So now that we know the mythical story, let’s unravel the real story, which has fewer gods, but pretty much the same amount of killing and raping. Thebes was the largest city of the region of Boetia and a major rival of ancient Athens. In 480 BC, Thebes joined with Sparta to defend against the much larger Persian army. The Spartans, a brutal people with arguably the most militaristic culture in history (Spartans could only reach manhood once they’d killed a slave) agreed to defend Thermopylae. Unfortunately this agreement took place in the first half of 480 and the Persians, taking their sweet time, didn’t get till Mount Olympus until August.
Now August is just a bad time for the Spartans, as that’s when they hold both their Olympics and the Festival of Carneia. Carneia is one of the most religious holidays of ancient Sparta and according to law, Spartan armies could not leave Sparta during the holiday, or they would offend the gods. Skipping out on the Olympics, something the Spartans cared passionately about would also offend the gods, so needless to say, there wasn’t a really good turn out to defend Thermopylae against the Persians, and the victorious Greeks punished the city of Thebes.
In 424 BC, the Thebes joined forces with Sparta again, defeated the Athenians, and their actions in that war raising the Spartans to the predominant power in Greece.
However, when the Thebans learned that Sparta was planning on turning on them, they changed their allegiance. Hence, by 404 BC they are calling for the complete destruction of Athens and in 403 BC they are working to restore democracy to Athens. What can you say, that’s showbiz.
At the Battle of Haliartus in 395 BC they again showed their rising military might as they held their ground against Sparta, and for the next 24 years, the Theban army, led by the Sacred Band of Thebes proved to be the best in Greece, eventually finally defeating the Spartans at Leuctra in 371 BC and being declared the greatest army on the face of the Earth..
The euphoria however was short-lived as in 338 BC, Thebes and their Scared Band faced a Macedonian army ten times their size at the Battle of Chaeronea. Led by King Philip and his young son, Alexander, I Can’t Wait To Be Great, the Macedonians destroyed the Theban army and wiped the Sacred Band from the face of the Earth. Later when the Thebans tried to rebel one last time, Alexander, now Great, razed the city to the ground and sold the Thebans into slavery.
And no one lived happily ever after….
Thebes, Thebes, Tramps and Thebes
Thebes, Thebes, Tramps, and Thebes.
Having grown up, Oedipus decides to travel to Thebes, and when he comes to the place where three roads meet, he encounters another chariot, at which point, the two fight over who has the right to go first, and in the first recorded instance of road rage, Oedipus kills the other driver, who is… wait for it, wait for it… Laius! Prophecy fulfilled!
Continuing his journey to Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx who stops all those traveling to Thebes and ask them a riddle. If the traveler answer incorrectly, they were eaten by the Sphinx; if they were successful, they would be able to continue their journey. I believe this is under consideration by Congress as our new border policy.
The Sphinx asks, "What walks on
four feet in the morning, two in
the afternoon and three at
night?", to which Oedipus
answers, "Man; as an infant, he
crawls on all fours, as an adult,
he walks on two legs and, in old
age, he relies on a walking stick".
The ancient Greek educational
system being what it was, and
what public schools eventually
would become, it seems
Oedipus is the first to ever
answer the riddle correctly. The Sphinx, astounded that someone could actually solve it, throws herself to her death from a cliff top and the grateful people of Thebes appoint Oedipus as their king. Now we all know the one thing any king needs in order to keep from having a completely happy and satisfying life, and that’s a queen, so they people present him with a Queen of his own. In this case, Queen Jocasta, who husband, King Laius, had just recently been killed in an unfortunate altercation with another chariot driver. The couples have four children including a daughter named Antigone, which everyone agrees would be a great name for a play.
Years later, Oedipus decides that finding out who killed Jocasta’s first husband, King Laius, would make a great birthday gift. Well, that and he’s told it would lift the curse on the city that has caused no crops to grow and no children to be born. When Jocasta realizes that Oedipus is her son, she asked him to stop his search, but when he doesn’t, she does the only reasonable thing and kills herself. When Oedipus returns and discovers that she has not only killed herself, but was also his mother, he did the only rational thing he could. He took two pins from her dress and gorged his eyes out. Okay, maybe a bit of an overreaction, but who are we to judge. Sightless, Oedipus now wanders blindly through the country, guided only by his daughter, Antigone. He ultimately dies at Colonus, after being placed under the protection of Athens by King Theseus. Hey, maybe that could be basis for the play. Isn’t it great how these things come together?
In the meantime, no longer able to rule Thebes because of the “eye incident”, Oedipus arranges for his two sons Eteocles and Polynices to share the kingdom, each taking an alternating one-year reign. Yeah, there’s a plan with no down side. So when predictably, Eteocles refuses to cede his throne after his year as king, Polynices brings in an army to oust Eteocles from his position, and a battle ensues. At the end of the battle, the brothers kill each other and Jocasta's brother, Creon takes the throne.
Which brings us finally to the exploits of Hercules. Born in Thebes, yet another offspring of Zeus, Hercules possessed extraordinary strength, courage, ingenuity, and sexual prowess with both males and females. He was the greatest of Greek heroes, and of course, the star of a Disney animation classic, available on Digital Download and Blu-Ray. Of course without the sexual prowess part.
When Hercules reaches manhood, he wages war against the kingdom of Orchomenos in Boeotia, to whom Thebes was paying heavy tributes. Hercules wins the war and in gratitude king Creon gives him his daughter, Megara. For many years Hercules lives happily with his wife and three children, until Hera (who obviously is having problems coming to grips with all of these children of Zeus, who aren’t also children of hers) inflicts Hercules with a fit of madness, which results in Hercules killing his entire family.
To expiate himself for this horrible act, Hercules seeks out Apollo, who orders him to go to the king of Tiryns, Eurystheus, and perform ten heroic feats. Hercules, always the over achiever actually performs twelve feats and when the last one is complete, Apollo declares Hercules immortal.
And everyone lives happily ever after.
Thebes, Thebes, Tramps and Thebes
Okay, so there are a lot of mythological stories that have a basis in Thebes, and they all overlap with characters that interact. It’s a bit confusing and my brain hurts from trying to figure it all out, but I think I’ve just earned three credits in Grecian history. Hopefully by the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll have something to use for your “campfire stories”. Either that or your brain will simply hurt too.
Our story starts long ago in a place far, far away, when Cadmus’ sister, Europa, is carried off by Zeus from the shores of Phoenicia. Cadmus is sent out by his father to find her and told not to return without her. Needless to say, he never found her or returned, but what he did find, was the Phoenician Alphabet, which he introduced to Greece, and the town of Thebes, which was originally called Cadmeia in his honor. Descendants of Cadmus ruled Thebes for generations.
While Cadmus never did find Europa or return to Zeus, Zeus did find Cadmus, or at least his daughter, Semele. It seems that while hovering over the city of Thebes, checking out the local talent, Zeus comes upon the young and beautiful (aren’t they all), Semele, and becomes smitten with her. Needless to say, she is smitten with him too, and they begin a torrid love affair. As is often the case with these things, Hera, Zeus’s wife, wasn’t too keen about the affair, so she gets the now pregnant Semele, to demand that Zeus reveal himself to her in his actual form. Well as we all know, mortals can’t actually look at a god, so upon doing so, she is struck by lightning and is consumed in ball of fire. Acting quickly, Zeus rescues the unborn child, and sews him into his thigh, which doesn’t quite seem the appropriate choice, and a few months later, his son, Dionysus is born. I’m thinking CGI here.
Putting aside that unique birth, and that unfortunate incident when he provided King Midas with a gift of his own choosing, Dionysus leads a relatively uncomplicated life. Perhaps this is due to the fact that he was the God of wine, the inspirer of ritual madness and ecstasy, and the god of epiphany. Known also as Bacchus or “Good Time Charley”, a wonderful time was had by all.
Also credited with the building of Thebes are Amphion and his twin brother Zethus, the sons of Zeus and Antiope. Antiope, by the way, wasn’t the wife of Zeus; she was merely raped by him. Rape it seems was very big at this time, especially on the part of the gods. A good thing for our story, not so much for the people of ancient Greece. Anyways, Amphion and Zethus’ big claim to fame was constructing the city’s walls, which contained seven gates and was called the “seven-gated wall”. This would eventually come into play during the “Seven Against Thebes” when seven great Argiven commanders would attack the seven gates, which just so happened to be defended by the seven Theban champions.
All sevens? What were the odds,? They should have been in Vegas, but I digress.
The interesting story is how the walls were built. Zethus struggled to carry heavy stones, which was pretty much the method in vogue at that time. Amphion however had a different process. You see, years early, Amphion had met Hermes, who you might remember from those FTD advertisements, and was the Messenger of the Gods, Guide to the Underworld, inventor of both fire and wrestling, and all-around good guy. What Hermes also did, was to give Amphion a golden lyre, with which Amphion became a great singer and musician. Can we say “show tunes”?
It was with that Golden Lyre that Amphion was able to get the stones to float along and gently glide into place. Later on, while Amphion continued to wow Vegas audiences with his Lyre (six nights a week, 2 shows on Friday and Saturday, dark on Sundays), Zethus married a nymph by the name of Thebe, who evidently wasn’t that impressed with Cadmus, so, the town now needed a new name.
And that brings us to Laius. When a few of the fine citizens of Cadmeia heard that Amphion and Zethus were plotting to overthrow King Lycus, and take over the city, they smuggled the young Laius, who was being raised by Lycus, out of the city. Shortly thereafter Amphion and Zethus, killed Lycus, and took over the city. That’s when Zethus renamed it Thebes, I assume, to stop the nagging.
Laius is taken to the Peloponnesus, where Pelops, king of Pisa welcomes him with open arms. In return for his graciousness, Laius, teaches Pelops son Chrysippus how to drive a chariot, and, upon hearing that Amphion and Zethus have died, abducts Chrysippus, rapes him, in what according to some is the first instance of homosexuality among mortals, and then takes him back to Thebes where Laius becomes king of Thebes.
This was the subject of one of the lost tragedies of Euripdes, in which we find out that the actions of Laius caused the gods to punish Laius and his family. This mean our story isn’t over yet and in fact is just getting started, for you see, after raping Chrysippus, Laius marries Jocasta. After having been married some time without children, they consulted the Oracle of Jupiter who tells them that should Laius have a son, the son would kill him and marry Jocasta. Later, when Laius does in fact have a son, he does what any good father would do; he has the baby’s ankles pinned together and gives him to a shepherd to kill. Needless to say, as always happens in these kind of stories, the shepherd fails to kill the boy, and instead gives him to some King and Queen who are without children of their own. Oh yes, and the boy’s name? You guessed it… Oedipus. You can’t make this stuff up!
The Gay Army?
by Bart Baker
There has been great discussion about whether the Sacred Band, considered the greatest army on Earth during it’s 40 years of existence, should be considered a “gay army”. While it is true that the members of the army were engaged in homosexual activities, that was true of many the Grecian armies at that time. But what we now consider to be ‘homosexual activity’ wasn’t a concept at that time, but rather based upon Plato’s ideas, was their strong personal relationships with each other which has nothing to do with the concept of “gay” as we understand it today.
During the time of the Sacred Band, the Greeks didn’t delineate people by sexual orientation, instead their relationships were delineated the concepts of “active” and “passive” roles during sex: the one who penetrates and the one who is penetrated. Two males in a sexual relationship were normal for the Greeks, with the active role taken by the adult, the teacher and the passive role by the protégé. Greek men selected younger protégés and trained them not only for combat, but taught them about life and manhood, as well as protected them. It was not uncommon for a bond to grow between the mentor and the protégé, consummated in sex, a common rite of passage for males in the Greek culture. The mentor was the active partner, the protégé the passive partner.
Because the members of the Sacred Band were warriors, their relationships had a more complex dynamic because stepping onto the battlefield, you had to trust the person you loved with your life. It is believed that the reason the Sacred Band was so aggressive and strong is because they fought side-by-side with the man they loved.