I have a riddle for you. "What creature goes on four feet in the morning, on two at noonday, and three in the evening?" This is what the Sphinx, "a creature shaped like a winged lion but with the breast and face of a woman", asked wayfarers who were traveling the road to Thebes. No one could answer it so she devoured each and every traveler throwing the city into a state of siege.
Give up? I'm afraid I didn't know the answer*, but Oedipus did. This week's reading deals with the Royal House of Thebes, which while not quite so murderously violent as that of the House of Atreus, is still blanketed in tragedy (in the inimitable way of the Greeks). The chapter is divided into three sections, Hamilton's retellings of each are taken from the writings of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus.
Oedipus was the great-great grandson of Cadmus who founded the city of Thebes. Cadmus was a great ruler and made the city very prosperous. Cadmus and his wife Harmonia had four daughters and a son and found through their children that the gods' favor is precarious at best. It was Oedipus, though, who would suffer the greatest misfortunes.
Once again we have a case of the oracle of Delphi giving a prophecy of impending doom, and the victim of the prophecy doing his best to wiggle out of the outcome. King Laius, a descendant of Cadmus, is told that he is going to die at the hands' of his son. So the king sends his son to a sure death by dumping him on a mountainside. Unknown to him the child was rescued and raised elsewhere.
I think we all know who that child is, right? Oedipus had also been given a prophecy that he would kill his father. Raised as the son of King Polybus of Corinth, he decided to leave home and thus keep his father out of harm's way. So Oedipus travels to Thebes, makes it past the Spinx and arrives in the city and has a hero's welcome. He marries the dead king's wife, Jocasta, they live happily and raise sons. Later a plague overcomes the city, and the only way to stop it is to find the man who killed King Laius so many years ago. The king had been murdered on the road to Delphi by a group of robbers, the culprit never found and brought to justice.
You see the pattern emerging? Oedipus had been on the same road at the same time (the Oracle of Delphi being a popular draw for all and sundry it would appear). He had come upon a man with his attendants who was hogging the road and struck Oedipus. In retaliation brought on by anger he killed all the men but one. So one lives to tell the tale.
"A cry of agony came from the King. At last he understood. 'All true! Now shall my light be changed to darkness. I am accursed.' He had murdered his father, he had married his father's wife, his own mother. There was no help for him, for her, for their children. All were accursed."
As I said. Tragedy as only the Greek's can do it. I think Freud must have had a heyday with this story. Unpleasant to think about, but it must have made for a gripping stage drama. It doesn't end here, though. I'm only familiar with Antigone as far as the name goes, but not at all with her story. She was Oedipus's daughter. Oedipus had put out his eyes, so he would literally be in darkness. After the death of Jocasta, it was Antigone who cared for him until his death. And it was only Antigone who who risked her life to bury her brother. Brother fought against brother to rule the city. For the Greeks, to not have a proper burial is one of the worst things that can happen. The stories of Antigone and The Seven Against Thebes both deal with this power struggle but more with the fate of the young men who lie dead on the battlefield unburied. By the end of the story Thebes has been leveled--perhaps the only and best fate for such a damned city and its rulers.
Next week: The Royal House of Athens. The last two sections of Edith Hamilton's Myths deal with the "lesser myths" and the Mythology of the Norsemen. I'll probably wrap up these chapters in just two more posts. I have a feeling you might be as ready as I am to move on to something new. I've greatly enjoyed my foray into Greek Mythology and I am planning on reading more widely in mythology in general, but I think I've milked this Edith Hamilton book for all its worth!
*Answer: Man--"in childhood he creeps on hands and feet; in manhood he walks erect; in old age he helps himself with a staff." Clever, that.