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Mythological Background to Sophocles' Antigone
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan


Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.


Laius was son of Labdacus, king of Thebes. Labdacus died while Laius was still an infant and control of Thebes was assumed by the evil regent Lycus. Lycus was overthrown by the twins Amphion and Zethus, who assumed the throne. In the meantime, the baby Laius was whisked away to the court of Pelops, king of Pisa (near Olympia in the northwest Peloponnese). On the deaths of Amphion and Zethus, Laius (now an adult) was free to return to Thebes as the legitimate ruler. In the meantime, however, he had fallen in love with Chrysippus, the handsome young illegitimate son of Pelops. Laius kidnapped Chrysippus, took him back to Thebes, and raped him. Chrysippus either committed suicide, was killed, or was rescued by Pelops (the traditions vary).

Later, Laius married Jocasta (or Epicasta), daughter of Menoeceus. When the couple were unable to have children, Laius consulted the oracle at Delphi, only to be informed that Jocasta would bear him a son who would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Laius determined that he would no longer have relations with Jocasta, but got drunk one night and forgot his resolve. When Oedipus was born, Laius had the baby's ankles pierced and gave him to a shepherd to expose on Mt. Cithaeron.

The exposure of children was a common in cases where the child was illegitimate, deformed in some way, or the wrong sex [i.e. female]: see WA 4.22. Scholars disagree on whether the child was left out to die, as is the norm in myth, or to be picked up by someone else, as was common in the Middle Ages [a curious ritual of adoption]. If the latter, the child would have been reared as a slave.

The shepherd instead gave the child to a shepherd from neighboring Corinth, where the baby was raised as the son of Polybus and Merope, king and queen of Corinth. (Compare Herodotus' story of the birth of Cyrus.) One day Oedipus got into a quarrel with a drunk, who accused him of being a bastard and no true prince of the realm. Oedipus questioned his parents about this and was told not to listen to such slander, but decided to go to Delphi to discover the truth. The oracle did not answer Oedipus' question re his parentage, but instead told him that he was destined to murder his father and marry his mother. Horrified, Oedipus determined never to return to Corinth. On leaving Delphi, he encountered Laius at the place where the three roads meet (the roads leading from Corinth, Thebes, and Delphi). Laius was going to Delphi because he had received signs that the old prophecy re his son was about to come true. A quarrel broke out when one of Laius' retinue attempted to drive Oedipus from the road and Oedipus killed all of them, including Laius, except for one man (as chance would have it, the very shepherd who had been given the job of exposing the baby Oedipus). In the meantime, Thebes was beset by the evil Sphinx, a winged female monster, usually pictured as a winged dog with a woman's head. (Such figures were imported from the east and are common on tombs. They seem to represent the spirits or guardians of the dead.) The Sphinx would land on the walls of Thebes and pose a riddle to one of its young men; when the youth could not answer the riddle, the Sphinx would eat him.

One version of the riddle: "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?" The answer: humankind, which crawls at birth, walks on two legs upon reaching maturity, and is reduced to the use of a cane or staff in old age. (The Greeks, it seems, did not have walkers.)

Creon, Jocasta's brother and regent of Thebes in Laius' absence, was desperate: he offered the throne of Thebes and the hand of Jocasta to anyone who could solve the riddle and rid Thebes of the Sphinx. Oedipus came to Thebes, solved the riddle (whereupon the Sphinx threw herself to her death from the city's parapet), and married Jocasta, thereby unwittingly fulfilling the oracle.

Oedipus and Jocasta had four children, two daughters (Antigone and Ismene) and two sons (Eteocles and Polynices). When the truth comes out, Oedipus blinds himself. In Sophocles' version Jocasta commits suicide; in others, she continues to live in Thebes. Oedipus' two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, grow up and fall into a dispute over the throne. They finally agree to a curious form of joint rule: Eteocles is to rule for one year, then yield the power to Polynices for the next year, and so on. Predictably, Eteocles refuses to live up to the bargain, whereupon Polynices retires to Argos, where he marries the daughter of King Adrastus. With Adrastus' aid he gathers together six other heroes and these seven join together in an attack on Thebes (the famous Seven against Thebes). All of Polynices' six allies are killed in battle; he agrees to a private duel with Eteocles, where the two brothers kill one another. Jocasta's brother Creon then assumes the throne of Thebes. It is at this point that Antigone opens.


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Last Modified: Tuesday, 28-Sep-2010 18:13:54 CST
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