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The War for the Throne of Thebes - A Second Look

The following story of Oedipus’ sons famous fight over the throne of Thebes as told by Euripides comes from a tradition that differs some what from that provided by Aeschylus. In this one, Oedipus is still alive, as is Iocasta, but Oedipus only shows up at the end of the play. Here we also get another good look at Antigone, who will play the leading role in the next tragedy that bares her name for a title.

Human sacrifice is also a theme in this work. We learn from Teiresias that Creon’s son, Menoeceus, must be sacrificed if Thebes is to survive. This comes as the result of an old quarrel Ares, god of war, has with Cadmos when he slew the dragon. Ares has never been compensated, and if Thebes is to be spared, the last remaining virginal descendent of Cadmos must be sacrificed. In this as in other Greek tragedies, we see that the innocent, maybe innocence itself, must be sacrificed before the successful waging of war. In the introduction to the book Euripides, Orestes and Other Plays, the translator Vellacotta tells us that Teiresias’ declaration that Haemon is not a virgin because he’s betrothed to Antigone is nonsense. 

To sharpen the irony, Teiresias in his explanation talks seriously about Ares and his dragon, in an atmosphere which makes fairy-tales ridiculous; and add some formal nonsense about the virginity of Menoeceus which is a palpable manoeuvre to accommodate the accepted legend about Haemon and Antigone. (Introduction by Vellacotta, page 64.)

This, Vellacott's statement, is itself pure nonsense, and the reader would do well to ignore this discussion of Teresias' argument. Otherwise Vellacott's discussion of the play is excellent. Euripides is right on target with the ancient Greeks’ perception of virginity. Virginity to an ancient Greek had nothing to do with first sex and everything to do with a divine commitment. In a virgin, life flowed through them as if they were a sieve where nothing was retained, but a non-virgin was closed off so that s/he retained that which was beneficial for life. This was essentially what happened to the soul during initiation to The Mysteries at Eleusis, the soul being then nourished, as a child in its mother’s womb. Thus Menoeceus was a virgin, and Teiresias' words should stand true as literally interpreted. This fact wasn’t realized at the time this introduction was written (1972). The subject of virginity has been subsequently investigated fully and the results published in a book titled Greek Virginity by Giulia Sissa in 1990. The full implications of Menoeceus' virginity and sacrifice along with the shadow that casts over the events can only be fully realized in the context of Giulia Sissa's revelations on virginity.

As with Oedipus, home is also the issue with Polyneices. He is an exile, and the nature of being an exile is part of the central theme in this tragedy. We’ve seen this first with Demeter when she went into voluntary exile at Eleusis when Hades kidnapped her daughter. Next we learned of Dionysus, his birth and being raised in exile by Ino, Semele’s sister. Then came Laius, who was raised by Pelops until he was old enough to be king and then returned to Thebes. Next came Oedipus, who was exposed on Kithaeron only to be saved and raised at Corinth. Lastly came Polyneices, who argued with his brother over the throne of Thebes and went into exile at Argos. All these returned to take over the throne except of course Dionysus, who wanted only to be worshiped as a god. But even his return resulted in the overthrow and death of the king.

The subject of being an exile is approached directly by Iocaste, who asks Polyneices what it’s like to be an exile. He responds:

Iocaste: This above all I long to know: What is an exile’s life? Is it great misery?
Polyneices: The greatest; worse in reality than in report.

Iocasta: Worse in what way? What chiefly galls an exile’s heart?
Polyneices: The worst is this: right of free speech does not exist.
Iocasta: That’s a slave’s life—to be forbidden to speak one’s mind.
Polyneices: One has to endure the idiocy of those who rule.
Iocasta: To join fools in their foolishness—that makes one sick.
Polyneices: One finds it pays to deny nature and be a slave.
Iocasta: What keeps exiles alive is hope—or so they say.
Polyneices: hope wears a kind face, always full of promises.
Iocasta: Yet surely time teaches the emptiness of hope?
Polyneices: Hope beguiles misery with a strange seductive charm.

So this is the nature of Polyneices’ suffering at the hands of his brother, Eteocles. And at the end of the play, we again hear of exile. This time it is Oedipus exiled by Creon. And we know how it ends at Colonus. But Polyneices’ exile does not only end in death. He is refused burial, and this will result in another confrontation, this time between Oedipus’ heroic daughter Antigone and the king.

One of the most interesting parts of this tragedy is the ending. Antigone and her father have a run-in with Creon. He expels Oedipus and forbids Antigone to bury Polyneices. Antigone then decides to go into exile with her father. Then follows a short argument between Oedipus and Antigone about forgetting the past and the hard fate for her to follow. Oedipus tells her to call upon Dionysus. And this is the really interesting part of it, because Dionysus and Oedipus have been so closely linked. Antigone is mystified that he would make such a suggestion. Her last remarks,

Appeal to Dionysus?
To the god for whose honour, in days past,
I dressed the holy mountain-dance of Semele—
An act of worship that won me no reward?

Thus on this question the play ends, and seemingly with the full weight of the tragedy of their lives placed at the feet of Dionysus, the twice-born god whose life Oedipus has paralleled. Remember that Euripides was frequently accused of impiety, and here is one of the strongest examples. Think back to The Bacchantes. There the people of Thebes were forced by Dionysus to see a dual world, two Thebes. Here at the end of The Phoenician Women Antigone is saying essentially that she has seen that dual world, but seeing it didn’t help because Fate, as spun by the three divine weavers, cannot be changed. Thus the impiety of Euripides by presenting worshiping the gods as meaningless.  

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