The Myths of Ancient Greece: Thebes

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The myths of the Ancient Greek city-state of Thebes are numerous and varied.

It starts at the beginning. According to tradition, a Phoenician king named Cadmus went to the Oracle at Delphi and was told to follow a cow and then, where the cow stopped, build a city. Cadmus was so impressed that after the cow stopped, he sacrificed it and determined to build a city on the spot.

Cadmus wasn't alone in his endeavor, and he sent his accompanying men to get water at a nearby spring. A dragon guarding the spring killed most of the men, but Cadmus saved the day by killing the dragon and then prayed to the gods for further advice.

The goddess Athena told Cadmus to sew half of the dragon's teeth into the ground, as if he were planting vegetables; out of the ground where the dragon's teeth had been sprang live soldiers, who helped Cadmus build Thebes.

Perhaps the most famous myth involving Thebes is that of Oedipus, the focus of a trilogy of plays by the renowned playwright Sophocles. The story in the first play is the most familiar.

When Laius was King of Thebes, a Sphinx (a terrible monster with the head of a woman, the body of a lion, and a set of wings) terrorized Thebes and the surrounding area. Before the Sphinx arrived, though, Laius had been told by an oracle that his son would kill him and take his place.

When Laius's wife, Jocasta, gave birth to Oedipus, Laius determined to avoid the prophecy by leaving the baby on a tall mountain to die. A shepherd found the baby Oedipus and took him in. The shepherd eventually handed Oedipus over to King Polybus of Corinth, who, with his wife, reared Oedipus as their own. (Sources differ on the name of Polybus's wife; some sources say that she was named Merope, and other sources say that her name was Periboea.)

Oedipus and Sphinx

When Oedipus came of age, he vowed to make his own way in the world and went to Delphi, to the Oracle. Oedipus heard a prediction that he would kill his own father and marry his own mother. Horrified, he vowed never to return to Corinth. On the road to Thebes, Oedipus had an argument with another man; the argument turned violent, and Oedipus killed the other man. Oedipus then went on to Thebes, where he encountered the Sphinx.

The Sphinx told a riddle, and anyone who didn't give the correct answer was devoured. The riddle was this: What creature may have two, three, or four feet; is able to move through the air, through the water, and on land; and moves more slowly the more feet it has. Oedipus gave the correct answer, which was a person: A baby has four feet (crawling before walking), an adult walks on two feet, and an older adult walks with a cane (a third foot). Enraged, the Sphinx then killed herself.

The city of Thebes celebrated Oedipus for his defeat of the Sphinx and offered him the vacant throne and marriage to the widowed Jocasta. (At this point, Jocasta did not know that Oedipus was her son and Oedipus did not know who his mother really was.) It later came out that the man that Oedipus had killed along the road was Theban King Laius, and Oedipus unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy.

Hercules statue

Another myth associated with Thebes was the title and subject of a play by the famous Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes. These events are said to have happened before the Trojan War. Twin sons of Oedipus, Polyneices and Eteocles, were to take turns ruling the city but Eteocles wouldn't give up the throne the year after his father died and so Polyneices found some willing allies and determined to storm the city. The Seven refers to men who were either chieftains or champions. Both Eteocles and Polyneices are named among the Seven.

Thebes was said to be the birthplace of the god Dionysus and of the hero Hercules (or Heracles).

Another mythical tradition is that Cadmus brought the knowledge of writing with him to Greece.

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