Summary and Analysis: Greek Mythology The Tragic Dynasties — Thebes: The House of Cadmus



When Europa disappeared, having been abducted by Zeus, her father, King Agenor, sent his sons to find and recover her, with instructions not to return unless they did. One of them, Cadmus, went to the oracle at Delphi to learn of Europa's whereabouts; but the oracle advised Cadmus to give up the search and, instead, to follow a cow till it fell from weariness and there build a city. Having followed the cow, Cadmus established the site of Thebes. He sent his companions to fetch water from a nearby spring that was guarded by a dragon. When the dragon killed a number of his companions Cadmus slew it. Athena appeared and told him to sow the dragon's teeth. After doing so, armed men sprang up ready to fight, so Cadmus threw a stone among them and they fell upon themselves until only five warriors remained, each of whom offered to serve Cadmus in building Thebes. However, Ares was angered at the killing of the dragon and forced Cadmus to serve him for eight years. Cadmus was then awarded the lovely Harmonia as his wife, and all the Olympians attended the wedding, bringing splendid gifts for the bride.

Cadmus ruled well, making Thebes a prosperous city. He and Harmonia lived to grow old peacefully, but their old age was troubled by terrible events. Having abdicated the throne in favor of his grandson, Pentheus, Cadmus emigrated from Thebes after Pentheus was slain by his mother in Dionysian madness. Cadmus' other daughters had unhappy fates, for Semele was blasted by Zeus; another leapt from a cliff holding her dead son; and a fourth had her son Actaeon torn to bits. Although some of these catastrophes were justifiable, unmerited suffering seemed to plague the House of Cadmus. Its founder was no exception. Sent abroad in their old age, Cadmus and Harmonia were changed into snakes before they died. Yet their death was favorable, for they went to the Blessed Isles.

Eventually Cadmus' great-grandson Laius became king at Thebes. Laius married Jocasta, but learned from the Delphic oracle that he would die by the hands of his own child. However, he got drunk one night and conceived a son. Laius and Jocasta exposed the infant on a mountain, riveting its ankles together. The child was found by a Corinthian peasant who took it to the childless King Polybus. Polybus accepted the boy and raised it as his own, naming it Oedipus.

As a young man Oedipus consulted the Delphic oracle, and it told him he would murder his father and marry his mother. Horrified, Oedipus did not return to Corinth, thinking that Polybus and his queen, Merope, were his true parents. Instead he went to Thebes, where a monster called the Sphinx was waylaying travelers and killing everyone who could not answer her riddle. The Sphinx had the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the head and chest of a woman. When Oedipus confronted her she asked him what creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs at evening. Oedipus answered, "Man," realizing the riddle referred to man's progress from infancy to old age. The Sphinx then killed herself, and the Thebans welcomed Oedipus as their king for having delivered them.

He married Queen Jocasta and fathered two sons and two daughters on her. Thebes flourished under King Oedipus. But then a plague struck the city, decimating the inhabitants. Pledged to aid the city, Oedipus sent his brother-in-law Creon to the Delphic oracle to learn how the plague might be stopped. The oracle said that the person who had killed King Laius years before must be caught and punished. Oedipus vowed to find the culprit and summoned the seer Teiresias to name the guilty one. At first Teiresias was silent, but goaded by the king he revealed that Oedipus himself was Laius' killer. Angered and dumbfounded, Oedipus inquired about the whereabouts of Laius' death, which had occurred near Delphi where three roads met. Oedipus recalled killing an arrogant old man and his retinue who had assaulted him in that very place. Of course it was Laius he had slain. Then a messenger arrived to tell Oedipus that King Polybus had died and left Oedipus the kingdom of Corinth. Presently the facts came out that Polybus was not Oedipus' real father and that Oedipus had been found exposed on a mountain. Jocasta grew distraught and pleaded with her husband to abandon his investigation. And at last the truth dawned on Oedipus that he had indeed murdered his father and married his mother. In despair Jocasta hanged herself, while Oedipus blinded himself in an agony of remorse. Wishing to be killed or exiled, he gave Thebes to Creon to rule as regent, and Creon promised to care for Oedipus' daughters.

Oedipus himself remained in Thebes for a few years, a blind and aging misfit cared for only by his daughters, Antigone and Ismene. After cursing his sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, for showing disrespect, Oedipus was exiled from Thebes by King Creon. Homeless and almost friendless, Oedipus was accompanied by Antigone, and at length the pair arrived at Colonus on the outskirts of Athens. There they were welcomed and taken in by Theseus. Just before he died Oedipus was told by the Delphic oracle that he would achieve the status of a demigod and be a blessing to the land where he was buried.

Meanwhile, back in Thebes Oedipus' youngest son, Eteocles, had taken over the throne. His brother Polyneices had gone to the Argive court of King Adrastus to recruit an army against Thebes that would establish him as king. With the aid of Adrastus, Polyneices got five other captains and their troops to assault Thebes in an expedition known as "the Seven Against Thebes." One of these men, Amphiaraus, was a seer and knew that of the Seven only Adrastus would return alive. However, since Amphiaraus' wife settled family quarrels, Polyneices bribed her to send Amphiaraus against Thebes by giving her an ancestral necklace.

Having assembled his army, Polyneices marched on Thebes, sending a captain to attack each of Thebes's seven gates. Inside the city Teiresias told Creon that his son Menoeceus would have to die before Thebes could be saved. Creon, very disheartened, recommended that Menoeceus flee, but his son refused to dishonor himself, went into battle, and was killed. As the war dragged on most of Polyneices' supporters were killed, so Polyneices offered to settle the conflict in single combat with his brother Eteocles. The result was that Polyneices and Eteocles slew each other, thus ending the reason for the war. And as Amphiaraus had foreseen only King Adrastus escaped with his life.

Antigone and Ismene were appalled at theirbrothers' suicidal war. When it ended, Creon saw that Eteocles was given a hero's funeral, but he left Polyneices and the others who had made war on Thebes to rot on the ground without burial. This meant that their spirits had to wander on earth never at peace, specters to haunt the living. Furthermore, Creon ordered that anyone who should attempt to bury Polyneices or his companions would be put to death. Antigone, who had great family loyalty, was determined to bury her brother and lay his soul to rest, for she put divine law above kingly decrees. Ismene lacked the courage to aid Antigone. When Antigone had buried Polyneices, Creon had her walled up alive in a tomb. Teiresias the seer warned Creon that such an act would bring down the punishment of the gods. Creon then went to undo his mischief only to find that Antigone had killed herself with a sword. Now Creon's son Haemon was Antigone's fiance, and when he saw his beloved dead Haemon killed himself, leaving Creon without progeny.

In the meantime Adrastus had gone to Athens to solicit the help of Theseus in getting Creon to bury his dead fellow warriors. Assisted by the mothers of the slain, Adrastus persuaded Theseus and the Athenians to march on Thebes. Their army gained the victory over the Thebans and reclaimed the corpses, which were given a heroes' funeral. Adrastus gave the oration eulogizing the dead, and the mothers of the slain were satisfied.

Ten years later the sons of the Seven, called the Epigoni, or After-Born, gathered to revenge themselves on Thebes. Teiresias foresaw disaster for the city, so the inhabitants fled during the night. The following morning the Epigoni entered Thebes, sacked it, and razed it to the ground. At the same time Teiresias died, the man who had been its seer for so many years.


These legends deal with the founding, the hardships, and the fall of Thebes. As in the stories of Crete, the quality of leadership has a good deal to do with the fortunes of the city. And yet here we see a strain of innocence and unmerited suffering that the other tragic dynasties lack. Why Cadmus and Harmonia had such a hard old age, why Oedipus should unwittingly fulfill the horrid prophecy, and why Antigone and Haemon should die for serving the will of the gods are perplexing questions, for in each instance the misery seems unjustified or out of proportion to its causes. Sophocles, who dealt with the tales of Oedipus and Antigone in his tragic dramas, faced up to this problem squarely. In the end he can merely say that the ways of heaven are not man's ways, and that unmerited suffering is inexplicable by human standards. However, Sophocles still maintains his faith in the gods even it he can't understand them, but above all he maintains his faith in men, who can bear up under terrific agony and still retain their humanity. We see this most clearly in the legend of Oedipus' death and transfiguration, where Oedipus is granted a special dispensation from the gods after braving a merciless fate. Oedipus is a new kind of hero. If he is bold, resourceful, and intelligent, his outstanding trait is his ability to suffer. After blundering into a deadly trap set by the gods, he accepts the responsibility for the sins he committed in innocence by blinding himself and resigning his throne. He then undergoes long torment and at last emerges purified through his suffering. Antigone is also a new type of heroine, one who follows divine law and family duty at the expense of the state and who accepts death as her penalty. Only a race as unflinching and intellectually honest as the Greeks could have created or understood this family.

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