offerings to the beloved dead along with the body.  Laios personally placed the boy’s bones in a golden urn, which he had buried installed in a tholos tomb of prodigious size near the city, so that he could always look out and see where all that remained of Chrysippos was resting.

At first, Jocasta had felt quite guilty that her interference had gotten the boy killed right in her husband’s bed.  Then she had felt rather badly about the fact that her husband seemed to love the boy more than she had thought.

Then she just felt annoyed.

How long was he planning on grieving when he had a fine, healthy and cooperative wife by his side?

Every time Jocasta tried to convince Laios to share her bed, he reminded her of the warnings Apollo had sent hem, and wouldn’t sleep with her.  After six months of that, Jocasta couldn’t take any more of it.  She exchanged his watered-down wine with unwatered wine at a feast, and got him so blind drunk that he didn’t know what he was doing.

In the morning, he cursed her for her lust, and began praying to the gods that she wouldn’t conceive.  But Jocasta offered up twice as many prayers and offerings, begging that she finally have a child of her own.

And it was to Jocasta that the gods listened.  She was soon heavy with child.

When she was nearly ready to give birth, Laios sent another messenger to Delphi, with many offerings, begging the god’s clemency for the child’s existence, and asking what the child’s fate would be.

Before the messenger returned, Jocasta gave birth to a strong, healthy son, and her heart rejoiced.  She had never seen anything so beautiful as she sight of her infant son!

But three days later–before they had even named the child–the messenger returned with grave tidings.

“The Pythia said that your son is fated to kill his father,” he told them.  “This blood guilt, uncleansed, will bring plagues upon Thebes, and even after the murderer is banished, more plagues will follow in their wake.  Apollo’s message was clear; all of Thebes has been doomed because you dared to conceive a child.”

The royal couple returned to the privacy of their chambers to discuss the matters.  Jocasta stared down at her infant son in horror.  How could that sweet, innocent, beautiful baby ever kill her husband?

“There must be a way of averting this tragedy,” she said, speaking more to the baby than to his father.  If she killed Laios now, then her son couldn’t do so later.  But for a queen to kill her husband?  If it had ever been done before, Jocasta had never heard the tales of it.  The idea chilled her to the bone.

“Perhaps if we expose the child,” Laios suggested.  “If he dies in infancy, then he can’t kill me and bring destruction on Thebes.”

“Kill our son?!” Jocasta clutched the child to her chest, making him wail.  “How can you say suggest such a thing?!”

“No, not kill him,” Laios insisted, “just expose him.  It will be the animals, the elements that kill him.”

“That isn’t any better,” Jocasta retorted.

“Do you want Thebes to fall into destruction?” Laios countered.

“Of course not.”

“Then what choice is there?” Laios asked.

“If you die before he grows to manhood, then he can’t kill you,” Jocasta replied quietly.

“There’s no choice.  We have to expose him,” Laios said, taking the baby away from her.  Jocasta wasn’t sure if he had heard her or not.  But she knew she couldn’t kill her husband any more than she could stop him from killing their child.

Perhaps Laios really was cursed.

For nearly a year after Laios sent their baby away to be exposed by a river somewhere–he wouldn’t tell Jocasta where he had sent the child, perhaps fearing she would go retrieve their poor, sweet son–nothing terrible happened in Thebes.

Then it arrived.

It had the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a woman.  The monstrous thing was called the Sphinx, and she perched on a tall spire of rock outside the city, staring down at the Thebans with hungry eyes.  For several days, she just sat there.  Then she leapt down into a public square, and began to speak.

“Where is the boy?” she demanded.  “Send me the boy!  I’ve come for the boy!”

Everyone quailed away from her in terror, and no one dared approach.  Finally, Laios himself approached her, and the Sphinx leapt upon him, sniffing at him as though she were merely an animal.

“You’re the one,” she said.  “You’re the one who took the boy away.  Give him back!”

Laios fainted dead away, and the Sphinx lost interest.  Some of the courtiers ran out and retrieved their unconscious king, and the Sphinx continued to prowl through the city square, mewling for “the boy.”

Jocasta was terrified.  Was this creature the vengeful spirit of her son, returned in monstrous form to avenge his own death?  She could see no other explanation.

Her brother Creon sent for the seer Tiresias, who took one look at the beast and told them it had been sent by Zeus himself, in response to the prayers of Pelops.  That was no better!

Jocasta sent several of the palace guards out to slay the beast.  It tore them to shreds without so much as looking at them.

“These are men, not boys,” the Sphinx sneered.  “I’ve come for the boy.  Twenty years old, and fair of face!  I won’t leave without him!”

No one knew what to do.  If she was looking for Chrysippos–who would be twenty by now, if he still lived, by Jocasta’s reckoning–then all she would ever find was a set of bones.  But perhaps she would accept a substitute?

With her husband still unconscious, Jocasta and her brother Creon set about searching the city for fair-faced twenty year old boys.  Finding only a handful, Jocasta explained the situation to them all, and offered fine rewards to the boy–or his heirs–who would approach the Sphinx and deal with her.

Only one took her up on the offer.  He was a poor farmer’s son, but delightfully handsome–more so than Chrysippos had been, in Jocasta’s opinion–so Jocasta hoped he would satisfy the Sphinx.  She dressed the boy in fine clothes, and gave him the finest bronze armor and weapons in her husband’s armory.

The boy approached the Sphinx, who looked at him uncertainly.  “Are you the boy?” she asked.  “You’re the right age.  And you’re very pretty.  But you smell like hard work and farmland, not palaces and nymphs.”  She paused for a moment, her tail twitching like a cat sensing prey.  “But maybe you’re the boy.  He’s very clever with riddles.  Are you clever with riddles?”

“I…um…yes…?”  the boy answered, his voice shaking with terror.  Jocasta suddenly worried that he didn’t even know how to use the sword she had given him.

“Very well, then, answer this riddle.  What grows pregnant monthly, yet never gives birth?”

The boy stammered unintelligibly, taking a step or two backwards.

“I gave you an easy one, and still you couldn’t answer it?  You are not the boy!” the Sphinx exclaimed, then pounced on the poor farmboy, and tore him to shreds, which she then devoured, licking her lips after every piece.  “You’ll never be rid of me unless you give me the boy!” the Sphinx told the townspeople of Thebes.

“I’ll show you where you can find him,” Jocasta said, stepping out into the square.  She didn’t want to see any more innocents killed.

She led the Sphinx out of the city, and to the beehive-shaped tomb in which Chrysippos’ bones were enshrined.  “He’s buried there,” Jocasta told the Sphinx, pointing at the tomb.

The Sphinx walked up to the tomb’s entrance, pushed it open with one massive paw, and sniffed the air inside.  “I don’t smell him, you lying human!  I don’t smell anything but dead bones!”  Then the Sphinx leapt up on top of the tomb, and curled up around its tip.  “But I’m tired after such a tasty snack.  You’d better give me the boy when I wake up!”

With that, the monster fell asleep above Chrysippos’ tomb.

Jocasta returned to the city, and told her brother and the seer all that had happened outside the city walls.  “She wasn’t informed that the boy is dead, clearly,” Tiresias said.  “I don’t see any way we can propitiate her.  Except, perhaps, if she poses a riddle to each youth who approaches her, then solving the riddle might drive her away.”

If the riddles remained as easy as that first one, Jocasta was sure that would not be a problem.

Besides, the Sphinx continued to sleep for so long that the people of Thebes began to forget that she was even there.

Until she woke up.

It was a year after she had gone to sleep.  This time, she landed by the gates of the city, and once again began calling for “the boy.”  Another handsome youth approached her, and once again she asked him a riddle.  But this one was harder than the last, and the boy stood no chance of answering it.  He, too, was torn apart and devoured.

Jocasta saw to it that this youth’s family–like the first’s–were given wealth to compensate them for his death, and a monument was erected in honor of his bravery, just next to the monument erected for the first youth who had sacrificed his life to quiet the Sphinx.

Every year after that, the Sphinx awoke, and confronted some poor unfortunate boy, and another monument was erected in his honor after he had filled her belly and sent her back to sleep.  By the time there were ten monuments, Jocasta noticed that there were very few young men left in Thebes.

Every year, boys turning sixteen fled the city before the Sphinx could awaken.  With each passing year, fewer and fewer boys were available as possible targets for the Sphinx.

And by the time there were sixteen monuments, and the Sphinx had awoken once more, there wasn’t a single young man in the city of Thebes between the ages of fifteen and twenty.  Every one of them had fled, either through their own cowardice or at the command of their parents.  There was no one who could quiet the Sphinx, and so she sat just outside the gate, not letting anyone in or out.

Jocasta begged Laios to do something.  There had to be some way to get rid of the terrible beast.  She suggested sending a troop of soldiers to fight it.

Laios agreed, and sent two dozen of his best men to fight the Sphinx.

They were all torn to shreds, but they hadn’t been pretty boys, so the Sphinx didn’t eat them, and didn’t fall asleep.

While the city fell into mourning for so many lives cut down, Jocasta realized that her husband was no longer in the palace.  Looking around, she couldn’t find him anywhere.  Eventually, she asked her brother if he knew where he went.

“While his troops were being slaughtered, Laios set out with a few of his servants,” Creon told her.  “He’s off to Mycenae to bribe Pelops to get rid of the beast, I’d think.”

“Pelops is dead,” Jocasta pointed out.  “His sons have been slaughtering each others’ families for several years in contestation over the throne.”

“Oh.  Then I suppose he’s gone to Delphi to seek advice on how to be rid of it,” Creon said, nodding.  “Or perhaps in search of great heroes who can slay it.  Don’t worry.  When Laios returns, we’ll finally be rid of that beast, once and for all.”

But Tireseias, ever the doom-saying soothsayer, told Jocasta that her husband would never return; he was soon to die.

And the rest of the story (well, the next part) will of course have to come later.  On the 17th, in fact.

I’m sorry that trying to give Jocasta some agency in her own story turned her into a bit of a villainess.  The story didn’t afford many other routes to take.  I suppose I could have left the story until, what’s L’s day, this Tuesday?  Only I rather wanted to cover Lemnos for L…

Anyway, I’ve merged a number of different–and mostly fragmentary–traditions here, but apart from Jocasta actually taking part in events, most of it’s actually moderately faithful to the original myths.  It feels weird to make Chrysippos so complacent about becoming the eromenos of a man who abducted him, but there is an existing–albeit probably very late–tradition in which Pelops forgave Laios for the abduction once Laios explained that he was in love with the boy.  Said version ending with Chrysippos being slain in Laios’ bed with Laios’ own sword.  (Though in that case by his step-mother instead of by his half-brother(s).)  So, yeah, a little awkward, but…

I apologize for the stupidity of the riddle I had the Sphinx ask.  I’m not the riddling type, and I didn’t want to use the one she’s famous for–if she always asked the same riddle, then solving it wouldn’t be so dificult!–and the only other riddles I could think of were “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” and various of the “Riddles in the Dark” and it didn’t feel right to use someone else’s riddle, y’know?

I don’t know how the archaeological details look to those who aren’t as familiar with Mycenaean archaeology as I am.  There was a secret stair and cistern like that discovered below Mycenae, though not one, so far as I know, that could be accessed via a cave and underground river.  (But I had to do something to make them able to get into the city!)  And tholos tombs were built all over the Mediterranean region in the Late Bronze Age.  (The most famous ones are both in Mycenae, of course.  The larger being known by the name of the Treasury of Atreus, and the lesser being known as, what, the Tomb of Clytemnestra?  Something like that.)

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