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Chapter 17

The Theban Saga


Sagas, or legends, are defined as mythological stories that have some basis in history. Greek sagas are grouped in cycles (i.e., clusters of legends concerning a hero, a family, a tribe, a city, or an area) connected with Late Bronze Age communities, which flourished ca. 1600-1100 B.C. (see MLS, Chapter 2, for historical background and chronology of the early Greek world). The richest of these was Mycenae. Other Peloponnesian centers with cycles of saga are Tiryns, Argos, and Sparta, and the rural area of Arcadia. On the Greek mainland, the chief centers are Athens, Thebes, Orchomenus, and Iolcus. Outside the Greek mainland important sagas are connected with Troy and Crete. The saga of Odysseus is unique in extending far outside the Mycenaean world and incorporating many folktales.


Cadmus and Europa. EUROPA [you-roh'pa], daughter of Agenor of Tyre and sister of CADMUS [kad'mus], or KADMOS, was abducted by Zeus (in the form of a bull) and taken to Crete, where she became (by Zeus) the mother of Minos.

Cadmus went to Greece in search of Europa. The oracle at Delphi told him not to go on with the search but instead to follow a certain cow until she lay down. There he was to found a city. The cow led Cadmus from Phocis to the place (in Boeotia) where he founded CADMEIA [kad-mee'a], or KADMEIA, later called Thebes.

The Spartoi. The companions of Cadmus, needing water for the ceremony of sacrificing the cow to Athena, killed the serpent (child of Ares) that guarded the spring. It killed Cadmus’ men and was itself killed by Cadmus, who obeyed Athena's command to sow its teeth. From them sprang up armed men, who fought and killed each other until there were five survivors. From them were descended the noble families of Thebes, called SPARTOI [spar'toy], “sown men.”

Cadmus and Harmonia. In penance for killing the serpent, Cadmus served Ares for a year and was given HARMONIA [har-moh'ni-a], daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, as wife, to whom he gave as a wedding gift a necklace made by Hephaestus. Their four daughters were Ino, Semele, Autonoë, and Agave (see MLS, Chapter 13).
Cadmus introduced writing and other arts of civilization at Thebes. After a long reign, he and Harmonia went to Illyria and finally were changed into harmless serpents.


Pentheus succeeded his grandfather, Cadmus, as king. After his death (see MLS, Chapter 13), Labdacus founded a new dynasty. When he dies, LYCUS [leye'kus] or LYKOS, son of Chthonius (one of the Spartoi), became regent for the infant LAIUS [lay'us or leye'us], or LAIOS, son of Labdacus.

Antiope and Zeus. The niece of Lycus was ANTIOPE [an-teye'oh-pee], daughter of Nycteus. Zeus made her the mother of the twins AMPHION [am-feye'on] and ZETHUS [zee'thus], or ZETHOS, who were brought up by a shepherd while Antiope was imprisoned by Lycus and his wife, DIRCE [dir'see]. Antiope escaped and after a long time was recognized by her sons, who killed Lycus and tied Dirce to the horns of a bull that dragged her to her death.

Amphion and Zethus. These twin brothers became rulers of Cadmeia and sent Laius into exile. They built walls for the city, whose stones were moved into place by the music of Amphion's lyre. Amphion married Niobe (see Chapter 10), and Zethus married THEBE [thee'bee], after whom the name of Cadmeia was changed to THEBES [theebz].

Laius’ Abduction of Chrysippus. In exile Laius lived with PELOPS [pee'lops], king of Elis, whose son CHRYSIPPUS [kreye-sip'pus], or CHRYSIPPOS, he abducted. For this transgression of the laws of hospitality, Pelops invoked a curse on Laius and his family.

Laius and Jocasta. On the death of Amphion and Zethus, Laius returned to Thebes as king and married JOCASTA [joh-kas'ta], or IOKASTE. Apollo’s oracle at Delphi warned that their son would kill his father as the working out of the curse of Pelops.


Laius ordered a shepherd to expose his infant son on Mt. CITHAERON [si-thee'ron], or KITHAIRON, driving a spike through his ankles. The baby was given instead by the shepherd to a Corinthian shepherd, servant of POLYBUS [pol'i-bus] or POLYBOS, king of Corinth, and Queen MEROPE [mer'o-pee], who called the baby OEDIPUS [e'di-pus or ee'di-pus], or OIDIPOUS, “swellfoot.”

Oedipus at Delphi. As a young man, Oedipus was taunted for not really being the son of Polybus and left Corinth to ask the oracle at Delphi who his parents were. He was warned that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother.

The Murder of Laius. Oedipus therefore did not return to Corinth, and at a crossroad that led to Thebes, he killed a regal old man in a chariot who had struck him and driven him off the road. The old man, whom he did not recognize, was Laius.


Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau   (1826-1898).

The Sphinx. Thebes was suffering from the Sphinx (“strangler”), a monster that was part woman, part lion, and part bird. It killed those who could not answer its riddle, “What has one name that is four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed?” Oedipus answered “Man, who as a baby crawls on all fours, in his prime he walks on two feet, and in old age he uses a stick as a third foot.” The Sphinx hurled itself to its death, and Oedipus became king of Thebes in place of the dead Laius, and took the widowed queen, Jocasta, as wife.

Oedipus the King. Thebes was afflicted with a plague after many years of Oedipus’ reign. The oracle at Delphi advised the Thebans that the plague had been caused by the pollution of the murderer of Laius living in their city. Oedipus was determined to find out the murderer’s identity, yet he refused to believe the prophet, TIRESIAS [teye-ree'si-as], who told him that he was the murderer. A messenger (who was the same shepherd to whom the infant Oedipus had been given by the Theban shepherd) came from Corinth to announce the death of Polybus and offer the throne of Corinth to Oedipus. He told Oedipus, who refused to return to Corinth because of the prophecy that he would marry his mother, that he was not the son of Polybus. Oedipus sent for the Theban shepherd and the truth was discovered. Jocasta had already silently gone into the palace, where she hanged herself; Oedipus rushed into the palace and blinded himself with the brooches from Jocasta’s robe.

Oedipus at Colonus. CREON [kree'on], or KREON, the brother of Jocasta, became king and Oedipus went into exile accompanied by his daughters, ANTIGONE [an-tig'o-nee] and ISMENE [is-mee'nee]. He wandered eventually to COLONUS [ko-loh'nus], or KOLONOS (in Attica), and was kindly received by THESEUS [thee'se-us], king of Athens. At Colonus Oedipus bid farewell to his daughters and then miraculously disappeared from the earth, observed only by Theseus. A hero-cult was established at the place where he vanished.


In another version Oedipus was shut up in the palace at Thebes and cursed his sons, ETEOCLES [e-tee'oh-kleez], or ETEOKLES, and POLYNICES [pol-i-neye'seez], or POLYNIKES, for putting before him one day a less honorable portion of food. He prayed that after his death they might fight to divide the kingdom.
Oedipus died at Thebes (in this version), and his sons quarreled over the throne, agreeing finally that each should reign in alternate years while the other went into exile.

Eteocles and Polynices. After the first year, Eteocles refused to give up the throne, and Polynices raised an army with the help of Adrastus, king of Argos, to march against Thebes. This is the start of the saga of the Seven against Thebes.

The Seven. The names of the seven leaders who attacked Thebes were Polynices, Adrastus, Tydeus, Capaneus, Hippomedon, Parthenopaeus, and Amphiaraüs.

Amphiaraüs and Eriphyle. AMPHIARAÜS [am-fi-a-ray'us] was a seer and knew that the Seven would fail. His wife, ERIPHYLE [e-ri-feye'lee], bribed by Polynices with the gift of the necklace of Harmonia (see above), persuaded him to go. He ordered his sons to avenge his death by punishing Eriphyle.

Hypsipyle and Opheltes. During the march from Argos to Thebes, the Seven met HYPSIPYLE [hip-sip'i-lee] (see Chapter 24), nurse of the infant OPHELTES [o-fel'teez], who was killed by a serpent. In his honor, the Seven founded the NEMEAN [nem'e-an] Games.

The Seven against Thebes. Tydeus, one of the Seven, failed in a peace embassy to Thebes and escaped an ambush set by the Thebans. In the attack on Thebes, each of the Seven stormed one of the city’s gates. Capaneus was killed by Zeus’ thunderbolt; Hippomedon, Parthenopaeus, and Tydeus fell in battle; Amphiaraüs escaped in his chariot and was miraculously swallowed up by the earth beside the river Ismenus. Hero-cults in his honor were established in Thebes and elsewhere. Polynices and Eteocles killed each other in single combat. Of the Seven, only ADRASTUS [a-dras'tus], or ADRASTOS, returned home.

Antigone. Antigone defied the edict of Creon forbidding the burial of Polynices. Obeying instead the decrees of Zeus, she gave her brother symbolic burial and was condemned to death by Creon. HAEMON [hee'mon], or HAIMON, Creon’s son and her fiancé, shared her death, and Creon, warned by Tiresias, relented too late.

Burial of the Heroes. Theseus helped the widows and mothers of the dead Argive heroes recover the unburied corpses and give them proper funerals. EVADNE [e-vad'nee], widow of CAPANEUS [kap'an-e-us], or KAPANEUS, threw herself into the flames of his pyre.


ALCMAEON [alk-mee'on], or ALKMAION, son of Amphiaraüs, led the EPIGONI [e-pig'o-nee], or EPIGONOI ("the later generation"), in a successful attack on Thebes, which was abandoned by its inhabitants.

Alcmaeon and Eriphyle. Alcmaeon killed his mother, Eriphyle, in obedience to his father’s orders (see above). Pursued by the Furies, he came to Arcadia, where he married the daughter of King Phegeus, to whom he gave the necklace of Harmonia. As a matricide, he was a pollution on the land and was driven out. He came to western Greece and there married Callirhoë, daughter of the river-god Acheloüs, to whom he gave the necklace of Harmonia, having recovered it in Arcadia. His sons became the founders of the Greek district of Acarnania.


Tiresias, the blind prophet, was son of the nymph Chariclo. He was blinded by Hera for taking Zeus’ side in a quarrel and maintaining that the female sex derived more pleasure from the sexual act than the male, for he had been both man and woman. As a recompense, Zeus gave him the gift of prophecy.
Tiresias was consulted by Odysseus at the entrance to the Underworld and revealed his future wanderings (see MLS, Chapter 20). He accepted the worship of Dionysus at Thebes and warned Pentheus in vain of his mistake (see MLS, Chapter 13). He revealed the truth to Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and in Sophocles’ Antigone he warned Creon of his errors.
Tiresias died during the Theban exodus after the attack of the Epigoni.

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