Guest Post by Khusrau Islam: Thebes in Ancient Myth

Khusrau Islam is a 21 year-old student studying Classics at Exeter College, Oxford. His main interests are Greek epic and 5th century BCE Athens. Having benefitted from a privileged access to Latin and Greek from a young age, he is looking for any chance to spread his enthusiasm to any budding classicists. In his spare time, recently he has been trying to combine his passion for computer science and Classics. Away from his desk, he is an amateur home cook, having learned over the past year while at home.

Thebes is often the setting for Ancient Greek myths, the city was riddled with curses and evils from the beginning. We have these stories handed down to us by all sorts of poets and authors, like Homer, Euripides, Ovid, and Herodotus. All the stories about Thebes made them popular for tragic poets during the 5th century BCE. All three of the major poets dealt with some stories from the myths of Thebes. The reason they liked Thebes so much was that it had such a rich mythology – it used to be one of the most dominant cities in all of Greece, and to the Athenians their stories were just as interesting as stories about the heroes of the Trojan War, so the tragedians often wrote about Thebes.

The start of Thebes’ misfortune lies with its founder, Cadmus. After visiting the oracle at Delphi, he was told to follow a cow until it lay down. After following this cow for days on end with his companions, they arrived in Thebes, and here the cow lay down. Thebes was the largest city in the ancient region of Boeotia, whose name supposedly comes from this myth – ‘Boetia’ means ‘oxen land’ in Greek!

When he tried to settle in Thebes, Cadmus found a dragon guarding a well. He was able to slay the dragon with the help of the gods. However, one god, Ares, wanted to trick him, so he persuaded Cadmus to take some of the teeth from the dragon and plant them in the ground. Interestingly, in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, one of the things Jason needed was dragon teeth, and they came from this very same dragon!

However, giants rose from the teeth which Cadmus had planted, and these giants were called the ‘Spartoi’, or the ‘Sown men’. They were the children of Ares. After receiving some advice from Athena, Cadmus threw a stone at them to try and confuse them. The stone landed among the giants, and out of confusion, the Sown men attacked each other in anger. Their battle lasted the rest of the day until only five remained, and they collapsed out of exhaustion. At this point, Cadmus approached them and asked for them to be friends – he offered them peace in return for their help in building the city of Thebes.

Cadmus, now a hero, went on to meet and marry Harmonia, Ares’ daughter. Because his children, the Spartoi, had been so easily defeated, Ares was embarassed, and was happy to make peace with Cadmus in this way. Cadmus and Harmonia then went onto have 5 children, Autonoe, Ino, Semele, Agave, and Polydorus.

However, because he was angry with Ares, Hephaestus had cursed his daughter Harmonia! He gave her a necklace which would grant the wearer eternal youth and beauty, but it came at a cost: eternal misfortune. So, Cadmus and his wife had an unhappy life – eventually they were turned into snakes by the gods, according to some stories.

Meanwhile, the necklace was passed down to Semele, Harmonia’s daughter. She went onto give birth to the god Dionysus, but Hera, who was jealous of her, tricked her, which led to her death. This curse was then passed down to Jocasta, and her brother, Creon. Oedipus, Jocasta’s son, ended up killing his own father during a misunderstanding, and accidentally marrying his mother. But he did not realise what he was doing until it was too late! His parents had sent him away as a baby because of an oracle had told them that this would happen. But in trying to avoid this prophecy, his parents caused it to come true!

These stories were very popular in tragedy, and the most famous version was told by Sophocles. Oedipus’ children, Polyneices and Eteocles, then fought over who would take over Thebes, but they were both killed in the battle. After they died, Creon then became king of Thebes. He came to blows with Oedipus’ daughters, Antigone and Ismene over whether they should give Polyneices an honourable burial; this led to the death of Creon’s wife and son, as well as Antigone herself. This story was also made popular by Sophocles. You may have also heard of Creon’s daughter, Megara: she became the first wife of Heracles (also known as Hercules)!

All of these stories were set in the distant past – the Greeks believed that they happened before the Trojan War. This was another reason that the Athenian playwrights liked to write about these stories: the Athenian audience didn’t want to see tragic plays about their own people, as it would have felt too real for them. Instead, in watching stories set in the distant past, the Athenians were able to separate themselves from the terrible things they were watching on stage. And by focussing on stories from another land, Thebes rather than Athens, the Athenian audience were best able to enjoy the plays which they were watching!

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