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The Greek Myths, Volume2, Page 2

Robert Graves

  5. The occurrence of ‘Teiresias’, a common title for soothsayers, throughout Greek legendary history suggested that Teiresias had been granted a remarkably long life by Zeus. To see snakes coupling is still considered unlucky in Southern India; the theory being that the witness will be punished with the ‘female disease’ (as Herodotus calls it), namely homosexuality; here the Greek fabulist has taken the tale a stage further in order to raise a laugh against women. Cornel, a divinatory tree sacred to Cronus (see 52.3 and 170.5), symbolized the fourth month, that of the Spring Equinox; Rome was founded at this season, on the spot where Romulus’s cornel-wood javelin struck the ground. Hesiod turned the traditional two Charites into three (see 13. 3), calling them Euphrosyne, Aglaia, and Thalia (Theogony 945). Sosostratus’s account of the beauty contest makes poor sense, because Pasithea Cale Euphrosyne, ‘the Goddess of Joy who is beautiful to all’, seems to have been Aphrodite’s own title. He may have borrowed it from the Judgement of Paris (see 159. i and 3).

  6. Two incompatible accounts of Oedipus’s end survive. According to Homer, he died gloriously in battle. According to Apollodorus and Hyginus, he was banished by Iocaste’s brother, a member of the Cadmean royal house, and wandered as a blind beggar through the cities of Greece until he came to Colonus in Attica, where the Furies hounded him to death. Oedipus’s remorseful self-blinding has been interpreted by psychologists to mean castration; but though the blindness of Achilles’s tutor Phoenix (see 160. l) was said by Greek grammarians to be a euphemism for impotence, primitive myth is always downright, and the castration of Uranus and Attis continued to be recorded unblushingly in Classical textbooks. Oedipus’s blinding, therefore, reads like a theatrical invention, rather than original myth. Furies were personifications of conscience, but conscience in a very limited sense: aroused only by the breach of a maternal taboo.

  7. According to the non-Homeric story, Oedipus’s defiance of the City-goddess was punished by exile, and he eventually died a victim of his own superstitious fears. It is probable that his innovations were repudiated by a body of Theban conservatives; and, certainly, his sons’ and brothers’ unwillingness to award him the shoulder of the sacrificial victim amounted to a denial of his divine authority. The shoulder-blade was the priestly perquisite at Jerusalem (Leviticus vii. 32 and xi. 21, etc.) and Tantalus set one before the goddess Demeter at a famous banquet of the gods (see 108. c). Among the Akan, the right shoulder still goes to the ruler.

  Did Oedipus, like Sisyphus, try to substitute patrilineal for matrilineal laws of succession, but get banished by his subjects? It seems probable. Theseus of Athens, another patriarchal revolutionary from the Isthmus, who destroyed the ancient Athenian clan of Pallantids (see 99. a), is associated by the Athenian dramatists with Oedipus’s burial, and was likewise banished at the close of his reign (see 104. f).

  8. Teiresias here figures dramatically as the prophet of Oedipus’s final disgrace, but the story, as it survives, seems to have been turned inside-out. It may once have run something like this:

  Oedipus of Corinth conquered Thebes and became king by marrying Iocaste, a priestess of Hera. Afterwards he announced that the kingdom should henceforth be bequeathed from father to son in the male line, which is a Corinthian custom, instead of remaining the gift of Hera the Throttler. Oedipus confessed that he felt himself disgraced as having let chariot horses drag to death Laius, who was accounted his father, and as having married Iocaste, who had enroyalled him by a ceremony of rebirth. But when he tried to change these customs, Iocaste committed suicide in protest, and Thebes was visited by a plague. Upon the advice of an oracle, the Thebans then withheld from Oedipus the sacred shoulder-blade, and banished him. He died in a fruitless attempt to regain his throne by warfare.



  So many princes visited Argos in the hope of marrying either Aegeia, or Deipyla, the daughters of King Adrastus, that, fearing to make powerful enemies if he singled out any two of them as his sons-in-law, he consulted the Delphic Oracle. Apollo’s response was: ‘Yoke to a two-wheeled chariot the boar and lion which fight in your palace.’

  b. Among the less fortunate of these suitors were Polyneices and Tydeus. Polyneices and his twin Eteocles had been elected co-kings of Thebes after the banishment of Oedipus, their father. They agreed to reign for alternate years, but Eteocles, to whom the first term fell, would not relinquish his throne at the end of the year, pleading the evil disposition shown by Polyneices, and banished him from the city. Tydeus, son of Oeneus of Calydon, had killed his brother Melanippus when out hunting; though he claimed that this was an accident, it had been prophesied that Melanippus would kill him, and the Calydonians therefore suspected him of having tried to forestall his fate, and he was also banished.

  c. Now, the emblem of Thebes is a lion, and the emblem of Calydon, a boar; and the two fugitive suitors displayed these devices on their shields. That night, in Adrastus’s palace, they began to dispute about the riches and glories of their respective cities, and murder might have been done, had not Adrastus parted and reconciled them. Then, mindful to the prophecy, he married Aegeia to Polyneices, and Deipyla to Tydeus, with a promise to restore both princes to their kingdoms; but said that he would first march against Thebes, which lay nearer.1

  d. Adrastus mustered his Argive chieftains: Capaneus, Hippomedon, his brother-in-law Amphiaraus the seer, and his Arcadian ally Parthenopaeus, son of Meleager and Atalanta, bidding them arm themselves and set out eastward. Of these champions, only one was reluctant to obey: namely Amphiaraus who, foreseeing that all except Adrastus would die fighting against Thebes, at first refused to go.

  e. It happened that Adrastus had formerly quarrelled with Amphiaraus about Argive affairs of state, and the two angry men might have killed each other, but for Adrastus’s sister Eriphyle, who was married to Amphiaraus. Snatching her distaff, she flung herself between them, knocked up their swords, and made them swear always to abide by her verdict in any future dispute. Apprised of this oath, Tydeus called Polyneices and said: ‘Eriphyle fears that she is losing her looks; now, if you were to offer her the magic necklace which was Aphrodite’s wedding gift to your ancestress Harmonia, Cadmus’s wife, she would soon settle the dispute between Amphiaraus and Adrastus by compelling him to come with us.’

  f. This was discreetly done, and the expedition set out, led by the seven champions: Polyneices, Tydeus, and the five Argives.2 But some say that Polyneices did not count as one of the seven, and add the name of Eteoclus the Argive, a son of Iphis.3

  g. Their march took them through Nemea, where Lycurgus was king. When they asked leave to water their troops in his country, Lycurgus consented, and his bond-woman Hypsipyle guided them to the nearest spring. Hypsipyle was a Lemnian princess, but when the women of Lemnos had sworn to murder all their men in revenge for an injury done them, she saved the life of her father Thoas: they therefore sold her into slavery, and here she was, acting as nursemaid to Lycurgus’s son Opheltes. She set the boy down for a moment while she guided the Argive army to the drinking pool, whereupon a serpent writhed around his limbs and bit him to death. Adrastus and his men returned from the spring too late to do more than kill the serpent and bury the boy.

  h. When Amphiaraus warned them that this was an ominous sign, they instituted the Nemean Games in the boy’s honour, calling him Archemorus, which means ‘the beginner of doom’; and each of the champions had the satisfaction of winning one of the seven events. The judges at the Nemean Games, which are celebrated every four years, have ever since worn dark robes in mourning for Opheltes, and the victor’s wreath is plaited of luckless parsley.4

  i. Arrived at Cithaeron, Adrastus sent Tydeus as his herald to the Thebans, with a demand that Eteocles should resign the throne in favour of Polyneices. When this was refused, Tydeus challenged their chieftains to single combat, one after another, and emerged victorious from every encounter; soon, no more Thebans dared come forward. The Argives then approached the city
walls, and each of the champions took up his station facing one of the seven gates.

  j. Teiresias the seer, whom Eteocles consulted, prophesied that the Thebans would be victorious only if a prince of the royal house freely offered himself as a sacrifice to Ares; whereupon Menoeceus, the son of Creon, killed himself before the gates, much as his namesake and uncle had leaped headlong from the walls on a previous occasion. Teiresias’s prophecy was fulfilled: the Thebans were, indeed, defeated in a skirmish and withdrew into the city; but no sooner had Capaneus set a scaling-ladder against the wall and begun to mount it, than Zeus struck him dead with a thunderbolt. At this, the Thebans took courage, made a furious sally, killing three more of the seven champions; and one of their number, who happened to be named Melanippus, wounded Tydeus in the belly. Athene cherished an affection for Tydeus and, pitying him as he lay half-dead, hastened to beg an infallible elixir from her father Zeus, which would have soon set him upon his feet again. But Amphiaraus hated Tydeus for having forced the Argives to march and, being sharp-witted, ran at Melanippus and cut off his head. ‘Here is revenge!’ he cried, handing the head to Tydeus. ‘Split open the skull and gulp his brains!’ Tydeus did so, and Athene, arriving at that moment with the elixir, spilt it on the ground and retired in disgust.

  k. Only Polyneices, Amphiaraus, and Adrastus now remained of the seven champions; and Polyneices, to save further slaughter, offered to decide the succession of the throne by single combat with Eteocles. Eteocles accepted the challenge and, in the course of a bitter struggle, each mortally wounded the other. Creon, their uncle, then took command of the Theban army and routed the dismayed Argives. Amphiaraus fled in his chariot along the banks of the river Ismenus, and was on the point of being thrust between the shoulders by a Theban pursuer, when Zeus cleft the earth with a thunderbolt and he vanished from sight, chariot and all, and now reigns alive among the dead. Baton, his charioteer, went with him.5

  l. Seeing that the day was lost, Adrastus mounted his winged horse Arion and escaped; but when, later, he heard that Creon would not permit his dead enemies to be buried, visited Athens as a suppliant and persuaded Theseus to march against Thebes and punish Creon’s impiety. Theseus took the city in a surprise attack, imprisoned Creon, and gave the dead champions’ corpses to their kinsfolk, who heaped a great pyre for them. But Evadne, Capaneus’s wife, seeing that her husband had been heroized by Zeus’s thunderbolt, would not be parted from him. Since custom demanded that a lightning-struck man should be buried apart from the rest, and his grave fenced off, she flung herself on the general pyre, and was consumed alive.6

  m. Now, before Theseus’s arrival at Thebes, Antigone, sister of Eteocles and Polyneices, had disobeyed Creon’s orders by secretly building a pyre and laying Polyneices’s corpse upon it. Looking out of his palace window, Creon noticed a distant glow which seemed to proceed from a burning pyre and, going to investigate, surprised Antigone in her act of disobedience. He summoned his son Haemon, to whom Antigone had been affianced, and ordered him to bury her alive in Polyneices’s tomb. Haemon feigned readiness to do as he was told but, instead, married Antigone secretly, and sent her away to live among his shepherds. She bore him a son who, many years later, came to Thebes, and took part in certain funeral games; but Creon, who was still King of Thebes, guessed his identity by the serpent mark on his body, borne by all descendants of Cadmus, and sentenced him to death. Heracles interceded for his life, but Creon proved obdurate; whereupon Haemon killed both Antigone and himself.7

  1. Hyginus: Fabula 69; Euripides: Phoenician Women 408 ff., with scholiast on 409; Suppliants 132 ff.; Apollodorus: iii. 6.1.

  2. Aeschylus: Seven Against Thebes 375 ff.; Homer: Odyssey xi. 326 ff. and xv. 247; Sophocles: Electra 836 ff. and Fragments of Eriphyle; Hyginus: Fabula 73; Pausanias: v. 17.7 ff. and ix. 41. 2; Diodorus Siculus: iv. 65. 5 ff.; Apollodorus: iii. 6. 2–3.

  3. Aeschylus: Seven Against Thebes 458 ff.; Sophocles: Oedipus at Colonus 1316; Pausanias: x. 10. 3.

  4. Apollodorus: i. 9. 17 and iii. 6.4; Hyginus: Fabulae 74 and 273; Scholiast on the Argument of Pindar’s Nemean Odes.

  5. Aeschylus: Seven Against Thebes 375 ff.; Euripides: Phoenician Women 105 ff. and 1090 ff.; Diodorus Siculus: iv. 65.7–9; Apollodorus: iii. 6.8; Hyginus: Fabulae 69 and 70; Scholiast on Pindar’s Nemean Odes x. 7; Pausanias: ix. 18.1; Ovid: Ibis 427 ff. and 515 ff.

  6. Hyginus: Fabulae 273; Apollodorus: loc. cit.; Euripides: The Suppliants; Plutarch: Theseus 29; Isocrates: Panegyric 54–8; Pausanias: i. 39. 2.

  7. Sophocles: Antigone, passim; Hyginus: Fabula 72; Fragments of Euripides’s Antigone; Aeschylus: Seven Against Thebes 1005 ff.; Apollodorus: iii. 7. 1.

  1. Apollo’s lion-and-boar oracle will have originally conveyed the wisdom of forming double kingdoms; in order to prevent political strife between the sacred king and his tanist, such as brought about the fall of Thebes (see 69. 1). But the emblem of Thebes was a lion, because of the lion-bodied Sphinx, its former goddess; and the emblem of Calydon was a boar, probably because Ares, who had a shrine there, liked to adopt this disguise (see 18.j). The oracle has therefore been applied to a different situation. Shields with animal devices were regularly used in early Classical times (see 98. 3 and 160. n).

  2. The mythographers often made play with the syllable eri in a name, pretending that it meant eris, ‘strife’, rather than ‘plentiful’. Hence the myths of Erichthonius (see 25. 1) and Erigone (see 79.3). Eriphyle originally meant ‘many leaves’, rather than ‘tribal strife’. Hesiod (Works and Days 161 ff.) says that Zeus wiped out two generations of heroes, the first at Thebes in the war for Oedipus’s sheep, the second at Troy in the war occasioned by fair-haired Helen. ‘Oedipus’s sheep’ is not explained; but Hesiod must be referring to this war between Eteocles and Polyneices, in which the Argives supported an unsuccessful candidate for the throne of Thebes. The cause of a similar dispute between brothers was the golden fleece, for which Atreus and Thyestes contended (see 111. c-d); its possession set the owner on the throne of Mycenae. Also, Zeus had golden-fleeced rams on Mount Laphystium, which seem to have been the royal insignia of neighbouring Orchomenus and which caused much bloodshed (see 70.6).

  3. Hypsipyle (‘high gate’) was probably a title of the Moon-goddess’s, whose course describes a high arch across the sky; and the Nemean Games, like the Olympian, will have been celebrated at the end of the sacred king’s term, when he had reigned his fifty lunar months as the Chief-priestess’s husband. The myth preserves the tradition that boys were sacrificed annually to the goddess, as surrogates for the king; though the word Opheltes, which means simply ‘benefactor’, has here been given a forced sense: ‘wound about by a serpent’, as though it were derived from ophis, ‘serpent’ and eilein, ‘to press together’. Neither does Archemorus mean ‘the beginning of doom’, but rather ‘original olive stock’, which refers to cuttings from Athene’s sacred olive (see 16. c), presumably those used in the Games as crowns for the victors of the various events. After the disasters of the Persian War, the use of olive was discontinued at the Nemean Games in favour of parsley, a token of mourning (scholiast on Pindar’s Argument to the Nemean Games). Parsley was unlucky, perhaps because of its notoriety as an abortificient – the English proverb has it: ‘parsley grows rank in cuckolds’ gardens.’ It grew rank in the death-island of Ogygia (see 170. w).

  4. Tydeus’s gulping of Melanippus’s brains is reported as a moral anecdote. This old-established means of improving one’s fighting skill, introduced by the Hellenes and still practised by the Scythians in Classical times (Herodotus: iv. 64), had come to be regarded as barbarous. But the icon from which the mythographers deduced their story probably showed Athene pouring a libation to Melanippus’s ghost, in approval of Tydeus’s action. The lost epic of the Seven Against Thebes must have closely resembled the Indian Mahabharata, which glorifies the Maryannu soldier-caste: the same theme of kinsman pitted against kinsman occurs, the conduct of the fighters is nobler and more tragic than in the Iliad, th
e gods play no mischievous part, suttee is honoured, and Bhishma, like Tydeus, drinks his enemy’s blood (see 81. 8).

  5. Amphiaraus’s end provides yet another example of the sacred king’s death in a chariot crash (see 71. a; 101. g; 105. d; 109. j, etc.). The descent of Baton (‘blackberry’) to Tartarus in his company seems to be told to account for the widespread European taboo on the eating of blackberries, which is associated with death.

  6. Evadne’s self-immolation recalls the myth of Alcestis (see 69. d). Relics of a royal cremation found in a bee-hive tomb at Dendra near Mycenae suggest that, in this particular instance, the king and queen were buried at the same time; and A. W. Persson believes that the queen died voluntarily. But they may both have been murdered, or died of the same illness, and no similar Mycenaean burial is reported elsewhere. Suttee, in fact, which seems to have been a Hellenic practice, soon went out of fashion (see 74. 8). Lightning was an evidence of Zeus’s presence, and since ‘holy’ and ‘unclean’ mean much the same in primitive religion – the tabooed animals in Leviticus were unclean because they were holy – the grave of a man struck by lightning was fenced off, like that of a calf that has died of anthrax on a modern farm, and he was given heroic rites. The graveyard near Eleusis where the champions are said by Pausanias to have been eventually interred, has now been identified and opened by Professor Mylonas. He found one double burial surrounded by a stone circle, and five single burials; the skeletons, as was customary in the thirteenth century B.C., to which the vase fragments are attributable, showed no signs of cremation. Early grave-robbers had evidently removed the bronze weapons and other metallic objects, originally buried with the bodies; and it may have been their finding of two skeletons in the stone circle, and the anomaly of the circle itself, which suggested to the people of Eleusis that this was the grave of Capaneus, struck by lightning, and of his faithful wife Evadne.