Polynices and Eteocles

Published May 21, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

How the heck did it get to be Thursday already?  The semester’s over; why is time still passing so quickly?

Looking back over the tale of Oedipus, I think I shot myself in the foot with the way I handled the ending.  I made it too simple.  No, not just too simple, but also too fast.  So…I’ve gone back and chopped off the final paragraphs of that one, so it ends with the departure of the self-blinded Oedipus, and now the inheritance issue–and the discovery of Jocasta’s fate–has been shifted to this version.  That in itself is still slightly problematic, since early versions have him staying in Thebes for some time afterward.  (For that matter, the earliest versions seem to have had his children born to a second or even third wife, not to his mother.  But they’re not complete accounts, so it’s not 100% sure…)


The sons of Oedipus couldn’t imagine why their father had poked his own eyes out and then marched out of the city without a word, until their sister Antigone explained what she had heard passing between their parents regarding their father’s true parentage.  No one wanted to believe that their mother was truly their grandmother as well, but their father’s behavior hadn’t left much room for doubt.  Still, all four children resolved to find their mother and ask her if it could be true.  They searched the palace carefully, but couldn’t find her until they went to see their uncle Creon.

They found him in the courtyard of his house, cradling the body of his sister in his arms.  “What happened?” he asked, looking at them.  “She snatched the sword from my son’s hands and slew herself without a word!”

After an uncomfortable glance at her fiance, who stood helplessly behind his father, Antigone explained what she had heard passing between her parents.  “We wanted to ask her if it was true, but…”

Creon sighed sadly.  “It seems that way,” he admitted, lowering his sister’s body to the ground.  “I know that Laios was told he would die at his son’s hands.”  Then he told them what the servant who had been sent to expose Laios’ son had told them, how the infant had been taken to Corinth, and most likely adopted by the king and queen there.

“Then we are monsters, just as the Sphinx was,” Antigone concluded.

“Don’t say that!” Haemon insisted passionately.

“What will Thebes do without its king and queen?” Ismene asked, her voice trembling slightly.

“I’m the eldest son,” Eteocles declared.  “The throne is mine by right.”

“You’re not even a full day older,” Polynices pointed out coldly.  “What more right do you have than I?”

“Our cursed blood should be exterminated,” Antigone insisted, “or Thebes will suffer further.  We should join Father in exile, and allow the throne to pass to Creon.”

“Nothing should be decided yet,” Creon insisted.  “Let us consult the seer.  He seems to know more about this than any of us; maybe he’ll know if the gods are still angry.  I don’t want to see anyone sent into exile unnecessarily.”

After ordering his servants to clean his sister’s body and prepare it for her funeral, Creon led the five youngsters through the city until they found the aged, blind seer Tiresias.  The old man was chuckling at them already as they approached.

“It took a long time for justice to be done,” the old man commented.

“Then the plague will end?” Creon asked.

“Yes, the symptoms abate even now.  The gods are satisfied that the murderer has been exiled at last.  And by the act of a king shedding blood upon his head, he has been as purified as he is likely to get.”  Tiresias croaked out a laugh.  “Normally it’s the blood of a pig, not the blood of his own eyes.  I suppose even the gods have a sense of humor, despite what they did to me.”

“But his children don’t need to leave, right?” Haemon asked urgently.

“You will never see your wedding night, boy,” Tiresias told him coldly.  “Your bride has cold feet.”  Then he shook his head.  “The sons of Oedipus have a choice ahead of them.  They can follow their father into exile, and live long peaceful lives as caretakers to their blind father.  That is the path the gods would prefer for them.”

“What kind of life would that be?” Polynices demanded.  “Nursemaid to a blind old man?!”

“If you dislike blind old men so much, why are you asking one for advice?” Tiresias laughed.

“What is the other choice?” Eteocles asked.

“You can try to divide your inheritance between you.  But it will be decided by the sword.  That is the fate the gods have laid before you.  Try not to make the same stupid mistakes as your father and grandfather,” Tiresias said, before rising to his feet and hobbling away.

“I don’t want to chase after Father and take care of him for the rest of his life,” Polynices insisted.

“I agree,” Eteocles added.  “We just have to come to an agreement that will suit us.”

“Prophecies always come true,” Antigone reminded them.  “You will be better off if we all go after Father.”

“Prophecies can be tricky, though,” Creon said.  “I think I know a solution to this dilemma.  But first we must see to your mother.”

The grieving children agreed, and the matter of their inheritance was left aside until after Jocasta’s funeral.  All of Thebes mourned its queen, but the Thebans also worried for what their future would hold.  Two ambitious princes of just the same age?  Which would rule, and would the other take up the sword and try to take the throne by force?  They feared for their lives, but few had the courage to leave the city and seek refuge elsewhere.

Once the funeral was over, Creon spent a long time discussing the terms of the inheritance with his nephews.  Eventually, the three of them decided that one would take the throne, and the other would take the bulk of the treasure, so that he could buy himself a fine life outside the city.  At the end of a year, they would have the option of switching if either brother was displeased with what he had received.  And it would be decided by lot who should receive which.

“And this lot will be the way to get around Tiresias’ prediction,” Creon added, taking out his sword.  “If he wants it to be decided by the sword, then let it be decided by the sword!”  He placed the tip of the sword on the floor, holding it upright by placing the palm of his hand on top of the hilt.  “One of you stand to my left, and the other to my right.  I’ll release the sword, and whoever it falls towards will gain the throne.”

Both brothers agreed to their uncle’s clever plan, and took up their positions to either side of him.  Creon released the sword’s hilt, and it teetered on its tip for a moment, then toppled over in the direction of Eteocles.

“The gods have decreed that I should rule,” Eteocles said, nodding his head firmly.

“For a year,” Polynices reminded him.  “If I want the throne at the end of the year, you have to give it to me.”

“With all that treasure, you’re sure to find yourself a princess to marry, and some other throne to sit upon,” Eteocles chuckled.  “But if you don’t, I’ll obey our decision and trade places with you.  You have my oath.”

Eteocles thus ascended the throne, and Polynices set out from Thebes with a wagon containing most of the contents of the Theban treasury, taking a few guards with him to protect the gold.  Also setting out were his sisters Antigone and Ismene, but they left on foot, to seek their father, as he would need someone to look after him, now that he was blind.

The girls found Oedipus soon enough, and suggested that they should find some quiet hut to live in, so that they could properly care for him.  But Oedipus refused to live in one place ever again, fearing that the curse of the gods would fall upon any land that sheltered him.  But he also asked where his sons were.  Antigone couldn’t bear to tell him, but Ismene told him the truth of the deal their brothers had struck.

“Those fools!” Oedipus exclaimed.  “Trying to defy the will of the gods…?  Don’t they know that was what led to my own dire fate?  I pray the gods will teach them a lesson as quickly as possible, while they still have time to come to their senses!”

The girls could only agree, and set out with their father on his aimless journey.

Perhaps the gods listened to Oedipus, but his sons did not listen to the hints the gods were dropping.  Polynices had not been on the road more than a week before the first messenger came from his brother.  The messenger told him that he had taken too much of the treasure, and that Thebes no longer had enough to trade with the other cities.  Not wishing his people to suffer, Polynices let the messenger take back some of the gold.

A few weeks later, a second messenger caught up to Polynices.  He took back even more of the treasure.  Polynices was beginning to regret having agreed to the first one, because now there would surely be no end of them!  But as long as Eteocles honored his word and allowed Polynices to have the throne at the end of the year, then losing his treasure in the mean time was not so bad.

But by the time Polynices reached Argos, he had nothing left but the armor on his back, and a few pieces of jewelry he had hidden beneath it.  Even the wagon and his guards had returned to Thebes, some of them of their own volition, not at the command of his brother, but most in response to an ever growing stream of heraldic thieves.

So when Polynices arrived at the palace of Adrastos and asked for shelter, he was in a foul mood, and feeling as vicious as the lion that decorated his shield.

Adrastos was a good host, and provided Polynices with a fine feast and a sympathetic ear, and a place to sleep for the night, on a sheltered porch of his palace.  He could tell that the young man was hoping to find a bride whose father would support him until his year was up and he could return to Thebes, but Adrastos carefully didn’t mention that he had two marriageable daughters.  He didn’t feel that his duties as a host went quite that far.   Besides, his brother-in-law Amphiaraos had told him that he would marry his daughters to a lion and a boar, and this bedraggled youth showed no sign of being so wild or fierce.  And he might not have been telling the truth about being the from the Theban royal family…

Later that night, after Polynices had settled down to sleep, another traveler came to the palace of Adrastos seeking shelter.  Uncomfortably, the servants woke their master, and he came to see the new visitor.  A short youth of fearsome aspect, he introduced himself as Tydeus, son of Oineus of Calydon.  Adrastos had heard rumors that Oineus had been usurped by his own brother, Agrios, and Tydeus bitterly confirmed those rumors.  Worse still, he had been exiled for murder, having been forced to kill a few men in trying to get his father’s throne restored.  Now he was homeless and hopeless, and had nothing to do but wander Hellas hoping to find a host who would give him a place to stay for the night.

Adrastos told the servants to give Tydeus some of the food that had not been eaten at the feast earlier, and then to show him to the porch, where he could sleep for the night.  In his exhaustion, Adrastos had completely forgotten that Polynices was sleeping there already.  And the servants were not about to argue with their master!

So when Tydeus was led to the porch, he was shocked and enraged to find it already occupied.  He began to berate the other man for taking up his space.  Roused so unexpected, Polynices got to his feet and glared down at Tydeus, then began to insult him for his short stature.

When their insults turned to blows, the servants–who had heard the whole exchange–began to fear, and ran to tell the king.

By the time Adrastos arrived, the two young men were fighting with the ferocity of wild beasts.  He was only able to part them with considerable difficulty.  But then he noticed something.   Polynices had been sleeping draped in the pelt of a lion, and it was still wrapped around his shoulders.  And Tydeus–being half-brother to the mighty Meleager–had an emblem of a boar on the shield with which he had been striking Polynices.

These two were the lion and the boar that Amphiaraos had told him of.  “This has been my own foolish mistake,” he assured his guests, “and I will make it up to you.  Become my sons, and you will have proper places to sleep for the night from tomorrow onward.  I have two daughters who will make fine brides for such hardy warriors as yourselves.”

Obviously, neither youth was likely to object to such a fortunate outcome, and the matter was quickly agreed upon.  The next night, both marriage feasts were celebrated, as Polynices married Adrastos’ daughter Argeia, and Tydeus married his daughter Deipyle.  Both men were delighted with their brides, and quickly forgave each other for their harsh words the previous night, becoming brothers in spirit as well as in law.

But despite how much he enjoyed life in Argos with his new wife, Polynices still longed to return to Thebes.  He wanted to sit on the throne of his father, and as the year drew to a close, he prepared to make the journey back to Thebes to relieve Eteocles of the throne.

At the same time, their sisters fretted, and their father grumbled.  Ismene alone held out any hope that Polynices would not ask for the throne.  Antigone prayed to the gods that Eteocles would hold true to his word and hand it over peacefully.  But Oedipus scowled, and shook his head.  “They tried to cheat the Fates.  They deserve whatever punishment shall come their way.  Neither will be satisfied until he alone possesses the throne.  But if they dare allow even one man to die in their squabble, then may the avenging Furies cause them each to die at the other’s hand!”

Ismene wept to hear her father thus curse her brothers, but Antigone could only close her eyes in sorrow.  She doubted her father’s words of anger were needed; that was surely the Fate her brothers had been born to.

Polynices and his pregnant wife arrived back at Thebes on the very day that the year was up.  But the gates to the citadel were closed.  He shouted up to let him in, but the gates did not open.  Eventually, Eteocles came to the top of the wall and looked down on his brother.

“What are you doing here?” Eteocles called down.  “You know the terms of our agreement.  You aren’t allowed back in Thebes.”

“Until one year after my departure,” Polynices reminded him.  “You promised that you would hand over the throne at that time, if I wanted it!  The year is up, and I want the throne.”

“And are you going to trade me all the gold you took with you from the treasury?” Eteocles asked.  “I don’t see any treasure with you, unless the lady is carrying gold instead of a child.”

“You already have all the gold!” Polynices objected.  “Your messengers took it all, piece by piece!”

“I sent no messengers,” Eteocles insisted.  “Are you trying to take the throne because you squandered our family’s fortune?”

“They were your heralds!  They took the gold back to Thebes so the city could continue to trade!” Polynices shouted.  “I got no recompense for all that gold!”

“I’ll give you the throne as promised,” Eteocles said, “but only if you can properly exchange it for the family’s treasure, as agreed.  It’s most unreasonable of you to expect that I would hand it over for nothing, to become an exile without a fortune.”

Polynices began to call his brother a great many very unbrotherly things, shocking his poor wife so much that she nearly gave early birth in horror.  Eteocles laughed as he left the battlements and returned to his palace.

Enraged, Polynices returned to Argos with his wife.  On returning to her father’s palace, he told Adrastos and Tydeus all about what Eteocles had done.

“Can’t say I’m surprised,” Tydeus said, shaking his head.  “Sounds like the way my uncle’s treating my father.  Blood means nothing to some men.”

“What are you going to do now?” Adrastos asked.  He didn’t want to offer his own throne as recompense, since he had a son of his own he wanted to have inherit the throne of Argos.

“I’m going to fight!” Polynices exclaimed.  “I’ll win Thebes back, and if I have to kill that traitor in the process, then all the better!”

“I’m with you!” Tydeus asserted immediately.  “I couldn’t get rid of my father’s treacherous brother, but maybe after I get rid of yours, then my uncle will understand to fear me and let my father back onto the throne of Calydon.”

“You will, of course, have my support in this matter,” Adrastos assured him.  “My Argives are excellent fighters.  But we’ll need my brother-in-law Amphiaraos if we’re to succeed.  He has great powers as a seer.  If the Thebans really do have a powerful soothsayer–”

“They do,” Polynices groaned.  It annoyed him no end that Tiresias had seen this coming…

“–then we will need a seer of our own.  You must go personally and ask Amphiaraos to help you,” Adrastos said, looking at Polynices.  “Since this is your fight, it must be on your request.”

Polynices agreed, and the next day went to see the seer Amphiaraos.  But as soon as Amphiaraos had opened his door to reveal Polynices on the other side, he said “No,” and then shut the door again!

Polynices demanded entry and pounded on the door with his fist, but Amphiaraos would not open it.  Eventually, his wife, Eriphyle, the sister of Adrastos, opened the door, and smiled charmingly at Polynices.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “Sometimes my husband is quite rude.  That happens when you can see the future.  He knows what someone is going to ask him, and often answers their questions before they have a chance to ask them.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Polynices said, frowning.  Did that mean that Amphiaraos was refusing to help him regain the throne he was born to sit on?  “Why won’t he help us take Thebes back from my treasonous brother?”

“Sometimes my husband doesn’t know the difference between a nightmare and a vision of the future,” Eriphyle laughed.  “He thinks he’ll die if he fights against the Thebans.  I’ve tried to reassure him that he’s the finest fighting man in Argos, but he won’t listen.  Perhaps if I had something to aid my seductive powers, I could convince him…”

“Like what?” Polynices asked.  He had a feeling he knew what she wanted, but he had already given it to his own wife…

“Perhaps some fine piece of jewelry, made to grace the goddess of love herself, something that would make me irresistible to men…”

Polynices frowned.  If Eriphyle was always so transparent, then Amphiaraos hardly needed to be a seer to see what she wanted.  Aphrodite had given her daughter Harmonia a fabulous necklace when she had married Cadmos, one that made Harmonia forever irresistible to men, or so the legend said.  Rumor had it that his mother-grandmother had worn it, and thus attracted the desire of her much younger husband-son, though Polynices couldn’t remember ever seeing her wear it.  Still, it was one of the few things he’d managed to keep, and Argeia had been delighted to receive it.  But surely she would be willing to part with it again, if it meant becoming queen of Thebes?

“I’ll see what I can do,” Polynices told her, then returned to his home.  His wife had just given birth to their son, Thersander, so she was not really in the mood to talk about war and killing.  In fact, she just wanted to rest and recover from the strain.  It was probably more her desire to make her husband shut up and go away than anything else that made her hand over the Necklace of Harmonia so quickly.

No matter Argeia’s reason for surrendering it, the important thing was that once it was in Polynices’ hands, he took it straight to Eriphyle and handed it over, extracting a promise from her that she would ensure Amphiaraos’ support for his march on Thebes.  She promised, and told Polynices to return the next day.

When he did so, and asked Amphiaraos to help him win back his throne, the older man sighed deeply.  “Very well,” he grumbled, with a cold glance at his wife, “since I have no choice.  But if you want my advice, you’ll give up this madness!  It will end with us all dead before the undamaged gates of Thebes.”

But Polynices was not to be persuaded.

He would regain his throne, or he would die trying.


 

So, next week will be the Seven against Thebes, and the following week will be the Epigoni.  (Ooh, Diomedes will get to show up at last!  That’s something (for me) to look forward to!)

I’m a little annoyed at how the tone of these myths has changed as I’ve been writing them.  At first, they had a very children’s book tone, but now they’re more like, you know, “novel lite” or something.  Then again, the Theban Cycle–like the Trojan War–is a very different kind of myth from the ones I started with.  In fact, it’s more properly a legend than a myth.

I don’t think I had any real justification in having Antigone and Ismene join Oedipus in his exile.  It just…I don’t know.  It felt right at the time.  The bit with messengers taking the gold back to Thebes was my own invention.  But the whole cause of the turmoil between the brothers is unclear.  Or rather, it differed from ancient author to ancient author, so…sometimes Polynices ruled first, and had been a bad ruler, so the Thebans had a strong interest in keeping Eteocles as their king.  In some authors, Polynices was totally in the right, and others he was totally in the wrong, and…in others we don’t know, because the details of the quarrel are lost.

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