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Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 5 Chapter 2 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 5, Chapter 2 : The Royal House of Thebes | Summary



Cadmus and His Children

Cadmus is Europa's brother, who is sent to look for her after Zeus assumes the form of a bull and kidnaps her. Cadmus consults Apollo at Delphi, and the god advises him to give up the search and go found a city on the spot where he sees a heifer resting. Cadmus does this and slays a dragon. He sows the dragon's teeth, and an army springs forth. All but five of the armed men kill each other, and these five help Cadmus build his city: Thebes. Cadmus marries Aphrodite's and Ares's daughter Harmonia, and they have four daughters and one son.

The daughters include Semele, Dionysus's mother, and Ino, whose threat to Phrixus leads to the Quest of the Golden Fleece. Ino becomes a sea-goddess after her husband, Melicertes, kills their son in a fit of madness. Dionysus drives the third daughter, Agave, to a similar madness, and she kills her son believing he is a lion. Autonoe, the fourth daughter, loses her son Actaeon after he accidentally sees Artemis bathing in the forest. Artemis changes him into a stag, and he is killed by his own dogs. These misfortunes lead Cadmus and Harmonia to leave Thebes for the distant land of Illyria, but the gods change them into serpents shortly after they reach their new home.


King Laius is Cadmus's grandson. He and his wife, Jocasta, have a son, but Apollo's oracle tells Laius he is destined to die at his son's hands. Laius has the child's feet bound and sends him to a mountainside to die. Years later, Laius dies at the hands of a stranger while traveling outside Thebes. Word reaches the city that the king has been killed by robbers, but Thebes has a larger problem. A monster called the Sphinx—half lion, half woman—is devouring travelers around the city when they are unable to answer her riddle. Thebes closes its gates, and a famine is imminent.

A traveler named Oedipus arrives from Corinth, where he was raised by King Polybus. Oedipus learns from Apollo's oracle that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother, so Oedipus leaves Corinth and decides to seek out the Sphinx. He answers her riddle correctly, and the Sphinx kills herself. Thebes celebrates Oedipus for ridding them of the Sphinx; he marries Jocasta, becomes king, and they have two sons.

Years later, Thebes is beset by plague and famine. Jocasta's brother Creon consults the oracle and finds that the plague will end when Laius's killer is punished. Oedipus consults the blind prophet Teiresias who does not want to answer Oedipus because Teiresias says, "You are yourself the murderer you seek." Oedipus and Jocasta recount the events surrounding Laius's death and Oedipus's arrival in Thebes. A messenger and a servant confirm their worst fears. Instead of leaving him to die, Laius's servant took Oedipus to Corinth as an infant, and Oedipus killed Laius on the road when Laius struck him and tried to force him from the path. Jocasta kills herself, and Oedipus puts out his own eyes, unable to face the world.


Oedipus relinquishes the throne but remains in Thebes as his children grow into adulthood. Creon becomes king and, after years of kindness to Oedipus, exiles him from the city. Oedipus's older daughter, Antigone, goes with him as a guide, and his younger daughter, Ismene, stays in Thebes to manage her father's interests there. With Oedipus gone, his sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, fight for the throne. The younger Eteocles succeeds, and Polyneices flees to Argos to assemble an army against Thebes.

Oedipus and Antigone settle near Athens, where King Theseus welcomes him. Oedipus dies peacefully there, comforted by Theseus, Apollo's oracle, Antigone, and Ismene. After their father dies, Antigone and Ismene return to Thebes and find their brothers preparing for war with each other. Polyneices has assembled six allies to help him conquer the seven gates of the city. Teiresias tells Creon the city can be saved if Creon sacrifices his son Menoeceus, but Creon refuses. Menoeceus wants to prove his bravery, so he sneaks out to the battle and is killed immediately.

Neither side has an advantage in the fighting, so the armies decide to let the two brothers fight one-on-one to decide a winner. They kill each other, deciding nothing, so the battle resumes. Thebes wins the fight in the end, but Creon refuses to allow burials for those who fought against the city, leaving Polyneices and his allies as food "for beasts and birds." Antigone and Ismene are horrified by this ruling, and Antigone goes to bury her brother anyway. Creon puts Antigone to death for her disobedience. Antigone stops Ismene from joining her by telling Creon that Ismene had nothing to do with the burial. Antigone is remembered for honoring a higher justice, and Ismene disappears from history.

The Seven Against Thebes

Although Antigone buries Polyneices, five of the chieftains allied with him are not given proper burial. The sixth ally, Adrastus, goes to Theseus in Athens and asks him to convince Creon to allow the burials. Theseus refuses at first, but his mother, Aethra, convinces him that refusing to bury the dead violates Greece's highest laws. Theseus puts the matter to a vote in Athens. The assembly decides to send Creon a message asking him to allow the burials.

Creon ignores the Athenians' message, so the Athenians march against Thebes. The Thebans panic at being conquered, but Theseus assures them that he only wants to respect the dead. Theseus prepares the bodies, and they are cremated on a pyre. Once this is done, the Athenians leave Thebes. The mothers of the dead find peace with the burials, but 10 years later, the sons of the men who died at Thebes return and level the city.


Cadmus and His Children

The story of how Cadmus founds Thebes will be familiar to any reader who knows the story of the Quest of the Golden Fleece (Part 2, Chapter 3) in which Jason—Cadmus's grandson—must sow a field with dragon teeth and defeat the army that springs forth from the ground. In the story of the quest, King Æetes of Argos presents this challenge to Jason, claiming he completed the same task himself. It is certainly possible that Æetes did sow dragon teeth and defeat an army, but Cadmus's connection to Jason implies Æetes (or the writer) borrowed this part his history from Jason's own grandfather.

In Part 5, Chapter 1, the house of Atreus suffers greatly for the gruesome actions of their patriarch, Tantalus. Cadmus is a sharp contrast with Tantalus; none of his actions are offensive to the gods. Cadmus even marries the daughter of two gods, Aphrodite and Ares, which logic dictates might provide some blessing to his family. Thebes is a prosperous city, but Cadmus and Harmonia's daughters suffer terribly. Semele's only crime is being seduced by Zeus and incurring Hera's wrath. For unclear reasons, Semele's son Dionysus drives Agave to a madness that kills her son. Autonoe loses her son to Artemis's rage as the result of the young man's innocent mistake. Only Ino, who plots against the child Phrixus in the Quest of the Golden Fleece, has done anything deserving punishment, and the gods allow her and her dead son to become sea-gods after she throws herself into the sea after his murder. The gods turn Cadmus and Harmonia into serpents in their old age for no reason. These instances provide more examples of how the gods distribute rewards and suffering in a seemingly haphazard manner.


If the story of Cadmus does not provide sufficient proof the Royal House of Thebes bears a curse of its own—despite little wrongdoing on the part of Cadmus and his descendants—the story of Oedipus offers more evidence. Oedipus is an innocent child when he is cast out of the city to die. When he grows up, he does the right thing by traveling to Thebes in an effort to avoid killing his father and to do some good by confronting the Sphinx. When he assumes the Theban throne, his reign is a happy one. Even so, he is condemned to terrible suffering.

Oedipus's story is a master class in the futility of man's attempt to change his fate. King Laius sends the infant Oedipus away to die because he has learned his son is destined to kill him. Oedipus ends up on the road to Thebes because the oracle has told him he is fated to kill the man he believes is his father. When the prophecy comes to pass, Laius and Oedipus are strangers to one another, but the prophecy has been essentially self-fulfilling. If either man had decided to ignore the oracle, it is possible they might have avoided the ruinous events to follow. Had Laius ignored the oracle, he might have died at his son's hand anyway, but it is certain Oedipus would not have married Jocasta had he been raised in Thebes. Oedipus is so disgusted by the prospect of marrying the woman who raised him in Corinth that he leaves the city and seeks out danger, so the chance of his marrying his mother if he knew her is vanishingly slim. The story demonstrates not only that it is impossible for a man to avoid his fate, but that it is not helpful for a man to know too much about his own future. In this sense, the story does not only caution against reliance on oracles, it also shows how such reliance is dangerous.


Other myths emphasize the importance of proper burial in Greek culture. During the Trojan War, Achilles dishonors himself and brings about his own eventual defeat with his desecration of Hector's corpse in Part 4, Chapter 1. Ensuring a proper burial for his son is so important to Priam that he braves the entire Greek army to confront Achilles, and Priam has no way of knowing Achilles will not kill him and drag his body behind his chariot, as he did with Hector. When Aeneas visits the underworld in Part 4, Chapter 4, the reader sees what happens to bodies who do not receive a proper burial. Without consecration and money to pay the ferryman, they wander outside the underworld and suffer for eternity. Antigone knows very well what is at stake for her brother if he does not receive a proper burial, so she is willing to brave death to serve the greater good.

As her sister Ismene points out, Antigone's actions defy expectations for women in Thebes. Ismene says, "We are women ... We must obey. We have no strength to defy the state." Obedience is the expectation for women, but her statement implies that if they were men, if they had physical power, they might have some kind of recourse against Creon's edict. Antigone has little in her backstory to indicate she cares much about cultural expectations. She does not seem to give much thought to the social stigma associated with her father's shame. When Creon exiles the disgraced Oedipus, she travels with the weak old man to Athens, braving the outside world because she believes it is right to help her father. Ismene, although loyal to her father's interests, remains safe in Thebes. Ismene is not cowardly. When she learns that her sister is to be executed, Ismene attempts to stand with Antigone, but Ismene's instincts lead her to conform to social expectations, unlike her sister.

The Seven Against Thebes

The story of "The Seven Against Thebes" provides more evidence of Theseus's wisdom and heroism, first introduced in Part 3, Chapter 2. By this time in Theseus's reign, his reputation as a reasonable and fair ruler is well established, which is why Adrastus goes to him for help. Even though Theseus recognizes that Creon is wrong, he is understandably reluctant to involve his people in a conflict that does not directly concern them. His mother, Aethra, reveals where Theseus gets his superior sense of reason by reminding her son of the higher law he must serve by facilitating these burials—the same higher law Antigone dies serving in the previous section of Part 5, Chapter 2. Theseus wisely consults his people before making a final decision, knowing the Athenians will bear the consequence of his decision. The Athenians prove themselves worthy of self-governance with their own willingness to honor the higher principle of honoring the dead. That these men died in a rebellion against a sitting ruler is immaterial to Theseus and the people of Athens; they still deserve proper burials.

Once Theseus has conquered Thebes, he could easily take control of the city, but again he proves himself an ideal ruler. He is no tyrant, and he has no interest in expanding his power through an opportunistic move. He does only what he has vowed to do, seeing to the proper rites for the dead soldiers and then moving his troops back to Athens. Yet, the fate of Thebes shows that Creon's actions still carry weight and must be punished. The sons of the dead soldiers do not forget how Creon wronged their fathers and seek justice by destroying the city when they become men.

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