All posts tagged Amphiaraos

The Sons of the Seven

Published June 4, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Unfortunately, the majority of the texts describing the Epigonoi–the “born afters”–are lost, existing only as fragments, titles and summaries.  So much of what follows is necessarily my own invention to match what little we know of the vengeance of the sons of the Seven against Thebes.  But the tale itself is very old, having been mentioned in the Iliad.  Unfortunately, due to different sources, there are more than seven names recorded for the original Seven, and in making my choices about which to include, I left out one that I should have used; consequently, one of the Argives in the Iliad doesn’t get to be one of the Epigonoi in this version.  (Not that the Iliad mentions him as having joined Diomedes and Sthenelos in taking Thebes.  It just gives him a glass jaw during the boxing match at the funeral games of Patroclos…)


Adrastos returned to Argos nearly alone; a few of his troops had also escaped, but the majority of his Argive army died around the walls of Thebes.  The widows of the other leaders of the Argive army wept and most of them heaped curses upon Polynices for having led their husbands into that futile war, and upon Adrastos for helping, and for his cowardly survival.

Those widows raised up their sons–some of whom had not even yet been born when their fathers died–in the memory of the fathers who had been stolen away from them by the Theban defenders.  And as the sons grew towards manhood, they frequently spoke of the idea of avenging their fathers.  The sons of Amphiaraos spoke most loudly on the topic, being old enough to remember their father.

But one night, nearly eighteen years after the failure of the Argive army to defeat Thebes, as the sons of the fallen champions were beginning their serious plans to invade Thebes, Alkmaion, elder son of Amphiaraos, dreamed of his father.

In the dream, Amphiaraos appeared before his son in a darkened cave, looking much older than he had when he left, as though he was not dead, but lived still beneath the earth that had swallowed him so many years earlier.  “If you obey their signs and dictates as we did not, then the gods will permit you victory where we were defeated.  But first you must keep your word to me and obey my final request!”

When he woke from the dream, Alkmaion thought back to the day when his father left their home to depart for the fatal war at Thebes.  Alkmaion and his brother had heard the whole argument earlier, of course, when their mother Eriphyle coerced their father into agreeing to help Polynices attempt to regain his throne, and it had made both boys reluctant to see their father ride off to the battle.  But for some reason, until today Alkmaion had forgotten his father’s parting words to himself and his brother Amphilochos:

“Boys, if I don’t come back, kill your mother for me.”

Eriphyle still prized the necklace she had been given by Polynices, the bribe he had given her to force her husband to take part in the battle he had known would cost his life.  She had valued that bit of gold and jewels above her own husband’s life!  The more he thought about it, the more Alkmaion realized that his mother might as well have killed her husband herself.  It was Eriphyle, more than the Thebans, who needed to die for Amphiaraos to be avenged.

The question was if Alkmaion should undertake the terrible task himself, or if he should include his brother in it.  Their father had been speaking to both of them, but surely it was better for him to protect his younger brother from having to take part in the killing of such close kin.

Having made up his mind, Alkmaion reminded his brother of the part Eriphyle had played in their father’s death, then sent him to join up with Aigialeus, son of Adrastos, and Diomedes, son of Tydeus, who were planning their assault on Thebes in vengeance for the fallen Argive heroes buried before its walls.

Once only Eriphyle and a few slaves were in the house, Alkmaion confronted his mother with her complicity in the death of Amphiaraos, then drew his sword and slew her.  While the slaves were panicking, Alkmaion ran out of the house and left the city as quickly as he could.  He didn’t want to bring the pollution of murder–especially matricide!–upon Argos, or the noble venture to raze Thebes.

Unaware of Alkmaion’s actions, Amphilochos and the others laid out their plans for the assault on Thebes.  They knew that its king had only recently come to his throne on the death of Creon, the regent, and the king–Laodamas, son of Eteocles–was no older than most of their own champions.  Having been raised by the elderly Creon, Laodamas was sure to have gotten an insufficient training as a warrior, all the young heroes were convinced, and would be unable to lead his troops to victory.

Though everyone was shocked when the report came in that Alkmaion had murdered his own mother, Amphilochos was able to explain his brother’s actions to avenge their father’s death, and everyone agreed that–brutal as it had been–Alkmaion had acted correctly.  Though Thersander, son of Polynices, agreed somewhat less than the others, since Eriphyle’s sin implicated his late father as well.

The planning continued for many weeks, as the young men trained themselves hard, and gathered an army to avenge their fathers.  It was a smaller army than the one that had marched with Polynices, but they were confident that they would succeed where their fathers had failed.

Soon, they were marching on Thebes, each son planning to assault the gate that had foiled his father.  Diomedes was thus to take the Gate of Proitos, where Tydeus had fallen in battle, and–though Diomedes didn’t know it–Athene marched by his side to aid him towards victory.

Sthenelos, son of Capaneus, marched for the Gate of Electra, where Zeus himself had struck down his father.  But he had made many offerings of apology to the king of the gods to make up for his father’s behavior, so he was confident that he would not meet his father’s fate.

Aigialeus, son of Adrastos, marched on the Neis Gate, but he felt keenly the shame that his father still lived, having turned and fled from the battle in a most craven manner.  He was determined that nothing could ever compel him to leave the field while his enemies still stood.

Promachos, son of Parthenopaios, was to take the Northern Gate, and he bore a shield decorated with his grandparents Meleager and Atalanta killing the Calydonian Boar.  Amphilochos was planning on laying siege to the Homoloian Gate that had foiled his father Amphiaraos, and Thersander was marching on the seventh gate, where his father and uncle had slain each other in equal combat.

As they forded the Asopos River, they were surprised to find Alkmaion waiting for them.  “I’ve been purified by the gods,” he explained, “because I was acting on my father’s orders to avenge him.  The oracle was clear that I must take part in this expedition, too,” he added.

Amphilochos was glad to have his brother rejoin them, and everyone agreed that this was a favorable omen for their success.

The Thebans were seemingly taken by surprise by the army as it arrived, and one the gates stood open, blocked only by the defending army.  This changed the entire strategy the Argive army had planned, and they all focused their attention on defeating that army and passing through the open gate beyond.

The young king Laodamas himself led the defense, and struck down Aigialeus, son of Adrastos, but was quickly killed in retribution by Alkmaion, who then was the first one through the gates into the city.

But as the Argive army was looting the city before burning it to the ground, they were surrpised to see not a single woman or child within to take as slaves and add profit to their venture.  Eventually, they came across a lone woman, sitting before the altar to Zeus.

“Who are you?” Alkmaion asked her warily.  “Where is everyone else?”

“I am Manto, daughter of Tiresias,” she told him, with a smirk.  “My father saw your attack coming, and knew that it would succeed.  So he led the civilians in fleeing the city to safety, though he told me that he would die before they reach their destination.”

“Why didn’t you go with him, then?”

“He said my destiny required me to be captured by your army, of course,” Manto laughed.  “I don’t mind a brief slavery, considering what the gods have in store for me afterwards.”

With that, she rose, and accompanied him out of the temple of her own will, allowing him to enslave her and bring her before Thersander, who was just pronouncing himself the new king of Thebes.  Thersander quickly ordered riders to pursue the Theban civilians, offering to take them back as his citizens, but also demanding that they enslave any who resisted.  Manto laughed so at the futility of his command that Thersander couldn’t stand having her around, and sent her off to Delphi as a thank offering to the gods.  As this was exactly what her father had predicted, Manto was glad to hear the command, and offered no resistance as she was led away.

Uh…yeah, that one didn’t work.  Sorry.  And Diomedes barely even got mentioned, which sucks.

Okay, I owe this one a new re-telling later, once I know what I’m doing.


The Seven against Thebes

Published May 28, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

The Argive army was camped by the Asopos River, not so far from Thebes, for the night when Amphiaraos fell asleep during his turn at the watch.  Tydeus was the one who found him sleeping, and began to shout vile insults at the older man for his dereliction of duty.

“You should be glad I slept,” Amphiaraos said as he raised himself back to his feet.  “I have been sent a vision that is surely our only hope of survival.”

“Let’s hear it, then,” Adrastos said.  He knew very well how powerful his brother-in-law’s abilities as a seer were.

“Oedipus, slayer of the Sphinx, double-heir to the throne of Cadmos, called upon the avenging Furies when he heard of the deal his sons had struck over his throne.  If any of us wish to survive, then no man must shed blood–either his own or another’s–over this quarrel save the two sons of Oedipus.  Once even one man has died, we will all fall prey to the Furies of Oedipus, who lies, even now, dying in a ditch.”

“My father, dying in a ditch?” Polynices replied, horrified.  “That can’t be!  My sisters are with him!”

“As they are,” Amphiaraos agreed, “but they have not the power to save him, nor the strength to lift him.”

“You obviously don’t know my sisters,” Polynices chuckled.  “Antigone could move mountains for Father.”

“I’m sure that portion of his vision was metaphorical,” Adrastos interjected hastily.

“It was not,” Amphiaraos insisted.

“The important thing is that we must not ignore this message from the gods,” Adrastos continued.  “We should send someone to negotiate with Eteocles.  If he won’t agree to return the throne, perhaps he will at least agree to single combat, preventing the need for bloodshed and siege.”

“That would be best,” Polynices agreed.  “I don’t want to kill my own subjects, after all.  But I don’t think Eteocles will listen to me.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” Adrastos said.  “As this is an Argive army, the messenger should not be from Argos, lest the Thebans attack him before he can speak.”  He looked at Tydeus.  “Will you go and negotiate with Eteocles on Polynices’ behalf?”

“Of course I will.  His son and mine share common blood, so of course we have common purpose in this.  I want Diomedes to grow up with relations he can be proud of, not pathetic exiles like me.”

“I must protest this choice!” Amphiaraos exclaimed.  “The son of Oineus lacks the temperament of a diplomat!  If he says the wrong thing–”

“Athene watches over me,” Tydeus growled.  “You said so yourself, seer!  With the protection of the goddess of wisdom, how can I go wrong?”

“She favors you in war, not in wisdom,” Amphiaraos pointed out coldly.

“Should I go in your place, uncle?” Parthenopaios asked Tydeus.

“Stop calling me that!” Tydeus shouted.  “You’re older than I am!”

“But your brother Meleager was my father,” Parthenopaios replied calmly.

“And he died years before I was even born,” Tydeus sighed.  “All right, I’m leaving before this lout says anything else.  And don’t let him follow me!”

Parthenopaios tried to object to his uncle’s heartless words, but Tydeus wasn’t listening, as he often didn’t, and soon he was well along the road on his way to Thebes.

When Tydeus arrived in Thebes, he found that all seven gates stood open and unguarded:  clearly, Eteocles had not expected his brother to march on the city to reclaim his throne!  Had Tydeus found an opportunity to do away with his brother-in-law’s brother, he might have done so and chanced the consequences to himself, but he found no such opportunity.  When he arrived in the heart of the city, he found the leaders of the Thebans all gathered for a feast in the palace of Eteocles.

“Welcome, stranger,” Eteocles said, as Tydeus entered the hall.  “Sit, join our feast!  We have had an excellent harvest, and are thanking the gods for their generosity.”

Tydeus almost accepted the offer of hospitality; the food looked good and smelled better, and he was quite hungry.  But if he ate as a guest, then he could no longer join in the fight, if fighting there was to be!  He shook his head.  “I’ve come here to ask you to reconsider your rash decision earlier.”

“What rash decision?” Eteocles asked, genuinely confused.

“You had sworn an oath that you would trade off your throne with your brother after a year, but when he arrived to make the trade, you refused,” Tydeus reminded him.  “I am here to offer you one last chance to keep your word.”

“If he had kept his, I would have kept mine,” Eteocles replied, shaking his head.  “He took our father’s fortune with him when he left.  If he wanted the throne, he had to buy it by trading the fortune for it.  That was the deal.  But he frittered away our father’s fortune, and expected the throne for nothing.  How could I call myself a king if I handed over my subjects to someone so irresponsible?”

“He said it was your messengers who took the gold,” Tydeus pointed out coldly.

“I sent no such messengers,” Eteocles insisted.  “Come, see for yourself.”

The king rose, and led Tydeus through the palace to the treasury hall.  It was nearly empty.

“When we were children, this room was filled with silver and gold vessels, with carved gems, and with golden trinkets from dozens of lands, from further south than Egypt, further north than Scythia and further east than Lydia.  Now look at it!  My brother took all those fine things with him more than a year ago, and I haven’t set eyes upon a single piece of it since,” Eteocles told him.

As Tydeus followed Eteocles back to the feasting hall, he tried to figure what he should do now.  There were too many men in the palace for him to have any opportunity to kill Eteocles, and even if he did, that alone might not be enough to assure Polynices would be accepted to the throne.  So when they returned to the feast, Tydeus issued a challenge to the assembled lords, that he would compete against them all in any sport they wished, and when he defeated them all, then maybe Eteocles would understand the power of the warriors assembled by his brother to regain his throne, and would agree to hand it over peacefully.

The Thebans laughed at Tydeus’ challenge, but accepted it none the less.

After the feast was over, and the Thebans had finished digesting their food, they assembled to compete in games.  When it came to throwing of the discus or spears, Athene stood behind her champion, invisible to the eyes of all, and exhaled just a tiny bit of divine breath, making his throw greatly further than even that of the strongest Thebans.  In the footrace, she weighed down his opponents while making his limbs lighter, and in contests of sword and shield, she deflected blows gently to his shield, assuring that Tydeus won every contest with ease.

But still Eteocles would not hand over his throne to his brother, and Tydeus left in a fury.

“Surely he is the greatest champion in my brother’s army,” Eteocles concluded, as soon as the exiled Calydonian had left the palace.  “I fear for our fate if he fights against our own army.”

“The scouts report an Argive army near the Asopos,” one of his own champions, Melanippos, told him.  “None of them looked terribly threatening, according to the report.”

“Argos has tried to invade us before and always failed,” Polyphontes agreed, “but perhaps we shouldn’t take any chances.  They weren’t led by a son of Oedipus before.”

“Agreed,” Eteocles sighed.  “I hate to be so duplicitous, but Tydeus must not be allowed to rejoin my brother’s army.  He’s on foot, and doesn’t know the land.  Send fifty men on horseback by the short route to ambush him before he can reach the Asopos.”

Men were quickly armed for battle, and set out on the fastest horses in all of Thebes.  As soon as they departed, all seven gates were closed up tight, and guards were set upon them.

The horsemen reached the ambush spot well ahead of Tydeus, who was so angry that he was walking slowly, kicking at dirt and rocks along the path as he went.  They might have taken him unaware if his patron goddess hadn’t sent one of the pebbles Tydeus kicked flying just right to ring off the shield of one of the hidden warriors.

Tydeus drew his sword and took his shield off his back to face the enemy in combat.  They set upon him in waves of five or ten, but all fell to his blade with surprisingly little aid from Athene.  She did, after all, favor him because of his great prowess on the field of battle!

When only one of his fifty opponents still breathed, Tydeus sheathed his sword, and glared down at his wounded foe.  “Get back to Thebes, coward, and tell your craven king what happened here!  And if I, the smallest man in our army, can defeat your champions so easily, how easily will we take your city?  If Eteocles has any wisdom at all, he’ll throw open the gates and let us in without a fight!”

The sole survivor began crawling as best he could onto the back of the nearest horse–never an easy task!–but Tydeus didn’t wait for him, and mounted the finest-looking of the horses…then grabbed the reins of as many more as he could, and set to riding back to the camp.

The others were astonished to see him riding up with so many horses, and covered in blood, but Amphiaraos spat curses at him.  “Now we’re all doomed, because you went and killed those men!” he shouted.  “Have you never any thoughts for anyone but yourself?!”

“If your so-called vision was true, then you’d still have been doomed if I’d let them kill me,” Tydeus pointed out coldly.

“If you hadn’t made enemies of them when you were supposed to be negotiating a peaceful resolution, they wouldn’t have attacked you on the road in the first place!” Amphiaraos retorted.

“Enough arguing,” Adrastos sighed.  “It won’t change anything.  We need to plan for the battle.  Polynices,you know Thebes far better than any of us could ever hope to.  Which gate is the weak point?  Which is least likely to be well guarded?”

Polynices laughed.  “This is why you’ve never taken Thebes before for all your trying.  There is no weak point, and not one of the gates will be underguarded.  Each will have a champion in charge of its defense, and the common troops will flock to whichever gate needs them most.  But they’ll scatter if their leader is defeated.  Therefore, we must split our army seven ways, and lay siege to each gate at the same time.  The common troops will be forced to spread themselves thinly to meet our challenge, and we have more troops than they do.”  He laughed.  “The battle will truly be about our seven champions against their own.  And how could their champions match up to us?”

“At least this plan will have the advantage of killing us all efficiently,” Amphiaraos sighed.  “I shouldn’t like to die slowly when I could die quickly.  Though I should prefer to be swallowed whole by the earth than to die at the hands of some brute, in any event.”

“Don’t talk about defeat right before a battle!”  Capaneus roared.  “You’ll curse us yourself at this rate!  Talk about winning, no matter the cost!”

“The gods have already made their decision in this matter,” Amphiaraos replied, shaking his head.  “There is no defying the will of the gods, no matter how we should struggle.  We will only make things worse for ourselves.”

“I’ll defy anything I want!” Capaneus insisted.  “I’ll tear down the walls of Thebes, even if Zeus himself wills me to fail!  Nothing will stop us from defeating our flimsy foes!”

“If he’s going to call down the wrath of Zeus upon his head, may I please ask to be fighting on the opposite side of the city from him?” Amphiaraos asked, looking at Adrastos.  “I should hate to be caught in the effects when the Thunderer strikes him down for his blasphemy.”

Adrastos laughed uncomfortably, knowing all too well that Amphiaraos was rarely wrong about anything.

But Polynices laughed gladly, thinking it was only a joke.  “Come, I’ll hand out the gates to our champions,” he said.  “I know what the terrain is around each gate; I can best judge who will far best where.  Tydeus, you should have no trouble taking the Gate of Proitos.  Capaneus, you should take the Gate of Electra, where the shrine of Artemis stands.  You’re an excellent hunter, so I’m sure the goddess will be on your side.”

“I won’t refuse the aid of a goddess, but I won’t need it, either,” Capaneus laughed.  “No Theban will ever defeat me.”

“Too true,” Amphiaraos muttered under his breath.

“The Neis Gate…”  Polynices paused, and frowned.  “Honestly, it’s unlikely we’ll have any chance of taking it.  It sticks.  Hard to get it open again once it’s closed.  The defenders will probably just fire their bows from the walls.  Father,” he said, turning to address his father-in-law Adrastos, “you should take charge of our forces at that gate, but keep clear of bow range.  Your troops are more the reserve than anything else.  A man of your years shouldn’t be entering combat if he doesn’t have to, after all.”

“You’ve very considerate,” Adrastos replied, just as glad that he wasn’t as likely to die as everyone else.

“As to the Gate of Athene, I think you should take that one, Hippomedon,” Polynices continued, turning to look at Capaneus’ brother.  “You’ll do well there.”

“I’ll show the Thebans that I’m no lesser a man than my brother,” Hippomedon replied, sagely not repeating his brother’s blasphemous over-confidence.

“By the Northern Gate stands the tomb of Amphion, who ruled with his brother Zethus before my grandfather Laius.”  Polynices sighed sadly.  “I hope I shall fare better than those sons of Zeus.  But they were abandoned on the mountainside and raised up by those who found them…so to fight near his tomb it is only right for the abandoned son of an abandoned mother, surely,” he continued.  “Fight to make even your mother proud, Parthenopaios.”

“One can hardly tell the difference between him and his mother,” Amphiaraos grumbled.

“If I can fight even half as well as my parents in the battle to come, then the Thebans will fall before me like timid beasts of the forest,” Parthenopaios assured Polynices.

“The Homoloian Gate is one of the most important, and will require both a strong spear and the wisdom to use it properly, so only you can hope to take it, Amphiaraos,” Polynices continued.

The seer sighed sadly.  “Too near by half to Capaneus, but I suppose I have no choice if I’m to fight at all.  But I should rather be safely back in Argos than here on this suicide.”

“Then why not run home, coward?” Tydeus laughed.

“Is it cowardice to wish to avoid a death plainly written before your eyes?” Amphiaraos retorted.  “Apollo sent me that vision to give us a chance to prevent our own deaths.  We are fools to have ignored it, and you are–”

“All right, enough of that!” Polynices snapped.  Then he sighed deeply.  “I’ll take the seventh gate myself.”

“Who will their champions be?” Adrastos asked.

“I couldn’t say,” Polynices admitted.  “There are no warriors in the city who can stand up to us, though, surely!  We’ll be sitting upon a field of victory by this time tomorrow.  We’ll be feeding ourselves with the finest delicacies in my brother’s palace.”

“By this time tomorrow, we’ll be feeding the crows,” Amphiaraos sighed.  His only comfort, as he reflected on his impending demise, was that he had made certain arrangements before he left…

They continued their planning for some time longer, but very little else could be decided, and eventually the warriors settled in to rest for the last time before beginning their assault on Thebes.

Because of Tydeus’ fight the day before, the Thebans were ready for them.  Each gate stood defended by a mighty champion, and each champion’s strength matched his opponent’s weakness.  Several of the Argive champions were struck down within moments of joining the battle.

But not Capaneus.  His opponent never touched him.  For as he charged towards the gate, a bolt of thunder flew down from the heavens and struck him, incinerating him instantly, and striking terror into the hearts of the entire Argive force.  Was Zeus himself aligned against them, they wondered.  How could they win if the king of the gods wished them to fail?

Amphiaraos was fighting from his chariot, wanting to keep well away from his opponent, Lasthenes, though he knew that under normal circumstances he was the stronger man.  As he was driving his team across the battlefield, slaying many Theban troops, he was astonished to see the goddess Athene rushing across the field, carrying a small vial that radiated a golden light.

He knew there was only one thing that could be in that vial, and only one mortal on those fields that Athene might give it to.  Disgusted and horrified to think of the crude and brutal Tydeus being gifted with ambrosia and immortal life, Amphiaraos urged his steeds to travel even faster, and he took the shorter route across the field, reaching Tydeus before Athene could.

There, before the Proitid Gate, Amphiaraos saw Tydeus lying, mortally wounded, with his foe, Melanippos, lying nearby, also badly wounded, but not yet dying.  Hastily, Amphiaraos drew his sword, sliced off the head of Melanippose, then flung it at Tydeus.

Caught up in the brutal fits of battle, Tydeus brought the head of his killer to his lips and began to eat its brains.

The goddess Athene stopped short at that sight, and flung down her vial of ambrosia in revulsion.

But as Thanatos arrived to sever Tydeus’ life at last, the veil blocking the gods from his sight slipped, and he saw the goddess looking at him with disappointment.  Brought back to his senses by the sight of his divine patroness, Tydeus begged her to give his infant son the gifts he had failed to live up to.  Gratified that he had so quickly learned from his mistake, Athene promised to fulfill his dying wish.

By now, Amphiaraos’ pursuer was upon him, and he once more urged his horses onwards.  Adrastos saw him approaching, and was just ordering his men to go aid his brother-in-law when the surface of the earth opened up before him, swallowing up Amphiaraos, chariot and all, before closing again, as though nothing had happened.

Terrified by the fates of Capaneus and Amphiaraos, Adrastos turned his horse and began to ride back to Argos as fast as he could, heedless of whether or not his troops were following him.

The only duel still going when Adrastos turned to flee was the one between the twin sons of Oedipus.  They fought and fought, but were so evenly matched that for every wound one inflicted on the other, the other inflicted a similar wound on him.  They fought and fought and fought, until each welled up the last of his strength for one last mighty thrust of his sword, and each brother pierced the other’s heart, and both brothers fell dead before the seventh gate of Thebes.

The people of Thebes didn’t know what to do with their king and his brother both dead.  In their grief, they turned to the king’s elderly uncle, Creon, asking him to take the throne, at least until they could find out if their former king, Oedipus, still lived.

It was the very next day that two mournful maidens approached the city, carrying betwen them an urn.  Horrified at the piles of corpses lying around the gates, the maidens stopped beside a woman who wept over a particularly brutalized corpse.

“What happened here?”

“My poor husband!” the woman moaned, looking up from the sliced-up body.  The maidens were shocked to realize that the body was that of their brother Polynices.  The woman, their sister-in-law Argeia, explained what had caused the battle, and how the people of Thebes had turned to Creon to rule them after the battle.  “As the new king, Creon’s first decree was that the men who had died defending Thebes should have the finest funerals and funeral pyres that the city could provide them, and proper tombs befitting great heroes.  But then he said that those who had tried to despoil the city are to be left unburied outside the city, food for the crows and wolves!” she wailed.  “His own flesh and blood, and he won’t allow my Polynices to be properly buried!”

“I can’t allow that!” Antigone exclaimed.  “You keep the crows away a little longer.  I’ll speak to Creon.  I won’t allow my brother to be treated so shamefully!”

Antigone and Ismene hurried into the throne room, where Creon was delighted to see them.  “My son has been pining for you,” he added, smiling at Antigone.

“How can you speak of such trivial matters while you’re allowing Polynices to rot in the sun?!” Antigone demanded.

“He committed treason against Thebes, and killed his own brother,” Creon pointed out.  “But where is your father?  He will agree with me, I’m sure, when you–”

“He’s right here, and no longer able to give his opinion of anything,” Antigone informed him, as she and Ismene put down the urn before his feet.  “Nothing remains but bones and ashes.”

Creon stared down at the urn in uncertainty.  He had hoped he would be able to hand the throne back to Oedipus, since Tiresias had confirmed that he had been purified of his blood guilt.  But if Oedipus was now dead…either Creon had to keep the throne, or he had to wait until Haimon married Antigone, and then hand it over to him.

“Your command is an offense against the gods,” Antigone insisted.  “Allow my brother and the men of Argos to be buried.”

“I will not take orders from a mere girl,” Creon growled.  “Anyone who attempts to bury them will face execution for treason!”

The girls left the throne room again.  Ismene was weeping for their brothers, saddened by their inability to bury Polynices, but Antigone was not ready to give up.  “I’m going down to help our sister-in-law with Polynices’ body.  Signal me from the wall when they prepare Eteocles for the pyre.”

“What?  Why?”

“Just do it, Ismene!” Antigone snapped, then hurried out of the city and explained her plan to the mourning Argeia.

Near dusk, Ismene signaled them from the wall, and Antigone and Argeia carefully lifted Polynices’ body between them, and carried it up to the funeral pyre where Eteocles’ body was to be consumed.  Ismene distracted the guards, and the two mourners laid Polynices’ body upon the pyre, and covered it with a cloth.  Just in time, they stepped away from the pyre and hid in the shadows as the mourners brought Eteocles and laid him upon the pyre.

As the pyre was lit, the cloth was burned away, revealing that Polynices was lying beside his brother, just as they had as infants.  Everyone was shocked, but most of the Thebans were secretly relieved that the king’s brother was not being left out for the wolves, but Creon was enraged that his commands were being disobeyed.

He had Antigone, Ismene and Argeia locked up, and after the pyre had burned down and the bones of the brothers laid to rest in a single urn–since they couldn’t tell which bones belonged to which brother, they had no other choice!–Creon had the three women dragged into the throne room so that he could condemn them to death for their violation of his decree.

But he had not gotten halfway through his lengthy speech on the subject when Tiresias hobbled into the room.  Seeing the blind seer, Creon scowled, and stopped his speech, glaring at the sightless old man.  “If you’re going to tell me that the gods wish these disobedient wenches spared…” he threatened.

“I’m sure the gods don’t care about them one bit,” Tiresias cackled.  “But the gods have been rejecting our sacrifices ever since you decreed that the Argive dead should be left unburied.  Argos is under Hera’s protection, you know.  You don’t want to earn her hatred.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying, the gods demand that you allow the dead of both armies equal burial.  Otherwise Thebes will be even more cursed than it was when the patricide sat upon the throne,” Tiresias informed him.  “If you want to receive any further prophecies from me, you’d better do as the gods demand.  Otherwise, I’ll be leaving Thebes forever.  I’m not about to put up with yet another curse.”

Creon sighed sadly.  “Very well,” he conceded.  He’d seen enough tragedy by now to know not to fight the will of the gods.  “Send out men to gather up the Argive bodies for burial,” he told one of the men of the court.

“Please, ask him to let me go back to Argos to raise up my infant son,” Argeia pleaded with Tiresias.

Tiresias frowned.  He knew her son’s fate, and he didn’t like it.  But he doubted the gods would let him change it.  “It’s not right to separate a son from his mother so young,” he told Creon.  “And I suspect the gods would wish her son to be raised up properly.”  If nothing else, he reflected, it might make the boy less cruel when the time came…

“Very well, she can go back to Argos,” Creon sighed, “but she must swear never again to return to Thebes, not even to mourn at her husband’s grave!”

Sadly, Argeia gave her word, then quickly fled the throne room, with only a whispered word to Antigone to assure her that she and her sister would be welcomed in the home of Adrastos at any time.

The throne room fell silent then.  Antigone stood straight up, still glaring defiantly at Creon.  He felt that she was daring him with her eyes, asking him to have her put to death.  As much as he detested her interference, he wasn’t quite sure if he had the nerve to carry it quite that far…

Sorry for the dangling ending.  Thing is, Antigone has too many fates.  The version everyone knows, the one in the play by Sophocles, was probably at least half invented by Sophocles.  (To the extent that in older versions, Haimon was killed by the Sphinx!  So her betrothed used to die before she was even born!)  So I left it unclear, and people can decide for themselves if Creon put her to death or let her marry his son after all.  (Well, okay, actually, I doubt she’d still be willing to, even if she did live.  But that’s another matter entirely.)

I feel like I left out more than I included here.  This story is just much too complex for a single post like this one.


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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