POLYNICES AND TYDEUS AS THE GUESTS OF ADRASTUS
ADRASTUS, son of Talaus, king of Argos, had five children, of which two, Argia and Deipyle, were daughters. Concerning these a singular oracle had been issued: their father, so it was said, would wed one of them to a lion, the other to a boar. In vain the king pondered over the meaning of this strange prophecy, and when the girls were grown, thought only of finding them husbands as quickly as possible, so that nothing might come of the terrible prediction. But the gods see to it that their words are fulfilled.
From two different directions fugitives came to the gates of Argos, one from Thebes: Polynices, who had been driven from the city by his brother Eteocles; the other, Tydeus, son of Oeneus, from Calydon, from which he had fled after unintentionally slaying a kinsman in the course of a hunt. The two met in Argos, in front of the palace. Night had fallen, and in the darkness they took each other for enemies and began to fight. Adrastus heard the clash below, descended with a torch, and separated them. As they stood to the right and left of him, two stalwart heroes, the king started as though he had seen a specter, for on the shield of Polynices was a lion’s head, while the head of a boar stared at him from that of Tydeus. Polynices had chosen the lion for his emblem in honor of Heracles, while Tydeus had taken the boar in memory of Meleager and his hunt for the Calydonian Boar. Now Adrastus understood the meaning of the oracle. The fugitives became his sons-in-law. The elder daughter, Argia, was wedded to Polynices, the younger, Deipyle, to Tydeus. And Adrastus pledged both princes to reinstate them on the thrones of the countries from which they had been exiled.
Thebes was chosen as the goal of the first expedition, and Adrastus summoned the heroes of the land, seven princes, including himself, with their seven hosts. Their names were Adrastus, Polynices, Tydeus, Amphiaraus, the husband of Adrastus’ sister, Capaneus, his nephew, and finally Hippomedon and Parthenopaeus, brothers of the king of Argos. But Amphiaraus, the king’s brother-in-law, who had been his enemy for many years, was a soothsayer and foretold a disastrous end to the whole campaign. First he tried to shake Adrastus and the other heroes in their resolve, but when he saw that his efforts were in vain, he went to a hiding-place which no one knew save Eriphyle, his wife and sister to the king, and there concealed himself from all men. For a long time they searched for him, since Adrastus did not want to go without him whom he called the eye of his hosts.
Now when Polynices had been compelled to leave Thebes, he had taken with him a necklace and veil, which Aphrodite had once given Harmonia at her marriage to Cadmus, founder of Thebes. But both the necklace and veil were fraught with death for the wearer and had already caused the destruction of Harmonia, Semele, the mother of Dionysus, and Jocasta. The last to own them was Argia, wife of Polynices, who was also to drain the cup of sorrow, and now her husband decided to bribe Eriphyle with the necklace and thus get her to reveal the whereabouts of her husband. Eriphyle had long envied her niece the magnificent jewels the stranger had brought her, and so when she saw the glittering gems linked with gold, she could not resist, but told Polynices to follow her and led him to the refuge of Amphiaraus. The seer could not now well evade joining his fellows, all the less because when he and Adrastus had called a truce to their feud, and the king had given him his sister to wife, he had promised to let Eriphyle be the judge of any future disagreement which might come up between her brother and her husband. So Amphiaraus girt on his armor and assembled his warriors. But before he set out, he called his son Alcmaeon and had him swear a solemn oath that the moment he heard of his father’s death, he would take vengeance on the wife who had betrayed him.
THE HEROES SET OUT. HYPSIPYLE AND OPHELTES
The other heroes had also completed their preparations, and soon Adrastus stood ringed by a mighty host, which set out in seven divisions, commanded by seven heroes. They left the city of Argos, their hearts high with hope and assurance, and the fanfares of trumpets and shrilling of flutes speeded them on their way. But long before they arrived at their destination, misfortune overtook them. They had reached the woods of Nemea. Every spring and river and lake had run dry, and they were tormented with heat and burning thirst. Their armor weighed upon their limbs; the shields were heavy in their hands, and the fine dust their feet whirled up in the road settled on their dry lips and gritted in their mouths. The very foam flecks dried on the jowls of their horses; they distended their nostrils and champed at the bit, their tongues swollen with thirst.
While Adrastus with some others was searching the woods for a spring or a well, they came upon a mourning woman of singular beauty. She was seated in the shadow of a tree, a boy-child at her breast, and though her dress was mean, her floating locks and proud bearing gave her the appearance of a queen. The king was overwhelmed with astonishment, and thinking that this must surely be the nymph of these forests, he fell on his knees before her and implored her aid for himself and his men who were perishing of thirst. But the woman cast down her eyes and answered him humbly. “I am no goddess, stranger. And if you see about me something which is more than mortal, it must have been stamped on my features by greater suffering than others bear. I am Hypsipyle, daughter of Thoas. Once I was queen among the women of Lemnos. But I was seized by pirates and then, after unutterable misery, sold as a slave to King Lycurgus of Nemea. The boy I am nursing is not my own. He is Opheltes, the son of my lord, and I have been chosen to tend him. As for you, I shall gladly help you procure what you need. A single spring still gushes in this desolate waste, and no one but myself knows of the secret approach to it. There will be enough water to refresh all your host. Follow me!” And the woman rose, laid the child tenderly in the soft grass, and lulled him with a little song.
Adrastus and his men called the others, and soon the entire host crowded the narrow woodland path after Hypsipyle. Winding through the thick underbrush, they reached a rock-hewn gorge. Over it hovered cool spray. It blew into the hot faces of those who had outstripped the queen walking with their leader and slaked their skin with moisture. The sound of water, falling over stone in a torrent, grew louder and louder. “Water!” they cried exultingly, leaped down into the ravine, and stood on the wet boulders, catching the jets in their helmets. “Water, water!” echoed the host. Their voices rang above the surge of the cascade, and the cliffs echoed the shout. They threw themselves along the green margin of the brimming brook which issued from the ravine, and gulped the sweet cool water in long satisfying draughts. They found a wider passage for the chariots. The charioteers did not stop to unharness the horses but drove straight into the swirling tide, where the brook broadened to a river, and let their beasts cool their sweating flanks and dip their weary heads.
When every man and every creature was refreshed, Hypsipyle guided Adrastus and his followers back to the road, telling them of the deeds and sufferings of the women of Lemnos, while the host followed at a respectful distance. Before they reached the place where they had first seen Hypsipyle under the arched branches of a tree, her ear, sharpened by watchfulness for her nursling, plainly caught the frightened wail of the child, which the rest scarcely heard. She herself had been the mother of children, left behind in Lemnos when the pirates took her away from those she loved, and now all her love was lavished on little Opheltes. Her pulse beat faster with foreboding. Swiftly she ran to the place where she had held the child to her bosom. He was gone, and she no longer heard even his voice. But as her eyes swiftly searched about the tree, she suddenly realized the terrible fate which had befallen her charge while she was doing a kindness to the Argive host. For not far from the trunk lay a hideous serpent coiled in idle repose, heavy with the meal it just had made. Her very hair stood up in horror, and her cries of agony trembled on the wind and were carried to the heroes, who hurried to aid her. The first to see the serpent was Hippomedon. Without an instant’s reflection he tore a rock from the ground and hurled it at the creature, but the stone rebounded from the scaly body, and crumbled as if it had been a handful of earth. Then Hippomedon lunged at the monster with his spear. It sped into the gaping jaws, spattered the grass with the serpent’s brains, and the point came out at the crest. The body turned like a top on the long projecting spear, and the hissing breath came in slower and slower gasps until the creature lay dead.
And now the poor foster mother dared follow the traces of the child. The earth was red with his blood, and at last, far from the trunk of the tree, she found a pile of little bones picked bare. She knelt, gathered them in her lap, and gave them to Adrastus. He buried the boy who had lost his life because of them and arranged a solemn funeral feast for him. In his honor they founded the Nemean games and worshipped him as a demigod under the name of Archemorus, the Early-Perfect.
Hypsipyle did not escape the rage which the child’s death kindled in Eurydice, wife of Lycurgus. She had her slave imprisoned and vowed she should die the cruelest of deaths. But by the grace of Chance, Hypsipyle’s eldest sons were already on the trail of their mother, and soon after these happenings they reached Nemea and freed her from captivity.
THE HEROES ARRIVE IN THEBES
“This is an omen of how this expedition will end!” Amphiaraus, the seer, had said gloomily when they discovered the bones of Opheltes. But the others were more concerned with the killing of the serpent and claimed that this was a sign of good fortune. And because the host had fully recovered from the hardship of thirst, they were all in excellent spirits and paid no attention to the sighs of this prophet of evil. A few days more, and the Argives were before the walls of Thebes.
Eteocles and his uncle Creon were prepared to defend the city long and stubbornly, and now the son of Oedipus addressed his people: “Remember, fellow citizens, what you owe the city which was a gentle mother to you in childhood and reared you to stalwart warriors. All of you, from the youth who has not yet grown into manhood, to the man whose hair is graying, I call on you all to defend the altars of your native gods, your fathers, wives, and children, the free earth on which you stand. He who reads omens from the flight of birds has told me that during the coming night the Argives will concentrate their host and make an attack upon Thebes. On to the gates! To the walls! To arms! Occupy the ramparts! Man the towers! Guard every entrance and do not fear the numbers of the enemy. My spies are all about and will discover the tactics of the foe. I shall make my plans according to the message they bring.”
While Eteocles was thus spurring his men to action, Antigone stood on the highest parapet of the palace, and with her was an old man, the armor-bearer of her grandfather Laius. Soon after her father’s death she and her sister Ismene had left the protection of King Theseus out of a great longing for their own country. They came with the vague hope of assisting their brother Polynices, even though they did not approve of the siege he contemplated, and with the determination to share the fate of the beloved city of their birth. Creon and Eteocles had received Antigone with open arms, for they regarded her as a voluntary hostage and a welcome go-between.
On this day she had climbed the old palace stair, built of sweet-smelling cedar, and stood on the platform listening to the old man as he explained the position of the enemy. The great host was encamped on all the fields surrounding the city, along the banks of the Ismenus, and around the fountain of Dirce, famed since the days of old. There was motion among the men. They were dividing off into troops, and the entire region shone with the glint of metal, like the sea in the sun. Masses of foot-soldiers and riders churned around the gates of the besieged city. The girl was terror-stricken at the sight, but the old man comforted her. “Our walls are high and solid,” he said. “And our oaken gates have heavy bolts of iron. The city lies secure within and is defended by many brave warriors who do not fear the grimmest battle.” Then, in response to her questions, he pointed out to her the various leaders. “That one over there, whose helmet glitters in the light, who swings his great polished shield as though it were weightless and goes in the van of his men, is Prince Hippomedon, who lives in Mycene, near the waters of Lerna. He is tall of stature, like the giants who once sprang from the earth! More to the right, do you see? That one who is just jumping the waters of Dirce on his horse, who wears armor resembling that of barbarians—that is Tydeus, son of Oeneus, the brother of your brother’s wife. He and his Aetolians carry heavy shields and are known for their skill in the use of the lance. I recognize him by his emblem, for I have visited the enemy’s camp as a messenger.”
“And who is that young hero?” the girl asked. “Young and yet with a man’s beard, who looks about with such savage glances? He is just passing a burial mound, and his men are following him slowly.”
“That is Parthenopaeus,” the old man told her. “He is the son of Atalanta, friend of Artemis. But do you see those two over there, near the grave of the daughters of Niobe? The elder is Adrastus, who heads the entire expedition, and the younger—does he look familiar to you?”
“I can see only his shoulders and the outline of his body,” said Antigone with painful emotion. “And yet I recognize my brother Polynices. Could I but fly like the clouds, float down to him, and clasp my arms around his neck! How he gleams in his golden armor—like the morning sun! But who is that charioteer who holds the reins in so firm a hand, drives a white chariot, and uses his goad with such calm deliberation?”
“That is Amphiaraus, the seer.”
“And the one who is pacing along the walls, measuring them, and looking for the best places to attack?”
“That is arrogant Capaneus, who has scoffed at our city and threatened to take you and your sister to Mycenae, by the waters of Lerna—as slaves.”
Antigone paled and asked to be taken back. The old man gave her his hand and helped her down the stair and to her chamber.
In the meantime Creon and Eteocles had been holding a council of war and resolved to send one leader to each of the seven gates of Thebes; thus seven Theban princes would oppose Polynices and his six allies. But before the battle broke out, they desired an omen, such as can be read from the flight of birds, to give them an inkling of the outcome. Now among the Thebans lived the seer Tiresias, son of Eueres and the nymph Chariclo. Once, in the days of his youth, he had surprised Athene visiting with his mother and had seen what he should not. For this the goddess had afflicted him with blindness. Chariclo had implored her friend to restore her son’s sight, but this was beyond Athene’s power. Out of pity for him she laid a spell on his ears and, of a sudden, he understood the language of birds. From that time on he had been soothsayer for the city.
Creon sent his young son Menoeceus to guide the old seer to the palace, and soon after Tiresias appeared before the king, standing with trembling knees between his daughter Manto and the boy. When he was pressed to tell what the birds boded for the city, he was silent for a long time. At last he spoke, and his words were sad. “The sons of Oedipus are guilty of a grave sin against their father. They will bring bitterness and sorrow to the land of Thebes. Argives and Cadmeans will slaughter one another, and brother will die at the hand of brother. I know of only one way to save the city, but that is too terrible to face even for the sake of rescue. My lips refuse to utter it. Farewell!” He turned to go, but Creon pleaded with him stormily, and at last Tiresias yielded to his importunity. “You insist on hearing it?” he asked, and his tone was stern. “Then speak I must. But first tell me where your son Menoeceus is who brought me here.”
“He stands beside you,” said Creon.
“Then let him flee as far as his feet will take him, before I utter the will of the gods!”
“But why?” asked Creon. “Menoeceus is his father’s true child. He can keep silence if it is better so, and it will be a glad thing for him to know the means which may save us all.”
“Then hear what I have learned from the birds,” said Tiresias. “Fortune will again visit you, but the threshold she must cross will be mournful. The youngest of the race sprung from the dragon seed must perish. Only through his fall can you issue victorious from this encounter.”
“Alas!” cried Creon. “What is the meaning of your words, old man?”
“That the youngest descendant of Cadmus must die if the city is to be saved.”
“You demand the death of my darling child, of my son Menoeceus?” Creon drew himself up haughtily. “Away with you! Out of my city! I can dispense with your gloomy prophecies.”
“Is the truth invalid because it brings sorrow to your heart?” Tiresias asked gravely. And now Creon cast himself at his feet, clasped his knees, and implored the prophet by his gray locks to retract what he had said. But the seer was firm. “The offering cannot be evaded,” he said. “At the fountain of Dirce, where the dragon once rested his coils, the boy’s blood must flow. Earth will be your friend only when in return for the human blood she once infused in Cadmus through the teeth of the dragon, she receives the blood of a kinsman of Cadmus. If Menoeceus consents to sacrifice himself for his city, he will, in death, be its liberator, and the homecoming of Adrastus and his host will be unblest. There are two ways before you, Creon. Now choose which it shall be.”
When Tiresias had spoken, he left the hall with his daughter. Creon sank into a deep silence. At last he called out in anguish: “How gladly would I myself die for my country! But to offer up you, my child … Go, my son, as far as your feet will carry you. Leave this accursed land, too evil to contain your innocence. Go by way of Delphi, Aetolia, and Thesprotia to the oracle of Dodona, and there take refuge in the sanctuary.”
“Yes,” said Menoeceus, and his eyes shone. “Give me whatever I shall need for the journey, and you may be sure I shall find the way.” But when Creon, calmed by his son’s tractability, had hurried to his post, the boy threw himself upon the earth and made fervent prayer to the gods. “Forgive me, immortals, if I have lied; if by false words I freed my father from fears unworthy of him! It is not dishonorable for him, an old man, to be afraid. But what cowardice it would be if I betrayed the land to which I owe life! Hear my oath, O gods, and accept it graciously. For through my death I shall save my country. Flight would be too shameful! I shall mount the rampart and throw myself into the deep, dark gorge of the dragon, for in this way the prophet said I could save the land of Thebes.”
And the boy rose and hastened to the highest point of the palace wall, measured the ranks of his enemies with one brief glance, and cursed them with solemn imprecation. Then he drew out the dagger he had hidden in the folds of his tunic, plunged it into his throat, and fell from that steep rampart. His shattered body came to rest on the margin of the fountain of Dirce.
THE ATTACK UPON THEBES
The oracle had been fulfilled. Creon bridled his sense of utter despair, while Eteocles assigned seven bands of men to the seven guardians of the gates, dispatched rider after rider to replace them, and set up light infantry behind the shield-bearers, so that every site where attack was probable might be fully protected. And now the Argive army moved across the plain, and the storming of the walls began. The air shook with ringing song, and trumpets blared, both from the ramparts of Thebes and the ranks of the enemy.
First Parthenopaeus, son of Atalanta, the huntress, led his battalions, shield crowded against shield, toward one of the gates. Embossed on his own shield was the image of his mother slaying the Aetolian Boar with her swift arrow. Amphiaraus, the soothsayer, moved toward a second gate, and in his chariot were sacrificial animals to offer the gods. His weapons were unadorned, and his shield shining and empty. Hippomedon advanced toward the third gate. His emblem was hundred-eyed Argus, watching Io, whom Hera had changed into a heifer. Tydeus guided his men toward the fourth gate. A shaggy lion’s skin was pictured on his shield, and in his right hand he brandished a torch, swinging it angrily from side to side. King Polynices, exiled from his country, led the attack against the fifth gate, and his coat of arms was a team of horses rearing in rage. The sixth gate was the goal of Capaneus, who boasted of being the equal of Ares, the war-god. Carved on the metal surface of his shield was a giant who had lifted a whole city from its foundations and was carrying it on his shoulders; this was meant to symbolize the fate Capaneus had in mind for Thebes. Toward the seventh and last gate came Adrastus, king of the Argives, and his escutcheon showed a hundred dragons bearing off in their jaws the children of Thebes.
When the seven leaders were close to the gates, they opened battle with slings, bows, and spears. But the Thebans fended off this first attack so fiercely that the Argives were forced to withdraw. Then Tydeus and Polynices bethought themselves quickly and cried: “Comrades, why wait until we fall beneath their missiles? Now, this very instant, let us storm the gates with our foot soldiers, riders, and charioteers—all together with one mass charge!” His words spread through the host like flame, and the Argives took heart again. They surged forward with concerted strength, but the outcome was no happier than before. With bashed heads the attackers sank at the feet of the defenders. Whole battalions died beneath the walls, and the dry earth was turned into rivers of blood. At that, Parthenopaeus hurled himself at the gate like a tempest and called for fire and axes to demolish and burn it to the ground. Periclymenus, a Theban hero whose post was on the rampart nearby, watched his efforts and, at the given moment, tore loose from the wall a mass of stone large enough to fill a wagon, and it fell, crushing the blond head of the besieger and grinding his bones to dust. When Eteocles saw that this gate was safe, he flew to the others. At the fourth he came upon Tydeus raging like a dragon. He jerked his head under his helmet with its streaming plumes, and the shield he was holding over it shrilled with the clang of the metal discs fastened around the rim. High toward the wall he hurled his lance, and the band of shield-bearers around him launched a hail of spears at the top of the rampart, so that the Thebans had to retreat from the edge.
At this moment Eteocles appeared on the scene. He reassembled them as a huntsman gathers the pack which has scattered, and led them back to the wall. Then he hastened on from gate to gate. He met Capaneus, who was carrying a tall ladder and boasting that Zeus himself should not keep him from razing the conquered city to the ground. With these insolent words he set the ladder against the wall and, in a pelting storm of stones, climbed the slippery rungs under cover of his shield. But it was not the Thebans who punished him for his impious vaunt. Zeus himself lay in wait for the offender and slew him with a thunderbolt, just as he was leaping from ladder to wall. The blow was so mighty that the whole earth quaked. His limbs were strewn around the ladder, his hair flamed up to the sky, and his blood spattered the rungs. Like wheels, his hands and feet rolled in a circle, and his trunk burned on the ground.
King Adrastus took this for a sign that the father of gods was hostile to his undertaking. He guided his men away from the city moat and gave orders to retreat. And when the Thebans saw the happy omen given them by Zeus, they rushed from their city on foot and in chariots and wrought confusion among the Argive hosts. Chariot clashed against chariot and bodies struck the earth. The Thebans were victorious, but not until they had driven the enemy far from their walls did they return to their city.
BROTHERS IN SINGLE COMBAT
This was the end of the attack on the city of Thebes. But when Creon and Eteocles were back in the shelter of their own ramparts, the beaten Argive host gathered again and was soon ready to attack once more. The Thebans, quickly aware of this, had small hope of resisting a second time, since their numbers had been thinned and their strength weakened by the first attack. And then King Eteocles came to a bold resolve. He sent his herald to the Argives, who had again approached and were camped near the city moat. He had him call for silence, and then he himself, standing on the highest tower of his palace, cried to his own men within and to the Argives without the walls. “Danai and Argives,” he said in ringing tones, “all of you who have come to beset this city, and you, the people of Thebes: do not sacrifice so many lives for me and Polynices! Rather let me bear the brunt of this feud and fight with my brother in single combat. If I slay him, let me rule the land. But should I fall by his hand, the scepter shall be his, and my foes shall lower their weapons and return home without wasting more blood.”
Then from the ranks of the Argives sprang Polynices, declaring his willingness to accept these conditions. Both sides were already more than tired of a war which could benefit only one of two, and so the opposing hosts applauded Eteocles’ proposal. An agreement was drawn up, and both leaders confirmed it with solemn oath. And now the sons of Oedipus armed themselves from head to foot. The noblest of the Thebans accoutred their king, and the most powerful among the Argives fitted out Polynices, the exile from his realm. They confronted each other sheathed in bronze, and brother measured brother with strong and steadfast gaze. “Remember,” the friends of Polynices called to him, “remember that Zeus expects you to rear him a monument in Argos, in gratitude for the victory he is about to grant you!” And the Thebans urged on Prince Eteocles. “You are fighting for your city and your throne,” they said. “Let the thought of this double prize spur you on to win!”
Before the combat began, the soothsayers from both sides came together and made sacrifice, to discover from the shapes of the flames what the outcome would be. But the signs were uncertain; they could be read as victory or defeat for the one side or the other. When the offerings had been made and the brothers stood ready, Polynices lifted his hands in supplication, turned his head toward the land of the Argives, and prayed: “Hera, sovereign over Argos, from your country I chose my wife, in your country I live. Let me, your citizen, win, and dye my right hand in the blood of my foe!”
Eteocles, the while, looked toward Athene’s temple in Thebes. “O daughter of Zeus,” he pleaded, “guide my lance straight to its mark, to the breast of him who came to destroy my fatherland!” As the last word left his lips, a fanfare of trumpets proclaimed the beginning of the combat, and the two brothers ran forward and hurled themselves upon each other like savage boars who have whetted their tusks for the fight. Their lances crossed in mid-air and rebounded from the shields. And now they aimed their spears at each other’s faces and eyes, but again the shields caught the thrusts. As for the spectators, the sweat broke out over their bodies in great drops at the sight of so grim a struggle. And now Eteocles put out his right foot to push aside a stone lying in his way and incautiously allowed his left to protrude from under his shield. At once Polynices reached forward with his spear and pierced his shin, while the entire Argive host shouted with joy as if this one wound had decided the victory. But even when Eteocles felt the point enter his flesh, he did not allow his senses to blur with the pain and, keeping a sharp lookout, saw his opponent’s shoulder exposed. He launched his spear and it struck, but not deeply, so that only the point broke off, and the Thebans exclaimed only a little in halfhearted joy. Eteocles recoiled, picked up a fragment of marble, and casting it, split his brother’s lance in half. And now they were even again since each had lost one of his weapons. They took a firm grip on their swords and fought breast to breast. Shield rang on shield, and the air quivered with the clash of battle. Then Eteocles remembered a trick he had learned in Thessaly. He suddenly shifted his position, drew backward, throwing his weight on his left foot, covered the lower part of his body with great care, and then leaped forward with his right foot and pierced his brother, who was unprepared for so sudden a change in position, through the stomach, just above the hips. Polynices leaned to one side and then sank to the ground in a pool of blood. Eteocles, sure of victory, cast aside his sword and bent over his dying brother to take his arms from him, but this was his undoing. For, in his fall, Polynices had not loosed his grasp on his sword, and now, though his breath came in feeble gasps, he still had strength enough to thrust the blade into the very liver of Eteocles, bending above him. Dying, he fell beside his dying brother.
And now the gates of Thebes were flung wide, and the women and slaves poured out to lament their dead ruler. But Antigone leaned over her brother Polynices whom she loved, to catch a last word from his lips. Eteocles had died almost immediately. A single long rattling sigh, and he was no more. But Polynices still breathed. He turned his dimming eyes toward his sister and said: “How I mourn your lot, my sister, and that of my dead brother, who was once my friend and became my foe! Only now that I am dying do I know how much I loved him! As for you, I beg you to bury me in the earth of my native land. Do not let the city of Thebes deny me this. And now close my eyes with your hand, for already the shadow of death lies cold upon my forehead.”
He died in his sister’s arms, and at once both sides began to wrangle aloud in bitter disagreement. The Thebans credited Eteocles, their lord, with the victory, while the Argives claimed it for Polynices. The friends of the fallen were also at cross purposes. “Polynices was the first to strike with the lance!” cried some. “But he was also the first to fall!” countered others. So heated grew the quarrel that they took to arms. Fortunately for the Thebans, they were ranged for battle, since they had flocked forth fully armed both during and after the combat between the brothers, while the Argives had laid aside their weapons, too certain of victory to observe caution. And so when the Thebans suddenly threw themselves upon their foes, giving them no time to gird on their armor, they met with no resistance. The unarmed Argives scattered over the plain in disorderly flight, and Theban lances slew them by the hundreds.
This was the occasion on which Periclymenus of Thebes pursued Amphiaraus, the soothsayer, to the shore of the river Ismenus. Amphiaraus was fleeing in a chariot, and the horses balked at the swirling waters. With the Theban at his heels, however, he had no choice but bid his charioteer ford the stream. Before the horses even wetted their hooves, however, his enemy had reached the bank, and his spear almost touched the neck of the seer. But Zeus did not wish one whom he had lent the gift of prophecy to perish ingloriously. He cracked open the earth with a thunderbolt. It yawned like a black cave and swallowed up both chariot and soothsayer.
Soon the enemies of Thebes were swept from the surrounding countryside. From all sides swarmed the Thebans, bringing the shields of the foes they had slain and spoils from the fugitives they had overtaken. Laden with plunder, they made a triumphant entry into their city.
After the first outburst of jubilation was over, they thought about burying their dead. Since both the sons of Oedipus had fallen, Creon, their uncle, became king of Thebes, and as such it was his duty to see to the burial of his nephews. He at once arranged a solemn funeral for Eteocles, the defender of the city, and had him borne to his grave with the honors due to a king. All the citizens of Thebes walked in the funeral procession, but the body of Polynices lay unburied and abandoned. Creon had a herald proclaim throughout Thebes that the enemy of his country, who had come to destroy the city with fire, to sate himself with the blood of his people, to drive the gods from the land, and enslave all those who had not been slain, was not to be mourned; that he was to be denied a grave; that his body should be left for the birds and beasts to devour. He also commanded the citizens to have a care that his wishes were obeyed, and set special guards near the corpse, so that none might steal or bury it. The penalty for attempting either was death, death by stoning in a public place of the city.
Antigone heard these orders, which seemed so cruel to her, and remembered the promise she had given her dying brother. With a heavy heart she went to her sister Ismene and tried to persuade her to help remove the body of Polynices. But Ismene was all soft and delicate, with no drop of heroic blood in her veins. “Sister,” she answered, and her eyes swam in tears, “have you forgotten the terrible death of our father and mother? Has the memory of our brothers’ destruction already faded from your mind, that you want to drag us, who are left, to a like end?”
Coldly Antigone turned from her timid sister. “I do not want your help,” she said. “I shall bury my brother unaided, and when this is done I shall gladly die and lie beside him whom I loved in life.”
Soon after, one of the guards approached King Creon with hesitant step and troubled face. “The body you had us watch has been buried,” he cried. “We do not know who did this, and whoever it was has escaped. We cannot understand how it was possible! When the guard on day duty told us what had happened, we were stunned at the thought. Only a thin layer of dust covered the body, only just enough to be accepted as burial by the gods of the underworld. There was no sign that a shovel had been plied, no trace of wagon wheels. We began to quarrel about it, each accusing the other of the deed, and finally it came to blows. But in the end we decided it would be best, O king, to tell you what had occurred, and the lot of being messenger fell upon me!”
Creon’s anger was great. He threatened to have all the guards hanged unless they delivered the evildoer into his hands without delay. At his command, they removed the earth from the body and resumed their vigil. From early morning until noon they sat in the hot sun. Then, of a sudden, a storm blew up and filled the air with dust. The guards were still pondering the meaning of this sign, when they saw a girl approach, lamenting softly, like a bird who finds the nest empty. In one hand she carried a bronze pitcher. Quickly she stooped and filled it with dust and then cautiously drew near the body. She did not see the men, who were on a mound at some distance, since the stench of the body, unburied so long, sickened them at closer quarters. When she reached Polynices, she poured dust upon him three times, in lieu of burial. And at that the guards hurried to the spot, seized her, and dragged the doer, caught in the very act, to their king.
ANTIGONE AND CREON
Creon instantly saw that it was his niece Antigone. “Foolish girl!” he cried. “Now you stand with bowed head! Will you confess, or do you deny having done what they accuse you of?”
“I confess!” said the girl and lifted her head proudly.
“And did you know the orders?” the king continued questioning her. “And knowing them, dared transgress them so boldly?”
“I knew them,” Antigone answered calmly and firmly. “But those orders did not come from one of the immortal gods. And I know other commands that are not of today nor of yesterday, but hold for all eternity, and none can say from whence they were given. No mortal may transgress these without incurring the wrath of the gods, and it was such a command that forbade me leave the dead son of my mother unburied. If this action of mine seems foolish to you, then he is a fool who accuses me of folly.”
“And do you think your stubborn spirit cannot be broken?” asked Creon, angered still more by the girl’s defiance. “The most inflexible blade is the first to crack. Whoever is in another’s power ought not to show insolence!”
“You can do no more than kill me,” Antigone answered. “Why delay? My name will not become inglorious through death. I know, moreover, that only the fear of you is keeping my fellow citizens silent. In their hearts they all approve of what I have done, for a sister’s first and foremost duty is to cherish her brother.”
Whereupon Creon cried: “Well, then—if cherish him you must—cherish him in Hades!” And he was about to bid the servants seize her, when Ismene, who had heard of her sister’s capture, stormed into the hall. She seemed to have shaken off her weakness and timidity. Bravely she went up to her uncle, declared she had known of the burial, and demanded to die together with Antigone. But she reminded Creon that Antigone was not merely his sister’s daughter, but the betrothed of his own son Haemon as well, so that by killing her he was depriving the heir to the throne of marriage with the one he loved. Creon did not deign to answer but had his servants take both the sisters to the inner chambers of the palace.
HAEMON AND ANTIGONE
When Creon saw his son hurrying toward him, he was certain that he had heard of the judgment passed on Antigone, and had come to rebel against his father. But with filial obedience Haemon replied to his wary questions, and only after he had convinced his father of his devotion did he venture to ask mercy for his beloved. “You do not know what the people are saying, father,” he said. “You do not hear them demur, because your imperious eyes keep them from saying to your face anything that is unwelcome to your ears. But I know what is going on! And I can tell you that the whole city is bewailing the fate of Antigone, that every citizen considers her action worthy of eternal glory, that no one believes that a sister who refuses to let dogs gnaw her brother’s bones or birds hack at his flesh is deserving of death. And so, dear father, yield to the voice of the people! Do as the trees along the swollen forest stream; they bend to the force of waters and stand unharmed, but those which resist are uprooted by the current.”
“Does this boy propose to teach me?” Creon said contemptuously. “It seems you are fighting on the side of a woman.”
“Yes, if you are a woman!” the boy countered swiftly and eagerly. “For I said all I did only to help you.”
“I can well see,” his father replied indignantly, “that blind love for an evildoer holds your spirit in bondage. But you shall not woo her alive. For this is my resolve: far away, where no man passes, she shall be imprisoned in a rock grave, and only so much food will be given her as is necessary to save the city from the taint outright murder might bring it. There she may plead for freedom with the gods of the underworld. She will learn too late that it is wiser to obey the living than the dead.” And Creon turned from his son and ordered everything prepared to carry out his verdict. Publicly, before all the people of Thebes, Antigone was conducted to the tomb destined for her. Unafraid, and calling upon the immortals and her loved ones with whom she hoped to be reunited, she entered the cave which was to be her grave.
In the meantime the body of Polynices, falling into decay, still lay unburied, and the dogs and birds fed on him and fouled the city by carrying to this place and that the shreds of his rotting flesh. Then Tiresias, the aged soothsayer, who had once sought out King Oedipus, appeared before Creon and from the smoke of sacrifice and the voices of birds prophesied disaster. He had heard the croak of evil hungry throats, and the victim on the altar had charred in acrid smoke. “It is clear that the gods are angry with us,” he ended. “Angry because of the treatment given the slain son of Oedipus. And so, O king, do not hold to your command. Yield to the dead and desist from murder. What glory is there in slaying the slain? Leave off, I say! I counsel you for your own good!”
But just as Oedipus once had done, so Creon now rejected the advice of the seer, accusing him of lies and greed for money. At that the old man smouldered with rage and mercilessly snatched the veil from the future before the very eyes of the king. “Know then,” he solemnly said, “that the sun will not set until you, from your own blood, give one body for two that are dead. You are committing a twofold crime, by withholding from the underworld its due, and by keeping from the upper world the living who should dwell in the light of day. Quick, boy, lead me away from here. Let us give this man up to the fate in store for him.” Leaning on his staff, he left at the hand of his guide.
The king followed the sullen seer with his gaze, and he trembled. He called together the city elders and took counsel with them as to what was to be done. “Release Antigone from her rock grave and bury the body of Polynices,” they decided unanimously. It was not easy for Creon to bend his stubborn spirit to consent, but the heart had gone out of him. He agreed to do as Tiresias had said, since this seemed the only way to avert destruction from his house. First he himself, in the van of his retinue, went to the field where Polynices lay, and then to the tomb in which Antigone was kept imprisoned. His wife Eurydice remained behind in the palace alone.
Soon she heard the sound of lament rising from the streets, and as the clamor grew louder and louder, she left her chamber and went into the forecourt. There she found a messenger, the very man who had guided her husband to the spot where the mangled body of his nephew lay exposed. “We prayed to the gods of the underworld,” he said. “When the dead body had been washed in the sacred bath, we burned those pitiful remains and heaped a burial mound out of clods of his native earth. Then we went to the stone vault the girl had entered to suffer the death of starvation. A servant who had gone before heard from afar cries of agony and grief coming from that terrible place. He hurried back to tell his king of the voice which issued from the tomb, but Creon already knew, though hearing it but dimly, that it was that of his son. He bade us run and peer through a crack in the stone. And what did we see? In the back of the cave hung Antigone, strangled in a noose she had knotted of her veil, and at her feet, clasping her knees, lay your son Haemon, mourning his beloved and cursing the father who had robbed him of his bride. And now Creon reached the rock grave and entered through the opening. ‘Unhappy boy,’ he called to Haemon, ‘what is your purpose? What does the madness of your gaze forebode? Come to me! On my knees I beseech you!’ But the son only stared at him numb with despair. He gave no answer at all but snatched his two-edged sword from the scabbard. His father escaped the thrust by darting from the cave. And then Haemon leaned on the point and let it drive through his side. As he fell he threw his arm around Antigone, drawing her close, and now, in their last embrace, they both lie dead in the tomb!”
Eurydice listened in silence. He had ended, but still she was speechless. Then she hastened from the room. When the king returned to the palace, accompanied by his servants carrying his only son on a bier, he was told that Eurydice had stabbed herself with a sword and was lying within, in a pool of her own blood.
THE BURIAL OF THE HEROES OF THEBES
Of the family of Oedipus only two sons of the fallen brothers remained, and Ismene, Antigone’s sister. Legend is silent concerning her. She died childless, unwed, and her death closed the tale of that unblest family. Of the seven heroes who had gone forth against Thebes, only Adrastus escaped the assault and slaughter of that last encounter. His immortal horse Arion, begotten by Demeter and Poseidon, bore him away in winged flight. He reached Athens safely and there took refuge in the sanctuary of a temple, holding to the altar as a suppliant. Stretching out a twig of olive, he begged the Athenians to help him obtain honorable burial for the men who had fallen before the walls of Thebes. The people of Athens granted his plea and accompanied him back to this city under the leadership of Theseus. And so the Thebans were forced to consent to the burial. For the bodies of the fallen heroes, Adrastus heaped seven pyres and held funeral games near the river Asopus in honor of Apollo. When the pyre of Capaneus burst into flame, Evadne, his wife, daughter of Iphis, threw herself into the fire. The body of Amphiaraus, whom the earth had swallowed up, could not be found, and the king sorrowed because he could not do honor to his friend. “I miss the eye of my army,” he said. “I miss him who was both the greatest seer and the most valiant fighter in battle.”
When the burial rites had been performed, Adrastus had a beautiful temple erected before the walls of Thebes and dedicated it to Nemesis, or Retribution. Then, with his allies from Athens, he left the country.