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Classical Mythology

A Tainted Legacy: The Curse of Oedipus

The verdict having been reached, all that remained was the sentencing. Jocasta, learning that she had married and bedded her own son, hanged herself.

Mythed by a Mile

In The Phoenician Women, Euripides placed Jocasta's suicide much later than the discovery that her husband was her son. Euripides contended that Oedipus's sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, imprisoned him when they grew to adulthood. They had hoped that their fortunes would remain intact if the crime and scandal were forgotten. But during the war of the Seven Against Thebes, the two brothers battled each other to the death. Upon discovering her son's bodies, the distraught Jocasta picked up one of their swords and killed herself. Creon then banished Oedipus to lift the curse from the city.

Appalled by his own actions and disgusted by his figurative blindness, Oedipus used the pin of one of Jocasta's brooches to jab out his eyes, literally blinding himself. Creon then carried out the sentence that Oedipus himself had imposed: banishment of Laius's killer. When his two sons (and brothers) refused to oppose his exile, the departing Oedipus cursed them.

The Curse Becomes a Blessing

An outcast and a beggar, Oedipus wandered for years accompanied only by his loyal daughter (and sister) Antigone. Because his awful fate horrified everyone he met, he was expelled from every city he visited. Finally, the wandering pair arrived at Colonus, a country region in Athenian territory, the threshold of both Athens and the Underworld.

Oedipus determined to end his wanderings here. Oedipus knew that the site of his burial would be a defense to the land in which it lay. For when a great man—a hero—died, his power always went back into the soil in which he was buried.

Each of his sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, wanted to bring Oedipus back to Thebes to serve his own purposes in the struggle to succeed their father. Oedipus refused his self-serving sons and chose to remain—and die—in Athens.

King Theseus of Athens granted Oedipus the refuge that every other city had denied him. So though he had spent his life as a curse to the city of Thebes, Oedipus ended his life as a blessing to the city of Athens.

The Sins of the Father—Part II

After their father's banishment, Polyneices and Eteocles were named co-rulers of Thebes. The brothers agreed to alternate their years of reign. At the end of the first year, however, Eteocles refused to give up the throne. Instead, he accused Polyneices of having an evil bent, and banished him from the city. The battle of brother against brother fulfilled the curse of Oedipus. Polyneices took refuge in Argos, where he married the daughter of King Adrastus. Supported by six mighty warriors from Argos, Polyneices led an army back to Thebes to reclaim his throne. This bloody war became known as the Seven Against Thebes.

Read All About It

The war of the Seven Against Thebes is dramatized in great detail in both The Phoenician Women by Euripides and Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus. Sophocles relates the aftermath of this war in Antigone.

After most of the Argive champions had died on the battlefield, Polyneices offered to decide the contest for the throne in a hand-to-hand battle with his brother. In the struggle, each mortally wounded the other.

Following the deaths of Eteocles and Polyneices, their uncle Creon ruled once again. Creon denied the rites of burial to Polyneices and the city's attackers. According to Sophocles, the ever-loyal Antigone disobeyed the new king's orders and either ceremoniously sprinkled dirt over the corpse of Polyneices or built a funeral pyre for him. Creon then ordered his son Haemon (who was apparently not devoured by the Sphinx in this version) to bury Antigone alive in the tomb of her brother Eteocles.

Instead Haemon secretly married Antigone and sent her to live among his shepherds. Years later, Creon recognized a young boy as Haemon's son. (All the descendents of Cadmus had the mark of a serpent on their bodies.) Infuriated by Haemon's disobedience, Creon sentenced his newly discovered grandson to death. Upon hearing this news, Antigone hanged herself. Haemon then discovered his beloved's corpse and killed himself with his sword. This ended the tragic saga of the House of Cadmus.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.


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