All posts tagged Thebes

An odd thought about Heracles

Published June 21, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

This is coming totally out of the blue, but lately I’ve been looking at some posts talking about some of the less well-known exploits of Heracles (less well known in modern times, anyhow), and a few minutes ago I had a…well, it wouldn’t be right to call it an epiphany (especially as it’s rather odd and probably wrong) but it struck me with that kind of lightning-like speed, and at the moment I had the thought I was sure it explained everything.  (Though giving it a little more thought made me realize that it didn’t make a lick of sense.)

Anyway, I thought I’d share it, in case anyone else found it interesting, but I’ll put it in context first.

Heracles, as most Greek myth enthusiasts know, was either born in Thebes, or born in Tiryns and then his family moved to Thebes when he was an infant.  (The former is the standard version, I believe.)  Either way, the point is that Heracles was raised in Thebes, and was a Theban hero who protected the city.  Particularly he defended it against the Orchomenians, who had conquered the city earlier, and now were demanding a huge payment from Thebes each year.  In some versions, he received the hand of King Creon’s daughter, Megara, in repayment for his victory over the Orchomenians.

All well and good, yes?

Except if you look at Heracles’ interactions with the other major mythic cycles.

Heracles was an Argonaut.  Heracles sacked Troy when Priam was a youth (and called Podarces in some versions of the tale).  And Heracles has no interaction whatsoever with the Theban Cycle.  And yet, two of the Epigoni fought at Troy, placing the earlier actions of the Theban Cycle squarely during Heracles’ lifetime.  (A fact made all the more glaringly evident by the fact that the king of Thebes in Heracles’ day goes by the name of Creon…which is actually a generic name for a king in ancient Greece, but…)

So, the thought that occurred to me was that the Thebes in Greece is not the only Thebes.

What if Heracles was originally from the Egyptian Thebes?

Heracles bears considerable similarities to certain Middle Eastern figures, particularly Mesopotamian and Phoenician ones, and in classical times there was an Egyptian figure believed by the Greeks to be Heracles.  (Though the latter isn’t saying much, since it was the traditional Greek practice to assume that all foreign gods were actually the Greek gods by the wrong names, and the mortal Heracles was deified upon his “death.”  (Though it’s actually much more complicated than that, considering his Mesopotamian forebear was never mortal, and in the Odyssey, the shade of Heracles appears along with the other dead, implying that during the Archaic era, Heracles was not considered to have become an immortal after death.))  So what if originally his parents fled all the way to Egypt, instead of simply to Thebes?  Cadmos, after all, was both a Phoenician and the grandfather of Dionysos, so it’s not as though the Greeks couldn’t admit foreigners into their divine family.  And the Greeks admired the Egyptians, while the Phoenicians were still “barbarians” to them.  (Though obviously more acceptable “barbarians” than, say, the Persians.)

There’s also one more Thebes, but I doubt it could ever have been Heracles’ homeland:  it’s a town near Troy, sacked by Achilles during the Trojan War (like so many others), and the birthplace of poor Andromache.

Of course, the Anatolian Thebes brings up another point:  just because in historical times there were only two Thebes, the Greek one and the Egyptian one, that doesn’t mean there couldn’t have been more of them in the Mycenaean era in which the myths began to form.  Perhaps there used to be another Thebes in Greece, and it was to that city that Amphitryon and Alcmene moved when they left Tiryns.

Given the utter disconnect between Heracles and the Theban Cycle (how could his entire life come in the gaps while Creon was ruling?), I think it seems most likely that he was not originally associated with the same Thebes as Oedipus and his family.  Maybe there used to be an Argive Thebes, which would make a lot more sense in many ways:  for good or ill, Heracles is always connected to Hera, and Argos was her region of Greece, plus then his family wouldn’t have fled so far.  On the other hand, if he was Peloponnesian, it would make less sense for him to be an Argonaut, since the Argo‘s crew was largely Thessalian — at least originally.

I’d have to check the Catalog of Ships in the Iliad to see if there are any other cities named Thebes listed, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t, so if I’m right and Heracles used to come from an entirely different Thebes, it was already lost and forgotten by the time the Catalog of Ships was first composed.  And that was a part of the Iliad that the poet inherited from generations of earlier bards, considering it’s describing the Mycenaean power landscape, not the Archaic one that was in place when the epic itself was composed.  So if there isn’t another Thebes in the Catalog of Ships, then for Heracles to have originally been associated with a different Thebes, his story would have to be really freakin’ old.  Unless he was originally from Egyptian Thebes.  That’s an entirely different matter…but I don’t know if the Greeks ever assumed that the Egyptian cities were city-states like their own, so…yeah, that’s a problem.

Another problem, of course, is that fact that Tiresias is lightly involved in the story of Heracles’ conception, at least in some versions, which rather requires him to have been born (and conceived) in that Thebes.

Ultimately, what bothers me about this little conundrum is how I’m going to handle the life of Heracles in my myth re-tellings.  I need to figure out what to do about that, because if he’s from the same Thebes as Oedipus, then why doesn’t he get involved in all of that?  What’s the timing?  If he’s from a different Thebes, then it’s a little easier to work out the chronology.  Or rather, the precise chronology is of little relevance, so I don’t have to stress about it.  (I just have to explain what Tiresias is doing in a Thebes other than the one he lives in.)


Published October 1, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

The creative titling continues, eh?  (Also, lateness.)  Anyway, this picks up from, well, about half-way through last week’s, actually.


After his sister Europa was carried off by the strange bull that had risen from the sea, Cadmos swore that he would find her, promising his father that he would not return to Phoenicia without his sister.  His father didn’t like the idea of losing his eldest — and finest — son, but he liked the idea of allowing his daughter to be carried off without retribution even less, so he allowed it without complaint.

So Cadmos sailed away from his native land of Tyre with only a single ship, seeking for his sister.

Based on what Europa’s friends had told him, Cadmos suspected that the bull with his sister on its back must have fetched up on the large island of Crete, halfway across the sea.  He had never heard of there being any bulls on that island — in fact, he could recall one ship returning to Tyre after having put into port at Cnossos and complaining that there hadn’t been a single cow on the whole island — but surely that would make it more likely that the natives would be able to tell him what had happened to his sister, if something as unusual as a bull had come ashore with her.

When they arrived at the easternmost port on the island, Cadmos did his best to ask around, but the Cretans were being even less helpful than usual; in fact, they all said that they were on holiday, because the king was getting married, and so they didn’t have to deal with foreigners right now!  It took him nearly a full day to find anyone who was willing to talk to him.

The garrulous chap was standing in the temple to one of the local gods — Cadmos wasn’t sure which one, since he had rarely paid much heed to foreign gods — and seemed surprisingly eager to talk.  “You look wealthy,” the man said as soon as Cadmos approached him.  “You one of those eastern princes I’ve heard so much about?”

“I suppose you could say that,” Cadmos answered uneasily.  His father was a king, so he was a prince, and Phoenicia was certainly to the east of Crete, but something about the characterization made him uncomfortable.  Just what had this man heard about princes from the east?  “I’m looking for my sister, Europa.”

“Oh?  That’s an unusual name for a Phoenician girl, isn’t it?” the other man chuckled.

“Is it?”  Cadmos had never spent much time contemplating women’s names.  Women, yes, but not their names.  “Wait, what does that matter?!  Look, just tell me if you’ve seen her!  She–”

“Can’t say I’ve ever met any Phoenician princesses,” the man replied, shaking his head.

“But have you heard any rumors?  She was carried off on the back of a bull that rose out of the sea!  Surely people must talk if a thing like that comes walking up onto the shore!” Cadmos exclaimed, nearly shouting.

“A bull?  Ain’t none of those around here!” the man assured him.  “Try going further east,” he added.  “In Hellas, there’s a shrine to Apollo in a place called Delphi.  The prophetess there, the Pythia, she never speaks falsely.  If you ask her, you’ll have the words of Apollo himself to tell you what to do about your sister.”

Cadmos frowned.  He didn’t like the idea of asking a foreign god for help, but if she hadn’t fetched up on Crete, then he didn’t know quite where else to look.  Maybe the foreign god was his only option?  “Tell me where to find this Delphi,” he said, with a resigned sigh.

The man gave him detailed instructions as to how to get to Delphi, and Cadmos left Crete, setting sail for Hellas.  Because Delphi was inland, Cadmos left most of his men on the ship, and continued his travels on foot, taking only a handful of guards with him.  He didn’t want anyone to think he was invading, after all.

Once he had finally arrived at Delphi, Cadmos went through the necessary procedures to ask the Pythia for advice, a process that took longer than he was expecting.  It frustrated him greatly that he was having to wait so long.  At this rate, his sister could be suffering any number of terrible indignities at the hands of her abductors!

When he was finally ushered into the presence of the Pythia, Cadmos finally explained his situation to her.  The woman nodded, and inhaled some of the vapors passing up through a crack in the floor before speaking to him.  “You must abandon your quest, Cadmos of Phoenicia,” the woman told him, in a surprisingly deep voice:  though it was mellifluous, it could easily have passed for a man’s voice.  “It was by the will of Zeus that Europa was taken from her father’s lands, and she will not return there.”

“Zeus?” Cadmos repeated.  “That’s one of your gods, isn’t it?”

“Zeus is the king of the gods of Olympos,” the Pythia told him sharply, “and you will come to worship him in time.”

“Wait, what?”

“You must follow the cow,” the Pythia told him.

“Cow?” Cadmos didn’t like just repeating what was being said to him, but how else was he supposed to react?!

“You will find a cow with a white moon upon both her flanks,” the Pythia informed him, her voice just as masculine as ever.  “The cow will lead you to the land where you must build your city.”

“Why am I going to build a city?” Cadmos asked, aghast.  Why would he go to all that trouble when he already had a city at home, waiting for him to come home and be king?  Oh, but no, he couldn’t go home:  he had sworn not to return without Europa…

“Where the cow sinks to the ground, there you must build your walls,” the Pythia continued, ignoring his question.  “You will be a king among the Hellenes, despite your foreign birth.  It is a great honor.”

“I suppose it is, but I’m still not clear why I can’t be reunited with my sister.”

“I told you, it is the will of Zeus!” the Pythia snapped at him.  She really did sound like a man, Cadmos couldn’t help thinking.  “Are all Phoenicians so stupid, or is it just you?”

“I am not stupid,” Cadmos assured her, wondering if it was permissible to hit her for being so rude.

“Then stop acting like you are,” she laughed.  “You came to seek my advice, and yet you refuse to take it.”

“That isn’t exactly…” Cadmos started, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to finish; it felt dishonest.

“Find the cow with the moons, and follow her until she collapses.  There build your city, and rule over it for as long as your strength holds out.  That is the will of Zeus,” the Pythia told him, her every word sharp and pointed, as if each word was an arrow being fired at him.

Cadmos sighed deeply.  “All right, I understand,” he said, “but can you at least explain why Zeus doesn’t wish me even to see my sister again?”

For some reason, the Pythia only laughed at him, and then sunk to her knees.  After a moment, she rose again, and smiled at him weakly.  “The god has departed,” she told him, in an entirely different — and far more feminine — voice.  “That is the extent of your answer.”

Uncertain, and decidedly dismayed, Cadmos left Delphi, unsure what to do.  Was he really to live out the rest of his life in exile, just because some priestess claimed that her gods wished his sister to remain forever hidden from her own flesh and blood?  It hardly seemed right!  And yet to deny the will of the gods — even someone else’s gods — didn’t seem right, either.

Cadmos discussed the problem with his men, and  after much consideration — and some argument — they all came to the agreement that they should spend a week hunting for the cow with the white moons on her flanks, and if they didn’t find such a cow, then they would consider that a sign from the gods that this Pythia had really been speaking nonsense, and they would continue on their search for Europa.

The week was nearly up when they found a lone cow standing in a field.  She had a white circle on either flank, and looked at them passively as they approached, then suddenly turned and began to walk away.

Little knowing what else to do, Cadmos and his men followed the cow.

And followed her.

And followed her.

She wandered across all of Boeotia, with the Phoenicians wearily trailing along behind her, before she finally sank to the ground in exhaustion.

The place where she collapsed was wide and flat, yet with several possible defensive features nearby.  It did seem like an ideal place to build a city, Cadmos had to admit.  He could even hear water from a spring nearby.

“I suppose there’s nothing for it,” Cadmos sighed.  “We’ll build a city, as the oracle told us to.  We should sacrifice this cow to the local gods, asking their permission to build here.  Go and fetch water from the spring,” he added, turning to his men.

The men nodded, and headed off to the spring.

They were not out of sight long before Cadmos heard them scream in terror and anguish.  Running to see what had happened, Cadmos found them broken and bleeding all around the spring, an enormous serpent reared up above their mangled bodies.

Too frightened and shocked to think to draw his sword, Cadmos grabbed an enormous stone that lay near his feet, and as the serpent began to strike towards him, Cadmos threw the stone at it with all his might.  It struck the serpent in the head, and the monstrous beast fell to the earth, quite as dead as its victims.

For a moment, all was still, except the water in the spring.

Then an enormous man clad in shining armor appeared before Cadmos, his face contorted with rage.  “How dare you kill my serpent?!” the man demanded.  “Don’t you know a sacred guardian when you see one!?”

Cadmos took a step backwards, alarmed and more than a little confused.  But before he could think of anything to say, another being in shining armor appeared before him, just as large as the other, but this one was a beautiful woman, and her face was as placid as it was lovely.  “Calm yourself, Ares,” the woman said.  “You know this was Father’s will.”

“There’s no reason to let this barbarian get away with desecrating my spring!” the man, Ares, retorted furiously.

“If he hadn’t defended himself, he would be dead, and Father has plans for his family,” the woman replied, her voice hardening a little.  “Let it go.”

“Would you be so calm if he’d slain your guardian, Athene?!” Ares demanded.

I do not entrust my sacred places to brute beasts that attack all they see,” Athene laughed.  “Blame yourself for your own mistakes, and accept that this is what Father wishes.”

“No!  I’ll see him punished!”

The woman grimaced, then glanced at the corpse of the serpent, and turned an almost vicious smile at Ares.  “Shall we let him determine his own fate?” she suggested.  “The test of the Spartoi, perhaps?”

Ares laughed cruelly.  “Fine, I can watch him torn to pieces, and get a good laugh out of it.  Go on, then.”

Athene turned to look at Cadmos, who had for some time been wondering if he could escape while these two strange beings bickered.  “Pluck the teeth from the dragon’s upper jaw,” she told him, gesturing towards the dead serpent, “then sow them in the fertile ground above.”

“Wh-what happens then?” Cadmos asked, wondering what a ‘Spartoi’ was, and how they planned on testing him…and just how being torn to pieces fit into the picture.

“That will depend on your actions,” Athene replied, with a mysterious smile.  “I know you can survive it,” she added, her smile becoming more warm.  “Father would not have chosen you for this honor if you weren’t able to measure up.”

“If I can ask one more question?” Cadmos asked, after a moment’s hesitation.

“You may ask,” Athene replied, “though we may not answer it.”

Cadmos tried not to frown at an answer like that.  “Why only the upper jaw?  Why not both?”

“You wouldn’t want to sow that many teeth,” Athene chuckled.  “And we do have plans for the other half of the teeth.  Father promised them to Helios, in repayment of some old debt.”

Cadmos wasn’t sure who Helios was — or who Athene’s father was, though he suspected her father was probably the same Zeus who had been behind Europa’s disappearance — but he decided it was probably best not to ask.  Instead, he did as he had been told, and prized the teeth out of the serpent’s upper jaw.  It was a rather smelly task, and he cut his fingers on the teeth more than once, but eventually he had gotten them all out.  The thing had a surprisingly large number of teeth — in Phoenicia, serpents only had two fangs, so he hadn’t been expecting more than twenty teeth just on one jaw! — so he had to walk back up to the area near where the cow was still resting to have room enough to sow them in the ground.

He didn’t have a plow handy — who travels with a plow, after all? — so Cadmos had to use a stick to make the necessary number of holes.  Hardly proper sowing, but he was a merchant prince and a warrior, not a farmer, so he wouldn’t have known how to do it right even if he’d had the proper equipment.  He dropped a single tooth into each hole, and then turned to survey his work.

To his surprise, he could see that the first hole was puckering and swelling, and soon he could see a man — fully clad in heavy bronze armor! — climbing out of the hole.

Backing away, Cadmos watched in disbelief as each hole disgorged a fully armed warrior.  Fully armed and from the sound of them very angry.  If those men saw him, they would surely set upon him and kill him; they didn’t seem to like having been born in little holes in the ground.  (And, in truth, Cadmos had to admit that he wouldn’t have liked that, either.)

Not knowing quite what to do to protect himself, Cadmos picked up a stone from the ground, and threw it at one of the sown men whose back was towards him.

The man who had been struck by the rock whirled around and immediately accused the man standing behind him of having hit him.  The other sown man denied it — of course he did! — but the injured party refused to believe his innocence, and punched him in the face.  The second man, naturally, punched back.

Soon all of the sown men were involved in the brawl, and it turned bloody as one after another drew his sword and began to hack the others to pieces.

By the time the fight was over, only five remained.

One of them noticed Cadmos, and all five of them approached him.  “Are you the king?” one of them asked.

Uneasily, Cadmos shook his head.  “I’m an exiled Phoenician prince,” he told them, “obeying an oracle’s command to build a city here.”

“Then you’re the king,” another sown man concluded, nodding.  “I suppose we must obey you, then.”

To Cadmos’ surprise, the sown men were soon all vowing loyalty to him, and almost before he knew it, the six of them were planning and building the new city of Thebes.

That should have been an end to it, but the city had hardly been finished before it was struck by a plague.  Sending to Delphi for advice, Cadmos received the message that Ares was still angry at him for having slain the sacred serpent.  If he was to put an end to the plague, he would have to placate the god of war, and he could do that only by serving him for a year.

Hardly what Cadmos would have wanted — he had never much cared for war and fighting — but he couldn’t afford to have a god angry at him!  (Especially since Thebes had gained a considerable population of locals, and so Cadmos had been forced to enter into the worship of the local gods.)

So Cadmos entered into the service of Ares for a year, and was forced to perform many menial and degrading tasks at the whim of the god of war.  But when the year was up, just as he was looking forward to returning to Thebes and relaxing, he was surprised to find that Athene had come to speak to her brother Ares.

“Now that he’s done his penance, Father wants you to make peace with him,” Athene informed Ares.

“I don’t want to,” the other god grumbled.

“Regardless, you have to make peace with him, or Father will be cross, and you don’t want that, do you?” Athene asked, her voice light and cheery, and yet she had a threatening look in her eyes.

Ares blanched, and looked away.  “No,” he muttered.

“Good.  Then you’ll bind him to you in blood,” Athene informed him, then turned to look at a confused and more than slightly alarmed Cadmos.  “You’ll marry Ares’ daughter Harmonia,” she told him.

This was definitely the best news Cadmos had had in…in his entire life, actually.  In the course of his service to Ares, he had occasionally caught sight of Ares’ daughter Harmonia.  She was the most beautiful creature that Cadmos had ever seen, and he doubted that even her mother, Aphrodite herself, could match up to Harmonia.

Naturally, Cadmos had never been allowed to speak to Harmonia, but he was sure he’d seen her looking at him on more than one occasion.  At least, he certainly liked to think so…

Though Ares tried to object to his daughter marrying a mortal, Athene would allow no arguments to dissuade her, and soon Cadmos was sent back to Thebes to prepare for his wedding.

When the day of the wedding arrived, the bride was brought to Thebes by her parents, and all the other gods also came to celebrate the wedding, in the company of the Muses and the Graces.  It was the most splendid wedding that the world had ever seen, and the prophetic Apollo commented that though there would someday be another wedding of a mortal man to an immortal maid which would surpass this one, until that day, Cadmos’ wedding would remain the finest any mortal man would ever have.

But the best part of the wedding, to Cadmos — apart from the joy to come on the wedding night — was the arrival of a herald from Crete.

“King Asterion and Queen Europa send you this gift,” the herald told him, handing Cadmos a necklace more beautiful than any mortal man had ever made.

“Europa?” Cadmos repeated.  “My sister?!”

“Yes, the queen called you her brother,” the herald confirmed.  “She asked me to convey the message to you that she is very happy where she is, and that she’s glad to hear you’ve found happiness as well.”

Overjoyed by the news that his sister was all right — though annoyed that the man in Crete had lied to him — Cadmos gave the herald a long message to relay to Europa, and then gladly presented the beautiful necklace to his new wife.


Yup.  It’s official:  I suck at finding a place to end things.

Anyway, where do I start with the apologies/explanations on this one?

First off, I’ve never heard of a Greek myth that acknowledges that other cultures had other gods — certainly the Greek historians didn’t acknowledge that, not as such; they tended to assign Greek names to the foreign gods (like Herodotos saying that the Egyptians worshiped Dionysos and Demeter as their primary gods) — but I wasn’t about to make Phoenicians worship the Greek gods.  That would just be weird.  (Though I’m not sure what gods it would be appropriate to say they did worship, considering the Phoenicians as we think of them wouldn’t have existed in the early Late Bronze Age, and I’m not sure who the proto-Phoenicians were or who they worshiped.)

Second, let’s see, what was second?  Oh, yeah, the stuff about cows/bulls and Crete.  As you’re probably aware, the “Minoan” culture on the real Crete had a bull cult, and many of the Greek myths involving Crete involve a bull in some manner.  So why did I make the strange “no cows on Crete” bit in the story?  Well, I thought I’d use this myth to explain why bulls were so important in Crete.  Like before Europa arrived, no bulls, but afterwards, bulls are a focus of the local religious life.  I’m not sure I can phrase it properly.  (Especially not this late at night.)  I think that’s why there are so many bull-related myths for Crete, though:  the myths were, essentially, trying to explain the Cretan bull cult of the Late Bronze Age.  Only by the time of the versions of the myths we know, the Late Bronze Age is barely more than a faded memory, so they don’t really get that that’s the reason there are so many bull-related myths about Crete.

Third, about the serpent/dragon’s teeth.  Remember in Jason and the Argonauts, when Aeetes sows the dragon’s teeth to make the skeletons pop up out of the earth to go attack Jason and his friends?  (And the movie then unceremoniously kills one of the Dioscuri without any fanfare or explanation of how he could die so early and in the wrong place and in the wrong way?)  Well, they’re not supposed to be skeletons, but sown men really are part of the myth of the voyage of the Argo, only in the original myth, they’re the other half of the teeth from the same dragon/serpent that Cadmos slew.  With no explanation — that I’m aware of (which isn’t saying much) — of how Aeetes got those particular teeth.  So I made up the bit about giving them to Helios, who then presumably handed them over to his son, Aeetes.  (Yup, Medea’s daddy is the son of the sun.  That, of course, is why Medea is immortal:  both of her parents are immortal.)

EDIT — After going to bed, I remembered what the other things I wanted to point out were, and thankfully I still remember them now, in the morning:

Fourth, the whole Pythia sequence is broken.  That’s not how consulting Delphi worked; priests spoke to the Pythia and interpreted what she said into hexameters, and told those to the visitors, who likely never even got to lay eyes on the Pythia themselves.  But she did — we think — inhale vapors coming up from a crack in the floor.  They may have had a hallucinogenic effect…or they may not.  There’s more I don’t know about Delphi than there is that I do.  A whole book was published just on Delphi not too long ago (a year or two, max) but I haven’t had time to read it yet.  (It is definitely on my list of things I want to read when I get the time, though!  I also have a different, older book on Delphi waiting for me to read it…)

Fifth, the arrival at Thebes bit would be better if I had any idea what the terrain around Thebes looks like.  Or rather what it might have looked like prior to the construction of the city.  I just made something up that felt plausible, because I didn’t feel like I had time to look anything up, no matter how briefly.  (It was, by that point, at least a quarter to 11 at night.)  Okay, end of EDIT zone.

Anyway, the base myth here has surprisingly few surviving variations, but the exact reasoning behind the sowing of the dragon’s teeth has more variations, and they’re contradictory, so I tried to make a sensible version while accepting as many details as I could.  Though I totally made up the “he’s seen Harmonia already and quite fancies her” bit.  Because it feels a little less creepy this way, especially since it also allowed me to imply that she’s interested, too.  (Given that she will eventually be turned into a serpent because of her husband, it seemed important that she should actually like him!)

Next week — and for the rest of October — I’m going to see if I can find something that feels suitably Halloween-related.  So that presumably means something monster-related, as I’m pretty sure I won’t find any tales of the undead in ancient Greek myths.  (Though there are some undead in Mesopotamian myths, so maybe if I look hard enough I can…?)

Dionysos in Thebes

Published September 18, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Not the best title, I admit, but I couldn’t think of a better one.

This reminds me, I still haven’t done the tale of Cadmos yet.  I’ve kind of skipped over a lot of the mortal women Zeus seduced, too.  (Gee, I wonder why?)  Guess I can get to those before I try figuring out the more complex cycles.  (On top of timing things for Theseus, I also have to figure out what the deal is with Ariadne and Dionysos.  The commonly known version is that the god married her after Theseus abandoned her (whether of his own volition or on the orders of the god) but the Odyssey has her show up in the afterlife, having been killed by Artemis because of Dionysos, possibly even on his instructions.  Those are hard to reconcile…)

After spreading wine and song in the lands to the far east, Dionysos decided he had gathered enough power through the worship of mortals, and that it was now time to return to the home he never knew, where his mother was born.  He duly set out for Thebes, though he was taking his sweet time as he passed through the lands of Hellas, spreading his worship and gaining followers, at first only satyrs and wild nymphs, but eventually gaining human women as well, who became Bacchantes much like the Maenads the nymphs had become.  (Though the nymphs traveled with Dionysos in constant revelry, whereas the mortal women usually returned to their families after a week or two.)

Eventually, he finally reached his mother’s native Thebes, and found that word of him had already spread to the city, though not everyone was receptive.  Since he wanted to make the best possible impression on his grandfather, Cadmos, and his cousin Pentheus, who was now ruling in Thebes, Dionysos ordered his satyrs and Maenads to wait outside the city, and absolutely not to interact with the mortals in any way, or else.  Then, making sure that his mortal guise was extra pretty, with long blonde locks that were sure to charm anyone who saw them, Dionysos entered Thebes.

He had no trouble winning over the women of the city, but most of the men were quite reluctant to embrace either his worship or his wine.  (Those men who were receptive to him seemed more interested in embracing him than they were in his worship or even his wine.  Though the same might be said about the women, Dionysos was a little less sure how to react it in men, and told himself he would have to ask his older brothers, especially Apollo, if this ever happened to them, and how he should handle it.)

Dionysos was determined not to let a few minor setbacks discourage him, and went about teaching the ways of the Bacchantes to the Theban women.  Such things couldn’t be taught in the presence of non-believers, of course, or of men, so Dionysos and the Bacchantes-in-training withdrew from the city to a nearby mountainside, where they would have seclusion from prying eyes.

After they had been gone a day or two, Dionysos noticed that they were running out of food for the women to eat, and since he was fairly sure it wasn’t good for mortals to eat nothing but grapes — the only things he could make grow on command, out of season — he decided they would need real food.  Consequently, he called up a few of his Maenad nymphs, and left them in charge of the mortal women, while he personally went back to Thebes to gather some food.

While he was instructing his male followers to bring him food for the women, Dionysos was suddenly surrounded by armed men, who insisted on taking him to see King Pentheus.  The god wasn’t sure if it was yet the right time to meet his mortal cousin, but since it would be rude to refuse, he decided he had better comply.  He wanted to make a good first impression, after all!

Pentheus didn’t look at all pleased to see him, though.  In fact, he looked quite furious!

“What have you done with them?” Pentheus demanded, as soon as Dionysos had been led before him in his mortal disguise.  “If you return the women you’ve kidnapped, I might be convinced to be lenient with you.  Provided they’re untouched.”

“I have kidnapped no one,” Dionysos assured his cousin.  “The women who left Thebes in my company did so of their own free will.  They are learning the secret rites and being initiated into the worship of the most holy and powerful Dionysos, the son of your late aunt Semele and all-powerful Zeus himself.”

Pentheus scowled.  “Leading them away to teach them the worship of a false god is no different than kidnapping them.  Bring them back, and I may let you live.”

“Dionysos is no false god,” Dionysos assured him, with a suave smile he was sure would convince anyone of the truth of his words.

It didn’t work.

“Semele was seduced by a mortal man, and lied that it had been Zeus, and that’s why he struck her with a thunderbolt and killed her!” Pentheus roared.  “You are spreading the worship of a false god, and furthermore spreading the most vile poisonous concoction as you do so, a liquid so insidious that it makes all who drink it go mad!”

“Wine is not poisonous at all, I can assure you,” Dionysos said with a cold smile.  “Its dangers lie only in excess.  But you are the one in danger of being struck by a thunderbolt, to speak such lies about a mortal woman loved by Zeus — a mortal woman of your own flesh and blood!  Dionysos is a true god, as Zeus had intended to make Semele into a true goddess to sit at his left side, opposite the envious Hera, had she not acted on her jealousy to cause Semele’s untimely demise.”

The god’s words enraged Pentheus (for some reason) and he began shouting and screaming about blasphemy and other things that really hadn’t entered into the conversation outside of his own disrespect for his divine cousin.  Dionysos tried to reason with him, but no matter how long they spent talking, neither party was willing to budge at all, and eventually all the shouting brought an elderly man to the throne room.

Dionysos was struck almost dumb by the sight of his grandfather, Cadmos.  Being a Phoenician, he looked very different from the Hellenes, but he also had a majestic presence that proved he was a true king, unlike his shouty grandson Pentheus.

The aged ex-king regarded his two grandsons calmly, with a placid half-smile, then turned to Pentheus.  “What is the matter?” he asked.  “I could hear you shouting all throughout the palace.”

“This miscreant has been spreading the worship of a false god, and has abducted a large number of the women of Thebes for his own disreputable purposes.”

“I assure you, I’ve done nothing of the sort,” Dionysos replied, pleading with his voice that his grandfather would believe him.  He couldn’t let mortals get away with refusing to worship him, but he didn’t want to punish his own grandfather!  “Dionysos is a true god, the son of Zeus, and the women of Thebes went with me of their own accord, to be initiated into his worship.”

Cadmos laughed.  “You aren’t pleased by the idea of being related to a god?” he asked Pentheus.

“Grandfather, be reasonable.  You know perfectly well that it was not Zeus who impregnated your daughter.”  After all, it had been Cadmos himself who had long ago told Pentheus that Semele’s claims of having the love of a god were a lie.

The old man shrugged.  “I’d be a fool to refuse the honor of being grandfather of a god,” he replied.

“You can’t want to join this lout’s cult!” Pentheus exclaimed in horror.

“I don’t know if I want to go that far,” Cadmos agreed, “but having had many years to reflect on poor Semele’s fate, I should certainly be happier if her nurse was telling the truth about the identity of my poor daughter’s lover.”

Pentheus was so broken by his elderly grandfather’s willingness to accept the new god that he couldn’t bring himself to argue further, and he let Dionysos go, but with a warning that he had better return the women safely if he ever wanted to show his face in Thebes again.

Dionysos wasn’t fazed by his cousin’s threat — what could a mortal do to a god, after all? — but he didn’t want to get into too many fights, either, so he decided that he should probably stay out of the city for a while.  So when he found his male followers again, he instructed them to continue instructing others in his worship, and to send further food out of the city each day, but always in the hands of women, since men were not permitted around the Bacchantes.  The men assured him that they would, and Dionysos returned to the mountainside with food for the women.

The next day, he was surprised to find that among the women delivering the food and wishing to stay and join the Bacchantes were two of his aunts, including Agaue, mother of Pentheus.  Since it was a delightful surprise, Dionysos accepted them with open arms, and began instructing them in the ways of his followers, without the slightest thought that they might have been sent there by his cousin to spy on him.

They had, in fact, been sent by Pentheus, but the foolish king hadn’t reckoned on the charismatic power of his divine cousin.  Before the day was out, Agaue and her sister had decided that Dionysos was truly a god, and they had abandoned all plans of returning to Pentheus with information, joining the Bacchantes for real.

As their Bacchic training neared its fruition, their ecstasies became lengthier and lengthier, more and more involved.  Eventually, they became so overcome that they assailed a small village, stealing its cattle, and abducting its children to take the place of the children they had left behind in Thebes.  The villages did their best to fight back, but the power of Bacchantes was more than they were able to fight against:  their skin had become as tough as bronze through the power of their god, and the weapons of the men in the village simply bounced back off of them.

On returning to camp, they sacrificed the cattle to Dionysos, and had a mighty feast.

But the men of the village went to Thebes and complained of all that had happened to them.  When Pentheus heard about it, he knew he had to do something to put a stop to the dangerous cult.

The next day, the food for the women was delivered by a handful of the men of Thebes who had entered into the worship of Dionysos.  They stood well away from the area where the Bacchantes were, and shouted the name of Dionysos’ mortal disguise, to get his attention.

“Why have you come here in person when you know it is forbidden?” Dionysos asked them coldly.  He didn’t want to have to punish them — they were, after all, at least staying far enough away that they wouldn’t see anything they shouldn’t — but he wasn’t pleased to see them disobeying his commands.  Especially since they were those who had accepted him as a god!

“King Pentheus is determined to put a stop to this,” one of them told him.  “He’s not letting women out of the city anymore, and even we had trouble slipping out.  He’s getting troops ready to avenge that village.”

Dionysos frowned.  “This is getting out of hand,” he said with a grimace.  “I suppose I must speak with Pentheus again and attempt once more to persuade him.”  He didn’t think that was very likely to happen, of course.

But the mortals did, and were very enthusiastic about accompanying their handsome young leader back into town.

Dionysos had his nymphs take the food the rest of the way to the mortal women, then followed the men back to Thebes, where he found himself being led to Pentheus under armed guard, once again, this time in chains.

“Now that you’re in my power,” Pentheus gloated, “you have no choice but to lead me to those women, and teach me the secrets that made them invincible in battle, so that they can be stopped before anyone else is hurt!”

Dionysos simply smiled.  The chains fell away from his hands, and he offered one towards Pentheus.  “The god Dionysos will not let his followers be slaughtered, not even by his kin,” he said, shaking his head.  “Once again, I ask you to accept his worship, as those women have done.”

“Never will I accept the false god of a foreign barbarian like you!” Pentheus shouted.

“Now, now, that is no way for the grandson of a Phoenician to talk,” Dionysos chided him.  “Would you like the people of Thebes to call your revered grandfather a barbarian?”

“They wouldn’t dare,” Pentheus replied.  “But my illustrious grandfather founded this town, and proved his worth to become a Hellene.  You’ve done nothing but cause trouble wherever you go, and those golden locks prove your foreign blood.”

“Or perhaps they prove me to have divine blood?” Dionysos chuckled.  He was tempted to tell Pentheus the truth, and expose his nature as a god before the whole Theban court, but he couldn’t be sure that wouldn’t make everything worse.  If Pentheus could not be persuaded, he would have to be punished, but the rest of the men of the court had done nothing worth punishment yet; if he proclaimed his true nature, they might resist out of shock, and he didn’t want to have to slaughter the entire Theban court if he didn’t have to.

“Damn your arrogance!  If you don’t tell me what goes on in those mountains, I shall have your head rent from your body here and now!” Pentheus roared.

Several soldiers approached Dionysos, drawing their swords.  But the god simply shook his head calmly.  “Dionysos will never permit that to happen,” he assured his cousin.  “If your men attempt to harm me, his chosen messenger, he will cause their swords to become so choked with vines that they would have no hope of cutting anything.  But I cannot tell you what happens in the Dionysiac initiation rites.  You have not accepted his worship, and the rites for women are especially sacred, and no man must witness them.  Any man who draws near would be torn to shreds for his disrespect.  If you wanted to know what goes on, you would have to spy on them yourself, in the guise of a woman.  Perhaps then, if you didn’t draw too close, they might mistake you for one of their own, and let you live.”

Pentheus scowled at his divine cousin for some long time, then ordered his soldiers to chain up up again — more thoroughly this time! — and lock him up somewhere in the palace under heavy guard.  But he continued to contemplate Dionysos’ final words.  It would be humiliating to dress as a woman, but if it would allow him to approach the abducted women, and perhaps rescue them…it would prevent further assaults like the one that village suffered, and it would allow him to show his doubting citizens that he was just as much a hero as his grandfather!

Yes, humiliating though it was, he would have to do it.

Pentheus began to issue orders to his most trusted advisors, having them procure him a female disguise, and a weapon he could hide within it, to fight off the armed men he was sure were guarding the kidnapped women.

Meanwhile, Dionysos was cooperating with the soldiers, who were mostly very nice to him, and one of them even admitted that he and his wife — who was currently on the mountain! — had both accepted his teachings, but he had to do his duty to the king, and he hoped there were no hard feelings.  Once he was locked in his cell, Dionysos turned his chains into vines and quickly shed them, then waited until he could hear the soldiers being fed.  He transformed their vile drink — a combination of water and goat’s milk — into a heady wine that had them falling into a drunken stupor immediately.  Once that was done, the door to his cell was easily removed by a few vines growing up through the hinges.  Shedding his disguise so that he could slip out unseen — as the gods can only be seen by mortals if they choose to be — he hurried out of the palace, out of Thebes, and back up to the mountains where his Bacchantes and Maenads were awaiting him.  Once he was within sight of them, he resumed his mortal disguise and returned to his worried followers.  They were delighted to see him, and their worry was soon replaced with drinking and revelry.

That night, Pentheus, in the garb of a woman of the court, exited the city and headed into the mountains.  He was sure that the false god’s barbarian apostle had made that suggestion because he knew his god was false, and destined to be defeated by Pentheus’ faith in the true gods of Olympos.  He had seen that he was helpless before a powerful king like Pentheus, and he had wanted to bargain for his freedom, but couldn’t openly, publicly admit it.  Very well.  If this went well, Pentheus would let the man go.  He could be forgiving.

As he approached the clearing where the women were loudly engaged in their revelries, Pentheus decided he had best play it safe.  He climbed a tree to get a look at what was going on in the clearing without being seen…though he nearly fell back out of the tree when he saw the women dancing around the man he had left back in Thebes in chains!  How had that barbarian gotten back out of the city?  Which of the guards was Pentheus going to have to put to death?!

As Pentheus watched the events in the clearing, he saw the blonde man look up at him — though he was quite some distane away, and in the dark well outside the firelit clearing — and smile coldly.  Then he raised both hands, drawing the attention of his followers.  “The time has come, my Bacchantes, for you to meet your god in person,” he told them.  He didn’t seem to be shouting, but his voice carried so perfectly that Pentheus heard every word.  “He stands before you now,” the man added, and his appearance transformed before Pentheus’ disbelieving eyes.  The beautiful face of the young man metamophosed into a slightly less beautiful one, and a crown of vines and dangling grapes grew upon his head.

Pentheus didn’t know how a common barbarian could do such a magic trick as to seem to change his face, but he was quite sure that this man could not be a god.  But there was something in those new features that reminded Pentheus of his grandfather’s face when he had been younger.  Perhaps…perhaps Semele hadn’t been seduced by an ordinary man, but by some low-ranking divinty, a local river god, or some sort of daemon.  And perhaps the child really had survived her death, and that man was truly his cousin?  That would at least explain his reaction to the sight of the venerable Cadmos.  Pentheus didn’t want to believe it, of course, but it would explain how the man had escaped his prison…and why his own mother was among the women now thronging ecstatically around the man in the vine crown.

Clearly, this was much more of a problem than Pentheus had realized.  He began to climb back down out of the tree.  In the morning, he could send a messenger to Delphi or Dodona, asking the gods for advice on how to handle this interloper who might have obtained weak semi-divine powers from whatever minor power had fathered him.  It obviously gave him great control over the minds of weak-willed women, and that made him quite dangerous.

Pentheus had not quite reached the ground when he heard the voice of the man speaking once more.  “Go on, my Bacchantes.  Go and enjoy the hunt.  There are deer to be had, which you can feast upon, but beware the lions in the mountains!  Your claws are more powerful than theirs; do not let any lion see you and live!”

The women let out a roar more terrifying than any lion, and began to stream out of the clearing.

A fear gripped his heart, and Pentheus started trying to scramble back up the tree.  If he was high enough, surely they wouldn’t see him!

But the long, feminine garb hampered him, and he couldn’t climb fast enough.  The women let out a cry and ran towards him, even as he fought to climb higher.  He felt hands grabbing his legs and pulling him down out of the tree.

“Look what a vicious lion we’ve found!”

Pentheus couldn’t believe his own ears.  His own mother was calling him a lion?  “Mother, what are you saying?” he asked.  “I’m not a lion!”

“We must obey the words of the god,” his aunt added.

“Yes, indeed!  No lion will survive our hunt!”  Agaue exclaimed, as her grip tightened on Pentheus’ arm.  He could feel her fingernails drawing blood, and he let out a moan of pain and anguish.  Was this how he was to die?

At the edge of the clearing, Dionysos watched calmly as his followers set upon his cousin Pentheus and tore him to pieces.  Legs and arms were flung in all directions, and his torso was ripped into so many small parts that only the crows would want them.  His aunt Agaue herself carried off the head of her son as a trophy, thinking it the head of a large and fierce lion.  He would have felt a bit guilty about that, if he hadn’t since realized that his aunts had approached him not as true believers, but as spies.  Though they had come to accept him, they had intended to destroy him.  They had to be punished, too, and this seemed suitable.  The throne would likely revert to old Cadmos, since Pentheus had no children, and he was unlikely to punish his daughters for actions they had taken while out of their wits, so they would suffer no punishment other than to remember what they had done and loathe themselves for it.  They might suffer exile, as was the fate of men guilty of murders, but they were still beautiful despite their ages, and would likely find new husbands elsewhere, so that was little punishment in the grand scheme of things.

As to Cadmos…he seemed to have little genuine respect for Dionysos, but there was no need to punish him for it.  He was already due to suffer divine retribution for having slain the sacred serpent of Thebes.  The punishment had been delayed — on Zeus’ orders, naturally — but it was to take place soon enough.  He and Harmonia would be transformed into serpents themselves, and spend many lifetimes leading barbarian conquests of Hellenic cities, until they had made up for Cadmos’ sacrilege.  Only then would they be returned to their natural forms, and allowed into the Elysian Fields.


Okay, so problems.  One, this doesn’t mesh too well with last week’s.  I need to re-work that one a bit.  (Since in that one, he was in Greece already, but then was setting out for Delos (though it should have been Naxos, which I guess must be sacred to him, since that’s where Theseus abandoned Ariadne and/or Artemis killed Ariadne) so when did he need to go to India to spread his worship there?  (Maybe he wanted to experiment with his new pretty looks before returning to Greece?)  And, for that matter, what’s up with him having been in India of all places?  Did the Greeks feel that India had a god like Dionysos?  For that matter, when the texts say he was in India, do they mean what we mean by India?  I know that when we talk about Alexander getting all the way to India, then they do mean what we mean.  But for this…I’m not sure.  I’d have to do more research than I have time for.)

Problem two, Bacchantes and Maenads are the same thing.  It’s not that one is human and one is nymph.  The terms are both applied to mortal women, and…well, actually, in terms of Greek usage, I only know about the play by Euripides, which is talking exclusively about mortal women.  I don’t know, off-hand, if the term was used for nymphs as well.  I’m sure Romans used their version of the term — Bacchae, I believe (though I’m not positive; my Latin is very rusty) — for both, because they probably didn’t use the Greek term Maenad at all.  Then again, maybe they did; I don’t know.  If I’ve read any Roman works that had the term come up (I haven’t read the Plautus play on the subject yet) I don’t remember which they used.  (I know Ovid covered some of this Dionysos material, but I haven’t read that section of the Metamorphoses yet.)

Problem three, “Hellene” is an anachronism in this context.  That didn’t come into use as a catch-all for the Greek people until well after the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey, so something a number of generations before that war took place…only the people in a few regions would actually call themselves Hellenes, at best.  (I can’t recall, off hand, if Thebes was in one of those regions.  I know Phthia was, but…I’d say “I’ll have to go to the Catalog of Ships to check” only Thebes didn’t actually send anyone, having too recently been sacked by the Epigoni.  I don’t think the region around Thebes was one of the ones where the term Hellene was applied to its people, but I’m not positive.  Phthia is the only one I remember for sure.  Thebes might be too far south; it might only be in Thessaly that Hellene was applied.)  Anyway, I ended up using it because what else was I going to use?  Achaian and Danaan are rarely applied these days outside of stuff about the Trojan War, and I don’t know if they’d be any less inaccurate.  Hellene is at least a widely recognized term meaning “a Greek.”  (Perhaps not as widely recognized as it would have been a hundred years ago, but…)

Anyway, about this myth telling…well, it seems like Euripides is the main ancient source of this myth.  (The main surviving source, that is.)  And I didn’t want to just echo the play in poorly executed miniature.  So I thought I’d start it a bit earlier, and show the first meeting between Dionysos and Pentheus (it’s been a long and all-too-crazy year and a half since I read it, so some of the details are fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure it was clear they’d met before) in order to set up their inability to get along with one another before everything hits the fan.  So most of this is just me filling in the blanks with something that seems more or less logical, but has no actual ancient source.  Likewise, the notion of Pentheus sending his mother to pretend to join Dionysos’ worship only to have her decide that she really wanted to worship him was my own invention, but it seemed a) like a reasonable detail and b) made his eventual demise all the more perfectly fitting the tragic mold, since he literally created the weapon of his own destruction.  It seems like the kind of plot development that might really have figured on the Athenian stage.  (And considering that Aischylos also wrote plays on the subject, for all I know maybe it did.  I’m sure other, less famous playwrights also told the tale, and they might have made up such a detail, too.)

Of course, due to a lot of factors (including time constraints; I should be working on a paper right now) I ended up kind of skipping most of the play.  Well, condensing it anyway.  And my Dionysos ended up being a lot more forgiving than the one in the play.  Plus I skipped over the odd episode in which Cadmos and another man his own age were going out dressed in drag to take part in Dionysiac worship because…well, even in the play I don’t recall feeling like it had much purpose.  (Sorry.  Like I said, it’s been over a year since I read it.  I had decided that one of my semi-YA books was going to be about a guy claiming divinity in order to usurp Dionysos’ control of the Maenads, because he figured they’d be the ultimate army.  So I had read the play more to see what it had to say about Maenads than for the rest of it.  Consequently most of the rest of it has slipped out of my mind, apart from the description of Dionysos’ mortal disguise as having long blonde hair, and the fact that some of his dialog with Pentheus seemed downright seductive.  The Dionysos of that play, like the one here, is clearly the handsome, unbearded youth version, as opposed to the long-bearded version of Archaic pottery.)  I should probably have spent longer on the dismemberment of Pentheus, since it’s the focal point of the story, but…eew.  I just can’t write that kind of thing.  Please read the Euripides play if you want to hear more details about how he was torn limb from limb by his mother and aunt(s); I recall it being one of his less sexist works.  (It’s sort of scary that I have to say that, but…he could get really misogynistic.  And yet he could also write strong, noble female leads.  Sort of odd that; usually ancient authors went one way or the other, rather than flipping back and forth like that.  I suppose it was always either dictated by the story, or maybe he was just moody and took it out on women when he was feeling rotten.  Or maybe he’d write the misogynistic ones after having a fight with his wife. (Since he also had a long-standing love affair with another man, I can imagine they had a lot to fight about.))

The myths about various people refusing to worship Dionysos have always struck me as odd; he’s one of the gods whose worship in Mycenaean times has been established via Linear B tablets listing the gods receiving offerings, so the Greeks of classical times were inheriting his worship from their ancestors who lived at least 600 years before them, possibly longer, depending on which classical Greeks you’re talking about.  Yet you never see myths of any of the other gods being denied worship, not even one like Apollo, who was not on the Linear B tablets, and may in fact have originally been a Trojan god.  The weird thing is that in the early mentions of Dionysos — in the Iliad and Odyssey, for example — his status as a god, and as god of wine, seem a bit shaky.  Not in the world within the myth, but in the world of the poet; in Hesiod, too, he’s mentioned as “being counted among the immortal gods” as if there was some dispute over whether or not he belonged on such a list.  Not that the bit about Hesiod is my personal observation or conclusion: I was paraphrasing Timothy Gantz’s Early Greek Myth.  In fact, Gantz also pointed out that in the Homeric Hymn to Dionysos — one of the only other Archaic sources — he’s not actually specified as being the god of wine, though the fact that he makes vines grow on the mast of the ship certainly implies it.  But I feel like I’ve said all (or at least most of) this before…

Anyway, sorry this myth was delayed by a day.  But yesterday just wasn’t a good day for me.  Had a lot to do in between classes, wanted to check a few other sources, and found a hideous purple mark on the inside of my elbow.  (I’d had my blood pressure taken the day before on that arm, so I think that caused it, but what seems to have happened is that it caused internal bleeding in the spots where the technician tried and failed to insert the needle for the contrast in the last MRI I had done.  And since that was like a month ago, that’s more than a little alarming that there are still places I could bleed due to it…alarming enough, in fact, that my plan had been to finish this up promptly and go to one of the urgent care clinics to talk to someone about it, with the expectation that I’d be out of the house by 9:30 or so.  It’s now 11.  Ugh.  I need to write faster!  Especially given the paper I was supposed to be working on today…)

The Birth of Dionysos

Published July 2, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

I wanted to go back and start filling in the post-theogony gaps, but…yeah, most of the earlier stuff has too many variations I have to work through first.  This is the earliest myth that isn’t in a muddle.


In the city of Thebes lived a young woman named Semele.  She often advised her father, King Kadmos, on the running of the city, and her beauty even outshone her mother Harmonia’s, though she was the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares.  Though she charmed all the men in Thebes and the neighboring cities, somehow they all felt a dread at the idea of approaching her, and she attained the marriage age and passed it by, without marrying.

Yet she wasn’t lonely at all, for she had–unbeknownst even to her father–a suitor far greater than any mortal man, and it was he who was frightening away all the others.  He would come and pay court to her at the cistern, or as she spun wool in the courtyard, or walked in the gardens of her father’s palace.  Walls, no matter how high, were no obstacle to her relentless suitor, who could come to her on the wings of a dove, if he so wished, and appeared to her with the face of a young man, or an old woman, but always Semele knew it was him by his words of unfailing love.

But Semele was a proper maiden who would not simply succumb to a few words of passion.  No matter how much he proclaimed he adored her, she would not admit her to her bedchamber just like that.  She expected to be made a proper wife before she went to any man’s–or god’s–bed.  Eventually, she told him so.

“You must realize I have a wife already,” he told her.  At the moment, he had taken on the form of a handsome man in the prime of his life.  It was his favorite form in which to approach her, and–in truth–it was Semele’s favorite as well.

“My father comes from the east, originally, you know,” Semele told him.  “In the land of his birth, kings sometimes have more than one wife.  I might accept being a second wife…” she hinted, having long ago suspected the true identity of her determined suitor.

“I must admit, I had a similar idea,” he agreed, stroking her hair before finally stealing a kiss.

Semele accepted her suitor’s kiss and his love with delight, and they consummated their union that very night.  He returned to see her nearly every night, always keeping her father from catching him, though as Semele began to show signs of pregnancy, even her divine–and secret–bridegroom could not keep that a secret, and she had to remain sequestered in her chamber, claiming illness.  She trusted only her nurse with her secret.

But Semele’s father was the least of her worries, it turned out, for while Kadmos would have been enraged to learn that his daughter had been impregnated, he would have been placated to learn that the father was divine.  The divine father’s wife, on the other hand…

For the longer his dalliance with Semele continued, the more lax Zeus was growing as he traveled down to Thebes to see her, and eventually Hera caught sight of him on his way down to Semele’s chamber.  She waited until he had returned to Olympos, then she took on the form of Semele’s nurse, Beroe, and went to speak to the pregnant woman.

“You’ll be letting him get away with this, then?” the disguised Hera asked her.

“Get away with what?” Semele asked, idly stroking her belly, which was only barely swollen, still no obstacle to love-making, though swollen enough to be noticeable.

“He doesn’t take you seriously, my dear.  He’s just using you!”

“What a terrible thing to say!” Semele exclaimed.  “He’s going to take me up to Mt. Olympos and make me into a goddess to sit by his side, once our son is born!  He promised!  He’s just waiting for the right moment.”

“If that’s so, then why won’t he appear to you in his true guise, the way he does to Hera?” Hera in the guise of the nurse asked.

“He will if I ask him to,” Semele insisted.  “He’d do anything I asked him to.  He loves me.”

But the disguised Hera just shook her head in disbelief, planting the seeds of doubt in poor, doomed Semele’s mind.  By the time Zeus arrived that night, Semele was beside herself with worry, and hastily extracted a promise from him that he would grant her a request to prove his love.

“Of course I will,” he rashly swore.  “Whatever you desire.”

“Then show me your true form.  Come to me as you would to Hera.”

“Semele, don’t ask for that.  Anything else, but not–”

“You gave your word!  Is the word of Zeus so meaningless?!”

Bound by his oath, Zeus had no choice, and assumed his true form, lightning bolt in hand.  His sheer radiance incinerated Semele instantly, leaving nothing but the half-formed body of their son.

Weeping for his lovely mortal, Zeus lifted the half-formed baby, and opened a hole in his thigh, placing their son inside, so that he could carry the child to term inside his own body.  Once the baby was ready to be born, Zeus cut his thigh open again, and the infant Dionysos emerged.  When grown, he would become the capricious god of wine, but now he was just a helpless baby, in need of the love and care of a mother who no longer existed.

Zeus handed the infant over to Hermes, sending him to the care of Ino, Semele’s sister.  She would raise the young god until he was old enough to care for himself and rescue the spirit of his mother from the darkness of the house of Hades.

In the mean time, now that Zeus was no longer bearing the baby in his thigh, he was going to have a few very harsh words with his wife-sister regarding the cruel trick she had played on hapless Semele…


Okay, sorry about the abrupt ending.  It’s just that I have no idea what Zeus might do to Hera to get vengeance for Semele.  Because she just gets away with it in the myth, which is odd.  (Let’s face it; Hera is just plain an aberration all around.  Her mythic and cultic personae are entirely unlike each other, and she’s treated like a villainess, even though she has every right to be pissed at her excessively lecherous and unfaithful husband…although she has no right whatsoever to take out her anger on his mistresses and bastards, particularly not on the bastards.)

Anyway, Dionysos has a long road ahead of him, of course, since his divinity is so often doubted by mortals (which is rather odd, considering he’s been a god in Greece longer than some of the others whose divinity is never doubted, like, say, Apollo) but those are all definitely separate tales.

The notion of Zeus intending to make Semele a second wife is a new one of mine, but it’s definitely a fact that something was weird there.  Normally Zeus is a “wham-bam-thank you, ma’am” kind of god where mortal maids are concerned, you know?  (Am I going to be struck by lightning for writing that?)  But he keeps sleeping with Semele even after she’s pregnant?  That’s not just unique, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was even unusual among married couples in the period.  (Or maybe not.  How would I know?)  Anyway, I thought this seemed like a reasonable explanation, and make the “show me your true form” demand seem less unlikely.

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.

Words Crush Wednesday – The Homeric Version

Published May 20, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Since this week’s myth is finally going to be the rest of the Theban cycle (or, more likely, just the first half of it, or possibly even only a third), so I thought for this week’s Words Crush Wednesday I’d post some of the oldest text about the conflict at Thebes.  From Book IV of the Iliad, W.H.D. Rouse translation, what we have here is Agamemnon taunting Diomedes to get him riled up for the fight.  (And oh boy does he succeed!  Diomedes is about to kick all kinds of ass!)

“What pity to find you skulking here, goggling your eyes at the battlefield!  what would your noble father have said!  It was not your father’s way to skulk.  He used to be first at the enemy by a long way, as they say who never saw him about the business.  I never met him myself, never saw him, but they say he had no equal.  Once indeed he came to Mycene, not in war–he came as a guest with Prince Polyneices to enlist men; for they were besieging the sacred walls of Thebes.  They begged hard for volunteers, and the people were ready to go, but Zeus changed their minds by showing unfavorable signs.  So the envoys went away and got as far as the river Asopos.  There they waited in the reeds and grass while Tydeus went on a parley to Thebes.  He found a party of the Cadmeians feasting in the house of Eteocles.  There was Tydeus alone among a host of Cadmeians, a stranger; but he feared nothing, he challenged them to trials of strength and beat them all easily by the help of Athena.  Then the Cadmeians were enraged, and laid an ambush for him on his way home, forty lads with two leaders, Maion Haimon’s son and Polyphontes the son of Autophonos.  Tydeus made an end of these also; he killed them all but one, whom he sent back.  Maion was the man, and he let him go in obedience to omens from heaven.  Such a man was Aitolian Tydeus; but his son is not so good on the battlefield, although he is a better talker.”

Next week, I’ll post the response; it’s really good.  (Okay, I didn’t need to say that latter part, did I?)


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.”

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