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The War for the Throne of Thebes

Seven Against Thebes is chronologically the sequel to Oedipus at Colonus, in that Polyneices, the exiled son of Oedipus, has raised seven armies and plans to take the throne of Thebes from his younger brother Eteocles. Seven Against Thebes is the story of that battle.

This is the first and only play we’ll read written by Aeschylus. Aeschylus was born in 525 BC and was the oldest of the three great tragic playwrights. Aeschylus was a large, grumpy man with big eyebrows who had fought and been honored in many battles. His brother died in the battle of Marathon against the Persians. Aeschylus was born and raised at Eleusis, his family among the nobility although he seems not to have been initiated into Demeter’s Mysteries. During the presentation of one of his tragedies he was accused of revealing the secret of the Mysteries and was chased from the stage. Aeschylus hid in the temple of Dionysus to escaped being killed. He was tried with the penalty of death hanging over his head but was acquitted on the grounds that he’d never been initiated and therefore could not have know the secret. He died in self-imposed exile in Sicily where the bizarre story was told of him being killed by an eagle that dropped a tortoise on his head.

The more ancient nature of Seven Against Thebes is evident in its presentational, less dramatic form. It is not as plot driven as are the plays by Sophocles and Euripides. The tragedy is set within the walls of Thebes and opens with a call to arms by King Eteocles, followed by the description of an oath taken by the seven generals from Argos whose armies are attacking Thebes. Walter Burkert describes the part oaths played in antiquity in his book Greek Religion. (See pages 250-4.) Not only did the ancients recognize the sacredness of the oath but also the sacredness of the skill in taking it. This “skill at the oath” is presented in Norman O. Brown’s book titled Hermes the Thief:

“Skill at the oath” means guile or cunning in the use of the oath and derives from the primitive idea that an oath was binding only in its literal sense; a cunning person might legitimately manipulate it to deceive, as occurs often enough in Greek mythology. In the Homeric Hymn, when Hermes uses just such an oath to deny that he has stolen Apollo’s cattle, he is said to show “good skill.”

But the generals from Argos, who take the oath before the gates of the walled city, will not try to get out of it. They will fight to the last. Each of the seven sends his army against one of the gates, as selected by lot.

The Archaeology of Thebes

The tragic poets didn’t always give the same names to the seven gates. See Symeonoglou’s The Topography of Thebes. There you’ll find a table listing the different names and sources (page 35). The gates were the beginnings of roads to nearby cities (See the attached map This is a remarkable book for anyone interested in modern Thebes). Still today the roads generally follow the ancient pathways. Many of the temples mentioned in the ancient text have been discovered as well as the palace, the House of Cadmos. Notice in particular the Observatory of Teiresias, which is mentioned several times by the tragedians and is discussed by Symeonoglou on page 131. What I particularly like about his book is that you have an archaeologist talking about the relationship between the myths and the ruins of the ancient sites.

Assignment: Read (1) Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, (2) the excerpt from Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion on the Oath, (3) Hillman’s Oedipus Variations, and (4) as much of Symeonoglou’s The Topography of Thebes as you wish. I realize this is a lot of reading and the only real required reading is Seven Against Thebes.

Discussion of Seven Against Thebes.

Aeschylus knew about war. He was honored for his bravery at the battle of Marathon (490 BC) against the Persian invasion and his brother died there. He also fought in the Battle of Salamis (480 BC, described in Aeschylus’ The Persians) ten years later and perhaps the Battle of Plataea the following year. Aeschylus' treatment of women here is characteristic of that in several of Aeschylus’ tragedies. In his Seven Against Thebes, the Chorus of Theban women plays a central role. Eteocles is constantly berating them for their hysterical outbursts. Take special note of them, and we’ll see how his treatment of women differs with that of Euripides in The Phoenician Women which we’ll read next.

Polyneices is really an interesting character here. If we look at Dionysus and Oedipus, they both were born at Thebes, raised elsewhere and returned to establish themselves. In both cases, this resulted in the death of the king. Now Polyneices, who has also been in exile, returns to attempt to depose the ruling king. In this way, Polyneices is both Dionysus and Oedipus.

Another central metaphor, one present in Seven Against Thebes, The Phoenician Women and Antigone, is the double image. Just as both Dionysus and Oedipus were twice-born and thus had dual natures, Polyneices and Eteocles are presented symbolically as two sides of the same Oedipus personality. Many scholars have noted their central unity, and when the two kill each other it is by a two-fold blow, a single blow that kills both simultaneously. This would lead one to believe they are symbolically one person, the two versions of Oedipus, the alien one and the domestic, engaged in mortal combat. When one dies, so must the other.

A further manifestation of this dual theme is that of Kadmos and Harmonia: he a foreign element from the Orient, she a local goddess, a daughter of Ares (to whom Thebes belongs) and Aphrodite.

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