Day 172-XCVIII, Θήβα.
Thebes, April 27
The episode of the sphinx and the riddle comes from the story of Oedipus. The answer is man. As a baby he crawls, as an adult he walks upright and as an old man he uses a cane.
Oedipus gave the right answer and slew the sphinx. Thebes was liberated from a big nuisance to her traffic, and Oedipus was hailed as a hero. He married the princess, he inherited the throne, and they lived happily ever…
Or did they?
Thebes has a very prominent place in Greek tragedy. As a matter of fact, the ancient city was cursed from the moment that its founder Cadmus killed a dragon that was sacred to the war god Mars. He, and all his offspring, would suffer for it.
The three great ancient playwrites have dedicated various of their plays to the tragic history of Thebes.
Only a couple of dozen of their works have survived, but still Aeschylos, Sophocles and Euripides (in that order) are at the basis of theatre, and by extension cinema. Building on the ancient poet who sings the exploits of great heroes, they added more characters, a choir, and in doing so they invented a whole new way of storytelling.
Today their works stand out for their narrative force and inventiveness just like they did when they were written. They are truly ‘classic’, in the sense that they are perpetually contemporary.
Of the three, Euripides is probably the most appealing author, because of the profound humanity of his characters, and his timeless insight into their motives, strengths and weaknesses. They say that Sophocles himself admitted to this. “I paint my characters the way they should be. Euripides paints them the way they are.”
The Oedipus Rex by Sophocles tells the true story behind king Oedipus’ apparent fairytale exploits. Not in a lineary fashion, as they happened, but in restrospect.
The public knows the entire story from the start. All events are in the past. There is no way to avoid them.
The real tragedy of Oedipus Rex is not the horrible facts as they were foretold and consumed, but the way the main protagonist slowly finds out about them.
Oedipus is king. Thebes is subject to a horrible plague. Before they will lift it, the gods demand that a certain mysterious murder which happened years before is solved. It’s the start of a reconstruction of the facts.
Step by step, Oedipus begins to realise that all the years of apparent happiness were only an illusion. As a spectator or as a reader you suffer along with him while he becomes ever more desperate to cling on to any hope that the truth isn’t true. Finally, when the last shred of doubt has evaporated, he goes mad, he blinds himself and wanders off ravingly into the world.
Oedipus was born the son of the king and queen of Thebes, and the oracle had predicted that this unlucky prince would kill his father and marry his mother.
Fate is the central theme of Greek tragedy. No-one can escape fate. Not even the gods. Tragic heroes are those who try to do so nevertheless. In the end they realise that their effort to avoid fate was exactly what made fate accomplish itself.
When Oedipus’ parents learned about the curse, they abandoned their child to the wolves. They didn’t have the courage to wait and watch. So they didn’t know that the child was saved by a shepherd and brought to Corinth, where he grew up as a prince.
One day, Oedipus finds out about his fate. He decides never to go back to Corinth, because he is convinced that his step parents are his real parents.
Instead he goes to Thebes. On the road he kills a man that had failed to give him the right of way. Then he slays the sphinx and marries the princess.
During the reconstruction he finds out that he was a native of Thebes all along, that the man he killed was his father the king, and that the princess was his mother.
For Thebes it was only the first of many other tragedies to follow. Aeschylos, in his Seven Against Thebes, had already narrated the sequel. The two sons – and half brothers – of Oedipus inherited the throne and decided to reign alternately, a year each. At the end of the first year, Eteocles refuses to step down in favour of his brother Polynices. To claim his right, Polynices scrambles an army to attack Thebes. Each of the city gates is assigned to a great hero, and on the seventh gate the brothers confront each other in person.
They both die in combat. The throne befalls to their uncle Creon, who decides that only Eteocles has the right to a decent burial. The body of Polynices is to be left to the dogs. Those who try to bury him are to be put to death as well.
Only one person challenges cruel Creon’s supreme disrespect for the dead. Antigone, sister of the two fallen brothers.
In the homonymous play by Sophocles, the stubborn pride of Creon and the brave disobedience of Antigone finally lead to the complete and utter destruction of the royal house of Thebes.
All the while, blind Oedipus wanders the world. Everywhere he goes, people chase him away as a bringer of bad luck. Much worse than death, his divine penalty is a long life of sufferance.
Just before he died, Sophocles wrote a sequel to his Oedipus Rex. It was called Oedipus at Colonus, and it was first represented posthumously. It’s a touching piece about aging, remorse, madness, and love.
The true heroin of the play is once again Antigone. She is the only person in the world who hasn’t abandoned Oedipus. With loving dedication she guides her father and half brother through the darkness to his final resting place. Colonus, where Sophocles himself was born.
Apart from the legend, also in history itself, Thebes is a cursed place.
She sided with the Persians against her great rival Athens during the invasion of Xerxes, and she would pay for it dearly. It was only due to the subsequent rivalry between Athens and Sparta that Thebes was able to regain importance, and finally live a brief season of dominance under her great general Epaminondas in the twilight years of the city state.
Finally, the fate of the city was sealed by Alexander.
After the decisive defeat of the Greek city states at Chaeronea, the Thebans still dared to rise up against their Macedonian overlords.
Alexander decided he would turn the city into an example for all of Greece. He ordered Thebes to be razed to the ground. According to tradition, the only building he wanted to be left was the house of the poet Pindar.
In modern Thebes, you can still find some lone rocks here and there with a sign that says ‘archeological site’. It doesn’t amount to much. Alexander’s troops did a good job.
The new city is built on the same hill as the ancient one. In the absence of significant landmarks there are no tourists. Instead there is a quarter with some old houses and a lot of immigrants. The place feels authentic. It’s a city on a human scale. But even though true misery isn’t directly visible, Thebes is definitely suffering.
I see countless empty shop windows all over town. Shoe stores, fashion stores, grocers, bakers. For lack of customers with purchasing power they have all closed. What remains is a sign that says ‘for rent’. ‘Ενοικιαζεται’, you find that word wherever you go.
The middle class is fading away, the downtown shopping district is slowly becoming a wasteland and foreign-owned discount malls are sprouting up like sphinxes on the outskirts of town to cash in on the crisis.
Thebes has suffered disasters of much greater magnitude in her long history. But always people kept faith that a hero would come along to save the day.
Nowadays, it seems like people here have lost all hope that something or someone can still save them.